Date finished: March 14th 2016
Russia has been a sensitive issue for the past century or so. The impoverished Tsarist nation was never a huge threat to the more developed world, but the rise of communism transformed it into a potential enemy. In the World Wars the USSR and the West remained allies – united by a fear of Germany’s expansionism, but Stalin’s tenure brought the nuclear arms race and Cold War. In the 1990s, tensions broke with the fall of communism and Russia went through a lost period whilst internal interests struggled for power. From the rubble of the Soviet Union rose a new leader: President Putin and his new Russia which present a vague, ill-defined threat in the globalised era. Just what goes on behind this new Iron Curtain?
Peter Pomerantsev, an English producer of Russian heritage, worked in Russian media for nearly a decade and, in this compelling volume, recounts his experiences of how PR, media spin and propaganda are used to manipulate the public. What comes to light is the terrifyingly clever way in which the Russian elite have cultivated a new, insidious form of politics. With the Kremlin pulling the strings, this truly is a country where nothing is true and everything is possible: ordinary citizens find their lives turned upside-down as those at the top use them as pawns in their power-games, young girls travel to Moscow and enroll in courses on how to attract an oligarch, Putin’s opposition and anti-establishment television channels are regularly told what to report by the Kremlin thus providing the mere illusion of democracy. It’s a disturbing insight into the way Russia has become a post-modern satire of a dystopia; a sham democracy masterminded by a totalitarian state where reality is malleable, controlled by the whims of a rich elite. And at the very top Putin presides over it all: President, Stalin and Tsar all rolled into one.
Pomerantsev’s position in the media allows him to look at this new Russia through the camera lens, showing us what the Russian public have broadcast into their rooms every day, as well as the reality which is cut out in the editing rooms. What he can broadcast is limited by unwritten laws of what is and is not acceptable, and the reality of day-to-day life is in turned constructed by the Kremlin which directs the country to a script of its own, disposing of inconvenient truths and unwanted people. Nothing is True and Everything is Possible‘s pages are populated with victims of this strange, new regime: a man who has made it his job to remember Old Moscow amidst its constant rebuilding and the seizure of property by the rich for their own redevelopment; a woman whose mundane chemical-trading job became illegal overnight thanks to the whims of the Russian courts; and the super-rich Russian oligarchs who buy up foreign assets, launder money here, there and everywhere, and kiss-up to the regime whilst desperately fleeing it. All these people live a precarious existence: at any moment the state or a rival may decide to crush them for some petty transgression, or just because they’re unfortunate enough to be in the way – they’re merely cogs in the machinery; a means to an end for some ambitious pretender to a throne.
In light of this precarious post-Soviet existence, the Russian people have become avant-garde radicals: biker gangs undertake spiritual defence of Holy Russia, insidious cults tap into hollow mysticism promising to transform peoples’ lives, the establishment’s television propaganda insists that Russia is the superlative and invents histories for themselves and other countries to forge a nationalism that might unite a nation that is still searching desperately for an identity after the fall of communism. What they seem to have achieved so far is a cynical, messianic hodge-podge of nationalistic myth, corrupted Capitalistic values, and eerie self-parody married to a failure to evolve beyond the split-personalities of the Soviet era. All this is masterminded by the deputy Prime-Minister, Vladislav Surkov, a man who writes satirical dystopian novels and enjoys the works of Jackson Pollock, Allen Ginsberg and Tupac Shakur. The Russian elite are understandably desperate to leave Russia. So is Pomerantsev – the paranoia and constant reinvention of the Moscow lifestyle takes its toll on the psyche as we witness time and time again.
The result is an overwhelming book so incredible and unbelievable that I found myself googling for clarification that such eccentric, corrupt characters could possibly exist. They do. It’s a can’t-look-away glimpse of a society so far removed from our cosy British existence that we can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like. And yet, it’s eerily familiar too. It’s the Russia the devil terrorises in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. It’s the Russia that sent Kronsteen and Tatiana to foil James Bond. Russia has fallen into satirical, self-parody of itself and there’s something disconcerting about that. One senses that we could fall into a similar state at any moment. But, those worries aside, it makes for some damned entertaining reading, and that’s what counts here.