Nothing is true & everything Is possible: the surreal heart of the new Russia by Peter Pomerantsev

Peter Pomerantsev. 2014. Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Public Affairs.

[ OVERVIEW. This is an amazing look at what it is like in Russia these days. There are schools that teach golddiggers how to win the hearts of the new billionaires, Scientology-like religious scams, how any wealthy business owner can be sent to jail until huge bribes are paid, and much more. The most important point is about how the media is controlled by Putin for propaganda purposes in a very clever, sophisticated and surreal way. I have been amused over the years by Putin’s endless photo ops as a strong, macho, James Bond figure, but I’m less amused after reading this book. I thought our the U.S. was just as corrupt as Russia’s when you consider all the fraud in America and no executives in jail (mortgage bubble, credit card scams, etc.). But we have much further to fall and just because we haven’t reached the depths of Russia’s corruption yet, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. In fact, this book makes a good case that this is where we are headed.  

Alice Friedemann ]

[Vitaly was a big time gangster, here is Pomerantsev’s account of his switch to making movies about gangsters]:

The day of his big shoot Vitaly took over a whole market. The scene had the young Vitaly and his gang being busted as they extorted money from the market traders. The traders played themselves, and cops had been hired to play cops. “Isn’t there a problem that you’re working for a gangster today?” we asked the cops. They laughed. “Who do you think we work for anyway?” (The new mayor of Vladivostok was a man nicknamed Winnie-the-Pooh, a mob boss who had previously served time for threatening to kill a businessman.) Vitaly’s set had a cast of hundreds, and it should have been chaos, but I’d never seen a film set so slickly run. His gangster crew was the production team. Who would dare to be late on set when professional killers are running the show? Vitaly was a natural. Cap pulled low, long finger tapping against his mouth, he set up every camera position unerringly. Though there was no script on paper, he never got lost, giving terse, tight instructions to all the players. “It’s just like setting up a heist,” he told me. “Everything’s got to be exact. Not like one of your little documentaries.” Every detail of the clothes, the guns, and the items the market traders were selling had been reproduced just as they were in the late 1980s.

The way Vitaly shot his films was more like a cheesy B-movie than documentary-style realism. Every shot of Vitaly was a glamorous close-up. He wiped his sweaty brow, sighed like a pantomime hero, looked intently into the distance, and escaped death to the sound of the Star Wars sound track. This was how he saw himself, his life, his crimes. All the pain and death he had caused and suffered were viewed by him through the corny music and cloud-machine smoke of a bad action movie.

There’s a little scene that gets played out on the TV channels every week. The President sits at the head of a long table. Along each side sit the governors of every region: the western, central, northeastern, and so on. The president points to each one, who tells him what’s going on in his patch. “Rogue terrorists, pensions unpaid, fuel shortages. . . . ” The governors looked petrified. The president toys with them, pure gangster like Vitaly. “Well, if you can’t sort out the mess in your backyard, we can always find a different governor. . . . ” For a long time I couldn’t remember what the scene reminded me of. Then I realized: it’s straight out of The Godfather, when Marlon Brando gathers the mafia bosses from the five boroughs. Quentin Tarantino used a similar scene when Lucy Liu meets with the heads of the Tokyo Yakuza clans in Kill Bill—it’s a mafia movie trope. And it fits the image the Kremlin has for the President: he is dressed like a mob boss (the black polo top underneath the black suit), and his sound bites come straight out of gangster flicks (“we’ll shoot the enemy while he’s on the shitter . . . ”). I can see the spin doctors’ logic: Whom do the people respect the most? Gangsters. So let’s make our leader look like a gangster; let’s make him act like Vitaly.

One of the areas TNT specializes in is satire. If the USSR drove humor underground and thus made it an enemy of the state, the new Kremlin actively encourages people to have a laugh at its expense: one TNT sketch show is about corrupt Duma deputies who are always whoring and partying while praising each other’s patriotism; another is about the only traffic cop in Russia who doesn’t take bribes—his family is starving and his wife is always nagging him to become “normal” and more corrupt. As long as no real government officials are named, then why not let the audience blow off some steam?

Russia does have elections, but the “opposition,” with its almost comical leaders, is designed and funded in such a way as to actually strengthen the Kremlin: when the beetroot-faced communists and the spitting nationalists row on TV political debating shows, the viewer is left with the feeling that, compared to this lot, the President is the only sane candidate.

Russia does have nongovernmental organizations, representing everyone from bikers to beekeepers, but they are often created by the Kremlin, which uses them to create a “civil society” that is ever loyal to it.

Although Russia does officially have a free market, with mega-corporations floating their record-breaking IPOs on the global stock exchanges, most of the owners are friends of the President. Or else they are oligarchs who officially pledge that everything that belongs to them is also the President’s when he needs it. 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.

How Russian TV channels are structured

On the surface most Russian TV channels are organized like any Western TV station. Independent production companies pitch program ideas at the network in what looks like open competition. But there is a twist. Most of the production companies were either owned or part-owned by the heads of the network and senior execs. They were commissioning for themselves. But as they had a genuine interest in making good shows and gaining ratings, they would create a plethora of companies, each competing against the other and thus improving the quality of ideas. And while the channels themselves pay their taxes and are housed in new office buildings, the production companies, where the real money is made, operate in a quite different world.

Recently I had been cutting a show at one such production company, Potemkin. It was based far away from Moscow’s blue-glass-and-steel center, in a quiet road on an industrial estate. The gray warehouse building where Potemkin was based had no sign, no number on the black metal door. Behind the door was a dirty, draughty, prison-like room where I was met by a bored guard who would look at me each day as if I were a stranger encroaching on his living space. To get to the office I walked down an unlit concrete corridor and turned sharp right, up two flights of narrow stairs, at the top of which was another black, unmarked metal door.

Suddenly I was back in a Western office, with Ikea furniture and lots of twentysomethings in jeans and bright T-shirts running around with coffees, cameras, and props. It could be any television production office anywhere in the world. But going past the reception desk, the conference room, coffee bar, and casting department, you reach a closed white door. Many turn back at this point, thinking they have seen the whole office. But tap in a code and you enter a much larger set of rooms: here the producers and their assistants sit and argue; here the accountants glide around with spreadsheets and solemnity; and here are the loggers, rows of young girls staring at screens as their hyperactive fingers type out interviews and dialogue from rushes. At the end of this office is another door. Tap in another code and you enter the editing suites, little cells where directors and video editors sweat and swear at one another. And beyond that is the final, most important, and least conspicuous of all the inconspicuous doors, with a code that few people know. It leads to the office of the head of the company, Ivan, and the room where the real accounts are kept.

This whole elaborate setup is intended to foil the tax police. That’s who the guards are there to keep out, or keep out long enough for the back office to be cleared and the hidden back entrance put to good use. Whatever measures were taken, the tax police would occasionally turn up anyway, tipped off by someone. When they did we knew the drill: pick up your things and leave quietly. If anyone asks, say you’ve just come in for a meeting or casting.

The first time it happened I was convinced we were about to be handcuffed and sent down for fraud. But for my Russian colleagues the raids were a reason to celebrate: the rest of the day was invariably a holiday as Ivan haggled with the tax police to keep down the size of the payoff. “Only a dozen people work here,” he would say with a wink as they looked around at the many dozens of desks, chairs, and computers still warm from use. Then, I imagine, Ivan would bring out the fake accounts from the front office to support his case, and they would sit down to negotiate.

The officials would look at the fake books, which they knew perfectly well to be fake, and extract fines in line with legislation they knew Ivan did not need to comply with. So everything would be settled, and every role, pose, and line of dialogue would reproduce the ritual of legality. It was a ritual played out every day in every medium-sized businesses, every restaurant, modeling agency, and PR firm across the country.

I once asked Ivan whether all this was necessary. Couldn’t he just pay his taxes? He laughed. If he did that, he said, there would be no profit at all. No entrepreneurs paid their taxes in full; it wouldn’t occur to them. It wasn’t about morality; Ivan was a religious man and paid a tithe in voluntary charity. But no one thought taxes would ever be spent on schools or roads. And the tax police were much happier taking bribes. In any case, Ivan’s profits were already squeezed by the broadcasters. Around 15 percent of any budget went to the guy at the channel who commissioned the programs and part-owned the company.

Since the war in Iraq many were skeptical about the virtue of the West. And then the financial crash undermined any superiority they felt the West might have. All the words that had been used to win the Cold War—“freedom,” “democracy”—seemed to have swelled and mutated and changed their meaning, to become redundant. If during the Cold War Russia gave the West the opposition it needed to unify its various freedoms (cultural and economic and political) into one narrative, now that the opposition has disappeared, the unity of the Western story seems unwound. And in such a new world, what could be wrong with a “Russian point of view?

It took a while for those working [in Russian TV] to sense something was not quite right, that the “Russian point of view” could easily mean “the Kremlin point of view,” and that “there is no such thing as objective reporting” meant the Kremlin had complete control over the truth. Once things had settled down it turned out that only about 200 of the 2,000 or so employees were native English speakers. They were the on-screen window dressing and spell-checkers of the operation. Behind the scene the real decisions were made by a small band of Russian producers. In between the bland sports reports came the soft interviews with the President. (“Why is the opposition to you so small, Mr. President?” was one legendary question.)

During the Russian war with Georgia, Russia Today ran a banner across its screen nonstop, screaming: “Georgians commit genocide in Ossetia.” Nothing of the kind had been, or would ever be, proven. And when the President will go on to annex Crimea and launch his new war with the West, Russian TV (RT) will be in the vanguard, fabricating startling fictions about fascists taking over Ukraine. But the first-time viewer would not necessarily register these stories, for such obvious pro-Kremlin messaging is only one part of Russian Television’s output. Its popularity stems from coverage of what it calls “other,” or “unreported,” news. Julian Assange, head of WikiLeaks, had a talk show on RT. American academics who fight the American World Order, 9/11 conspiracy theorists, anti-globalists, and the European Far Right are given generous space.


The theater that evening was showing a performance of Nord Ost, a musical set in Stalin’s Russia. It was Russia’s first musical. The terrorists came onto the stage during a love aria. They fired into the air. At first many in the audience thought the terrorists were part of the play. When they realized they weren’t, there were screams and a charge for the doors. The doors were blocked off already by Black Widows with explosives wired between their bodies and the doors. The men on the stage ordered the audience back into their seats; anyone who moved would be executed. The Moscow theater siege had begun; it would last four nights.

The hostages were losing hope. The terrorists demanded the President pull all federal forces out of the North Caucasus. The Kremlin had said there was no way it would negotiate: the President’s credibility was based on quelling the rebellion in Chechnya. In the late 1990s, when he was still prime minister, he had been transformed from gray nobody to warrior by the Second Chechen War, suddenly appearing in camouflage sharing toasts with soldiers on the front. The war had been launched after a series of apartment buildings had been bombed in mainland Russia, killing 293 people in their homes. Nowhere, nowhere at all, had seemed safe.

At 5:00 a.m. on the fourth night of the siege, special forces slipped a fizzing, mystery anesthetic blended with an aerosol spray gas into the ventilation system of the theater. A gray mist rose through the auditorium. The Black Widows were knocked out instantly, slouching over and sliding onto the floor. The hostages and hostage-takers all snored. Barely a shot was fired as special forces, safe from the fumes in gas masks, entered. All the Chechens were quickly killed. The soldiers celebrated the perfect operation. The darkness around me was lit up with the spotlights of news crews reporting a miracle of military brilliance. The medics moved in to resuscitate the audience. They hadn’t been warned about the gas. There weren’t enough stretchers or medics. No one knew what the gas was, so they couldn’t give the right antidotes.

The sleeping hostages, fighting for breath, were carried out, placed face up on the steps of the theater, choking on their tongues, on their own vomit. I, and a thousand TV cameras, saw the still-sleeping hostages dragged through cold puddles to city buses standing nearby, thrown inside any which way and on top of each other. The buses pulled past me, the hostages slumped and sagging across the seats and on the wooden floor, like wasted bums on the last night bus. Some 129 hostages died: in the seats of the auditorium, on the steps of the theater, in buses. The news crews reported a self-inflicted catastrophe. The Nord Ost theater siege, this terror-reality show—in which the whole country saw its own sicknesses in close-up, broadcast on live TV; saw its smirking cops, its lost politicians desperate for guidance not knowing how to behave; saw Black Widows, somehow pitiable despite their actions, elevated to prime-time TV stars; saw victories turn to disasters within one news flash—was when television in Russia changed. No longer would there be anything uncontrolled, unvetted, un-thought-through. The conflict in the Caucasus disappeared from TV, only to be mentioned when the President announced the war there was over, that billions were being invested, that everything was just fine, that Chechnya had been rebuilt, that tourism was booming, that 98% of Chechens voted for the President in elections, and that the terrorists had been forced out to refuges in the hills and forests. When someone from the Caucasus appears on television now, it’s usually as entertainment, the butt of jokes like the Irish are for the English. But despite all the good news from the Caucasus, Black Widows still make it up to Moscow with rhythmic regularity. Over time their profile has changed: they are less likely to be the wives or daughters of those killed in the war in Chechnya.


Often you find all the styles compiled into one building. A new office center on the other side of the river from the Kremlin starts with a Roman portico, then morphs into medieval ramparts with spikes and gold-glass reflective windows, all topped with turrets and Stalin spires. The effect is at first amusing, then disturbing. It’s like talking to the victim of a multiple personality disorder: Who are you? What are you trying to say? Increasingly new skyscrapers recall the Gotham-gothic turrets of Stalin architecture. Triumph-Palace, briefly Europe’s tallest apartment building, is a copy of the Stalinist “seven sisters.” Long before the city’s political scientists started shouting that the Kremlin was building a new dictatorship, the architects were already whispering: “Look at this new architecture, it dreams of Stalin. Be warned, the evil Empire is back.” But the original Stalin skyscrapers were made of granite, with grand mosaics and Valhalla halls leading to small, ascetic apartments. The new ones try to be domineering but come across as camp; developers steal so much money during construction that even the most VIP, luxury, elite of the skyscrapers crack and sink ever so quickly. That unique Moscow mix of tackiness and menace.

It should be untouchable. But the tremors of drill and demolition ball only become more frenzied with every meter closer you get to the Kremlin. Property prices are measured by distance from Red Square: the aim is to build your office or apartment as close to the center of power as possible, the market organized by a still feudal social structure defined by needing to be within touching distance of the tsar, the general secretary of the Communist Party, the President of the Russian Federation. The country’s institutions—oil companies, banks, ministries, and courts—all want to crowd around the Kremlin like courtiers. This means the city is almost destined to destroy itself; it can’t grow outward, so every generation stomps on the heads of previous ones. Over a thousand buildings have been knocked down in the center so far this century, with hundreds of officially “protected” historic monuments lost. But the new buildings meant to replace them often stand dark and empty; property is the most effective money laundering scheme, making money for members of the Moscow government who give contracts to their own development companies, for the agents who sell the buildings to the nameless and faceless Forbeses, who need some way to stabilize their assets. A small crowd has gathered near the building site on Gnezdnikovsky. They put candles and flowers on the pavement in a little gesture of lament. These flash mobs mourning the death of old Moscow have become more frequent.

On the corner of Pakrovka three plump women who look like schoolteachers or doctors patrol an art nouveau apartment block, surrounded by their Labradors. They squint aggressively as we approach, then relax and greet Mozhayev when they see him. These little vigilante gangs have become common in Moscow, protecting not from burglars but from developers, who send arsonists to set buildings ablaze, then use the fire as an excuse to evict homeowners by claiming the houses are now fire hazards. The motivation is great: property prices rose by over 400 percent in the first decade after 2000. So these fires have become habitual in Moscow. Muscovites have taken to patrolling their own buildings at night: gangs of doctors, teachers, grannies, and housewives eyeing every passerby as if he were an arsonist. It’s pointless for them to call the police; the largest groups of developers are friends and relatives of the mayor and the government. The mayor’s wife is the biggest of the lot. The near mythical Russian middle class, suddenly finding they have no real rights at all over their property, can be thrown out and relocated like serfs under a feudal whim.

There isn’t a building that we walk past that wasn’t the scene of execution squads, betrayals, mass murders. The most gentle courtyards reveal the most awful secrets. Around the corner from Potapoffsky is an apartment block where every one of the families had someone arrested during Stalin’s terror. In the basement of what is now a brand new shopping mall was the courtroom where innocent after innocent was sentenced to labor camps, the courts working so fast they would get through two cases inside a minute. And those are just the Stalin years, not even encroaching on the dismal betrayals of later decades, listening at the door of your neighbors’ rooms to report them tuning into the BBC or Radio Free Europe. “Every new regime rebuilds the past so radically,” Mozhayev says as we move back toward Barrikadnaya. “Lenin and Trotsky ripping up the memory of the tsars, Stalin ripping up the memory of Trotsky, Khrushchev of Stalin, Brezhnev of Khrushchev; perestroika gutting the whole Communist century . . . and every time the heroes turn to villains, saviors are rewritten as devils, the names of streets are changed, faces [are] scrubbed out from photographs, encyclopedias [are] re-edited. And so every regime destroys and rebuilds the previous city.” On the corner of Barrikadnaya a little baroque house is pushed out of the way by a constructivist apartment block of the 1920s, in turn dominated by a sneering, Stalin skyscraper, itself now outflanked by the dark glinting tiles of a huge, domed new mall, resembling the tents and spears of Mongol battle camps. And all these buildings seem to push and shove each other out of the way. If areas of London or Paris are built in a similar style—searching for some sort of harmony, memory, identity—here each building looks to stamp and disdain the last, just as every regime discredited the previous.


Whenever twenty-first-century Russian culture looks for a foundation it can build itself from, healthy and happy, it finds the floor gives way and buries it in soil and blood. When the Ostankino channels launch the Russian version of the British TV show Greatest Britons, renamed Name of Russia, it’s meant to be a straightforward PR project to boost the country’s patriotism. The audiences across the nation are to vote for Russia’s greatest heroes. But as the country starts to look for its role models, its fathers, it turns out that every candidate is a tyrant: Ivan the Terrible, founder of Russia proper in the sixteenth century and the first tsar; Peter the Great; Lenin; Stalin. The country seems transfixed in adoration of abusive leaders. When the popular vote starts to come in for Name of Russia, the producers are embarrassed to find Stalin winning. They have to rig the vote so that Alexander Nevsky, a near-mythical medieval warrior knight, born, we think, in 1220, can win. He lived so long ago, when Russia was still a colony of the Mongol Empire between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, that he seems a neutral choice. Russia has to reach outside the history of its own state to find a father figure. But though this was never mentioned in the program, what little evidence there is of his career shows that Nevsky made his name by collecting taxes, quelling and killing other rebellious Russian princelings for his Mongol suzerain. How do you build a history based on ceaseless self-slaughter and betrayal? Do you deny it? Forget it? But then you are left orphaned. So history is rewritten to suit the present. As the President looks for a way to validate his own authoritarianism, Stalin is praised as a great leader who won the Soviet Union the war. On TV the first attempts to explore the past, the well-made dramas about Stalin’s Terror of the 1930s, are taken off screen and replaced with celebrations of World War II. (But while Stalin’s victory is celebrated publicly and loudly, invoking him also silently resurrects old fears: Stalin is back! Be very afraid!) The architecture reflects these agonies. The city writhes as twentyfirst-century Russia searches, runs away, returns, denies, and reinvents itself.

I advise him to take care on the corner where the traffic police like to change the signs from “single lane” to “no way” overnight to catch out drivers and extract their rent—the city is an obstacle course of corruption, and your options are to get angry or play up and play the game and just enjoy it.

A Muscovite measures out his life in jams, the day’s success or failure judged by how many hours you spend in traffic. They have become the city’s symbol. The only way to relieve the city would be to move financial and government centers out of the inner rings of town. But that would be out of keeping with the feudal instincts of the system. So the traffic becomes the expression of the stalemate at the center of everything: on the one hand the free market means everyone can own a car, but on the other all the cars are in jams because of the underlying social structure. The siren-wielding, black (always black), bullet-proof Mercedeses of the big, rich, and powerful are free to drive against the flow of traffic, speed through the acid sludge, driven by modern-day barons who live by different rules. The sirens are the city’s status symbol, awarded like knighthoods to the most loyal bureaucrats, businessmen, and film directors (or for a certain price).

“Don’t worry, my brother,” he tells me, “we’ll clean the streets of all the filth, all the darkies, the Muslims and their dirty money. Holy Russia will rise again.” One bumps into these types occasionally, Eurasianists, Great Russians, holy neo-imperialists, and the like, few but quietly supported by the Kremlin to have a mouthpiece through which to keep the conversation away from corruption and focused on fury at foreigners (the Kremlin isn’t keen to say these words itself).

Military Service

I pass through the station and head for the St. Petersburg train and my latest story—about mandatory military service, the great initiation into Russian manhood. Every April and October the color khaki seems to suddenly sprout on the streets as bands of young soldiers appear in the cities; skinny, in uniforms either too large or small, with pinched red noses and red ears, scowling at the gold-leaf restaurants. They hang around at the entrances of metro stations where the warm air gusts up from the underground, shiver while sucking on tepid beer on street corners of major thoroughfares. They come shuffling upstairs and knocking on apartment doors and stalk through parks. It’s the time of year of Russia’s great annual hide and seek; the soldiers have been given orders to catch young men dodging the draft and force them to join the army.

Military service might be mandatory for healthy males between 18 and 27, but anyone who can avoids it. The most common way out is a medical certificate. Some play mad, spending a month at a psychiatric clinic. Their mothers will bring them in: “My son is psychologically disturbed,” they will say. “He has been threatening me with violence, he wakes up crying.” The doctors of course know they are pretending, and the bribe to stay a month in a loony bin will set you back thousands of dollars. You will never be forced to join up again—the mad are not trusted with guns—but you will also have a certificate of mental illness hanging over you for the rest of your career.

Other medical solutions are more short term: a week in the hospital with a supposedly injured hand or back. This will have to be repeated every year, and annually the hospitals fill up with pimply youths simulating illness. But the medical route takes months of preparation: finding the right doctor, the right ailment—because the ailments that can get you off change all the time. You turn up at the military center with the little stamped registration card that your mother has spent months organizing and saving for, then find that this year flat feet or shortsightedness are no longer a legal excuse.

If you’re at a university you avoid military service (or rather you fulfill it with tame drills at the faculty) until you graduate. There is no greater stimulus for seeking a higher education, and Russian males take on endless master’s degree programs until their late twenties. And if you’re not good enough to make it into college? Then you must bribe your way into an institution; there are dozens of new universities that have opened in part to service the need to avoid the draft. And the possibility of the draft makes dropping out of college much more dangerous—the army will snap you up straightaway. When the bad marks come in, mothers start to fret and scream at their sons to work harder. And when they can see the boys might fail, it’s time to pay another bribe, to make sure they pass the year. But there are a certain number of pupils the teacher has to fail to keep up appearances, and the fretting mothers start to put out feelers for the most desperate and most expensive remedy: the bribe to the military command. The mothers come to the generals, beat and weep on the doors of the commanders, cry about their sons’ freedoms (money by itself is not always enough; you have to earn the emotional right to pay the bribe).

But all these options are only available for those with money and connections. For the others, for the poorer ones, it’s hide and seek time. The soldiers will grab anyone who looks the right age and demand his documents and letters of exemption, and if he doesn’t have them march him off to the local recruitment center. So the young spend their time avoiding underground stops or hiding behind columns and darting past when they see the soldiers are flirting with girls or scrounging cigarettes off passersby. You see teens sprinting through the long, dark marble corridors of the subway as cops give chase.

When soldiers come by apartments, potential conscripts pretend they are not there, barricading themselves in, holding their breath until the soldiers go away. The soldiers eventually get tired and leave, but from now on every time you have your documents checked by police you will be trembling that they might ring through and see whether you dodged the draft. And every time you go into the subway, every time you cross a main road, every time you meet friends near a cinema, any time you leave your little yard, life becomes full of trepidation. And you will live semi-illegally until you are 27, unable to register for an official passport and thus unable to travel outside of the country. This is the genius of the system: even if you manage to avoid the draft, you, your mother, and your family become part of the network of bribes and fears and simulations; you learn to become an actor playing out his different roles in his relationship with the state, knowing already that the state is the great colonizer you fear and want to avoid or cheat or buy off.

Those too poor, too lazy, or too unlucky to avoid the draft—or those for whom the army seems a better option than anything they have—are rounded up, stripped, shaved, and packed off to bases all across the country.

Where he will be sent depends on the bribe a soldier pays. Some will go to Chechnya, to Ossetia, to the death zones everyone dreads. But if you pay in time, you’ll avoid those. What no one will be safe from is hazing, known in Russia as the “law of the grandfather”: dozens of conscripts are killed every year, hundreds commit suicide, and thousands are abused. Those are just the official statistics.

This is why every mother wants to keep her son away from the army. New conscripts are known as “spirits.” And as the tarpaulin-covered trucks pass through the gates of the army bases, the conscripts will hear the shouts of the older officers waiting for them: “Hang yourselves, spirits, hang yourselves!” they call. And the great breaking-in begins. The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, an NGO run by the mothers of conscripts past and present, is the refuge “spirits” flee to when they run away from camp.

In the office of the Soldiers’ Mothers the walls are lined with photographs of dead soldiers. I’ve come to interview four 18-year-olds who have recently fled from a nearby base called Kamenka. They are desperate to prove they didn’t just run away because of common hazing, that they’re loyal, tough. They seem embarrassed by having to take shelter with fifty-year-old women.

“You get beaten up, that’s fine. I pissed blood but that didn’t scare me,” says one, the skinniest. “Stools broken over your head. It’s good for you,” echoes another. “They put a gas mask over your face, then force you to smoke cigarettes while you do push-ups. If you get through that you’re a real man.” “I’m not red, . . . ” they all repeat.

“You need discipline. But what happens at Kamenka has nothing to do with discipline.” “The ‘grandfathers’ beat you to extort money, not because they want to make a soldier out of you.” The conscripts spend most of their time repairing and repainting military vehicles, which are then sold on the sly by Kamenka’s command. The “spirits” are essentially used as free labor.

The boys had run away after a night of nonstop beatings. The “grandfathers” had been drinking all day, and then at night they began to whack the boys with truncheons. The commanding officer came by but did nothing; commanding officers need the help of the “grandfathers” in their larger corruption schemes and let them have their fun. They go to great lengths to cover up for the “grandfathers.

“In one week, the Soldiers’ Mothers told me, five “spirits” at Kamenka had their spleens beaten to a pulp. The commanders couldn’t take the “spirits” to a normal hospital; too many questions would be asked. So they had to take them privately, paying 40,000 rubles (over $1,000) for each operation. At 6:00 a.m. the “grandfathers” told the “spirits” they needed to each bring 2,000 rubles ($50) by lunchtime or they would kill them. One of the conscripts, Volodya, had decided to make a run for it. He slipped through the fence and made it to the road. His father had picked him up and brought him here.


Another director is shooting a film about a man in Ekaterinburg who was beaten nearly to death by traffic cops when he refused to pay a bribe; now he exacts his vengeance by catching traffic cops giving bribes on video and posting them online.

The victims I meet never talk of human rights or democracy; the Kremlin has long learned to use this language and has eaten up all the space within which any opposition could articulate itself. The rage is more inchoate: hatred of cops, the army. Or blame it all on foreigners.

Some teens, the anarchists and artists, have started to gather and protest, rushing out of the metro and cutting off the roads and the main squares. They call their gatherings “Monstrations” and carry absurdist banners: “The sun is your enemy.” “We will make English Japanese.” “Eifiyatoloknu for president.” The only response to the absurdity of the Kremlin is to be absurd back. An art group called Vojna (“War”) are the great tricksters of the Monstration movement: running through the streets and kissing policewomen; setting cockroaches loose in a courtroom; projecting a skull and crossbones onto the parliament building.


Just as I feel I’m on a roll, my little corridor is cut off. “We’re sorry, Peter,” my producers tell me at TNT, “we’ve been told to stop making . . . ‘social’ films. You understand. . . . ” They look a little uncomfortable when they say this. I’m uncomfortable for their discomfort, and I find myself nodding. Of course I understand. I have learned to pick things up on the edge of a hint. I don’t ask “why.” I don’t argue that ratings should be our priority. There are unspoken walls. The Kremlin wave of cleaning things up has finished. The 2008 financial crisis in the West has lowered the oil price, and there’s less money for the Kremlin to indulge in toying with reforms. We need calm now. The economy is curdling.

As I am coming out of TNT toward evening, the neon lamps on the sushi bars are already lighting up dark mountains of dirty acid sludge: the chemicals the city puts in grit burn the paws of stray dogs. You can hear them whimper as they huddle by the warm pipes along the buildings. Two pork-faced cops, whom Muscovites have taken to calling “werewolves in uniform,” patrol the corner. I try not to gawk and walk past in the Moscow style, face down and furious. The main thing is not to catch their eye—one of my many registrations has expired. But they can still smell the fear on me—belching out the phrase that is their mark of power: “Documents: Now!” I know the script. They shepherd me toward the darkness of a courtyard. Then comes the ultimate Moscow transaction, the slipping of the bribe, a 500-ruble note already placed that morning among the pages of my passport (the rate has been going up as the economy worsens). But never offer money directly. Paying bribes requires a degree of delicacy. Russians have more words for “bribe” than Eskimos do for “snow.


Grigory began by making his own computers. They sold well. Soon he had a team of other students working with him. Got involved with banking. Then came the new world of threats, bodyguards. At the parties, people would whisper he was lucky to have made it through alive. “The worst is when people owe you money,” Grigory told me once as we drove through the woods outside of Moscow in a new, silver, sports car. “As long as you owe them, they’ll never kill you. But if they owe you they’d rather kill than pay. I dream of being able to go outside without bodyguards. A normal life.


The Rose of the World wasn’t the first sect I had encountered in Russia. As the Soviet Union had sunk, so sects had bubbled to the surface. Indeed, it was the Kremlin that had given them an impetus, via the power of Ostankino. In 1989 a new show appeared on Soviet TV. Instead of the usual ballet and costume dramas, the audience suddenly saw a close-up of a man with 1970s porn star looks, black hair, and even blacker eyes. He had a very deep voice. Slowly and steadily and repeatedly he instructed the viewer to breathe deeply, relax, breathe deeply. “Close your eyes. You can cure cancer or alcoholism or any ailment with the power of thought,” he said. This was Anatoly Kashpirovsky. He was a professional hypnotherapist who had prepared Soviet weight-lifting teams for the Olympics. He had been brought to late Soviet TV to help keep the country calm and pacified. To keep people watching TV while everything went to shit.

His most famous lecture involved asking the audience at home to put a glass of water in front of their TV sets. Millions did. At the end of the program Kashpirovsky told the audience the water was “charged with healing energy” from his through-the-screen influence. Millions fell for this. But Kashpirovsky was only the beginning.

There was Grabovoy, who had a show on television and claimed he could raise the victims of Chechen terror attacks from the dead; there was Bronnikov, who claimed he had found a way of making the blind see with an inner vision. The sect the TNT personnel were referring to when they mentioned “communes in Siberia” was that of Vissarion, a former postal worker from Krasnodar who became convinced he was the returned Christ. In the 1990s he had founded a colony in the mountains near the border with Mongolia: “The Abode of Dawn City.” It’s still there.

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2 Responses to Nothing is true & everything Is possible: the surreal heart of the new Russia by Peter Pomerantsev

  1. LJR says:

    Surely you don’t believe this crap! I was starting to have some respect for your views.

    • energyskeptic says:

      I’m open to other information – what specifically does Pomerantsev say in his book that you feel is crap? Please provide references, this is not an opinion-based forum, but a place where I try to draw on peer-reviewed and other high-quality references.