Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
Little Blue Flame was a hugely popular variety show on Soviet television. Its New Year special was an extravaganza that featured all kinds of stars. But the countdown to midnight was a fake. The show was filmed far in advance.
Everybody knows that such gentle fakery is nothing unusual, and that logistics make it unavoidable. After all, the televised Easter service at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge is filmed in darkest December, when the TV crews are conveniently in place for the Christmas festivities.
But in Putin-era Russia, claims Peter Pomerantsev, deception defines almost every public display, almost every political, cultural, and economic transaction. This is a place in which ‘nothing is true and everything is possible’.
It’s a place in which the president, bureaucrats, businessmen, secret police, traffic cops, and every ordinary person who pays a bribe or looks the other way is implicated in a monumental, interconnected lie.
Pomerantsev’s dissident-inclined parents emigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, but he came back, spending almost a decade in Putin-era Moscow, working in the television industry. In his gripping new book, he writes about the character-driven stories that he filmed, such as the fashion models who committed suicide, the gangster who wrote novels, the small businesswoman who was jailed on bizarre trumped-up charges. Each tragedy is the consequence of society-wide dishonesty and corruption.
Drawing on family lore, Pomerantsev makes a connection between late Soviet life and the Russian present to explain how, nowadays, ‘nothing is true’. He contends that people were constantly forced to dissemble in the Soviet Union, to put on different faces in different situations. Most people could make coherent sense of their lives, but their accumulation of dishonesty was corrosive. Its aftershock has obliterated the public sphere in today’s Russia.
But the ability to dissemble and put on different faces is a requirement of survival in any modern society. It almost defines how human beings coexist. In Russia, more significant than this apparent line of continuity is what changed after the 1980s.
After 1991, real ideology disappeared completely from public life (present-day official nationalism is entirely synthetic). Also after 1991, key institutions of law and social consensus, which might before have been weak but were certainly not absent, crumbled. As a result, there was nothing left to control elites. When elites are not restrained, they are always likely to be rapacious — everywhere. And certainly in Russia, where the long view of Russia’s tortuous history of property relations can tell us quite a lot about what is happening today.
Pomerantsev writes with weary, anxious affection about his parents’ native country. No doubt, some readers will use his stories as fuel for the Russophobic fire. But when someone can write as brilliantly as this about Russia, we might for a moment put aside our fears and be optimistic about 2015. Happy New Year.