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article imageNew book shows Russia through the looking glass Special

By Les Horvitz     Sep 4, 2015 in Politics
Edinburgh - “Moscow was an exciting place to be for a 24-year old. It was an oil boom and bust town. You could go around the block and the city would be transformed by the time you came back.”
Peter Pomerantsev recaptures those heady days following the collapse of Communism in his new book, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.
Pomerantsev’s account — more of a memoir than a political analysis — begins in 2000 with Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and ends with Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014.
Born in Ukraine during the Soviet era, Pomerantsev was raised in Scotland after his parents were forced into exile. But he decided to try his luck in Russia after graduating from college because it seemed like such an exciting place. “I wasn’t going there to find my roots,” he said, addressing an enthusiastic audience at the recently concluded Edinburgh Book Festival. At the time it was easy to find a job in Moscow, especially for a foreigner who spoke fluent English and Russian. He quickly found work at TNT, a television network, where he was given the latitude to develop new shows. Television was undergoing a radical transformation like everything else in the country. Reality TV was unknown to Russia at the time. Pomerantsev decided to change that.
One of his first experiments was a Russian version of “The Apprentice,” the successful NBC show, formerly hosted by Donald Trump. The idea was to show how an ordinary person could become an oligarch. Audiences didn’t buy it. “Everyone knew that either you bribe somebody or you sleep with your boss – that’s the way you make money.” Another idea for a show he hit upon -- “Hello, Goodbye” – didn’t work, either. The show, filmed at Moscow airport, hoped to tug on viewers’ heartstrings by portraying tearful farewells and family reunions. The reason it failed, Pomerantsev speculates, is because the majority of Russians don’t fly and have never flown. “If they want to go anywhere they take the train.” More successful was a show based on “The Survivor.” After enduring years of corruption, criminality and authoritarian rule under Communism, “everyone could identify.” The show is now in its fifteenth season. Like his counterparts in the U.S., he and his colleagues were hoping to appeal to the 18-36 demographic. Shows depicting young men being forcibly recruited into the army or being beaten up by police were successful, he says, “but you had to be careful not to be too political.” One satirical show featured a traffic cop in Russia who couldn’t be bribed; it was humorous because it was so implausible. Another show was set in a hospital where patients received better medical care depending on how much they bribed the doctors. TNT also looked for shows that featured strong woman; a version of the old U.S. show “Married with Children” did well because audiences liked to see “a man who’s an idiot and a woman dominating him.”
Television reflected the absurdity of daily life in Russia even if producers and commentators couldn’t directly criticize Putin or his circle. How absurd? Take, for example, the second trial of the oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorovskyin 2009. He was charged with stealing oil from himself. “The trial was supposed to be absurd. It was meant to show that the government has control over reality.” More recently, the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was convicted in Crimea of setting fire to an office of a political party and plotting to burn down a statue of Lenin, charges he denied. He’d been tortured and had the scars and bruises to prove it, but the prosecutor said that the injuries stemmed from ‘sadomasochistic’ equipment he kept in his apartment and resulted from his “attempts to gain sexual pleasure.” He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“All my Russian friends” are prey to conspiracy theories and double-thinking, Pomerantsev says, recalling a recent demonstration in Moscow which had nothing to do with advocating or denouncing a political position. “People just wanted an end to lies – it was a search for integrity.”
“There’s an ingrained cynicism among Russians, a conviction that there is no truth, there is no reality.” And no solidity, either: things can change at any time. After all, Russians have to change all the time, too. “The same people could be good Communists in the 80s, oligarchs in the 90s, and now they’re devoted to the Russian Orthodox Church.”
“Putin himself is a product of a TVocracy,” Pomerantsev asserts, “He’s completely made by TV. He never acted like a traditional politician.” Just as an unsuccessful show can be cancelled and replaced by something altogether different, Putin could reverse course tomorrow. “He used to be a Communist, now he’s a patriot.” And because he’s a product of TV, he’s something of a showman who’s in the business of entertaining the populace. “They planned the war,” Pomerntsev says, referring to the conflict in the Ukraine in which the Russian military has played a pivotal, though officially unacknowledged, role. “That’s their narrative and they’re stuck with it until they think of something else.”
The recent campaign against homosexuals is another narrative fostered by the government for political purposes. Pomerantsev doesn’t believe that Russia is really homophobic. Instead, the perception of gays is based more on a prison culture where gays were regarded as “the bottom of the food chain.” In his view, Putin couldn’t care less about the issue personally; it was just a matter of expedience. Ironically, many of the people running the anti-gay campaign in the media are gay themselves. “It was always bad being gay in Russia, now it’s terrible. When people in the West complain, the Russians can say: Look at the West, they’re obsessed with anal sex.” For Putin, the West is the boogieman. Every criticism of Russia in the West “plays into the game the Kremlin wants.” “Fear runs very deep.” Stalin is still revered by some older Russians as a strongman who made Russia great. “Every time there’s a show about Stalin on TV it’s a signal: Remember what we can do to you.”
The narrative the Kremlin currently encourages is one in which Slavic civilization is pitted against the decadent West. At a time when the country has lurched into recession because of sanctions imposed over its interference in the Ukraine and declining oil prices, Russian nationalism holds a great deal of appeal for ordinary Russians. It doesn’t matter that they can get information from sources opposed to the government; even if Russian television networks are under Kremlin control, access to the Internet and foreign media is relatively free. “But all it does is leave them not knowing who or what to believe so they go with the Russian version because it’s a better show.” Pomerantsev equates it to trying to convince a cult member that he’s wrong to believe what he does. “Russians are convinced that the West is out to get them.”
The Kremlin’s line is that after undergoing the trauma of the fall of the Soviet Union, Russians are incapable of facing reality. So Russian spin doctors decided to offer them a new reality of their own making. But as the title of Pomerantsev’s book suggests, the current reality could be exchanged for a new one tomorrow.
More about Peter Pomerantsev, Russia, Vladimir putin, "Nothing is true and everything is possible", Moscow
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