A British writer and journalist reflects on the passivity of "good Russians", propaganda, and the world's perception of Zelenskyy and Ukraine
Peter Pomerantsev is a UK writer and journalist who researches modern media and who has for many years been analyzing propaganda –particularly Russian propaganda. In his 2014 book “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible,” he draws on his own experience as a TV documentary producer in Russia to describe a world of authoritarian rule, big money and all-powerful Russian television. The journalist also reflects on the way of thinking of modern Russia, which has a deeply split personality. According to Pomerantsev, whom NV met with in Kyiv, this became one of the reasons for the Russians' conformist perception of the war with Ukraine.
In the interview, he also talks about the role of information in a full-scale war, about the historical parallels between Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, the sadomasochism of Russian society, and the actions of the West, which is facing a difficult winter with energy supplies.
– How does Russian military propaganda in 2022 differ from Russian military propaganda in 2014?
Even though these are completely different operations – (in 2014) there was a bloody operation in Donbas, and now it is genocide – the Russians still won’t use the word "war."
Inside the country, they’re trying to create the feeling that this is happening somewhere far away, that these are all international affairs and you (Russians) have nothing to do with it. They’re still afraid of general mobilization. Despite the fact that so much has changed compared to 2014, a lot has remained the same – then, too, there was a lot of talk about the fact that it was the evil West that forced us to act, we were left with no choice. Now, despite the fact that the war is going on, people in Russia still don't want to talk about it.
– Why does Russia not call the war a war?
Hitler did the same. Until 1941, he hardly used the word "war" – it was all "operations" The “Operation in Poland,” for example. There was no legal prohibition, but Hitler tried to use the word "war" as little as possible, because people don't want to live in war – people want to live in safety. That's probably why.
It's nice to humiliate, conquer, and capture, but you want to feel safe. And war is an acknowledgment that I’m going to kill and be killed. I recently read an article by a journalist from (German magazine) Der Spiegel. He went to Moscow and tried to describe the city. So, there are no posters about the war, as if there is no war at all. War is everywhere on television, but not on the streets of Moscow. You can live in Moscow and forget about the war. You’re not mobilized to the army – the Buryats (national group from the Russian far east) and others fight for you. That is, the Russian authorities do not want the type of people living in Moscow to think about war, know about war, and be afraid of it.
– Like many other journalists, I wrote an article about how Ukrainians communicate with their relatives living in Russia. Very often there’s a wall of misunderstanding: (Russians) refuse to believe that Russia is shelling and dropping bombs on residential areas, even if they are told about it by their closest relatives who are affected by it. We can see that the war isn’t just about Putin. Why does Russian society support it?
There two completely different things at work here, to do with Russia and dictatorship, and military attitudes. Putin came on the scene, he was elected, (even) when he openly used authoritarian rhetoric.
Even after he unleashed a horrific, bloody war against the civilian population in Chechnya, he was elected president as a strong man. He sold himself to voters as an authoritarian leader and people voted for him several times. He was the answer to society's demand for an authoritarian leader. Russian society deliberately chose this model. If he began his reign with a war and mass murders of civilians in Chechnya and his rating rose, what does it mean? He’s the answer to a request (from society).
Of course, the war isn’t just about Putin. Like Hitler, the Germans chose him quite consciously. Another thing is that when such people come to power, they can’t be got rid of. This model of authoritarian leadership always leads to tragedy and blood – it can have no other outcome.
The whole of Russian political culture is built on humiliation, aggression and sadomasochism. They humiliate themselves and try to humiliate others. That’s because it’s clear that nothing has worked out in Russia, despite all their oil and gas. It's a horror anyway, so let's drag others into our hell – such is their logic. They have not dealt with their historical traumas. And those who cannot cope with it, they cannot invent the future, but have to play out the same scenario from the past. And they try to drag others along with them.
Regarding the collective responsibility of the Russians, I know there is a big debate around this, and it’s a difficult debate. More than 70 years have passed since the end of the Second World War, and 30 books are still published every year on the topic: Were all of the Germans guilty of the Holocaust? It’s an eternal debate. (Karl) Jaspers, (the German philosopher, psychologist and psychiatrist) and (Hannah) Arendt (the German-American philosopher) started arguing about this back in the 1950s. And it’s like they never finished. Some people do feel responsible and admit that they are ashamed, they realize everything and so. But most don’t. They say things like – “What have I done? What? Am I dropping the bombs?” People don't want to take responsibility – it's unpleasant, because then you have to act.
In order to survive in such a society, you are given a condition – be a conformist, you are no longer a social individual. You can live a personal life, do something in business, that's where you show yourself.
But you’re nothing in public life. Your task is to agree with the leader. To feel responsible and guilty, you have to have high self-esteem. And in Russia, everyone is humiliated – even the oligarchs. People are told: today there’s war with Ukraine. People answer: well, OK. Tomorrow they will be told: war with America, they will say: well, OK. They always need to humiliate someone else, because they are humiliated daily themselves.
Conformism can be even worse than fascism. Conformists, unlike fascists, don't tend to kill and rape people. They don't wake up with this thought, but they have agreed to these rules and agreed to destroy themselves as individuals.
– In the first weeks of the war, famous people in Ukraine, celebrities, recorded video messages in Russian, trying to reach out to the liberal part of Russian society. Almost no one does this now, because even when traveling abroad, Russian liberals do not organize large anti-war protests and are busy with their own lives. Why are even progressive Russians so passive?
I don't really like the expression "liberal part of Russian (society)."
– Now they are called "good Russians" – it’s already a term.
These are very shaky concepts. I can give a historical example. At the beginning of the Second World War, there were similar debates in Britain. Then too, there were hopes about "good Germans." A
German BBC service was created, foreign groups and newspapers were supported, it was hoped that they would be able to inspire the silent majority in Germany who did not vote for the Nazis.
This was the hope in the first few years (before) the war. But 1939 followed, then 1940. Hitler was conquering new territories, and the West gave up on these "good Germans," as it became clear that they wouldn’t do anything. And a great conversation begins within the British elite, philosophers, writers, psychoanalysts, politicians: what should be done? And everyone had different opinions, just like now.
We have to forget about the role of information as a way of persuading people what is true and what is not. Those Russians who want to know the truth will find it, and yes, this is not the Second World War – the information is out there, and it’s easy to find. But the role of information is changing. Now the role of information is to win the war. It has nothing to do with belief at all. It doesn't matter what Russians believe, whether they like Putin or not, or what they think of Ukrainians. We need to understand how we want to win this war and what the role of information is in this.
– And what is it?
It’s not related to journalism. Journalism plays a major role in democracies. Journalism must exist and be a source of information, but it won’t change the war. Psychological operations start, such as demoralizing the enemy, and the Ukrainians are successfully doing this. I’m against all this. Because it’s against democracy. But when there's a war, that's exactly what they do.
– How do you assess Ukrainian propaganda? A vivid example is the Ghost of Kyiv, which was talked about in March, when the Russians were advancing on the capital. Only later did people learn that it was not about one specific pilot, but that it was a collective image of the Ukrainian pilots who protected the skies of Kyiv. That is, we created a military mythology.
I think it’s being done very competently. The word propaganda during war scares me, but it’s still necessary to think about what it means. Propaganda is harmful when it removes the chances for people to understand each other, to listen to each other, and to communicate. Conspiracies kill our chance to communicate. Conspiracy theories stop relationships. But to create patriotic myths during a war, it seems to me, is a must. Ukrainians do it well.
– During the war, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy became a wonder to many in the West. The way he conveys information about the war – he always does it humanely, and gives specific examples. But the full-scale war has been going on for more than six months. Zelenskyy talks to someone in the world almost every day. Isn't the world tired of him and of the war in Ukraine as a whole?
No, not Zelenskyy. On the contrary, politicians want to be with him. If he’d run for office in the UK or the United States, he’d probably have won (laughs). He’s still new, compared to our politicians, and he has a good reputation. But yes, there is a problem with news from Ukraine, because the news has to be new.
When people hear “shelling again” this isn’t new for them. I’m horrified to say this, but it’s true. I wouldn't call it fatigue – Ukraine is supported, and Russia is considered evil all the same, and this hasn’t changed. But there’s a dangerous winter ahead. Russia will try to convince Western societies that prices are rising because they are protecting and supporting Ukrainians. And yes, there is already an association between prices rising and the war. Putin hopes that the West is weak and that he will break it. But … I hope the West will understand that this is not just Ukraine's war, but that it is "our war", and that bastard (Putin) is trying to humiliate us all. I really hope that the West will have the dignity to react to this. And the reaction should be: “Yes, it will be a very difficult winter, but then we will break (Putin).”
This, of course, will require a transition. After all, Europe convinced itself for decades that if it traded with, and maintained relations with Russia, everything would be fine.
– In Britain the new prime minister is Liz Truss, and she’s very anti-Russian. How did it happen that Britain became one of the biggest open opponents of Russia? After all, we know that Russian oligarchs love Britain a lot, and they buy real estate there.
There are several important issues here. One is related to the poisoning of the Skripals (in 2018 Russian GRU agents came to the UK and tried to poison former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter). The British were greatly offended by this. It was like: “Why did you come and kill on our territory?” People didn't like it at all, it was insulting. Secondly, the oligarchs are a bit of an illusion: the UK has no close economic ties with Russia. The amount of Russian investments is pennies. The real estate market – yes, it's a problem for politicians, houses in London were bought by oligarchs, and not only Russian ones, and people didn't like it either. But (economically) we’re still completely independent from Russia. Britain refused to buy Russian energy. There are also historical reasons – we were always at war with Russia. In the 19th century, there was an idea that Russia was an authoritarian empire, and we were a liberal one. Read the English journalism of the 19th century – it’s all about the fact that we’re not Russia. Russia is what we would not like to be. We have never had such romance with the Russian Federation as in Germany or France. There was always a conviction that Russia is hell, and Britain is not Russia.
— Sometimes it seems that the world is afraid of what will happen to Russia when Ukraine wins the war. Is the world ready for a Ukrainian victory?
We all understand that when there is a victory and a ceasefire, which will be determined by Ukraine, Ukraine will need security guarantees. No one can say what they will be. Personally, I think that the real guarantees of security are if U.S. or European soldiers are stationed in Kherson and Kharkiv. I don't see any other security guarantees that the Russians will understand. They are cowards in this regard. As for what should be done with Russia, there’s still no intellectual consensus in the world.
Maybe that’s for the better.