Visitors to a sanatorium in Transnistria, which does not recognise the USSR's collapse.
Show Hide image

World on a wire: two books reveal the truth about life in modern Russia

Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing is True and Everything is Possible meets Rory MacLean and Nick Danziger's Back in the USSR.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia
Peter Pomerantsev
Faber & Faber, 284pp, £14.99


Back in the USSR: Heroic Adventures in Transnistria
Rory MacLean and Nick Danziger
Unbound, 150pp, £19.99

If you want to understand Ukraine’s crisis, you have to understand Russia – or at least its modern incarnation. Peter Pomerantsev, a native Russian speaker, spent nine years in Moscow and ended up doing just that. He arrived in 2001. Unusually, he wasn’t a lawyer or a banker but a film-maker, a “stowaway on the great armada of western civilisation” that flowed into Moscow on a slick of abundant petrodollars.

The book is part Henry Fielding, part Dante: a Bildungsroman that morphs into something much darker. Pomerantsev begins life in Moscow as a naïf. He goes to work for TNT, a television channel aimed at the young and hip. The book’s theme is his journey through various circles of (a gilded) hell until he reaches a slow but complete awakening. Finally, he comes to understand Russia’s profound moral disorder, its world of “Maybachs and rapes and gangsters and mass graves and penthouses and sparkly dresses”.

For the first few years, everything was all right. Pomerantsev’s brief was reality TV and he was good at it. From the world’s heaviest boy and suicidal supermodels to the beautiful young girls attending academies that teach them to become the perfect mistress (“Today we will learn the algorithm for receiving presents . . .”), he filmed the strange stories emerging from this brave new world.

And there were plenty of stories. Russia is the world’s largest country. It has nine time zones and 144 million people, ranging from Bentley-driving oligarchs to village-dwelling peasants. TV, Pomerantsev explains, is the “only force that can unify and rule and bind this country”. The first thing President Vladimir Putin (only ever referred to here as “the president”) did on coming to power in 2000 was to seize control of it.

The move proved a wise one. TV has enabled the Kremlin to control its people in an age when death squads and the Gulag are no longer acceptable in a country seeking a global role. Authoritarianism is acceptable, especially when it is of the capitalist variety, but it must be packaged as something more palatable – Saddam Hussein and Idi Amin were so 20th century. TV gave the Kremlin everything it needed. It created puppet opposition parties so absurd that viewers (read: voters) could only conclude that, whatever his flaws, the president was the only sane choice. It allowed the government to combine propaganda with entertainment, dictatorship with ratings, totalitarianism with the language of democracy. Putin’s Kremlin internalised the single, greatest lesson from the failure of communist rule: never let TV get boring.

Pomerantsev eventually understands all of this. He has various moments of anagnorisis but perhaps the best comes drunkenly in a Moscow nightclub:

At 5am the music goes faster and faster and in the throbbing, snowing light, the cattle become Forbeses [rich men] and the Forbeses’ cattle [the girls chasing them], moving so fast now they can see the traces of themselves caught in the strobe across the dance floor. The guys and the girls look at themselves and think: “Did that really happen to me? Is that me there?”

It’s all there in the billowing, streaming syntax. Their dancing is Pomerantsev’s vertiginous world in miniature: the whirligig of modern Russia, where TV and politics are one and the president is the ultimate sugar daddy, where gangsters rue not running for parliament (“They use the same methods as us”) and where rich men are finally no longer discernible from the hard-bodied women out to ensnare them.

And why not? They all “clambered out of one Soviet world” to play their varying roles in the great scripted reality TV show that is modern Russia. It’s a dystopian nightmare (endless police checks make Pomerantsev unconsciously pat his passport dozens of times a day), only one’s face isn’t being stamped on by a boot; it’s watching a flat screen.

And reality TV, like everything else in Russia, is in effect directed from the top. Here enter the “political technologists”, Russia’s modern grand viziers, the most prominent of whom is Vladislav Surkov, a kind of Cardinal Richelieu for the digital age. One of the authors of the new Russian system, Surkov, or those like him, created Putin “from a no one, a grey fuzz, via the power of television”. Underlying Russia’s war in Ukraine are Surkov’s ideas. In his short story “Without Sky”, he writes of “non-linear war” – a new type of conflict for a new age in which most understood the war to be “part of a process . . . not necessarily its most important part”.

And so it has proved in Ukraine, where Russia is accused of sending its hardware across the border to bomb and kill. No war has been declared and Moscow clearly has little interest in defeating Kyiv militarily (which it could do easily). Instead, the most vicious battles are conducted on TV and online as Putin seeks to promulgate a narrative: Ukrainians are evil, the west is decadent, Russia is holy and strong. He counts his victories not in casualties but in viewing and polling figures. It is war as political theatre: a truly postmodern conflict.

“All media,” said the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, “are extensions of some human faculty – psychic or physical.” During the many weeks I spent in eastern Ukraine, it was as if Putin’s central nervous system were on display. The people I spoke to parroted fantastical mantras about Ukrainian fascists and Kyiv’s desire to persecute Russian speakers that existed only on Russian TV: that is to say, in the Kremlin’s imagination. The brilliance of Pomerantsev’s hauntingly perceptive and beautifully written book is his understanding that in modern Russia, as in its war with Ukraine, reality is malleable.

Nowhere is this more true than in another of Russia’s borderlands: Transnistria, the breakaway Moldovan republic that is the only “country” in the world not to have recognised the fall of the USSR. The author Rory MacLean and the photographer Nick Danziger tour this geopolitical oddity with “New Soviet Man” as their guide, a shady businessman, typical of the new breed of hyper-capitalist that has emerged since the USSR’s collapse. A man who studies “profit margins instead of the Great Path of the Party”, he is Homo Sovieticus reimagined as Donald Trump.

And so the book roams across this surreal statelet, with beautiful photographs throughout. Its tone is jaunty and breezy – it grates somewhat. Laboured alliteration competes with strained comedy, most egregiously in the descent into the mock-heroic (“Workers of Transnistria! Struggle for the further development and strengthening of our progressive alcohol industry!”).

The book’s subject, however, is serious. Russia supports Transnistria by buying its main produce, alcohol, and supplies it with gas and large amounts of cash. It has 2,000 “peacekeeping” troops stationed there. Near the frontiers of the EU and Nato, it is of crucial geopolitical importance to the Kremlin, which perceives it as a bulwark against a hostile west. Putin is trying to make eastern Ukraine another Transnistria. It’s not just a Soviet throwback; it’s the future of Russian foreign policy.

As Russian-backed separatists now shell the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, the prospect of a land corridor from Russia to the Crimea and into Transnistria is starting to look real. It would destroy the post-cold-war order. It barely seems imaginable but this is the post-Soviet space, where nothing is true and everything is indeed possible.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.