What does one do with a power that uses financial leverage in order to launch wars?
There are two main things I’d like to discuss with you. First, the report The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money, written by you and Michael Weiss, and published at the end of last year by The Interpreter and the Institute of Modern Russia. And second, your book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, which was recently translated into Estonian.
But allow me to start with something more general. During the Cold War we used to think that the Kremlin tended to oppose Western culture, bcut its current approach is somehow new and different. One might even say that the Kremlin is using Western values against itself. Or would that be too simplistic?
I think Russia is defined by its very fluid approach to ideology. They can jump to any message they need at any particular time. So they have their hands free. In Britain the main line of Russian propaganda goes through the financial elites, preaching the idea of business without politics, business above all else: “Let’s forget about sanctions and concentrate on business” is the message. At the same time, they go as far as financially backing or certainly boosting very leftist groups who are anti-capitalist – while also financing or giving a platform to right-wing groups. So they really don’t care, they just use any narrative they need in order to bolster their own position or just to keep people fighting amongst themselves. The overall strategy with the EU is two-fold. On one hand they encourage Berlin, Brussels and Paris to gang up against America: this is officially articulated by Putin, who says the EU is a potential ally against America. And on the other hand they do anything to undermine Brussels and play different countries off against each other, boosting anti-EU feeling in France and Britain. So basically it’s about building the EU up and making sure it’s very weak, while creating an ideal ally. It’s that sort of dizzying, shape-shifting use of ideology, which can be tactically very agile and very difficult to grasp. But it’s certainly very different from before.
The tendencies you mention are all very good examples of how Russia uses Western liberal-democratic values – plurality of opinions, economic freedom and information freedom – and turns these values against the West by using information, culture and money as weapons. For example, the free flow of information is used to spread disinformation and so on.
It is a kind of jiu-jitsu, the strategy of a political power that knows it’s weaker, based on using the strengths of its opponent against itself. Take money, for example: we believe that open markets will lead to peace and prosperity. The more trade we have, the fewer wars we have. That is a very fundamental belief of how we see the world. But what do you do with a power that does the opposite and uses financial leverage in order to launch wars? Theoretically, Russia is heavily invested in Western Europe, so it hopes Europe won’t do anything if Russia invades eastern Ukraine – that’s the idea. The West is thrown completely off balance – what should we do, start throwing out Russian companies? Well, we can’t do that because then we’d have to throw out Chinese companies and Turkish companies. We’ve built everything based on this ideal system of globalised capital and when somebody uses it for politically aggressive ends, we are completely lost. So I think money is an even bigger problem than information.
The Kremlin almost systematically x-rays not Western weaknesses but Western strengths … x-rays the Western underbelly, as you put it.
Exactly; it x-rays the Western underbelly, in order to use its strengths against it.
Information is another very easy tool. In the Western information system the whole idea is that the more points of view we have, the more debate we have, this leads to peace and prosperity. So what do you do if someone uses information to spread disinformation? And much more than just disinformation, much more than just lies – the Kremlin is using it to “divide and conquer” and make the sides fight each other, to undermine the West’s alliances.
These are fundamental problems which I don’t think would stop with Russia. It just sniffed out a method anyone could use.
Another good example I found in your report is people’s freedom to choose their own path as a country – again, one of the most basic democratic values, used by the Kremlin to justify its decision not to choose democracy.
That is used a lot. Look at Russia Today. Its whole ideology is that it’s all about choice, about “why can’t we show the Russian point of view?”. The thing is that they abuse the whole idea of journalism. The question is how effective this approach is. It has been very effective in countries with large groups of Russian-speaking population, but I still don’t know how effective it has been in the West. We’ll see how much they can actually achieve with these methods because, for example, in Britain they say they will not put finance above security, and the Americans just don’t care. The real hot spots are Bulgaria, Serbia and the Baltics. We will see if it extends towards which of these weapons are actually targeted or whether they end up destroying Russia itself, which might be the biggest problem. It’s the sort of weapon that ends up consuming the person who uses it; because if you use lies all the time, if you misuse the financial system, if you throw away the means by which society became prosperous … There’s a reason people have freedom of information, there’s a reason people have open markets, and if you start throwing that away then maybe your own society is going a bit mad. So the biggest danger of these Russian weapons would be if Russia itself started making incredibly bad decisions with consequences for everyone in the region. Rational Russia wouldn’t invade the Baltics. Irrational Russia would, because they overestimate the power of propaganda or the power of corruption. They use very odd weapons and who would be the biggest victim of these weapons is not yet quite clear. Does that make sense?
It makes a lot of sense. So, let me try to join this up to your book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible and the report we were talking about. In the report, you mentioned how not only money and information but also culture has been weaponised. The idea of weaponising culture wasn’t quite clear for me until I read the chapter where you described Vladislav Surkov’s interest in postmodernism, especially that of Jean Baudrillard. The core of postmodernism is something very Western, post-Enlightenment European: there is not one truth, given to us by a higher authority – even by God or the Tsar – but several, which we have to figure out by ourselves. But the way, Surkov using the idea made me re-read Simulacra and Simulation to make sure it was the same book I once read. If I tried to express my feelings, then “perverting” the whole idea of postmodernism would be the accurate way to put it.
I think Baudrillard and postmodernism suits Surkov very well. Baudrillard was the key person whose texts were translated into Russian in the late nineties and this immediately fed into Russian political culture, and also into journalism. But I think the reason for that is that Russia has had its own journey to postmodernism, which in many ways has been far more extreme than the West’s. Actually, you could take Baudrillard and Foucault as if they were writing about the Soviet Union rather than about American capitalism. That would reverse the subject and everything would become more vital. The idea that there is no truth starts to dominate Russian culture much more than Western culture in the 1970s. The idea that communism was a lie but we keep on pretending it was the truth, with people living in simulated realities, this was a much more vital form of everyday lying and fragmenting consciousness than it was in the West. Look at the literature written at that time – it is all about the fracturing of identity. Or look at Russian avant-garde art in that period – it’s all about broken consciousness. So Russia actually had the idea of a split self and fragmented reality so much more intensely in late Soviet culture than in Western culture. Russia actually had its own radical journey to postmodernism and Surkov recalled that, because he had lived it. If you look at Russian novels from the 1990s, they are all about how life is a giant collage. Russia is a place of a much more radical explosion of the idea of postmodernism than the West. And then, in the late 1990s, it suddenly discovers Baudrillard and Guy Debord and the language to talk about it. And then suddenly it’s all about “simulacrum” because it all fitted in powerfully with their experience.
But there is also something else that Surkov is doing, which is exploiting the very lazy late postmodernism. The beginnings of postmodernism were about being a liberational project, discovering new truths, exploding authoritarian systems. It was quite an idealistic, revolutionary project in the 1960s. It wasn’t about the kind of late postmodernism that doesn’t bother with the truth, which thought “there is nothing to fight for anyway” and was deeply relativistic, believing that everybody lies. But Surkov exploits that. So Russia’s own journey to very destructive postmodernism is one thing, and the other is just very cynical calculation and exploitation of the zeitgeist of the West.
Russia Today is a wonderful example of that. They call it “the other news”. It’s almost like an undergraduate humanities course in a liberal arts university somewhere: “The Other”. In Germany they call it “the missing part”. This is all about the idea that there is another truth, which means there is no such thing as an objective truth. That is an interesting argument philosophically but, in news practice, it means you can make a crackpot conspiracy theorist as legitimate as an academic. If there is no such thing as an objective truth, why can’t we have someone on screen who lies? When we can’t prove the truth, why we can’t just make things up? So they play on that. But that is a very calculated game.
I would separate Surkov’s very genuine research into post-Soviet consciousness and the very crass exploitation of the West’s laziness. It is just laziness, really, not some kind of philosophy. If you look at Foucault’s interviews, he is very clear about the philosopher’s duty to peel away lies. He would be disgusted by this idea of people just giving up. Postmodernism has become perverse and Surkov knows how to use that – and so does Russia Today, which is taking up that kind of trend. But we can see how successful they are. What is happening in respect of Russia Today and what Russia is doing is quite worrying in general, because we see the fracture of the idea of reality so it’s very worrying. Statistics say that 43% of Germans don’t believe their own media over Ukraine. We see the rise of conspiracy theories and parties that promote them in France, Hungary etc. Conspiracies are always the sign of a breakdown of discourse and trust in the institutions. So it is part of a very general trend, the breakdown of faith in institutions, of reality-based discourse, turning away from the mainstream media to bullshit online media; these are all very worrying trends in Russia. And if one thinks of the future – if Russia is exploiting it now, what happens if China or terrorist groups are starting to exploit it? That makes for a very worrying 21st century. Everybody would lie and push emotional buttons. That’s what Russia is doing now. Reality-based conversation is dissolving into impulses, emotions and irrationality, which is guided in a very chaotic way by whoever wants to guide it.
Have you read Marshall McLuhan? Sure you have. He is a charlatan, of course, but, like many charlatans, very sharp in his charlatanism. What he said about TV actually came true in the 21st century. We are moving away from a rational society to one which is all pure images, impulses, emotional collections.
That reminds me of two Italians: Maurizio Ferraris and his Manifesto of New Realism – which, as understood, would help Western continental philosophy to come out of the impasse of postmodernism – and Umberto Eco and his worries about the future of facts (if we are not careful with facts, new forms of media could mean the eventual demise of the common encyclopaedia, replaced by six billion encyclopaedias, each individual constructing his own). That would mean the impossibility of truth, the impossibility of universal knowledge and, eventually, the inability to communicate. So we need to find a way to save the facts.
What we need is a “Helsinki moment” in the media. At some point countries gathered together and agreed what constituted human rights. We need a similar agreement in the media. We need big media companies – the BBC, Al Jazeera, anyone who claims to be a big international news corporation – to get together and create a charter, saying that this is what we do and this is what we don’t do. It’s even more about what we don’t do. We don’t do lies, we don’t do conspiracy theories, we don’t do uncontrolled information etc. But that needs to be a consensual decision.
Probably there is no such thing as an objective truth. But we need the rules to deal with it to function as a society.
Beautiful! That’s the scientific method. We can’t prove the truth, but we can prove if something is not true.
Popper! Popper is really useful here. I just thought about him on my way here. We can’t prove the objective truth but we can prove the lie. Somebody should hit Russia with that: we can so prove that you lied here.
But for that kind of charter, we also need a new glossary. Information, misinformation, public diplomacy, propaganda … There is nothing wrong with Russia doing its propaganda and having its own propaganda channel. There is nothing wrong with Russia Today criticising the West. Let them find stories that make the West look bad. That’s fine. The problem is that they make up the information – telling stories that didn’t happen. And making things up is easy. What worries me more is how the media create a mixture of truth and lies, facts are turned into the opposite of what they were, using false logic and conspiracy theories. So I think we need a better definition of how this kind of reality is constructed.
I think the media organizations need to agree amongst themselves, to have a Helsinki moment, and on top of that we should have a ratings system – if a media organization doesn’t agree to the rules it loses its status. One can’t stop people from broadcasting, one can’t just shut things down, but they could stop being considered serious media organizations.
Russia on its own is not a big problem, but if this is also a trend in the Middle East, that would become really serious. It also seems to be a growing phenomenon in Asia. If we admit that it is a huge problem and that it is always going to be, at least for the next century, then maybe we need a big moment like this before it gets too serious.
We also need public campaigns to help people distinguish between different types of media. I think of it as a venereal disease. We use condoms to protect ourselves against viruses, but there are also informational viruses. So we have to teach people to use information condoms to protect themselves.
How do you achieve that agreement? Knowing the media organizations, it is not going to be easy …
Media organizations have to agree amongst themselves; they have to recognise by themselves that this is a problem. What really scared me is the 43% of Germans not believing their own media right now. That’s a problem. Of course we have to understand that the lack of trust is a symptom of a bigger problem. Societies have lost control over governments; decisions have been made elsewhere, that’s the consequence of globalisation. Conspiracy theories and lack of trust are on the rise when people stop trusting their own institutions. So it’s not only about the media, it’s a much bigger problem.
Here we should come to your book Nothing Is True And Everything Is Possible, where you describe the Russian media response to the problem – yes, we are naughty, but the Western media lie as well. That seems to be a rather convenient response – “look at what the others are doing”. How does one overcome that?
Cynically I would say that, if one keeps equating autocracies and democracies, one should try living in an autocracy for a while.
A big help would be the new glossary I mentioned earlier. I was giving a lecture in the university here and a girl stood up saying that a shampoo ad is propaganda as well. The problem is that the word “propaganda” has almost become pointless. In Jacques Ellul’s definition of propaganda as the formation of men’s attitudes, literally anything is propaganda. A shampoo ad is propaganda, getting you to stop smoking is propaganda, getting people not to kill each other is propaganda. One of the classic ways of defining propaganda is sorting out its intent: buy shampoo or stop killing people. But it is also about the linguistic function of what it’s doing: information, misinformation, spin, PR, public diplomacy. For that we need a more sophisticated glossary of what we understand as propaganda, so that people would understand that there is a difference between what Russia Today is doing and what Fox News or CNN are doing. Western networks may have ended up wittingly or unwittingly repeating White House lies, but they do not systematically use lies as weapons. Iraq is always used as an example here. There is a huge difference between what the Kremlin does on this and what the Western media do. Iraq was a huge failure of the Western media investigating government lies. It is one thing for your government to sell you a lie and you being a bad journalist not investigating it. But it is another when your government invents a TV channel for the purpose of spreading disinformation. We need a more sophisticated intellectual approach to propaganda, which would help people to start sorting out its different types. The Russian TV channel looks like a real TV channel – presenters are sitting at their desks with a blue screen behind them – but nothing beyond that has anything to do with the Western concept of journalism. There is no strong Russian tradition of journalism. And they haven’t discovered it.
There is a discussion going on in the Baltics concerning the Sputnik media channel. Basically, there are two views: one says we should stay true to our values such as freedom of speech and media freedom, and the other says that we should treat it like, for example, the Ku Klux Klan.
In Britain there is a similar thing about Russia Today – should it be banned? The thing is, it would get far more PR by being banned, and maybe that’s what they want: to get banned. But what if it’s all double-bluff? This is an endless game of shadow boxing. I think we have something to learn from Soviet thinking. If you were caught by the KGB, the first rule was: don’t say anything. The minute you start a dialogue you are in real trouble. Sure, you don’t want to let them spread lies but you also don’t want to give them PR. So all you can do is just stick to the rules of your country. If the rules say they should be banned, they should be banned; if not, then no. No exceptions.
If we already had a convention about what media is and isn’t, it would be so much easier. But I think it’s very dangerous to try to second-guess what the Kremlin would like us to do or what they will do. So just follow your laws and see where they’ll take you.
Talking about Russia, PR and your book … Vladislav Surkov, the so-called hidden author of Putinism, the fan of Baudrillard and postmodernism – who is he?
Surkov is very typical of people in power systems. Politics needs sociopaths. But Surkov also has a post-Soviet mentality. What is interesting about Surkov is that he also writes novels about that, and analyses himself without emotion. It’s like holding a mirror and looking at himself while he is doing it. Goebbels used to write novels as well, so it’s not completely new in history. What is fascinating about Russian political culture is that it is sociopathic but at the same time intellectually interesting. It knows what it’s doing.
Surkov consciously makes himself a hero of the age. He is playing on that. It’s a performance. But he is just a reflection of what everyone can see every day in Russia, a sort of triumph of cynicism – nothing is true, there are no values, life is an endless masquerade, we are evil but the Americans are just as bad.
Is Surkov the mastermind behind the information war? Or is he just a PR person?
He is not behind it; he is pretty much in front of it. We should not exaggerate his role. Even if he is running the Russian political system, parties and media, he is not a “shareholder”, he is just a manager. He is the director. But not the owner. He is a servant – maybe the ultimate servant, but still just a servant. He is only as good as his last show.
There is a good example in your book about how Putin’s image was created: one part “sugar daddy” – someone that every girl needs – and another part “gangster” – someone that every guy respects.
Actually these two images are pretty close. Putin is designed to be all things to all men. That is not new in politics, but Putin is extreme. There is a sugar-daddy culture in Russia – a big guy who protects you. And then there are these pop songs like “I Want A Man Like Putin” – irony is a big part of Russian culture, and this is what the West does not understand. Irony and autocracy go hand in hand. Putin is the sugar daddy, the father to all these fatherless girls who need a daddy, a sugar daddy. So that’s one image he projects very much. Also all these stories about his younger lovers and how he goes to gyms and is physically in good shape – this is part of the image.
The gangster image is related but very different. Putin has often imitated the language of a gangster, but he is a law graduate who entered the state bureaucracy and became an intelligence officer who speaks several languages. He is not a gangster at all. He worked with gangsters – secret services often work with criminals. However, in the 1990s in Russia, gangsters became a glue of society, economically but also morally – they had values. Russian prison culture is very strong; it’s probably the dominant culture in Russia today. It’s about the way of behaving, the way of walking, the way of talking, everything. Russian values are related more to its prison values than to its religious ones. In prisons, a passive gay is at the bottom of the hierarchy, so Putin launches anti-gay campaigns. This has nothing to do with religious values. Russia is actually one of the most atheistic cultures in Europe – with a very strong prison culture.
So Putin acts and talks like a gangster because that is something people respect. He takes on the role of gangster – the language he uses, the way he dresses, how he behaves. It’s like something straight out of The Godfather or Kill Bill. But behaving like a gangster is not the same as being a gangster.
You have seen in Russia how this new reality is created with the help of TV. Can you describe the technology behind that? How exactly is the simulacrum created?
It is created top-down. In terms of current affairs, news is structured in a certain way. At the top of the news, Putin’s always doing something, no matter what it is: Putin visits the zoo, Putin goes flying. That’s number one. He is a star, he comes first. Then comes something quite serious from inside Russia, let’s say, a hospital crisis – to show that we do do serious news. The next one would be a similar crisis abroad, but much worse – for example a complete collapse of healthcare in the US. That shows that we may have some minor problems, but it’s much worse in the US. That’s how the news is choreographed, in order to give the audience a very specific journey through what’s happening. Recently, there have been fewer and fewer domestic issues, and more and more about Ukraine: to show how the neighbouring state is in chaos.
There are other simple things, like debating shows. These are designed in such a way that they choose puppet opposition parties who end up making Putin look better by comparison. Putin doesn’t even need to appear, but everybody thinks, “Thank God we have Putin, he is quite sensible compared to these guys because they are simply mad”. This is a classic trick. And then non-stop conspiracy theories. It’s basically to turn people’s brains into mush. First you turn off the critical thinking with conspiracy theories, and then comes non-stop use of fear – murders, rapes and gangsters. That pushes you to think, “Oh my God, we really need a strong hand, we need Putin, there are spies and gangsters everywhere”. It’s basically like a cult: first they turn off critical thinking and then they start stressing traumas. We are humiliated. We were treated like shit in the 1990s. No country understands us. We are in so much pain. And then in the end you have delivery of a promise, some sort of catharsis, by conquering Crimea, for example. So it’s basically like a cult. First, it turns off critical thinking, then exploits traumas and makes you emotionally very vulnerable, and then gives you the promise of salvation. That’s the pattern that Russia’s television uses and that’s far more nasty and manipulative than any obvious kind of stuff about how America is evil. This is very structured and, after being emotionally manipulated, people believe whatever they are told. When people ask “How could Russians believe that?” they should realise that these people are deeply emotionally manipulated, first, on a very fundamental personal level. And after that you would swallow anything.