Understanding modern Russia? Why European leaders should read Peter Pomerantsev

Russia's authoritarianism combines outright repression with a subtle use of modern Western strategies of media and PR

Vladislav Surkov, the demiurge of the Kremlin, surprises us all by entering from behind the university auditorium, before taking the stage in front of an audience packed with doctorate students, professors, journalists and politicians. He is wearing a white t-shirt and leather jacket, falling halfway between Joy Division and a commissar from the 30s. ‘I am the author, or one of the authors, of the new Russian system.My portfolio at the Kremlin and in government has included ideology, media, political parties, religion, modernisation, innovation, foreign relations, and …”—here he pauses and smiles—“modern art.” He decides not make a speech, but instead invites the audience to pose questions and have an open discussion with him. After the first question, he talks for almost 45 minutes, leaving hardly any time for others. It’s a demonstration of his political system in miniature: democratic rhetoric and undemocratic intent.

In “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia”, a brilliant and at times appalling portrayal of today’s Russian elites, Peter Pomerantsev introduces Surkov. Often lurking in the shadows, Surkov has contributed to the Putin government’s consolidation of power through Hollywood-style media stunts and through what in the post-Soviet space is known as “political technology”.

Showbiz, political technology and old fashioned authoritarianism

Through his own foray into the media landscape of Russia, Pomerantsev explains how the new Kremlin, having gained control of television networks, has shown great skill in combining Western-style entertainment with authoritarianism and more or less subtle propaganda. The mistake of the TV in the USSR – being boring – is now avoided at all costs. Always centre stage, the figure of the president is in constant metamorphosis, like an actor. Putin switches between the roles of “soldier, lover, bare-chested hunter, businessman, spy, tsar, superman”. Surkov would “meet on a weekly basis with the directors of the main channels, deciding who to attack and who to defend; which political leader would enjoy air time and who would not”. The screen relentlessly depicts the president as the doyen of stability and efficiency in contrast to the presidential chaos of the 90s, and repeatedly puts out messages about “them” and “the enemy”, meaning opposition leaders, liberals, journalists, the West, the United States and churki (a pejorative term for people from the Caucuses and Central Asia, that associates them with terrorism and black widows). In a way, this is not dissimilar to the rhetoric pumped out by Fox News and other channels, which throughout the never-ending War on Terror have disseminated the libellous opinions of Donald Trump and others like him – dressing up xenophobia, defamation and the stigmatisation of minorities as normality.

Pomerantsev describes how this public discourse, along with the Kremlin’s growing paranoia regarding fifth columns, “got fiercer as the need to create panic and fear became greater, turning off rationality”. In parallel, the Kremlin invested in the infrastructure to disseminateits own readings of international relations, presented as “Russia’s view”, through formats and platforms which are Western in appearance, such as Russia Today.

“Political technology” is a means of appropriating practically all forms of political discourse possible, their ideologies and movements, giving them visibility or ridiculing and demonising them, according to the circumstances. People like Surkov may actively support or create NGOs, parties and liberal leaders seemingly critical of the Kremlin (as long as that criticism is limited), and the next, put them under fire from ultranationalist forces and orthodox fundamentalists. Older traditions of co-opting forces that oppose the regime in power, presenting them as a live threat, are blended with twenty-first century media technology and PR strategies – something which has worked well in Russian propaganda about Ukraine’s “Nazis”. The dissenting voices in civil society and political forces are stigmatised, not only as anti-Russian and traitors, but, in Pomerantsev’s words, as “Muscovite hipsters out of touch with ordinary Russians, concerned only by marginal issues such as freedoms or LGBT rights”.    

To top this off, media campaigns and the use of political technology are combined with traditional repressive action, reminiscent of past times. Hence, decisions to classify civil society organisations as “undesirable” or “foreign agents”, restricting their activities to a minimum; sham trials, and the rejection of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.

But the novelty of this brand of authoritarianism is to combine sheer repression with a subtle use of modern Western strategies of media and PR for the control of the masses. Reality is deconstructed and an illusion created of a plural public space – a space that is also attractive for people outside Russia, sceptical towards the EU, Washington and the West – even though this is far from the case.

“Russlandverstehers” get it wrong: the theatre of absurd and zomboyashschiks

In our part of Europe and in countries such as France, Spain, Germany or Italy, a common message in any political debate about Russia, Ukraine or the post-Soviet space in general is the importance of “understanding” Russia and “the Russian mentality”. It tends to be accompanied with learned nods to the Slavic world, the tsars, the Soviet Union and references to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. In this vein, the “Russlandverstehers” tend to cross the line between explaining events such as the annexation of Crimea, or the restrictions on freedom in Russia, and justifying them.

Classics like Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy can be useful to understand the cultural substrata of many Russians and their take on existence. Likewise, Russian foreign policy in the tsarist period and the USSR can shed some light on today’s geopolitical tensions and the Russian perspective in “its backyard”. But neither history nor geopolitics alone can explain today’s Russia. The system described by Pomerantsev might be even more useful for our political decision-makers when it comes to understanding contemporary Russia and, especially, the nature of its elites and the power circle in question.     

As Pomerantsev argues, it is difficult to appreciate the brutal impact that the consecutive destruction of various political models – from the USSR to perestroika or neoliberalism – has on a society and its elites. Today’s Russian elites often combine nihilism, a Nietzschian character of übermenschabove moral codes, and extreme materialism. Prominent pro Kremlin politicians vituperate against the West from the Duma, sometimes threatening a nuclear armageddon or ridiculing “Gayeuropa”, while sending their children to Oxbridge or Costa Brava. Concepts like “Mother Russia” and the Russian world (russkiy mir) doubtless serve to mobilise the general population now and then, who – as many Westerners- are needful of collective landmarks in times of uncertainty, penury and moral vacuum. But these ideas mostly operate as instruments of power wielded by a dominant class in order to direct attention away from more immediate problems and basic governance shortcomings.

Deep down, there is an ongoing erosion of morality, something which no society is immune from, whether due to the legacies of totalitarianism and conflict, the poisonous rhetoric of leaders, or endemic impunity. A case can also be made against that US intoxicated by a politics of fear which justifies torture and votes in Congress against the acceptance of Syrian refugees. Or think of the surreal bubble of shrinking cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, where handsome youths working out by the beach just a few miles from the dramatic reality of occupation and violent death. This Russia of spin and showbiz makes a political system and way of life for its rulers out of the theatre of the lie and the absurd (like the weather forecast for bombing Syria). It prefers devoted zomboyashchiks (zombies) to politically active citizens.

Another Russia?

Bar a violent revolutionary political change (and, probably, support from within the system, as in other cases), it is perhaps utopic thinking to conceive of any possibility of reverting the Kremlin’s systems and processes of collective regression – whether by well-intentioned external actors or committed local activists. At least from outside of the circle of power which constructs reality and shapes the social order.

Yet, at times, there does exist another Russia, which, when it manages to make its voice heard, harshly refutes many arguments of the “Russlandverstehers” and Putin supporters. This is the Russia of young leaders such as Ilya Yashin, critical of the war in Ukraine, whose RPR-PARNAS party suffered all kinds of boycotts in September’s regional elections. It certainly was the Russia of Boris Nemtsov or Anna Politkovskaya. Or even the Russia of those thousands of Moscow citizens who took to the streets in late 2011, creating huge anxiety in the halls of power.

The Russian question and the country’s assimilation in the Euro-Atlantic space will continue with or without Putin. But the future of Russia as it is should be a concern for all. Without wishing to lapse into romantic idealism or Manichean visions, this other Russia or, rather, other Russias would probably be closer to Europe, prone to cooperation and friendlier relations with the neighbours. The sad fact today is that a large part of that other Russia chooses exile.

And yet – maybe because of a generational factor or genuine respect for those dissenting voices against a hegemonic model (where protesting means risking it all) – it is inevitable to feel more empathy towards Pussy Riot, Petr Pavlensky, the iconoclast artist, or NGOs like “Memorial”, than blind nostalgia about an idealised Russia (not to mention an equally idealised USSR) which no longer exists.         

If that other Russia ends up disappearing and those voices are left to wither, the future of this Orwellian Russia where the world is turned on its head, will not endear its neighbours or Europe. But above all it does not bode well at all for the people who actually live there.


*Translation by James Badcock.               


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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