Moscow looks a lot like the West: There are skinny jeans, wine bars and holidays abroad. But it’s all a fragile performance.
The moneyed world of present-day Moscow is, according to Peter Pomerantsev, a lot like a reality TV show. There are state-of-the-art gyms, open-plan offices, skinny jeans, stilettos, wine bars, private jets and holidays abroad. It’s all a fragile performance: “It’s a simulacrum of the whole democratic thing. It feels almost real. But at the same time the other, real Russia rumbles on like a distant ringing in the ears,” Mr. Pomerantsev writes. And one gets the impression that, as in “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” everyone in Moscow is constantly waiting for the villain—in this case, Vladimir Putin —to flip a table.
“Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” Mr. Pomeranstev’s sparkling collection of essays, takes us, as the subtitle promises, directly into “the surreal heart of the new Russia.” Here are the country girls who pay thousands of dollars for courses on how to catch a millionaire and the oligarchs who pay millions to the Kremlin in order to become billionaires. There are the crippled and confining political spaces occupied by Moscow’s television producers who have been forced to become prostitutes to power.
The author would know: The vividness of the world he describes comes from his firsthand experience working for Russian television in the 2000s as Mr. Putin’s Kremlin was consolidating power.
Mr. Pomerantsev’s focus is centrally on television and the Kremlin’s obsession with its own image, but the book—his first—also provides great insight into the inner life of Russia’s glitterati in Moscow and in London. Everyone is looking for a leg up, and Mr. Putin is “the ultimate sugar daddy,” offering protection to his cronies while making young Russian girls swoon with his shirtless photos. No one can stop striving because no one has property rights. As aluminum billionaire Oleg Deripaska puts it: “All that I have belongs to the state.”
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Author Peter Pomerantsev on his new book, "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible," and how Putin manipulates public opinion. Photo: Getty Images
NOTHING IS TRUE AND EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE
By Peter Pomerantsev PublicAffairs, 239 pages, $25.99
This is not a state in transition, Mr. Pomerantsev argues, but a postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends. Russia relies on the West only as “a crooked mirror,” using the language of rights and representation to “validate tyranny.” In this scheme, everything is a performance. Everything, that is, except Kremlin repression.
Russia’s television industry provides the perfect window into the Kremlin’s strategy since TV, as the author writes, is “the central mechanism of a new type of authoritarianism, one far subtler than twentieth-century strains.”
Producers are allowed to develop a wide array of programming “as long as you don’t follow the corruption trail,” Mr. Pomerantsev writes. For his part, the author went to work as a producer for the Russian TV channel TNT, making substance-free news programs that gave Moscow’s creative class “complete freedom for complete silence.” When he pitches his network a program about Russian gangsters, the retort is, “We make happy things, Peter. Happy!” Those networks that produce what purports to be real news follow the same dictum. A famous prime-time newscaster at a prominent station is quoted as telling his staff: “Who’s the enemy this week? Politics has got to feel like . . . like a movie!”
Eventually, Mr. Pomerantsev realizes that to stay in Moscow as a producer would mean becoming part of the regime’s real-life “Hunger Games,” so he returns to London, the city where he was raised, and where, he says, “words mean things.” Yet even London has been overtaken by Muscovites. In “Londongrad,” high-end British lawyers, art dealers and real-estate agents fulfill the every whim of Russian oligarchs and their wives, mistresses and children. Mr. Pomerantsev makes clear that the accounts of Mr. Putin’s cronies might be sanctioned by Western governments, but the properties, assets and lifestyles of their families remain largely untouched.
Mr. Pomeranstev saw this subculture up close when he produced “Meet the Russians,” a British reality TV show that followed Russians’ lives of excess in Mayfair. These expats have taken over whole swaths of London and the south of France, yet they manage to insulate themselves from the natives. Oligarchs send their children to British boarding schools not to become British but because “it’s the status thing to do.” Mr. Pomerantsev is right in identifying this group as “post-national and post-West and post-Bretton Woods,” and he is at his strongest in raising the alarm about whether core Western institutions can survive an unlimited onslaught of elites who maraud their own country and yet depend on a coterie of Western bankers, lawyers and politicians who accede to their every request.
Readers looking for a book about Kremlin politics will not find it here. Key political actors are mainly not discussed, and Mr. Putin is a latter-day Godot, omnipresent but offstage. One key political operative who is given a fuller treatment is Vladislav Surkov, a senior adviser to Mr. Putin whose admiration for the West is limited to his passion for Allen Ginsberg and gangster rap, particularly Tupac Shakur. As the “political technologist of all of Rus,” Mr. Surkov is the cynical creator of the regime’s myths. Most recently, his own wife and children were features in a photo shoot for Russian Tatler modeling clothing that can perhaps best be described as Lord Fauntleroy meets “Sister Wives.”
Thanks to Russia’s (still) open borders and cooperative men like Mr. Surkov, Mr. Putin will never have to create a gulag system as Stalin once did. In Russia today, Mr. Pomerantsev powerfully demonstrates, the Kremlin’s modus operandi is to keep everyone on tenterhooks, all too aware that “it can grab us and pull us in at any moment.”
Ms. Dawisha, the director of the Havighurst Center at Miami University in Ohio, is the author of “Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?”
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.