Hamlet by the Moskva

The re-assignment last week of Vladislav Surkov, formerly Chief of Staff for the Russian President, following the opposition protests, reminded me of the fascinating profile of Mr Surkov in the London Review of Books by Peter Pomerantsev two months ago.  The profile ended with a sinister interpretation of Hamlet:

‘Life in Russia,’ the journalist told me in the democratic bar, ‘has got better but leaves a shitty aftertaste.’ We had a drink. ‘Have you noticed that Surkov never seems to get older? His face has no wrinkles.’ We had more drinks. We talked about Surkov’s obsession with Hamlet. My companion recalled an interpretation of the play suggested by a literature professor turned rock producer (a very Moscow trajectory).
‘Who’s the central figure in Hamlet?’ she asked. ‘Who’s the demiurge manipulating the whole situation?’
I said I didn’t know.
‘It’s Fortinbras, the crown prince of Norway, who takes over Denmark at the end. Horatio and the visiting players are in his employ: their mission is to tip Hamlet over the edge and foment conflict in Elsinore. Look at the play again. Hamlet’s father killed Fortinbras’s father, he has every motive for revenge. We know Hamlet’s father was a bad king, we’re told both Horatio and the players have been away for years: essentially they left to get away from Hamlet the father. Could they have been with Fortinbras in Norway? At the end of the play Horatio talks to Fortinbras like a spy delivering his end-of-mission report. Knowing young Hamlet’s unstable nature they hired the players to provoke him into a series of actions that will bring down Elsinore’s rulers. This is why everyone can see the ghost at the start. Then when only Hamlet sees him later he is hallucinating. To Muscovites it’s obvious. We’re so much closer to Shakespeare’s world here.’ On the map of civilisation, Moscow – with its cloak and dagger politics (designer cloak, diamond-studded dagger), its poisoned spies, baron-bureaucrats and exiled oligarchs who plan revolutions from abroad, its Cecil-Surkovs whispering into the ears of power, its Raleigh-Khodorkovskys imprisoned in the Tower – is somewhere near Elsinore.

Peter Pomerantsev [2011]:  Putin’s Rasputin. London Review of Books, 33 (20): 3-6 (2011-10-20).

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