- - Wednesday, January 28, 2015


By Peter Pomerantsev

PublicAffairs, $25.99, 239 pages

What Viennese wits used to say about the dying Austro-Hungarian Empire also applies to the corruption-stoked, smoke-and-mirrors world of Vladimir Putin’s Russia: “The situation is hopeless but not serious.” By the time you reach Page 131 of Peter Pomerantsev’s brilliant collection of sketches from the life in 21st century Russia you may find yourself echoing the lament of one of its more sympathetic characters (“Grigory,” an unusually bright, relatively cultivated member of the new class of Russian entrepreneur-tycoons): “There must be some way of working out how to make Russia work. Must be!”

But is there? Grigory is far from the first person to express the hope, but it remains a forlorn one at best. Making Russia work was the obsession that drove Peter the Great’s brutal attempt to “westernize” his vast but backward empire at the dawn of the 18th century. He succeeded in grafting superficial western forms in fields like art, architecture, engineering and military technology — especially the latter — onto the oriental despotism he inherited and expanded. Armed with these aspects of technical modernity, the Russian autocracy grew stronger, not weaker. Under czars, commissars and post-Soviet dictators, it has remained an essentially oriental despotism: a society that contains millions of decent men and women with courage and civilized values, but that is still tightly controlled out of the same Kremlin that once housed Ivan the Terrible and Josef Stalin.

If Peter the Great was the first Russian leader to harness western know-how to autocratic ends, Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship has mastered the use of state-of-the-art Western media and pop culture techniques to manipulate today’s Russians. Mr. Pomerantsev, with Russian emigre roots and a professional background in television production, is uniquely qualified to describe the results. As he explains in his introduction, with a country that covers nine time zones and one-sixth of the world’s land mass, “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,” television is the only force that can “unify and rule and bind this country. It’s the central mechanism of a new type of authoritarianism, one far subtler than twentieth-century strains.”

Mr. Pomerantsev’s specialty was producing documentaries and “reality” television that adapted American, British and other western forms to fit a Russian audience. He has some interesting observations to make on what worked and what didn’t. One of the networks he dealt with tried to remake Western reality shows like “The Apprentice.” But the Russian versions flopped. Why? Mr. Pomerantsev has a plausible answer:

The premise for most Western shows is what we in the industry call “aspirational”: Someone works hard and is rewarded with a wonderful new life. The show celebrates the outstanding individual, the bright extrovert. But in Russia that type ends up in jail or exile. Russia rewards the man who operates in the shadows, the gray apparatchik — the shows that worked here were based on a different set of principles. By far the biggest success was “Posledny Geroi” (“The Last Hero”), a version of “Survivor,” a show based on humiliation and hardship.

But this book is about much more than what appears on Russian television. Many of Mr. Pomerantsev’s most powerful, moving — and sometimes hilarious — pages are devoted to stories and characters that ended up on the cutting room floor. Consider this “Tale of Two Sisters,” the daughters of schoolteachers in Dagestan, the primarily Muslim Russian “republic” next to Chechnya. The author meets one of them, “Dinara,” while filming a short-lived reality show. She had come to Moscow to study, failed her entrance exams, and then became a prostitute. Meanwhile, back in Dagestan, Dinara’s younger sister “had started to wear a head scarf and talked incessantly about jihad, about freeing the Caucasus from Moscow’s yoke, about a caliphate stretching from Afghanistan to Turkey … .”

Some time later, Mr. Pomerantsev bumps into Dinara again and asks if her sister is “still with the Wahhabis (Sunni fundamentalists)?” “The nightmare has passed,” Dinara replies. “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 prostitutes.”

And that, unfortunately, is about as close to a happy ending as you will get in the strange, surreal world of the “New” Russia Mr. Pomerantsev so masterfully evokes.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts, and is a contributing editor to The National Interest.

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