Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia
Faber & Faber, €16.99
HO knew Russia was such a strange, fascinating country? Peter Pomerantsev explains just why in his absorbing travelogue of the country, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia.
The book is the result of a decade Pomerantsev spent living in the country, from the beginning of the millennium onwards, and largely as a TV producer telling its zaniest stories.
Pomerantsev grew up in England. His parents left the former Soviet Union in the 1970s as political exiles. His wife is a Muscovite. So he’s got a foot in two camps, a duality that serves him well in analysing Russia’s foibles — the country, as he unfolds with canny insight, is riven with polarising tensions.
“What’s interesting about Russia,” he says, “is that it’s the Wild West one moment and hyper-sophisticated the next. It’s incredibly violent and cool yet analytical and postmodern at the same time. That’s why I think it is a bit of a collage of a country.
“It’s bursting with energy. Maybe there’s an image one has of Russia as either very serious and literary or the Soviet Union as quite dull and slow, but the Russia I arrived to in 2001 was a bit like the Roaring Twenties in New York. It was Moscow’s Jazz Age.
"It was bursting with new money and new energy, and a sense that it was the place to be in the world. It was delicious becoming part of that. It was very cabaret like — full of over-the-top characters, a lot of them new rich or wanting to become very rich, with great panache, who were very cool but also very colourful.”
What brings Pomerantsev’s book alive are his case studies, culled from his years shooting documentaries and reality TV shows.
The cast of characters he introduces include young, beautiful gold-diggers on the hunt for sugar daddies (“the guys are known as ‘Forbeses’, as in Forbes rich list; the girls as ‘tiolki’, cattle”); mobsters-turned-filmmakers; a jaded Irish international development consultant called Benedict; and one eye-popping chapter about Yana Yakovleva.
She was the victim of a “reiding” plot, one of more than a hundred similarly recorded cases a year in Russia. She was thrown into prison and her industrial cleaning fluid business seized on trumped-up charges of illegally dealing diethyl ether.
Their stories bring an edge to the narrative that is lacking in the usual wanderings of a fey travel writer parachuted into a country.
Vladimir Putin is a dominant presence in the book, albeit offstage and only referenced intermittently, usually with a hint of mystery as “the President”. His public image is part He-Man, part lover, part businessman, wholly tsar.
It seems he has an unshakable grip on the country. Broadcasters grovel when put in front of him. “Why is the opposition to you so small, Mr President?” he was asked in one famous, pathetic exchange.
He is venerated as “an effective manager”, a term borrowed from western business speak. Stalin, notes Pomerantsev drily, was also an effective manager, “who had to make sacrifices for the sake of being effective”.
“Russians have a very complicated relationship with Putin,” says Pomerantsev.
“They have a tradition of hatred and adoration of strong, abusive father figures. Think of the greats — Ivan the Terrible, Stalin or Putin. They hate them, they’re aware they’re being misused by them; at the same time they’re completely addicted to them.
"It’s a bizarre, very emotionally confused relationship. The people around Putin play on that. They’re aware of the psychology of the country. It’s not a simple case of oppression; neither is it a case of liking a strong leader.
“People are created, I think, less by what happens to them when they’re kids, but what happens to them in their 20s and 30s. This is a man who was schooled in the dark arts of the KGB. He believes everyone is corruptible. He believes everyone can be co-opted and manipulated. It’s a discipline of power. That was the way he was brought up. That was his job in Dresden [in the 1980s] — to blackmail people, somebody who was paid very well. He was a double agent. He managed to recruit the whole of the Russian people, to convince them that he’s helping them, not that they’re working for him.
“He was somebody in the ’90s who was forced to work in that nexus between mafia and power. He was the bagman between the mayor of St Petersburg and criminal gangs, which was the way power was distributed at that point.
“He was in the middle. It was his job to negotiate that relationship. He was formed by those two things — a very disciplined, psychologically well-honed tradition of manipulating people in the KGB with a really tough, gangster culture edge formed by 1990s Russia. He’s made the national policy and foreign policy out of that.”
Russia has its problems, chiefly corruption. “In the 21st century you are allowed to say anything you want as long as you don’t follow the corruption trail.”
Its people also have a mindset that verges on the paranoid. They see conspiracies everywhere. The lasting impression of Pomerantsev’s compelling book, however, is the sense that Russia is on the move. It is a vibrant, radical country. Going on his evidence, it has a kick that has, in obvious contrast, dissipated from its old nemesis, the United States of America. Russians perception of the West, as relayed by Pomerantsev, is interesting.
“Russians are convinced that they get the 21st century and that we keep thinking that Russia is stuck in the past. What the Russians are saying is that ‘No, no. You’re the ones stuck in the past. You’re still thinking in terms of values, the UN, the EU, and all this rubbish.’
“Russians are so informed with this idea that the Soviet Union collapsed overnight. People there will tell me: ‘You do realise that the West is going to collapse tomorrow as well as us? You’re over, guys.’ That the future belongs to these new, rising authoritarian regimes, which have a slightly anarchic attitude to the world, both on a personal level and on a political level. That’s the biggest collision I find. Obama is always saying, ‘Russia is stuck in the past.’ The Russians are saying, ‘No, no. We’re the future, like Pakistan, China, Turkey. The West is old and the quicker it gets out of the way and let’s us rule the world, the better.’
“They have more of a point that we maybe think. On a deep level, a philosophical argument almost, Russians have seen so many worlds appear and disappear — there was communism, then a mafia state, then pseudo democracy. They have a sense that everything in the world is very fragile. Increasingly, the West is full of self-doubt because of Iraq and ‘the crash’; we've kind of lost faith in the social model that we’ve had for the last 40 years. We’re incredibly self-doubting about whether democracy or human rights really means anything. We’ve also grown up with 20 years of postmodernism that says there is no such thing as truth. There is a state of mind in the West that would point to a slow laying down of arms: ‘We’re as bad as everybody else. Let’s stop trying to do anything.’
“Aren’t millenniums all about that, a sort of ironic attitude to everything? It’s not unreasonable. Maybe Russia is right. The West is over. If nothing is true. If all the baddies are same — if there is no difference between a Putin and a Merkel — then why shouldn’t the future belong to countries that are most ruthless and fastest and cynical and pragmatic?”