Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, by Peter Pomerantsev
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible is a monograph on modern Russia through the eyes of the British son of Russian émigrés working as a documentary filmmaker for the channel TNT in Moscow, through his interviews with some representative and fascinating individuals who are truly products of their time. If you’re going to Russia, it’s better than any guidebook.
It is hauntingly written, and shows one man’s optimism, skepticism, and ultimately disappointment with a society wracked by change and lack of direction. What struck me was Pomerantsev’s description of Russia leaking into London, and this nebulous mass of ‘political technologists’, money, gangsters, beautiful women and vanity born from a gaping hole in the side of Russian civil society and intellectual life after the fall of the Soviet Union.
It feels like an extremely important work. Detractors might easily claim that it focuses on the chaotic, glamorous, morally dubious froth at the upper echelons of Russian society, in glamorous bars in the center of Moscow, and avoids dealing with the great mass of ordinary people – it is unlike for example Ben Judah’s utterly conscientious travel itinerary across the width and height of Russia in Fragile Empire. However from the sad charade of “Forbeses” and gold-diggers courting in Moscow nightclubs, a societal malaise can be deduced.
However ultimately it is a book based in personal experience, and makes no claims to speak about or for every Russian from Kaliningrad to Kamchatka. It doesn’t produce a high-flung theory of its recent history and future development, but is still highly educational and effortlessly, beautifully describes – it is in the style of Hemingway’s literary journalism. Each paragraph has the feeling of having been carefully picked from a book ten times longer.
Textures, smells and colours permeate the pages: the smoke and pungency of the wildfires that invaded the author’s apartment from outside Moscow in 2010, the suffocatingly expensive, solvent-perfume-stinking feel of Novikov’s bar for Russians in London, and the dying of the summer sun in the courtyards of old Moscow, threatened by bulldozers keen to erect glass and steel offices as close as possible to the center of feudalism. It is among the most poetic non-fiction I’ve read recently. The bright colours of TNT’s branding pop and fizzle in the mind alongside Vitaly, shotgun in hand, facing down a car transporter outside of Vladivostok in Russia’s far east. We’re taken to the top of Ostankino TV tower, a layered cake where each slice is a different period in Russian history. Pomerantsev opens doors, literally and figuratively, onto a country that can seem extremely alienating to a casual observer.
The charmingly clumsy accented “Piiiitr” that Pomerantsev hears in the offices of TNT daily immediately resonates with any foreigner in Russia, and his description of places that expats know well rings true. This is truly a book for our times. Its force and resonance might be quickly forgotten, like the old Moscow buildings that fall to the ground so quickly, which would be a loss. However, any attempts to bottle a single drop of fast-moving and shapeshifting modern Russia will always be somewhat imperfect. What is achieved here is a fantastic snapshot that burns brightly.
Hanging over this entire system is the man never named but only called ‘the President’, and that Pomeransetv has written in such depth on modern Russia and avoided calling Putin by name points to how personal and unique this book is amongst a great many attempts by Westerns to explain or elucidate whatever modern Russia is. It is neither a polemic nor a pastiche, a biography or a history. It is however an urgent and necessary read for Russia-watchers today, that will push emotion and invite reflection on where the country is, and where it’s going.
Reviewer: James Allcock
$25.99, Hardback from PublicAffairs, http://www.publicaffairsbooks.com