Magazine | March 23, 2015, Issue

A Most Curious Country It Was

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, by Peter Pomerantsev (PublicAffairs, 256 pp., $25.99)

There was a time, a time not long after history ended, when the narrative was clear. The Soviet Union collapsed, followed by a period too close to chaos for comfort. Finally Putin, picked out from backstage, and promising a firmer hand on the tiller; if no one was sure of the course he would set, how bad could it be? The past was past, after all.

In 2006, Peter Pomerantsev, the British son of Soviet-era émigrés, flew into Moscow set on a career in Russian TV. His book tells what happened next. Vivid, gripping, and deeply disturbing, it intertwines fragments of memoir with a beautifully written depiction of a fevered, frenzied society, of a city glittering at the edge of darkness.

It’s a story told from and about the center. Russia’s vast hinterland is object, not subject, seen mainly in glimpses: an excursion to the Caucasus to check out “the biggest boy in the world,” seven years old, over 220 pounds; a trip to the Russian far east, to the hometown of an ex-gangster who has made a second life making movies about his former profession.

But it’s Moscow that is Pomerantsev’s focus, citadel of the system that somehow holds Russia together, a system too elusive to grasp fully, “some sort of postmodern dictatorship,” its lack of definition part of its strength: It hides in plain sight, its camouflage reinforced by the medium in which Pomerantsev finds himself working. Television is “the only force that can unify and rule and bind” this sprawling, wildly diverse nation. “It’s the central mechanism of a new type of authoritarianism, one far subtler than 20th-century strains.”

Early on, Pomerantsev is taken to a meeting at Ostankino, the television center he labels “the battering ram of Kremlin propaganda.” But back then, its fare was gentler than that phrase suggests, vampire programming that Russians were happy to invite into their homes, a seductive, manipulative fusion of entertainment and control, exciting, beguiling, fun.

Pomerantsev ends up elsewhere, at TNT, one of Russia’s leading networks. His first commission, for a new documentary line, is How to Marry a Millionaire (A Gold Digger’s Guide). TNT (“Tvoyo Novoye Televideniye” — Your New Television) is an “island of happy neon.” It’s Yours. It’s New. It’s relentlessly upbeat, dedicated to an image of a “youthful, bouncy, glossy” Russia, pioneering Russian reality programming, Russian sitcoms, Russian trash talk-shows, all feeding that part of the Russian psyche that has always wanted to be more like the West. No less traditionally, it distracts attention from what lies behind Russia’s prettier façades. Many of Moscow’s brightest are working at places like TNT, encouraged to promote a licensed rebelliousness, but “they just can’t do real politics [there]; [TNT] is a news-free zone. Most are happy with the trade-off: complete freedom for complete silence.” TNT is owned by Gazprom, the oil-and-gas giant. Gazprom is controlled by the Russian state. Ah . . .

That there was this space for a facsimile of liberty reflected the games of a regime that, for most of the time that Pomerantsev is describing, used ideology — no, a ragbag of ideologies — as means, not end. This is highlighted by Pomerantsev’s remarkable portrayal of Vladislav Surkov, the brilliant shape-shifter who emerged as the most effective of Russia’s “political technologists” — a gloriously cynical name for, Pomerantsev writes, “a very old profession: viziers, gray cardinals, wizards of Oz.” An aesthete and a bohemian with a weakness for gangsta rap, who has written (and denied, but not really denied, writing) a bestselling novel satirizing someone a bit like himself, Surkov has held a number of jobs within the government. He funds civic forums and human-rights NGOs, while quietly lending a helping hand to the nationalist groups that oppose them. He sponsors festivals for Moscow’s most provocative modern artists and supports the Orthodox fundamentalists who attack them. “The Kremlin’s idea,” claims Pomerantsev, “is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls.”

That’s how it plays out in straightforwardly totalitarian states, but it can also work in a country where a significant slice of the elite no longer believes in anything. In Russia, there was the pretense of faith in Communism, a long-failed god, and then “democracy and defaults and mafia state and oligarchy,” traumas and absurdities that, Pomerantsev is told, fostered a conviction that “everything is PR.” If so, playing along and looking, when the moment comes, for an edge has a bleak logic to it. Pomerantsev goes farther: During the Soviet era, the elites had to dissimulate in order to survive. That is no longer necessary, but “they continue to do so out of a sort of dark joy, conformism raised to the level of aesthetic act.”

That may be a stretch, and it may also be too optimistic. As Putin’s grip hardens, the assertion that everything is PR looks less like cynicism and more like denial. When Pomerantsev introduces us to Ostankino, he explains how “at the center of the great show is the President himself, created from a no one, a gray fuzz via the power of television, so that he morphs as rapidly as a performance artist among his roles of soldier, lover, bare-chested hunter, businessman, spy, tsar, superman.”

Gray fuzz? Stalin was once dismissed by a fellow revolutionary as having been no more than a “gray blur” during the Bolshevik coup, an insult that doubtless contributed to the execution of that same revolutionary two decades later. Now, Putin is not, and will never be, a Stalin, but, like his notorious predecessor, he is laconic, understated, easy to underestimate until too late. Even before becoming president, he was rather more than a nobody. In assessing the role that the media’s choreographers now play in buttressing Putin’s power, it is important to remember that they may be organ grinders, but he is no monkey.

And the tune has changed and is changing. Pomerantsev notes how, as the years passed, the tone of Ostankino’s output darkened, becoming “ever more twisted,” something he attributes to an “ever more paranoid” Kremlin: “Rationality was tuned out.” Not quite: Irrationality was whipped up in pursuit of an agenda that, however unlovely, was all too rational. Putin’s principal interest during the earlier stages of his presidency was to nurture the system that was making him and his allies very, very rich, but he also appears to have a strong sense of institutional loyalty, above all to the security apparatus in which he once worked. That’s a loyalty highly compatible with a belief in a strong state, albeit a strong state subordinated to his interests, a belief that is probably genuine and certainly useful.

A paranoid Kremlin? Not so much: The reality of metropolitan alienation from the regime was made dangerously clear by massive demonstrations in Moscow in 2011 and 2012. In response, Putin has turned to and toughened a traditionalist message that was already under development. It is designed to appeal to a larger and — how shall I put this? — less sophisticated constituency. Bolstered by increasing oppression, it’s a rejection of dissent and a call for a strong state synthesized from elements of Russia’s authoritarian past, both Soviet and (particularly in its co-optation of Orthodoxy and explicit ethnic nationalism) czarist. The demonization of foreign “enemies” only adds to the mix. And it’s worked. Putin’s approval ratings have reached extraordinary levels: Why reverse course?

This book’s description of Moscow, a city of spectacle — booming, corrupt, gaudy, libertine, cruel, vibrant, desperate, lost — may thus come to be seen as a portrait of the moment just before Russia’s latest deluge. Pomerantsev watches the shadows lengthen: “Every week there were more arrests of businessmen and -women, and more than 50 percent of people were now employed by state companies. Polls showed that young people no longer wanted to be entrepreneurs but bureaucrats.” The story of Yana, a businesswoman unjustly subjected to a brutal legal ordeal, is a reminder that “the other real Russia rumbles on like a distant ringing in the ears. And it can grab us and pull us in at any moment.” Grigory, a self-made multimillionaire — “one of the boys who became rich in a blink in the 1990s,” whose parties, a mixture of Babylon and art project, were “oases where we escape the barons and werewolves for a night” — spends less and less time in Russia.

The economy slows. Mysticism, the supernatural, and the spiritual help keep television audiences “in a constant state of panic and medieval ecstasies.” Nationalist bikers (supported by the Kremlin, naturally) take the stage, both figuratively and literally, performing grand celebrations of a Greater Russia in a Crimea where night will soon fall, and then again, after it has fallen. Pomerantsev tells TNT that he can no longer find them the positive stories they require, declines a job offer from Ostankino, and moves back to Britain.

There will be those who stay behind; there will always be room for the clever, appropriately ambitious, appropriately harnessed. But their ironic masquerade will do little to reduce the pull of reins that are already tightening.

Putin will not be Stalin, nor will he be Hitler, but as I write this, I can’t help recalling the last scene in Cabaret. The music stops, and that urbane audience begins to change, tuxedos turning into the uniforms and armbands of a new triumphant reality.

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