Inside the belly of the bear

Double-think is still essential for survival in Russia. John Lloyd is gripped by a portrait of a dangerous, nihilistic country that's starting to flex its muscles.

by John Lloyd
Last Updated: 04 Sep 2015

In essays, articles and writings for the Legatum think-tank, Peter Pomerantsev, Anglicised son of emigre Russian dissidents, has created a Russia that's at once in thrall to a zany nihilism and a looming danger. His vivid, closely observed work offers decisive negation to the comforting belief that the market, wealth, a growing middle class and freedom to read, publish, travel and debate will banish authoritarianism.

While reading his book, I met a friend, one of the UK's most distinguished Russian historians, just back from Moscow. 'Russian people,' he said, 'are much more hostile to the west now.' Pomerantsev writes that 'during the final decades of the USSR, no one believed in communism and yet carried on living as if they did'. Thus the western view - that here was a people yearning to breathe free, with an admiring envy of the west they pretended to despise - had a real basis. Now, they really do despise it (us).

He uses the insight into the massive hypocrisy of the late communist period to explain the post-Soviet, cultivated schizophrenia of the wealthy, intelligentsia and media classes, many of whom dissent from the majority's support for President Putin and his expansion in Ukraine, but realise it is more than their money's or job's worth to show it.

'For this,' he writes, 'remains the common everyday psychology - the Ostankino [main state TV channel] producers who make news worshipping the president in the day then switch on an opposition radio programme as soon as they get off work... the Orthodox oligarchs who sing hymns to Russian religious conservatism - and keep their money and families in London. All cultures have differences between "public" and "private" selves, but in Russia the contradiction can be quite extreme.'

In the world Pomerantsev conjures, lit by lurid neon and the full headlight glare of Bentleys, Porsche 4x4s and Maybachs, communism's culture still spreads its miasma over the fantastically wealthy oligarchs, the TV propagandists, the mafiosi who control whole towns (there's a fine comic-tragic portrait of one such, Vitaly Dyomochka, who uses his own crimes and punishments to become a popular novelist and film-maker) - and the women and girls, whom Pomerantsev presents as the main victims of this cruel, hustling, macho world.

He spent a decade in post-Soviet Russia, much of it as a TV producer, specialising in putting together reality shows, and it was the women he met who draw out his most sympathetic and charged writing. They include Oliona, mistress of a 'Forbes', a rich businessman named after the American ultra-capitalist magazine, which has a Russian edition. She left her mafia-controlled town for Moscow, became a stripper and attracted a businessman, who put her into a nice flat, paid her well, gave her two week-long foreign holidays a year in return for sex on demand. She's beautiful and determinedly cheery, but worries that, at 22, she's nearing the end of the Forbes escalator and will cede place to one from the legion of would-be mistresses trained in mistress finishing schools.

There's Yana Yakovleva, who's built up a successful company trading industrial chemicals and is arrested because the head of the Drugs Enforcement Agency, a baleful ex-KGB officer, wants to destroy the private companies in his sector and has reclassified diethyl ether, which Yana's company buys and sells in large quantities, as an 'illegal narcotic substance'. After months in a packed cell, she gets off - only because a more senior ex-KGB officer hates the first and wants to humiliate him. In a sort of happy ending she founds an NGO to fight for the thousands of business people imprisoned on trumped-up charges; not because their tormentors are communists, but because they want capitalism for themselves.

Pomerantsev offers a sharp-edged portrait of the man who has 'directed Russia like a reality show', Vladislav Surkov, Putin's closest consigliere on ideology. The Moscow Surkov and his assistants create 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 Russia is no longer a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as Churchill described the USSR in October 1939. It's a bacchanalia wrapped in a secret policeman's grip inside a kleptocratic state - and perhaps more dangerous.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, where he is director of journalism. He is a contributing editor at the FT and the founder of FT Magazine.

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev is published by Faber and Faber, £14.99.

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