Peter Pomerantsev’s forthcoming Nothing is True and Everything is Possible is a grim, gripping tour through contemporary Russia.
It’s a country that transformed overnight from a place “ready to sell anything” to a place where the superrich were able to buy anything they wanted. Pomerantsev says that no place had ever seen so much new money in so short a time.
Despite his Russian name, Pomerantsev grew up in England, and the mystique of his British heritage and accent gave him a quick entree into the Russian film and television industries. He discovered that T.V. is central to Putin’s politics; he has called it the “nuclear weapon of politics.” Television creates reality, remaking Russia’s history and creating real-life drama that suits the Kremlin’s agenda. “The news is the incense by which we bless Putin’s actions, make him the president,” T.V. executives like to say.
And T.V. is used to promote a gangster ethos. During the 1990s, the gangsters ruled Russia. They were the only ones who knew who they were, knew how to get things done. Contracts couldn’t be enforced without gangsters. The police wouldn’t pursue thieves and rapists, but the gangsters would. Gangsters were the establishment that provided the “glue” holding Russian society together.
Pomerantsev says that around 2000, the gangsters were replaced by the government, which took over organized crime and put the gangsters out of business. But gangsterism remained the ethos of Russia. It explains Putin’s efforts to cultivate a tough-guy image. “Whom do the people respect the most?” Pomerantsev asks. And the answer is: Gangsters. So it makes all the political sense in the world to spruce up Putin to look like a gangster.