The author of the acclaimed in the West and post-Soviet countries book "Nothing is true and everything is possible" talks about the working mechanisms of Kremlin propaganda, the absurd realities of life in post-Soviet Russia, and how to deal with all of this.
Ukrainian translation has been published by our partners: the publishing house of Ukrainian Catholic University in a joint project between UCU and MYMEDIA. After its presentation in Kyiv, we talked with Peter Pomerantsev about the nine years he lived in Moscow. We found out the things that made the propaganda so dangerous and how to resist it, the difference between the Russian protest from the Ukrainian one, and the way the West had been playing along with Russia.
You said that you tried to justify the nine years of drinking and partying in Moscow with your book.
It applies to everyone. There is a German genre called Bildungsroman. As it is in "The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Goethe, first you're young and in love with this world, then there comes the bitter experience that you try to comprehend. My book is an example of small journalism which will be forgotten tomorrow, but in a sense, it is also a part of this genre. It is a way of growing up and coming of age.
Well, what attracted you in Russia?
It was not connected with Russia.
It could be any other city like Shanghai which started to rise rapidly. But Moscow came to hand.
In the nineties, no one except for masochists and perverts would go to Moscow. And then suddenly, it became a very fashionable city with a lot of money. Everyone started to come, and it got much more interesting than London or New York. I was attracted because the city reflected my passions and rhythm of life at the time.
You realized the absurd all those nine years, and still preferred to stay there?
Initially, I thought I would stay for four years. But I did not want to leave, too; it was interesting for me because there was a lot of excitement, youth, potential and madness. In London, all my friends were doing very boring things, lived a gray, clear life while in Moscow, my friends were oligarchs and their life was very colorful. Whenever I was coming home to London, I could not imagine that I would live there again.
Weren’t you afraid that all this nonsense would also affect your consciousness?
I worked in documentary sphere and I had so many good stories that I could not just do one film out of them. And when I started writing, I looked at the paper and realized that it was not just strange stories because they all had a certain model and a strange national consciousness.
In 2010, I returned to London, and a year later, I wrote my first article. Those were just TV producer’s memories. Everyone became so excited, although I never had an intention to become a writer.
Neither I nor my agent thought that it would be important. And then I was very lucky that Putin lost his mind, and all of the themes that were important to me personally became interesting for the world community. We got in a right niche because at that time, there were no books about the Russian consciousness and propaganda.
The book has not yet been translated into Russian. Maybe, it would be better to start with that language so that all the people from the former Soviet Union could read it?
I was certain that the book would not be interesting neither for Russians nor Ukrainians. I never thought that I would tell you something new. The book was intended for London audience. But Russians and Ukrainians, who have read the book, say that they liked it.
Will the book be interesting for the readers in Caucasus, Belarus and other former Soviet countries?
I have no idea, so we will have to ask them. I'm shocked that it was translated into Ukrainian.
Was there any reaction of Kremlin and Russian authorities to the publication of the book?
Let’s not overestimate my importance. I think that they have more important things than my stupid book.
But still, would you like to have the book published in Russia? Is it at all likely that it will ever be published there?
I will not even negotiate with the agent about this matter. I am very pleased that it was published in Ukraine.
Russians are very focused on themselves. They have their own idols, their heroes and authors, and they generally translate very few books into Russian. Even very average Moscow magazine editors are sure they are geniuses, because they ignore the world as much as possible. They do not really want to look beyond the limit of five pubs on Garden Ring.
But what about the intellectual elite; is there now some cultural resistance in Russia?
They just have a different attitude to the authorities; when I spoke with the people who led the protests on Bolotnaya square, they still had the ideas very different from the ones on Maydan: not "we will get rid of the President", but "we will show Kremlin that there are many of us, Dvorkovich will negotiate with Medvedev, Putin will leave, and we will have more influence in the backroom politics of Kremlin". All the same, people still thought within the system of power.
That is, now, there are no more dissidents who were once in Soviet Russia?
The dissidents did not go into politics; it was a tragedy of Russia. Now, there are some people who just want the roads to be better, and they want to live in a "European" country where they are not abused all the time.
Still, all the revolutions in Russia were always led from above; the restructuring was not the choice of the people, but the decision inside Kremlin. It was an understanding that Russia would compete better if it had a different economic system. The main settings always change only in Kremlin. They will not get much progress, until they get rid of it.
As a literary hero, you hardly expressed any resistance to the surrounding absurdity. Was it hard to restrain emotions, and were there times when it was not possible to hold them back?
In 2010, when I left, the intellectuals were given the illusion that they were important. I have worked for some time in "Snob". At hat time there were the ideas like "Let's have a social movement," or "We write what we want to write", some pseudo-democratic institutions were created. People had the feeling that they could protest. That's the trick of the system; they did not try to absorb, but let into a stupor.
But you had to make concessions with the producers by agreeing to change the tone and angle of your films.
For me, it was shocking that TNT even allowed me to make those social films. In 2006, it was already not comme il faut to work with the news channels of Kremlin; even then, it was considered a bad tone, and very strange people did it.
Now, it is a complete evil, but even then they treated you with suspicion if you are worked on Channel 1 or RTR. The majority of the employees there were provincials who needed jobs. All Moscow "get-together" worked in Esquire, Snob, on the entertainment channels or were creating a "new Russian cinema."
Didn’t you feel like a part of that system while still working there?
No. I had quite a clear understanding that working for Ostankino news or writing for Izvestiya (News) was weird. But to live in the world of Kommersat, Vedomosti, Snob, Vogue and modern cinema seemed quite acceptable.
Did you have any internal conflicts when you returned to London and started making movies that ridiculed the behavior of wealthy Russians in London? Not so long ago, you came from this vey world and also went to all their parties.
At TNT, we would have done the same thing; there we were also making movies about rich Russians and ridiculing them. It did not bother me but there was something that did.I did not like that the English people comforted themselves with the myths that Russians wanted to become English.
They did not want to think about it; only now, for the first time Cameron began to talk about it.
It infuriated me and still angers a lot. Everyone thinks: "How can we help democracy in Russia?". Stop launderering their dirty money.
Where does the Russian society get this thirst for mythologizing from? In the book, you write that propaganda did not appear out of nowhere - the needs of Russian consumers were carefully studied for a long time.
Russians love fairy tales very much. English people, for example, are more into drama in semitones, with a fairly slow narration. When we arrived to Moscow, we had to do the same Western formats, only "faster", with "more changes" and "tears" like a non-stop melodrama. There was a demand even for Mexican soap operas. Russians like strong emotions.
You write that Kashpirovskiy has been brought to the stage again (a known hypnotist from the Soviet times). Do you think that propaganda on Russian TV is solely a political technology, or is it much more explicit manipulations with the people’s consciousness, just like the sects to which you pay so much attention in the book?
Marxist and Soviet propaganda is not just PR, but the idea that the propagandist can create a new individual.
These absolutely wild ideas that people like Surkov can create a new society still remain. This is a very Russian phenomenon. In the West, there is no such thing at all. Even the Nazis did not have it.
In the late 80s, the country got some wild problems, and they called Kashpirovskiy to reassure people and unite them. It happened before. However, the people from RTR got other realities like all those fancy NLPs, the ways to influence people through programming and so on.
Ernst [Russian media manager and producer, director general of the Russian First Channel] told his anchors that on every fifth minute, there had to be a reference to the aliens, and on every seventh minute - love, and on the ninth - abortion. He had the clear schemes to use the key words every particular minute.
If we look at the overall national dramaturgy of the Russian TV, it really is like a sect. First, the conspiracy theories break down any critical thinking. Then, there is bewilderment. I was making a film about the sect: in the beginning, "guru" was always talking so fast that you did not understand what he was saying; this is how disorientation starts.
Then, there is trauma analysis: “Your father did not love you, you were nearly raped in school, and you were humiliated by your friends..." In Russia, it is the same: “We are great, but we are humiliated all the time..." It triggers an emotional response in every spectator.
And in the end, there is Putin or any other cult leader and a strong chief. I do not know the extent to which it is pre-written, but there is such a drama. Perhaps it reflects the social passion toward the sects.
Does Russian propaganda work on the Western consciousness as well?
They cannot influence the Western consciousness because any cult needs to have a very strong control over information. In the West, they can only fool and confuse, but they are too small of a voice in a huge stream.
Why does propaganda work in Donetsk? It is a very closed space there; on one side, there are woods, and on the other, there is a sea, so the inhabitants left and traveled outside the city rather rarely. Therefore, Russia has managed to instill the cult of nostalgia. And it is not only “vata” (naïve and uneducated believers) because the intellectuals also speak like the people in the sect.
Due to the dominance of the Russian television and the Internet, they are able to keep the controlled territories in isolation and emotional arousal.
The West is trying to fight propaganda with the help of NGOs, supporting an objective journalism and media education. How effective are these techniques?
First, one must understand that Russia will win. Misinformation is stronger than common sense.
Firstly, in polyphony, the standards do not rise, but fall. When England had one BBC, it was boring and highbrow. Then, Sky came. It was very welcome because it intensified the competition, which was a good thing. But in the end, it turned out that both channels had become more tabloid. When people are surrounded by so much information, they are confused and instinctively go into a place that is closer to them emotionally.
The main cure for this is probably media literacy. The principle of media literacy has always been skepticism which requires people to question the information. But the modern disinformation has adopted this principle emphasizing the idea "do not trust anyone because everywhere, there is a conspiracy." So just media literacy is not enough; people need to start analyzing the information actively.
What’s so good about Stop Fake? It’s not that it can catch the Russian media’s lies - they do not care as they lie with pleasure. The important thing is that it is the people who participate in this process, and thus, they become a kind of community.
Navalny was important because of the public involvement too. Not because people sat and read him, but because they were the ones sending him pictures and getting active.
After May 2, activists in Odesa - both pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian - gathered and investigated the events of that day.
But in Severodonetsk, for example, people say that they are not idiots, and they do not believe the propaganda because they know well that crucified boys are nonsense. But still, Putin is emotionally closer to them. "He is strong. He even lies well."
Does it make sense for the West now to invest in the younger generation of Russians, teaching them media literacy, or is it a lost generation, and better to protect the West from it?
It makes absolute sense. So far, the West is very bad at it: they have to do something else besides sanctions. Still, it is a big stick that beats and shows that it is wrong to behave this way. I would do much more to weaken Putin’s get-together, but at the same time, the students should get visa-free entrance to various countries in order to see that they have a choice: they can be with Putin, or they can be a part of the world of the 21st century. I would immediately start a good Russian-speaking university in Tallinn or Berlin.
Do you think the sanctions are an effective method after all?
It is very difficult to measure. Everybody criticizes them, but what if there were none? They are certain rules of the game for the whole world. Did Russia do that? If we do not stop this behavior, the next thing is China doing the same, annexing Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese territories. These rules are very refined, and they are difficult to comprehend. They do not help when we speak about public diplomacy because they allow Putin to play another "everyone is against us” card; but it is certainly better than nothing. However, the West has not yet found a common diplomatic strategy.
If we talk about expansion, then why do Russians need Crimea when the country is going into economic abyss, and the ordinary people are the ones who feel it the most?
The same happened in Donetsk and Luhansk: the people did not realize that the borders had shifted, and that there was a new state. For Russians, Crimea has always been the part of Russia; they would never even think of sending the troops to Poland, for example.
Can you defeat Russia with the sense of humor? Here are the latest examples such as memes about Yatsenyuk that exploded throughout Ukrainian Internet.
This is very important. All that Russia is trying to do is represent itself as terrible and great. Humor really helps in this. The West often overestimates Russia.
In what respect does it overestimate Russia?
During the Cold War, on the parades on Red Square, Soviet political strategists created huge dummy missiles: blank discs to scare the West. The West looked at them and thought, "Oh my God, those are the new missiles from the Soviet Union, and they are five times bigger than ours." Now, it is the same. "Putin may be wrong, but why are you fighting with him? He is terrible and big, and Russia is enormous. "
Do you think that the goal of the West is just to scare? While we are actively thinking what to do with the Russian propaganda and war in Ukraine, Kremlin’s "little green men" have been seen in Syria.
It is not a question of propaganda; Russians call it the informational-psychological war. It is a mixture of propaganda, cyber attacks, the use of local groups, NGOs, etc., to create instability in another country. For two years, they have been trying to ignite a civil war, but it does not work. They had to use a real army in Donbas: some bandits and psychos. They wanted to create a new Yugoslavia, but failed. Propaganda had not fully worked because they needed troops and tanks. The idea that it was possible to break the country through detour only turned out to be not quite true.
Russians are not the only ones who think about it because the Chinese have a similar approach. However, in this case propaganda is playing an operational role because without Strelkov’s campaign, nothing would have happened. They needed the people who would seize the buildings.
So, perhaps, the West should instead spend its time not on defense from psychological and information attacks, but prepare a real defense?
They are doing it. I do not think that anyone treats the risks of propaganda with a particular seriousness. There are many discussions about it, but there are no such ideas as to ban the Russian channels in the West, for example. Even in Estonia, I asked the officials whether they would prohibit Russian channels. They said that they had a democracy.
There is a great temptation to blame everything on the propaganda, but it is still just one political tool. It is very strong in the information age, but it does not do anything by itself.
What about Russian TV series and other non-news products. Are they harmless for the people’s consciousness, or do they also contain some elements of propaganda?
I think they have an influence. For example, RTR recently aired some series about World War Two. The main enemies were the Estonian fascists. In Ukraine, you also banned Russian series, did it help?
I was in Shchastya and Dzerzhynsk; these towns used to be in LNR/DNR, but now, they are part of Ukraine again. They simply do not have any Ukrainian TV-channels because the TV-towers are in Luhansk. If the most vulnerable parts of the country have Russian, LNR and DNR television, then it is a big problem. Again, do we simply need to ban Russian channels or form our own, after all?
What do the residents of other former Soviet Union countries should do when there is still a huge percentage of people watching Russian channels? Is it dangerous for them?
They have a lot of their own corrupt scoundrels and internal problems. Their media model is closer to the Ukrainian one when each oligarch has one’s channel that attacks another oligarch. There are no centralized media. Russia is not the main problem there. They need to change their elite.
During the presentation of your book, you mentioned Donald Trump when saying that Russia is not the only one playing with absurdity. What are some other contemporary examples in the world?
When Fox had launched, they openly stated that they did not need the truth, but emotions. Also, ISIS in the Middle East is another example.
It’s just Russia is the first state where the authorities decided to create their own national TV. Usually, public relations companies do that. State TV-channels in England and America officially adhere to the facts.
Does it affect the American public the same way it works with Russians?
Yes, it does, although I would not compare them because the countries are still very different. But if 30% of Republicans believe that Obama is a Muslim, then we have a big problem. There is no common reality, and that is why there is this confusion in Congress. This is not democracy, but something else. It is surrealism.
By the way, all of the programs on media literacy which are being used here were developed in the 2000s in the United States precisely to deal with that problem. In the US, too, there are whole parts of the country that live in a freak reality.