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.
NOTHING IS TRUE AND EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE
The Surreal Heart of the New Russia
By Peter Pomerantsev
241 pp. PublicAffairs. $25.99.