Derek Brower in London -
Around mid-March, just about the time when Twitter and much of the Western media had decided that Vladimir Putin’s multi-day absence meant he’d been toppled in a palace coup, Vladislav Surkov set off on holiday. First he was seen frolicking with his family in Hong Kong. A week or so later he popped up again in Russia, taking pictures in a banya at the source of the Volga. Then he was in Israel, for a night-time helicopter flight over Tel Aviv. A few weeks after Putin had decidedly not been toppled, Surkov was back in his beloved Moscow.
Or at least that’s what the stream of pictures on the ‘Natan_d’ Instagram account, purportedly Surkov’s, suggested he was up to. Nothing can be certain, especially about him, and especially about him and media. Surkov, Putin’s ideologist-in-residence and probably Putinism’s pre-eminent exponent, has been playing media games for years, including letting everyone assume – without confirming – that he was the author of Almost Zero, a 2009 satirical novel to which Surkov wrote the preface. The dust-jacket says it is by Natan Dubovitsky, perhaps the same guy seen in those Instagram pics to be frolicking across the world with the Surkova women.
Surkov is the antihero of Peter Pomerantsev’s brilliant book, “Nothing is true and everything is possible: Adventures in Modern Russia”. It’s about Putin’s Russia – and it’s one of the best books on the subject to have emerged in recent years. But by my reckoning Pomerantsev doesn’t even name the president until page 111. He doesn’t need to. For this is a story about how Russia’s rulers have manipulated and twisted media and civil society with the wantonness of Stavrogin. Putin, of course, presides over it all, reinforced in the Kremlin by the magical manipulations of its “political technologists”, who have created a country that can feel like “an oligarchy in the morning, and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime”.
Life in Russia in this account has something Bulgakovian about it. Appearances are deceptive; innocents are constantly manipulated, dreams thwarted. The Woland of this story, Surkov, stands in the middle, orchestrating just enough stability, just enough chaos. “He claps once and a new political party appears,” writes Pomerantsev. “He claps again and creates Nashi, the Russian equivalent of the Hitler Youth”. Almost with admiration, he notes: “The brilliance of this new kind of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with twentieth-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd”. It means that one moment the Kremlin can lavishly fund civic forums and NGOs, and the next quietly support nationalist movements that accuse NGOs of being tools of the West. It’s tempting to think that Surkov – a fan of Tupac and the Beat poets – sees all of this as a bit of a game.
Vapid new ideology of power
The book isn’t all about the genius propagandist and the fun he’s had making misery for so many others. Big oligarchs (Abramovich, Berezovsky) and noisy critics (Bill Browder) make an appearance. But Pomerantsev does not focus on them. It’s not a foreign correspondent’s book, laden with foreign correspondents’ cliches and the comforting insights of opposition politicians. Pomerantsev is half Russian – you get the feeling that he grieves for what has happened to his country – and feels a bit dirty for spending so long in the belly of the beast; the author worked for 10 years in Russian television.
It is the people Pomerantsev meets through his work making reality TV and feel-good documentaries that make the most compelling characters in his story. These are provincial girls seeking Moscow sugar daddies; vulnerable women captivated by scams and cults; disillusioned artists; entrepreneurs crushed by corruption; cynical TV execs. Their stories amount to a tragic picture of disoriented society.
In Moscow, Pomerantsev sees even the relentless rebuilding of the city as evidence of the vapid new ideology of power. He cites the Triumph Palace, a new skyscraper built in 2003 to emulate the style of the Stalin-era vysotki, the neo-gothic skyscrapers that look over the capital. “Long before the city’s political scientists started shouting that the Kremlin was building a new dictatorship, the architects were already whispering, ‘Look at this new architecture; it dreams of Stalin. Be warned the evil empire is back’.” The history books now remember the old dictator not for the Gulag, mass deportations and killings, notes Pomerantsev, but as the great leader who won the war for the Soviet Union.
No one Pomerantsev meets seems to believe in much of anything – an outcome of the collective disillusionment with a succession of grand narratives that have failed. He quotes one Ostankino TV executive: “Over the last 20 years we’ve lived through communism we never believed in, democracy and defaults and mafia state and oligarchy, and we’ve realised they are illusions, that everything is PR.” It is the favourite phrase of the new Russia, says Pomerantsev. And it makes fertile ground for Surkovian manipulation.
If any bien-pensant Westerners you know still harbour notions that Russia is simply on some bumpy journey towards liberal democracy, hand them Pomerantsev’s book. The irony, the cynicism, the manipulations have probably now gone too far. Russia’s is a “society of simulations” – not a country in transition but “a postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends”. Pomerantsev may not be the first to reach that conclusion. But as a guide to how it all works on the ground, corrupting both those employed in the system and making victims of the rest, it would be hard to beat his book.
“Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia”. By Peter Pomerantse, Faber & Faber.
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