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The art of persuasion, achieving with words one’s desired effect, is at least as old as Aristotle with his rhetoric. Among the world champions of this art, there are two Odessites—the first, of course, was the inimitable Ostap Bender with his fictional ability to conjure up hitherto unseen horizons of possibilities, and not only for the benefit of the Vasyuki world chess club membership. The other is a far more real and historically oriented person, who, in his range of intent and action, far surpasses his main competition in the constellation of the most persuasive Odessites. I am not aware of any structure created in the last decades by the human mind that would be more complex, more influential and more unpredictable than the system of power known as “Putinism”, which to some extent was put into motion by Odessa-born Gleb Pavlovsky (64) (and which, in its unpredictability, seems to be more lively than many supposedly live people). It is possible that I have been snagged by the impression of Pavlovsky’s role in historical processes created by Pavlovsky himself. If this is so, I am one among many who compensate the opacity of the formation of power structures with the choice of a single actor. Yet even to me it is clear that no “subject of historical action” ever acts alone, and no “historical action” is possible if it is not preconditioned by a “historical situation” independent of the actors who manage to act just at the right time and in the right place where a historically significant step becomes possible.
As a member of the students’ association “Subjects of Historical Action” formed at the Faculty of History of the University of Odessa, Pavlovsky apparently not only tried to understand how one becomes a subject of history, but actively began to pursue it. A decisive role in later politicization of history may have been played by Pavlovsky’s acquaintanceship with his mentor, Mikhail Gefter (1918–1995), whose teachings still influence his thinking. Gefter was a historian and philosopher who, even as he was dismissed from the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, single-mindedly concerned himself with the hidden mechanism of history in general, and that of the Soviet Union in particular, which causes and directs events. The online magazine gefter.ru is but the last of over two dozen media projects launched by Pavlovsky. Over the last year, Pavlovsky has published two volumes dedicated to his conversations with Gefter, and the second one of those, There Will Be No Third Millennium, I consider one of the most refined reflections on history I have ever encountered. [1. III тысячелетия не будет. Русская история игры с человечеством.] Михаил Гефтер в разговорах с Глебом Павловским (There Will Be No Third Millennium. Russian History of Playing with Humankind. Mikhail Gefter in conversation with Gleb Pavlovsky), Moscow: Европа, 2015.
It will not be an exaggeration to state that, as early as under Yeltsin, Pavlovsky gained a strong position from the point of view of power by establishing the “Foundation of Efficient Politics”, which soon enough began tending to the political image of Yeltsin. And even though Pavlovsky is considered the first spin-doctor in Russia, he does not contest the claim that this is the direction in which he was turned by Yefim Ostrovsky, who began to apply the “political technologies” in the early 1990s. It was the transition period from Yeltsin to Putin which brought Pavlovsky to the dizzying heights of the “vertical of power” of his own invention, and he was the most influential of all the spinners, bar none, up to the spring of 2011 when, possibly as punishment for his open dissatisfaction with the “castling” that had just taken place (Putin announcing that he will be coming back to the presidential post for the third term), he was deprived of access to the Kremlin. In recent years, his reflections mainly circle around one question: how could he have been so mistaken. His partial answer is given in the last part of our conversation. As one of the creators of the “system”, he is one of the few who knows the Russian power structure from the inside but now looks at it with understanding from the outside as well. His substantial experience in political work has sharpened his eye, but also prompted many to consider him an incarnation of evil whose cunning manipulations have resulted in the birth of a monster with a head known as “Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin”. A while back he wrote me a letter in which he admitted that, for the first time in his life, he has begun to fear what a human being might be capable of.
In our three thematically chronological conversations in Moscow, Vienna, and again in Moscow, I tried to see how he came to an understanding of politics and history which both allowed him to serve the Russian power elite and subsequently, for several years now, to look back at that time as his greatest mistake and defeat, taking full responsibility for the steps in his thinking that reinforced that elite to the extent that Pavlovsky’s services were no longer needed.
It is my sincere hope that in this necessarily abbreviated publication the reader will benefit from some of the experience and understanding that make Gleb Pavlovsky one of the few people I know, if not the only one, who understands political action and is aware of its possible historical consequences.
In what sense, from your point of view, was the collapse of the Soviet Union a catastrophe or a tragedy?
In all senses, practically. It was my shell—I would even say, existentially and intellectually—because I grew up in a country which represented a kind of petrified idea. It was petrified and dangerous in this petrified condition, including for me. Yet it was there. It existed, it challenged, titillated and energized, if you will. Here the purely generational moment is of importance: I was born in 1951, and I spent all of my childhood and school years, up to the university, in an expanding universe—that is, inside a dynamically changing system (that is what was facing me at least), which, albeit dangerous, at the same time matched my own personal values.
This system matched your values?
Yes, the value of freedom first of all. I was a freedom-loving kind of fellow, and the Soviet Union matched the idea: it was a state built around the idea of a free humanity. For me, there really was no other freedom. The freedom of the individual was of no great interest to me. The French triangle—liberty, equality, fraternity—was the central nucleus of the state, at least for me.
But you were not aware of its bloody essence?
I was, but considered it a matter of the past.
And not as something inevitable and indispensable?
No, not at all… A part of this kind of joy I experienced was the fact that it was left behind, that it was, as psychotherapists would put it, “survived”. After all, I lived at a time… It is mistakenly called a “thaw”, but one of the elements was really that, because more and more became possible with every year inside the Soviet Union, and this trend satisfied me. France had shed blood for its cause and we had done so for ours, but that was all behind us. It is something of great importance: we were inculcated with the conviction that we were the heirs of both the Whites and the Reds. That the contradiction has been disposed of, that it no longer exists.
Soviet power as heir to the Whites?
But of course. The Soviet power of the end of the 1950s was already a red-and-white synthesis. The Whites were of course considered the weaker part, after all they had lost, but generally they had been forgiven. By the way, when I was growing up, there was no item pertaining to one’s origins in the questionnaires…
Meaning, class origins?
Yes, and also the position of one’s relatives in the civil war. This paragraph existed and then was quietly scrapped, just as, by the end of the 1950s, the item about living under occupation disappeared. I lived in Odessa, and for my father it was of crucial importance. Because Odessa was a kind of imperial concentrate. It is a part of the myth of Odessa, that it was never particularly White or particularly Red.
People simply made money there.
Not only that… The other side of the myth of Odessa is that all of Soviet culture comes from there, from Malaya Arnautskaya Street. From here comes the pride in the opera and such, and at the time I was a great patriot of Odessa in that sense. I had a very keen sense of closeness to history because the city in which I grew up lay in ruins… Odessa was not being built up: it was being punished for the good life during the [German] occupation—the relatively good life, for it cannot be said that it was very good for the Jews, but a slightly greater number of them survived than in Kharkov or Lviv.
Are you Jewish?
No. But I lived in the centre, in the heart of the Jewish quarter. All my friends were Jewish, it was a totally Jewish area, Staroportofrankovsk. In fact, I began to distinguish among [ethnicities] after the Six Day War, that is, Jews suddenly became a little Jewish. Up to then, no [ethnic] identity existed for me.
But you were talking about your own values coinciding with those of the system.
Yes, to me it was a lost giant, so to speak. I had no doubt that the system is the generator of a universal human project. That is exactly what communism meant to me. And there is another interesting thing here: I grew up during the acme period of Soviet science fiction—the very first books of the genre came out at the end of the 1950s. I read the first books of the Strugatsky brothers in the first or second grade and then, up to 1968, I grew up with the Strugatskys. They were like constant tutors to me. Science fiction had a huge role in forming my attitude to the Soviet Union as a rusty mechanism: the mechanism was fine, only rusty—and it had rusted also from blood. And there is another important thing: I lived at a time when on the everyday level Stalin’s crimes were not considered a problem. Because, beginning with the end of the 1950s, people from the camps began to return, including to our area. The people from the camps joined life with ease; it is very interesting that, having been in prison fifteen or so years, they socialized so easily… By and large, they blended in. They did not seem angry, actually, they were distinguished by greater tolerance. So, in some sense, the Soviet world turned its socially unproblematic side towards me, whereas intellectually it was the other way around. In these somewhat comfortable conditions I could problematize it, as Petya Schedrovitsky would put it. Of course, by the end of high school, I understood that I couldn’t agree with the way values were being realized. It was no longer enough that they were evoked, and, in this sense, I stopped being loyal to Soviet society. However, it also meant that this loyalty is now up to me, that now I have to do something to change the status quo. In my imagination, I became a revolutionary.
A revolutionary? A subject of historical action?
Yes! 1968 was the right time. I was finishing tenth grade and, during the winter break, I suddenly had the earth-shattering idea that if I want something then I must do something about it. And if I must, then it means that I can. This way of thinking changed me. I even remember the very day: it was January, winter break, and me, a total lazybones by nature… And suddenly there was a mission for me. I still didn’t know what would be involved, but I did know it existed and that meant I had to act quickly, that I had to formulate something quickly, to find it and so on. Moreover, it was a greatly energizing time, because, one after another, literally every week, there was something: Che Guevara, an advance of the Vietnamese, rebellion in Washington, Paris, Czechoslovakia, Poland…
What interested you in Che Guevara?
That he was a person going for broke. A hero of the will, but will with content, with a certain idea… I even began taking Spanish in order to run off to Latin America after tenth grade, but the lazybones in me took over. The idea was not convincing and I did not see how I could do it—I did not want to go and work for the KGB in order to end up in Cuba and gave up on this thought. But then I began to read like crazy: the Narodniks, Lavrov; I was a great fan of the Narodniks and Narodovoltsi. At the same time, I enjoyed the critics of revolution—Days by Shulgin, de Toqueville, Herzen, and so on. They inspired me. Paradoxically, they inspired me as a revolutionary… That is, I felt challenged.
But what was the content of your thought? What kind of a revolution would it be?
This was where I got stuck, I think for a year. I had a feeling that I could do anything, I just didn’t know what. But it would come. It would come. As a first-year student, I got to dialectic, to Marx, and I suddenly understood that Marx was not at all what they had taught us at school… And I became a Marxist. I put away Das Kapital for reading in prison—it was too big a book (laughs), too boring—and in the Butyrka prison I did in fact read it with a pencil in hand. In prison, I read all of Russian literature, which, with some exceptions—Dostoyevsky, Herzen—I did not love before. In prison, I read all the basics… And Marx somehow armed me. I don’t know what I would have done with Marxism had I not met Gefter, who quickly moved me to an approach that was more natural for me—from dialectical philosophizing to history. I met Gefter almost immediately after he was thrown out of the Academy of Sciences. It was in 1970. At that time, there was a pogrom in all of the humanities—history, philosophy. It was also an important event for me because I was making a choice… My former acquaintances, philosophers from the Institute of Philosophy, turned away from those who were later called dissidents. But I did not want to shun them.
If not from the first, then from the second meeting, I understood that I had found a person whom I loved not only intellectually but also erotically in the Greek sense of the word. Meaning that this was a complete person, a complete mind. Despite my ambitions, I never had the desire to compete with Gefter. To me, he was a genius and I could elevate myself next to him only in the capacity of a Salieri, and that was not interesting. He was a genius of the one-man show, a person who thought in your presence, together with you—in a truly Socratic style. But I wanted more. I felt that the events of the past were being realized here and now. And that I was as if returning to these events so that they would play out, so that they would discharge, if you will. Gefter had this idea of the living and the dead…
The living and the dead?
Yes, the living and the dead. History is a dialogue with the dead. In a sense, it is their return—not generally, not for the sake of a story in the common sense of the word, but for a dialogue. And I applied this to politics. He was pushing me to politics, but not the kind that was called politics in the Soviet society of the 1970s. In the Soviet society, politics was to write an alternative constitution and get thrown behind bars for five years. Or you could hide it in a glass jar and bury it into your vegetable garden. I met such people along the way in various places. In Aleksandrovo there was this wonderful little man, who watched me for a long time and then shared a copy-book with me—just for this purpose, he dug out his glass jar from his garden. He took Soviet songs, beginning with the anthem of the Soviet Union and the Internationale and wrote anti-versions to them: an anti-anthem of the Soviet Union, an anti-Internationale—all in an anti-Soviet spirit. It was complete nonsense (laughs), but if he were found out, he would in fact get a five-year sentence. So this was called politics. I was not at all interested in anything like this.
But if history is to be understood as a reconstruction of the past, how can a person become the subject of historical action?
This was based on Gefter, his concept of “alternativity”, namely: an event is never completed. An event that is taking place right now, for instance, between the two of us…
Is a continuation of something?
Even before it becomes a continuation of something, it also contains an internal variation. Using Gefter’s term, it is alternative. And the degree to which this “alternativity” is carried out, will depend on a number of things: our readiness, our feeling, thinking, ability to think alternatively… Or we can feel these alternatives, but we lack the language for them. And that is why we reject them—we cannot express them. Take Stalin’s language: Stalin developed it as an anti-alternative language, a language that abolishes even the place for alternativity. For that reason, any event is in a sense incomplete, it is open and it is possible to return to it. But the point is that you return to past events with some question, with some pain, with some sort of a crack in yourself. You need something, you are looking for something. You have a question, and it is this presence of an inner question, the ability to meet the known as something unexpected, that is the main precondition for the art of history. Or for thinking in general.
To clarify, would you give me a couple of examples of particular questions with which it would be possible to turn to the past? What kind of questions would these be?
In the 1970s such events in a sense had been already provided for me. These were events that needed to be reviewed and revised and people who needed to be understood. It was the Russian revolution and practically all the knots in Soviet history, for all of them had been given to me in a non-alternative, unequivocal interpretation. I wanted to understand them; I wanted to absorb them as unplugged, as elements of my thinking. In order to understand what the transition from Stalinism to the thaw represented, I read the Annals of Tacitus, and it was a very telling text. I did not draw any parallels, because any parallels would be useless, but the Annals helped me understand the essence of tyranny and the concealed mendacity of the thaw.
Well yes, there was this unreliability, namely, as it was later called, “a collective coming to our senses”. A tyrant is dead and people are collectively coming to their senses and sing the praises of the new tyrant (laughs)—for a short time, while they are allowed to do so.
If I understand you correctly, one can meaningfully address past events only if one still finds oneself in this event to some degree?
Because otherwise, if the event has ended, there is nothing to address.
Exactly right. The only question is whether or not the event has ended. According to Gefter, events form a continuum. In a sense, they do not have a cut-off date. But situations in which you can do or not do something have a deadline. According to Gefter, all of history is one. It is one event that’s placed between Golgotha and the present. He in fact thought that history begins at the moment when we start counting down to the Second Coming… That the very idea of the past originates in counting time in preparation for Doomsday. Incidentally, he was an atheist. So we do not have to use some wily ways to reach the past—in a sense, it is always available. Our problem is rather how to construct the distance, how to construct a dialogue with the past.
And it is available to us because we still find ourselves in…
Yes! We have never left the continuum. It reaches a conclusion, a terrible conclusion, but… I cannot and will not expound Gefter’s entire metaphysics, but inside this continuum, the problems have not been resolved—neither the problems of the October Revolution, nor the problems of Russia; the question posed by Chaadayev has not been answered, and Gefter considered it crucial for Russia. The paradox of Chaadayev is that Russia cannot not join humanity, but it also cannot bring about European education—a koan.
But tell me, is the October Revolution over by now?
By the fall of 2013 I thought that it was. And one of the main parameters of Putinism—to the degree that I constructed it—was a line drawn under the revolution, under Russian revolutions. Hello! We got a Ukrainian revolution! At first, it was a series of actions by Ukrainian politicians that, on the one hand, were understandable and sympathetic and, on the other hand, completely crazy, kind of missing the point. At first I could not understand how it was possible to never reach the target. But then, at some point I understood that no, it’s impossible to always do something beside the point. Something is happening, some sort of a process, which I simply do not recognize. And in January 2014, I understood what it is that I see before my eyes—for the first time, incidentally (there was nothing like it in either 2004 or in 1991): an actual, revived revolution. And one of its criteria is that a revolution never stops: either somebody squashes it from the outside or it is inverted, so to speak, from the inside. I looked on with great enjoyment—of course until Crimea happened: I was seeing the live process of revolution, which, I thought, I would never see in my life. And I also saw that the participants do not understand what it is they are taking part in—that too is a common trait of revolutions. And then I suddenly understood that we are not separated by a border, and that a revolution generally does not recognize any borders and that we are already too deeply involved in Ukraine to not end up…
Who is we?
Russia—both as represented by the Kremlin and various kinds of actors. We are already there. And I got frightened even before Crimea happened as to whether we would be able to hold back and then I understood that we could not.
No, we could not. Frankly, 1917 was the prism through which I was looking at what was happening…
Until the Crimean events?
Yes. … and looking at their government, which strangely enough speaks a language that half of the country does not understand and busies itself with setting up an election that others don’t need… These are all things harking back to 1917.
Meaning that it seemed that the revolution was over but then all of a sudden it turns out…
Yes, yes! That it has not ended! But I think that the events in Ukraine are not Russian, although Ukraine is a country that partly shares its border with Russia. The task is to separate the Ukrainian from the Russian. Here I am not talking about nations, which, on the one hand, have yet to appear and, on the other hand, it is not possible because Russians are not a nation.
Russians are not a nation?
Of course they are not. I had a dream that I would suddenly succeed, but Gefter always warned me not to bother, that Russians are not a nation…
If not a nation then what are they?
In a sense, Russians are a function of space and the power that is holding this space; you could call them the “service personnel”. As of the 19th Century, this function includes also the Russian culture, but this culture is the bearer of a program that cannot be implemented because, politically, it can be inverted only in a crazy way, the way Lenin did it, or in no way at all. For that reason, it is impossible to build democracy on the foundation of Russian culture, it cannot be done.
Several Ukrainians who watched, with wonder and excitement, what was happening at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014, said to me that one could read from people’s faces that a nation was being born. I don’t know whether it’s naive…
I think this is an exaggeration. First of all, one can see different things on people’s faces. Bush Junior looked into Putin’s eyes and saw there a man of faith. Indeed, the faith was of the same kind as his own. I don’t think he lied. Moreover, a person may not be able to hold onto what appears on his face. Today they have it; the next day it’s gone. Another day, they may not even be able to explain what it was. A nation cannot be seen on the faces of people, for it is not a subjective feature.
Of course! But the birth of it may be a subjective state.
Well, the question is what exactly was born. Gefter would probably ask: “Are you sure that something was in fact born? Let us discuss what exactly it was. And what was born, was it really a nation?” Particularly if almost half of the country looked at it with horror or, in the best case, incomprehension? And as a politician, I would ask: What are you—nuts? Can’t they simply… the stage is under their control and they can’t allow every third speaker to speak in Russian? That would immediately solve almost all of the problems. Especially because offstage almost everyone spoke Russian. On the square—I was there—they spoke Russian. Even as they were making Molotov cocktails, they conversed in Russian. But from the stage they spoke Ukrainian at different levels of quality. For Klichko, for example, it was a real torment. They failed to understand a simple thing: a step toward nationhood in the European sense would have been to include a certain number of Russian speakers, so that it would not disappear, so that they would not lose audience.
Have we been lately living through a fast happening history?
I am not sure about the we, but I do live in it… I live in it. By now I am already looking at it as a kind of pathology if you will, or an oddity, which for some reason I needed. It is a way of using time. Man, after all, is simply a kind of play with time—at least while he is alive. So I decided to use it this way—by including history in my biography and because of this I have lost something and gained something. Every live creature possesses its inner time, but mine has become an inner historical time. It is rather difficult to get out of that—to get back to privacy probably would not be possible.
How do you understand and think about the present moment in history?
Here I depend on Gefter, my teacher, because I do not have my own separate conception of history and I feel no need to develop one. After a long and difficult thought process he came to the conclusion that history had exhausted itself. Homo historicus has ended, he has been depleted. Okay, so he is depleted, but he has to live somehow. And so he tries to go about non-historical tasks with the historical tools known to him—progress, revolution, war, nation, sovereignty and so on. He does not have any other instruments, and new tasks cannot be tackled with the ones he has. Because of this, Gefter thought, many absurd wars will break out, all the old genres—sovereignty, war, utopia—will return in absurd forms. He thought, roughly speaking, that a change of resources used by homo is taking place. Before he worked with externally accrued resources, but now he only has the inner resources that are organic to him as a human being. And that is dangerous. In a sense, he has to treat himself like the world. Like the ecumene.
Like the whole?
Yes, and various. Treat himself as various. And the other too as various.
Please explain. Changing?
No, varied all at once. One of the historical illusions or manias, if you will, is unity. Unity is a purely historical idea. It is very powerful, but it reached its outer limits under communism and ended up you know how. But at the individual level, it is the same—an illusion of the unity of a person. Gefter thought that it was impossible, and here arises some difficulties. He was mostly interested in Russia. And I too was mostly interested in Russia. He thought that one of the main actions of historical man is redistribution.
Redistribution of what?
Anything. You grab it, you redistribute. And re-redistribute. You grab what’s already been grabbed—you re-redistribute again. It is a good occupation—albeit with the loss of life for thousands and millions of people. But then difficulties arise. Farther down the road, one has to return to evolution. There is no other way out of history except one or another variation of evolution. History, on the other hand, is an escape from evolution.
This I don’t understand.
The historical man is an escapee, a creature that… There is a good parallel with the famous poem by Voloshin: “At some point, the dark and shaggy beast / lost his mind / and woke up human”, «Когда-то темный и косматый зверь, сойдя с ума, очнулся человеком».
So history is an escape from the animal?
No, not from the animal. It is already a fully human creature, but it is a man in evolution. For instance, Homo mythicus, man living in myth, accepts the system. Evolution is his system of natural selection. This was not the road taken, and civilization is wandering.
How could one of such possibilities be described by way of the original sin? Man falls out of paradise and into history?
I can’t say anything about paradise, but Gefter and I discussed the problem of the original sin—he was tormented by that problem. To him it was a mystery, this original sin. What is it? It appears at the moment when some creature—subject to evolution like all other creatures—refuses to obey. It seems to break laws, it finds a side exit. Among the old warrior societies there is a rule: a man who walks into a cave without a second exit, deserves to die. So the creature finds a second exit and this exit, in Gefter’s view, was somehow tied to murdering the other. Because the murder of the other is confirmation that you are not dead. He is. And it is the beginning of reflection in our sense of the word. Here a kind of drama begins, tied to the institutions of history. Meaning that he stops being someone who can be simply crossed out because “well, it didn’t work”. This mutation didn’t work but another one went right ahead.
So “falling” into history or finding the side exit happens simultaneously with… Man “comes to his senses” and at that very moment becomes another?
Yes, of course. Up to then he is an interesting creature with a great potential; essentially, a cockroach. Or a rat, but a very smart rat. Although perhaps even not smarter than any rat. And they live next to each other.
At the beginning of our conversation, you said that Gefter pushed you into politics, but not the kind practiced in the Soviet Union. What kind of politics was it then?
The main thing to realize is that you know nothing about the stage on which you have decided to act. And you don’t know the script and don’t even know where the stage is and you misunderstand the main characters. Your head is full of nonsense picked up from newspapers, from public opinion, etc. And all this junk… As he would say, “with such jokes, there is no point for Einstein to go to Odessa”.
Wait, to push someone into politics in that sense amounts to pushing someone in a dark room where God only knows what’s happening…
The main thing is the initial demarcation. You need a minimum initial demarcation: you in relation to those who require your action. Your action is challenged from more than one side. I would have liked to have just one challenge, but he says: “But what if you have two or three? There is just one of you and you cannot perform three different actions at the same time. Or this action has to be of the kind you cannot even imagine. But do not even try to simplify the starting point. If you do not like Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev—and he has not been sent on this Earth for your pleasure—then figure out what it’s about. Try to describe the situation of Brezhnev without mentioning the name “Brezhnev”. It is quite useful, by the way. Like now—without even attempting to figure out the Russian political situation, all talk is about Putin.
In what way, having entered that dark room, did you introduce the first demarcations? How did any light and any more or less recognizable beings, lines, borders appear?
I took the silliest, longest and most difficult route. It was a guaranteed wrong way. And the first turning point for me was dissidentism. Particularly when I left Odessa and completely changed my life stereotype. Yet this turning point, which was related to dissidentism, had also a positive side, because, literally before my arrest, I discovered the solidity of the social body, which, first of all, is viscous—it does not care about the claims that you address to it, be it the categorical imperative or a political program. The body already exists. It is something.
It already possesses some sort of internal structure?
Yes. Then I called it a system, for I was a believer in the systemic approach. And this system… Once it disturbs you, it means that it’s successful. You cannot enter it like a knife plunges into butter. Irrespective of the KGB. It does not stretch in only one direction. Wherever you might go, you end up in it. And another thing, related to the first one: it appears viscous to those who try to bulldoze their way through but move in anticipated directions. It is a well-known fact that the Germans could have taken Moscow if only they had not driven down highways. The Red Army was only controlling the highways. But between highways—come right on. But their tanks could not move through mud.
Okay, but let’s move ahead toward your growing political understanding.
The next turning point coincided with the breakup of the USSR. By that time, it seemed to me, there had developed very dense horizontal ties which in some places sided with the local Soviets and in other places joined with politics. Some of my friends joined popular fronts, including in the Baltics. Thousands of newspapers came out. On the other hand, cooperatives appeared. I immediately got involved. But in 1991, it all collapsed.
In what way did the breakup of the Soviet Union change your understanding of politics? Or what new elements did it bring about?
First, it was a collapse that ruined my utopia. I had thought that in another five years we would become a self-sufficient society. Because the cooperatives were in fact small businesses. There was much that was interesting. On the other hand, I had already begun to wage a battle with politicization. I saw that it was gathering force and Yeltsin was becoming a kind of password for the entire Union…
Yes, a password. He was that even for those who did not like him. Yeltsin was useful even for the Baltic nationalists whose attitude toward Russian nationalism was very cautious. But they were satisfied with Yeltsin’s type of nationalism and Yeltsin’s form of politicization, because he was simply undermining the system and they felt that what I was talking about was yet to become topical. But I felt that society was not yet ready for power. It could not provide a political vanguard. From above, however, we were being harnessed by Popov, Sobchak and others—I knew these guys. I had no illusions. I saw how they hid first behind our backs when it was still dangerous and then, gradually passing us over, ended up in the presidium. And I still wanted to keep Gorbachev for a couple of years in the role of an umbrella or a shell within which society could mature. But that did not come to pass…
But you have not said a word about what effect the collapse of the Soviet Union had on your understanding of politics.
I will tell you. Literally a month after the Byelovezh agreements were signed, I understood that all that time I had tried to fight by means of journalism. I did not have any other tools. I tried to convince and cajole. But whom? The same ones for whom I had already lost respect. They read my articles. I was a popular writer. The magazine Vek ХХ i Mir was quite popular.
And you understood that it was a weak position?
Yes, it was a weak and politically doomed position. I had basically tried to build an improved module of dissidentism where the press of the perestroika—Moskovskiye Novosti, Vek XX i Mir, etc.—would replace Samizdat. But essentially it was the same Samizdat. And below was the toothless society, in a sense the same as the community of dissidents, only bigger…
And it too had a weak position?
Yes, it had no backbone. I had a very painful feeling of failure that lasted for two years. From 1991 to 1993, I continued under the momentum of failure, trying all the time to come up with something. I had the news agency PostFactum. In 1993, I began to understand that what I had considered something of secondary importance—the fact that I know how to develop information structures—is actually the most important thing. I understood that what was needed was not news agencies but what I then called the informative political complexes of direct action. You begin by acquiring control over the process—not administrative but symbolic control. And then you convert it into political or any other power. So then I began to ponder how it could be done. And I understood that it was simply a technical problem. In such a fragmented society, which [Yegor] Gaidar had turned into a hundred million paupers, there was a huge deficit of ties. It wants to be united, it is hungry for uniting symbols. So they should be given to it. Not just once, but as many times as necessary, always renewing them. So it means that machinery has to be built. I did not formulate it so cynically, because parallel to it all I also had a “Russian Project”. My idea was very simple, and I am actually not giving up on it now: “being Russian” has to be restarted. But from what point of departure? From those who will decide that they are Russians and will begin to act accordingly. In 1995, Chernishev and I and some other people established the Russian Institute as an instrument of the “Russian Project”. But at the same time, as tends to happen when you have found the right solution, you are overwhelmed with possibilities. So the “Foundation of Effective Politics” was born. The idea for it came from the outside.
Would you say that the “Foundation of Effective Politics” represented the machinery for obtaining power?
At first it was not meant for that. The first text I wrote for Lebed as a concept for this campaign was simply the “Russian Project”. We were developing a position that would be neither left nor right; it would be powerful and liberal at the same time, and at its centre would be the Russian, not in the ethnic sense but rather in the civic and political nation sense. We modelled it after the Republican Party. We wanted to form a Russian analogue of the Republican Party.
So, in your understanding, you reached the realization that you had to act and act from the position of power?
Yes. And for that purpose that position should be taken.
Did these actions and taking of positions have any effect on your understanding of politics?
If we are to consider the end result, I would say that I suffered a terrible failure on a scale that continues to increase instead of the opposite. But here I violated the rule of my youth when I worked as a mover. When you carry a piano or a wardrobe on these narrow Soviet staircases, at first that shit just does not move and then it begins to move and a dangerous moment is reached when it begins to move with ease. It means that now it will crush the person at the lower end. And I let that moment pass. (Laughter.) When the wardrobe took off, I thought—oh, how wonderful! Success! Triumph! Wardrobes can fly! They do indeed. And then they land on someone.
In the letter you sent me you mentioned that in 1999 you reached a state of altered consciousness. Could you describe that state?
That is difficult because it has to do with a completely different part of my life which we did not discuss and which I probably would not want to discuss. Simply put, it is related to a childish idea of mine about life a footstep away. This idea occurred to me when I wandered around grandma’s garden: all of it was 400–500 square metres, but to me it seemed vast, and the thought occurred to me that another life was somewhere nearby. That it is only an illusion that one had to prepare for a long time, to train oneself, produce achievements in sports. That there is another way: one can cut corners. And for that, one must only look at everything differently. Just a little differently, as if through polarized glass. And then a path will become visible. Then many other strata got added to this during the period of my quest, which, without going into detail, I will summarize by the words New Age. But this feeling never left me and then, strangely enough, it got transferred to the political register—in any political situation I also look for ways to cut corners.
And to look in a different way?
Yes, for that you first have to look in a different way and then you see that a complicated, practically unresolvable situation can be solved easily… You have to think of three words. Perhaps five. But you also cannot think of them or think of them wrong, which is even worse, and then you will be able to solve half of the problem, but will get stuck in the unsolved part. This setup always returned to me when I faced some sort of a dead end—a too-complicated and involved situation—I think that Putin now faces that kind of a situation—where my personal problems, personal entanglements with women, with family, with myself, fused with the political ones. That’s how it was at the beginning of 1999: I had moved to a different apartment a year earlier, but was not unpacking—my things were in the kind of bags that those peddlers take with them to China. They were just lying there and taking up one of the rooms. Fifty bags. I did not know if I wanted to stay there or move one more time. In other words, I decided that I should enter, as I called it then, the portal. The word portal came to me from my then infatuation with the Internet. An important requirement was that the entrance was supposed to be such that an exit would be impossible. In other words, you just have to walk quickly.
So that we don’t end up speaking a language no one understands, what do you mean by entering a portal?
By that I mean that you have to do what you have never done and do not want to do. Particularly what you do not want to do. Where the greatest obstacles are found and thus also the greatest expenditure of energy.
Is it not an idea borrowed from Hölderlin—that salvation is found where there is the greatest danger?
I did not have the concept of salvation then; that word appeared later. The idea was not so much salvation but rather an experiment.
With whom did you want to experiment? With yourself or others?
With myself, of course. Others were the problem. In January of 1999, I began to take actions, one after another—not political, I am not talking about politics—which not only I had never taken before but did not want to take, because I was afraid.
So you appealed to the Devil?
No, not the Devil. If I had appealed to the Devil I think we would now be conversing in a completely different company.
(Laughs.) Recall if you will how Leibniz mentioned a friend who could not think how to translate Aristotle’s notion of entelecheia. So he appealed to the Devil for help. And the Devil explained to him how to translate the word entelecheia into Latin. But you did not concern yourself with such nonsense?
No. That is too romantic. I will not tell you how and what I did, but in the course of a few weeks or maybe even a few months, I acted in ways that were unusual for me. It had nothing to do with any religious experiments. I was not a religious person then, I even had not been baptised.
Let us take another step forward. Was this experiment with yourself in some way related to the reason why you are sometimes called the person who invented Putinism?
It is related, without a doubt.
First of all, I worked on Putinism all through the 1990s, that is, on what was subsequently called that. At that time, there of course was no such word. I worked on the idea of brilliant power all through the 1990s and even before. And the period from winter of 1998 to 1999 was already the final stage of the project “Heir”.
But, for the time being, it was an anonymous brilliant power and the name appeared later?
The name did not matter at all. The idea was that power must be invulnerable independently of personality. You can put whomever in that place and that’s exactly how it happened.
Meaning that “whoever” was in fact put in power?
Well, not completely. It was not decided by someone like me. It was decided by Boris Nikolaevich [Yeltsin]; he would have never trusted anyone else with the choice.
Whereas you were busy creating the framework for the brilliant power?
Yes. But that about which you asked me made me… more flexible perhaps. More ready for unexpected decisions. Unexpected decisions are always easy. And that’s where the danger lies that… I think I made mistakes… But simple solutions not only save energy—they show the whole picture differently. A simple solution may be right there on the table, everyone sees it, but no one realizes that…
Which ones of your simple solutions do you now consider a mistake?
I think the very idea of brilliant power was a mistake.
Where did you get it?
It is my own idea. But, speaking of simple solutions, here is an example. Everyone was of the opinion that Yeltsin would hold on to power to the very last, even though he had a very simple solution—the Constitution allowed him to leave before the end of the term.
Did you prompt him?
That is not how it happens—that I whisper something into his ear. I simply work it out. I would say: what kind of resources do we have? The power is weak, the elites are fragmented. But there is a wonderful thing: all of the opposition is convinced that Yeltsin will hold on to power to the very last. They are preparing for it; they are focused on it. That means that we can yank that rug from under their feet. Another thing: they are focused on Yeltsin, and that is very good. That means that they are not focusing on the heir. They will wage battle with Yeltsin and the heir will just move forward.
How much time was necessary for the operation “Heir” to make the new power independent? Not just inherited but able to stand on its own two feet?
Well, already at the beginning of year 2000…
So less than a year?
Less than a year. Yes, and, frankly, I was in an interesting and not entirely normal state of consciousness… I was seen dancing on counters in bars…
No, not naked. Although perhaps… I don’t know. I don’t always remember what I used to do then. Luckily, they did not follow me much at that time; that started only in the summer. That summer, news items about me began to appear in the tabloids—where and with whom I spend my weekends—and I had to limit myself. But in fact I got upset with Yeltsin who kept delaying the appointment of an heir—so I just decided to not give a damn and bought tickets to KaZantip.
KaZantip. There was this nice, fun place in Crimea, kind of a rave festival in the ruins of an old nuclear power plant.
(Laughs.) And why there?
It’s a lot of fun there.
You didn’t have enough fun in Moscow or what?
Of course not. Moscow is a boring city.
But fun depends on you and not on the city.
I simply wanted to move on. But nothing came of it. On the day when I was supposed to take my flight, I got a call in the morning informing me that Putin has been appointed prime minister, and it was all over.
What did it mean for you personally that he was appointed prime minister?
It meant that everything else was cancelled.
So everything suddenly became historically serious?
No, it has nothing to do with historical seriousness but rather with the fact that all energy is directed at one point. It is no longer spread out. And in that period, up to December, I was completely maniacal. I think that last month I never ate with anyone else. I already had a feel for the keyboard, for the game, and I was sure that we would win, although many thought that it might not come to pass.
But the game that you started lasted more than one or two years. In that twelve-year period, can you separate out the main changes in your understanding of the rules of your own game? You changed them along the way, didn’t you?
Many times. Almost immediately, as of the beginning of the year 2000 and not of my own free will but because of the circumstances, I became one of the voices of the new regime. It is a period that I am trying to push out of my consciousness, because it was a difficult three years.
Wait a minute, but being a voice—it is just theatre, a representative function.
No, I don’t agree with you at all. I continued to give shape to power, except at that point I was doing it discursively and figuratively. I was giving it voice. Power is born mute; it cannot speak. It looks stupid. I am the one to provide it with form, voice and means. Today you can see where it has led. The particular shamelessness of this regime… I was developing it with great pleasure. That triumphant shamelessness: “What are you talking about? Who are you? Who do you think you are? You have money? I don’t give a damn about your money!” Berezovsky says: “I am a shareholder of the First Channel.” And I say to him: “These are just candy wrappers, Boris Abramovich. They are candy wrappers. Take them.” That’s how I was giving shape to this golem.
Recently I talked to Petr Schedrovitsky and he said something that I would like to introduce to our conversation. He said: “Yes, but Gleb has a tendency to exaggerate his role in creating these processes.”
But of course. How can I look at it critically? Then I would have to move to a different genre, that of historical analysis, in order to show, for instance, that the idea of Yeltsin’s premature departure could have entered the heads of very different people. The fact that I directed the planning of the campaign does not mean that I was its creator. Without people like Voloshin, there would have been no such campaign. I could have self-confidence exactly because there were people in whom I had confidence, even though some of them I saw for the first time. There are things about which I know for sure that I thought of them, but to me it’s… Yes, I invented them, yes—“Putin’s majority,” for instance, but I could not have put it together myself. It was a collective effort.
Perhaps we should return to the three to five words that you said would be enough for a situation to change. Apart from “Putin’s majority,” what other essential phrases did you come up with?
Many. “Dictatorship of law”, “the vertical of power”…
I would like to mention another person. They say that Efim Ostrovsky was the one who taught “political technology” to you.
I am sure I would not have moved in that direction without Efim. There are a few people who, at times when I had reached a dead end in my life, pulled me out… One such time was in 1993, after the October events, and to me it was the depths of depression. At election time—and these elections were disgusting to me, for they followed the shootings that took place in October—Efim was campaign manager for my good friend Nikolai Gonchar, the chairman of Moscow City Council. The entire new power—Yeltsin, Luzhkov, everyone—was against him. They actually wanted to put him behind bars. But thanks to Efim, he ended up in the Duma. That was important to me.
That’s about him. How about your relation to him?
There was no training. There was a discovery, and that was more valuable. This reality had not existed for me.
So because of Efim you thought: “Well, maybe this is how it can be done?”
Yes, of course. It was the end of 1993, and afterwards I began to follow this sphere carefully, which I think Efim then called “humanitarian technologies”. You have to understand that to us, an election is something not kosher. It is not the way to do things. It is not a moral action and not an existential choice. It is something boring. But I suddenly understood: “Wow, this is a way to punish everyone! Everyone who had tormented me.”
You used a Jewish legend to describe what you did after 1999 as making a golem. That was probably not accidental? That word didn’t just escape from your mouth, did it?
Yes, it is of course a golem. If you had asked me at the time: “Are you sure that the situation you are creating will be manageable?” I would have probably prevaricated. For I did not have an answer.
Meaning that you did not know if it would be manageable?
Given the signs, I of course did think that it was manageable. But by then I was already playing a kind of a risky game with myself.
Please tell me what are the components of the situation that you are calling shaping a golem? There’s Vladimir Putin.
But it is hardly a one-man show. That’s exactly why I had confidence. I thought that the balance between the Kremlin team—including Putin, who, from my point of view, was a brilliant learner and was even slightly above the level of the others—and the overall situation in the country will provide the necessary number of brakes. Meaning that it could not all go downhill. I was mistaken.
Why was that?
At that time, even Nemtsov congratulated Putin’s rise to power. That is an important indicator because Putin headed a very broad coalition of the right and the left and everyone in between. The first reforms whereby the old Council of the Federation was destroyed were supported both by Yavlinsky and the Communists. That’s why I could think this way. Of course, it’s no excuse.
But if you look at it now, can you point out the root of your mistake?
It was of course being blinded by my own desires. Passionate desires. I desired that power. Desire is stronger than any plan or project. And I took pleasure in kneading together the formless political matter. It yielded. But of course even Mr. Speer could say something like that in his own defense.
But this is not a trial. It is just a conversation.
The very idea of superpower is of course a deeply Russian idea. But it is not monarchical, not monarchical at all.
No, but it seems something to do with romantic demons. When I mentioned the Devil, you noted that you are not quite so romantic. Yet the idea of brilliant power is just that—a romantic idea. Genius comes from demons as we all know.
Why go so deep into literature if there is the notion of resentment caused by trauma, which to me was the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the inability to stop when this resentment turned into an idea of revenge. The idea of revenge is always “resentimental”. Man is not pure. You cannot separate out just one channel. He has greed. And the most dangerous sphere is the one that the person himself considers the purest.
Because of his blindness.
Exactly. It is blindness, yes. And of course I was blinded by the thought, which I already had during my dissident years—the possibility of restoring, by a single correct movement, some sort of ideal Soviet Union. To restore the ideal in Soviet life, which I sensed there.
But in reality it was not there?
No, no, you are mistaken. As a writer of my youth had it: “How can there be no happiness if I have felt it myself and not only once?” (Laughs.) When we talk about Soviet freethinking, we always discuss how the spirit of protest arises in a person. But we should ask how pleasure is born in a person. Pleasure in reality.
When you say “should”—why should we?
What do you mean? The ideal in life, in the perception of the world—this is what is at the basis of future blindness.
But in the political sense it is of course the error of utopia—I am definitely a utopian. First of all, I have always loved utopians, and Lenin, who in some ways is my teacher, was one of them.
In what sense was he your teacher?
I simply have always thought about the October Revolution. I have always measured everything against it. It is the ideal model of an ideal political action.
But how can this ideal of political action incorporate violence, which was a rather substantial part of it?
It was not a substantial part. It became that only later. That’s the problem of the blinded. The revolution of 1917 was probably the least violent revolution in world history.
But how long did that last?
That’s not important.
I am sorry, it isn’t. It was a good, beautiful and precise act…
A brief moment in history. Just a moment.
Not just a moment, we are still living under its sway.
Wait a minute. We are living under the impact of these subsequent steps, which you mentioned. And there was no longer any ideal revolution.
Wait a minute, don’t turn me into some sort of an ideal socialist. I am talking about something else.
A part of the violence…
Oh God, stop already with the violence… Is there anything non-violent in someone’s politics? No, there is not. Is there non-violence in discourse? No. Any dominant discourse is repressive. And the Internet is the ideal vehicle for creating totalitarian situations without applying violence from the outside. Look how it happens: violence is simply how people live. People are the source of the worst kind of violence. The fact that at some moment they are not using it against each other is always an exception.
How do you distinguish between manipulation of others from having an impact on others?
Only in terms of scale.
Meaning that manipulation is stronger?
Naturally. It is over the red line. Yet we manipulate even as we speak.
Like you are doing with me and I with you.
Yes, only neither of us has any significant goals.
(Laughs.) No, I do have a very significant goal. I want to understand what was happening in your mind when you were making the golem.
Violence of course was present in this project by default, and it was the war in Chechnya. The war in Chechnya became an indispensable element of the new regime. Chechnya became the kind of “victim” in René Girard’s sense of the word, which is necessary so that everyone would feel relieved. We conducted surveys about fear—what people are afraid of. People incidentally were not afraid of Chechnya. But the index of anxiety kept rising until the fall of 1999. People were afraid of the craziest things. In the stuffy, stagnant Leningrad Oblast where nothing at all was happening, the fear of civil war was in the first place. What civil war? Who would be fighting whom? People there sit in their villages and don’t go anywhere. But apparently anomie was accumulating in them. But it miraculously disappeared with the appearance of Putin and the beginning of war in Chechnya. And—this I have to admit—we sacrificed Chechnya to the new regime.
Yes. Of course, consciously.
But whose idea was it to sacrifice Chechnya? At first there was no such idea, was there?
No, there was no such idea because the scenario was playing out fine without it. The problem was elsewhere. There was a critical four or five days at the beginning of September when Basayev was in Dagestan and in Moscow there were explosions. Neither Putin nor his main enemy Luzhkov knew what to say. Now it is clear that if Luzhkov had said a day earlier that we should go to war with Chechnya, he would have won the election and no technologies of ours would have changed anything. It was simply a moment when everyone felt terrible panic and no one knew whom to support.
How do you explain the fact that these explosions in Moscow became a real icing on the cake for the conspiracy theorists?
Well, it was obviously a dirty game on the part of the other side and…
Whose dirty game?
Luzhkov, Primakov, NTV.
The explosions were a dirty game?
No, the way they were used. You see, the problem is that until the fall of 1999, Chechnya did not seem like a winning issue for anyone. Quite the opposite. People would say: “No, we don’t want it.” It never occurred to them that… It was not popular.
So because of the situation in Dagestan and in Moscow it became a winning issue?
Not because of these situations but because a person appeared who said: “I will protect you.” If Luzhkov had been the first to do it … because there was a hesitation that lasted several days. There was silence. Had Luzhkov been first, we would have lost.
Let us get back to the golem. In what situation did you begin to notice that the golem became independent of your ideas?
The golem had to be independent. That was essential. If it is dependent, it is not a golem.
If you are a master of the Kabbalah, then…
Let’s not go there. One should not go too far in one’s use of metaphor. I think that I began to dislike certain things after the YUKOS affair. And my dislike became very strong considerably later when demeritocratization of the new regime took place. Because it was supposed to be meritocratic.
According to your ideas?
Yes, but not only according to mine. I think we did not disagree on this issue with anyone—Surkov, Voloshin or Medvedev. But there was a point when the number of riff-raff that attached themselves to the golem began to exceed, in terms of mass and number, all others.
When did you notice this riff-raff and why did you not leave right away?
Of course because you fight for your thing to the end. You fight for your thing to the end. And I thought that I would fight to the end.
Would fight but didn’t?
Well, I was lucky that the Kremlin threw me out in the spring of 2011, because otherwise it is possible that in the fall of 2011 I might have thought how to protect them from Bolotnaya. Whereas now I could go with pure conscience to Bolotnaya. It is a changed state of consciousness. Not from the outside. From the outside there are many possibilities, but there inside…
But you did not remain in an altered state of consciousness for eleven years, did you?
I remained in an altered state of consciousness for fifteen years.
Yes, from 1996 to 2011.
And what effect did it have on your psychic health?
Probably quite substantial. I think I would generally be of interest to psychopathologists.
Did you consult anyone?
I have been a friend of psychotherapists since my youth.
And what do they say about you? That psychically you are quite healthy?
Well, I am not any sicker than they are.
(Laughs.) But looking from the outside… to be one who is ready to protect the Kremlin from Bolotnaya and then go to Bolotnaya himself… it is a truly major change that took place in you.
Yes, it did.
But can you describe the content and meaning of this internal turnaround?
The meaning was a return to an earlier version of myself. I think there is no other way. When a person finds himself too deep in one state, he cannot simply leap to something new. No, my friend, you first go back to the beginning and then do your neglected homework. I think that is what is happening with Putin, by the way.
What is it that’s happening?
Having made the stupid, from my point of view, set of moves in 2011, he too experienced the kind of stress I did when I was not let through the Spassky Gate to the Kremlin and then returned to the 1970s. He even began to talk somewhat differently. Note that he has begun to frequently mention all kinds of things from Soviet times, to which others are listening in bewilderment, not understanding what he is talking about. But he is relating bits and pieces from Soviet history or Russian history from the Soviet angle.
But when you were still allowed into the Kremlin, to what extent the language he used was invented by you?
I cannot say. I did not write his speeches. But there is a different issue. This new style of Putin’s results from a contextual, systemic impact. I worked on creating the context, and in this context, I knew in advance what he would say. He began talking and I knew what he would say even though it was never agreed. There was a very high degree of internal synchronization and understanding, so I could immediately…
You understood each other?
Now that you look back on that period in your life, are you dealing with the notion of responsibility? That is, “to a certain degree, I am responsible for this situation?”
Of course I am responsible, and not just to some degree, but to a very high degree. And I will not dispute any degree of responsibility with which I might be presented. But to me the question is rather: how could it have happened? Where exactly, at which point exactly, did I slip up? There are people who sidled up to the Kremlin team for selfish reasons. If that were the case with me, I would feel wonderful, because God giveth and God taketh away. But that’s not the case. There was the moment of temptation and challenge. But the worst thing is—and this is what a philosopher is accusing me of—to have been the co-creator of the Führer-principle. Of course I cannot deny it. I can only explain why and limit the accusation. But of course I was an insider and I lived the idea of the Führer-principle.
But in the last three years you haven’t had the temptation to shoot yourself?
No. Why? We did not get that far, although right now it does seem to me that we did go far. And of course I should have thought of… After all, as a child in my grandmother’s garden I read Ray Bradbury’s story about the butterfly. And I agreed with it fully, including the ending. Yes, it was the butterfly effect. But where the butterfly was, that is the task of my analysis. That is of interest to me and to those who are interested in analysis.
As you look back on this period, do you see the golem turn into a monster? Or is it too metaphorical?
Generally speaking, all golems turn into monsters; and if some have not done so, it’s only because they were shot before it could happen or because they fell apart because they were poorly made. Without a doubt, we should have given more thought to the reverse process, to stepping on brakes. One of my first psychoanalysts said that as a child he wanted to be a hypnotist but then he realized that to bring people out of hypnosis is much cooler… Because people are constantly in a state of hypnosis; they should be helped to get out of it. I of course let that moment pass. After 2000, I should have abruptly changed direction and thought about all that, about the risks. Whereas I went into a frenzy.
Sometime in the summer of 2011, I talked to Bronislav Vinogrodsky and, based on his Chinese numerological schemes, he said that 2014 will be the last year of Putin’s power. So a few days ago I went to him and asked: “Bronislav, do you have any idea what year it is? Either your Chinese have made a mistake or you don’t know how to read them.” But he said: “There’s no mistake. I was talking about the essence and not about the externals. Only the façade remains, but inside it has all fallen apart.”
And he is right.
Could you explain to an ignorant person exactly in what sense he is right?
He is right in that… It is like Rubik’s cube—you can turn it any which way because Ernö Rubik invented the internal pivot. While the pivot is intact, the cube works fine. But once the pivot wears out, one or several little cubes will fall off with every move. And that’s exactly what is happening now.
The cube is falling apart?
Yes. The pivot has fallen apart. It does not mean that Russia has fallen—or is falling—apart. But it means that the brilliant power we created… By the way, we created it in order to give rise to an indestructible Russia—and this is what constitutes our greatest political failure. An indestructible, invulnerable Russia had to be the result and product of this project. And Putin too had this goal. Yet now the result is that we have Russia facing enormous risks. The country again will have to somehow survive as the state falls apart. As far as I can see, it is already falling apart.
Could you place it in a temporal framework—that moment when the fuckup and collapse will be total?
You know, if we are to take the theory of fuckup seriously, then a total fuckup is just a phase of fuckup and not necessarily the concluding one. You see, a total fuckup can set in under conditions of outer stability. I think that it has already been prepared.
By whom? Extraterrestrials? Secret services?
Why? Of course not, by all of us. The country was ripe for self-destruction in 2013. But under such circumstances—and it is hardly news—it begins to think about who is destroying it. And the more it is preoccupied with those who supposedly are destroying it, the more it is self-destructing. It is a well-known mechanism. Putin can play any role here. His leaving may facilitate the collapse. His leaving may also play the opposite role—stopping the degradation process of the system—but that I find hard to believe. It is more likely that the collapse will set in while he is at the helm, during his presidency. Because the destruction has touched the heart of the system, his team and its ability to act. It has misused its potential and, in all likelihood, has lost it. We see it today. Whatever it touches comes to ruin. The rouble in December, Ukraine in 2014. And the focals of ruin do not disappear. There are always new ones. The murder of Nemtsov. The investigation immediately brought to light the in-fighting of some sort of several distinct teams about the concept of the investigation.
I read in Izvestiya that it was Allah who ordered the murder of Nemtsov.
The newspaper Izvestiya does not even bear talking about. I think that we can anticipate a much more interesting and horrifying moment when it becomes clear that it is of no importance who ordered the murder. It will be much more important who gets the monopoly on the investigation. Right now there is fighting as to which of the interested parties will get a monopoly on the investigation. But since this fighting is taking place in one man’s head, the battlefield is the head of a single person, and the stress may be more than he can handle. I would not want to be in his place. (Laughs.) This is where the collapse begins… or ends.
Last question. What gives you the greatest joy in life?
I can tell you about the next greatest—but not about the greatest: reading books while lying on a couch in a room that’s locked—but from the inside, not from the outside.
Questions by Arnis Rītups
Translated by Ieva Lešinska