Inside Putin’s Russia
Frank Ellis reviews a timely but one-sided account
Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia, Faber & Faber, London, 2015, ISBN 978-0-571-30801-9
Unlike Anne Applebaum, who is cited on the rear cover and describes this book as ‘electrifying’ and ‘terrifying’ and Tina Brown, the glossy-mag queen, telling the world that Pomerantsev’s book was ‘a riveting portrait of the new Russia’ and that she ‘couldn’t put it down’, I was not entirely overwhelmed. Bits of interest and humour there are but much of what Pomerantsev has to say could have been condensed into a short article. For reasons which are not clear to this reviewer the title of what I shall assume is the same book in terms of content but published in the US is given as Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. In view of the fact that language and media manipulation is one of the main charges of which Pomerantsev accuses the Putin establishment, two different titles for the same content strikes me as an example – albeit minor – of the very same thing. The first part of the book title is also irritating. It may be intended as some deliberate marketing contradiction to grab attention but if nothing is true why should I believe anything Pomerantsev or his interviewees have to say, and is the statement that “nothing is true” itself true or is it a lie?
A central theme in Nothing is True is the grotesque behaviour of exceptionally wealthy Russians and gangsters. Now the grotesque is also a major theme in Russian literature, found, for example, in the works of Nikolai Gogol (Dead Souls, 1842 & The Overcoat,1842), Fedor Dostoevsky (The Double, 1846, Notes from Underground, 1864, The Devils, 1871-1872) and in the twentieth century, in the works of Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, 1966-1967), the magnificent Vladimir Voinovich (The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of the Soldier Ivan Chonkin, 1975 & Monumental Propaganda, 2001), Andrei Platonov (The Foundation Pit, 1987) and Viktor Pelevin (Life of Insects, 1993 & Chapaev and the Void, 1996). References to some of these works would have provided the freakery of modern Russia with a definite historical-cultural context, since the appearance of quacks, extremist politicians, pseudo-Russian Orthodox fruitcakes, false pretenders, born-again holy fools, political fixers, pious Hell’s Angels with a mission to save Russia from Satanic, Western influences, Stalin worshippers and drop-dead gorgeous girls determined to get their hands on – or more accurately to get their legs and lips around – some super rich sugar daddy (known either as a Forbes or a sponsor) are what to expect in Russia. Mother Russia, God bless her, has no shortage of head cases. There is never a dull moment, unlike Sweden where the trees are known to perish from boredom.
The lack of detailed literary references in Nothing is True is important for another reason and one peculiar to Russia. In Tsarist Russia the writer was the voice of a largely silent majority; in Soviet Russia he was co-opted to be a socialist-realist engineer of human souls, extolling the Soviet state. In First Circle (1968), one of Solzhenitsyn’s characters, the soon-to-be arrested Volodin, tells a Soviet hack that a great writer is like having a second government. So any author that deals with the Russian media as it has developed for better or for worse since the mid-1980s must consider whether television and its anti-culture of toxic celebrity have now finally supplanted the writer as the cultural oracle. If this has happened in Russia or shows all the signs of accelerated transition, this represents a major cultural shift. These days would Russians read a Solzhenitsyn or Grossman or do they permit themselves to be hypnotised by talking heads?
Russians would certainly be entertained by How to Marry a Millionaire: A Gold-Digger’s Guide. The title of this Russian series speaks for itself. Girls are taught how to get their man or parts of him at any rate, and one of the hot tips given to them is that they should squeeze their vaginas tight, so as, apparently, to dilate their pupils and make themselves look more attractive.[i] When the girls want something from a Forbes they must follow the advice: look, nod and stroke.
There is something unsettling about the fate of these girls, especially the models. Two days before her twenty-first birthday, Ruslana Korshunova, committed suicide. Her name matches her beauty: Ruslana is a nod in the direction of Pushkin and Korshunova suggests the Russian word korshun, the kite, the bird of prey, a hint of freedom that was never hers, and unfortunately she was the prey. The most likely thing that prompted her to kill herself was that she fell into the clutches of an organisation, a cult, called Rose of the World. This organisation, messed with her head, to put it mildly, and it got too much for her, poor girl. Pomerantsev quite rightly calls these girls ‘the lost girls’. Despite all the international travel, the glamour and money, they lead a wretched existence: lonely, vulnerable and exploited by unscrupulous men and women. No wonder that so many commit suicide or suffer from extreme depression.
As far as Pomerantsev is concerned, post-Soviet Russia is a giant propaganda state in which the mass media in all their forms are controlled by the Kremlin. Thus, according to Pomerantsev, Ostankino is ‘the battering ram of Kremlin propaganda’.[ii] If, as Pomerantsev asserts, the task of Ostankino is to blend ‘Soviet control with Western entertainment’[iii] then perhaps Pomerantsev should explain the essential difference between Russian television and the degenerate prolefeed catering for semi-literate Western audiences in, say, the US and Britain.
Pomerantsev is also highly critical of Russia Today (RT), since, according to him, RT uses Westerners as a front for the Kremlin: ‘It took’, he says, ‘a while for those working at RT to sense something was not quite right, that “the Russian point of view” could easily mean the “Kremlin point of view”, and that “there is no such thing as objective reporting” meant the Kremlin had complete control over the truth’.[iv] Pomerantsev has obviously not been following the way the BBC has mutated into an aggressive, Goebbels-style propaganda organisation on behalf of the EU, multiculturalism, feminism and uncontrolled immigration, using its reach to attack and to vilify any person or organisation that opposes the sacred causes of the Neo-Marxist left. It seems to me that the growth and reach of Russia Today is a very good thing and some of its coverage of the Islamification of the West and the dire threat posed by mass immigration is what makes it so popular. Russia Today broadcasts topics that the BBC censors, distorts or passes over in silence because the overpaid BBC programmers are themselves terrified of, and hate, ‘objective reality’. The success of RT in challenging the US government’s propaganda machine also arouses visceral and real fear and loathing among US media controllers. This is evident from the fact that Andrew Lack, the head of the US Broadcasting Board of Governors, classifies Russia Today as ‘a major challenge’ along with IS and Boko Haram. Citing RT in the same breath as terrorist groups – the BBC refers to the delightful creatures of IS and Boko Haram as ‘militants’ – is no accident but a calculated attempt to smear a legitimate and highly effective media outlet (hence the smear) and to imply that the Russian Federation itself is a terrorist state or that it sponsors terrorism.
Russia, claims Pomerantsev, is not ‘a country in transition but some sort of postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends’.[v] Really? Is this unique to Russia? Pomerantsev bemoans the influence of Vladislav Surkov, a so-called political technologist, essentially a propagandist, whose modus operandi is described as exploiting ‘democratic rhetoric’ but having ‘undemocratic intent’.[vi] This is all well and good but what is the difference between the media lying and manipulation encouraged and pursued by the Blair regime and actively continued and pursued by Cameron, never mind the agitprop spewed out by US TV channels and US government agencies?
The dictatorship of laws, decrees and statutes in Russia is not the same thing as the Rule of Law and Russia has a long way to go before it can be considered to be a state under the Rule of Law. However, it must be made quite clear that what was identified as the Rule of Law by Dicey in the nineteenth century and which emerged from a small island population may not be at all suitable for a state the size of Russia and especially one which has no long tradition of private property rights. Western ideas of the Rule of Law and liberal democracy, essentially English, can grow and develop over time, but they cannot be imposed. Disastrous wars and their aftermath in Iraq and Afghanistan confirm this point.
There are some interesting errors and omissions in Nothing is True. At the start of his book Pomerantsev claims that Russia has 9 time zones. 2 of the 11 zones were indeed eliminated in March 2010. However, this regime was abolished in October 2014, another 2 zones being created so taking the total back to 11. Another error concerns the transliteration and translation of the title of a major Soviet propaganda exhibition. Pomerantsev refers to the All-Russian Exhibition Centre (VDNH). It is in fact VDNKh – Vystavka dostizhenii narodnogo khoziastva – Exhibition of the Achievements of the National/People’s Economy. A more serious error or rather omission is that Pomerantsev bypasses completely the murders of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian agent, and
Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist. Both were murdered in 2006. It is one thing for the Kremlin to create its own version of the world according to Putin, the BBC and the US media provide much the same sort of service for their government masters, but it is another matter entirely when journalists are murdered in Moscow. Pomerantsev goes into great detail about the presence of wealthy Russians in London, relating the account of the court confrontation between Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, yet omits to raise the altogether far more serious matter of Litvinenko’s murder in London. Judging from his account Pomerantsev was in Moscow when Politkovskaya was murdered. Having been part of the Russian media establishment – and which, now back in London and getting chummy with the BBC, he attacks – he would have picked up all kinds of interesting rumours. Yet there is nothing from Pomerantsev. Why the silence? This is a general flaw since Pomerantsev’s coverage of the endemic gangsterism in Russia is also far too superficial, even flattering, whereas David Satter’s, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (2003), is a brutally objective assessment and remains essential reading.
Pomerantsev’s presentation of the mass media in the Russian Federation does convey an impression of the surreal and absurd but one should not be fooled. Media control pursued by the Putin government is part of a two-fold riposte to what Russia’s leaders see, correctly in my view, as an aggressive US/EU-sponsored information war against Russia. The origins of this policy go back to the Doktrina Informatsionnoi bezopasnosti Rossiiskoi Federatsii (The Doctrine of Information Security of the Russian Federation) that was signed in to law by President Putin in 2000. The first element in this response is defensive. Hostile foreign influences in Russia cannot be totally excluded but the primacy of the Russian government’s interests can be asserted. The second element is aggressive and involves the promotion and projection of Russian interests and power. A major forum for this policy is Russia Today. The reason that Russia Today makes so much of the failure of Western politicians to counter the extreme dangers of Islam and the anti-white ideology of multiculturalism is because RT executives know full well that US and British media outlets actively and ruthlessly suppress (censor) the truth and thus provide RT with an opportunity to champion the truth and to expose Western mendacity and hypocrisy. During the Cold War Russians listened to Western radio – Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, the BBC and Deutsche Welle – to find out what was happening. These days, Westerners who see through the organised Orwellian lying of their national governments, their corrupt state media agencies and the quasi-fascist European Union are far more likely to get an accurate account from the former Cold-War enemy. History is indeed a cunning old bastard.
© Frank Ellis, 2015
Frank Ellis is an historian and the author of The Stalingrad Cauldron (2013). His new book, entitled Barbarossa: Sunday 22nd June 1941, will be published later this year
[i] Nothing is True, p.15
[ii] Nothing is True, p.6
[iii] Nothing is True, p.7
[iv] Nothing is True, p.56
[v] Nothing is True, p.50
[vi] Nothing is True, p.77