It’s not Russia vs. the US any more, the big threat is a Trump-Putin alliance, says writer Peter Pomerantsev

Peter Pomerantsev, photo: Vogler, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Soviet-born, UK-raised analyst and writer Peter Pomerantsev spent most of the 2000s living in Moscow, later recalling those wild years in the hit memoir Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. We met when Pomerantsev was on a recent visit to Prague, with the conversation taking in Vladimir Putin’s ultimate aims and, in effect, nothing less than the future of the world as we have known it. But I began by asking him how soon after arriving in Moscow as a young TV producer did he start to feel uncomfortable about some of the things he saw happening around him.

Peter Pomerantsev, photo: Vogler, CC BY-SA 4.0
“Right from the start, and that’s why I wanted to go there, I was looking for adventure. I think like most people do after university.

“You want to go somewhere that feels a little bit disturbing. Maybe not physically dangerous, but definitely different.

“So I wanted to be there because it was exciting and different and fun.”

“I’ll put it this way; the people who romanticise Russia are foreigners and expats. They always come in and believe in it, because there seem to be so many great things going on.

“But right from the start the Russians that I knew, the proper Russians, were like, Are you crazy? This is all going to go wrong, this will end up awful like it always does.

“I was like, Yeah, you’re being pessimistic.

“And even up until 2006, 2007, almost up to 2008… in 2008 things were already a bit strange, with the war in Georgia.

“I was still pretty much sure that, though bumpy and though not a straight road, Russia was heading toward a place with a rapidly developing future. I wouldn’t say a democracy, but somewhere that you wanted to live and be a part of.

“It was only after 2008, 2009, and then 2010 when I left that it was already pretty clear to me that actually this was going to a dark place. Just by the inner logic of institutions and the political logic that was happening.

“It took me nine years to become Russian. Because by the end I was like all of my Russian friends.

“I was thinking, How do I leave? And if I stay, How can I have one foot in the West as well? Which is what so many Russians try to do.

“So it took me nine years to become a pessimistic Russian.”

“It’s hard not to get enthusiastic about Russia. Because it should be fine [laughs]. And yet it keeps on veering of somewhere else.”

You worked in an entertainment TV in Russia. Did you have any qualms about working in that industry? You write in your book about the whole spectacle of television in Russia and the false reality that it creates.

“Honestly, not much. The channels that I worked with were either apolitical or very much liberal.

“I would have had qualms if I’d taken the next step, which would have been going to work for the big propaganda channels, which you have to do if you want to do more serious documentaries.

“But the bit I worked in was very youth-orientated.

“There was kind of a deal. It was like complete silence for complete freedom. So we could do whatever we wanted, as long as nobody made any shows about politics.

“But even there I got to do a lot of interesting documentaries. About kids who were beaten up by the cops, hazing in the army, people getting arrested for their businesses.

“It’s not a totalitarian regime. It’s a very fluid system. It’s not monolithic.

“I didn’t have that many qualms. Quite the opposite. I found it very exciting and I thought there were many things that we could change socially.

“Such as the role of women, the way they were portrayed on TV. The way homosexuals were portrayed on TV, other stereotypes we could break.

“That is what entertainment TV does so well. It changes attitudes which are much deeper than everyday news.

“But the longer I was in Russia, and the older I became, because I was 23 when I came there, and the more I started to think politically, as you do in your thirties, I guess, the more I became aware that if I had to have any future in Russia, I would end up either having to be a conformist or having to be a rebel.

Vladimir Putin, photo: archiv of World Economic Forum, CC BY-SA 2.0
“And I had neither the bravery for the latter, nor the real need to be the former, because I could actually leave at any time. There was nothing forcing me to stay.”

At the end of the 2000s, Obama attempted a reset with Russia, which we can now see was a big failure. Did the West underestimate Russia? Were they over-optimistic?

“I think, just like I was, everybody gets over-optimistic. If you are a Russia expert… I mean, I don’t think Obama really cares about Russia, but Mike McFaul, who was his ambassador, is a Russianist and has been there for ages and loves the country and speaks the language…

“It is hard not to get enthusiastic when you go there.

“There is so much talent, so much oil, so much money. There is so much of everything that you are like, How can you not make this into a winning story?

“And yet it always seems to end up in some sort of a weird place, in a very self-destructive way. It’s nothing to do with Russia’s national interest – there’s just some bizarre self-destructive streak.

“It’s hard not to get enthusiastic. Because it should be fine [laughs]. And yet it keeps on veering of somewhere else.”

The first part of your book title is Nothing is True and in 2016 the word of the year has been post-truth. Were the Russians ahead of the curve on post-truth?

“I think slightly, yes, though it’s a pretty close run thing.

“The book actually ends with me coming back from Russia to the West, to London, and seeing a lot of the things that I saw happening in Russia happen there. Utter relativism. A lack of any idea about the future.

“What we have to ask is, What do we mean by post-facts and post-truth? Politicians have always lied. Lying in war is as old as the Trojan horse. It’s not new.

“What is different in the way politicians lie now and the way they did 20 years ago is that then they tried to make their lies sound realistic.

“You know, the Communists lied, a lot, but they were always trying to make that false economic statistics sound real.

“I think the tension is between liberal internationalists and this uprising of people who are much more defined by what are against than what they are for.”

“You know, We have a 99 percent employment rate. Which was bullshit essentially, because nobody was actually working.

“But it was important for them to prove that what they were doing was true.

“Now when Putin lies he’s a lot like Trump. He’s just like, Yeah, so? I don’t care.

“We have to ask ourselves, Why has that changed? And why do people need truth and facts?

“And facts aren’t very pleasant things. They tell you that you’re going to die. They tell you that you’re old. You’re poor.

“They’re not nice, but you need them if you are trying to prove some sort of an argument about the future. When you’re trying to prove that you are getting to the future.

“So as long as both Russia and the West were involved in these maybe warped but essentially Enlightenment projects, whether it was communism or democratic capitalism, and each was trying to prove that the place he was going to was better than the other one and he was getting there quicker, they needed facts to support their myths.

“Now there’s no idea of the future anymore. In Russia I think they lost any sense of the future after the mid-1990s, when the reforms failed.

“In the West I think the nail in the coffin was 2008. This idea of globalization being the default future was suddenly economically insecure, and I suppose in terms of identity politics threatening to a lot of people.

“So both sides lost an idea of the future and I think that was deeply connected to the fact that the Cold War, which was this great engine of producing the future, ended.

“What you have on both sides is this kind of mood that we don’t really need facts because we don’t have an idea of the future.

“What brings Trump and Brexit and Putin and Orban together is they are all nostalgists. They all have this nostalgia.

Photo: PublicAffairs books
“So I think there is a trend happening globally, or throughout the West; I don’t know what’s going on in Asia.

“But yes, I think Russia is a little bit ahead, because it became disillusioned quicker and it had less of a basis for making fact-based arguments.

“They got there a little bit faster. But I think in both places this is the consequence of the end of the Cold War. We’re only just kind of really getting into this sort of anarchic no future space.”

I was reading an old interview with you in which you call Putin a post-modern leader whose authority lacks coherent ideology. If that is so, what is his motivation?

“Right, that’s a very good question. I mean, since then they have clearly adapted an ideology, some sort of empire, Russia first sort of thing: make Russia great again.

“They’ve stumbled into something and I don’t think it’s very coherent. If you start digging into it actually it gives them a lot of a room for manoeuvre.

“But they definitely have more of one then they did when I was there.

“His aim is to stay in power, first of all. But globally they want to upend the liberal international order.

“They find it inconvenient. They don’t understand it and they don’t like multilateralism.

“It comes down to very simple things. They think they would be much more comfortable in the world where this kind of rules-based order was gone. They find it messy.

“The scary thing is, a lot of people agree with them. I don’t know what Trump thinks. He might not think anything – it’s very hard to understand his rambling ideas.

“But certainly there is a concerted block in America who completely agree with the Russians. And if anybody is going to do well in the system of no rules, it’s America; it just never really contemplated it.

“There are huge movements in Europe to get rid of the rules-based Europe. And they are winning.

“So Putin is really a part of a global trend to get rid of, again, the world that was born out of the end of the Cold War.

“And I think he will probably succeed [laughs]. He’s winning.”

If he is winning, what should the West do or try to do to fight back against this information war or disinformation war?

Donald Trump, photo: Michael Vadon, CC BY-SA 2.0
“I don’t think it’s the West anymore. I think that’s a Cold War binary: Here’s Russia over here and there’s America over there.

“I think the tension is between, in want of a better term, liberal internationalists and this kind of uprising of people who are much more defined by what are against than what they are for.

“But it’s a mixture of nationalism, weirdly, with anarcho-capitalism, which as it turns out can work with nationalism. It’s a bit strange, but it can.

“There are a lot of ethnic impulses there as well.

“But it’s a carnivalesque, what they’re doing. In a way, what really connects Trump, Orban and Putin is their sense of humour.

“It’s a very dark, subversive, slightly nasty and menacing sense of humour, which legitimizes violence or creates a space where violence and abuse can happen.

“They’re defined by some a certain sarcasm as well.

“Because I’m more interested in language and stuff like that; I actually think that might be more important than any policy.

“But that’s the tension. It’s not about Russia over here and America over there.

“The big threat at the moment is the alliance of America and Russia [laughs], it’s Trump and Putin together – that’s what I am petrified by.

“If it were just Russia against the West, Russia is not that hard to defeat.

“But Putin is going with a wave that is happening everywhere. He’s funding it...”

I was going to say, he’s sparking the wave, he’s encouraging it.

“He’s definitely encouraging it, but I don’t think he’s sparking it. He’s encouraging it in any way he can.

“But I don’t think they’re useful idiots – they’re natural allies.

“They’re allies – they agree with each other. I mean they might be tactical allies and they might eat each other up tomorrow, because so many of them are nationalists.

“I find Orban much more deadly than Putin, in a way. Putin is an outsider and obviously he wants to be one. Orban hacks it from the inside. It’s much more dangerous.”

“You can see Trump and Putin allying to get rid of the WTO, climate change regulations, all these international things.

“You can see that they are together rebelling against the system and then tearing each other apart as well, because that’s what nationalists do usually.

“But I don’t see Russia as controlling it. Russia is part of it. These people are allies. They agree with each other. That’s much scarier.”

Is there any way that this trend can be stopped, do you think?

“It will be stopped eventually, because actually to solve any of the world’s big problems you do need international cooperation, you do need international rules.

“Whether it is immigration, security or the environment, you do actually need all these things.

“The question is only, How big is the cataclysm to make people come to their senses again?

“There’s a reason why the EU was created. There’s a reason why Bretton-Woods, for all its faults, was created. It was out of the ashes of the Second World War or the Cold War.

“It’s a very banal thing but it tends to be a big fat shock that brings people to their senses again. Let’s just hope that the cataclysm isn’t too cataclysmic.

“Maybe the consequences won’t actually be felt here, they’ll be felt somewhere else. They could be felt in Africa, or the Middle East, where they are already are being felt.

“We aren’t necessarily the crucible of where the pain is going to be felt.

“I think Central Europe is the key. This part of the world is absolutely the key.

“Because the myth of the success of liberal democracy and international rule and all this stuff that we kind of repeat without thinking about it anymore, such as human rights and the rule of law… we say it without even paying attention to it anymore.

“But the whole idea that that stuff works best is completely grounded in 1991 and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of Eastern Europe and Central Europe.

“And if this bit of the world starts saying, We don’t like what happened in 1991, which a lot of Russian propaganda tries to say, then at the level of symbols everything breaks.

“So this bit of the world really has to understand how important it is. This is why I find somebody like Orban so disturbing.

Viktor Orban, photo: European Commission
“Central Europe has gone from a place that was the pioneer of democracy to being the place that found a way of how to subvert it from inside.

“I find Orban much more deadly than Putin, in a way. Putin is an outsider and obviously, he wants to be one. Orban hacks it from the inside. It’s much more dangerous, in a way.

“So I think that Central Europe is key.

“You can prove a million times, that despite people being left behind, la la la… But if in people’s minds 1991 is bad, then that’s when we know the final thread has snapped.

“And the Kremlin is so aware of this, completely. Much of their propaganda is about this: They thought it would be better, but actually they became second class citizens in the EU and they just clean the West’s toilets and NATO is an occupying force. All this stuff.

“This is destroying the psychological moment of 1991. And they get that.

“I don’t know to what extent we get that. But they really understand that. I mean they have always been quite good at stories and drama and stuff like that.”

Putin has been around for so long. I mean, he succeeded Yeltsin, which feels like such a long time ago today. How do you see an end coming for Putin? What could bring that about in the medium term?

“Only if he leaves himself. But he would never leave-leave, he would only half-leave. I don’t think he can leave-leave.”

Because he could be prosecuted?

“Yes, prosecuted, killed, whatever.

“A lot of the assumptions are that he might stop being president and become a sort of a supreme tsar, where somebody else does the actual running of the country and he does foreign policy.

“Realistically in 2018 he invents a role for himself as head of the National Security Council, or something like that. And then somebody else has the hassle of running the country.”

This interview was facilitated by the Prague Security Studies Institute, which hosted a talk by Peter Pomerantsev at Prague’s Václav Havel Library.