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Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. Peter Pomerantsev. Review: Coming to You – Now!

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Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. Adventures in Modern Russia. Peter Pomerantsev. Faber and Faber 2005.

The richest man in Britain is Odessa born Len Blavatnik. He made billions from Russian oil after the collapse of the Soviet Union, owns Warner Music and lives in a £41m mansion in Kensington. Many other billionaires, whose fortune originates in post-Communist capitalism, appeared in last weekend’s Sunday Times Rich List.

Russia, Nothing is True begins, is the homeland of the “new jet set”, the “the richest, the most powerful, the most dangerous.” In Moscow, Peter Pomerantsev continues, “performance” is what counts. Life is one “glittering masquerade”.

Moscow even has a high performing English language television station, available on free-view in the UK. Russia Today, now known as RT, was set up by Presidential decree and a generous budget. George Galloway MP has his own show, Sputnik. Other figures on the outer circles of the British left, including the Stop the War Coalition, and supporters of convicted electoral fraudster, the former Tower Hamlets Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, appear regularly on RT (though the man himself is oddly absent).  They are treated with the respect they perhaps consider that they unfairly lack in mainstream political life.

Pomerantsev, British born and educated, with fluent Russian from his émigré parents, plunged deeply into the whirlwind world of post-Soviet energy-capitalism. Nothing is True tells of his time working in television, “factual entertainment”.

As a producer Pomerantsev was employed for the station TNT, sponsored by the planet’s largest gas company. His first commission was How to Marry a Millionaire A Gold Digger’s Guide. He meets ‘former’ gangsters, like Vitaly Djomochka, who’d won fame through a mini-series about the life of criminals, The Spets, featuring real guns and bullets. He encounters a one-time Irish academic economist, Benedict, who’d run the gamut of Russian double-dealing and corruption before washing up at RT – only to be tossed aside when he will not co-operate with secret service. The Irishman, approaching retirement, retreated to Kaliningrad, the home of his wife. This Russian enclave in the Baltic has a waterfront that’s a replica of “seventeenth-century gingerbread German town”. These building are “hollow to the touch, painted Perspex, and plaster imitating stone, timber and iron.”

Raw tragedy comes to Pomerantsev when investigating the apparent suicide in New York of former supermodel, Ruslana Korshunova. She is linked to a “personal development” cult, Rose of the World. Its techniques come from a training programme used by Lifespring – the subject of numerous lawsuits in the United States. The television producer becomes interested in other post-Soviet cults. There was Kashpirovsky, who miraculously charged water via television with “healing energy”. There are the Night Wolves, ultra-nationalist bikers presently re-enacting the progress of the Red Army into Eastern Europe. There are lots, and lots, of other ultra-nationalists, New Age sects, like Vissarion’s New New Testament, and Orthodox traditionalists proclaiming anew Moscow as the Third Rome. Overt racists, Stalin worshipers dot the scenery.

Nothing is True is an in-depth trip into the landscape sketched in the BBC 3 series, Reggie Yates’ Extreme Russia. It could be read as fantasy reportage – part Narnia, part Mordor. But if this sounds a refined, and frankly, brilliant, essay on Kitsch – a word springing to mind during the portraits of the festivals of the Russian wealthy – Nothing is True is never less than serious. The Kremlin ‘demiurge’, Vladislav Surkov, “the political technologist of all of Rus”, may be Sauron. But he also Aslan. “The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as has been the case with twentieth century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting them and rendering them absurd.” (Page 79) Pomerantsev worked as a generously paid consultant for a liberal media house, SNOB, which stands as a case study in the official tolerance and promotion of such “oppositions”.

Post-Modern Politics.

Surkov, we are not in the least surprised to learn, is a fan of post-modern theories of simulacra. Pomerantsev does not name the texts in detail, but you can instantly feel the presence of Jean Baudrillard at work – or should we say, his lingering hyper-réalité. From the façades of Kaliningrad to the wars between Moscow business-gangster clans, the Oligarchs, to the battles in Ukraine, there are so many kinds of ‘surface’, that even the master-players get lost. They speak « several languages at the same time ». This is not just double-think, a split between what you say in the public and the private derision you cover it with, but, contrary to Pomerantsev’s own judgement, but a boundless enthusiasm for playing.

Is this just a Russian phenomenon ? Former Mayor Lutfur Rahman and his Tower Hamlets First Party look in many respects to have come out of Surkov’s tool-kit. A little anti-austerity for the left, a little religious enthusiasm for the ‘community’, the brazen funding of ‘players’, the ‘management’ of elections, the cajoling, the bullying…..

People, and not just ideologies, get mangled in this game. The ‘anti-hegemonic’ message of RT seduces European nationalists with anti-EU messages, religious reactionaries by the Kremlin’s fight against homosexuality, the far-left by tales of fighting US imperialism, the grinning ninnies of the Keisler Report try win business converts by criticising Western financial malpractice.

But the baron-bureaucrats of Moscow are not principally interested in taunting the West from the inside. They are part of a wealth accumulating machine that will crush anybody who gets in their way: rival oligarchs and masters of democratic and ultra-nationalist simulation in the Ukraine, the Russian masses, that is, anybody who does business with them.

“The worst thing is, that in all this interactive ferment, there is not the even the shadow of a new political space, or a new public spirit.” (“Le plus grave est qu’il n’y a pas dans tout ce bouillonnment interactif, l’ombre d’un nouvel espace politique ou d’un nouvel esprit public.” Jean Baudrillard. La Gauche Divine. 1985.)

Posts by Peter Pomerantsev LRB.

12 Responses

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  1. « Lutfur appeals and tries to decide between Oli Rhaman and Rabina Khan (as Oli gets warning from DWP)
    Lutfur to offer Rabina Khan chance of becoming Tower Hamlets First mayoral candidate: scrutiny begins

    April 29, 2015 by trialbyjeory

    “Further to this post last night, I understand from sources close to Lutfur Rahman that Cllr Rabina Khan is to be offeees the chance of being Tower Hamlets First’s candidate for mayor in June’s election.

    She may well speak at the Water Lilly rally on Thursday night.

    Lutfur’s camp are expecting some fall out from this decision. They know there is anger about the way this decision has been made, ie by Lutfur’s “kitchen cabinet” whose number includes of course Rabina’s husband, Cllr Aminur Khan.

    They think it could even precipitate a number of THF councillors to break away from the “party” and speak out about how Lutfur has been conducting affairs. Some think Rabina is easier to control. So watch this space on that one.

    Now that Oli Rahman has been overlooked, I suspect he may not feel the acting mayor role for six weeks is worth his job at the DWP. Read last night’s post for details on that.”

    More – a lot more – here: http://trialbyjeory.com/2015/04/29/lutfur-to-offer-rabina-khan-chance-of-becoming-tower-hamlets-first-mayoral-candidate-scrutiny-begins/

    Andrew Coates

    April 29, 2015 at 4:13 pm

  2. This book is a great read! I love the ‘Mordor/Nania’ idea, Andrew.

    Also highly recommend the report done by Pomerantsev with Michael Weiss ‘The Menace of Unreality:
    How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money’ which is here > http://www.interpretermag.com/the-menace-of-unreality-how-the-kremlin-weaponizes-information-culture-and-money/

    RT is not just the demagogues cited here, it also platforms fascists and has lots and lots of conspiracy theorists on. How it works can be seen most clearly with the MH17 plane disaster in Eastern Ukraine last year, when it, alongside TV in Russia, immediately throw out a whole slew of theories – including one taken from an episode of Sherlock – in order to confuse.

    The young woman picked by Putin to run RT, Simonyan, has made it clear that she thinks there is no such thing as the ‘truth’ and that’s clearly what the station is about – unreality – and you can read the memes it churns out underneath stories in places like the Grauniad’s comments section. This is what the KGB did, ‘active measures’ and distributing memes like that the US created the HIV/Aids virus.

    For more on the corruption of Russian money in the UK see the work of Ben Judah, for example http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/08/opinion/londons-laundry-business.html

    For a perspective from an American socialist living in Russia I recommend Jim Kovpak at
    http://nobsrussia.com/ He has some great stuff on Russian unreality.

    Paul Canning

    April 29, 2015 at 7:34 pm

  3. Vice News just did a couple of insightful reports on Russian state propaganda.


    Paul Canning

    April 30, 2015 at 2:13 am

  4. Jim Kovpak has some great pieces about Russian propaganda. He just did one addressing the ‘unreality’ of the European far-right and their love for Russia. He ends with this point:

    “Russia’s using the old bait-and-switch tactic.

    This is something people need to keep in mind when hearing panicky diatribes about how Russia is “beating the West” in the “information war.” Russia has a natural disadvantage in this war, in the sense that it is incoherent, it literally cannot build a coherent narrative, and the more people are attracted to her, the more they learn the truth, either rejecting their previous beliefs or going into denial and becoming burnt out- essentially rendered ineffective. It would be far better for people concerned about the effects of Russian propaganda in this respect to examine the causes behind any increase in far-right beliefs in their own countries, and work to right the various social problems or misconceptions that fuel reactionary, populist politics. As for these right-wingers gathering in Russia year after year, it’s really just a source of tragic comedy at this point, as these raging anti-Muslim crusaders rely on the hospitality of the world’s large nation, which is the de facto vassal of a publicly-pious Muslim warlord in Grozny. If only they knew.”
    http://nobsrussia.com/2015/04/24/bait-and-switch/

    Another great background piece by Jim, piecing received opinion, uses the ‘Vatnik’ meme, about Russian patriotic rednecks, to explain something deeper about Russian imperialism. Y’know, the imperialism the Western lefties ignore yet is out there in full-on form like in the ‘I am a Russian occupier’ viral video. The one which was supposed to be spontaneous but which turned out to be Kremlin funded (www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-31715389).

    “For the vatnik, Russia can only be great by either dominating other countries, or by instilling fear in them. This is why the vatnik is almost orgasmic at the thought of Americans or Europeans living in fear of nuclear war with Russia.

    Aside from skyrocketing sausage prices, this was the other terrible outcome of the Soviet Union’s collapse- People in the West stopped fearing Russia. The vatnik would rather live in filth and muck and believe that Americans are worried about what Russia might do than to live in prosperity and freedom while enjoying friendly and mutually-beneficial relations with Russia. No, that is surrender. That is bending over for Uncle Sam in the prison cell. Better to bend over for Putin instead. This is how the vatnik sees the world, and the sad irony is that what he sees as stoic defiance is in fact the most submissive act of all.”

    http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:AX6v-zVvUSUJ:readrussia.com/2015/03/06/vatnost-why-the-west-cant-understand-russia/+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk

    Sound familiar? Can we adapt this Russian meme to the ‘anti-imperialists’ we know all too well who submit to ‘great leaders’?

    Examples ↓ More here http://vatnik-today.tumblr.com/

    Paul Canning

    April 30, 2015 at 12:04 pm

  5. The vatnik was a great garment – grey cotton, cotton-padded. I still have mine – it kept me warm in several Russian winters. It was associated with prison wear, but, above all, with ordinary working-class Russians who were out in all weathers, sweeping the streets, working on construction sites, whatever. The sort of people that many in the middle classes fear and despise. The very existence of this meme is a great example of where hate-speech is these days for some of the liberal middle classes – it’s unacceptable to be rude about people on the basis of their ethnicity or sexual orientation, but it’s quite OK to sneer about the lower orders.

    The following sentence is particularly illogical:

    “The vatnik would rather live in filth and muck and believe that Americans are worried about what Russia might do than to live in prosperity and freedom while enjoying friendly and mutually-beneficial relations with Russia.”

    When has “prosperity and freedom” been on offer for the great bulk of the ex-Soviet population? The collapse of the USSR was followed by mass impoverishment, chaos, theft of its assets on an unprecedented scale in peacetime, and the process was cheerled by the Western powers the whole time. The people doing the ripping off were continually mouthing platitudes about “democracy”, “freedom” and all that, promising Western-style living standards as the eventual reward for enduring the transition. But they lied. A certain modest improvement in living standards in Russia has instead been a feature of the post-2000 era, and has been associated with greater state authoritarianism. Popular enthusiasm for Putin may be deplorable, but it’s not hard to understand, and it’s not just whipped-up national chauvinism, important though that may be.

    Back in 1989-91, the “democratic” opposition in the USSR had some crucial working class support – striking miners played a key part in bringing Yeltsin to power. That support has now entirely evaporated. It might be worth considering why.

    I wish my vatnik still fitted me – if it did, I’d wear it with pride.

    Francis

    April 30, 2015 at 3:58 pm

  6. I get the impression of great sadness as well, which is an aspect that has not been covered in many reports.

    Andrew Coates

    April 30, 2015 at 5:24 pm

  7. @francis – that’s a bit SJW for me. Firstly, we can use ‘lumpen’ can’t we? Is that banned now? And I doubt a meme about FN or UKIP voters or Tea Party supporters would be just about ‘the working class’, or seen as implicitly a class based attack on them? Is this ‘vatnik’ characterisation completely off? Just patronising?

    You should engage with Jim if you feel strongly, I’d encourage it. He’s a socialist, not a liberal, and has lived in Moscow for years.

    Secondly, I agree that ‘the west’ has made huge mistakes. Not least playing host to stolen billions and the Siloviki’s houses and children. But the story of the 90s is hardly one of simply the west being responsible? I suspect that’s a story the Kremlin is selling us, and Russians, for their own interests. bill browder’s book in good on the realities of Russian capitalism.

    Also, the improvements since 2000 have been about the most unequal in the world and ‘improved living standards’ really means ‘more western goods’, not Russian ones. They still don’t make anything. Since the real authoritarian shift, after 2011, another untold story has been the dramatically worsening state of Russian healthcare and the enormous increase in military spending.

    Thirdly, working class organisation is just as difficult in Russia now as liberal. Any union organisation is regarded as traitorous. Why is the left so weak in Russia? It’s terribly easy for western socialists to fall into ‘blame Obama’ mode but it is so telling that the question of what Russian socialists are saying and what is happening to them is just never asked.

    Paul Canning

    April 30, 2015 at 9:01 pm

  8. Fair enough Paul – that vatnik “meme” just flicked a class-war switch with me the same way that “memes” about “chavs”, shell-suits and the like do, and I went off on one. It happens sometimes. I’ve read the links now, and I recognise the type of Russian thinking he describes. Thing is, though, I’ve met it just as often, if not more, in its middle-class, supposedly educated variant.

    I certainly wouldn’t “blame” the West for what happened in Russia. Although it played, and continues to play, its part, the tragedy of what happened during the collapse of the USSR was mainly generated within that society itself. The robber barons, the criminality – all that came from within. But the West, mesmerised by the collapse of the old foe, communism, allowed itself to be associated with all that was worst about that collapse. The period of the early 1990s, when gangsterism was rampant and nobody had any legal recourse, when the main streets of big cities became one huge jumble sale as people were selling their household goods to get food, when voucher privatisation allowed people to seize state assets for very little etc. etc., was also the period when government offices and think tanks were infested with Western “experts”. I met quite a lot of these characters in the early 1990s. They often liked to big up their role in Russia’s “transition”. I think they achieved more in discrediting the ideas of liberal democracy in Russia than all the output of Russian TV in the last 10 years.

    Russian friends who are certainly not Putin supporters often talk of the 1990s with a shudder. The post-Yeltsin regime’s apparent success in ensuring “stability” is probably its greatest asset. And the current Western penchant for supporting “colour revolutions” (read: instability) fits the Putin narrative just perfectly.

    Francis

    April 30, 2015 at 10:50 pm

  9. @Francis – I loathe ‘Chav’ too!

    The Western role in the Maidan has been overblown. I should write something longer but just to make a couple of points. The EU trade deal was a Yanukovych idea and NATO membership was never on the table, plus I don’t think any of us can imagine the scale of corruption going on [see euromaidanpress.com/2014/07/13/16899/]. From my reading, the latter was or became the main driver.

    This is from Left-East, which is well worth bookmarking, and should be noted every time some so-called socialist defends Putin.

    Ivan Ovsiannikov is a member of the St. Petersburg Interregional Union: “Workers Association”

    “As far as anti-workers laws are concerned, the main one is the de facto ban on striking in labor law. In practice, it is impossible to conduct strikes because of the bureaucratic procedure involved. Or rather, to strike, one must work outside of the law, risking firing and discrimination, all in the context of a corrupt legal system. There are such strikes, but they are usually very spontaneous and don’t enter into official statistics.”

    http://www.criticatac.ro/lefteast/international-workers-day-ivan-ovsiannikov/

    Paul Canning

    May 1, 2015 at 5:07 pm

  10. Missing comment Andrew.

    And here’s a report from last September.

    “Anyone watching Moscow television would conclude that “there is no more important news than the situation in Ukraine and the intrigues of NATO,” Olga Filina says in today’s Ogonyok, but those who follow Russia’s labor market say that “the most important news” involves the spread of protests by workers who haven’t been paid.

    Although largely unnoticed by most Russians, miners, metal workers and even those employed by the government are staging strikes in a spontaneous fashion rather than under the aegis of trade unions or parties, a pattern that recalls the way in which Solidarity emerged in Poland, Filina points out.”
    http://www.interpretermag.com/meanwhile-in-russia-spontaneous-worker-unrest-is-spreading/

    Paul Canning

    May 1, 2015 at 5:09 pm

  11. No but Paul, from what I can glean, there are as many mirrors, phantom political platforms, oligarchs, and self-serving individuals in the dominant Ukrainian politics as in Moscow.

    Andrew Coates

    May 1, 2015 at 5:30 pm

  12. Yes. Poroshenko is unlikely to be reelected as he is very unpopular. There is a lot of unrest because of the economy and the continuing domination of oligarchs and the plodding efforts against corruption – especially when this relates to the military effort. You can read a lot of stuff talking about ‘another Maidan’.

    But all of this is submerged by war and the war effort and what’s seen as a need for national unity. This is why the parliament would pass a stupid law banning communist symbols and making questioning aspects of history illegal, all in the name of Ukrainian nationalism and pride. That law is with the President and he may veto but it is a symbol of current Ukrainian absurdities.

    What massively distinguishes Ukraine from Russia though is the Ukrainian civil society which is enormous. As well, there is a strong and diverse media.There are some signs, I believe, that this includes labour organisation. But the left is very weak.

    Paul Canning

    May 1, 2015 at 6:37 pm


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