July 4, 2023
Why the Russians, according to UK publicist and propaganda researcher Peter Pomerantsev, could not imagine themselves without Putin, but quickly went over to Prigozhin, and what the problem is with the “Russian culture” of Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky. NV spoke to Peter Pomerantsev – publicist, journalist, writer, propaganda researcher, and member of the Royal Society of Literature.
Pomerantsev has particular reason to visit Kyiv: at the outbreak of the full-scale war, he became one of the co-founders of the The Reckoning Project (Ukraine bears witness), in which Ukrainian and foreign journalists and lawyers record Russian war crimes in Ukraine and collect evidence to present cases against the Russian Federation in Ukrainian and international courts. The organization has been dealing with all of Russia’s gravest and most shocking crimes, including those committed in Kyiv Oblast, as well as in Kramatorsk, and in the liberated cities in Kharkiv and Kherson Oblasts.
As a researcher of propaganda and mechanisms for building authoritarian societies, Pomerantsev spent several years in the early 2000s in Russia, observing the Kremlin’s global propaganda machine from the inside. He described this experience in the book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible. The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.
In an interview with NV, Pomerantsev talks about where the senseless cruelty of Russian crimes comes from, what made Russia the way it is, and why its citizens are so afraid of Vladimir Putin’s fall.
NV: For more than a year you have been documenting Russia’s crimes in Ukraine and teaching Ukrainian journalists how to do so in a legally proper way. After Bucha, Yahidne, Motyzhin and hundreds of other places, the category of evil has probably ceased to be abstract for you. How do you define evil?
Pomerantsev: This is the most important question and the most difficult one. I do not have an answer, I am very tormented by this, as a writer and as a journalist. But let’s break it down into different categories. World War II gave us the language to understand evil legally. It gave us categories like genocide and crimes against humanity which were invented and substantiated by lawyers who lived in what is now Ukraine, like Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin. And they gave us a legal definition of evil.
Historically, Ukraine is a space that encourages people to describe evil, like the Holodomor and the Holocaust. These lands witnessed terrible crimes. I really want this fate to leave them. But there is also good created here – a lot of good.
Why does the term “genocide” bother everyone so much? Because it is the most serious crime. When we look at what crimes Russia is now committing in Ukraine, for me there are definitely all the prerequisites for genocide. It is clear that the Russians want to destroy Ukrainian identity and Ukrainians as a nation, and to destroy them on a mass scale. But I’m not sure that this definition is sufficient.
There are other crimes that we cannot name today, for we do not have words and legal terms, which means that we cannot in fact really condemn them. We are talking about ecocide after the explosion of the Kakhovka HPP, and we are holding our breaths over a possible nuclear catastrophe at the Zaporizhzhya NPP. This is a new category of atrocities, and it really needs to be described and recorded. Deliberate attacks on the environment – we have not yet found a definition for such absolutely senseless cruel behavior. Starting with Chernobyl, all this is a crime against the living, against life itself. But there is still no language to describe it legally. The war in Ukraine, unfortunately, will find these categories, and after it, we will get this legal language.
NV: Looking at the nature of the crimes of Russians in Ukraine, do you have any answer as to what their goal was, and what they wanted to achieve with senseless brutality?
Pomerantsev: To take Ukrainians and force them to be something else. To instill in them the perverted idea of the Russian World, and to forcibly forge a new identity. This is similar to what the Chinese are doing in Tibet and Xinjiang. It’s what has happened in North Korea. But again, this is not legally defined. There was a similar attempt at the UN in a report on the topic of freedom of religion, opinion, and ideas – to conceptually formulate one of the basic human rights – the freedom to think, which no one has ever legally tried to protect. The freedom to profess religion was established. Ironically, it was the Soviet atheists who included freedom of thought into this document.
There is another freedom that people also forget. The 19th article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains the freedom to form one’s own opinions. It is close to freedom of expression, but everyone forgets about it. We often use the word “indoctrination.” But “indoctrination” is not a legal term. Let’s call what Russia is doing in the occupied territories “violent indoctrination,” for now.
Indoctrination is still the ultimate goal of what they do. Not just to exterminate physically, that is, to commit genocide, but, while keeping people alive, to introduce something new and change their personalities. And this idea of “replacing with something new” is not particularly described.
NV: Which is strange, because the story of white colonialism is a story about the violent indoctrination of black people.
Pomerantsev: Sure, but it’s not written anywhere. There have been many genocides in human history. Finally, in the 1950s, people came up with a word for this: “crimes against humanity.” Evil is always there, and it is the same as it has been. But we can defeat evil only when we describe and name it – in literature, philosophy, in jurisprudence, we try to find categories, language, and images for it.
NV: And yet, do you have your own personal experience of Russian evil in Ukraine? It must be difficult to remain indifferent to it.
Pomerantsev: I have some metaphors. One of them is a basement. Basements where people hide. A whole city was hiding in the cellars of Azovstal. In Yahidne [occupied village in Chernihiv Oblast] about 400 villagers were forced by Russian troops to spend 25 days in their school’s basement. The Russians torture and kill in basements. There are a lot of creepy and stark stories about basements. It feels like Russia wants to lock Ukraine in a basement. And at the same time, Russia wants to take away the sky, the future, and the horizon from Ukrainians. The sky has become dangerous – a friend from Kharkiv told me how the months under the bombing of the city deprived him of the feeling of the horizon, and how it was no longer safe to go out onto roofs or high open spaces.
NV: And what is hiding in this basement?
Pomerantsev: This is the basement of many Russians’ subconscious and the Soviet past, with which Russia does not want and will not reckon. And they want to drag everyone there, into their sadomasochistic memories. In classical psychoanalysis, if you are unable to speak out about, understand, and accept the horror that happened to you or that you did to someone else, you are doomed to constantly repeat it and act it out. You put on those masks of Stalin’s purges, of the Gulag. They are playing that role, again and again. Russians never took responsibility for the crimes they committed, and they pleaded not guilty. And they didn’t analyze their various injuries. They certainly didn’t think about their victims. Therefore, they are repeating the same thing over and over again, and cannot go any further, while Ukraine wants a future and strives towards it. This is the basic difference that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has grasped well.
NV: Thanks to the efforts of your project, TIME Magazine published a large report this February on the events of the spring of 2022 in the village of Yahidne, where 367 of its inhabitants were forcibly moved to the basement of a local school, spending 25 days in hunger, without the opportunity to lie down, and where they were not even allowed to bury the dead immediately. The first question that arises is where do Russian soldiers get the impetus for such cruelty? Is it independent initiative? Are these acts of mass sadism centrally directed?
Pomerantsev: It is probably too early to talk about a specific strategy, but we see that the crimes are repeated and reproduced as if from a playbook, and reoccur too often to be considered improvisation. I’ve been working on legal projects for a year now, and it seems to me that there is some kind of pattern here, but I just can’t say what it is, yet.
The Russian government and the Russian army definitely have a non-stop pattern to break the society of Ukraine. They did the same in Syria. After all, they are not just and not accidentally hitting Ukrainian hospitals and Ukrainian maternity hospitals, but quite accurately and deliberately. They did the same in Syria and Chechnya. First, they killed doctors — potentially killing more people that these doctors could have saved. Secondly, these attacks are very blows to people’s psyches in order to break them, to break the whole Ukrainian society, the whole country, and its nationhood. It’s one of the goals of this war.
We can see how clearly the language of Russian propaganda is changing. At first, they said that there were some Nazis in power, and Zelenskyy needed to be replaced, while Ukrainians were all good. And then, after three weeks, they decided that no, everyone there is a Nazi, and they need to break everyone. The same plot developed in relation to Chechnya. This is their imperial behavior towards other peoples – re-education through violence, oppression, and ultimate humiliation.
Also, people in Russia like authoritarianism. Propaganda, culture, and the state itself encourages them to indulge their worst impulses. As Solovyov or Kiselev (Russian TV propagandists) say, I’m not only talking about meaning, I’m rather talking about style. They give you official permission – enjoy the most heinous and cruel things, but the boundaries of violence are delineated within these places, for example, in Ukraine. This attracts people. Another thing is that all this violence won’t be able to be controlled at some point, and it will return like a boomerang to Russian society itself, when all these returning soldiers kill their wives, mothers, or someone else.
When psychoanalysts of the 20th century tried to analyze Nazi propaganda, they talked about this. Propaganda works through self-identification, in the sense that a despotic, authoritarian leader frees you to express those feelings that were tabooed, like sadistic proclivities, anger, hatred. Progressive people in the United States wonder all the time: [Donald] Trump is such a narcissist, why do people like him? Because he allows them to enjoy their own similar manifestations, to manifest all their lowest and most aggressive feelings, which are taboo in normal societies. A system that produces these feelings never analyzes them. It discharges them outside. If you want to kill, go and kill, if you want to torture, go and torture. It is the sort of experience where you become emotionally addicted – where else could you experience this? It’s like a drug. And then this permission to enjoy that which is most forbidden is also canonized by subsequent generations, as in the case of Russia, where Stalin is revered as a great leader. This is the intense depravity of the Russian regime.
NV: How would you describe the current state of Russian society? One Russian sociologist described it as “the Russian people have demobilized.” Is this really true?
Pomerantsev: The goal of Russian propaganda has always been demotivation and demobilization. It differs in this respect from Nazi German propaganda, which, in contrast, tried to mobilize the people and make them united. The Russian authorities, on the other hand, make people passive, break social ties between them, and do not strengthen them. Therefore, they naturally experience big problems with mobilization, and volunteering has not taken root as a model for them. There is no social trust between people.
And we recently saw how no one defended Putin: Prigozhin was coming, tanks were advancing, but people were eating ice cream. They have no association with the state, none of this ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Führer [“One people, one state, one leader” – the slogan of Nazi Germany]. They have no love for their institutions or for the army, as was the case in Germany in the 20th century, and they have no connection with the state bureaucracy. Their goal is to hide and survive. When they need to think about their futures and about how to live, these seemingly completely normal people turn into another mouthpiece for Solovyov’s propaganda, and the state simply speaks through them. We are constantly faced with this emptiness in terms of values, guidelines, or understanding of the future of the country. It’s just propaganda.
NV: What makes Russians cling to Putin?
Pomerantsev: I would say, fear of chaos and decay. Putin seems to be saying “if not me, then chaos.” Well, Russians repeat this. By the way, this is repeated by the West, just as it is repeated by young people in Russia. And this is not only about historical experience. Everyone immediately began to interpret this as a historical experience, like the 1990s or 1917. I think it’s some kind of psychological state, too. Why does the myth of the frightful hungry 1990s work so well in Russia, but doesn’t work here, in Ukraine? The same 1990s happened here, and people still went to the Maidan in 2004 and 2014. Society here decided to do something completely different.
Why does the myth of the 1990s work so strongly in Russia? Even among the young, who did not live through it, and who now know the reality of mobilization.
Psychoanalysts who analyze Nazi propaganda look for internalization, for something this propaganda gave people. It always gave one thing: structure. I have my own hypothesis, which I have not yet tested: when the Russians say that they are afraid of disintegration, it seems to me that they are partly telling the truth. They are afraid that there will be a disintegration of their personality. In Russia, people have a very weak social personality, or social self.
Nobody cares about your opinion, and moreover, having your own opinion is dangerous. You have to constantly adapt, change, and change clothes. You don’t have to be, you have to seem. Then all that’s left is your relationship with Putin. Either he makes you, or you are in opposition to him. But you are still in some kind of relationship structure with him. If you are in opposition to him, then you feel your strength through this opposition, that is, through him anyway. The fear of losing Putin is the fear of the collapse of one’s social self. Everything has been with Putin for so long that there is no experience of oneself without him.
NV: What did a part of Russian society find in Prigozhin? We have all seen the footage of locals giving flowers to his fighters. What is this?
Pomerantsev: He is also a figure with which one can identify oneself. Who is Prigozhin? His is a perfect example of a successful criminal career. A convict who became a billionaire and could even claim the presidency. He speaks the argot of convicts, embodies their values, in a country where up to 30% of the population went through prisons. And a bandit is important, because banditry also has a structure, its own ideas of honor, rules: all this prison and near-prison culture in Russia is also romanticized. In the 1990s, bandits really solved the problems of entire regions of Russia. That is, it is easy to identify in this sort of figure someone who will also give you structure. Yes, a strange, peculiar, criminal structure, but structure nonetheless.
Moreover, while Putin is not a prisoner, he began pretending to be one. In the 1990s, if you remember, he was a boring service official. But the trouble is that even Prigozhin, a convict of convicts, turned out to be fake. Now, more and more analysts of Russia are saying that Prigozhin started this whole rebellion in order to save himself and his own skin. And this breaks with criminal value system. He threw his own people under the bus, and this cannot but cause rejection and, as a result, even greater apathy among Russians.
NV: How should we treat Russian culture today?
Pomerantsev: The West now simply does not understand that Solzhenitsyn was an imperialist, which was definitely not healthy. He often proclaimed authoritarian things. Even those Russian writers who were for human rights often ignored the human rights of other peoples. Not to mention, this is not such a wild idea in the West. Both in America and Britain, there are a lot of historical examples of fighters for English freedoms or the freedoms of white Americans who were perfectly fine with the idea of slavery. This paradox exists even now, and it is analyzed a great deal in the West.
So Russian culture needs to reclaim the context in which it is meant to be read, to really, comprehensively read Russian writers. They are read with such flair, with such mysticism, with such romanticization of suffering. You just need to coldly, soberly analyze them, and see that even those of them who were often against Russian authoritarianism were terrible imperialists, and lived in complete harmony with the subjugation of other nations.
The problem with Russian culture is that it obscures or romanticizes Russian violence as part of its literary product. This is the kind of deconstruction that Russian culture needs, plus mass translations of Ukrainian literature in its dynamics and development — this is sorely lacking today in order to understand Ukraine.