RD Book Review: Peter Pomerantsev’s “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible” seeks to capture the essence of Putin’s Russia, but by focusing only on the very rich and the very poor, fails to take into account the impact of a new, politically apathetic middle class.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of the Council for Interethnic Relations and the Council for the Russian Language at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, onTuesday, May 19, 2015. Photo: AP
British TV producer Peter Pomerantsev transitioned from making reality TV shows to writing "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible", an ambitious attempt to capture the reality of today’s Russia.
By taking a cinematic approach to everyday Russian life, Pomerantsev follows in the tradition of Soviet director Dziga Vertov, who broke ground in 1929 with “Man with a Movie Camera,” an experimental silent movie chronicling 24 hours of life in a Soviet city.
Rather than focusing on mundane scenes and simple actions to capture the earnestness of urban life, Pomerantsev instead prefers the surreal and the blurring of the line between reality and fiction.
The narrative begins in Moscow, a city flooded with money and blinding lights, at the onset of the 21st century as Pomerantsev arrives in Russia from London to work in the television industry. In the masquerade of post-Soviet life everyone can acquire whichever role they like, Pomerantsev writes.
“Performance” is the word du jour. He divides the book in three sections—fittingly named “acts”—drawing the curtain to reveal how malleable reality can be in post-Soviet Russia.
As he details his encounters with a wide array of characters, it becomes clear that Pomerantsev is projecting a much larger story - that of Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
Each character he profiles is an allegory for a feature of the regime; each story he tells is connected to an important milestone in Putin’s ascension to power. The suicide of Ruslana Korshunova, a supermodel who joins a cult that drives her to insanity, becomes a symbol of the gullibility of the Russian people. Dinara, a Muslim prostitute from Dagestan, provides the perfect opening for an overview of Muslim militancy across the country.
Pomerantsev has no sympathy for the regime, which he describes as a postmodern dictatorship. In this system, people learn to adapt and play different roles depending on the circumstances: They pay bribes to avoid the military draft, pass a driving test or get the required passport stamp.
Television is a unifying force in the government’s mission to subjugate and control. Russian TV channels avoid casting the government in a negative light; documentaries shy away from sad stories and focus on happy endings.
At first, Pomerantsev is captivated by the system.
“But with every year I worked in Russia, and as the Kremlin became ever more paranoid, Ostankino’s strategies became even more twisted, the need to incite panic and fear ever more urgent; rationality was tuned out, and Kremlin-friendly cults and hate-mongers were put on prime time to keep the nation entranced, distracted, as ever more foreign hirelings would arrive to help the Kremlin and spread its vision to the world,” he writes in one of his many meandering sentences.
Off screen, some are victims of this fluid reality, like in the case of Yana, one of Pomerantsev’s most vivid characters. The owner of a pharmaceutical company, she becomes an unexpected casualty of the schemes of former KGB operative Viktor Cherkesov.
When Putin names Cherkesov head of Federal Drug Control Service, the official develops a plan to capture the country’s chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries, by changing the status of various substances from industrial or medical to narcotic.
Yana, who trades diethyl ether, is jailed for drug dealing after the substance becomes illegal overnight. She finds a way out of prison by mere chance, when Cherkesov’s infighting with the head of the FSB Nikolai Patrushev becomes a nuisance for the Kremlin and Putin fires them both. The government scraps Cherkesov’s scheme and Yana is set free.
Pomerantsev creates daunting and beautiful images through psychedelic descriptions. His irony is pungent. “Hyper-camp and always playing with a repertoire of poses, Vladik was a post-Soviet Warhol mixed with Ru Paul,” he writes of Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s closest associates.
He borrows from his experience working with cameras to masterfully cut and sew together scenes to create an organic narration; flashbacks and time jumps keep readers on edge. Just like in the movies.
Except, movies do not necessarily tell the whole truth. Pomerantsev is aware of this.
“For all our claims to capture the real, a factual director is always a manipulator, a miniature vizier, seducing, framing, spinning his subjects, asking one question but waiting for another slip up, always thinking how every action we’re shooting relates not to its direct environment but to the final cut,” he writes as he discusses the internal struggles he faces working for the “factual entertainment” TV channel TNT.
Pomerantsev’s book reads like a movie and falls into the same trap. His protagonists are caricatures, handpicked for their oddity or exceptionality, from the students of the Gold Digger Academy – learning dubious ways to ensure them showers of gifts and sugar daddies – to the 1990s-era gangster-turned-moviemaker-turned-successful book writer.
The result is enthralling and sheds light on many of the dysfunctional aspects of today’s Russia, but is a slightly distorted image of the country. Where are those who go to work every day only to come home in the evening, eat a quick bite and fall asleep? For a book subtitled “The surreal heart of the new Russia,” the focus on the country’s extremely rich and poor is limiting.
The real heart of Russia is rather banal and hardly surreal. Economists argue about the criteria to define Russia’s middle class, but they largely agree that the portion of the population earning an average salary and able to afford the superfluous – from cars to iPads – is growing.
According to the World Bank, between 2000 and 2010 the middle class grew from 30 to 60 percent of the Russian population, fuelled by a steady improvement in the country’s economic performance.
Yana might have fallen victim of the Kremlin’s machinations, but for most representatives of this rising middle class, politics is a distant concern. Sociologists often highlight how political apathy is widespread in Russia.
Voter turnout is lower than in many Western democracies and has experienced a decline in the most recent round of presidential and parliamentary elections – and this is based on data provided by the Russian government, which is regularly accused of tampering with electoral results.
In 1991, nearly 75 percent of the Russian population voted in the country’s first presidential elections; only 60 percent of Russian voters cast their ballot in the elections that marked the beginning of Putin’s third term as president in 2012. Russians are increasingly not interested in politics. In a 2014 poll by the Levada Center, Russia’s main polling organization, 30 percent of respondents expressed indifference and 23 percent dislike towards country’s political matters.
Today’s Russian middle class came into being under Putin. After he succeeded Boris Yeltsin in 2001, the economy started growing, as did the disposable income of thousands of Russian families. It is on this premise that the Russian people entered a social contract with their president, accepting his leadership in exchange for the stability and economic prosperity they were desperately craving for.
As long as the Kremlin can stave off the memories of Russia in the 1990s, when corruption, political mismanagement and economic depression left many struggling for survival, Russians are not likely to take to the streets against Putin.
But politics can still be part of the equation. The anti-Kremlin protests that swept Russia in 2011 and threatened the stability of Putin’s regime were a specifically middle-class phenomenon. This was most evident in Moscow, where the population is more affluent and educated (the average monthly wage in 2013 was $1,800) and independent civic activism is more developed than in the rest of the country.
In the current economic climate, declining oil prices and inability to diversity the economy threaten the recently achieved prosperity. As the Russian economic crisis forces the government to introduce budget cuts across most government departments, episodes of political activism—from teachers of strike to doctors protesting health care reforms—are becoming more frequent.
Pomerantsev relies on the flashiest side of Russia to show a helpless Russia. He forgets that the majority of the population leads a less extraordinary – and somewhat more hopeful – life. What his book misses is Vertov’s taste for the mundane. The math teacher, the grandmother looking after her grandchildren, the father working double shifts at the supermarket – most Russians are more likely to watch TV than to appear on a glitzy MTV show. One day they might decide to get off the couch and shake things up, but for now their lives are much more ordinary than that.