Monday, August 28, 2017

“Nothing is true and everything is possible”. Indeed. A review of Peter Pomerantsev’s book

It is a strange book. It does not  pretend to be written by a deep thinker but has interesting insights. It is written very well and engagingly, in parts; and in parts it reads like a bad cliché.

The first insight by Pomerantsev (discussed only very briefly) is how Communism created a deep hypocrisy among individuals such that they lived one part of their lives not only pretending, but believing, in the official values, and the other by questioning them, or believing the very opposite. The two parts existed in each individual, in a symbiotic and mutually sustaining relationship. This made all attempts to live and behave in a consistent fashion, where one’s actions reaffirm one’s beliefs, impossible. The duality has numerous implications: hypocrisy, divided individual, simultaneous acceptance and rejection of hierarchy, sudden, and outwardly inexplicable, political and social disruption.  The phenomenon of simulacry under Communism was long noted including by Czeslaw Milosz and Meša Selimović, a Serbian/Bosnian writer. They related it to the similar simulacra maintained in all oppressive societies with double moralities, so much so that it has its specifically Farsi  term of “ketman”.

The second insight, unlike the first discussed at length, is that Putin’s regime has created in the media an alternative reality (that to some extend plays on the noted individual duality) where the reality of corruption, demographic decline, inability to develop new sectors of the economy, and a general decline of Russia as a world power, is masked by xenophobia, “fake news”, stories of economic and military prowess etc. This is an alternative reality approach that, according to its inventors and ideologues, is much superior to the old-fashioned Communist propaganda because it opens many more topics to free discussion but mixes truth, fantasy and lies in about equal proportions to blunt all desire for political engagement. Pomerantsev, according to what he tells us in the book, has participated, by writing and directing more or less true shows on several Russian TV channels, in the production of this alternative reality.  

Thus, he has become a professional in obfuscation, and confabulation, or to quote the Rolling Stones “was practicedin the art of deception”.  But this is not a book of repentance. Pomerantsev nowhere takes a critical look at himself as he was during a decade when he lived and worked in Russia. Rather he prefers to present himself as having been a practioner of deceit but not its fervent believer, and even an opponent at heart (but not at wallet)—thus displaying the same attitude that he criticizes in others.

Pomerantsev, it could be said in his defense, is not in a self-reflective mood. But there is another strange duality in the book. By presenting the picture of Russia of the Putin era (and conflating it often mistakenly, but not accidentally, when negative things are mentioned, with Yeltsin’s Russia) as a stereotype of stories that Western readers expect to find in Russia: vulgar display of wealth, extensive corruption, extortion, false court rulings, omnipresence of the mafia, and omnipotence of the Kremlin--Pomerantsev is employing the same procedure that he has learned in Moscow: creation of an alternative reality, but now selling it to a different, Western, audience.

The book thus acquires an extraordinary dimension: it aims to expose falsehood, but participates in it and perpetuates it. Moreover, it appears to be an extension of falsehood to a new audience and a tacit compliment to the authors of Putinesque “engineering of human souls” as it shows that the same techniques can be with equal ease applied and sold to Western audiences.

The book is littered with errors of fact that even not an expert in Russian affairs cannot but notice. Arguably, Pomerantsev, born of Russian “dissident” parents who emigrated to England, is not, as he acknowledges, particularly conversant with Soviet and Russian Tsarist history. But still not to know that there could not have existed in 1971 a radio station called “the Comintern Radio”, or to claim that one-third of Russian male population is in jail, or that Khrushchev-era neighborhood spying was worse than Stalinist purges, are weird mistakes. To discuss the fake political parties created by Putin’s regime as something new and unheard of without reference to the well-honed Russian tradition from the Tsarist era of creating and funding opposition parties and trade unions, or to discuss the bizarre social influence of Siberian mystics as a new phenomenon without recalling Rasputin, is superficiality beyond the acceptable level.

Or is it just ignorance and typos? Once the reader realizes that he may be participating in the application of the technology Pomerantsev learned in Russia, even some (possibly) innocuous mistakes acquire a different meaning. Thus, in an otherwise nice story of a woman-entrepreneur who is (Pomerantsev takes her position fully) falsely accused of selling an addictive substance on the alternative market (beyond the quantity that her company was allowed to import and sell to the authorized users), Pomerantsev mentions, ostensibly quoting her, that she imported 150kg of the opiate and sold 100kg: “what’s special there? Just ordinary trade”. But while the entire piece is written as an exculpation of the entrepreneur, that sentence is, strictly speaking, the admission of precisely what she is accused of having done. One thus wonders if the art of deception has been pushed by Pomerantsev ever further—so that even in the text of the book what is being explicitly said is then undermined within the text itself. We thus enter the world of possibly multi-layered obfuscations.

It is a book worth reading with some parts interesting and true and seemingly sincerely written and other parts stereotypical, probably imagined and often inconsistent. The problem is that we never know which is which. As indeed, to give him credit, Pomerantsev frankly told us so in the beginning.

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