An authentic and menacing snapshot of a country in existential crisis

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible
by Peter Pomerantsev, Faber, £14.99
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What, if anything, can unite the current Russian state? In his new book, Peter Pomerantsev isn’t afraid to have a stab at this intriguing question. “In a country covering nine time zones, one sixth of the world’s land mass, stretching from the Pacific to the Baltic, from the Arctic to the Central Asian deserts, from near-medieval villages where people still draw water from wooden wells by hand, through single-factory towns and back to the blue-glass and steel skyscrapers of the new Moscow – TV is the only force that can unify and rule and bind this country,” he maintains. “The new Kremlin won’t make the same mistake the old Soviet Union did: it will never let TV become dull. The task is to synthesise Soviet control with Western entertainment.”

And there is no doubt about who is the star of the show. Vladimir Putin is “made for TV projection”, darting between his roles of “soldier, lover, bare-chested hunter, businessman, spy, tsar, superman”. Yet this is a book about the very unusual country he has created, not the president himself.

The author is one of the most perceptive and entertaining commentators writing on Russia today and, much like the country itself, his first book is fascinating and awe-inspiring. It suggests that the Kremlin is a kind of cult, brilliantly exploiting 140 million Russians by keeping them “entertained, distracted, constantly exposed to geopolitical nightmares that if repeated enough times can become infectious”. This is a cynical fusion of “reality TV and authoritarianism”.

Raised in Britain by Soviet dissidents, Pomerantsev moved to Moscow in 2001, discovering a city that was transforming itself at a frantic pace. Vast wealth had turned it from a “sad satellite at the edge of Europe, emitting the dying embers of the Soviet empire” into “a city living in fast-forward, changing so fast it breaks all sense of reality, where boys become billionaires in the blink of an eye”.

At first, he finds Moscow’s “hypnotic fairground brilliance” fascinating and inspiring. Later, he begins to have serious doubts. He gathers insights, among them one in a conference room at the top of the state television centre in Moscow where a famous Russian political commentator was lining up topics to cover for a brainstorming session. Of course, as the pundit points out, there may be no actual democratic politics, “but we still have to give our viewers the sense something is happening. They need to be kept entertained. So what should we play with? Shall we attack oligarchs? Who’s the enemy this week? Politics has got to feel like a movie!”

After stints as a policy analyst and development consultant, Pomerantsev builds a career as a producer of documentaries for Russian television. TV work introduces him to an exotic cast of characters whose stories form the backbone of the book. Among them is Vitaly, a murderous Siberian gangster who becomes a film director, using real guns, bullets and blood for added vérité, and Alexey Weitz, a theatre actor who, following a nervous breakdown, moves into politics. He coaches politicians to use method acting to “manipulate public consciousness”, runs his own Kremlin-funded political party, Just Cause, and is one of the leaders of the Night Wolves, Putin’s favourite biker gang, “bearded men … riding through Moscow on Harleys with icons of Mary the Mother of God and Stalin”.

There is a whole cast of other unlikely characters: suicidal models, love-sick soldiers, a madman exhibited at a millionaire’s party like a freak-show attraction, a former postal worker who believes he is the Messiah and a “gold-digger academy”, where women pay thousands of dollars to learn how to catch a billionaire.

The author captures Russia as a whirl of interchangeable realities, some grim, others possessed of a hallucinatory beauty. He describes the exhilaration of a concert in the Moscow Conservatory, where up in the gods, with the clouds scudding past the huge windows at sunset, “you get the extraordinary feeling that you’re flying on a Zeppelin powered by brandy, lemon, wind, sky and music”.

Yet, today, Pomerantsev’s city of unlimited possibility is suddenly no more. It has been crushed by a crumbling rouble and Western sanctions. But the message of this unsettling book still feels timely, as the Ukraine crisis has deepened and the dream of a Greater Russia continues.

More than ever, “audiences are kept in a constant state of panic and medieval ecstasies”, convincing Russians they are in a civilisational struggle with the West, distracting them from the “melting economy” and encouraging a belief that only their president can save them. This is an authentic and somewhat menacing snapshot of a country in existential crisis.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (06/3/15).

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