A few weeks ago, I criticised a report by Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev which alleged that Russia was using information as a weapon of war against the West. The problem with Weiss’s and Pomerantsev’s report, I argued, was that they were guilty of the same thing themselves, through a series of distortions which made Russia seem far more threatening than it really is. Having just read Pomerantsev’s new book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, I find myself thinking the same thing again.
Nothing is True is the author’s account of his time in Russia as a producer of reality TV shows. The book is as much about Pomerantsev as it is about Russia, and is shaped by his own profession. Russia, he seems to suggest, is like one of his TV programs, where the reality portrayed is never quite as real as it is made out to be. He moves through a world of surreal beings: the rap-loving, autocratic politician; the novel-writing gangster; the young model destroyed by a cult, all of whom exemplify the corruption that lies at the rotten heart of the largest country on Earth.
How much of what he describes is peculiar to Russia is very much open to question. Take, for instance, Pomerantsev’s account of the life of Ruslana Korshunova, a model who committed suicide after falling into the clutches of the cult-like ‘psychological training’ organization The Rose of the World. As Pomerantsev admits, The Rose of the World based its techniques on those practised by similar organizations in the United States. All his account really does, therefore, is demonstrate that vulnerable Russians fall prey to charlatans in exactly the same way that Americans do. It doesn’t show that there is something particularly rotten about Russia. Rather, the story seems to demonstrate the opposite.
What is most likely to attract readers to this book is its style. Pomerantsev’s prose is colourful and lively. Nothing is True is an entertaining read. But there is a reason why academics don’t write like this, and instead footnote everything so that they can justify what they are saying. That can make for very dull reading, but at least the reader can have some confidence in what is on the page. Here it often seems that the author sacrifices truth for style. He entertains through hyperbole and what sometimes appears to be invention.
One becomes aware of this just seven lines into the first page. Describing Moscow’s economic boom at the start of the 21st century, Pomerantsev writes, ‘Never had so much money flowed into so small a place in so short a time.’ This is not a promising start. In the first place, Moscow isn’t exactly ‘small’; and second, lots of other places have experienced enormous booms. Where is Pomerantsev’s evidence for his statement? He doesn’t provide any. It is pure hyperbole.
This isn’t an isolated example. This is just how Pomerantsev writes. ‘The only values in this new Ussuriysk were cars and cash’, he says (p. 27). The ‘only’ ones, for everybody in the entire city? Really? And how does he know? ‘Black Widows still make it up to Moscow with rhythmic regularity’, he writes (p. 57). Actually, they don’t – attacks by female Chechen terrorists in Moscow are pretty rare (the last was in 2011, and you can count the total on the fingers of one hand), and in any case there is nothing ‘rhythmic’ about their timing. In Moscow, ‘There isn’t a building that we walk past that wasn’t the scene of execution squads, betrayals, mass murders.’ (p. 110). Seriously? Mass murder in every building in Moscow?? And so on, and so forth.
One might object that none of this matters – it is just decoration; the basic stories are true. This isn’t an academic treatise but a work of art, and not a photo-realist one moreover, but an impressionist one. Although it doesn’t show you reality, through its distortions it reveals the truth beneath in a way that only art can do. Well, maybe. However, Pomerantsev never tells us that that is what he is doing. For over 200 pages, he seeks to persuade us that nothing in Russia is quite what it seems. But his book isn’t quite what it seems either.