Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia
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.