Nothing is true and everything is possible The surreal heart of the new Russia

Peter Pomerantsev

Book - 2014

"A journey into the glittering, surreal heart of 21st-century Russia: into the lives of oligarchs convinced they are messiahs, professional killers with the souls of artists, Bohemian theater directors turned Kremlin puppet-masters, supermodel sects, post-modern dictators, and playboy revolutionaries. This is a world erupting with new money and new power, changing so fast it breaks all sense of reality, where life is seen as a whirling, glamorous masquerade where identities can be switched and all values are changeable"--

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New York : PublicAffairs [2014]
Main Author
Peter Pomerantsev (author)
First edition
Physical Description
vii, 241 pages ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (page 241).
  • Act I. Reality Show Russia
  • Act II. Cracks in the Kremlin Matrix
  • Act III. Forms of Delirium
  • Acknowledgments
  • Extra Reading
Review by New York Times Review

THE NAME "VLADIMIR PUTIN" is almost impossible to find in "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia." He usually appears only as "the President," lording over and lurking behind the tales of tragedy and absurdity in Peter Pomerantsev's captivating new book about modern Russia and its discontents. Pomerantsev, a British journalist of Russian heritage, began going to Russia regularly as a reality television producer almost a decade ago, and it's through that prism that he sees the country. "Reality" is scripted by the dark forces inside the Kremlin. Fake opposition parties engage in fake opposition to those who rule, a fake justice system goes through the motions of the legal process, and the fake television news shapes what Russia's 143 million citizens are allowed to see. Behind everything, however, is Putin. "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible" arrives near the end of a year in which the Russian president dominated global headlines. Russia's annexation of Crimea and its sponsorship of the rebellion in eastern Ukraine were explained, at best, as a result of his imperialist ambitions, at worst by his madness. Pomerantsev's almost complete refusal to mention Putin's name can be taken as a suggestion that we focus too much on him, that he's so big he no longer requires discussion - or that we do not and cannot ever know who he truly is, so why even bother? (The device works: The reader spends half the book waiting for Putin to appear and the other half accepting the idea that he influences everything.) Instead Pomerantsev focuses on a group of apparent outliers, using them to tell the story of today's Russia. Among these figures are a gangster who loves movies, a model who committed suicide and a lawyer whose death in prison epitomizes the Kafkaesque nature of the country's pretense of a justice system. Yet in Pomerantsev's telling, they aren't outliers at all; they're characters playing parts in the Kremlin's script. "TV is the only force that can unify and rule and bind this country," Pomerantsev writes. "It's the central mechanism of a new type of authoritarianism far subtler than 20th-century strains." This provides the best framework with which to understand Putin's publicity stunts. "All the shirtless photos hunting tigers and harpooning whales are love letters to the endless queues of fatherless girls," Pomerantsev writes, telling the story of Oliona, a young beauty seeking an oligarch to care for her. Putin's tough-guy talk also appeals to Vitaly, a small-time gangster. When Putin first came to power in 1999, anointed by an ailing Boris Yeltsin, the question on everyone's lips was: "Who is he?" Pomerantsev's answer: whatever Russians need him to be. As one personality on state-run television puts it, "We all know there will be no real politics. But we still have to give our viewers the sense something is happening. ... Politics has got to feel like ... like a movie!" PART REPORTAGE AND part memoir, "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible" follows the author as he navigates the reality show that is Russia. At first, he is drawn in by Moscow's chaos, with its fresh and gaudy wealth, wild parties and intense personalities. He embraces the world of Moscow's extremes, working for a network called TNT, producing shows with titles like "How to Marry a Millionaire." Yet he soon sees the dark side of the madness - the violence, the emptiness and, ultimately, the lack of control average Russians have over their own fate. Russians' ability to adapt to their environment no longer seems admirable. "It was only years later," he writes, "that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom but as forms of delirium." Pomerantsev's pitches for shows arise from the reality that he, as a knowing outsider, sees. In response, he is met with coos from the higher-ups at the network and suggestions that he concentrate on positive stories. Russian television isn't meant to mirror reality, it's meant to shape it. And no one at TNT - no one in the country's leadership - needs to explore anything controversial. Putin was keenly aware of how his critics once used the pluralistic, and politicized, television media of an earlier era to attack him; the first sign of his autocratic tendencies was his crude move to bring major television channels under state control. Some wondered if this was an aberration, but Putin soon used the same methods to steer everything from the oil industry to unruly oligarchs into the Kremlin's fold. Putin has now fully established control over the media. A vast majority of Russians still get most of their information from television, and the three major channels are either owned directly by the Kremlin or by state-owned companies. Each week, a Kremlin official directs their coverage. Major newspapers have been cowed. Russia's only independent television channel - TV Rain - is facing enormous pressure to shut down. That - and the question of how the Kremlin distorts reality - is no longer a question for Russians alone. The crisis in Ukraine has been fought just as much through the telling of its narrative as through its deployment of weaponry. Russia has directed its propaganda campaign to devastating effect, not only at home but through international ventures like the television news channel RT (formerly Russia Today), which continues to expand, most recently opening an affiliate in South America and announcing a London-based version to focus exclusively on Britain. It's an information war, and the reality into which the Russians in Pomerantsev's book have been indoctrinated is the Kremlin's latest export. The international audience is an entirely different one, however. And, despite its keen observations, what Pomerantsev's book lacks is deep background for that audience. Readers of "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible" aren't given a clear sense of why the Kremlin is deploying its propaganda so forcefully (does the author mean to imply, perhaps, that it's simply a matter of power for power's sake?) or of why Russians are so acquiescent. In a sense, this makes the book feel truly post-Soviet: There's no mention of Russia's long and tortured history with authoritarianism. Yet this tactic also raises a multitude of questions about why another chapter in that history is being allowed to unfold. A particularly telling quote comes late in the book, from the British judge who presided over one of the most dramatic trials in modern Russian history, the London confrontation between the exiled oligarch-turned-critic Boris Berezovsky and the Kremlin favorite Roman Abramovich: "I found Mr. Berezovsky an unimpressive, and inherently unreliable, witness, who regarded truth as a transitory, flexible concept, which could be molded to suit his current purposes. I gained the impression that he was not necessarily being deliberately dishonest, but had deluded himself into believing his own version of events." Pomerantsev's book shows that those phrases can be applied to much of Russian society, and that this is no accident. Fake television news shapes what Russia's 143 million citizens are allowed to see. MIRIAM ELDER is BuzzFeed's foreign editor and a former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [November 9, 2014]
Review by Booklist Review

The new Russia has caught on to the West, adopting its language of democracy and capitalism, all while still state-controlled as it has moved from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich, declares Pomerantsev. The son of Russian émigrés, raised in England, a self-described third-rate assistant to others' projects, Pomerantsev returned to Russia to work in the fast-growing television and film industry. With little to recommend him other than having lived and worked in London, he was given enormous power and entrée to observe Russia's propaganda machine. He chronicles encounters with leggy blondes studying at gold-digger academies, gangsters turned television producers, legions of expats returning to make money, and international development consultants evangelizing on behalf of democratic capitalism but blind to the realities of the new Russia. Pomerantsev offers a scathing and totally engaging portrait of corruption and illusion in a place of gangsters and glitterati, of sudden dizzying oil wealth, numbing old poverty, and the same old politics wrapped up in exciting new packaging.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2014 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

This debut from television producer Pomerantsev vividly describes the decade, starting in 2001, that he spent in Vladimir Putin's "New Russia" pursuing a film school degree and TV work. Along the way, it reveals the complex truth about 21st-century Russia, with all of its new possibility, wealth, power, and corruption. Born in Kiev but raised in England by exiled Russian parents, Pomerantsev decided to move back to his native country, partly because he felt like he had "always been an observer looking in at Russia" and "wanted to get closer." The book is divided into distinct parts-"Reality Show Russia," "Cracks in the Kremlin Matrix," and "Forms of Delirium"- suggesting the three-act structure taught in modern screenwriting manuals and emphasizing the feel of "performance" in the new Russia. Highlights of the narrative include Pomerantsev's experiences producing a TV documentary called How to Marry a Millionaire (A Gold Digger's Guide), interviewing gangster-turned-movie star Vitaliy Djomochka, attending a lecture by Kremlin propaganda mastermind Vladislav Surkov, and sampling the excess of Moscow nightlife. Sometimes horrifying but always compelling, this book exposes the bizarre reality hiding beneath the facade of a "youthful, bouncy, glossy country." Agency: Melanie Jackson Agency. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Everything you know about Russia is wrong, according to this eye-opening, mind-bending memoir of a TV producer caught between two cultures.Born in Russia but raised in Europe, where he is now a London-based writer, Pomerantsev felt compelled to return to his homeland after the turn of the century: "I wanted to get closer: London seemed so measured, so predictable, the America the rest of my migr family lived in seemed so content, while the real Russia seemed truly alive, had the sense that anything was possible." He got more than he bargained for, an experience far different from anything he had anticipated, though he did return from Russia with a wife and daughter (barely mentioned until the end, where he also acknowledges that he has "scrunched time mercilessly to tell my story"). Instead of a cohesive overview or chronological progression, the author records his impressions more like a kaleidoscopic series of anecdotes and vignettes, absurd and tragic, with characters that might be tough to believe if they were presented as fiction. There are the legions of strikingly beautiful women who blur the distinction between gold digger and prostitute. There are the Night Wolves, a motorcycle gang that is "the Russian equivalent of the Hells Angels" but who "are bikers who have found a Russian God." There is corruption at every level, from officials who prefer bribes to taxes to a criminal system in which "99% of those charged in Russia receive guilty verdicts." There is also reality TV, which demands heroes and happy endings, even when the subject is a ravishing model who was either murdered or committed suicide after indoctrination by a brainwashing cult, which the author suggests are as inherently Russian as vodka. And there is "the great war between Holy Russia and the Godless West" in a Russia that both emulates and reviles the crass excesses of capitalism. Not always cohesive, but the stylish rendering of the Russian culture, which both attracts and appalls the author, will keep the reader captivated. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.