“It’s like the West reflected in a crooked mirror.” There are many that will argue – and sometimes with good cause – that the West itself is crooked enough, but the Russia of Pomerantsev’s book is more than a flawed attempt to meet an impracticable ideal: it is a cynical parody intended to foster an illusion of that ideal. And so, what on the face of it are fair and free elections, political diversity, free trade, free speech and civil rights, are in reality the stage-managed theatre of a one-party state, where bribery and corruption are not merely rife but established protocol, and honest citizens can still find themselves the playthings of Kafkaesque and implacable powers.
Is this a fair portrait of modern Russia? I have absolutely no idea, and am not really in a position to judge. Whatever the case, the book itself is fascinating. Soviet-born, Pomerantsev was raised and educated in England and Germany, returning to Russia as an adult to work in the television industry as a documentary film-maker. It is this insight – of someone at once both insider and outsider – that gives the book its interest and authenticity. As a good documentarian, Pomerantsev mostly allows the stories to speak for themselves – and what stories they are: the beautiful young hopefuls attending the training school for gold diggers, hoping to bag a rich “Forbes”; the celebrity (possibly ex-) gangster, now turned movie-maker and novelist; the legitimate businesswoman, caught in the crossfire between warring oligarchs, imprisoned for selling newly “illegal” cleaning products; the tragic supermodel ensnared in a sinister “human potential” cult; and, as if manipulating and orchestrating them all, the Svengali-like spin doctor, applying the doctrines of postmodernism to the dark arts of political propaganda.
While the book can be read and enjoyed on this level – as a Jon Ronson or Louis Theroux style documentarian’s journey through some weird cultural underworld – it is more than that, as Pomerantsev attempts to diagnose the factors that have created the twisted reality show that Russia has become, a political and cultural hall of mirrors, where nothing is held to be true, and so anything is possible. As I say, this is his view, but it is one that he presents with a fine, almost poetic sensitivity – whatever the truth may be.
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