Megan McDonough is a weddings and obituary writer for The Washington Post.
By Peter Pomerantsev
PublicAffairs. 239 pp. $25.99
In Russia — a country that constitutes one-seventh of the world’s landmass, spans eight time zones and has a population of 143 million — television unites the nation. It is “the only force that can unify and rule and bind this country,” writes Russian-born British journalist Peter Pomerantsev. “It’s the central mechanism of a new type of authoritarianism, one far subtler than twentieth-century strains.”
In his aptly named book, “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” Pomerantsev uses his experiences as a Moscow-based reality-television producer in the early 2000s to depict the profound unreality of Russian media. Television, the most popular news medium in Russia, has become a political means to an end, with powerful, state-controlled outlets dictating public opinion and disseminating the Kremlin’s narrative. Pomerantsev offers a peek at what’s behind the Kremlin’s smoke and mirrors: modern Russia’s authoritarian landscape.
Post-Soviet Russia has continuously transformed itself in the past several decades, evolving from perestroika to liberalism to nationalism to oligarchy to its present-day “postmodern dictatorship.” The pursuit of money, power and privilege by oil-rich oligarchs has resulted in a justice system riddled with corruption and devoid of scruples. As the author quips, “Russians have more words for ‘bribe’ than Eskimos do for ‘snow.’ ”
The populace generally participates — some willingly, others reluctantly — in the new system. “The cash has come so fast, like glitter shaken in a snow globe, that it feels totally unreal,” the author writes, “not something to hoard and save but to . . . cut like papier-mâché into different quickly changing masks.”
Via a series of short vignettes, some humorous, others tragic, the author tells of those who successfully manipulated the iniquitous justice system and others who were exploited and penalized by it. Success stories include a former prostitute who runs a profitable gold-digger academy for country girls, teaching them not-so-subtle tricks to snag a Moscow millionaire; a mob boss who uses his gangster past as fodder to create a crime television series and launch a film career; and the Night Wolves, a nationalistic, messianic biker gang (“the Russian equivalent of the Hells Angels”). Others, however, were less fortunate, including a successful businesswoman thrown in prison after becoming a pawn of Russian political extortion, and an anti-corruption lawyer who was arrested and tortured, and who died in Russian prison for opposing political depravity and cronyism.
This is a gripping and unsettling account of life in grim post-Soviet Russia.