It looks like I’m on a non-fiction bent again. This time it’s Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. It’s a great book in many ways. Pomerantsev is a sharp observer, and he is both critical and empathetic in his observations. The book is non-fiction, but as you read it, you realize that you almost cannot believe all the stuff inside. It reads like an absurdist novel. See this quote:
Sorry, said the dean, though the Institute of Cybernetics was still officially a university, the salaries were so low all the staff were now involved in trading fish.
It’s like an Ilf & Petrov novel. Diamonds sewn into chairs. Douglas Adams comes to mind. Absolutely ridiculous things, and yet I know they are true. I lived in that country. I remember when the whole new class of nouveau riche appeared. There were jokes about dudes trying to outdo each other with money (‘the ashtray in my Mercedes got full, so I bought a new Mercedes’ or ‘you paid $240 for this tie? I got the same one for $350!’-type stuff).
At one point Pomerantsev calls the new Russia ‘the vast scripted reality show’, and a sort of ‘postmodern dictatorship’ (i.e. the country that ‘uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends’). Reality is bent, news is faked, and Russian ‘business’ terms are impossible to express in English when Berezovsky and Abramovich have a showdown in the courtroom:
…historians are called by both sides to explain the meanings of “krysha” (“protection”) and “kydalo” (a “backstabber in business”)…
It might seem like just another book about how bad Putin is, and how corrupt everything is in Russia, but it is a valuable and in many ways unique account. Pomerantsev worked in Russian TV, and that alone allowed him greater access to people and sources. There are many heartbreaking, terrifying, and almost unbelievable stories. This book reminded me of why my parents were so eager to leave the country, and why my father did not want to run a small business there. He left because he knew he could not be successful and honest at the same time.