Thinking Aloud: “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible”

Jan. 2, 2015 by Darius

I recently saw British TV producer Peter Pomerantsev discuss his new book about Russian media, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.

According to Pomerantsev, the “motto” of the New Russia, from top to bottom, is “Everything is PR.”  Anything is possible, and reality can always be remade.  He said, “To believe in something and stand by it in this world is derided [in Russia]; the ability to shapeshift, celebrated.”

Pomerantsev believes these endless transformations are largely a product of ideologies that lacked any credibility: in the 1980s, the Soviet government espoused Communism, but nobody (including the government) believed in it; in the 1990s, the Russian government espoused democracy, but nobody believed in that either, and today, the government promotes some sort of religious-nationalist concoction, but, according to Pomerantsev, nobody believes in that either.  In this ideological void, Russian president Vladimir Putin and his top advisors have consciously created a media environment designed to “synthesize Soviet control with Western entertainment.”  The media’s job is to spin events the way the government wants them—or just to chip away at the concept of reality entirely.  The one thing it cannot be is boring.

For example, in response to protests several years ago, top media officials with strong regime ties decided to promote mysticism and conspiracy theories in their programming to distract people from social problems.  In fact, Pomerantsev said that some officials were literally trying to hypnotize the audience through specific word choices designed to have pseudo-scientific effects on viewers.  Although Pomerantsev seemed to doubt that the hypnosis attempts achieved anything, he felt the end result of the non-stop conspiracy theories was an undermining of the entire process of critical thinking.  According to Pomerantsev, Russians don’t actually believe what President Putin says, but they do believe that there is a grand conspiracy out to get them—and people who believe in conspiracy theories are actually very easy to manipulate.

Pomerantsev didn’t feel that there is a master plan behind the Russian government’s manipulation of the media.  Instead, it is just constant improvising.  For example, gays were chosen to be the target of discrimination in the media largely by the process of elimination: it is considered passé to target Jews, and officials felt they couldn’t go after dark-skinned people because that is a huge issue in Russia already.  Gays didn’t have any defenders.  Again, nobody actually believes in anti-gay ideology; many producers leading the campaign are gay themselves and appear at Moscow parties with their boyfriends, according to Pomerantsev.

Pomerantsev concluded by noting that during the 20th century, the USSR tried to combat free information by blocking it out entirely.  In the 21st century, the Russian government is trying to throw out enough muck to mask the true signal.

(Pomerantsev’s comments on Russia’s use of the media to cast doubt on reality echo those of Yale professor Timothy Snyder: https://notwhatyoumightthink.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/thinking-aloud-russias-war-ukraines-history-and-the-wests-options-part-i/ , https://notwhatyoumightthink.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/thinking-aloud-russias-war-ukraines-history-and-the-wests-options-part-ii/ and https://notwhatyoumightthink.wordpress.com/2014/10/30/thinking-aloud-russias-war-ukraines-history-and-the-wests-options-part-iii/.)

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