“This isn’t a country in transition but some sort of postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends.”
A 21st century expose on Vladimir Putin’s Russia from the beginning of his tenure to present day. This book demonstrates that as much as the national leaders change, the values and principles that Russia hold dear stay the course (with a few tweaks to account for environmental changes). The big difference over the years that has greatly influenced Russia’s power has been the nation’s ability to manipulate their economic standing in the world market. Incoming investments, unique revenue tools, and diverted cash reserves has transformed Russia from a dim, dreary, disgusting place into a country filled with the richest, energetic, beautiful, and most dangerous residents. The new found vulnerability, the proverbial chink in the West’s armour has formed Russia’s cocky, abrasive, and determined mentality.
” ‘We believe Russia is a great empire that other powers want to tear away parts from. We need to restore our power, occupy our lost lands, grab Crimea from the Ukrainians,’ This has always been the paradox of the new Russia nationalism: on the one hand wanting to conquer all regions around, on the other wanting an ethnically pure great power. And all that comes out of this confusion is an ever-growing anger.”
Peter Pomerantsev is a Kiev born, London raised man who moved to Moscow to work as a television producer for an upstart, innovative station called TNT. Being from London, Peter was able to get the job rather easily due to the station’s desire to “Westernize” their content. Working as a producer with the ambition of eventually becoming a documentary film maker in Russia’s television and movie industry, his goal on a job-by-job basis was to find “happy stories” that people of Russia desired to watch. What Peter quickly realizes when he goes out into the city is that real life positivism in today’s Russia is hard to find and relative stories would be few and far between. Everywhere he turns he is being peppered for bribes from the local police, lawyers, checkpoints, and even the department of motor vehicles. The propaganda machine is in full force as the omnipotent President Putin is paraded around and delivered to the public as a whole, but also in a gender specific sort of way depending on the messaging. To the men he is regarded as the lone wolf, the alpha male, the ladies man, to the woman he is regarded as the all-powerful, the sex symbol, the sugar daddy. Even in his job Peter understands that broadcasters don’t just deliver the news to the public, they create it. There is no such thing as objective reporting, the Russian point of view is the Kremlin point of view. They are their own reality show.
“TV is the only force that can unify and rule and bind this country. ‘The nuclear weapon of politics’ as the President of Russia puts it, the cultural mechanism of a new type of authoritarianism far subtler than twentieth-century strains. And as a TV producer I would be directed right into the center of its workings.”
The author highlights real stories plaguing young Russian women which were stirring as well as enlightening. One story involves an academy for gold diggers which Peter himself used as a resource to cast the Russian rendition of America’s infamous How to Marry a Millionaire. He meets a bunch of young hopefuls realizing that the majority of them came from humble beginnings, were raised without a father figure and are in desperate need for a certain lifestyle in the downtown core of Moscow. The central figure is a young woman named Oliona and her role as a “Tiolki”(cattle) in her search for a “Forbes” (sugar daddy), where for every Forbes there are hundreds of Tiolki in the marketplace. There are also stories of young Russian nationals feeling a disconnect between themselves and their country. Some of the young woman from the Caucasus that have received abuse or racism have turned to prostitution or have become a jihadist, willing to become a “Black Widow” or suicide bomber trying to free the Caucasus from the control of Moscow. They now want the responsibility to take on and bring down the Empire of Mother Russia. How many times have we heard that?
“Dinara skipped up to me with a squeal. She bought me a drink. Her hair was longer. She hadn’t been able to get a proper job or resume her studies. Her face looked puffy.
‘How’s your sister?’
‘Great,’ said Dinara. ‘Great.’
‘Is she still with the Wahhabis?’
‘The nightmare’s passed. I went back home and convinced her to join me here. Thank God, she loves Moscow, she doesn’t want to do jihad any more. Now we work together, we’re both pro-sti-tutes.’
Dinara was delighted. Thank God. A story with a happy ending.”
There is also a story of 1990’s Russia, during a time when every man was a gangster. These notorious vigilantes policed their neighbourhoods and eventually turned to art when it was a publicly known fact that many Russians would use their creativity to mask their delirium. The author highlights a known gangster named Vitaliy who used his embarrassment of his parents small, meaningless lives to become a king of the streets. Vitaliy’s “earned” income gave him the ability to build a career in the movie industry. He hires his fellow brothers in arms as well as himself to star in his films. This section reminded me of Robert De Niro and his old, bloated buddies in Analyze That as they strong arm weak Hollywood actors and directors and take control of the Kraft Services in their Adidas track suites. For Vitaliy, at one time his movies spoke to the nation as a whole, and politicians did their best to put a positive spin while imitating the attitude and look of gangsters, knowing that the people want “happy” stories. There are also examples of unlawful arrests of business owners which lead to bankruptcy for having to pay bribes and legal fees which transformed into corporate/government takeover. This process is simply known to the public as “reiderstvo”. There are also stories involving arsonists hired by bureaucrats and developers to set buildings ablaze to evict homeowners and cash in. One of the more intriguing sections involved a psychological training organization named Rose of the World where the success rate seems to be at best 5% and the suicide rate to be at least 25%. The motto for the young women with mental illness in Russia should be “it’s better to be splintered than shattered”.
“Girls from the Soviet bloc are particularly fragile. Six of the seven countries with the highest suicide rates among young females are former Soviet republics; Russia is sixth in the list, Kazakhstan second. Emile Durkheim once argued that suicide viruses occur at civilizational breaks, when the parents have no traditions, no value systems to pass on to their children. Thus there is no deep-seated ideology to support them when they are under emotional stress. The flip side of triumphant cynicism, of the ideology of endless shape-shifting, is despair.”
This old/new 21st century Russia exists in a state where everyone is a political technologist, everything is related to public relations, everyone has multiple personality disorder. Most people may indicate supreme happiness towards their great leader in fear of repercussions, but internally they now their nations future does not have a positive outlook. The whole book gives the outsider a rare glimpse at the wide-ranging control that the Kremlin have on the nation. Recommended.
“One day we will reach into the cupboard, and reach for our clothes, and they will turn to dust in our hands because they have been eaten by maggots.”