Review by Jazmine Linklater
What the hell is going on in Russia? We’ve all thought it – for example, when Pussy Riot were sentenced to prison, or when Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy, was poisoned in a London hotel with the radioactive substance polonium-210. Up for the Gordon Burn Prize this year is a book that might just start to explain it.
Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible chronicles his nine years working in Russian TV production. British-born to Russian parents, he arrived in Moscow in the early 2000s, right about the same time as the oil and wealth.
The millennium flung Muscovites into a whirlwind of money, fame, creation and corruption. For Pomerantsev, it was “a city living in fast forward”; mutable and unstoppable. Then, with every character we meet, the bigger picture grows ever more absurd.
In grotesquely lavish clubs, we encounter sugar-dating Russian style and meet sugar daddies, known as ‘Forbses’ (like the rich list), as well as browse the ‘tiolki’ (literally, cattle). Apparently, “the way of the gold-digger has become one of the country’s favourite myths” and the girls pay the bouncers on a yearly basis to get in to these meat-markets first. There are even academies to learn how to bag a loving oligarch.
Along with sugar-daters, gangsters also feature as an archetypal pillar of Modern Russia. We meet Vitaly Djomochka, who emerged from prison in ’93 to find the Soviet world he knew dismantled – the only values now were cars and cash. The state was a mess, so the gangsters took things into their own hands and “became the Establishment”.
“Who do people respect the most? Gangsters. So let’s make our leader look like a gangster”. And they did. The spin-doctors even cast “Putin as the ultimate sugar daddy”. Putin is everything to everyone.
Right from the go, the importance of the performance, show, masquerade and artwork in Pomerantsev’s Moscow is startling. This performance element underpins the whole book, running through the whole of the Kremlin and out of every TV set in the country.
Television is the government’s hold on the whole. It is the “only force that can unify and bind and rule this country”. Putin’s Russia is a “postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends”. Everything everywhere is subverted and discombobulated. Everything is illusory. “Everything is PR”. From the TV to the politics, all realities are stage-sets.
Even Djomockha, the sugar babies and other characters we meet along the way are merely actors. They play the parts assigned to them in order to keep the whole charade moving forward and functioning on its own rules (that is, the Kremlin’s rules).
Pomeratsev interweaves enough of Russia’s history through the text for the reader to come away with some idea of just why Russia might be playing its power games, though everyone’s formulation could well be different. Can we ever answer the why?
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible is a humorous and chilling read. You will cry and you will chuckle, but you will catch yourself doing so and think “hang on, this is real”. This is our world.
Jazmine Linklater is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.
Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme, which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.