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

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era