INTERVIEW WITH PETER POMERANTSEV - AUTHOR OF 2015 PUSHKIN HOUSE PRIZE SHORTLISTED BOOK 'NOTHING IS TRUE AND EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE'
What is your connection to Russia?
I’m of Russian heritage. My parents were political dissidents, who were exiled in 1970s when I was 9 months old. So I grew up with a vague émigré connection. I spoke crappy émigré Russian at home with a bad accent. I did an A level but didn’t study for it. I was never a Russia hand or specialist but it was part of the fabric of how I grew up. Maybe I knew a lot of stuff that other people didn’t.
Why did you decide to work in Russia?
I had always dreamed of New York in the Roaring Twenties. Moscow captured that wild exuberance. There was a cabaret vitality, which was a young man’s dream. The question was where go after university? It seemed much better than some friends who were moving to unbearably dull lives in Hackney. I went for the first time in 1993 and was fascinated.
What were your impressions?
I was very naïve and wide eyed. It was already wild in 1993. By 2000 you could sense the boom and excitement. I had a really dull job, working in a think tank on customs harmonisation and pension reform. I wrote reports but had no influence on the reform of Russian pension system. I hung around doing some consultancy, and then I went to film school. I started making British documentaries about Russia. By 2006 the Russian TV industry was booming and I was asked to come and help out at a production company until 2010. Those experiences are the core of the book.
What do you describe?
I attempt to show the arc of Russia’s psychological and social development through stories of gangsters and other very colourful characters. It’s trying to show Russia’s descent from decadence to madness, like in Dante. There is a craft in which characters I choose, in which order. The descent into the present state could have been anticipated in 2000 but I didn’t see it then. The underlying mind-set is wild relativism. For a western mind, it is closer to radical post modernism although Russians would never think of it like that. It is much wilder than nihilism: something much more infinitely playful and transforming. Everything is corrupt, illusion, play. You live your life as a series of hallucinations and mirages. The politics reflects that.
What role does television play in Russian society?
TV is the prism. It plays a huge role in Putin regime. By its very nature, it is an hallucination. In a society based on illusion, and a political model based on illusion, TV becomes the focus of power and a key metaphor. It creates ghosts, simulacra. It is a metaphor for infuriating superficiality.
What is your impression of Russian journalists?
For many, there is no such thing as truth. Russia is a society that has had so many versions of the truth over 40 years: Communism, chaos, the mafia state. People have got used to switching ideologies so much, they preach this idea that there is nothing to believe in. There is a triumphant cynicism. In Soviet times, at least journalism had to imitate the truth. When the KGB did disinformation, they tried to make it look real. Now they just openly say it does not matter because no-one really cares about the truth. All that matters is entertaining and thrilling.
Are these attitudes unique to Russia?
They reflect a global trend towards defactualisation. At the end of the book, I come back to London, and observe the same ideas in the west. It’s the zeitgeist. The super rich in London are part of a global plutocracy. They don’t have allegiances, ideology or social loyalties. They reinvent themselves and don’t belong anywhere or believe in anything. Truth becomes instrumentalised, something to play with rather than a solid idea. As Karl Rove said, the White House creates reality. This trend in not believing anything meets our own jaded lazy post modernism. All our institutions are based on the idea of communal truth. If breaks down, we are in a very chaotic world. It’s the Kremlin’s idea of the future: that institutions based on human rights, facts and so on are all broken down into a multipolar world, a Game of Thrones where the big boys fight it out. That’s a very pernicious thing.
So what is unique in Russia?
The difference is that in the US before Iraq, or Germany before World War Two, there was classic agitation propaganda designed to get the public to believe in a pseudo reality and then go to war. Russia isn’t like that. It plays on cynicism. People assume a lot of what they see is a lie. The task seems to be persuade them that everything everywhere is a lie, to keep them passive and not believing in anything: everyone know the elections are fake, but the opposition and western democracy is also a sham. Russian TV is non-stop conspiracy theories for an audience sitting on their couches. But they are too passive to get up and do anything. That’s the problem when the Kremlin tries to motivate them. Putin has 80 per cent approval ratings but no-one will come out on streets to support him.
What about the opposition media?
Russia is the sort of place you get people who are brave enough to sacrifice themselves. Journalism is genuinely dangerous. It can be inspiring. They go through great sacrifices. But these journalists are only liked by a certain type of metropolitan Russian. They are not allowed on the main channels. The Kremlin want to keep liberals in a small, contained space. They can take many more liberties than in the west without fear of slander as long as they are in an irrelevant corner. That’s the cleverness of the Kremlin: it has created these halls of mirrors out of which there is really no exit.
How about Russia Today, the English language TV channel?
It has gone through lots of iterations. It was a very bland, pointless PR exercise. Now it is less about presenting Russia’s side than sowing disinformation. It is used to divide and conquer, create divisions, trash the information space. It reflects the post-modern view that all facts are just interpretations. You can put a random fascist and a Cambridge professor on screen– they are all the same. Post modernism has been recruited by the Russian security services.
What is the Russian reaction to your book?
Russians don’t care what westerners say. They are usually utterly scathing about any western writing about their country. Two or three things I have written have been praised and become common currency in Russia but generally foreigners are seen as curios. They have enough of their own writers
Peter Pomerantsev is an award-winning contributor to the London Review of Books. His writing has been published in the FT, New Yorker, WSJ, Foreign Policy, Daily Beast, Newsweek, Le Monde Diplomatique, among others, and has led to regular media and public appearances.
Interviewed by Andrew Jack