Nothing is True and Everything is Possible
It's been a while since my brother recommended this book to me. But boy it was a worthwhile read -- if not exactly the kind of thing designed to cheer me up at this particular time. In fact, I laid it aside for a few days when the world got to be a bit much for me.
Peter Pomerantsev is Anglo-Russian, his parents having emigrated from the USSR to the UK in the 1970s. In the early 2000s, he was a young man getting into media and documentary video right as Russia was going through enormous changes, and he worked in television and shot film and generally did a lot. He published this book in 2014 -- six years ago, which is a long time in terms of what's changed! -- and it contains his observations and stories about what it's like to live in the new Russia, which, he thinks, has now reinvented itself so many times so quickly that nothing feels real; everyone just puts on whatever role is current and knows that in the end, the Kremlin is controlling it all anyway.
Chapters function a bit like essays, as Pomerantsev explores different topics: the young women who call themselves gold-diggers and cultivate careers as the mistresses of wealthy men, as incredible amounts of new money shower upon people who once lived "in communal flats and [thought] Levi's and powdered milk were the height of luxury." Gangsters who also make films, and who keep their town in strict order, so that many people think of them as heroes and role models. TV stations that want positive stories and to give straight news...that also makes the Kremlin happy.
He learns about the way business works -- a huge system of kickbacks, bribes, tax avoidance, shell companies, and the use of arrests and the courts to force businesses to sell to oligarchs. Enormous amounts of money line the pockets of the powerful and are laundered, often through London (which, Pomerantsev points out, is very convenient for everyone, but also means that the EU is rapidly becoming dependent on this system).
What starts as a series of pieces on facets of Russian society coalesces into a warning about Western complacency in the face of a power that is determined to own and control as much as possible, by any means that comes to hand. The corruption is on a staggering scale, and -- remember, this book was published in 2014 -- it made me think of that moment in the 2012 election debates when Obama mocked Romney's concerns about Russia, and about how quickly he was proved very wrong.
It's interesting to me that Pomerantsev practically never names Putin; he just calls him the President -- even at points in time when he wasn't officially in that job. His presence is throughout the book, sinister and hidden in plain sight, where he can threaten you without saying a word. It's like calling him He-who-must-not-be-named and then hanging a lampshade on it.
As always, I had to put in my favorite quotations:
Western ex-pats first arrived in Russia as emissaries of the victorious party in the Cold War. They were superior and came to teach Russia how to be civilized. Now all that is changing. Russia is resurgent, the teachers have become the servants, and I'm not even sure who won the Cold War after all.
...Russia does have nongovernmental organizations, representing everyone from bikers to beekeepers, but they are often created by the Kremlin, which uses them to create a "civil society" that is ever loyal to it. And though Russia does officially have a free market, with mega-corporations floating their record-breaking IPOs on the global stock exchanges, most of the owners are friends of the President. Or else the are oligarchs who officially pledge that everything that belongs to them is also the President's when he needs it...This isn't a country in transition but some sort of postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends.
...they look at me as if I were a fool and answer: "Over the last twenty years we've lived through a communism we never believed in, democracy and defaults and mafia state and oligarchy, and we've realized that they are illusions, that everything is PR." ...my Moscow peers are filled with a sense that they are both cynical and enlightened.
The victims I meet never talk of human rights or democracy; the Kremlin has long learned to use this language and has eaten up all the space within which any opposition could articulate itself. The rage is more inchoate...The only response to the absurdity of the Kremlin is to be absurd back.
The mood at the "Putin Party" is a mix of feudal poses and arch, postmodern irony: the sucking up to the master completely genuine, but as we're all liberated, 21st-century people who enjoy Coen brothers films, we'll do our sucking up with an ironic grin while acknowledging that if we were ever to cross him, we would quite quickly be dead.
Whenever 21st-century Russian culture looks for a foundation it can build itself from, healthy and happy, it finds the floor gives way and buries it in soil and blood...How do you build a history based on ceaseless self-slaughter and betrayal? Do you deny it? Forget it? But then you are left orphaned. So history is rewritten to suit the present.
Not a very cheery book, but I think an important one, and certainly gripping. It gives us complacent Westerners a lot to think about. (Not that I'm feeling particularly complacent at the moment!)