On the surface, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia is a memoir of the years 2001 to 2010 when the author, Peter Pomerantsev, lived and worked in Russia.
In reality, the book is an in-depth critique – no that’s not strong enough – an excoriation of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Pomerantsev is a British journalist, author and TV producer. He was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 1977. He emigrated to London as an infant when his family was exiled after his father’s arrest by the KGB for distributing banned books.
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible is told as a series of episodes about television shows Pomerantsev produced, people he met or interviewed, and stories he investigated.
There’s so much in this relatively short book – just 240 pages – I found it hard to summarize. It is surreal, and even if only half of it is true, it’s frightening.
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible:
The Surreal Heart of the New Russia
By Peter Pomerantsev
PublicAffairs, New York, 2014
I won’t even try to describe in detail any of the incidents Pomerantsev narrates in the book, but running through all of them is an oppressive, universal corruption.
Everyone Pomerantsev encounters seems to be corrupt: women – girls really – from hinterland towns who come to the big cities to work as prostitutes in order to snare a rich man; small time gangsters who transform themselves into movie producers and go on to make documentaries about their own criminal careers; network TV executives who own production studios and pitch shows to themselves; so-called “oligarchs” who captured huge swaths of the Russian economy during privatization following the collapse of Communism; and finally Putin himself, a malevolent, omnipresent force whom Pomerantsev often refers to as simply “the President.”
There’s no escaping the corruption. People have to bribe the traffic cops and the tax collectors. Everyone keeps two sets of books because:
“… no one thought taxes would ever be spent on schools or roads. And the tax police were much happier taking bribes than going to the trouble of stealing money that had been paid in the orthodox fashion.” [p. 45]
Everyone is implicated, everyone is complicit, tarnished, They’re also annoyed and maybe just a little bit ashamed.
It’s all kind of horrifying. It’s a portrayal of corruption at massive scale. Kafkaesque doesn’t begin to describe it. The closest thing might be some nightmarish combination of Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show.
Indeed, in this bizarre world, nothing is true and everything is possible.
Nothing Is True
In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, “everything is PR,” Pomerantsev writes. Everything is reality TV. The Kremlin controls all official narratives.
“The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.” [p. 67]
We see this today, of course, in the official description of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation.” But this has been going on for a long time. Writing back in 2014 about the Russian state television network RT (formerly Russia Today), Pomerantsev says:
“And when the President will go on to annex Crimea and launch his new war with the West, RT will be in the vanguard, fabricating startling fiction about fascists taking over Ukraine.” [p. 48]
The problem with all these lies, as Yale University professor Timothy Snyder wrote in On Tyranny, is that “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis to do so.”
Clearly, the Kremlin, Putin, wants it that way.
When nothing is true, no one believes anything, no one can believe anything. But few dare to contradict the official propaganda, at least not publicly. So people develop a public self and a private self. They become sharded.
Everything Is Possible
At first glance, “everything is possible” might sound like a good thing, an optimistic outlook, maybe even an American sense of unlimited potential. But I think what Pomerantsev means is that there are no constraints, no guardrails on what might happen to you.
If everything is possible, then your property can be arbitrarily confiscated. Your business can be stolen from you by a well-connected rival. Your neighborhood can be leveled to make way for a new office building. Or you might end up like Yana Yakovleva whose case Pomerantsev describes in detail. For years Yakovleva operated a perfectly legal business importing industrial cleaning chemicals only to be arrested and jailed for seven months on trumped up charges of selling narcotics.
There’s a legal concept in the West, maybe elsewhere too, known as the doctrine of reliance. It’s the idea that we depend upon the statements and actions of other people or entities. It sounds boring, but it’s foundational in making contracts and laws enforceable and in assigning liability.
When everything is possible, there can be no reliance.
There can be no stability either, which, ironically, is the one thing dictatorships promise to deliver above all else.
Another corollary that Pomerantsev points out: When nothing is true and everything is possible, then everything becomes a conspiracy. Independent thought and independent action are prohibited. Yet stuff still happens. Therefore, there must be some hidden power orchestrating it all.
You don’t have to look far to see how Russian corruption has metastasized to the West. From Trump’s alternative facts and brazen disregard for the norms of ethical behavior, to massive disinformation campaigns.
This isn’t a coincidence. Pomerantsev writes:
“The Kremlin switches messages at will to its advantage, climbing inside everything: European right-wing nationalists are seduced by an anti-EU message; the Far Left is co-opted with tales of fighting US hegemony; US religious conservatives are convinced by the Kremlin’s fight against homosexuality. And the result is an array of videos and voices, working away at global audiences from different angles, producing a cumulative echo chamber and multiscreen of Kremlin support, all broadcast on RT. But as with all the projected hallucinations and crooked mirrors of the Kremlin, one can never quite tell how those videos and echoes correspond to actual strength or actual aims. Are they meant to reflect and reverberate in such a way as to make the Kremlin seem bigger or other than it is? So that by just being alarmed, or even just transfixed, one ends up reflexively caught inside yet another political technology while the real action is happening just off set?” [p.234]
And of course, the West is by no means pure either. We’re all too happy to buy Russian oil and gas, or to make fat commissions off Russian billionaires spending their plunder buying up posh London real estate. How much of the world’s yacht-building industry has been kept afloat by Russian elites in recent years?
Perhaps the 2022 invasion of Ukraine has shattered the mirrors and blown away all the smoke. It’s an act so morally outrageous, so transparently unjustified, that no one in the West wants to be associated with Russia anymore. We’ll see how long this lasts.
An aside: I think Václav Havel diagnosed the problem precisely back in January 1990 when he gave his New Year’s address as the first post-Communist president of Czechoslovakia. After describing the political and economic problems brought on by 40 years of Communist rule, Havel said,
“But all this is not the main problem. The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only for ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility, or forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships.”“New Year’s Address” in Open Letters, by Václav Havel, Faber & Faber, London, 1992. p 391
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, I’ve been trying to learn more about the history and politics of that part of the world. (See, for example, my earlier post Notes on the Invasion of Ukraine).
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible was a head-spinning lesson.
Still, it’s difficult to tell how accurate the book is. It really does seem surreal. But is it just anti-Russian propaganda? Does Pomerantsev have a personal axe to grind? It’s hard to independently verify the personal stories he relates in the book. Also he looks at Russia mainly through the lens of television media. It’s an important lens for sure, but other observers would likely bring different perspectives.
However, the overall narrative of the book seems to align with other sources, and with other authors I’ve read such as Masha Gessen. So I’m inclined to accept most of what Pomerantsev has written in Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, at least in terms of its broad themes.
And that’s maybe the scariest part of the whole thing. Because I ask myself, how does this end? If Putin disappeared tomorrow, would anything change? How? Or would he just be replaced by someone even worse? And what would the Russian people do? What would they believe or want to believe when they’ve lived for so long in a place where nothing is true and everything is possible?
Thanks for reading.
* * *
“We can only be enemies.” One family’s experience of Vladimir Putin’s invasion offers a path to the end of the war.
Essay in The Atlantic by Peter Pomerantsev, May 1, 2022
Russia’s Ideology: There Is No Truth
New York Times Op-ed by Peter Pomerantsev, Dec. 11, 2014