Those of us who expected post-Soviet Russia to embrace democracy have long been disillusioned. This year President Putin and his cronies, the billionaire oligarchs, gave up even pretending that the political, economic, and judicial systems are fair. Instead, they offer up your everyday crook’s rationalizations.
“ ‘Everything is PR’ has become the favorite phrase of the new Russia,” writes Peter Pomerantsev in his new book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. “[M]y Moscow peers are filled with a sense that they are both cynical and enlightened. When I ask them about Soviet-era dissidents, like my parents, who fought against communism, they dismiss them as naïve dreamers and my own Western attachment to such vague notions as ‘human rights’ and ‘freedom’ as a blunder.
‘Can’t you see your own governments are just as bad as ours?’ they ask me.” The Putin gang controls so much of the oil business that the world has scarcely done more than grumble about Russia’s land-grabs and militaristic nationalism.
Pomerantsev, born in Kiev but raised in London, spent the years 2001-2011 in Moscow producing and directing Russian TV shows for TNT. He is at his best and most convincing describing the political manipulation and compromises that controlled the reality shows he worked for and censored the profiles he put together. Many of the scandalous stories he tells are “director’s cut” versions; whenever he highlighted the corruption in the social system, his bosses insisted on edits that made the stories more “positive.”
While he retells those stories with clarity and speed, he disdains any documentation and won’t cite research; for example: “Six of the seven countries with the highest suicide rates among young females are former Soviet republics.” Everything is possible, as his book-title says, but where on earth did he come up with that figure?
His gossipy, nonchalant manner of proceeding contrasts with the sharp-tongued seriousness of print-journalists Masha Gessen and Oliver Bullough, who have written recent marvelous books about Russia’s cold and violent suppression of civil rights protesters. In their journalistic persistence and scrupulousness, we also feel their frustration and anger and even hope.
Pomerantsev, on the other hand, won’t even mention Gessen by name, though he cattily refers to her (“The deputy editor is a well-known American Russian activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, and her articles in glossy magazines attack the President vociferously”), and breezes along, rather cheerfully chasing scoops: “I had ‘access,’ that magical word all documentary makers and TV producers crave.... I phoned TNT, excited. It was the story that had everything. There would be supermodels, suicide, and parties. There was Moscow, New York, London, and Paris. Glamour and tragedy. It was the easiest commission I ever had.”
Unself-conscious about his chatty writing, Pomerantsev occasionally seems as if he is holding a microphone and looking at us through a screen. “I’m taking up a bit of writing to paper over the gaps in television work,” he explains. Whenever Pomerantsev gains “access” to the rich and famous, his talent lies in putting them at their ease. The jet-setting daughter of an oligarch speaks “with the disarming simplicity only the really, truly rich can carry off,” he says. Welcome to the world of the Russian Great Gatsbies.
His best tale is about a Siberian ex-convict who has become a well known film-director who produces, casts, stars in and writes his own gangster movies about his own merrily bloody adventures: “His new film was to be about his teenage years, in the late 1980s, when the first gangsters emerged together with the first businessmen. The next day Vitaliy was casting teens to play his younger self. A crowd gathered in front of the Palace of Culture and Leisure, the old Soviet theater. Fathers had taken their sons out of school and brought them to try out for the parts of the Young Vitaliy and his first gang.”
Another compelling profile is of a small business owner who was caught up in a political game she wasn’t even playing and sent to prison. One of Putin’s agency chiefs, bidding to intimidate another chief, had secretly reclassified many products as “narcotics”: “Overnight a whole host of chemicals had their status changed from industrial or medical to narcotic. Pharmacies that traded in food additives were raided, veterinarians who gave ketamine to cats and horses were marched into police stations, and the heads of chemical companies like Yana were suddenly informed they were drug dealers.” By the time Yana was let out of prison seven months later, Putin disposed of the disputing rival officials but kept in place the arbitrariness of their power. To get this story on the air, however, sighs Pomerantsev, “All the high-level political stuff goes.”
"Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible" is valuable for its peeks inside the machine that distracts much of the Russian populace. When Pomerantsev visits the country’s largest TV station late one night, it is buzzing: “In a country of nine time zones, stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific, comprising one-sixth of the world’s land mass, where television is the only force that can unify and rule and bind – the great battering ram of propaganda couldn’t possibly ever rest.” He reminds us that “The first thing the President had done when he came to power in 2000 was to seize control of television. It was television through which the Kremlin decided which politicians it would ‘allow’ as its puppet-opposition, what the country’s history and fears and consciousness should be. And the new Kremlin won’t make the same mistake the old Soviet Union did: it will never let TV become dull.”
The authorities don’t want viewers’ thoughts to stray to any thoughts of protest, much less revolution. After all, “The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls.” Having watched dozens of hours of TV this summer in Moscow and its environs, I can testify to that Russian medium’s aggressive presence. In bars, restaurants, and public spaces, TVs blared repetitious reports of the responsibility of the Ukrainian government and the West for all the conflicts in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, back in my hotel rooms, other channels showed situation-comedies and CSI-clone crime dramas, which were, I must admit, plenty entertaining – just like Pomerantsev’s book.
Bob Blaisdell reviews books for the Monitor.