Surreality TV

Surreality TV

In his new book, Peter ​Pomerantsev depicts Russia as a place that has descended into a madness fed by the television programs that it itself inspires. But a crucial element is missing.

Inside the studios of Russia Today. (Sergey Melkonov via Flickr)

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia
by Peter Pomerantsev
PublicAffairs, 2014, 256 pp.

Boris Nemtsov, the former Russian deputy prime minister turned opposition politician, liked to remember the moment when he first sensed that Vladimir Putin was not going to be a freedom-loving president. Nemtsov said that Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, always kept a pen on his desk with which he signed numerous laws, decrees, and presidential orders; it was his greatest weapon, and when he handed the presidency to Putin, he also handed him his pen. A few months into the Putin administration, Nemtsov came into the new president’s office to find that the pen was gone; it had been replaced by a remote control. Putin had installed a television across from his desk. “That’s when I knew that there would be problems with freedom of speech,” recalled Nemtsov.

It was not an obvious conclusion—what’s wrong with a little TV? But Nemtsov knew that a president who watches too much television is, at least in Russia, a president who will begin to want to control what the television shows. And Putin did. Long before he arrested financier-turned-oil-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, canceled elections for regional governors, installed a temporary puppet regime in the person of Dmitry Medvedev, or got photographed with his shirt off, Putin went after the independent television channels. He forced the oligarchs who owned them into exile, eventually seizing their stakes in the channels; one of the oligarchs, Vladimir Gusinsky, spent a few nights in jail so he could think about it. Gusinsky’s old channel, NTV, eventually turned into the nastiest, most irresponsible of the major pro-Kremlin channels, whereas another independent channel, TV-6, taken over from the Yeltsin-friendly oligarch Boris Berezovsky, was given over to SportTV. On NTV, Putin could now watch poorly shot police procedurals, anti-opposition “documentaries,” and, late at night, American blockbusters, all from the comfort of his Kremlin desk; on SportTV he could watch Russian hockey, biathlons, and a surprising amount of volleyball.

Since the start of the crisis in Ukraine, Russian television (or the “zombie-box,” as Russians call it) has gone from regime bulwark to regime attack dog. Throughout 2014 the zombie-box stressed the chaos and violence of the Maidan uprising, and then the perfidy (and right-wing ties) of Ukraine’s new government. This narrative has been hugely influential: citizens of eastern Ukraine have cited Russian television reports to explain why they rose up against the government in Kiev, as have Russian soldiers interviewed in Ukraine. If Vladimir Putin started keeping a remote control on his desk because he believed in television’s power to shape the public imagination, in the past year and a half he has seen his faith amply rewarded.

Peter Pomerantsev’s new book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, describes his nearly decade-long tenure as a producer for Russian television. Pomerantsev also describes in detail some of the stories he covered as a producer. He comes to some strong conclusions about what television is doing to Russia (and, perhaps, what ought to be done in response).

A child of Soviet émigrés, Pomerantsev was a recent graduate of film school in London when he decided to come to Moscow in 2001. He didn’t come alone. “I was a stowaway on the great armada of Western civilization, the bankers, lawyers, international development consultants, accountants, and architects who have sailed out to seek their fortune in the adventures of globalization,” he writes. Although by the time he arrived in Russia the initial blush of its love affair with the West had passed, a certain pedigree could still help a man get started. “No matter that I had never been more than a third-rate assistant on other people’s projects; just by whispering ‘I come from London’ could get me any meeting I wanted.” Pomerantsev started working as a producer at TNT. This was not one of the network channels being fought over by the oligarchs and the Kremlin, but (as Pomerantsev readily admits) a second-rate cable channel that specialized in “reality TV.” The term is in quotes because, as Pomerantsev notes, most of the reality shows on the network were actually scripted. In addition to being from London, Pomerantsev had the advantage of wanting to make actual documentary TV. It also helped that TNT, despite its low position on the dial, was owned by Gazprom, whose pockets were deep.

Because it is Russia and because it is television, Pomerantsev’s subjects as a producer, and now the subjects of his book, were bandits and molls. Pomerantsev traveled to the Russian Far East to meet a partly reformed crook who’d fulfilled the dream of Tony Soprano’s nephew Christopher by producing his own home-made gangster television show. (The dialogue and acting were poor, writes Pomerantsev, but the violence sequences were virtuosic.) For a documentary, How To Marry a Millionaire, Pomerantsev interviewed attractive young women whose ambition was to marry rich men. The slang for a rich man, Pomerantsev learned, is “Forbes,” as in, men who might appear on the Forbes magazine list of rich Russians. (The slang for the women is “cattle.”) Since most of the Forbeses are already married, the women who seek to marry them sometimes settle for temporary positions as mistresses. Such arrangements are well-organized: the mistress typically receives a generous stipend (at “the basic Moscow mistress rate,” Pomerantsev writes, of $4,000 a month) and an apartment off Kutuzovsky Prospekt, somewhere between where the Forbes lives and works. The only stipulation is that the mistress not date anyone else. Occasionally a bodyguard will come by to make sure the mistress hasn’t been receiving any guests—but, as one of Pomerantsev’s interviewees tells him, the bodyguard is very nice about it.

These portraits show a society that is drowning in money, mostly from the sale of oil and gas, and doesn’t really know what to do with itself. They also show a society awash in fantasies: the gangster television director believes he is depicting life as it really is, but in fact, because he’s not a good writer, he is depicting a sentimentalized, idealized version of it; the women believe that they are being savvy and selling what they can. Everyone thinks they are putting something over on someone else; in a thoroughly cynical society, this is the last illusion people hold.

Pomerantsev is a sharp and witty observer, and despite his horror at what he sees, he often reads against the grain. “[M]any westerners tell me they think Russians are obsessed with money,” he writes, but

I think they’re wrong: the cash has come so fast, like glitter shaken in a snow globe, that it feels totally unreal, not something to hoard and save but to twirl and dance in like feathers in a pillow fight and cut like papier-mâché into different, quickly changing masks. At 5:00 a.m. the music goes faster and faster, and in the throbbing, snowing night the cattle become Forbeses and the Forbeses cattle, moving so fast now they can see the traces of themselves caught in the strobe across the dance floor. The guys and girls look at themselves and think: “Did that really happen to me? Is that me there? With all the Maybachs and rapes and gangsters and mass graves and penthouses and sparkly dresses?”

The answer, of course, is yes. These are not happy stories. At one point Pomerantsev decides to film a documentary on the suicide of Ruslana Korshunova, a successful runway model from Kazakhstan who threw herself off the ninth floor of her Manhattan apartment in June 2008. Why would someone who was beautiful, and rich, and no longer in Kazakhstan—kill herself? Pomerantsev explores the possibility of foul play, as well as the psychological let-down that occurs when beauty begins to fade. He discovers that Korshunova was friends with Anastasia Drozdova, a fashion model from Kiev who also committed suicide. Eventually he figures out that both of them had joined a “self-improvement” cult called “Rose of the World,” based on the Lifespring movement that had flourished in the United States in the 1970s and was then put out of business by lawsuits from former adherents who had turned into psychological wrecks following their participation. Pomerantsev hires a Moscow acquaintance to go in and take a weekend session with Rose of the World, and this man, too, despite knowing that he’s there on assignment, emerges a psychological wreck. The Rose seminars are based on breaking down a person’s personality in order to, they claim, help him build it up again. But people can become catastrophically addicted to the approval of the men running the seminars. The mystery of the model suicides is solved.

A woman from Kazakhstan, another from Ukraine, and a lifestyle cult imported from America—is this really the surreal heart of the new Russia? Yes and no. The women, though not from Russia, speak Russian and partake of the Russian cultural sphere, which includes not just television but music, films, and social networks. The fact that the cult is imported is also not atypical: much of what ails Russia right now has been imported from America. And there is, finally, another aspect: there is something about the way in which Rose of the World breaks down its adherents psychologically that also seems to describe how Russian television, with its mixture of alarming news, trashy talk shows, and then footage of Vladimir Putin doing something serious and important, disarms and then manipulates its citizenry.

For much of the book, television as such is out of the picture, but Pomerantsev sees illusions and lies everywhere he goes. In the end, television is the great organizer of these illusions. For Pomerantsev, television is not just an important mechanism of the huge Russian state: for all intents and purposes, it is the Russian state. “In Russia,” he writes, “working in television is about more than being a camera, an observer.”

In a country covering nine time zones, one-sixth of the world’s land mass, stretching from the Pacific to the Baltic, from the Arctic to the Central Asian deserts, from near-medieval villages where people still draw water from wooden wells by hand, through single-factory towns and back to the blue glass and steel skyscrapers of the new Moscow—TV is the only force that can unify and rule and bind this country.

At the center of the Russian state, according to Pomerantsev, is neither Putin nor the head of Channel One, but Vladislav Surkov, a longtime adviser to Putin and unofficially his main “political technologist.” The concept of “political technology” was not invented in Russia—U.S. politicians have a whole class of advisers or consultants, like Karl Rove or James Carville, who similarly help craft narratives and then figure out how to disseminate them—but a similar figure in a less robust, more top-down political system like Russia’s has a lot more power. Surkov, who, like many of his American counterparts, started out in advertising (in the 1990s he ran the marketing department for Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s financial empire), has been credited with coining the Orwellian term “sovereign democracy” to describe the special nature of the Russian political system. He is the artistic director of Putin the Strongman and Putin the Savior. More recently, it’s been reported that Surkov is the Kremlin’s point person for the operation in eastern Ukraine. To Pomerantsev, Surkov, who is a lover of American culture (he keeps a photo of Tupac Shakur in his office) and even fancies himself an artist (he is widely believed to have written Almost Zero, a bad novel about a cynical, self-hating Moscow advertising man), embodies the cynicism of the new Russian elite. The elite believes in nothing except its right to power, and is therefore willing—having no alternative—to do just about anything to keep it.

​Pomerantsev depicts Russia as a place that has descended into a kind of madness that is fed by the television programs that it itself inspires. It is a compelling portrait. And it is certainly true, as far as it goes. But I was left feeling uneasy by it, and not just because the entire book is narrated in the present tense. Something was missing.

In the past year, as the Russia-fueled crisis in Ukraine has intensified, American and British analyses of Russia have fallen roughly into two camps. One camp, identified with the mainstream of both Democrats and Republicans as well as most of the mainstream media, is focused primarily on Putin. Putin, this camp argues, out of a feeling of pique, just plain madness, or to shore up his domestic popularity, has decided to seek vengeance against Ukraine by seizing Crimea and fomenting a civil war. This interpretation of Putin has led to the sanctions regime, which at least in its initial phases was highly personalized, targeting primarily the people around Putin, his associates and business partners.

The second camp, which comprises a sometimes uncomfortable alliance of Kissingerian realists and anti-imperial leftists, argues that Russia is responding, however ungraciously, to political and military pressure from the West (in the form of an expanding European Union and NATO). This camp tends to de-emphasize the role of Putin and instead stress geopolitics and Russia’s position as an aspiring great power.

Pomerantsev’s position is more of an elaboration of the first camp’s, rather than a separate position entirely, but it does approach the problem of how to understand Putin’s Russia from a different angle. Putin himself hardly appears in this book, except as the person sitting atop the pyramid of manufactured images and narratives; he is a creature sculpted by Surkov, rather than the other way around. Pomerantsev ends the book by calling for a return to the values that once animated the anti-Soviet dissidents: a belief in the possibility of truth and one’s convictions. Having successfully worked at the second-rate cable channel TNT for years, he is invited to produce a show for Channel One—in Russia, the opportunity of a lifetime. He mulls over the offer, but then turns it down. He returns to London, unwilling to play the game any longer.

But Pomerantsev was not, it turns out, willing to forget about Russia. In numerous articles and op-eds and even congressional testimony around the publication of the book, he has expanded on his insights. He believes that the West doesn’t truly comprehend the Russian threat, especially as it has been enervated by its own doubts. “Sadly,” Pomerantsev wrote in the New York Times, Russia’s radical cynicism “resonates well in a post-Iraq and post-financial-crisis West increasingly skeptical about its own institutions.” The solution is to buck up, remember our universal values, and invest more money in Russian-language programming abroad, which can then be beamed back to the motherland to wake the people out of their slumber.

I describe this sarcastically not so much because I oppose it and not even so much because I get suspicious when someone starts lambasting skepticism (especially such a wonderfully skeptical writer as Pomerantsev!) and longing for universal values. And it’s not even the fact that it’s a little rich for a citizen of the West, the birthplace of advertising, to lecture other countries about their propaganda. It’s more that Russian-language programming seems like a pretty small solution to a much larger problem, and because it threatens to confuse a symptom with the disease. Russian TV is certainly vile propaganda—but that’s all it is, propaganda. And propaganda is something that covers up a situation, or, if you will, the truth. The truth it’s covering up is the failure of Russia’s political system these past thirty years to provide an opportunity for people to develop themselves, and to provide protection to people who are in danger. These are not issues that can be addressed, at least primarily, by television, no matter how truthful. They are issues that need to be addressed by politics.

What’s missing from Pomerantsev’s book, it seems to me, is politics. The problem is not that Russia has finally made some money; the problem is that the money has been unequally distributed. The women that Pomerantsev depicts with a great deal of sympathy—the ones hoping to wed a billionaire, and the ones who’ve given up hoping—aren’t doing it because of some misguided fantasy. They’re doing it because, in a brutal economic situation, it’s their best shot at a financially stable life. To pretend otherwise, and to depict Russia as a place where a battle between truth and lies is being waged—that is to say an ethical or moral rather than a political battle—is to set oneself a trap. Yes, the current Russian elite is filled with nasty characters, people of boundless cynicism, willing to do or say anything to remain in power. But what if they were principled idealists like Yegor Gaidar, the architect of Russia’s failed economic reforms, for whom the battle for ruinous shock therapy policies was also a moral battle against communism? Even if there were a nice or pleasant or even relatively honest version of the current elite, it would still need to be resisted, and defeated, politically. An opponent of the Putin regime may say, “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” But as the Russian left has been saying for years now, it is only when the anti-Putin protest movement begins talking to the millions of people left out of Putin’s economic miracle about their increasingly dire situation that it will finally make some progress.


​When Boris Nemtsov was shot on a bridge directly adjacent to the Kremlin in late February of this year, Russian TV went into its accustomed mode. Nemtsov had essentially been banned from Russian television ever since he had supported the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. But there was no ignoring the fact that he’d been shot. One of the smaller pro-Kremlin channels ran a five-minute segment on the murder. It showed distant security camera footage of the killing as it happened, and took viewers through the footage second by second: two small figures walking along the bridge on a rainy Moscow evening, then a street-cleaning truck passing slowly by them, then a man suddenly running into traffic and getting into a car that has stopped for him, and then the street-cleaning truck moving on to reveal only one figure, still standing. The channel then continued playing the footage as the TV reporter indignantly pointed out that for a while people were walking by the slain Nemtsov “as if nothing had happened.”

So far, so good. But then the reporter listed the various possibilities for the murder. A jealous husband; Islamic extremists who disagreed with his stance on the terrorist attack against the newspaper Charlie Hebdo; “something to do with bond operations”; and “something to do with internal Ukrainian politics.” The thing about these “hypotheses” is that they were on some level plausible. There was no mention of aliens or the CIA or the idea that it was Nemtsov’s liberal allies who killed him so that he would become a martyr, even though these and other theories like them were already being circulated by various pro-Kremlin figures. And there seemed to be genuine anger in the reporter’s narration of people walking by Nemtsov and doing nothing.

At the same time, there wasn’t a word about Nemtsov’s opposition to the Putin regime and especially his very strong stance against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And not a word about the various nationalist and “anti-Maidan” posters and websites that had singled him out as an enemy of Russia. In other words, the report produced a semblance of serious consideration of the subject while leaving all serious considerations out of it. This was much wiser and more confusing than simply hushing it up. And it was entirely typical of the way Russian television covers and, in so covering, distorts the news.

But then something curious happened. A group of men with connections to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov were arrested. In an apparent attempt to deflect blame from himself, Kadyrov suggested that the shooting may have been related to Nemtsov’s (quite measured) comments on the Charlie Hebdo attacks. For a day or two, it seemed like this would be the dominant narrative pushed by the Kremlin. Instead, articles began appearing in different papers questioning the Hebdo story, and suggesting that in fact the shooting was ordered by Kadyrov or by someone in his immediate circle. These stories appeared to be using the Russian security services as a source, and the security services were, no doubt, using the papers to put pressure on the Kremlin to let the investigation continue.

As of this writing, the standoff between Kadyrov and the security services has receded into the background. Nor would anyone call it a hopeful moment: the bandits and torturers from Chechnya versus the racists of the security services does not exactly equal the rebirth of Russian politics. But the lesson of the episode, and previous episodes like it, was that a split among the elites will likely be mirrored in the media. If a true social crisis takes place, there will only be so much that television can do to prop up the regime. In the meantime, friends of Russia need to continue to think, skeptically and seriously, about the political possibilities of the situation. What can be salvaged from the wreckage? Where are the resources for hope? And which mistakes that have been made in recent memory—for example, the insistence on a Manichean worldview that caused many brave anti-Soviet dissidents to embrace whatever the opposite of communism was—can be avoided in the future? Even at a time of hopelessness, when someone counsels us to put away our skepticism in favor of universal values, it may be time to reach for the remote control.

Keith Gessen is a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

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