Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This thoroughly compelling book explores some of the more extreme edges of "the New Russia," as told by the producer of several successful Russian reality TV programs.
We meet models, cult leaders, entrepreneurs, gangsters, religious extremists, wrongfully imprisoned businesswomen, prostitutes, the super-rich and the almost super-rich. Pomerantsev's work as a documentarian and reality show producer brought him into contact with compelling storytellers telling compelling stories, all competing for camera time, so understandably these are not average Russians. One must read this book knowing that these are people on the fringes of contemporary Russian society; thinking otherwise would be like believing that the United States can be understood by watching our reality programs.
Still, he gets at an interesting ideology that is gripping a culture only recently relieved of totalitarianism, and that is the joyful buoyancy of possibilities that the previous generation could not have imagined. It's like reading about an entire country of lottery winners, or millions of rags-to-riches tales all happening at once. Even the solidly middle-class have the opportunity to become stunningly wealthy with a few good business decisions (or well-timed bribes), and the knowledge that prosperity is around any corner has turned Russia from grim to giddy.
Pomerantsev talks about the elaborate system of bribery and graft that is required for one to conduct even the mundane operation of obtaining a driver's license, and the etiquette involved in delicately offering the money to an official in a way that is inoffensive and effective. These transactions dictate much of the commerce in Russia today, from minor necessities to multi-billion dollar deals, some of which end up as scandalous court cases toward the end of the book.
I ran the general ideas past another expat I know, an American friend who has lived and worked in Moscow for longer than the author was there, and he felt that this book is much too hard on Russian society; that any country can be made to look terrible via unflattering vignettes. He's right, and thus the caveat that this author worked with some very extreme citizens to make sensationalist television. But even with the shocking nature of some of the material, the Russian resiliency, ability to adapt and thrive during great upheaval, and willingness to make quite good lemonade out of a century of lemons, are all truly admirable. This quality of Russia comes through far more clearly than his condemnation of government corruption or claim that the media is a tool of government manipulation. That may be true, but one comes away from reading this wanting to know more about Russia and her people, and in that, this is an effective introduction to contemporary Russia.
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