Fake news, alternative facts and a president who says one thing then does the opposite: these are recent problems for Westerners struggling to understand Donald Trump and his imitators. But in Russia, a country with a centuries-long history of practised self-deception, where displays of shared idealism mask a shared knowledge of corruption, fake news is old news. The current regime has perfected a hybrid authoritarianism combining age-old power politics with the relatively new philosophy of postmodernism.
Peter Pomerantsev was born in Kiev in 1977 and raised in the U.K. Seeing an opportunity for a young Russian speaker in Boris Yeltsin's booming Moscow, where being a Westerner was currency more valuable than money, he landed in Russia at the turn of the millennium. Working in television and public relations, Pomerantsev watched as the chaotic promise of liberal democratic capitalism mutated into something new and dark: "Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime."
Pomerantsev's first book, 2014's Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, is, on the surface, a collection of stories showing the utter weirdness of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Beautiful young women take classes on a reality TV show to help them lure oligarch husbands. A businesswoman framed on ludicrous grounds and then strangely acquitted leaves you wondering if this was unexpected justice or whether she had played an unwitting part in some larger, hidden, game.
There's a crime boss explaining his rise from local thug, an activist trying to save heritage buildings from developments funded by the crime bosses, self-improvement groups that veer into extortionist spiritualist cults infiltrating the elite, and the sheer strangeness of living in a superficially Western capital city where you can be stopped and thrown in jail if, when leaving McDonald's, you don't have the right identity papers.
President Vladimir Putin is everywhere in the book but almost never referred to by name: he is simply "the President." In that way the book is, perhaps intentionally, very Soviet. The stories illuminate the President but never in a way that you could say any individual story, taken alone, was genuinely subversive. Older readers will remember the jokes from the USSR:
Q: Is it true that there is freedom of speech in the Soviet Union, just like in the USA? A: Yes! In the USA, you can stand in front of the White House and yell "Down with Reagan!", and you will not be punished. Equally, you can stand in Red Square and yell "Down with Reagan!", and you will not be punished. It is not until Pomerantsev confronts Vitaly Surkov, Putin confidante and erstwhile author (he wrote the foreword to an autobiographical novel, Almost Zero, that he bizarrely denies writing--an act that tidily sums up Surkov's work and modern Russia) that the book's various threads come together. Surkov is a "political technologist" who takes us behind the curtains and explains, with the honesty that only the profoundly corrupt can carry off, exactly how Russia works:
In the twenty-first century the techniques of the political technologists have become centralized and systematized, coordinated out of the office of the presidential administration, where Surkov would sit behind a desk on which were phones bearing the names of all the "independent" party leaders, calling and directing them at any moment, day or night. The brilliance of this...