By Peter PomerantsevAugust 13, 2019
IDEAS REPLACED with feelings. A radical relativism that implies truth is unknowable. Politicians who revel in lying openly, shamelessly, as if being caught out is the point of politics. The notion of the people and the many redefined ceaselessly, words unmoored from meaning, ideas of the future dissolving into nasty nostalgias with enemies everywhere, conspiracy replacing ideology, facts equated to fibs, discussion collapsing into mutual accusations, where every argument is just another smear campaign, all information warfare … and the sense that everything under one’s feet is constantly moving, inherently unstable, liquid …
Almost a decade ago I left Russia because I was exhausted by living in a system where, to quote myself invoking Hannah Arendt, “nothing is true and everything is possible.” Those were still relatively vegetarian days in Moscow — before the invasion of Ukraine — but it was already a world where terms like liberal or democracy were used to mean their opposite, where paranoia was increasingly replacing reasoned argument, and where spectacle had pushed out sense. You were left with only gut feelings to lead your way through the fog of disinformation. I returned to the thing once known as “the West,” living in London and often working in the United States, because, in the words of my naïve self, I wanted to live in a world where “words have meaning,” where facts were not dismissed as “just information war.” Russia seemed a country unable to come to terms with the loss of the Cold War, or with any of the traumas of the 20th century. It was ultimately, I thought, a sideshow, a curio pickled in its own agonies. Russians stressed this themselves: in Western Europe, America, things are “normalno” they would tell me. If you have the chance, that is where you send your wives, children, money … to “normalnost.”
Back in the West, however, I soon noticed things that reminded me of Moscow. A familiar triumphant cynicism was prevalent in the restaurants and offices of Mayfair and Manhattan, among the money and image launderers who served the newly minted global rich. No one here was even pretending they were part of some great story of liberal democracy, of capitalism as a moral project, of that notion of “freedom” that supposedly won the Cold War. “Free markets, free people” went the mantra of The Wall Street Journal, which you found in marbled meeting rooms or at glistening black bars; but no one believed that anymore.
Yet the refined anarchy of this world still seemed very aloof from the rest of America or England. Television and newspapers looked no madder than usual. America had always had loony cable channels, but in my many trips to DC, politicians still talked more or less within the boundaries of reasoned argument.
Then came the revolutionary year of 2016, and things began to go topsy-turvy. Brexit, the US elections, the bombing to bits of Aleppo: “normalnost,” and with it many norms, went out the window. Since then there has been the emboldening of the conspiracy peddling by so-called populists throughout Europe; tsunamis of social media hysteria; fake news, post-truth, alternative facts, and the sort of polarization where people can’t talk to each other anymore without spitting. Sitting in upper-middle-class homes in New Jersey or Peterborough, I would hear phrases that replicated almost word for word those I had heard throughout Russia: “You can never know the truth about anything these days. There is just too much information and disinformation out there. I just have to follow my instincts, go with my emotions.”
Not only were attitudes I had witnessed in Russia uncannily prevalent in the West, but Russia itself was also headlining Western news all the time. Invading Ukraine, bombing Syria … Russia was definitely back among the big boys of politics. And then it transpired that President Putin was employing covert cyberhacks and leaks to discredit Western leaders, organizing masked social media campaigns to “subvert democracy” and influence elections, so that one began to suspect that behind every unusual Twitter or Facebook account there was a Kremlin troll spouting conspiracies.
Russia had gone from being a niche interest to being an agenda setter. President Putin smirked at me from newsstands and from the top of the Ten O’Clock News. “You thought you could get away?” he seemed to be saying.
Despite all my efforts to leave Russia, it had followed me. Why? Are we suddenly living in a Russian-like world that Putin has created? Has his “information war” really been so spectacularly effective?
Or is there another way to look at the Russianization of reality?
What if I had been wrong during my years there? What if Russia was not an agonized curio on a historical blind alley, but was instead foreshadowing what was to come in the thing once known as the West?
With these questions in mind, I have found myself turning back toward Russia, to the end of the Cold War and the roots of the system I saw during my years in Moscow.
It was the artists who sensed it first. Even while the politicians, pundits, and economists were still fantasizing about Russia catching up with the West in five years’ time (tops 20), with the help of a few judicious reforms, the artists and poets of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and Russia in the early 1990s were already sensing the oncoming collapse. This collapse was not just of the political system, but of a system of making sense of the world.
In History Becomes Form, the Russian art historian Boris Groys describes this process as the “Big Tsimtsum,” a term he borrows from the Jewish mystical tradition of the Kabbalah, an alternative version of creation where God first brings the word into being and then retreats from it. “[T]he withdrawal of Soviet power, or the Tsimtsum of Communism, created the infinite space of signs emptied of sense,” writes Groys. “Soviet ideology knew nothing of chance. […] It saw itself as the necessary product of historical development as understood by dialectical materialism. […] In the early 1990s this ideology was suddenly gone — and the world became devoid of meaning[, leaving Soviets] in a sea of empty signifiers.” Many of these citizens may well have thought the USSR a sham long before its collapse, but they still constructed their worldview around it, whether they supported, ignored, or opposed it.
Artists found different ways to respond to this Tsimtsum. Lev Rubinstein delivered spoken-word performances where he stood with a stack of library catalog cards, those little emblems of cultural order, on which he wrote cryptic stanzas, throwing them away as he read them. The sense of bemused disorientation is already there in “Farther and Farther On” from 1984:
Here, the sharpest bout of nostalgia grips you. How it comes about is unknown…
Here, everything reminds you of something, points of something, refers to something.
But as soon as you start to understand what’s what, it’s time to leave.
By 1993 the catalog cards were even more disjointed, the author’s “I” submerged in a lack of sense before coming up for desperate air:
Now, here I am!
Could I have dreamed …
Not even in a dream …
… just yesterday …
(Repeat four times)
So here I am! Hard to believe, and yet …
While Rubinstein used library cards to relate the collapse of coherence, Pavel Pepperstein toyed with the idea of rebuilding sense inside tiny bubbles. “[H]e invest[ed] his energy and ambition above all in the creation of microsocial groups that are bound together by a common ideology,” writes Groys. Pepperstein described the end of the Soviet Union as a period where “the sky opened up,” akin to a psychedelic experience, “when a rupture between systems brings anxiety as well as the promise of renewal.” He and his collaborators created what they termed “Medical Hermeneutics.” “The texts and images of Medical Hermeneutics always refer to other texts and images […] [and] repeatedly reveal empty spaces, seemingly chance constellations of words and images […] that [are filled] with meaning,” writes Groys. In Pepperstein’s own words it meant “investigating social consciousness and also applying gentle therapeutic measures to calm it down.” The micro-social groups were therapeutic because they created their own systems of meaning; in a world of chaos, interpretation, however private and manic, helps one survive.
Yet another artistic response was to move away from language altogether into “Actionism.” This form of physical performance, with its heightened emotion, seemed the only viable communication after words had become meaningless. The Actionist artist Oleg Kulik, for example, reinvented himself as a dog, down on all fours, growling at gallery visitors, a role he would maintain for weeks on end.
The reason I mention these artists is not merely because they reflected the drastic changes in society and anticipated its political future, but because some from this milieu went on to shape politics. The coiner of the term “Medical Hermeneutics” (Anton Nossik) along with the country’s most famous modern art impresario (Marat Guelman), who would become one of the country’s top spin doctors, both joined the Foundation for Effective Politics, a new public relations company set up by the founder of the Post Factum news agency, Gleb Pavlovsky, who directed President Yeltsin’s campaign in 1996 and then Putin’s in 2000. Pavlovsky was dealing with a country where most had lost faith not only in communism, but also in the disastrous version of democratic capitalism that came in the early 1990s, during which millions died not just from destitution but from depression.
“The Communist ideocracy was sluggish, but it was an ideological entity, nonetheless,” Pavlovsky told me when I interviewed him over the phone for the BBC in 2018, gently admonishing me every now and then to ask more precise questions.
Even up to the end people could at least argue over the positives and negatives of Communism. Now a vacuum arose, requiring a new language. We were an absolutely blank canvas. We had, in a sense, to reinvent the principles of the political system as best as possible.
The landscape was scattered with a plethora of micro-movements that made up their own terminology as they went along: National Bolsheviks and Neopagans, Liberal Democrats who were actually conspiratorial nationalists, Communists who were more Orthodox Monarchists with a dash of Social Democrat. When he polled the country, Pavlovsky found Russians believed in a mishmash of contradictions that didn’t fit into any of the old conceptions of left and right: most people believed in a strong state, as long as it didn’t involve itself in their personal lives. Soviet demographic categories like “workers,” “collective farmers,” and “intelligentsia” were useless for elections — like Rubinstein’s defunct library catalog cards, they were labels that indicated nothing.
Pavlovsky experimented with a different approach to assembling a winning electorate. Instead of focusing on one ideological argument, he took quite different, often conflicting, social groups and began to collect them like the parts of a Russian doll. It didn’t matter what their opinions were, he just needed to gather enough of them: “You collect them for a short period, literally for a moment, but so that they all vote together for one person. To do this, you need to build a fairy tale that will be common to all of them.”
That “fairy tale” couldn’t be a political ideology: the great ideas which had powered collective notions of progress were dead. The disparate groups needed to be unified around a central emotion, a feeling powerful enough to unite all of them yet vague enough to mean something to everyone. The “fairy tale” that Pavlovsky wrote for the Yeltsin campaign played on the fear that the country might collapse into civil war if Yeltsin didn’t win. Pavlovsky cultivated the image of Yeltsin as someone so reckless and dangerous he would be prepared to plunge the country into war if he lost. Survival was the story. The fear of losing everything the feeling.
At the same time, the Foundation for Effective Politics went about smearing the opposition Communist Party in an early echo of today’s internet-powered “fake news” campaigns, led by “sock puppets.” Pavlovsky created posters that purported to be from the Communist Party, which claimed they would nationalize people’s homes. He filmed actors posing as Communist Party members burning religious pamphlets. He hired astrologers who would go on TV and predict that electing the communists would lead to nightmare scenarios — like war with Ukraine.
All the country’s oligarchs got behind Yeltsin, lending him money and the support of their television channels in return for bargain-basement deals on lucrative state-owned companies. American image consultants gave Yeltsin a makeover and he danced onstage with pop groups, the first Russian entertainment candidate. He pulled off the most unlikely of victories.
Pavlovsky had conjured up a new notion of “the majority,” but as this was no more than an emotional trick with little political content it fell apart soon afterward — and work immediately began on a new majority to support Yeltsin’s successor. Pavlovsky polled incessantly — this was a new science in Russia. When it became clear that the candidate people most respected would be an “intelligent spy,” a Russian mix of M and Bond, Pavlovsky began to search for potential successors from the former KGB.
This might seem a strange place for someone like Pavlovsky to end up. He had, after all, started out as a dissident. As he revealed in a book-long interview with the brilliant Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, as a schoolkid in 1960s Odessa he was fond of pulling pranks such as sticking sheets of paper to teachers’ backs which read “i vote for john f kennedy” — quite an act of anti-Soviet rebellion. As a student, he proliferated samizdat copies of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. When the KGB hauled him in, he — to his own amazement — panicked and shopped one of his friends. Pavlovsky would later recant his testimony — which meant his friend only had to serve a small stint in a city psychiatric ward rather than in prison. In the early 1980s, Pavlovsky went up to Moscow, edited one of the main dissident journals, Searches, and, in 1982, was arrested again. This time he confessed that he was guilty of “slandering the Soviet Union.” Such a confession was seen as shameful in a dissident culture that prized the sovereignty of the individual in the face of state pressure above all else: mental strength was a value in itself. Pavlovsky spent his years in prison and internal exile writing letters to the KGB, saying it should work with dissidents for the good of the Soviet Union. He was released in 1986. During perestroika, he continued to believe that a reformed, cosmopolitan USSR was a better vehicle for progress than a potentially racist Russian nationalism. The need for a strong, centralized state became his great concern. By 1999, he was working to bring a KGB man to power. “I first came up with the idea of the Putin majority — and then it appeared!” he told me.
For the Putin election, the guiding principle was to appeal to “the Left Behind.” Pavlovsky identified all the groups who had lost out from the Yeltsin years. These were completely disparate segments of society who in Soviet times would have been on different sides of the barricades: teachers and secret-service types, academics and soldiers. Putin himself was cast as a sort of political extension of Actionism. When he arrived on the scene, he offered photo ops of derring-do instead of ideological coherence — the emotional highs of “Make Russia Great Again.” Over time his slogans became sublime in their emptiness: “Putin’s Plan is Russia’s Victory” ran one. To the question of what “Russia’s Victory” was, one could only really answer “Putin’s Plan.”
The technique developed for the Yeltsin campaign was perfected. In an age where all the old guiding ideologies have gone, where there is no coherent competition among political ideas for the future, then the aim becomes to lasso together disparate groups around a new notion of “the people,” bound around an amorphous but powerful emotion — the recovery from humiliation, for example — which each can interpret in their own way. This new majority is sealed together with phantoms of imaginary enemies who threaten to undermine that feeling. In Russia, the overarching aim was always to communicate the sense that the state was strong by making it seem that it was everywhere and could do anything — an illusion of omnipotence that covered up its actual fragility.
During Putin’s almost two decades in power since Pavlovsky first helped him become president, his party’s idea of who “the people” are has been reorganized over and over, but that idea always manages to unite utterly disparate groups around a rotating enemy: oligarchs at first, then metropolitan liberals, and more recently the outside world. According to Dr. Ilya Yablokov of Leeds University, an analyst of conspiracy theories in Russia, the “Putin majority” that Pavlovsky helped create became a “truncheon [used] to delegitimize its opponents. The division of society into Putin’s majority and its enemies became a dominant political tactic.” Conspiracy theories, always prevalent, have become the dominant idiom. They are not so much a means of supporting any one single belief, but act more as a worldview in themselves: all the world is full of unfathomable conspiracies, so the nation needs a strong hand to guide it through the murk. “Conspiracy is what happens when ideologies run out,” says Krastev. “Instead of a normative debate about who is right or wrong, they act as a way to divide between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ You can’t argue with a conspiracy, you’re either on one side of it or the other.”
Pavlovsky kept very busy in the first decade of the new millennium. He helped found Nashi, the patriotic youth movement that harasses dissidents and journalists, and whose name, which literally means “Ours,” reduces politics to a series of pronouns: “them,” “us,” “ours,” “theirs.” But eventually he got on the wrong side of the divides he himself had created when, in 2011, he argued that Putin should not be president. He was thrown out of the Kremlin. Having worked across such different shades of the Russian political spectrum, he remains an object of fascination and the subject of much comment, a sort of Everyman popping up in Russia’s many tales.
When Pavlovsky looks at the West today, he sees it going through the same changes Russia underwent in the 1990s. A delayed reaction to a similar crisis. “The Cold War split global civilization into two alternative forms,” he told me, “both of which promised people a better future. The Soviet Union undoubtedly lost. But then, there appeared a strange Western utopia with no alternative. This utopia was ruled over by economic technocrats who could do no wrong.”
One can pick any number of moments when the “strange Western utopia” buckled:
The invasion of Iraq put paid to the idea that political “freedom” was either historically inevitable or desirable …
The financial crash made a mockery of the idea that free markets were leading us to an ever-better future …
Maybe everyone has their own moment of disillusionment. I remember the immediate shock of the Brexit vote. For a moment it seemed all my old reference points had collapsed. I considered myself a European. What was I now? This can’t be compared in terms of scale and trauma with Pepperstein’s moment of the “sky opening up” in the Soviet Union, but there was an echo. In the weeks after the referendum, I would find myself in intense meetings with powerless people, plotting to turn back the vote. At one moment, I realized this had nothing to do with politics — it was some sort of blind alley of pseudo-therapy.
Other changes were more incremental and perhaps more fundamental. For the last 30 years, pollsters in Britain and throughout “the West” have been finding that our ways of classifying society have been shifting almost as radically as in Pavlovsky’s Russia.
Back in the Cold War, one used to define the electorate along simple lines of economic class: ideological left versus ideological right. Then, during the 1990s and early 2000s, when politics was reduced to just another consumer product, pollsters would draw on the categories provided by marketing companies: in Britain New Labour would target categories like “Ford Mondeo Man,” and try to satisfy that person’s economic desires, while in the United States, some on the political right dreamed of cultivating “Whole Foods Republicans.” Now that too seems outdated: people don’t vote along simple categories of consumer choice, as the Brexit referendum so forcefully informed us. Nor do newspapers or parties necessarily represent clear social categories. Circulation of legacy media is so low it’s barely representative; people move casually between parties in every election. It’s as if the vessels through which we used to channel our social identities have burst, releasing a flood of data points: credit rating scores and shopping habits, football passions and porn preferences. For several years in the early 2010s, it became fashionable to define the populace along psychological types, substituting economic class with “open” and “closed” personalities, based on the notion that childhood experiences determined political choices. There’s even a “psychological” map of Britain, which looks at each constituency in the country and assigns it a psychological profile. The result maps vaguely onto the Brexit vote (“closed” for Leave, “open” for Remain) — though this technique becomes frustratingly blurry in the swing areas where accurate polling matters most.
In this flux of identities and ideologies, political campaigners in the West have adopted strategies that are strikingly similar to Pavlovsky’s, though they have now been enhanced by social media and big data.
Consider Thomas Borwick, the clever and chatty chief technology officer of the victorious Vote Leave campaign, who explained to me how the Brexit vote was won, reveling in the nerdy detail of his craft. Borwick comes from a family of Tory grandees (his mother a former MP for Kensington, his father a baron), and he approaches his work like a precocious schoolboy solving a puzzle or playing Risk.
His job as a campaigner is to gather as much data as he can about voters, calculate which groups are most likely to vote for his side, and then work out the one thing that will motivate those different groups to vote. Is it animal rights or potholes? Gay marriage or the environment? A country of 20 million, he estimates, needs 70 to 80 types of these targeted messages. Social media allows him to target messages with an accuracy a Pavlovsky could only have dreamed of in the 1990s. Borwick’s job is then to connect individual causes to his campaign, even if those connections might feel somewhat tenuous at first.
In the case of the vote to leave the EU, Borwick confessed that the most successful message had been about animal rights. Vote Leave argued that the EU was cruel to animals because, for example, it supported farmers in Spain who raise bulls for bullfighting. Even within the “animal rights” segment, Borwick targeted more narrowly, sending graphic ads with mutilated animals to one type of voter, and more gentle ads with pictures of cuddly sheep to another.
In the years since the referendum, Britain has been trying to work out which ideological reasons drove the vote. Was it nationalists standing up to globalists? Or was it socialism fighting neoliberalism? Was it all because of immigration? Austerity? Of course all of these issues were important. But the search for a single grand ideological narrative misses the point. In the modern day, the well-being of bulls can be just as important to politics as any of the above.
There was a similar methodology to the Trump election in 2016, where the firm Cambridge Analytica boasted of their abilities to micro-target voters with highly specific messages. As the journalist Jamie Bartlett revealed when he interviewed Trump’s campaign team, many ads in the election avoided using Trump at all, as they were targeted at voters who found him offensive and wanted to hear a more classical Republican message about, for instance, family values.
Pavlovsky needed to unite his disparate audiences and causes with an emotion each could project their cause on to, and so did Vote Leave during Brexit. They succeeded with “take back control,” the wonderfully spongy phrase that could mean anything to anyone, with the EU and its “establishment” the enemy conspiring to undermine it. And 20 years after Putin promised to bring “Russia off its knees,” Trump had MAGA.
“Facts” in this environment become secondary. You are not, after all, trying to win an evidence-driven debate about ideological concepts in a public sphere of rational actors. Your aim as a propagandist is not deliberative democracy, but finding a discourse that seals in your audience and breaks down any engagement with the enemy. Social media doesn’t merely catalyze this process, it creates an independent demand for it. Inside the dynamics of online causes, the only facts that matter are the ones that confirm existing biases. We go online looking for the emotional boost delivered by likes and retweets. It really doesn’t matter if the stories you share come from dodgy sources, you just want to get the most attention possible from like-minded people. “Online dynamics induce distortion,” concludes Walter Quattrociocchi of the University of Venice, who studies the emotional dynamics of social media echo chambers.
Indeed, “facts” were perhaps only necessary in the Cold War because they were there to prove that one supposedly rational, “scientific” ideology, communism or democratic capitalism, was doing better than the other. Facts are necessary when you have a rational version of the future you are trying to “prove” is being fulfilled. When all ideas of the future collapse, as they did first in Russia and now have done here, then why would facts be necessary anymore? The last thing that politicians who peddle nostalgia want is facts. There’s even a certain pleasure in throwing off the constraints of glum reality, of throwing a middle finger to factuality. And in any case why would anyone want the “facts” if all they communicate is disappointment? That your kids will be poorer than you; that you will never afford an apartment. That Americans could elect someone like Donald Trump — a man with so little regard for making sense, whose many contradictory messages never add up to any stable meaning — shows just how many American voters no longer felt invested in evidence-based, rational progress. Instead of coherence, Trump offers impulses: he is xenophobic one moment and wants to help Syrian kids the next; isolationist in the morning and interventionist in the afternoon. Emotional ego-peaks fill in for information. His speeches could be replaced with a series of emoticons and they’d have the same effect.
Trump is far from alone in discarding logic in favor of emotion and physical performance — again mirroring the example of the Russian art scene of the 1990s. From the trigger-happy Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Donald Trump in the United States, through Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom to Vladimir Putin himself, politicians are substituting making sense for making a scene. They may as well be down on all fours growling like the Russian Actionist artists.
In this wreckage of old narratives, we see shards of the old floating by us broken off from any larger narrative. Scrolling through Twitter now is like being at one of Rubinstein’s cryptic readings in early 1990s Moscow. When Russia’s covert digital-influence campaign in the United States is equated with a new Pearl Harbor, or when criticism of Trump is labeled “McCarthyism,” historical references have become so shorn of context they feel like library cards thrown into a crowd. The way online communities work, with their introverted systems of interpretation, brings to mind Pepperstein’s description of “Medical Hermeneutics.” Alt-right groups, for example, have developed their own signs and codes, complete with an alternative right-wing Wiki to communicate their ironic fascisms. Coherence becomes possible again — but only by fully giving yourself over to a closed community as insular as Pepperstein’s micro-social groups.
“I think that Russia was the first to go this way, and the West is now catching up in this regard,” Pavlovsky remarked to me, wryly, when we discussed how political discourse in Europe and America seemed familiar to him. “In general, the West can be considered to follow a proto-Putinism of sorts.”
Will this last? Always contradictory, Borwick says he misses the politics of big ideas. He thinks they may make a comeback for a good reason. The problem with audience-driven, data-intensive election campaigns is that they are expensive. Big ideas are cheaper. That may create a new demand for them.
Pavlovsky on the other hand thinks ideology is done. He agrees with the notion of th “end of history” — but, following his mentor Mikhail Gefter, thinks this brings its own problems. An idea of history gave us the potential to have shared ideals, and through ideals, norms. Now all actions are squashed together, flat, and there seems to be no scope for progress or moral perspective. The results are what Gefter called “Sovereign Murderers.” In the absence of norms, we have vacuums, where chaos agents behave according to rules they make up for themselves as they go along, murdering according to their own “sovereign” logic. There is something very telling about the fact that the election of Donald Trump in late 2016 — a great victory for incoherence — took place at the exact time that Russia and Bashar al-Assad were bombing Aleppo to smithereens, shamelessly breaking humanitarian norms established since World War II. For those paying attention to both stories, a sickening montage played out between Trump’s television debates, with their breakdown of discourse as we knew it, and the nonstop video evidence of barrel bombs bringing down hospitals and apartment blocks, with babies found in the rubble. Of course humanitarian principles have been broken many times before, but in the past there was usually some attempt to deny, to cover things up, to be ashamed, to pretend ignorance. Here it was done with the shrug of the Sovereign Murderer. We have never had more evidence, more facts, to prove that atrocities are taking place. And never has it mattered less. In 2019, we see this all again: as Idlib is obliterated and Trump talks word-salad.
This is the great paradox of the end of the Cold War: the future, or rather the future-less present, arrived first in Russia. We are only now catching up. Though maybe there’s a simple cultural logic at work here. If our own ideological coherence was based on opposition to the Soviet Union’s, when it collapsed we would invariably follow.
The Russian regime finds itself at ease in this environment because it has been acting in it for longer. There’s nothing mystical at work in its success: it simply has a head start. Matching its messages to different audiences, constantly capturing attention and conjuring the illusion of strength through spectacle, lying for fun, throwing truth to the wind, and reducing facts to feelings — this is all familiar territory for the Kremlin. Some politicians in the West have joined in, but most institutions and bureaucracies are still playing by yesterday’s rules.
In a final twist, a nostalgia can arise for “normalnost,” for a time of stable meaning, which for many, especially among media and intellectual elites in the United States, was the end of the Cold War. Perhaps this yearning for a time that still made sense explains the attention Russia now receives in the “liberal press” and in conversations among those “resisting” Trump. I don’t mean the quest for policies to deter the Kremlin’s invasions and information operations — which I consider a matter of urgency — but the language and iconography that is sometimes used in this debate: motifs from Soviet posters to advertise books and articles on the subject; Cold War secret service terminology to describe Russia’s behavior today. The Kremlin’s actual strength lies in having arrived at our future first, in how contemporary and similar it is to the thing once known as the West, but by describing it in ways reminiscent of the Soviet Union there seems a longing to recover a narrative and system of interpretation where we knew who we were. The more our reality becomes like the new Russia, the more we pine for the old Soviet Union.
A version of this piece first appeared in Granta 146: The Politics of Feeling. Subscribe to Granta here.
Peter Pomerantsev is the author of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (2014) and This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (2019). He is the winner of the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, and is the director of the Arena Initiative at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he investigates 21st-century media manipulation and how to solve it.
Banner image: "Novosibirsk" by Ilya Varlamov is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
Peter Pomerantsev is a Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, where he co-directs the Arena Initiative, a research project dedicated to overcoming the challenges of digital era disinformation and polarisation. His book on Russian propaganda, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, won the 2016 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, was nominated for the Samuel Johnson, Guardian First Book, Pushkin House and Gordon Burn Prizes. It is translated into over a dozen languages and was dramatized on BBC Radio 4. His latest book, This Is Not Propaganda, was released in August 2019, and won the Gordon Burn Prize. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and regularly presents radio documentaries on BBC Radio 4.
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