Pavlovsky's Sleight of Hand

“I remember creating the idea of the ‘Putin majority’ and hey, presto, it appeared in real life. Or the idea that ‘there is no alternative to Putin.’ We invented that. And suddenly there really was no alternative.”

And with that, with a few words and a sleight of hand, Gleb Pavlovsky, as he shared earlier this month in Peter Pomerantsev’s masterful essay, managed to whip a reality from a prior nothing. An appearance – an apparition, from a vacuum. What was dreamed came to pass; what the Kremlin wanted was suddenly real. With the right incantation, and the right belief, Pavlovsky seemed to be saying that whatever could be desired – whatever he desired – could be realized. Call it a political dark art. Call it vacuous obfuscation. Call it wishful thinking. But Pavlovsky seems to believe it – and, after reading through Pomerantsev’s essay, so does the reader. Manipulation, writ large enough to cover 11-ish time zones and span a pair of continents.

And it’s a fine theory. It’s a great notion, of the spin-masters in the Kremlin merely wishing their desires into existence. No groundswell of support for a little-known KGB hand? Conjure a majority, and voici. Potential electoral issues down the road? Paint the opposition not as the limp-wristed the nationalists could gnash, but as a black-hearted xenophobe, a Limonov or Zhirinovsky, ready to reintroduce serfdom and exile the Central Asians with little thought to cost or effect. Don’t have the domestic ingredients necessary for the electoral sweep you wanted? Well, there’s nothing wrong with turning a few screws in the election. Gauss had his own theories, but he’s no longer really around to check.

The theory of the Great Man – that’s what Pavlovsky’s going for, obliquely. That Putin and his coterie wished a reality, and, presto!, here we are. The idea absolves the population, pushing them as passive actors, beguiled and gullible to whichever machination the Kremlin thought to try that day. Willing to buy in to Pavlovsky’s notions, simply because … well, because this was Pavlovsky, and there was his team, and there was Putin, and there was the new reality. Electoral domination. Putin’s generation. A junta in Kyiv, and neo-fascists rounding up the ethnic Russians to sweep them into concentration camps, making sure none escape. A manipulation, and a sudden reality. This was Pavlovsky’s talent.

But where manipulation on an individual scale can be (largely?) excused in certain contexts, the forms of manipulation we’ve witnessed out of the Russian populace – but by no means delimited to the Russian populace – point to the hollow floor supporting Pavlovsky’s argument. These are millions of individuals, willing to believe that the Americans foisted revolution in Kyiv. That neo-Nazis exist at every turn. And Pavlovsky has every right to believe that his notion is true – that he can believe that what he believes can simply reify the belief; that to believe is to create, and to create is to believe. Just as millions can believe in a Ukrainian junta, so can Pomerantsev believe his words.

But, unlike his theory, simply believing does not make the notion a reality. The Kremlin isn’t Hogwarts. Pavlovsky is not Gandalf, wishing and dreaming and seeing and feeling as one and the same.

There’s an audience, unsaid in Pavlovsky’s iteration, but extant nonetheless. There are observers and participants. They have agency. A majority – that Putin majority – exists, because a series of millions of individual choices piled on and propped up one another. The fear of a non-Putinist alternative exists because of a populace willing not simply to countenance the idea, but to actually buy into it. There’s a mass of citizens ready to buy into Pavlovsky’s beliefs. They’re the gristle for the inventions. They’re the willing. They’re the able.

No matter how much he may take credit for the notions, these are the ones that have brought Pavlovsky’s ideas to the fore. Not Pavlovsky, but those who believe in his beliefs, and who see the reality in his ideas.

They’ve made the salient choice to support this thread of thought. They are the ones translating the ideas to reality. They are the presto. And until that notion is understood – that there’s no pixie dust in Pavlovsky’s words; that the active masses have brought these majorities and non-alternatives into this world – we run the risk of injecting too much strength into Putin’s words, and the Kremlin’s bluster. Because Pavlovsky was just the mouth behind the megaphone – he was simply the one who knows what his audience wants. But he’s not the one creating that desire. That’s already there, latent or understood or otherwise. And no matter how he may wish it, his wish isn’t their command – their command, rather, is his wish.