Peter Pomerantsev: Propaganda, Culture without Gravity, and More

Peter Pomerantsev

Peter Pomerantsev is a British journalist and the author of the book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.

We are talking on air about his new book about the Kremlin’s propaganda, whether art can be an antidote, and also about mixed identities, zero gravity culture, and “international” people in London.

Iryna Slavіnska:  We’ll start our conversation with the discussion of Peter Pomerantsev’s book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.

Peter Pomerantsev: The book retells my adventures as a budding British TV producer in the cheerful and terrifying Russian cabaret of the twenty-first century. Through my personal adventure, I have tried to reflect the political, ideological, and spiritual changes in the country between 2001 and the outbreak of the war. Everything ends with the war. This is an adventure book; in England it is called “literary reportage.” It is almost a story. Everything there is real, but it is recounted as a narrative. There is almost no analysis there. I wanted to capture the feelings that I had while I was there, not out of selfishness but in order to grasp this weird country.

Iryna Slavіnska:  In this book, I found very interesting contrasts between the absolutely dramatic stories of the heroes who are featured in the documentaries and stories that you shoot for the TV channel where you work as a producer, and the pretty serene atmosphere of the newsroom, where everything is easy, where there’s a parallel world of people who create the reality. How was it to live inside of this contrast or maybe it was exactly what you felt?

Peter Pomerantsev:  There were different things there. I didn’t work with news channels in Russia. already in 2006, it was considered very problematic morally, very few people did that. “Namedni “ [a current-affairs television show—ed.] was already closed, everything felt really odd. I worked with TNT, but not in TNT. I worked as a producer and got orders from them. I did entertainment—some entertainment shows and documentaries for youth. I lived in a little bubble, free of politics and full of happiness. There was Ksenia Sobchak, “Dom-2,” and “Comedy Club.” Meanwhile, the country all around me was becoming more and more bizarre.

Newsroom? There is a sketch about it. Once I came by chance to meet Marat Gelman at the First Channel in 2001, when I first came to Russia, and I got to this strange meeting, which Gelman held for Ernst with Moscow political strategists. They were really sitting there and making up what the politics of the future will be, what they will show on the air, throw into people, and what movies they would make. For the British, of course, this is quite shocking. Things just can’t be like that. However, for the Ukrainian reader, I think all that is really, really familiar. Indeed, are such gatherings at the Inter channel somewhat different? It’s the same old story.

Iryna Slavіnska:  I think it’s more obvious for the journalists who work at these channels or in these media. Readers and viewers may not even be aware that this world exists.

Peter Pomerantsev:  In Russia, everyone knows everything, there is absolutely no feeling that it’s what happens behind the scenes. It’s in the open. Everyone knows that every Friday the CEOs of the channels go to the Kremlin. We all know that the media are not free, that this is what’s happening, but still everyone plays this game. In fact, propaganda rarely works merely as “brainwashing,” there is a more complex game going. There is a brilliant book by Lisa Wedeen (Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria) about Syrian propaganda and Assad the senior, where everyone understands that it’s all blatant lies. But in order to continue to live in this society, everyone has to accept this as if it were true. This is what happens in Russia. There now has appeared more emotional manipulation related to the war. It’s already on the level of fear, horror, and memento mori. But in general, this is a quite complicated game, and everyone understands that it’s bullshit. There is no democracy, we are playing democracy, but everyone who wants to be part of society has to play this charade. This is a cult of cynicism, sarcasm, and irony. There is already a lot of research on this. In China, there’s something similar. There’s a very interesting study from the University of California. According to the students’ polls, everyone in China who watches “their Kiselev” understands that it’s an obvious fallacy. They don’t believe what they say there, but those who watch this show believe that the state is strong. If it’s able to create such a product and to broadcast it, it’s a sign of strength. Such a strange dance between people and propaganda. “Brainwashing” really exists. It’s not just words. There are technologies for this, but of course it can’t be dominant.

Iryna Slavіnska:  But why does this work if everyone understands that it’s all lies? How does this propaganda get into the brain? If it does. Does this propaganda work?

Peter Pomerantsev:  There are different things there. There are certain indoctrinations. It’s a kind of game, it is a sign: “We are really strong.”

During the last thirty years of the Soviet Union no one also believed it. But this game is a sign of power: “You know that we have police, cops, FSB, prisons. And here’s the discourse—you have to say this, if you want to receive your 20%, not pay your taxes, live in this society, and so on. So there exists this strange ritual. It wouldn’t work without other levers of power, if it were only that. It’s a sign. And the people are involved in this cabaret. The fact that they are involved in it strengthens their complicity in it. This is a kind of circle.

Various Russian political technologists have shows featuring repetitions of certain keywords. They don’t just blow smoke. They repeat the word “enemy” every thirty seconds. “Enemies.” Blah, blah, blah, blah. “ENEMY! ” Blah, blah, blah, blah. “ENEMY!” This word is more and more in use since the outbreak of the war, and the state of television resembles a cult of emotional buildup: anxiety, paranoia, and conspiracy theories…

Destroying critical thinking is another form of propaganda. But the extent to which people pick this up is also an interesting issue. The University of Washington did research on which words used in Kiselev’s shows appeared on Internet searches. How has this affected Internet users? Some things are very serious. For example, the frequency of the words “fascism” and “Ukraine” appearing together is much higher.

Iryna Slavіnska:  The “crucified boy?” [A notorious and now widely mocked Russian propaganda report claiming Ukrainian forces crucified a child in the Donbas—ed.]

Peter Pomerantsev: No, it wasn’t on Kiselev’s show. I don’t remember exactly, but some things hit, and some don’t. Propaganda is a strange thing. There is an emotional game, but you can’t really blame everything on the propagandists. Their victims, in fact, are guilty also. After all, people know what risks they take. Then everyone will all say just what they said in America after the Iraq war: “We have been deceived!” People are deceived that easily.

Iryna Slavіnska:  We’re talking on the eve of a major three-day seminar called “The Seduction of Propaganda.” Among the scheduled events is a special series of panels devoted to propaganda. There is an idea that culture can work as “anti-propaganda.” Do you believe in this? Based on your experience of living and working in Russia, could this work?

Peter Pomerantsev:  We need to define what we mean by propaganda. There are many various definitions. There is, for example, Jacques Ellul’s idea that any mass communication is propaganda. When you’re trying to convince people to wear a condom, so they don’t get AIDS, it’s propaganda. When you’re trying to make people vote for you, it’s propaganda. Launching a war implies propaganda, too. Propaganda in our present understanding begins with the war. When Napoleon had to raise an army (in Europe there were mercenary armies), it was necessary to lie, to motivate the country, to give a reason to fight for Napoleon. Prior to this, people only fought for money. That’s why it was necessary to create the idea of nationality, army, and so on. This is one definition of propaganda, and many people believe that this is an inevitable part of the mass society, one mustn’t judge if it’s good or bad.

In the conventional sense that we refer to, “propaganda” means something different. It implies what Walter Lippmann, the leading American propaganda analyst of the early 1920s, said: it’s “the art of deception.” Can the culture resist this? I guess not. Art happens to be even closer to propaganda. Because we are trying to entrance people, to distract them… That’s why Hitler and Stalin recruited the most talented people. The most notorious propaganda was created by Meyerhold and Eisenstein. Unfortunately, a pure fight against propaganda implies dry, critical, and rational thinking in the style of John Locke and John Stuart Mill. All of these deadly heavy English liberal philosophers, who make you think for yourself. Well, and Socrates. It’s boring, meticulous empirical thinking, which is not “sexy” and not “fun,” but this is the only thing that will save you from emotional exposure. In view of this, art is very dangerous for the world. Conversely to the expected, it has a bad influence.

Iryna Slavіnska:  Recently an odd institution appeared in Ukraine under the name of the Ministry of Information Policy, and for the time being it’s not clear if this ministry will combat propaganda or promote it. If we talk about Ukraine’s participation in the infowar, or an effort to hold her own in this war, what can Ukraine do? Do we have to create an analogue of Kiselev’s show? Or rely on boring contemplations with a view to achieve a thought-provoking effect?

Peter Pomerantsev:  There are several issues here. Propaganda affects certain things. Counterwork to propaganda must not be informational. That’s exactly what the Kremlin wants—never ending information wars. This is very easy to do—as in battles between Akhmetov and Kolomoisky over the course of their PR campaigns. In order to understand how propaganda works, you need to be aware of society’s weak points: corruption, the integration of some regions, identity, and all that. Propaganda affects the weak points. While busy fixing them, one can use positive propaganda—public relations, motivation. There’s a need to create quality Russian- and Ukrainian-language media in this space. Many things are missing and among them are decent news agencies in Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova. They simply do not exist. There is no basic information space where you can make decisions. All that I see here is subjective, judgmental, emotional, and ridiculously awful. It has nothing to do with information—all this emotional clamor a la never-ending talk shows. The grand “Shuster Live.” Of course, I’m exaggerating… But if there’s no basic information, we can’t have a real discussion.

What’s essential now is to create a proper news agency that will allow people to get an idea about what is really happening. This problem is not only local. It is just very acutely felt here, and also Russia just captures the benefits of this lack of basic information, so nobody believes anyone. It’s impossible to build a democracy, a free market, without clear information. It’s impossible to build anything with subjective information. That is the first thing. Secondly, there are tremendous issues with trust. In Telekritika there was quite an interesting survey on Kharkiv. The people there don’t trust anyone. They don’t trust Russian media, or Kyiv, let alone the local.

Iryna Slavіnska:  But they vote for Kernes and Dobkin [controversial local politicians—ed].

Peter Pomerantsev:  Because they are strong! For whom else can they vote? For wimps? But they don’t believe the local media in general, not only Dobkin’s. How one can create TV that will deserve this trust? Here in Ukraine and in Russia there’s a very different approach. Reality shows here that deal with truly important social problems, and get high ratings at the same time—what has always been very strong in England—are not developed. Also, actually, there’s something missing that Soviet documentaries such as Is it Easy to Be Young? had. At the end of the Soviet Union there was also the movie Little Vera. Those were movies that started to work with social and psychological reality. Such films will have credibility, because people will see their lives and conflicts there… They are expensive. It’s not cheap to do these things. They require a lot of time and effort. Only then the proper discussion will come.

I believe in the deep transformational mission of quality television and films. They can really make people and society change. Many other things can be done also, but this is what is needed for a decent information space. Propaganda works because there is something to work on.

Iryna Slavіnska:  The second part of our conversation will be more personal. As far as I’m acquainted with your family story, you were born in the Soviet Union, but you haven’t lived there, you grew up in the UK. And then, at a rather mature age, you came to work in Russia. In this relation to the country where you haven’t lived, where you are only a guest, is there any nostalgia about it, any desire to explore your roots?

Peter Pomerantsev:  Perhaps, there was… Yet, in Russia, I had very little concern about Ukraine. Though, of course, there are some personal issues. I, for one, was inspired by Moscow in the early 2000s. It was a city where I would like to live, like in New York of the 1920s or in England of the seventeenth century… Moscow had exactly that kind of energy. I have traveled a lot around Russia, as compared to Russians. I made a documentary. I had to shoot a lot of them. I have seen this country. Not I that I was really concerned about it. I was excited with Moscow and its furious energy. However, in this regard, America excites me as well. It all makes sense for me, but I’m not an American. This is a privileged viewpoint of a person who wants to shoot documentaries.

As for Kyiv, it’s more about family sentiments. I grew up with Kyiv as this notion of a certain part of the family. There were stories about Kyiv all the time. People came from Kyiv, memories arouse. This envelops you in some way. You are adopting certain figures of speech, stories, a sense of mythology, and a sense of poetry. It is embedded in the family culture. So when I come to Kyiv, I feel that I have come to visit a kind of family member. My parents made me speak Russian at home. In London, I had my own micro-Kyiv.

Iryna Slavіnska:  And how did the relationship between this micro-Kyiv and your London life develop? Does it have to do with a story described in your book, about your daughter who complains that her classmates speak English, and she doesn’t understand what they are saying? What if they are laughing at her?

Peter Pomerantsev:  That passed quickly. She copes much more easily now. There are now a lot of foreigners in London, and a lot of Russian-speaking foreigners. As for me, I was the only Russian-speaking boy in the entire north London. I was privileged. I was like an aristocrat. I was invited to the best schools in the best locations. In this respect, my daughter will have to face much more difficulty.

Iryna Slavіnska:  Is the language issue in this identity important?

Peter Pomerantsev:  Yes, the language issue in this identity is important. Actually, is there anything else important? Cuisine? No, definitely, it’s only the language. If I did not speak Russian there probably would be no connection at all. In fact, what else should be there? I don’t really miss pirozhki, salo, and vodka. There’s also no religious connection, by contrast with the Italians or the Irish. Only literature and language are relevant. In the Russian-speaking world there’s nothing else except that.

Iryna Slavіnska:  Recently we had a conversation with the Kyiv native Katya Petrovskaya, who lives in Germany and has published a novel in German. Many readers, and even the translator of the novel into Ukrainian Yuri Prokhasko, noted in the novel multi-site Kyiv accents and recurring themes, both Ukrainian and Russian. In your work, in the topics that appeal to you, do you find any similar effects?

Peter Pomerantsev:  This is a very good question. Recently, I wrote about Ukrainian writers. My father is a writer. He had a major influence on me. Everything is quite blurred here already. I can’t distinctly tell where it’s about my father, and where it’s about Kyiv. It is very difficult to define. Because my father is a Ukrainian-Russian-Austrian-Hungarian writer. It’s hard to say where Ukrainian literature begins. With the folklore? With Stus? With Shevchenko? My father had a strong repulsion towards the classical Russian canon. He doesn’t like Dostoevsky… He has always felt close to the Austrian-Hungarian writers. After all, he grew up in Czernowitz… I don’t know. It’s up to you. If you come from a family of writers, it’s all really complicated…

Iryna Slavіnska:  Yet, if Igor Pomerantsev is a Ukrainian-Russian-Austrian-Hungarian writer, the journalist Peter Pomerantsev belongs to…

Peter Pomerantsev:  I belong to London. I’m British. All this London chaos, which exists now, it is quite convenient for me. However, in London there is no authenticity, it has no meaning. I’m from nowhere. I’m from London. I find it very convenient.

Iryna Slavіnska:  So, you feel yourself to be an international person, the identity that you’ve described in the book?

Peter Pomerantsev:  Yet, it’s an illusion. These people who define themselves as international, they are completely lost, they don’t have this globalized “me.” It hasn’t been formed yet. Today, there’s an idea of “hyphenated identities.” Sociologists have written much about this. People give themselves hyphenated descriptions, something like: “I am an English-Russian-Ukrainian-London-Vitebsk metrosexual.” And this is absolutely normal, until there’s no war. And when the war or football begins, then these people feel perplexed: “Oh, who should I root for?” I think my forthcoming book will be about this. About this world with totally blurred identities. This is a rather cold and desolate place.

This is absolutely not the global culture festival, which David Hume dreamed of and which is described in The Economist. This is a generation of completely lost middle class people who roam around the world, not quite knowing where they are, what they are, what their values are. This is a culture without gravity; they float slowly, without knowing who they are, drinking now very cheap Chablis, and amusing themselves with their iPhones all the time.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Russian (podcast) here.

Picture credit: Alexander Laskin.
Translated from Russian by Miriam-Feyga Bunimovich, MF Language Services Platform.
Edited by Peter Bejger.