Peter Pomerantsev: Putin is like a Che Guevara T-shirt [Interview]

There is nothing more antiestablishmentarian in the West than being pro-Russian. It is a way of attracting attention as well as shocking the elites. Putin to populists is like a Che Guevara T-shirt to teenage leftists – says Peter Pomerantsev, a British political scientist in conversation with Sławomir Sierakowski for WP, Opinion section.

Sławomir Sierakowski: Is Putin a traditional Russian leader or, on the contrary, – does he represent a new type?

Peter Pomerantsev: Putin is not a typical leader of Russia. He is a model authoritarian leader of the twenty-first century, similar to the leaders of China, Turkey, Hungary etc. He represents a model that, on the one hand, derives from the potential granted by globalization, and, on the other, – he opposes it. Putin is postmodern inasmuch as his authority relies on the media and at the same time it lacks a coherent ideology.

Putin gains the advantage due to a more effective use of the media than others?

Peter Pomerantsev
is a British political scientist and a media specialist. He works in the Legatum Institute, London. Formerly he was a producer for a British and Russian television. He is a columnist in the London Review of Books. His book “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia” has become a world bestseller.

Russia of the 1990s is, to a great extent, a product of the media. Putin has become well acquainted with the impact of the television. Power over Russia is the power over its media. It does not denote that he steers it. He has Vladislav Surkow for that [the author of the term ‘sovereign democracy’, responsible for the initiative to establish a pro-Putin youth group Nasi, the major Kremlin’s social engineering specialist]. It seems very Russian. A propagandist idea of a “demigod” is a Soviet idea. The notion that owing to propaganda a new human can be constructed is a Soviet invention. The Soviet belief in the possibilities of remaking both semantics and people also functions as a relevant component of the identity of the special forces, Putin’s professional background. Not by chance does Putin adore Berlusconi – simultaneously a media tycoon and a state leader.

And how does Putin deal with the internet media?

Putin has become well acquainted with the impact of the television. Power over Russia is the power over its media.

They have made a mistake in this field. They assumed that those media wouldn‘t matter. They allowed for their independent development. As the initial street protests were held they got down to work and they are making attempts at reigning over the Russian web. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. But what Putin’s people particularly excel in is psychological warfare. They are well-trained in that area. Putin is a spy, after all. They understand best of all in the world how significant is hacking, the media and psychology in the process of gaining political and military leverage. Russia has mastered the use of information warfare. Psy-ops are their specialty. In addition, Russia has a historical background developed in the former eras and political regimes.

So Putin, as a state leader, continues to act now the way he used to when working in the DDR.

For example, during the talks between state leaders Putin is the only one to have completed an operational training. An importat part of a spy’s job involves leading others to work for you without even noticing it. This activity is transferred to the head of state level. It is fascinating what happens between Russian hackers and the USA. The Kremlin is working towards discrediting the United States, not to support Trump. It is precisely the opposite of what the public opinion observes. It is Trump who cares about the Kremlin, not the Kremlin that cares about Trump. Trump needs their money. His businesses are buried in debts. Trump has been doing business with Russians since the 1980s. What Putin is after is, first and foremost, humiliating Americans, showing Europe that there is no use counting on the USA.

Is the West losing against Russia in the field of information warfare?

The basic difference lies in the fact that the West treats ‘cyber-ops’ and ‘psy-ops’ separately. New technologies is one thing and psychology another. We also spy on everyone a great deal. It turns out that we’ve become proficient in eavesdropping and hacking – ourselves. We can do that to Russia, otherwise we would never have coped with the Litvinenko case. Everyone hacks everyone. But Russia makes a better use of it by treating cyber-ops as part of psy-ops. This is what in the KGB terminology was referred to as активные мероприятия [active measures]. Various forms of symbolic violence: disseminating panic, wreaking chaos, eroding self-confidence, imposing their own definition of the situation – keeping the opponent anxious and disrupting their sense of balance. That is what they taught and still do in Yasenevo, next to the Moscow beltway, currently the seat of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation. All of this is accompanied by disinformation, compromising, assassinations, instruments of economic pressure, etc. They do it both to states and people. Soviet, and later Russian, politicians have always taken this course of action towards diplomats and journalists.

What can’t the Russians deal with?

Russia needs the NATO as a threat, with which one can justify their own trouble.

With the Internet control. All they can resort to is application of brutal repressions, yet they’re unable to use any subtle manipulation. If you share some negative content on facebook, they might arrest you. They impose regulations that ban publishing certain contents. They require that google should reveal personal data, so that it would be granted access to the information who does what. They can’t do anything more than that. And when it comes to cyber-ops nothing can be proved. It is difficult to tell which hacker attacks are commissioned by the Kremlin, and which are not.

If the knowledge obtained by the KGB is crucial to Putin, why is he in the process of replacing the forefront of his elite including Sergei Ivanov as its leader, ace of the intelligence, KGB general-major?

It’s on everyone’s mind. Perhaps– as usual – he’s shifting people around only to ensure that no one, except Putin himself, can feel safe on their position.

In conversation with ”Wirtualna Polska” Fyodor Łukyanov claimed that Putin does not only treat the NATO Article 5 regarding mutual defense of allies with gravity, but Russia downright fears intervention or provocation on their part. Do fears like that actually exist there?

Fiedia is one of the Kremlin’s spokespeople and for the Kremlin such a take on the event comes in handy. The Roman Empire conquered half of the world in their own defense. On the one hand, Russia needs the NATO as a threat, with which one can justify their own trouble. On the other, they can realistically estimate the NATO power.  They’ve spent far too much time in the NATO Council – Russia – not to realize what it’s really like. These contacts were highly intensive.

But if Russia uses information warfare abroad on a permanent basis, they might assume that everything they know about the NATO, is only what the West wants Russia to know. Whereas, in fact, the NATO plans are different. Suspiciousness is a fast track to paranoia.

They might be dreaming about colorful revolutions at night, such as Maidan and they fear a similar one on the Red Square.

To what extent does sustenance of those hybrid states – Donbas, Abkhazia, Southern Ossetia, Transnistria – serve solely the purpose of the internal policy, i.e. maintaining social support for the authorities?

“Getting Russia off its knees” is a recurrent motif in Putin’s politics. Secondly, all of these are stakes at the table where the game concerning the influences around the world takes place. The Russians cannot envisage that they could miss out on the game.

So the West may have made a mistake at some point and should have catered for the needs of Russians earlier before they began to resort to military argumentation?

Russia sees Georgia and the Ukraine as their sphere of influence. Putin is dreaming about a new Yalta. He craves eternalizing his rule through a new world order with division to spheres of influences and thus rebuild the imperial position of Russia. Putin, Merkel, Obama (Cameron is out as the Great Britain has opted out of the policy makers’ club) and Xi Jin Pin would sit over the map and reach agreement. It is in fact most curious what they really think of the NATO. If they fear us why do they keep provoking us? They need this tension for somewhat higher post-Yalta game.

The remaining twentieth century European empires have bid their farewell to their imperial identity, why can’t Russia?

It’s an excellent question. We don’t know what Russia would become if it resigned from imperial ambitions. The Russian Federation is a bricolage of republics, countries, autonomous districts and, first and foremost, a plethora of various races, languages, nationalities, religions and denominations. It is unclear what a shift from imperial identity to a healthy nationalism would mean, a nationalism that would integrate the citizens around a different agenda than geopolitical aspirations.

Another country oppressed by multi-culturalism…

Exactly [laughter]. The opposition gathered around Alexei Navalny is following this very line. Let’s cut off the Caucasus and let’s begin constructing a modern European nation. However, in Russia modern European nationalism has never developed. Furthermore, France or Great Britain were able to withdraw from their former colonies, and turn from colonial to postcolonial states practically overnight. That was the way to leave Ukraine or Georgia, but it won’t be that easy to do all over the Russian Federation. In the Russian history there has never been a nation-state. Initially there was Ivan the Terrible and later expansion, expansion and more expansion. What is Russia supposed to withdraw to? To city-states? The last sort of grandeur for Russians is the territorial vastness.

Russia is becoming weaker, but so is the West. Throughout its whole modern history since the Early Modern Times Russia has aspired to be like the West. Can the West still seem appealing to Russians?

If Merkel steps down, Le Pen or Sarkozy wins in France and the USA has a leader uninterested in Europe, Russian influences are bound to expand.

Not since today has Putin been looking in various directions. At one point he talks about China, at another about BRICS, later to turn to the West. Putin does not reject globalization. He wants another variant. Moreover, in Russia there has been an ongoing discussion: “Are we a European country or not?” Self-identification by relating to this question. Actually it proves analogical to a situation which has reigned without a break also in the Great Britain. At the same time in Russia the notion of Europe is the same as a question regarding норма́лно̄ст [normalcy], about whether we are the like other European countries. This is what the whole Russian modern literature deals with. In this sense Russia is unable to engage in such an intense emotional relation with China or BRICS countries. The very issue of belonging to the European culture is anchored much deeper in the Russian identity than the matter of belonging to or establishing contacts with the European Union.

Does Russia effectively implement its imperial aspirations? Have its influences increased?

If Merkel steps down, Le Pen or Sarkozy wins in France and the USA has a leader uninterested in Europe, Russian influences are bound to expand. Not only the Russian are discussing the transformation of the world order. Almost all leaders notice that the old institutions fail to work.  The NATO was not able to respond to the hybrid warfare. EU didn’t manage to cope with the refugee crisis. The significance of the UN is not even worth mentioning. Ubiquitous spread of populism in its bizarre postmodern-nationalist form is a clear symptom that the political order as we have known is so far is coming to an end.

Some claim that the Russian propaganda of today is more intrusive than in the Soviet times – are these claims justified?

Certainly there is more hate speech. It is far smarter, too. I don’t know whether the Soviets needed such an openly venomous propaganda. If they felt like, they simply fell back on physical violence immediately.

The propaganda was mainly concerned with persistently positive content. And what instruments does the Russian Television use today?

Mainly talk-show, documentaries and news bulletins. First of all, the very language is brutal and straightforward.

Does it prove effective?

A lot. The state-owned television in Russia is still the major medium. 90 per cent of people derive information through that channel. News bulletins are structured like guidelines. Those are to hate, those to be accused and found guilty, and accusations are formulated. These should be beaten up, whereas those should be listened to. It is not only about the stories, but also about the behavioral codes. The Russian Television tells Russians who they are right now and what they are supposed to do. In such a vast country like Russia, it is only the television that is capable of attracting everyone. How else would one control such an immense organism? You might as well do it through the Gulag and it is what Putin does, by the way. But the show trials do work, which is why the media broadcast these. Stalin used to hold a lot of those. It suffices for Putin to have just a few. The Khodorkovsky trial, the trial of the organizers of the demonstration on the Bolotnaya Square, the Pussy Riot trial.

And despite all, it still qualifies as the most liberal period in the Russian history. Russians have never enjoyed a freedom greater than this.

1990s was the most liberal period.

But it was the time of mass anxiety, unrest, oligarchization, organized crime, unemployment and poverty. Rememebered as the second Смутное время, Time of Troubles.  It was not easy to enjoy freedom under such conditions. To a high degree Putin’s popularity results from taking Russia out of this state.

Agreed. But even during the early Putin era citizens enjoyed more freedoms than now.

Where is the limit of the freedom of speech? Can you, for instance, publish books critically evaluating the corruption of the authorities?

Yes, you can. They don’t care about books. They even apply some simple criterion. A Russian politician told me that everything over 30 000 copies starts to gain significance for those in power. Under that – you can print whatever you want.

Sometimes the impression I get is that Putin sparks admiration among the Western elites. He constantly ends up on the covers of influential magazines, wins “world’s most influential politician” competitions. Don’t the Western leaders view his decision-making possibilities and power with envy?

It is a macho phenomenon, which, of course, some find impressive. With the return of tribal nationalisms in the West there the dream about a strong leader reemerges. Putin symbolizes someone of that type. However, another phenomenon can also be spotted – much more curious. As Trump quotes Putin and calls for Russian hackers’ attack on Hilary, when in the referendum campaign in the Netherlands [concerning the ratification of the union agreement with the Ukraine, the Dutch voted against it] the Russian propaganda is used, when Putin pops up centrally in the Brexit debate; when Marine Le Pen does not even conceal that she has received money from the Kremlin, they position themselves as antiestablishmentarian. There is nothing more antiestablishemntarian in the West than being pro-Russian. It is a way of attracting attention, shocking the elites. All the mainstream elites are against Russia. The NATO is against Russia. Brussels is against Russia, just like the liberal press. And for populists the enemy of my enemy is my friend. They don’t seem too be overly concerned with Putin himself. To populists Putin is like a Che Guevara T-shirt to teenage left-wingers.

Is it dangerous?

I see it slightly different than many of my colleagues, including serious intellectuals, who shrug it off and say: “so what, a few populist parties, a few Putin’s tricks – it’s only a bluff. Who is Putin in comparison to Stalin, who are populists as compared to totalitarian parties? Let’s not blow it out of proportion.” But these negative phenomena are increasingly on the rise. The prospects that it will finally come to an end are not to be seen. Conspiracy theories are steadily growing into popularity, and hate speech is becoming increasingly more effective. I’m sometimes under the impression that I live in “The Plague”, a novel by Albert Camus. The threat is constantly escalting. First Austria, then Hungary, next America, later Poland, and suddenly the Great Britain comes out with a blow like Brexit. Each time we get used to it instantly. But each time this “normalcy” is even worse. Something dangerous is happening to the West. Most often the comparisons with the 1930s pop up. But my associations are different – with the 1870s. Similarly to the situation in that era globalization climaxes, huge metropolies become the object of the periferies’ hatred, people who make use of anti-Semitic and chauvinist arguments come to the fore, new media turn up, a surge of rasism is on its way.

Has the mainstream become unelectable today mainly because it’s mainstream, no matter what views these parties express? Over so many years mainstream has not manged to address growing economic inequalities, and therefore, society desires to rightly punish the establishment, so without any second thoughts people choose whoever shouts loudest, like Trump.

Brexit was supported by the wealthy middle class, who does not face economic problems.

The return of tribal nationalism is crucial, towering over the inequality issue, even though the two are interconnected. Brexit originated in a most simple fact: we don’t want foreigners around here and that’s it. Inequalities or any other economic reasons are irrelevant. Brexit was supported by the wealthy middle class, who does not face economic problems.

What is it about nationalism that makes it seem that lasting whereas any other idea fades away sooner or later? In sociology one of the most popular definitions of ‘nation’ is Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined community’. It appears to be excepionally durable for a social construct. Is it because all the other imagined concepts turned out perfunctory? And every human needs a certain benchmark and stability.

I agree.  The world today is so flexible, instantenous and precarious that people escape into “nation”. Perhaps nationalism is the final stage of “postmodernism”.

This thesis resembles Max Horkheimer’s theory, according to which nationalism functions as capitalism’s last resort for survival. But does capitalism need to be saved? If the right-wing were defending capitalism from the strong left through nationalistic sentiments, it does. But there is no strong left today, and nationalism – as you have observed – is developing irrespective of capitalism. Thus postmodernism would rather be synonymous with mass culture than with capitalism.

Right. ‘I’m so postmodern, so subversive, so cynical that I can even turn a nationalist’.

So is it only a mask?

In history it happens often times that after a generation, which does not pose a grave threat, there comes another one that takes matters in their own hands seriously. Nowadays perhaps one does not need to fear Orban or Putin but their successors are already on their way and they might not have similar scruples. There is a certain logic in it.

First you introduce certain concepts into the public sphere, and later they shape your successors, but now they come to exist for real, not merely as imagined constructs.

Kaczyński or Orban, not to mention Putin or Erdogan are playing with fire. Their scuccessors might prove to pose a serious threat.

Do you reckon that Trump will win?

No, I don’t.

Did you believe in Brexit?

I did. I know how the British reacted to immigrants. And I am familiar with their ability to remain silent about their genuine interests and their ability to conceal their sincere views.

Was it connected with the fact that, as opposed to the Hindues and Pakistanis, Poles and Romanians don’t establish their enclaves, but live among Britons.

The British reacted with negativity towards Hindues and Pakistanis. It is about the most fundamental demographic transformation that Britons know. 4 million people have immigrated within 8 years. Any society would react to this. Nobody asked Britons about their views on that. Had they been asked, they would have answered: “no, thank you”. But in contrast to the Dutch or other nations, never would they have chosen a true chauvinist for a leader. Nigel Farage’s project stood a chance to succeed, he, himself – did not.

Why do the media love Trump? And why wasn’t he annihilated by all those scandalous mishaps?

In Trump’s case “reality show” logic applies: to outrage and scandalize as much as possible so that people would come back for more. Truth doesn’t matter in this respect. In reality show the biggest motherfucker wins. Nowadays people are shaped by such media. In the information era the center has disappeared and everyone can mold their own truth in their own niche. Your truth wins provided that you can attract others’ attention and keep it.

So it turns out that Trump is the world’s most modern politican, not the most backward one.

Unfortunately, so.


Sławomir Sierakowski
Born in 1979, Sławomir Sierakowski is a Polish sociologist and political commentator. He is a founder and leader of Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), an Eastern European movement of liberal intellectuals, artists and activists, with branches in Ukraine and Russia. He is also the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw and the president of the Stanislaw Brzozowski Association, overseeing its publishing house, its online opinion site, cultural centers in Warsaw, Gdansk, Lodz and Cieszyn, in Poland, and in Kiev, Ukraine, and 20 local clubs.

1 Comment

  1. To the editors. Are you sure Peter used the Soviet ‘the’ speaking of Ukraine? I don’t believe you. Pomerantsev is nor ignoramus neither Kremlin propagandist. WTF?