By David Michael Newstead.
In Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, Peter Pomerantsev discusses his nine years working in reality TV in Moscow. It’s a place where beautiful gold diggers who never knew their fathers dream of meeting a rich husband, ex-gangsters become local heroes who direct action movies, and religious cults try to warp the minds of their followers to an absurd degree. But as he looked deeper, the British producer finds the scripted reality of television merging with the scripted reality of authoritarian politics into something new and frightening.
The book opens with Pomerantsev reflecting on his time in Moscow.
“Performance” was the city’s buzzword, a world where gangsters become artists, gold diggers quote Pushkin, Hells Angels hallucinate themselves as saints. Russia had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression – from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich – that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just on glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable. “I want to try on every persona the world has ever known,” Vladik Mamyshev-Monroe would tell me. He was a performance artist and the city’s mascot, the inevitable guest at parties attended by the inevitable tycoons and supermodels, arriving dressed as Gorbachev, a fakir, Tutankhamen, the Russian President. When I first landed in Moscow I thought these infinite transformations the expression of a country liberated, pulling on different costumes in a frenzy of freedom, pushing the limits of personality as far as it could possibly go to what the President’s vizier would call “the heights of creation.” It was only years later that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom but as forms of delirium, in which scare-puppets and nightmare mystics become convinced they’re almost real and march toward what the President’s vizier would go on to call the “the fifth world war, the first non-linear war of all against all.”
The author discovers how control of the media, particularly of television, allows for Orwellian levels of manipulation over the truth, creating phantom threats to the country and phantom supermen to defend it. And on TV channels like RT, journalism and propaganda go hand in hand, while every political voice seems to just be playing a part in some stage production mimicking a democracy. In particular, Pomerantsev focuses on key Kremlin spin doctor, Vladislav Surkov, as he churns out post-apocalyptic novels and discusses art ad nauseam, while simultaneously orchestrating the elaborate political theatre in Russia as well as the wave of propaganda that engulfed neighboring Ukraine. Of other politicians like Surkov, Pomerantsev writes:
Glance through the careers of these new religious patriots, and you find they were recently committed democrats and liberals, pro-Western, preaching modernization, innovation, and commitment to Russia’s European course, before which they were all good Communists. And though on the one hand their latest incarnations are just new acts in the Moscow political cabaret, something about their delivery is different from the common Russian political performer who gives his rants with a knowing wink and nod. Now the delivery is somewhat deadpan. Flat and hollowed-eyed, as if they have been turned and twisted in so many ways they’ve spun right off the whirligig into something clinical.
The Kremlin switches messages at will to its advantage, climbing inside everything: European right-wing nationalists are seduced with an anti-EU message; the Far Left is co-opted with tales of fighting US hegemony; US religious conservatives are convinced by the Kremlin’s fight against homosexuality. And the result is an array of voices, working away at global audiences from different angles, producing a cumulative echo chamber of Kremlin support, all broadcast on RT.
But behind that curtain of misinformation, Pomerantsev details a system that robs owners of their businesses, proliferates corruption at all levels, and embezzles massive wealth right out of the country into the welcoming arms of Swiss and British banks. Eventually, the author returns to London only to find it inhabited by many of the Russian oligarchs and supermodels he thought he left behind in Moscow. Dismayed, Pomerantsev learns of a young tax attorney named Sergei Magnitsky who died horribly in a Russian prison for exposing a corruption scheme: money that eventually made its way to safe havens in the West. And in an excruciatingly relevant interview, he quotes Magnitsky’s former boss, Jamison Firestone, on the changes already in progress.
London shocked me. The whole system is built around wanting that money to come here. We want their money. We want their trade. And now you’ve got former German chancellor Schroeder and Lord Mandelson and Lord So-and-So working for these Russian state companies, and you know I think they should just be honest and say ‘some Kremlin company offered me 500,000 to sit on their board and I don’t do anything and I don’t know anything about how the company is run but sometimes they ask me to open some doors.’ And the argument I hear from everyone is ‘well if the money doesn’t go here it will go somewhere else’: well here ain’t going to be here if you take that attitude, here is going to be there. We used to have this self-centered idea that Western democracies were the end point of evolution, and we’re dealing from a position of strength, and people are becoming like us. It’s not that way. Because if you think this thing we have here isn’t fragile you are kidding yourself. This,” and here Jamison takes a breath and waves his hand around to denote Maida Vale, London, the whole of Western civilization, “this is fragile.”
Timely and ominous, the book is a must-read and perhaps a warning of things to come.