On March 10th a friend saw a photograph of the Russian president hugging a cuddly koala bear in front of the main medical school in San Francisco. The caption read: “PUTIN IS YOUR FRIEND.”
Next to this artifact on a display she read: “WALL STREET IS FINISHED,” “IMPEACH OBAMA,” American flags and a poster explaining that the Russian president was framed in the recent assassination of an opposition leader (not in this picture.) My friend was on the bus, snatched a quick shot with her phone, and sent it to me, knowing my rediscovered interest in propaganda.
I rushed to UCSF to interview the protester but arrived too late, and, alas, only saw the statue of Hippocrates. He looked at me with concerned bewilderment, as if asking “What koala? What Putin? What Russia? Get to your senses. You are in America.”
The next day as I screened the news in Google, I saw an article in Bloomberg called “Russia Is Hacking Your News Feed”. In brief, internet trolls sponsored by the Russian government figured out how to get high rankings on Google and use their skills to promote disinformation by incepting it into the less devious — or naïve — minds and collective consciousness of Western mass media and population.
Hardly news to me. As a former philology student at St. Petersburg State University, I was forced to attend a four-year course of Special Propaganda (Spetz Propaganda).
The officers of Spetz Propaganda are trained to work with the army AND population of the enemy. I was a poor student in this department as my primary interest was in William Blake, not tank dispositions, but I had to take exams and become an officer in order to graduate. I remember the basics. I recognize them. Some of my classmates must have been paying attention and chose different careers. Both Putin and Medvedev, two recent Russian presidents, studied here as well. So, what did they learn?
“The weaponization of information, culture and money,” are vital parts of the Kremlin’s concept of “non-linear” war, according to Michael Weiss.
For it is a war. A war in which no blood is shed but the minds are corrupted slowly and, overall, inconspicuously. The Cold War is the Bronze Age and cave man toddler games compared to the Mind Wars of today. Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell might be turning around in their graves.
The new anti-utopian language takes on a nightmarish new development, though. Perhaps, the most astonishing and terrifying side of it is the full absence of the ideological content. Unlike the tyrannies and totalitarian states of the yesterday, Russia circa 2015 is not built on any ideology, and not even on any national idea if you look closely. It is built solely on the unquenchable obsessive thirst for power of a few poorly educated, emotionally underdeveloped and intellectually mediocre individuals. Like a soap bubble, the brainwashing bubble displays all the colors of the ideological specter while containing an empty space at the core.
“Russia combines Soviet-era “whataboutism” and Chekist “active measures” with a wised-up, postmodern smirk that says that everything is a sham. Where the Soviets once co-opted and repurposed concepts such as “democracy,” “human rights” and “sovereignty” to mask their opposites, the Putinists use them playfully to suggest that not even the West really believes in them,” writes Michael Weiss.
Any native Russian speaker senses this clownish playfulness of the mass media and Internet campaigns.
If you watch clips of TV educational programs — on art, history, philosophy — and millions of soap-opera dramas, you will end up with a strange lingering taste of mechanical pianos and puppet market place shows, of a stand-up comedian in military uniform, with clown makeup, cracking jokes from The Wizard of Oz to the Red Army Brass Orchestra.
A feeling similar to having an old pink chewing gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe. The feeling of Nabokov’s “Invitation to a Beheading.”
There is something nauseatingly vulgar and bad-taste in today’s reality show that Russia has become. Bulgakov’s infamous Variete Theater show from Master and Margarita, the elements of supernatural mixed up with farce and political satire.
“…the skirmish was brief and the firing soon died down by itself. The point is that neither the tom, not the visitors suffered any ill effects from it. No one was killed; in fact, no one was even wounded. Everyone was safe and sound. To make entirely sure, on of the visitors sent five bullets straight at the head of the damned animal, and the tom promplty emptied a while cartidge clip in reply. But the same thing happened — the bullets produced no effect whatsoever. The tom swayed on the chandelier in constantly diminishing arcs, for some reason blowing into the muzzle of the Browning and spitting on his paw… it was entirely clear that it was that it (the can’t wound) was nothing but a trick and shameless faking, as was his pretense at drinking benzine.” (“Master and Margarita”, Bulgakov)
Of course, in today’s Russia, just like during the Great Purge, people do get killed and wounded. But the feeling of “shameless faking” is even stronger. The photos of Nemtsov’s corpse in a black plastic bag against the brightly lit backdrop of onion-domes of St.Basil’s cathedral, Hollywood Xmasy neon lights flickering above, reflect this carnival butcher circus quality well. Like a joker-serial killer lurking behind the mini-golf painted fakes.
I am currently working on a bigger article about propaganda. Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard is the main inspiration for explaining the hyperreality engineered by the Kremlin in the course of the last twelve years. You see, it has a purpose. It is there to hide the fact that all the truths were extracted. That reality, as is, does not exist. The empty space of the soap bubble is yearning — avid, horrible, devoid of any sense.
And that is where I see hope.
Not in logic. Not in common sense.
Yes, we can avoid reading news. Yes, we definitely should avoid reading the comments written by trolls (paid 100 roubles per comment, or whatever it is now with the currency fluctuating.) Yes, we should screen and use filters in absorbing the information. But it is arbitrary and sometimes impossible. It is confusing, in the very least, and the engineers of the mind wars rely on this confusion.
But here — as I am not a journalist but a fiction writer — I will remember what saved my sanity and moral dignity during the years of dull drills about tank parts, AK-47 assembling and disassembling, and writing pamphlets to the imaginary American soldiers during my university years.
William Blake. The Songs of Innocence and Experience.
Fitzgerald. Tender is the Night.
Jim Morrison. “When the music over…”
The list is as long as chaotic and eclectic and non-linear as my bookshelf.
English and American modern and classic writers and poets mix with the Russian banned and canonized writers, from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy to Salinger and Henry Miller to Mandelstam and Akhmatova and Gumilev, to Nabokov and Brodsky… It was not name-dropping for us. It was a matter of survival. It was oxygen. We typed the banned poems on our broken type-writers and read them to each other. We carried the poems in our pockets.
And I now know why.
Because, as Joseph Brodsky says about Tsvetaeva, the root of the terror, war, totalitarian power, is the vulgarity of the human nature, this intrinsic part that is there — and the only antidote to it is poetry — and I would add, high art. Poetry is the conductor of the language, and the poet is channeling the collective ethical power, the eternal moral power, in poems.
My friends and I intuitively turned to poetry and literature to keep our inner freedom and escape slavery in the Soviet Union.
Today, I turn to the arts to resist the soap bubble foam and the empty, dead poisonous lobotomy-gas that is being released by my former classmates and compatriots. At times I feel sorry for them and most of the times I am angry at them for doing what they are doing to the country where I grew up. But I am not going down with them. I will not let them poison my children and my loved ones. I don’t want the vulgar power addicts to take over the world. And so I put up the only resistance that I know. The Arts Resistance.