Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia
PublicAffairs, 2014, 256 pp., $25.99
Vladimir Putin has played many roles as Russia’s leader. Early in his presidency he described his country as an indelible part of European culture and said it could one day join NATO. More recently, Putin has been an ardent nationalist, defending Russia from Western cultural and military encroachment. He has consistently sought economic integration with the West and maintained that Russia is constitutional democracy, all while ruling in an openly authoritarian manner. Putin literally plays different roles on Russian television. One day he is a bare-chested hunter, on another an archeologist, and on another an erudite economist. His war in Ukraine has itself been an exercise in maintaining multiple, contradictory realities. As troops and equipment quite openly cross the border, he denies any involvement. He speaks of rebel-held areas as independent countries and then says he wants to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. He calls Western powers “partners”, but accuses NATO of turning Ukraine into a base for threatening Russia. All leaders lie while at war, change course, and pursue conflicting objectives, and Putin seems to have a particular love for misdirection. But this goes well beyond tactics. The inconsistencies at the center of Russia’s foreign policy are unique in their magnitude and persistence, and are very different from the usual hypocrisy of politics.
Western analysis of modern Russia tends to focus on Putin’s role in shaping it. Reading Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, though, one starts to see how Putin’s ability to be many things at once is very much of a piece with post-Soviet society. Putin is a product of modern Russia, not its creator. The book is not about Putin or even politics. It in fact avoids the President studiously, leaving him in background of stories about the people Pomerantsev encountered during a decade making reality shows and documentaries for Russian television. These stories paint a vivid picture of a society marked by cynicism, obfuscation, and identity crisis, into which Putin, the country’s actor-in-chief, fits perfectly. This society has moved through so many worlds—Communism, perestroika, shock-therapy capitalism, mafia rule, mega-rich oil state—so quickly, he writes, that it has been “left with the sense that life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable.”
In the West, the fall of the Soviet Union was generally hailed as a transition from tyranny to freedom, but Pomerantsev came to see the country’s “endless mutations not as freedom, but as a form of delirium.” Communism’s collapse left Russia not with a new system of values, but with a heap of ideas and identities that its people and leaders use as suits them, but to which they form no commitments. Regular people wear the masks they need to get ahead and to evade an increasingly rapacious state, whose leaders use whatever ideas they need to wield power. At the center of the story is television, and specifically reality television, which the Kremlin has succeeded in fusing with authoritarianism to keep the population “entertained, distracted and constantly exposed to geopolitical nightmares.” When nothing is true and everything is possible, people—and the country itself—can slip seamlessly between contradictory realities. A producer of regime propaganda listens to opposition radio after work; a patriotic, Orthodox oligarch spends most of his time in London; and the president is both a pro-Western democrat and a Russian nationalist who despises the West.
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible is part autobiography, part travel writing and part journalism. Pomerantsev’s background and role in helping make the Kremlin’s “vast scripted reality show” give him a unique sensitivity to his subject matter. His parents had emigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and after graduating college Pomerantsev returned to Russia. He landed a job making shows for TNT, a television network owned by the state gas company, Gazprom. TNT specializes in sitcoms and other light fare; his bosses are forever reminding him, “We make happy things, Peter! Happy!”, a demand he often struggles to meet.
Pomerantsev’s subjects come from a wide range of Russian society, though most are people who have achieved some material success and are struggling to find identities in a new world. There is the graduate of a “gold digger academy” that trains young women in the art of snagging a rich man, teaching them how to manifest different personas to cash in on Russia’s oil boom. There is the gangster who took control of his Siberian city in the 1990s through murder and graft, but now makes movies, including an autobiographical film that uses the local market as a set and its traders as players. Then there is Alexander Mozhayev, an activist who campaigns (with little success) against developers tearing down Moscow’s historic buildings. Mozhayev is seeking to preserve the city’s architectural heritage—and with it its identity—from the unrelenting greed of a real-estate boom. His story is a metaphor for Moscow’s inability to connect with its past and its compulsion for reinventing itself. It is also a beautiful introduction to the city’s quieter side streets and courtyards, where life seems pre-Soviet and worlds away from its massive, smog-chocked Soviet thoroughfares and its post-Soviet delirium.
The book captures some of the human costs of corruption. There is Yana Yakevlova, the owner of a chemical-importing company, who spends months in jail, apparently as part of the anti-narcotics police’s campaign to capture the pharmaceutical and chemicals industries. There are the young men who avoid being drafted into Russia’s often abusive army by paying bribes, telling a series of lies, and generally remaining in the shadows until they turn 27 and can no longer be drafted. This hiding and lying suits the regime. As Pomerantsev writes, “As long as you’re a simulator you will never do anything real, you will always look for your compromise with the state.”
Most of the book’s subjects struggle, but survive. This is sadly not true, however, for two young women from the Soviet periphery who grew up to be supermodels. In their efforts to make sense of their radically transformed lives, they join a self-help sect in Moscow that appears to alter them profoundly, and both end up committing suicide. Pomerantsev notes that the former Soviet Union is a world leader both in the popularity of such sects and in suicides. “The flip side of triumphant cynicism, of the ideology of endless shape-shifting, is despair.”
The book largely avoids politics, but Vladislav Surkov, who until recently managed political parties and television for Putin and now serves as a liaison with separatists in Ukraine, makes a brief appearance. Surkov is the quintessential post-Soviet shape-shifter, using whatever ideas and beliefs he finds expedient. He came of age as faith in communism departed the country and the dark arts of “public relations” arrived. Surkov embodies the mantra that “everything is PR.” He is a devotee of Alan Ginsberg and Tupac Shakur, and anonymously writes post-modernist novels, thinly veiled autobiographies whose hero is disgusted by modern Russian life. He is also a proud defender of Russia and Putin, comparing his landing on U.S. sanctions lists to winning an Oscar.
While Pomerantsev describes him as directing “Russian society like one great reality show”, Surkov and officials like him are not directors. They are touch-up artists and go-betweens who produce the slogans and imagery for Putin and his allies, put an ideological gloss on the President’s actions, and make sure politicians and news anchors are on message. Surkov has been compared to Mikhail Suslov, the Soviet Union’s unofficial chief ideologist in the 1960s and 1970s. But while Suslov worked within the confines of Marxism-Leninism, Surkov has no real ideology to work with, because Russia has no ideology. Instead he paints disposable replicas of ideology, using whatever colors are needed.
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible at times runs the risk of falling into a trap that ensnares much writing on Russia: portraying the country as some bizarre outlier, a place that post-Cold War democratization has passed over, leaving it to wallow in authoritarian misery, start wars, and occasionally produce funny, hair-raising stories. But Pomerantsev avoids this both by placing himself at the center of the story and by placing post-Soviet Russia in a broader context. Some of his characters are Westerners, but they too seem to have given up on their society’s received truths and are ready, along with the Russians, to try on different masks. The young native English speakers working at the Kremlin-sponsored television network Russia Today, for example, seem untroubled by their job shilling for Putin. Having watched their countries spend a decade fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq under dubious pretenses and struggle through the 2008 financial crash, they no longer find much allure in the West’s core values. This does seems like so much rationalization from people working for a propaganda organ. But it is hard to deny that, in the wake of these wars and economic crises, the ideals of democracy and capitalism are far more compromised than they were during the Cold War or in its immediate aftermath.
At the end of the book, Pomerantsev returns to London to find its more desirable quarters taken over by nouveau riche Russians. He gets a job producing a show called Meet the Russians, which allows the English to feel smugly superior to the crass people buying up their country. He worries, though, that these newcomers could be changing English culture. He finds London oddly unbothered by the potential effects of money pouring in from places like the former Soviet Union and Middle East. There’s no such thing as “the West” anymore, many Londoners seem to think, so why worry about its values being corrupted? And Russians seem to thrive in this rootless, post-modern world that is now London and the West more broadly because of their own experience. “They became post-Soviet a breath before the whole world went post-everything”, Pomerantsev writes. “Post-national and post-West and post-Bretton-Woods and post-whatever-else. The Yuri Gagarins of the culture of zero gravity.” It’s as though we’ve all had our rug of civilization pulled out from underneath us. We’re all Russians now.
Pomerantsev’s observations about Westerners failing to recognize a potential threat to their core values—or even to recognize that they have core values—echoes some of the laments over the West’s response to the Ukraine crisis. Russia’s aggression, the argument goes, is an attack on Europe and Western democracy from a man who disdains these things. To defend our values, we should make Kiev’s fight our fight. That the West’s fate is being decided in a country on Russia’s border, which has spent its independence mired in corruption and deeply divided, is not an obvious conclusion. Why some reach that conclusion, though, is perhaps explained by a fear that we have become unmoored from our own values and that we can reconnect with these values by helping people in a distant land who really do seem to embrace them.
Whether Russia represents a real threat to the West or not, the United States and Europe will have to figure out how to deal with that country. But dealing with a country that can’t settle on an identity is very difficult, as it is impossible to know how it views its place in the world from moment to moment. A quarter century after the collapse of one system and set of values, Russia seems no closer to adopting new ones. Instead, it puts on different masks—democracy, nationalism, and so on—according to what is expedient at the moment and then discards them. Western leaders from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Angela Merkel have struggled to get a read on Russia and Putin, but end up throwing up their hands and just walking away. While Merkel has concluded that Putin “lost touch with reality”, it may be more accurate to say he and his country inhabit multiple realities. We may well find that this is still the case long after Putin leaves.