In 2014, Peter Pomerantsev, a British journalist born in the Soviet Union, published “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” which drew on his years working in Russian television to describe a society in giddy, hysterical flight from enlightenment empiricism. He wrote of how state-controlled Russian broadcasting “became ever more twisted, the need to incite panic and fear ever more urgent; rationality was tuned out, and Kremlin-friendly cults and hatemongers were put on prime time.”
Since 2016, the book has enjoyed a new life among people struggling to make sense of the dual shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory. Both catastrophes demonstrated the triumph of xenophobic post-truth politics, and both were assisted by Russian information warfare. Pomerantsev’s book about Russia suddenly seemed prophetic about the rest of the world.
Now, he’s written a penetrating follow-up, “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality,” that is partly an effort to make sense of how the disorienting phenomena he observed in Russia went global. The child of exiled Soviet dissidents, Pomerantsev juxtaposes his family’s story — unfolding at a time when ideas, art and information seemed to challenge tyranny — with a present in which truth scarcely appears to matter.
“During glasnost, it seemed that the truth would set everybody free,” he writes. “Facts seemed possessed of power; dictators seemed so afraid of facts that they suppressed them. But something has gone drastically wrong: We have access to more information and evidence than ever, but facts seem to have lost their power.”
Why? Social media, which enables the rapid spread of misinformation, is clearly one reason. But Pomerantsev’s most intriguing insight is about how a post-fact society emerges from despair and cynicism about the future.
Throughout the Cold War, he writes, “both sides were engaged in what had begun as a debate about which system — democratic capitalism or communism — would deliver a rosier future for all mankind. The only way to prove you were achieving this future was to provide evidence.” Obviously, this didn’t mean regimes told the truth, only that they were invested in being seen as truthful. That’s why facts that revealed their deceptions could endanger them.
But today, few leaders claim to have an ideological map to a better world. The march of history has been replaced by the will to power. Pomerantsev contrasts Soviet propaganda, which tried, however crudely, to be convincing to outsiders, with modern Russia disinformation, which just aims to confuse. You could make a similar comparison between Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric and Trump’s. One way of communicating points forward, the other, back. Pomerantsev quotes Russian-American Harvard professor Svetlana Boym, who wrote, “The 20th century began with Utopia and ended with nostalgia.”
Reading that, I thought of a feeling I’ve had since 2016 that the orderly progression of time has given way to something chaotic and hallucinatory. I don’t think I’m alone in this; it’s common to hear liberals talk about the “dark timeline” we’re all trapped in.
So much of the culture feels stuck. Social media creates a sense of eternal present; things that happened two weeks ago feel like half-forgotten history. Internet technology, once imbued with futuristic idealism, has become a source of destruction and dread. Fashion has turned back to the 1990s, which was itself a time of nostalgia for the 1970s. Cinemas are full of remakes. At least when the Sex Pistols screamed “No future,” they were sublimating nihilism into art. But now?
“It’s like we went too far. We imagined too much,” says a character in the recent TV series “Years and Years,” a dystopian drama coproduced by HBO and the BBC that takes place just a few years in the future. “We sent all those probes into space, and we went to the very edge of the solar system, built the hadron collider and the internet, and we painted all those paintings and we wrote all those great songs, and then, pop. Whatever we had, we punctured it. And now it’s all collapsing.”
In “This Is Not Propaganda,” Pomerantsev quotes Gleb Pavlovsky, a political strategist who was once an influential adviser to Vladimir Putin, and who recognized, early on, how the end of universalist visions of progress would lead to amoral relativism. “The image of a common mankind is impossible, and no alternative has emerged,” Pavlovsky said. “Everyone invents their own ‘normal’ humanity, their own ‘right’ history.”
To move beyond this horrible moment, we’ll need to reform the algorithms that turn YouTube into a machine for radicalization and make Facebook an accessory to ethnic cleansing. But the bigger challenge may be to create belief in a future that doesn’t seem nightmarish, to restore faith in a rational path forward, to give people a sense of control over their destiny. “The need for facts is predicated on the notion of an evidence-based future,” writes Pomerantsev.
A society invested in real, tangible common projects needs objective truths. One organized around a desperate longing for a mythologized past does not. Pomerantsev’s book suggests that the authoritarian darkness that’s descended on so much of the globe is a hangover from the so-called end of history after the Cold War. If that’s true, perhaps one way to dispel it is to get history moving again.