Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev - Book Review

I fear that Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev (Public Affairs, 2014, 254 pages, $25.99/14.49) will not be widely enough read nor deeply enough covered by the main stream media to have it gain the sort of attention it deserves. This is an important book presenting the world of contemporary Russia in all the vivid complexity and corrupt duplicity which everyone should be aware of and seek to bring to heel. Since Russia is a land working without a moral compass, a place where how things look and are presented have become reality for those living and working there, its ability to morph to meet current circumstances and to insert itself into supposedly sacrosanct institutions in the “free” world like London banks, world fashion, film, and the NBA always gaining power and weakening free institutions, appears inevitable and almost unlimited. Pomerantsev, a documentary film maker, worked for Russian TV during the first decade of this country, writes with cinematic vigor and intense personal detail, using the reality of his subjects to document the moral and spiritual corruption of Russia's recovery from the collapse of the Soviet Union and Vladimir Putin's emergence as a new and ever more powerful twenty-first century dictator committed to restoring Russian power and influence.

Pomerantsev is a British journalist/film maker of Russian heritage who spent a decade mostly in Russia working as a producer for Russian TV network TNT, which is one of Russia's top five television networks specializing in portraying a light and humorous view of life. During his years in Russia, Pomerantsev produced a series which profiled the lives and experiences of the rich and glamorous Russians who emerged on the world scene among the beautiful and powerful people. His profiles of individual lifestyle and fashion leaders become increasingly dark as Pomerantsev realizes he's participating in helping create a vision of beauty, success, and happiness in a world dominated by corruption, greed, and an ethic emphasizing that PR, how things appear, eventually becomes the reality the masses believe in, masking the real abuses of freedom, power, expression, and liberty now dominating the reality of Russia and finding their greatest expression in the annexation of Crimea and the current efforts to reclaim ethnic Russian portions of the Ukraine. Perhaps the most frequently used word in the entire book is “corrupt” and its variations.

In Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, Pomerantsev describes the constant remaking of Moscow, historic buildings and neighborhoods torn down to replace them with series of cheesy upscale high rise towers mimicking the posh buildings of Paris, London, New York, and Monte Carlo. Young entrepreneurs, often former gangsters, live in luxury while always on the edge of having it all pulled out from under them if they stray too far from the currently emerging version of 21st century Russia. The power of Pomerantsev's writing lies in the vivid profiles he writes of a number of representative individuals who become metaphors for the corruption of the whole. He pictures unbelievably beautiful Russian girls who've come to Moscow to find a “Forbes” (rich business men who will enter their lives and make them over). Fueled by sex and booze in Moscow's steamy night spots, the girls, who are known as “cattle” to the Forbses, make themselves fully available and are cast aside when the next one comes along. He profiles Vitally, a former gangster whose school was prison. Vitally rises and falls at the Kremlin's will, but he is a chameleon whose colors change fast enough for him to, perhaps, survive. This isn't a portrait of a country in transition, but some sort of post-modern dictatorship using the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends. The horrors of double think and double speak bring Orwell's 1984 to life a generation after the year has passed.

Ruslana Korshunova

It may be that the most remembered part of this book will be the profile of supermodel Ruslana Korshunova and a cultish organization called Rose of the World, which promises new recruits a total remake of their lives as they gain control over themselves. Using group dynamics techniques which those familiar with the human potential movement in the U.S. during the sixties spawned, particularly a similar cult called est or Erhard Seminars Training offered by Werner Erhard and quite popular during the seventies, Rose of the World promised to help participants gain control of their own lives and those of others through intensive and harrowing workshops. Pomerantsev discovers this cult-like movement while investigating Korshunova's unexplained suicide in Manhattan soon after her participation in a series of workshops in Moscow. The susceptibility of post-Soviet Russia to salvation by cultish devotion centered on a prophet, coach, guru, leader who presents adherents with “the answer” to the doubts and fears plaguing them speaks volumes to the power of fundamentalist religion and belief in other parts of the world. The power of “optics,” how things look rather than how they are, is a central feature of the rise of a sense of Russian purity and power in this new world where public relations are more powerful than reality. The awkward leaps across the fence after elections in our own country mimic the kinds of changes typical in Russia today, and possibly throughout its history.

Peter Pomerantsev

Peter Pomerantsev is a TV producer and nonfiction author. His work appears in The London Review of Books, FT, Newsweek, Le Monde Dimplomatique, and other publications. He spent a decade in Russia between 2001 and 2010/2011 as an international development consultant, film student, and largely, a TV producer and director. He now lives in London and continues to visit Russia regularly.

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev (Public Affairs, 2014, 254 pages, $25.99/14.49) provides a first rate portrait of the Orwellian world that is contemporary Russia, written with a clear vision of the social contrasts and mind-bending contradictions between what seems and what is, who people say they are and what they really represent, and how they represent themselves in the kaleidoscopic world that changes every time the lens is turned, even the slightest movement. The world of entrepreneurs, oligarchs, politicians, and bureaucrats at the top of an ever-changing pyramid of power and influence is one which truly needs to be read and understood. Of course, Vladimir Putin does an excellent job of making much of it clear in his absurd posturing. I received the book from the publisher as an electronic galley through Edelweiss and read it on my Kindle app.