When Boris Yeltsin became President of the new Russia, I was working for a bunch of London-based management consultants who were looking for opportunities to provide advice to the new Russian entrepreneurs. Our strategy was to employ two young Russians. The man introduced himself. He took my hand, bowed slightly, and I swear I heard his heels click. As for the young woman, she was terrified of flying, something of a disadvantage for a jet-setting consultant. Throughout a flight she would grip the arm rests but as soon as the Captain announced our descent she reluctantly let go and fished in her handbag for lipstick and mirror. No matter how terrible the situation, she told me, no Russian woman would ever allow herself to be seen without make up.
Other than a handful of students, that's been the limit of my personal knowledge of Russians. If the media portrayal is anything to go by it hasn't stood the test of time. What are Russians like now? Do they love Vladimir Putin? Do all the billionaires own football clubs? Have they all moved to London? Hoping to get some answers I bought a copy of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia.
Author Peter Pomerantsev is the son of emigrant Russians who moved to Germany in the late 1970s and then to London. He lived in Moscow in the early '00s, producing documentaries for a TV channel called TNT. The book is part memoir of his experience and part reportage of the characters he met whilst working. He returned "from Russia to London in the second decade of the twenty-first century to find signs of something similar to what I had seen in Putin's Moscow playing out in the thing we used to know as 'the West'".
Using language suggestive of theatre, TV, and film, he collects his experiences into three "Acts": Reality Show Russia, Cracks in the Kremlin Matrix, and Forms of Delirium.
A key chapter of Act I is The Heights of Creation which introduces us to Vladislav Surkov, who "has directed Russian society like one great reality show". He's what's called a political technologist, someone who uses "democratic rhetoric" for "undemocratic intent". As you read your feeling of disbelief grows at how Surkov's political system has been implemented by the Kremlin. Pomerantsev notes his "Moscow peers are filled with a sense that they are both cynical and enlightened", and as "Westerners" we might find ourselves smirking. But think about it. "Can’t you see your own governments are just as bad as ours?", they ask.
In Act II's chapter, Then You Wake Up and My God You’re a Convict Pomerantsev investigates a successful businesswoman's Kafka-esque nightmare. Yana is arrested for distributing illegal narcotics, which turn out to be a chemical cleaning agent around which her trading company had built its business and for which she had a licence. We're told that in the world designed by political technologists like Surkov, "Business rivals or bureaucrats ... pay the security services to have the head of a company arrested; while they are in prison their documents and registrations are seized, the company is re-registered under different owners, and by the time the original owners are released, the company has been bought and sold and split up by new owners".
Even more disturbing is the chapter Initiations which claims that "Russians have more words for ‘bribe’ than Eskimos do for ‘snow’". Pomerantsev describes how he never leaves home without ensuring there's "a 500-rouble note already placed that morning among the pages of my passport". It's presented as a casual, everyday occurrence, but takes on a more chilling aspect in the context of the horrific mistreatment of military conscripts. The draft can be avoided but "only for those with money and connections".
In the final Act, Pomerantsev reports how "the Kremlin is starting to use religion and the supernatural for its own ends". He investigates the death of the model Ruslana Korshunova and her friend Anastasia Drozdova after following courses at the Rose of the World cult. He talks to members of the Night Wolves Motorcycle Club, who help "rewrite the narrative of protesters from political injustice and corruption to one of Holy Russia versus Foreign Devils", and "will receive Kremlin support for their annual bike show and rock concert in Crimea".
When Pomerantsev returned to the UK he found "signs of something similar to what I had seen in Putin's Moscow". London-based Russians start their evenings in Russian-owned clubs, "full of Paris-raised Qataris and Monaco-registered Nigerians, American hedge-fund managers and Golden Youth and Premier League Football agents, escorts from Brazil and Moldova and the Swiss ‘lawyers’ with offices in Moscow and Hong Kong". So here we are, says Pomerantsev, "living through a period when politicians don’t merely lie, but where they seem to revel in throwing off the glum constraints of coherence". Reading about recent political shenanigans in Westminster and Washington it's hard to disagree. We've arrived at a bleak point for what, in the 1990s, was an optimistic and exciting future.