Beyond the Limits of the Permissible

Peter Pomerantsev

In The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek takes a scalpel to the late Soviet period. The surface, spoken ideology, Žižek argues, was not what actually held the system together. You could joke about ‘great leaders’ and the inadequacies of Marxist economics: the system let you have a giggle. The real holy of holies was the idea of the narod (‘common people’), in whose name the leadership could validate any action. Thus the deeply subversive nature of Milos Forman’s early, Czechoslovak films such as The Firemen’s Ball, which portrayed the narod as stupid, greedy, ugly. This was a cut the system couldn’t take and Forman had to leave.

Over the last few days Russia’s only independent (and really rather small) TV channel, TV Rain, was accused by the Kremlin of stepping ‘beyond the limits of the permissible’. Most cable carriers dumped the station, leaving it in crisis and its future under serious question.

The official reason for the move is a poll the channel conducted about whether Leningrad should have been abandoned to the Germans in the Second World War (the siege costs more lives than any other battle in the war). TV Rain have apologised if the poll caused any offence. The Great Patriotic War is held up by the state as one of Russia’s great ‘spiritual binds’. But other media, including the State TV channel Kultura, not to mention school textbooks, have raised the question of the Leningrad blockade without any problems.

So what was the ‘real reason’ for the attack on TV Rain? One suggestion is a report the channel showed months ago about the lavish country estates of senior officials, which vastly outstrip their declared incomes; one belonged to Vyacheslav Volodin, the latest Kremlin head of ideology and ‘inner politics’. Was this Volodin’s revenge? Perhaps. But showing the odd corruptly acquired dacha isn’t taboo in Russia. Everyone admits corruption is a problem. Kremlin rivals regularly leak details about each other’s dodgy dealings.

When TV Rain showed a report on a Chechen terrorist, the Kremlin’s second favourite attack dog, Vladimir Soloviev, said on Twitter that the channel should be shut down. But the sacredness of Russia’s territorial integrity is another instance of Žižek’s surface ideology which is actually a distraction: retired Kremlin spin doctors admit to pushing the issue when they need to avert attention from a real crisis.

‘The real reason we are being attacked,’ TV Rain’s London correspondent Tonia Samsonova says, ‘is because we don’t fit in sistema per se.’ All the other opposition media outlets play a role for the Kremlin: either they are owned by Kremlin companies, or they are just the sort of opposition the Kremlin want, or they have a loose agreement to supply the Kremlin with the odd bit of information, or they are so small as to be harmless but could come in useful later.

A classic KGB trick in the 1970s and 1980s would be to call a dissident in for a chat. Nothing concrete would come of it. But you’d find yourself vaguely promising to maybe one day give some information if you saw something unusual. Chances were no one from the organs would ever follow up. But you’d have that conversation hanging over you. Was it recorded? Would it be used against you? The Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych bases his novel The Moscoviad around such an encounter. As a Soviet student the hero gave a vague promise to the organs to ‘let them know’. He never actually reported on anyone, but he lives in shame, self-hating, feeling that he can never be truly independent, always looking over his shoulder thinking that someone has been sent to spy on him. The Moscoviad is very much a postcolonial novel; the Ukrainian protagonist finally breaks free of the subtler Soviet bonds and escapes, via an epic drinking binge, an orgy and some magic realism, to the possibility of a different future in the newly independent Ukraine.

Andrukhovych has been one of the most eloquent spokesmen of the recent Ukrainian revolt, which in some ways can be seen as a continuation of the themes in his book. A telling moment came ten days ago, when Yanukovich offered the (not particularly respected) political leaders of Majdan jobs as prime minister and deputy PM. ‘Ah,’ some commentators said, ‘what a brilliant move, it must have been though of by Surkov.’ So far the revolt, and its underwhelming political representatives, have simply shrugged off such tricks. TV Rain has been the only Russian TV channel covering events in Ukraine fully and fairly, and they have shown how week after week the protests are gaining one political concession after the next. Now it’s their turn to be broken.


  • 3 February 2014 at 11:30pm
    rromanchuk says:
    Good piece, but the analogy is a little imprecise: in Zizek's example, the "holy of holies" is the excluded object-complement of the structure; here, it's the structure itself. One might say that in the classic modern variant, it's the object (narod) that is excluded, while the structure (Marxism) is on display, while in the po-mo variant Pomerantsev is describing, the object (still narod) is now on full display, and it's the structure (sistema) that is disavowed.

  • 5 February 2014 at 3:16pm
    Alan Benfield says:
    Hmm, just a trivial point, but the word 'narod' is a false friend between the western and eastern slavic langauges. In Czech and Slovak, the word 'narod' does not have the same meaning as in Russian, but means 'nation': the Czech/Slovak term for the people is 'lid' (e.g. the newspaper Lidové Noviny - People's News as against Ceska Narodny Banka - Czech National Bank).

    And Forman always denied that 'The Firemen's Ball' was conceived with any allegorical intent - he wrote it as a typical comedy/satire about his countrymen. Unfortunately the goverment felt differently and accused him of anti-Communist subversion. The biggest uproar, humorously enough, came from the association of czech firemen, who took it literally as an attack on their integrity.

  • 17 February 2014 at 1:41am
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Nice piece by P.P., as usual, but bringing in Žižek always opens up new vistas – mirth and venom topping the list. Žižek wouldn’t know a common man unless one drove him somewhere in a taxi. As a well-remunerated “professional theoretical revolutionary” allegedly guided by the “good of the people” (that’s you and me, among others), he’s willing to tolerate, even recommend, any atrocity that might come to mind. He seems to have born a member of the professoriate, and the only time he takes that rather tarnished silver spoon out of his mouth is to make room for his foot. But he looks mighty good when he’s posing as Lenin in a turtleneck.