“We used to have this self-centered idea that Western democracies were the end point of evolution, and we’re dealing from a position of strength, and people are becoming like us. It’s not that way. Because if you think this thing we have here isn’t fragile you are kidding yourself.”
This is attorney Jamison Firestone speaking to Peter Pomerantsev in the book “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible,” a book that chronicles the bizarre, dissociative existence in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Firestone is an American lawyer who was working for a Russian firm when his colleague, Sergey Magnitsky, was killed. Magnitsky’s last task had been a search for a friend’s investments; rumor had it the investments had been taken in a raid by the police after the friend was banned from Russia. Mignitsky was hot on the trail and found Russian police officers illegally signing these investments over to petty thieves.
Magnitsky took his findings to an interview with Bloomberg Business Week. Twelves days later, he was arrested. He was tortured, according to his journal, and died in Russian prison within a year.
“This,” Firestone continued, waving his hands in the air in reference to Western Civilization, “this is fragile.”
“Nothing is True” has become unfortunately timely. With rumors of President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, Russian hacks of the election, and cries of “fake news,” a view of Russia’s reality have become valuable and eerily similar to American reality.
Pomerantsev, who wrote the book as an Englishman working as a TV producer in Russia, gives the reader a view of the country from the inside out and outside in. The characters – including women attending classes to learn how to become gold diggers (a rather large operation in the economically top-heavy Russia), a self-created action star who uses real bullets while filming, and Pomerantsev himself moving through the world of Russia’s state-owned television networks – all have a reckoning that life in Putin’s Russia, or at least the facts of life, can be bent.
One section of the book takes the reader inside RT, a TV network formerly known as Russia Today, where language about and imagery of Putin, the Kremlin, and Russia is carefully curtailed. The network, “Russia’s answer to BBC World and Al-Jazeera,” as Pomerantsev puts it, was set up by a presidential decree and given a $300 million annual budget with the mission of giving “Russia’s point of view on world events.”
“There is no such thing as objective reporting,” a managing editor of RT told Pomerantsev when he asked about the network’s philosophy.
This Russian point of view might not be obvious to viewers on first glance: RT was the first news network to reach 1 billion views on YouTube. The channel featured shows hosted by American news stalwart Larry King, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, and left-wing U.K. broadcaster George Galloway. Producers booked guests like 9/11 conspiracy theorists and American academics looking to fight the American World Order. RT was nominated for an Emmy for its reporting on the Occupy movement.
But then there are the reporters who quit on air. Then there is the coverage that turns away from reality and recorded history, sometimes in real time. The USSR didn’t occupy Estonia in 1945; “We saved Estonia,” RT’s head of news told a young reporter fresh out of Oxford. When forest fires were ravaging Russia and a reporter wrote that Putin was having a hard time, he was chided; “You have to say the President is at the forefront of fighting against the fires.” During the Russian war with Georgia, RT reported that Georgians had committed Genocide in Ossetia. No genocide was ever proven; no evidence was ever seen.
In the world of Russian TV, “reality” in the TV vernacular rules. Gritty dramas, protests, and seemingly hard-hitting news are shown, but they’re always curated with the right, Kremlin-approved twist. Producers continually tell Pomerantsev that they want happy stories. Coverage of suicide bombings and terrorism abruptly stop after a police error kills more than 100 people held hostage by Islamic terrorists. Liberal and dissenting views are seen and heard, but only to let onlookers believe they live in a democracy. Putin regularly wins elections by more than 30 million votes, squashing enemies, opponents, and dissenting views that have potential to be a real threat as early as possible.
“There are traitors everywhere!” “Russia is strong again!” “All the world fears us!” Pomeranstev’s wife’s family tells him near the book’s conclusion. He’s clearly exhausted by the masquerade of Russian life. He’s gone back to live in the U.K., returning to Russia to note a news anchor on TV twirling around to camera 2 to talk about how the West is “sunk in the slough of homosexuality, and only Holy Russia can save the world from Gay-Europa.”
Old colleagues laugh off the “Holy Russia stuff” as PR, but he notes that they’ve also been made to feel as though there are conspiracies everywhere. “Because if nothing is true and all motives are corrupt and no one is to be trusted, doesn’t it meant hat some dark hand must be behind everything?” he asks.
Perhaps there is. The Kremlin switches its messages to climb inside each view as it pleases. Anti-EU messages speak to European nationalists. The far left loves hearing tales of fighting U.S. hegemony. U.S. religious conservatives are drawn to the fight “the slough of homosexuality.” A global audience is won over, slowly, almost without thinking about how or why they were won.
Franklin Foer wrote in the March 2017 issue of The Atlantic that it’s Putin’s world. Trump in the U.S., Farage in the U.K., Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines all see Putin as a shining beacon of hope, a hero. During a 2014 talk, Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has said the “Judeo-Christian West” has to look at what Putin is talking about “as far as traditionalism goes.” The west – his west – is in the midst of a crisis of faith, the church, and capitalism.
“We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” Bannon said, adding that people should “fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
What have we been bequeathed? One gets an uneasy feeling when thinking about what we’ve been given, what we’ve taken, and what has been taken from us, all of us. History is, of course, a mixture of viewpoints and worldviews, not the same for any one person, no matter how much they fall in line behind the strongest, loudest voice. However, there are truths. There is recorded history. Our ancestors have learned lessons repeatedly, only for their children and children’s children to be reminded of the lesson once again, sometimes quite harshly.
What “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible” presented to me was a hearty case for absolute skepticism, no matter the noise being made by the loudest voices. A lesson for learning from the mistakes of history, sometimes very recent history. Groups and identities have become the lynchpin of modern discourse, but the danger I see in this is amorphous process for making decisions, including the decision to stop paying attention or – perhaps even worse – to pay attention to any one given thing, evidence or previous interest be damned. Who is behind the message being driven? Is anything truly grass-rooted, or is there some greater – more powerful, wealthier – force at work?
With that in mind, I’d say read this book and find your own point of view. It’s an endlessly interesting, extremely short (about 239 pages) affair that will, at very least, showcase a weird world through the eyes of a unique person.
“Nothing is True” is a funhouse mirror of the U.S. over the past year. Are we too far gone away from truth to ever get it back? Have the systems we’ve built over decades crumbled; were they ever strong enough in the first place?
It’s all to be seen and, only then, believed. Until then, we must fight to stay skeptical and question even that which seems real. It’s the only way to be sure of what is true and what is a created, curated fiction.