A Postmodern Dictatorship

An interview with Peter Pomerantsev by Tomasz Stawiszyński

Russia is the avant-garde of the era of globalization. It is an extreme version of modernity, rather than its radical opposite—says Peter Pomerantsev in an interview with Tomasz Stawiszyński

In your new book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, you write that the current system in Russia is a “post-modernist dictatorship.”

Peter Pomerantsev: It is a country of simulacrum. A fake parliament, fake NGOs, a fake, licensed opposition. Everyone is playing a role, and at the same time they all realize it, they do it deliberately. This is one of the things which make Russia a post-modernist state. But in fact we see a similar thing across the modern world. It is not just Russia, a kind of Zeitgeist operating here, but in Russia all these trends are revealed in their extreme form.

Why?

One of the determining factors is the historical conditions. Late Communism to some extent was a kind of performance. At that stage everybody was only pretending that they believed in this ideology, so they were prepared for what came a few dozen years later. There was a seamless transition from a mock communism to a mock democracy, and recently to a mock Orthodox conservatism. In all these stages we see a characteristic, repeated performative theme. This is why I perceive contemporary Russian history—from the late 1970s up to now—as a continuum. There is no qualitative leap here. The fundamental structure remains the same. But it is true that everything has been intensified, for if under Communism everybody was generally wearing one mask, today there are many roles which you have to perform in parallel. Linearity is gone, just like the idea of progress. This is another characteristic feature of the post-modern condition— absence of any idea of the future. But also the general tone is important. Very characteristic for post-modernism is irony, and the cynical/ ironic mode is a specialty of Vladimir Putin and officers of his administration. This sarcasm, these omissions, all these things which mean that you never know if he is serious or joking—this is very Russian after all.

What is the role of television in that?

The first thing Putin did after coming to power in 1999 was to take control over television. He took care of that even before he targeted the security forces, energy sector, and the army. In fact it was television which created him. This man is a television project, he is not of the people, he did not come to power carried by populist slogans; previously he had been a nobody, and it was television which created Putin as we know him. Propaganda always played a fundamental role in communist regimes, there was a universal belief that this was the way to create a new human and a new society. So people working for television are traditionally perceived almost as gods, for they are able to create reality. But Russia is also a huge country, were several different civilizations coexist side-by-side, from modern cities like Moscow to mediaeval villages, and the only thing that binds all this diversity together is television. No other thing unites people, there is no single party everybody joins, there is no single idea. What remains is mass media.

One of the things showing the purely political role of the media is the scene in your book when Vladislav Surkov, the chief Kremlin specialist in social engineering, meets editors- in-chief of all the TV stations and provides detailed instructions on how to present this week’s information and events. Such meetings are held regularly.

I recently analyzed Russian news broadcasts during the Ukraine crisis for one of the think- tanks. Despite the apparent diversity, misinformation, and noise, you could perceive a number of basic patterns repeated everywhere. Story number one—chaos in Ukraine. They wanted democracy and they got chaos, so democracy means chaos. Story number two—stability in Russia, usually shown in the contexts of Putin’s actions. Putin opening a hospital, playing with cats, etc. So we have chaos there and stability here. Story number three—conspiracies against Russia organized by the West. This is a very distinct, easily perceptible structure. They can tell the truth from time to time, or they can blatantly lie, but the message is always structured into a specific narrative. This is repeated day after day. And even if people know that they are lied to—and Russians are quite cynical, they officially claim that they believe in all this, but in fact they know perfectly well that they are manipulated— this overwhelming message works on the unconscious level, it imprints itself in the imagination and thinking.

They don’t believe and are cynical, or rather they pretend to themselves that they believe, because, for example, they are afraid?

This is a complex issue—convictions and beliefs in the reality of authoritarian systems. Propaganda can work in two ways, often not mutually exclusive. First, it can work as pure indoctrination, as a result of which people simply adopt some beliefs. Second, it can work as a more subtle signal sent by the authorities. People understand the signal, they can tell the lie from the truth, but they adapt their behavior to the requirements of the regime. It is a kind of game. My book is largely devoted to the second kind of propaganda, although the first one exists in Russia, too. The term “brainwashing” is overused today, but in a psychological sense such a thing is by all means possible. Nevertheless, the second variety dominates. Specific messages are sent— Fascists are active in Ukraine, and at the same time show trials are arranged, businessmen and people who run afoul of the regime are arrested. In this way they control the collective imagination and hold symbolic power. Consequently, it is impossible to say that people believe or don’t believe in Fascists in Ukraine, because this is really not the point. If you want to maintain your position in society, you simply have to repeat all that. This is a kind of game, a code.

And in order to survive, you have to carefully learn the rules of this game.

My female friend, who wrote a book about the Russian political system, claims that the essence of the game is the ability to recognize the characteristic smile with which representatives of the regime often communicate some official position. This smile contains it all—the entire essence of social relations, the way politicians treat their work and the way the regime treats the citizens. Coming to understand it all took me a long time. When I came to Russia for the first time, I asked people I met a lot of stupid questions, for example if Russia was going to democratize or if they really believed in communism. They were all only smiling in this peculiar way and saying: “Surely you understand that it is not like that.” I think that the West is quite naively approaching this new Russian propaganda and its real influence on people. Some believe that Putin really is a religious conservative, others are convinced that he is listening to Aleksander Dugin in everything.

And he is not?

Dugin is just a puppet: you take it, use it for a while, and then discard it. He recently lost his job at a university, for he had started to throw his weight around too much. In the West we treated Russian Communism very literally, then we as strongly believed in various declarations of democratization and opening, and now in a similar way we are taken in by the alleged conservative course. But all this is just a game.

In Holy Russia Alain Besançon claims that two major qualities constitute the Russian mentality, namely space and light. Space, because Russia is a huge country; while light emanates from transcendence, it is a mystical light which makes earthly life seem miserable and trivial. This tension, where on the one hand you have space and mystical light, and on the other you have earthly life nobody really cares about, because only unreachable ideals are valid, in Besançon‘s view produces the essence of Russianness. Do you find such themes in the life of your protagonists?

This diagnosis seems largely correct to me. It can be seen also in those circles I was moving in and which my book is about. Television producers and political propagandists imagine themselves to be some kind of gods. Surkov writes novels— in a very post-modernists spirit—in which he describes himself as a mystic. Mysticism, spirituality, ecstatic experiences are very strongly rooted in the Russian mentality. But this mysticism is not at odds with cynicism. It has something Nietzschean about it. Surkov is a mystic who, with an aggressive vigor, pierces through the veil of the illusion of the visible world to an authentic, spiritual reality. In my book I write about many contemporary cults which are not about a moral life or developing empathy, but about peak experiences. I tried to make documentaries in Russia showing real human lives, but I was constantly told that nobody wants to watch such things there, that no one needs it at all. There is more than enough of the tangible—of what Besançon describes as space—and therefore myth is what you need above all. And this is how Russian television works, in a sense founded on a quasi-mystical theory of the functioning of the media. But also other fashions and phenomena attest to that. For example Kabbalah, which in recent years is extremely popular among the Russian elite, just like in America. And again, this is based on the belief that reality in which we live is unimportant, that you have to transcend it, to reach for the essence. But this mysticism is also completely devoid of any morality. It is beyond good and evil. It is cynical. It is not about any values besides pure ecstasy. And again we go back to irony, to its romantic understanding: you laugh at everything in order to transcend everything and rise above it. This cynicism is in a sense mystical, it is not mundane. Of course, all this is also complete nonsense, but this is another matter (laughter).

Cynical mysticism, seeking peak experiences, no moral inhibitions… All this is strangely reminiscent of America from James Ellroy’s novels. And it was in America that the para-religious movement described in your book, extremely popular in Russia, was born.

If there are two cities in the world which in a sense reflect each other, they would be Moscow and Los Angeles. It is the same mixture of the most bizarre superstition, ecstatic mysticism without morality, corruption, sex, and the pursuit of money. When I first went to Los Angeles, the resemblance to Moscow immediately struck me. Rose of the World, for this is how the organization is called, really originated from a therapeutic movement which came into being in the late 1960s in the US. A number of therapists developed—on the basis of techniques from Gestalt and hypnosis—a set of growth-stimulating exercises based mostly on releasing extreme emotions and intended at helping to transcend various psychological barriers and to achieve a complete fulfilment of your potential in personal and professional life. A few people involved in that quickly realized that it was an excellent business idea. They started to run workshops and trainings, and they attracted crowds of people. They promised that they knew a way to get rid of your former self and replace it with someone quite new, with no difficulties or limitations in your life. It was based mostly on humiliating and psychologically breaking the participants—with the express intent of growing a new self on the rubble of the old one. But in the 1980s the movement was banned in the United States, its leaders were tried for psychological abuses, for leading people to suicide. In the 1990s some of the former leaders came to Russia—and were welcomed with great enthusiasm. Extreme experiences, the constant promise of a great transformation, all this in the contexts of dreams about great money, and being “effective,” effective above all—this is selling very well in Russia.

“Effective” is an important category in the language of the current Russian regime.

Again this is not distinctly Russian, but in Russia it has taken an extreme form. In Russian politics or ideology there is a lot of buzzwords which really do not mean anything, for you can fill them with any meaning. Instead of “effective” it might just as well be “blue.” And you could endow it with a specific meaning, and then use it in every sentence. No problem. But efficiency was selected. For example, Stalin was “effective.” In itself it does not mean anything, because if you take a closer look, Russia is probably the most inefficient country, and Putin is the most inefficient leader. But it does not matter. Another such fetish word is “stability.” It means both everything and nothing. Another recently fashionable term is “majority.” Of course, it owes its career to the fact that the “majority” supports Putin. It does not have anything to do with reality, the point is to repeat this word as often as possible, to endow it with the meaning which is useful in a given moment.

So the meaning is the most important. And in what way you decide to implement the desired meaning through a particular word?

You used to say “politburo,” or “communism,” today you say “effective”, but the idea is the same. This is the code I was speaking about, a signal. When you hear such a word, you are supposed to associate it with something you like, respect, and worship. I repeat, it could be any word, for example “pink” or “yellow.” Putin is the most “yellow” president, let us say. The effect would be exactly the same, for these words are selected almost at random. The less they mean in themselves, to more vague they are, the better, for you can fill them with the desired meaning at will. But this is also happening in very many other places. And we are getting more and more of that since politics has really become a media thing, and there is increasingly less time for a serious debate on ideas and strategies. This is particularly evident during elections. Today’s election campaigns are mostly run on such empty slogans. In England we recently had two such campaigns—before an election and a referendum—which were largely based on the slogan of “security.”

You emphasize that the phenomena which in Russia can be observed in their extreme form, are characteristic for entire modernity. So is Russia, provocatively speaking, the avant- garde of the modern world, its essence, or rather a distorting mirror reflecting its caricature, with all exaggerations and radicalisms characteristic for the convention of caricature?

I would rather lean towards such thinking than towards the claim that Russia is a completely distinct phenomenon, separated from the rest of the Western world. That the West is modern and liberal, while Russia is conservative. This is complete nonsense. My book is based on the assumption you just formulated. In the ending I describe my return to London, a city I do not regard as a completely different world. But of course neither do I agree with the relativist approach saying that it is really the same everywhere. In Russia there are plenty of developments which make it different from the rest of the civilized world, for example, a total lack of respect for human rights or a pathological justice system. These are really huge qualitative differences. But there are also plenty of developments and systems very characteristic for modernity, which make Russia a kind of avant-garde of the era of globalization.

Could you be more specific?

For example, the issues of identity, attitude to money, or moral values. Dismissing the category of truth evident to a similar extent in the American media—whose representatives openly say that facts are not something they need. Russian propagandists would be happy to sign such a declaration too. The idea of identity as something like a hat which you can change any time you want, is characteristic for the globalized world, where you can change your religion or the place you live in, thus losing a clear sense of who you are. Going away from the Enlightenment reasoning based on evidence for the sake of mythological thinking and conspiracy theories. Many of these phenomena, of course, originate from the very nature of the development of information technologies or globalization processes. Naturally, in Russia this has its own specific character due to the peculiar way of the functioning of government institutions, but we are definitely dealing with a kind of extreme version of modernity, rather than its radical opposite. We cannot speak about the West on one side and Russia on the other. We live in a post-modernist mess, which in Russia is simply more advanced. In this sense we can treat it as a kind of warning. This is what happens when you reject a certain system of values, identity, moral code.

You talk about lack of respect for human rights in Russia. This is probably caused by a more general attitude, in a sense related to the love of ecstatic mysticism, namely a lack of interest in individuality and individual life.

Also this is not typically Russian, although strongly present in Russia. I am reminded of Stalin’s famous saying that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. The individual does not matter, or at least occupies the last place in the hierarchy. There are many very sad statistics reflecting what we are talking about. For example, one in four Russian teenagers loses her virginity as a result of rape. Everybody regards it as normal, but it is not normal. And this is where you can clearly see the difference between Russia and the West.

Many Western politicians, analysts or commentators are wondering today what is really going on in Putin’s mind. Is he a strategist or a tactician, does he have a long-term plan or is he just calculating for the short-term, does he intend to unleash another world war…

His only strategy is staying in power and this alone consumes a lot of his time, for he has an obsession about conspiracies against him. It seems to me that generally his actions are more about social engineering than any wide-ranging geopolitics. Putin needs an illusion of greatness, he needs to feel that he is in the center of things. This is why he always keeps everyone uncertain. This gives him a sense of control. And it is also an element of his strategy—make everyone wonder what he could possibly be planning to do next. And as we can see, he is very successful in that, for we really are constantly wondering about that. But in fact it does not matter at all, for staying in the center of interest is the most important thing for him. So Putin has to produce the most spectacular show, he must be regarded as the greatest and most consummate player, he must seem greater than he really is. And he achieves this effect mostly through various media narratives— both domestically and internationally. There is even a Russian theory of psychological war, assuming that in the future wars will not be waged through the use of armies, but instruments of influence. And this is already happening. Keeping Poland feeling under threat, keeping Estonia in a state of paranoia, making the United States look ridiculous—these are elements of the strategy we are talking about. It does not consist of moving arrows on the map, but of making impact on the mental realm. And at the same time the empirical sphere is ailing. The economy is collapsing, the ruble is falling, as do the demographic indicators. But the regime is ignoring that, it is completely uninterested.

It has other goals.

It is playing a completely different game. A crash of the ruble would probably be a problem, but as long as the exchange rate is falling slowly, there is nothing to worry about. Russian politicians are more Gnostics than realists, Kabbalists rather than Talmudists. In their view, therefore, everything is in perfect order now.

Tomasz Stawiszyński

Philosopher, essayist and literary critic, author of Clashes with Freud. Myths, pitfalls and temptations of psychotherapy (2013).

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