Sometime back in 2014, as the crisis in Ukraine was growing in intensity, I read a report by “expert” Russia journalists Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev titled “The Menace of Unreality”, which accused Russia of weaponizing information as part of an alleged war against the West. The problem I found with Weiss’s and Pomerantsev’s report was that they were guilty of the same tactics themselves – they used a series of distortions that made Russia seem far more of a threat to the West than it really is. Soon afterward, along came Pomerantsev’s book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, the content of which has caused me to conclude exactly the same thing.
Nothing is True is the author’s memoir of his time in Russia as a reality TV producer. The book is as much about Pomerantsev as it is about Russia, and is shaped by his own profession. Pomerantsev’s core “thesis” is that Russia is just like one of his TV programs, where the reality portrayed is never quite as real as it is made out to be. The people he meets are eclectic and surreal: the rap-loving, autocratic politician; the novelist gangster; the young model destroyed by a cult, all of whom (supposedly) exemplify the corruption that lies at the rotten heart of the largest country on Earth.
(It is interesting to note that, like a reality TV show, the book ignores the lives of the ordinary majority of Russians and instead focuses on the lives of significantly richer, significantly less common extremes. And then passes this off as the norm.)
How much of what he describes is peculiar to Russia is very much open to question. Take, for instance, Pomerantsev’s story 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 practiced 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. I’d even say the story demonstrates the opposite.
There is something quite flawed in Pomerantsev’s basic premise: he attempts to show that cynicism, manipulation of information by government and distortions of reality in popular culture are all somehow uniquely bad, or even just unique to, Russia. But this kind of claim desperately calls out for some kind of comparative analysis. One cannot just string together a series of personal observations and caricatures, cobble together some outlandish stories about a particular place, and then claim “There Is No Truth in Russia”! Even assuming the vignettes and – to the extent he relies on any – statistics actually support his core thesis, the exclusive focus on Russia invalidates much of the attempt. For, to be able to make his claim, Pomerantsev also must ask and explore: what is the state of “cynical nontruth” in other countries or regions, like the Middle East, China, the EU or USA? How could one possibly attempt the sort of assessment Pomerantsev proposes without systematically putting Russia side by next with at least one other prominent case?
Since I consider myself to be a fair reviewer, I will point out the book’s assets. Readers will likely enjoy Pomerantsev’s colorful, lively prose. Like a reality show, Nothing is True is entertaining. But there is a reason why Russia scholars don’t write like this, and instead footnote everything so that they can justify what they are saying. Of course, this can make for some dull reading, but at least the reader can have confidence in what is on the page. But here it feels that Pomerantsev sacrifices truth for style. Much of that which is entertaining appears to be either hyperbole or invention.
It doesn’t take long to discover this – it takes about seven lines into the first page, to be precise. 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.” Firstly, a city with a population of over 12 million people within its limits cannot be considered “small”, and secondly, many other places across the world have experienced enormous booms. Pomerantsev provides no evidence for his statement. It’s pure hyperbole, and a worrying indication of what lies ahead in the book.
I am serious – this is not an isolated example, but the author’s actual writing style. “The only values in this new Ussuriysk were cars and cash”, he says (p. 27). The “only” ones, for everybody in the entire city? How would he know unless he personally interviewed every resident – all 158,000 of them? “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 rather rare (the last was in 2011, and you can count the total on the fingers of one hand), and 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). You heard correctly – even that little family-owned bookshop in Moscow was the site of a mass murder once. One could go on and on.
Of course, one might object that none of this matters – it is just embellishment but the basic stories are true. This isn’t meant to be an academic composition but a work of art, and although it doesn’t show one reality, through its distortions it reveals the underlying truth in a way that only art can do.
However, Pomerantsev never tells us that that’s what he’s 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.
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev. Pub. 2014 by PublicAffairs. Hardcover, 256 pages. ISBN13: 9781610394550