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6 August, 2015

Yet Another Russia: On Andrei Piontkovsky

An analyst who tries to win back our threatened sense of self-confidence and sober-mindedness

Very few political analysts and commentators possess the gift of the metaphor coupled with the incisiveness and accuracy of analysis. Either they fail a method or they fail a story, as Umberto Eco would have it. And yet there is a political analyst and writer who reconciles both the analytic skills and the powers of a graceful metaphor.

The name of the writer in question is Andrei Piontkovsky who celebrated his 75th birthday this summer. A brilliant polemicist, writer, and political analyst, Piontkovsky established himself as an irreconcilable antagonist of Vladimir Putin and Putinism. In doing so, he has coined such unforgettable and winged expressions as, for instance, “we are dust in the wind, and Putin is our President,” or “the treacherous Putin is cheating on Russia with the corpse of the Soviet Union.” Russia in his mercilessly caustic and analytic writings becomes an unloved country whose sad destiny lies in her being confined to the monster that is good only to scare the civilized world.

Yet Piontkovsky is far from hopelessness and fatalism. His polemical opinion pieces and political analyses are full of irony, wit, boldness, and courage. True, sometimes he sounds gloomy and sombre, but this does not last long. As soon as he detects and identifies the weaknesses of the regime, we can hear an energetic and strong voice of the unbreakable and deeply committed public intellectual who knows perfectly well that he cannot fail the right cause.

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In the era of the former Soviet Union, Western journalists were frequently poking fun of Sovietologists, or Kremlinologists, as they were christened in those days. They seem to have had a good reason for this, as the vast majority of their premises and generalizations proved false and ridiculous. Nothing was astonishing in this, though. The self-contained world of Soviet politics coupled with suspicion, paranoia, and mistrust, called for a special art of deciphering the symbols of power and loyalty in the Kremlin. Those who stood closer to the deceased leader or those who were bidding farewell to him with exceptional solemnity used to beidentified by Kremlinologists as legitimate and more or less obvious heirs to the Party’s power and legacy.

Much to my astonishment, things are as close to this sort of modern black magic now as they were in those Soviet days. We can only wonder at the futility of the predictions of the outcome or at least of further dynamics of the war in Ukraine and the resulting crisis in the relations between the West and Russia. On the one side, this indicates the flashback: Russian politics has become as hermetical and unpredictable as was in those old days with the former USSR; on the other side, it tells something disturbing about the most unpleasant tendencies of present journalism, one of which is the industry of fear.

Repeating a thousand times a day that the West is weak and Vladimir Putin is strong, or that the EU is just about to collapse due the bankruptcy of Greece, or that Ukraine’s demise is imminent, exposes commentators’ own fears and disbelief in our ability to defend our liberal values and democratic politics. Not only does it distort reality; it paves the way for scaremongering and defeatism – things that do not help us to find a way out of present political tensions, economic predicaments, and moral dilemmas.

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Therefore, we have to be trained to panic, according to the logic of scaremongering. Be scared more than the others to be able to shape the public opinion. As Günther Anders wrote in 1960: “Don’t be scared to be afraid, have the courage to be afraid. And have the courage to scare others. Communicate to your neighbours a fear at least as great as your own”. This phenomenon seems deeply embedded in what Pascal Bruckner termed the fanaticism of the apocalypse.

None of these could be found in Andrei Piontkovsky’s political analyses and commentaries – instead, he appears as the one who tries to win back our threatened sense of self-confidence and sober-mindedness. If I could come up with the best candidatefor theaward for intellectual courage, analytic brilliance, moderate optimism, and hope, I would certainly opt for Piontkovsky. If my country, Lithuania, was able to resist and not to succumb to mass psychosis, fear, and panic during Russia’s nuclear blackmail and other provocations, it was due to such writers as him.

Even Andrei Piontkovsky, no matter how insightful and bright, may not know one thing – namely, that we are at the peril of finding ourselves neither on the winning nor on the losing side in our battle against Putinism. Putin and his grotesque regime are inexorably doomed, yet the cost of his defeat may well be our curse to live neither in war nor in peace. This sort of low-intensity conflicts and tensions create the unprecedented level of uncertainty even in those cases when the truth, legitimacy, and hard-won success is on our side.

Therefore, we should be deeply grateful to Andrei Piontkovsky not only for reminding us of yet another Russia with her such defenders of freedom and human dignity as himself, but also for his fearlessness and optimism– the traits that our troubled world needs the most.


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