The politics of spectacle aims to distract from corruption, wealth inequality, and human rights violations in Putin’s Russia as in Europe and the United States. Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, explains how political developments in the East can influence values in the West.
Krisztian Simon: In a recent interview you have said “To see everything that’s going on in the US, you have to look at Russia.” Does this statement also hold true for the EU?
Timothy Snyder: The premise of my new book, The Road to Unfreedom, is that developments in Russia, inside the EU, and inside the United States are all one story. I write about a kind of dark globalisation, where the relations between Russia, the EU, and America push against, rather than for democracy. I write in particular about a certain kind of system, first established in Russia, which manages to handle massive wealth inequality and corruption at home by way of a politics of spectacle – a spectacle that has to do with the rest of the world. I try to explain how Russian politics has moved the European Union and the United States closer to Russia, and has made them more like Russia. This book is more about Europe than about the US. It tries to reverse the historical idea that everything comes from the West and goes eastward and explains how developments from the East come westward.
The spectacle you mention has just brought the nations of the world to Russia for the football World Cup. This is the second such spectacle after the Olympics in Sochi four years ago. Are these sporting events a means for Vladimir Putin to spread his message?
There are two things going on simultaneously. The first is that hosting the World Cup and hosting the Olympics is a way for the Russian government to tell its people that “we are respected by the rest of the world.” But another kind of politics of spectacle is doing this abroad: when Russia invades Ukraine, intervenes in the war in Syria, or tries to destroy the EU. These policies are then presented as evidence that Russia is the lone virtuous country. The wars in Ukraine and the war in Syria appear on Russian television in a very peculiar way, as Russia defending its true values from the rest of the world. That’s what I mean by the politics of spectacle. Since you don’t have a domestic policy, you need a foreign policy that distracts and that changes politics from being about providing good things to your citizens into being a television programme about good and evil, where everything is about values and virtues.
The spectacles might also help the inner circles of power enrich themselves. The reportedly over-budget World Cup and Olympics provided great opportunities for corruption.
Firms owned by a man called Aras Agelarov built some of the stadiums for the World Cup. He is the same man who brought Donald Trump to the Moscow suburbs in 2013 to run the Miss Universe beauty pageant and the same person who arranged the transfer of Russian documents about Hillary Clinton to the Trump campaign in 2016. The story that I am trying to tell involves Russian oligarchy and corrupt international dealings, which include people such as Donald Trump who are just waiting to be corrupted – as that is basically his professional path. The Olympics and the World Cup are examples of a special issue: the Russian problems for Russia and the Russian problems for the rest of the world begin with high levels of wealth inequality, and with a kind of corruption that is irreparable because it is the state itself.
In a situation in which people’s lives are not going to improve… government has to be done by distraction.
In a situation in which people’s lives are not going to improve, and where the oligarchy is the government, government has to be done by distraction. Distraction creates a sense of us and them, and is also about bringing the EU and America down to Russia’s level, so that Russians don’t look at Germany, France, or Britain and think of them as something attractive. This seems like a very ambitious thing to do but actually it is much easier than fighting a conventional war, and that’s what the Russians have figured out.
And they seem to be quite successful. In Russia, there is a perception that democratisation might come with dangers such as the rise of fascism, as they perceive in the case of Ukraine.
I find that a very strange argument, because the very Eurasian ideology which Mr. Putin has used as the intellectual framework for his policy against the European Union was invented by Russian fascists. It is also Russian foreign policy to support neo-Nazis in Europe and the United States [read more on Russian links to Europe’s far right]. Russia legitimates the far right by inviting them to observe elections, by putting them on their television programmes, and by helping organise conferences inside the European Union. It is no coincidence that the entire American white supremacist movement regards Russia as the ideal system.
In your book, you describe the impact of the philosopher Ivan Ilyin on current Russian politics. How is Ilyin’s thought manifested in the politics and government of Putin’s Russia?
Most important for Putin – and probably even more important for his spin doctor Vladislav Surkov – is the idea that there is no factual world. This is Ilyin’s premise: the world that we see around us is a mistake, God should not have created this world, it’s all false, factuality doesn’t matter, human emotions don’t matter, because this world itself is a broken world. The only thing that is true, according to Ilyin, is God. And the only way to restore God’s truth is by building up a totalitarian Russia.
That’s a very convenient view, because it works in our postmodern area. It supports a policy in which you lie all the time and generate all this fiction for your home audience and for abroad – whether it’s about the Maidan, MH17, the protests in the Bolotnaya square, or whether it is about spreading lies about Hillary Clinton in the United States. If this whole world is false, and the only thing that is true is Russia, there is nothing wrong with lying all the time. Indeed, you should lie all the time, if that’s what is good for Russia.
In Russia social advancement is very difficult because of corruption, and the current oligarchical regime has no intention of changing that.
The second thing that is very useful for them is the idea that society is corporeal, that it functions like a body. Putin demands freedom for Russia, but what he means by the word freedom is that you know your place in the Russian body, you know which organ you are and that you are not allowed to move around. For many people, especially for liberals, freedom means the ability to move around, to change your place in society, to start a business and do better, and to marry who you want to marry, whereas in Russia social advancement is very difficult because of corruption, and the current oligarchical regime has no intention of changing that. This idea of knowing your place is therefore very convenient.
The third thing that is critical is the notion that election is a ritual. This idea is not only present in Russia, but also in Hungary, in parts of the US, and other countries. According to this idea elections are not there to contest power, but as a ritual where the population shows devotion to the leader.
The emptiness of elections also comes up quite often in the eurosceptic critique of the European elections.
Those are two very different things. What we see in the countries mentioned before is that democratic elections become less meaningful and people continue participating in them, even though they have no meaning. This is what we see these days, when we are moving away from meaningful democracy to a kind of fake democracy. Democracies can be fake for many reasons: because there is no press freedom, because votes aren’t counted, because the television is on the side of one person, or because the money is on the side of one person. The European Parliament is something different. People think that those elections are not important for their lives, even though in fact they are. EP elections have consequences and it is nationalist and populist propaganda to say that it doesn’t matter. The EP should matter more than it does now but we are in a kind of vicious circle where not enough people vote and it thereby loses its legitimacy.
You also mention in the book the important role that masculinity and sexuality play both in the work of Ilyin as in the reality created by Putin.
In the whole fascist tradition, there is an anxiety about masculinity. On the one hand, it is concerned about heterosexuality and says that the purpose of manhood is to produce children. While, on the other hand, there is a celebration of male beauty. It is striking how that ambiguity has returned today in a minor key. Figures like Putin or Trump or Berlusconi celebrate masculinity in a very old-fashioned way, and yet also seem to be anxious about heterosexuality, or in the case of Putin, they make it a major issue.
There is also the substitution of sexuality for politics. This Russian idea that we are virtuous and everyone else is corrupt is largely centred on heterosexuality and homosexuality. Virtue means that we are all straight, and that the Europeans and Americans are gay. It is an absurd statement, but it is a very effective way of changing the language of politics from being a medium for asking the question “what can the government do for me?” to allowing the government to define who ‘we’ are, and who ‘they’ are.
The sexualised spectacle also diverts attention. A journalist of the Austrian public service broadcaster recently asked Putin in an interview why there are so many half-naked pictures of him.
Reporting in Russia demands that reporters are very intelligent and attentive to detail, because it is very easy to be distracted. The whole point of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was to confuse the West, and on the level of propaganda they completely succeeded. For six to nine months people in the West had really no idea what was going on. The storylines were the ones that Russia has chosen, and they really didn’t have much to do with what was going on in Crimea or the Donbass.
Reporters try to say that on the one hand, the government says this, and on the other the people say this. The Russian government is very well aware of that, and they try to create a spectacle that is so overwhelming that reporters confuse the spectacle with a point of view. When Putin stands up in March 2014 and says that there are no Russian soldiers in Ukraine and that the people mentioned in press reports are in fact just people who bought uniforms from the local army surplus store, that is not a side of the story, it is a spectacle, it is a show, and it is captivating. As soon as you get drawn in as a reporter, you become part of this reality television show which is all about Mr. Putin.
The goal is to draw reporters into this world of fiction, so that the real things that are happening don’t become the story anymore.
The same is happening in the US with Mr. Trump. The whole idea is to get the journalists drawn in into this show about this character, a character who lives in a fictional world and therefore doesn’t lie, but neither does he tell the truth. The goal is to draw reporters into this world of fiction, so that the real things that are happening – in the case of the Ukrainian war, the refugees, the artillery bombardments, the shooting down of MH17, the multiple invasions of Ukrainian territory by Russian soldiers – don’t become the story anymore. There have been a few Western journalists from Poland, Germany, UK, US, and so on who have done a good job, but for the most part the Western press was slow to figure out what was going on. Now the situation is getting better than it was four years ago, but it is still true that the whole point of Russian policy is to tempt people into watching a television programme, instead of having their own angles on what is going on.
Finally, I would add that, if we want to think about a body in Russia, or if the Austrian reporter wants to ask about a body in Russia, it shouldn’t be Putin’s body, but the starving body of Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian filmmaker who was unjustly arrested during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, sentenced to 20 years of prison in the Russian far-North, and who is now on a hunger strike. That is the body in Russia that a real reporter would be asking about.
You have said that, regarding the US under Trump, the real question is not the defence of institutions but “renewal and democratisation” and that you were happy about the renaissance of investigative journalism, about groups such as Indivisible emerging, and about non-traditional candidates running for office. There are quite a few new media outlets such as Meduza and The Bell popping up in Russia. Do you think there is a place for renewal and democratisation there?
I do. The Putin regime has been the worst possible regime for Russians in two ways. First, it has put Russia in this very unpleasant situation in which no one knows what the alternative to Putin is. When the government and the state is identified with one person, it is very unhealthy. Mr. Putin has done an incredibly selfish and destructive thing to his country because no one can have the discussion that needs to be had about when he retires or when he dies. People haven’t been allowed to think about transition, or even to vote in meaningful elections or form non-governmental organisations.
The second thing that the Putin regime has done to Russia is to use television to establish this victim complex that Russia is not responsible for anything. It is always America, Europe, or somebody else. We shoot down an airplane, it is not our fault, we invade a country, but it is not our fault, we bomb children’s hospitals in Syria, but it is not our fault – and so on. That also makes it harder for the Russian people to create an alternative. Because if people think everything is always someone else’s fault, when the moment comes, people are not going to recognise that it is up to them to fix things.
Now that said, there are signs of renewal all the time. There are very young Russian kids, teenagers, who are much smarter about the internet than older people. There are the exiles in the Baltics. There is the media, and not only the newer ones, I would also add Novaya Gazeta to the list you mentioned as they have actively covered the country for many decades.
The problem with Russia is not that there aren’t enough good people trying to do good things. In some sense Russian civil society is quite impressive. There is an ethic of truth and factuality among the Russian intelligentsia, which is just as impressive now as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. The problem is that there isn’t institutional space for these people to move into politics. That’s the tragedy. To keep Russia going, there have to be generations of people who have some practice in some kind of politics, and that is what Mr. Putin is not allowing to happen.
The interview was originally published in Hungarian, in the print edition of Magyar Narancs.