In Russia, nothing is true and everything is possible

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by Hans Dembowski

A primer on post-truth life in Moscow

Vladimir Putin has just been confirmed in office as president of Russia in elections which he was the only serious candidate. Anyone who wants to understand what is going on, should read Peter Pomerantsev’s “Nothing is true and everything is possible”.

Peter Pomerantsev’s book is unsettling. The stories he tells seem so crude that you think they must be fiction, but when you google the names of persons and places you find out that there must be at least some substance to them. I did not fact check every episode, and it would be impossible to find proof for everything he reports anyway. His book is a personal memoir. He writes in the first person and shares his experiences.

The author’s parents are Russian, and he grew up in Munich and London. After the turn of the millennium, he spent a decade in Moscow working for a TV station. As a TV reporter he dealt with a great variety of people, including gangsters, business people, public servants, civil-society activists and fashion models. Sometimes, such roles blend into one another.

Pomerantsev paints the picture of a society marked by cronyism and corruption. Might makes right. Laws basically exist, but they are broken, circumvented, manipulated and abused. What matters is not truth, but to have the right connections. News is always manipulated some way or another. Pomerantsev makes it quite clear that the government is not really interested in people believing its propaganda. The point is that “if they can lie so much and get away with it”, it means “that they have real power, the power to define what is true and what isn't”.

One episode that I find particularly striking is about Yana Yakovleva, a businesswoman who suddenly finds herself entangled in a power struggle of different factions of the security service FSB. She is the owner of a small company that trades in cleaning chemicals. One day, she is arrested, taken to jail and accused of selling illegal drugs. The charge is absurd, but her case drags on and she is kept behind bars.

It becomes clear that a certain FSB leader wants to set intimidating example by getting her sentenced in order to gain more power over small mid-sized enterprises. Another FSB leader feels that such a development would hurt his interests. In the end, Yakovleva comes free because the latter turns out to be closer to the president.

Yana Yakovleva went on to found the non-governmental organisation Business Solidarity. Its purpose is to defend and protect private-sector managers from arbitrary government action. Her example shows that business leaders cannot rely on the rule of law.

Pomerantsev’s stories are unsettling. He does a very good job of showing that it becomes next to impossible to establish facts in a social setting that is marked by fake news and conspiracy theories. One of his conclusions is: “If all motives are corrupt and no one is to be trusted, doesn’t that mean that some dark hand must be behind everything?”

Ultimately, nobody is safe. Those who enjoy protection today, may fall out of favour tomorrow. Therefore, members of the oligarchy and the regime’s inner circles make sure they bring some of their wealth to foreign countries and buy second homes abroad, preferably in London, where they feel safe and wield growing influence. The recent poisoning of Sergei Skripal, the former Russian spy, and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, however, shows that this sense of security in Britain may be illusive.

The final chapter describes a society in which patriotism is becoming increasingly aggressive. The government promotes a sense of paranoia, whilst promising to restore national greatness. The military is celebrated, violence is considered normal, and whether propaganda is true or not no longer matters.

Pomerantsev's warning in the foreward of the 2017 edition is stark: "The Russian president turned politics into a reality show, remaking authoriatianism with the logic of 21st century entertainment. In America, a reality-snow star has captured the presidency, substituting politics with entertainment. Writineg in early 2017, onc can only wonder where that will end up."

Pomerantsev, P., 2015, 2017: Nothing is true and everything is possible. London: Faber and Faber.


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