Book Review - Russia’s Manufactured Reality
Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (New York: Public Affairs, 2014), 256 pp. $25.99.
In October of 1939, Winston Churchill gave a speech that contained what, in the latter half of the twentieth century, would become the prevailing description of Russian society. Russia, Churchill said, “is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” That key was Russian national interest, and while at the time Churchill was speaking in purely geopolitical terms, his rule has been taken to heart in the years since by scores of Western analysts hoping to peel back the layers of the Russian enigma.
Peter Pomerantsev turns this concept on its head. In Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, he takes us inside a “new” Russia that is both plagued by doubt and sure of its destiny. This anxiety and destiny have come to be encapsulated, through a symbiosis of state and media, in the person of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pomerantsev’s book speaks to the reader about the post-Soviet psyche. It provides glimpses of the mechanisms of power that the Kremlin exercises through a carefully constructed media monopoly and through a totalizing vertical integration of coercive control. The stories he tells are brief forays into the heart of that machine.
Beyond these raw insights, there is not much in the way of strategic thinking in this book. We never do get a clear handle on what makes Russia tick. Perhaps the author believes this feat is unattainable. But what Nothing is True and Everything is Possible lacks in strategy and prescriptions, it makes up for in its human approach and insider perspective. From these elements, we can begin to piece together a larger picture, one that is as grotesque as it is wildly entertaining.
The book is organized into three thematic parts. Reality Show Russia starts the reader off at the beginning of Pomerantsev’s career, moves through Siberia, Kaliningrad and back to Moscow as it introduces gangsters, development consultants and the “political technologists” responsible for molding media reality, along the way. Cracks in the Kremlin Matrix provides a morbid introduction into the Russian criminal justice system and the practice of “reiding,” which has become endemic in post-Soviet Russia. “Reiding” is a form of corporate takeover, whereby the head of a company is arrested and, while imprisoned, relieved of his or her business assets. It is a practice that has been applied across Russian society, from the very top (in the form of ousted Yukos tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky) down to local furniture stores. Forms of Delirium, the final chapter, could be the beginnings of another book in and of itself. Here Pomerantsev hones in on the debilitating denial which accompanies working within the “Kremlin matrix.” He reflects on his parents’ decision to leave Russia and ends up emigrating back to London himself. He ends the book with a glimpse of the Russian system’s impact on the financial poles of the world.
Each chapter is formed by the consolidation of biopic vignettes strung together against the backdrop of the author’s experience as a reality television producer looking to get to the heart of Russian new post-Cold War society. The evidence is largely anecdotal, encapsulated in stories of gangsters-turned-movie moguls, of the kept mistresses of rich and unaccountable oligarchs, and of gullible Russians seduced by surreal personal improvement cults and extreme ideologies. But it is through this approach that we can grasp the exigency of what is wrong within Russia. In Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, the personal becomes the political.
In his work at London’s Legatum Institute, Mr. Pomerantsev focuses more specifically on the role of propaganda in Russia’s global strategy, arguing that the regime in Russia uses its assets of energy, corruption and propaganda to asymmetrically confront the West and its perceived values. It is this very state of constant confrontation, he contends, which has come to define Russia. And in order to combat it, the West will have to learn its methods of confrontation—and understand just how far we need to adapt our own institutions to deal with them. That means first grasping what Russia is, and what it is not.
The Russia in Nothing is True and Everything is Possible is one that possesses all the glitz and glamour of a Western democracy without, any of the substance. By masking chaos in a cloak of materialism, the government of Vladimir Putin is able to obscure objective truth, and both subvert and pervert Western values, even as it professes to espouse them.
As the images churned out of the Russian propaganda machine become more Western in their aesthetic and more anti-Western in their message, it useful to look back at the origins of Putin’s propaganda strategy. The setting of this book, the first decade of the 21st century, is a good place to start. As Mr. Pomerantsev describes it, Putin is waging a war with the West that is far subtler than prior strains. By using every tool at his disposal, tools which Pomerantsev shows us in his description of life in post-Soviet Russia, Putin is slowly bringing Russia’s national interests into line with those of his inner circle—and molding Russia’s future in his own image.
Jason Czerwiec is Junior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.