Four months ago I attended a conference in New York that bought together experts on Vladimir Putin. It was a fascinating event, filled with first-hand insights into the Russian president’s unexpected rise from loyal KGB officer, dismayed by fall of the Berlin Wall while he was stationed in Germany, to all-powerful despot in the Kremlin stirring up trouble around the world. Analysts spoke about his methods, his money and his murders, honed in St Petersburg before being perfected in Moscow power.
PutinCon was opened by Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion turned human-rights activist. After a passionate address about demolition of democracy in his native land, Kasparov joked that despots such as Putin preferred playing poker to his sport of chess since they could win with weak cards if their opponents folded. Certainly the diminutive Russian dictator has deployed his hand with malevolent skill – and there is a growing library of books analysing the man and his tactics.
Several are well worth reading. I would recommend Masha Gessen’s superb The Man Without A Face, Bill Browder’s tale of his personal battle with the Kremlin and the late Karen Dawisha’s incisive Putin’s Kleptocracy, which revealed how barely one hundred well-connected characters control almost one-third of their country’s immense wealth. Yet one stands out for me despite barely mentioning ‘The President’, who lurks as just a shadowy presence in the background: Nothing is True And Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia: by Peter Pomerantsev.
This is a book of immense originality painted in vivid primary colours that makes it perfect for the poolside. It reads often like a strange slice of fiction, fast-paced and filled with extraordinary characters. At times it feels like magical realism. Yet this is sharp reportage by an author who spent almost a decade at start of this century working on documentaries and reality television shows in Russia – and it shines penetrating light on the evolution of today’s Russia as its ruler wreaks havoc on the world.
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On one level Pomerantsev – a British citizen with Russian heritage – has simply written an absorbing work about a place emerging from the shackles of Communism into a world of cowboy capitalism. It is a land of glitz, glamour and gangsters; of ambitious young women going to special schools that teach them how to snare oligarchs; of weird religious sects, tragic supermodels and nationalist motorcycle gangs riding Harley-Davidsons; even of urban architecture changing with dazzling speed.
Yet the author, with his insight on television, is really showing how Putin subsumed the media to his cause, blurring the boundaries between truth and reality and, in so doing, rendered truth absurd with propaganda. Not just fake news but fake justice, fake politics, fake terrorists, fake wars. This is the strategy launched with invented terrorists bombing blocks of Russian flats to whip up sectarian hatred and support for savage war in Chechnya. It led to green men invading the Crimea, troll factories in St Petersburg and the hacking of United States political machinery.
In this world of distorted reality and all-pervasive corruption, Pomerantsev relates how one gangster, fed up with poor quality crime capers on television, uses his goons to make dramas with real guns and then forces a station to broadcast his shows. Even the cults use television to spread their word. One minute an honest woman trading industrial cleaning products is happily driving her Lexus; the next she is accused of dealing drugs and incarcerated for several months – a hapless pawn of political infighting, freed only when Putin tires of the protagonists.
The most symbolic character in the saga is Vladislav Surkov. This key Kremlin player, a puppet master seen as one of the brains behind the creation of ‘virtual democracy’, is a man who writes essays on contemporary art and lyrics for rock bands while supporting religious extremists who attack modernity. In his office hangs pictures of John Lennon, Che Guvera and Tupac. He is almost certainly the author of a savage satirical novel about a dodgy public relations man, while leaked emails have since indicated he was heavily involved in efforts to destabilise Ukraine.
Surkov demonstrates the dark genius behind the destructive creed of Putinism just as surely as Pomerantsev documents the development of postmodern dictatorship. Now that this is being exported worldwide and similar tactics adopted by admirers, even in the White House, it is imperative we understand this dangerous concept that plays with citizens and countries like they are characters in a reality television show.
As some of us cling to liberal values and a belief in truth, this highly-readable book exposes how the language of freedom, the fundamentals of democracy and the tools of mass communication were subverted to foster autocracy.