Pomerantsev’s hyperreal journey “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia”between kabbalists, supermodels and conscripts holds many keys to Putin’s Russia and what Putinism’s bequest to the West may be.
The more Western media write and speak about Russia and more they seem keen to use “misleading historical analogies” and offer “one-sided interpretations of complex processes”. This would be disposable even if Russia was just the largest country in the world, but it is also a nuclear power and a “resurgent global player.” However, the mass of TV authors and producers who lack sufficient knowledge about the topic their shows often focus on is balanced by intellectuals like Peter Pomerantsev. A TV producer himself, with his first book, whose style is as evocative and effective as hyperrealist filming, Pomerantsev offers a unique perspective on Putin’s Russia.
1. What are we looking at?
Pomerantsev’s literary debut is so rich and all-encompassing that summarising its almost 300 pages is almost impossible. Taking aside the quest to find out the nature of contemporary, post-soviet Russian identity the book does not have a pivotal axis around which its entire narrative revolves.
Instead it is built on personal stories, fragments of more or less ordinary people’s biographies — which, as if they were pieces of one of the many mosaics of Moscow’s metro, while openly contrasting with one another create a paradoxically coherent picture. In the middle of the book Pomerantsev describes the social and political function of compulsory military service in twenty-first-century Russia, whose military is among the most technologically advanced in the world. In doing so he highlights something that greatly contributes to differencing Western European politics and collective subconscious from that of post-Soviet societies:
even if you manage to avoid the draft, you, your mother, and your family become part of the network of bribes and fears and simulations; […] And that’s fine for the system: as long as you’re a simulator you will never do anything real, you will always look for your compromise with the state, which in turn makes you feel just right amount of discomfort. Whichever way, you’re hooked. Indeed, it could be said that if a year in the army is the overt process that moulds young Russians, a far more powerful bond with the system is created by the rituals of avoiding military service(p. 144)
Taken out context this passage may feel meaningless. However, with a few sentences Pomerantsev sums up the peculiar social contract of Putin’s Russia. Indeed, the idea that nothing “done” will ever be “real”, that “you can protest all you like; it won’t change anything. You can scream and scream, but no one will hear you.” (p. 116) is the basis of every authoritarian regime; but in post-Soviet it means way more. It is the everyday manifestation of the “blistering progression from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich” Russian society experienced in the “wild ‘90s” and early 2000s — life in post-Soviet Russia “is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable”. (p. 4)
2. Russia’s “schizophrenic” relation with reality
This single fact is, ultimately, the one and only perspective from which Pomerantsev’s account of post-modern Russia makes sense. But, while most Western would, in a rather naïve fashion, consider such a “liquid” social structure as “the expression of a country liberated” (p. 4) the Author better qualifies them as forms of delirium. A schizophrenic relation with reality that gets elevated to paramount since – in a country that spans 11 time zones peopled by all kinds of people from peasants stuck in the Middle Ages to cosmopolite billionaires – no one is immune from it. The result, which Pomerantsev beautifully describes with patience and attachment, is a “great show” at the centre of which stands “the President himself,” who morphs “among his roles of soldier, lover, bare-chested hunter, businessman, spy, tsar, superman.” (p. 7)
In other words, nowadays everyone has developed the “ability all KGB men have, to split [their] personality at will”. (p. 111) To be truthful, it was a gift which the generation who grew up in the USSR was unaware of. As someone recalls while speaking with the Author: “when we sang” the party’s songs it “felt good […] And then straight after we would listen to Deep Purple and the BBC.” (p. 233) The fact that communism was, for many Russians, not some kind of secular faith but a modus vivendi or mere social convention and yet almost no one dared to denounce this farce is “the great drama of Russia.” (p. 234) The psychological effect is the fragmentation of the self into “little bits” so that one “can never quite commit to changing things”; is something Westerners won’t care to understand but it is also the real reason for which “they can only create a society of simulations” and simulacra. (Ibid.) Even the political elite seem “as if they have been turned and twisted in so many ways, they’ve spun right off the whirligig into something clinical.” (p. 274)
For all its modernity and “offshore-ness” post-Soviet Russia remains a country whose youth is made up of orphans who do not believe in anything and seem disillusioned about everything. To them, the way Putin’s Kremlin handled the shocks that followed the First Chechen War, the Kursk or the Nord Ost Theatre siege so that “No longer would there be anything uncontrolled, unvetted, un-thought-through” (p. 67), together with “All the shirtless photos hunting tigers and harpooning whales” felt and still feel like “love letters” that project on the President the image of “the ultimate protector with whom you can be as “behind a stone wall”.” (p. 17)
3. The simulacrum of a democracy
In Pomerantsev’s account Putin’s dictatorship isn’t like anything political scientists and historians have ever seen. No, it isn’t just “a world designed by the political technologists. A fragile reality-show set that can seem, if you squint, almost genuine. […] a simulacrum of the whole democratic thing” (p. 101–102) as Pomerantsev suggests quoting the well-known French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. It is the by-product of the context in which “the first Russian generation that not only flies but even flies abroad as a matter of course” (p. 72) was raised. The struggles and aspirations of this whole generation, the highs and lows of their lives are well represented in their choses as to where to live. Most of them, in fact, come from “the representative, cross-section town of Russia, the country where a third of males have been to prison” (p. 35) but eventually settle down (or at least try to) in the “new Moscow” (p. 4) The capital is, just like the youngsters who spend their nights dreaming to live there, “psychotic” and keen to “self-destruction” in its “search for a style”. (p. 123)
Notwithstanding its ever-shifting appearance, Moscow remains the capital of a pachyderm country with a “still feudal social structure defined by needing to be within touching distance of the tsar, the general secretary of the Communist Party, the President of the Russian Federation.” (p. 125) In the West “power is a lot like real estate. It’s all about location […] The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value,” while in Russia the opposite is true: in the real estate “Property prices are measured by distance from the Red Square” (p. 125).
Under Putin’s evident leadership and with the unnoticed support of the President’s inner circle – whose tendency to backstabbing constantly menaces to put an end to the Vertikal – Russia turned from what political scientists of the past would define “a country in transition” to “some sort of postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends.” (p. 50) Moscow is defined postmodern as it “has problems with its memories” (p. 130) which reflect in the lack of an architectural identity and is inhabited by young people who were given “no traditions, no value systems” and whose “triumphant cynicism” and “ideology of endless shape-shifting” translates in “despair.” (p. 260)
But also, and more relevantly, because there both the elites and the ordinary people and can feel like there is “an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.” (p. 78) The Kremlin has a unifying story telling that most disillusioned Russians can easily accept — and if someone really cannot there is a plethora of civic forums, human rights NGOs and club for modern artists as well as movement for Orthodox fundamentalists, communists and ultra-nationalists. Some of them may seem anti-Putin, but they are all funded, sponsored and directed by the country’s leading political technologist, Aleksandr Sokurov, who happens to be another son of the mesmerising post-Soviet odyssey.
It is the very same idea shared by all the post-Soviet sects: “all the suffering, all the shocks Russia had gone through made it the […] birthplace for a new, messianic consciousness” (p. 212–213). The concept has existed “since Ivan III’s Muscovy” was to be “the Third and Final Rome” and lasted through the centuries. (Ibid.) Even the October Revolution and international communism were nothing more that the “most geopolitically ambitious expression of this idea: Moscow as the shining city on the hill of socialism, the churning forge of the new era to end all eras.” (p. 213)
4. Late-Putinism’s own achievement
Nowadays even protesters and the dissidents have fallen victim of this myth in its umpteenth chameleonic adaptation to the muting Zeitgeist. In fact,
if once upon a time they used the phrase “the West” in general, and the word “London” in particular, to represent the beacon of what they aimed towards, now the words “London” and “the West” can be said with a light disgust, as the place that shelters and rewards and strengthens the very forces that oppress them. And so, in the classic Third Rome twist, the Russian liberal can become the last true liberal on Earth, the only ones still believing in the preaching of […] the international development consultants(p. 278)
Western ex-pats are, probably, the best metaphor of the average Westerner’s reaction when s/he gets to know Russia. At first, they pretend “to teach Russia how to be civilised”. But, overnight, they end up not being “even sure who won the Cold War after all.” (p. 41, 42) The Gulf Wars, the invasion of Afghanistan, the financial crash, everything conjured so that all “the words that had been used to win the Cold War – like “freedom”, “democracy” and “free market” – seemed to have swelled and mutated and changed their meaning, to become redundant.” (p. 55)
The libertarian, liberal story telling that won the Cold War has now disappeared since “the unity of the Western story seems unwound” without an enemy against whom it would be brandished like the mythical Excalibur. Pomerantsev writes that to defeat the USSR it was necessary to push “into one package” all of the West’s virtues or pretend ones: “parliaments, investment banks, and abstract expressionism fused to defeat the Politburo, planned economics, and social realism.” (p. 88) But, now the West does not believe in itself anymore and on the creatures of its arrogance, Surkov, used all his “genius”
to tear those associations apart, to marry authoritarianism and modern art, to use the language of rights and representation to validate tyranny to recut and paste democratic capitalism until it means the reverse of its original purpose.(p. 88)
The world order built in the decades after the second world war by Washington’s corporate elites is not working anymore for neither its natural beneficiaries nor its secondary recipients. The Kremlin’s narrative aims at convincing itself and the resto of the world that it is the “great corporate reider inside globalisation, […] that it can [be …] The twenty-first century’s geopolitical avant-garde.” (p. 276) It is more likely than not that Russia will never abandon its “messianic” aspiration. Russian elites and large swathes of its population alike won’t accept rules that others have made for it and the West, as of now, hasn’t a solid counter-narrative of its own. Perhaps “nothing is true and everything is possible” is for real —but how to tell true from simulacra when there is no moral compass left?
*Fabio A. Telarico is university student currently attending a BA in Political Science and International Relations