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The Land of Magical Thinking: Inside Putin’s Russia

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia
Peter Pomerantsev (New York: Public Affairs, 2014)

This is the strangest book of note I have ever read. And that’s as it should be, since the subject is Russia, the strangest country of note I have ever visited.

Peter Pomerantsev has written the most bitter indictment of a nation’s politics and society going wrong since William Shirer’s 1941 Berlin Diary. Pomerantsev has also written a calm and incisive report on the current state of affairs in Russia. Yet it reads like a comedy of manners, a dark and grotesque comedy of manners, a State Department white paper co-authored by Evelyn Waugh and Franz Kafka. And not only that, but Nothing Is True is a bildungsroman, too.

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Pomerantsev was born in the Soviet Union, though barely. His parents emigrated to England in 1978, when he was ten months old. He speaks Russian. He thought he was Russian. After college he went to Russia. And he spent nine years there discovering that, on points of honor and decency, he’s an English gentleman after all.

Pomerantsev becomes a reality TV producer in a place where, as his title and subtitle indicate, there isn’t any reality. Or, at least, everyone
wishes there weren’t.

Soviet stagnation led to perestroika, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberal euphoria, economic disaster, oligarchy, and the mafia state. How can you believe in anything when everything around you is changing so fast?

Pomerantsev, however, is all too believable in the bad news he brings us from Russia. His reporter’s straightforward and unlimited curiosity, his willingness to plow and harrow the widest fields for facts, and his exacting descriptive details give him credibility. Plus, what he tells us is so incredible. As reporters say, “You just can’t make these things up.”

 

In Russia, “corrupt” is not an adjective. Corrupt is a noun, a proper noun, the word for the name and nature of the place.

Corrupt crony capitalism is familiar everywhere. But in Russia the corruption is so pervasive that even the cronies have to pay bribes, not just to the higher-ups but to the lower-downs.

Pomerantsev visits a TV studio owned by Kremlin-connected moguls. It’s in a shabby warehouse on the wrong side of town. There’s no sign or address on the metal door. Inside is a dirty little room with a drunk guard.

Pomerantsev goes down a dark corridor and up two flights of dingy stairs to another unmarked metal door. Behind that is a modern, well-lit, busy Western-style production facility. But there’s an inconspicuous door here as well, with a secret code pad. And behind that is a more modern, better-lit, even busier production facility with an even less conspicuous door with an even more secret code leading to the real offices of the moguls, where the real business accounts are kept.

All this is to foil the tax police. Who come anyway. One of the moguls tells Pomerantsev that “the tax police were much happier taking bribes than going to the trouble of stealing money that had been paid in the orthodox fashion.”

Pomerantsev tells the story of Yana Yakovleva, a businesswoman who imported chemicals to make cleaning supplies. She spent seven months in prison because chemicals to make cleaning supplies were suddenly declared “an illegal narcotic substance.”

Usually this kind of abrupt, arbitrary arrest has to do with competitors bribing legislators in order to abscond with someone’s business. Usually the solution is to bribe judges.

But Yana had gotten tangled in the Kremlin machinations of political figures so crooked that they can’t get a bribe straight.

Viktor Cherkesov, head of the FDCS, the Federal Drug Control Service, was attempting to take over Russia’s chemical industry as part of his power struggle with Nikolai Patrushev, head of the FSB, the Federal Security Service, successor agency to the KGB. Vladimir Putin encouraged Cherkesov. Vladimir Putin encouraged Patrushev.

The FDCS uncovered FSB corruption in Chinese customs duty rake-offs. The FSB uncovered FDCS corruption in chemical company seizures. The FDCS arrested FSB generals on the Chinese border. The FSB arrested FDCS generals at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.

And Yana doesn’t get out of jail until Cherkesov and Patrushev have destroyed each other and Putin is rid of both potential rivals.

 

It’s an interesting moral atmosphere in Russia.

In Russia, small-town girls go to the big city and get ruined, but that’s what they’re trying to do. Really trying. They go to school for it.

The students take notes in neat writing. They have paid a thousand dollars for each week of the course. There are dozens of such “academies” in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with names such as “Geisha School” or “How To Be a Real Woman.”

If a girl with potential studies hard, “she earns the basic Moscow mistress rate: the apartment, $4,000 a month, a car, and a weeklong holiday in Turkey or Egypt twice a year.”

In return, she’s available to her “sponsor,” as he’s called, any time, any day.

Nice girls, of course, don’t do this. They go to the big city and become supermodels. Like Ruslana did. She was an ethnic Russian from Almaty, Kazakhstan. Ruslana was “discovered” at sixteen, world-famous at nineteen, and two days before her twenty-first birthday she jumped off a roof in New York. Pomerantsev gives us (although, in a way, he almost doesn’t need to) the heartbreaking particulars in between.

Pomerantsev himself is not immune to the corruption.

I phoned TNT, excited. [TNT is the Russian television network for which Pomerantsev is working.] It was the story that had everything. There would be supermodels, suicide, and parties . . . Glamour and tragedy. It was the easiest commission I ever had. I was even given a larger advance than usual . . .

“But don’t make it too dark,” TNT said, “Remember we need positive stories.”

Pomerantsev gets a Russian driver’s license. “I would never pass . . . if I didn’t pay a bribe (this month $500, but about to jump to $1,000 if I didn’t hurry).” He scores eighteen out of twenty on his written test, enough to pass. Then realizes all the other license applicants had also scored eighteen out of twenty. “Everyone in the room had paid for the right result.”

He takes his road test in an instructor’s car with two sets of controls. Pomerantsev does not, in fact, know how to drive. “I couldn’t get the pedals right and kept on stalling. The traffic cop smiled . . . ‘Put your hands on the wheel and pretend to drive.’”

 

The corruption doesn’t poison the state, it feeds it. Pomerantsev recounts the ordeals of dodging the draft in Russia. And it must be dodged.

Where he will be sent depends on the bribe a soldier pays. Some will go to Chechnya, to Ossetia, to the death zones . . . But if you pay in time, you’ll avoid those. What no one will be safe from is hazing . . . dozens of conscripts are killed every year, hundreds commit suicide, and thousands are abused. (Those are just the official statistics.)

There’s the “most desperate and most expensive remedy: the bribe to the military command.” Or a week every year pretending to be sick or injured. “Annually the hospitals fill up with pimply youths simulating illness.” But you have to pick the right disease or disability “because the ailments that can get you off change all the time.” Alternatively, you can stay in college until you’re too old for the draft. “Russian males take on endless master’s degree programs until their late twenties.” Not a good student? There are schools for that as well as for mistresses. “Dozens of new universities that have opened . . . to service the need to avoid the draft.” You can even spend a month in a psychiatric clinic. “But you will also have a certificate of mental illness hanging over you for the rest of your career.”

But all these options are only available for those with money and connections. For the others, for the poorer ones, it’s hide and seek . . . And every time you go into the subway, every time you cross a main road . . . any time you leave your little yard, life becomes full of trepidation.

This is the genius of the system: even if you manage to avoid the draft, you . . . become part of the network of bribes and fears and simulations; you learn to become an actor playing out his different roles in his relationship with the state . . . and that’s fine for the system: as long as you’re a simulator you will never do anything real, you will always look for your compromise with the state, which in turn makes you feel just the right amount of discomfort.

Thus a state that is calculated to make its citizens crazy. And Pomerantsev is clear about the calculation.

He presents the case of Vladislav Surkov. He has been deputy head of the presidential administration, deputy prime minister, and assistant to the president on foreign affairs. He is known as the “Kremlin demiurge” and the “political technologist
of all of Rus.”

Surkov dresses in jeans and a leather jacket. “He is an aesthete who pens essays on modern art, an aficionado of gangsta rap who keeps a photo of Tupac on his desk next to that of the president.”

One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists . . . who in turn attacked the modern art exhibitions.

Surkov also seems to be the author of an anonymous novel Almost Zero. He as much as admits he is in a preface he wrote for the book, calling the work “a satire of contemporary Russia whose hero, Egor, is a corrupt PR man.”

Pomerantsev says, “‘Everything is PR’ has become the favorite phrase of the new Russia.”

Among that everything is PR used to promote cults. “As the Soviet Union sank,” says Pomerantsev, “so sects had bubbled to the surface. Indeed it was the Kremlin that had given them an impetus.”

This was in 1989, when a hypnotherapist named Anatoly Kashpirovsky, “with 1970s porn star looks,” appeared on a Kremlin-controlled TV network and intoned to viewers, “Close your eyes. You can cure cancer or alcoholism or any ailment with the power of thought.” Millions attempted to do so.

A former postman named Vissarion is convinced he’s Christ and has a colony called “The Abode of Dawn City” on the Mongolian border inhabited by “minor bohemians, actors, rock musicians, painters.”

“The Golden Way” guru Boris Zolotov conducts “experiments in which his followers would penetrate to the new level of conscious: sweating orgies where the old, ugly, young, and beautiful rub and kiss and caress each other in a communal bliss.”

The Night Wolves are a motorcycle gang with five thousand members devoted to religious patriotism who ride “through Moscow on Harleys with icons of Mary the Mother of God and Stalin.”

Poor Ruslana the supermodel was involved in something called “The Rose of the World” run by “life trainers” who lock crowds of people who don’t have a life in a room and train them to pronounce “inner monologues.”

“Who remembers that girl Ruslana?” says the life trainer. “The model who killed herself? Jumped from a skyscraper. I knew her well. Her ‘inner monologue’ was ‘suicide.’”

Insanity pervades the culture.

There is a spate of prime-time documentaries . . . [one of which] features secret service men who inform the audience about the psychic weapons they have developed. The Russian military has “sleepers,” psychics who can go into a trance and . . . penetrate the minds of foreign statesmen . . . . One has entered the mind of the US president . . . 

Well, now that I think about it . . .

 

Anyway, this brings us to the frightening question posed by Pomerantsev’s book, a question he only implicitly asks.

What do we do about a gigantic, depraved, immoral, lunatic country armed with nuclear warheads?

We may not have to do much is the fortunate answer.

The Russians are crazy, but they aren’t stupid. This is a country where chess is a spectator sport. The Russians aren’t going to make a Queen Pawn opening with their nukes that traps the queen’s bishop behind the knight. Or, to put it in American terms, they aren’t going to throw a Hail Mary on fourth-and-impossible from their own five-yard line.

Russia is a demographic disaster. Nicholas Eberstadt, who holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute, has been studying Russia for decades. His research indicates that that the birth rate per Russian woman is twenty percent below replacement level.

In the first ten years after the collapse of the USSR, Russian population fell by about six and a half million. It is rebounding slightly now but only because of high birth rates in Muslim ethnic regions like Chechnya and Dagestan and immigration from former Soviet republics in Central Asia. These are not places Russia wants its Russians to come from.

Russia’s mortality rate is horrific. According to 2012 World Health Organization statistics, a fifteen-year-old Russian male has a life expectancy that’s three years less than a fifteen-year-old Haitian boy’s.

The life expectancy of a fifteen-year-old Russian female is sixty-one, three years less than in Cambodia.

Russians die from cardiovascular disease and from accidents, murder, and suicide. They smoke, they drink, they despair.

Russia’s great wealth is based on extraction of oil and gas. Even so, the value of Russia’s exports in 2013 barely exceeded Belgium’s. And energy prices are falling.

The likelihood of the economy being transformed from extractive to knowledge-based is slim in a country rife with slogans like “How can you believe in anything?” and “Everything is PR.”

“Long-term economic progress,” says Eberstadt, “depends on improving productivity through new knowledge . . . Patent awards and application provide a crude but telling picture . . . Consider applications under the Patent Cooperation Treaty . . . Russia comes in No. 21—after Austria—racking up less that 0.6 percent of the world’s total. The population of Russia is more than fifteen times that of Austria. Russia’s ‘yield’ of patents per university graduate is vastly lower than Austria’s—thirty-five times lower. By this particular metric Russia is only fractionally better placed than Gabon.”

So what we need to do is this. Start with a little bit of George Kennan’s Containment Policy. Leaven that with a large dose of Reagan Doctrine, arming the dickens out of Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and any other sane polity feeling pressure from the Evil Post-Empire. Mix these with the black humor of Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. And sit back and watch the Putin regime rot.

P.  J. O’Rourke is the author of fifteen books including, most recently, The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way . . . And It Wasn’t My Fault . . . And I’ll Never Do It Again. This article was completed for the print journal and published early online on December 11, 2014. This text has been updated to reflect proofreading corrections to the final print version.

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