Review: Russian-born Producer Takes Readers Through The Looking Glass

Russia has been in the news for the last few years but mostly in terms of election interference, the war in Ukraine, or climate change.  Information about what the country is really like doesn’t seem to interest journalists or their editors.

Luckily for us, Russian-born TV producer Peter Pomerantsev has done a deep dive about his experience making documentaries there and meeting people from aspiring small town models to obscenely powerful oligarchs.  Nothing is True and Everything Is Possible examines a country that shifts like a kaleidoscope on steroids as its leaders stealthily fight for global supremacy and tens of billions of dollars illegally slosh through its economy in often unchartable ways.  A country that seems to have lost its mind in the rush to grab wealth wherever it can.

One thing you can count on with today’s Russia is insane impermanence, especially in Moscow. The city itself is in a perpetual paroxysm of building and rebuilding, and the author’s descriptions of those changes are so memorable. “Whole swathes of town are demolished in fits of self-destruction, wastelands abandoned for years and for no apparent reason, skyscrapers erupting before there are any roads leading to them and then left empty in the dirty snow.”

This re-invention frenzy dwarfs anything that Americans have experienced. People become wealthy there with the speed of light and for “its new heroes, life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable.”   The whole book captures the bizarre reality that has taken hold of Russia and squeezed it dry, while making some people so desperate to feel positive that they’re hypnotized by TV charlatans and self-help cult leaders.

Corruption and bribery rule in every sphere of life, whether getting a driver’s license or snagging exemptions from being drafted into the army.  That’s simply how things get done.  But one of the most egregious examples is the Sochi Olympics.  Those games cost tens of billions more than the previous Olympics–the extra money just drifted away.

That’s what seems to happen across the country with one venture after another, and much of that money has been buying real estate, soccer teams, fabulous art, and companies in London and all across Europe.  Rapacious, dangerously charming Russians seem to have colonized that city, appearing as brash arrivistes but slowly becoming “classy” and moving on from plush city addresses to country estates.

Deep Russian paranoia is stoked by state-controlled media that makes Fox TV seem as anodyne as a chirpy Hallmark greeting card. Against an apocalyptic backdrop, it constantly warns viewers against “Gay-Europa,” Western fascists and the CIA infesting Ukraine, Western plans for genocide against Russia, and “American-sponsored fascists crucifying Russian children on the squares of Ukrainian towns.”

That media machine has produced weeping women who testified to those appalling horrors.  Of course they were fake. It’s all fake news meant to keep the government in power and hide the reality of corruption so widespread that you can’t say it permeates the state. It is the state.

The author notes that the Kremlin “has finally mastered the art of fusing reality TV and authoritarianism to keep the great, 140-millionm-strong population entertained, distracted, constantly exposed to geopolitical nightmares, which if repeated enough times can become infectious.”

You have to wonder if this is a warning to readers that the same thing could happen in Western countries, perhaps with less drama and less notice–because who could imagine it possible?

Lev Raphael  has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and many other media outlets since the mid-1990s.

 

 

Travels Through Europe’s Heart of Darkness

I was born in New York City to immigrant parents, and when I was young, the question “Where do your parents come from?” wasn’t an easy one to answer.

My father had grown up in the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia which had different names over the course of his youth: Subcarpathian Ruthenia, Carpathian Ruthenia, and the Carpatho-Ukraine. But it didn’t belong there anymore. It had been absorbed by the Ukraine and was now part of the USSR.

Some people didn’t even seem to know where Czechoslovakia was, anyway. Now of course, it’s not on the map at all, having split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The city my mother grew up in northeastern Poland was Wilno, but as Vilnius, it was the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. In her years there as a child and a young woman before the Holocaust, it had been variously part of Russia, Poland, Lithuania–but for the majority of those interwar years a Polish city. It had also twice been invaded and ruled by the Germans.

Both my parents spoke a bewildering array of languages and lived in borderlands, as Pulitzer-winning author Anne Applebaum calls them in her dazzling travelogue Between East and West.

Armed with fluent Polish and Russian, the author records amazing interviews and fascinating, lost history as she travels from the Baltic to the Black Sea, visiting almost two dozen cities like Odessa and Minsk whose names are well known in the West. But she mainly stops at smaller cities and towns who have been pinballed over the centuries, swept up in endless wars, invasions, and border changes. En route, she also traverses some areas of Eastern Europe likely unknown to most Americas, each with its own dramatic, many-layered history: Ruthenia, Bukovyna, Moldova.

Some cities have been crushed by neglect, Sovietization, bombing—or all three. Others seem like lost jewels. Everywhere she goes, people from peasants to professors open up to her to reveal contradictory identifications. Russian speakers across these lands, for example, might think of themselves as Ruthenian, Polish, or Ukrainian. The locales she travels through have known immense suffering and chaos, and many of her interviewees come across as shipwrecked. Best of all, her grasp of complicated history in every location is faultless. She’s as observant, canny, and in command of le mot juste and just the right quote or anecdote s Rebecca West was in her masterpiece about the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Here she is in discussion with a fascinating Ukrainian linguist with a Turkish surname who tells her he feels like an outsider in his own country:

“And that, he said, was the most Ukrainian thing of all: to read the history of your country as if you were reading it through an outsider’s eyes. It is the fate or borderland nations always to know yourself through the stories or other, to realize yourself only with the help of others.”

Between East and West is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking travelogues I’ve read in years—and vitally important cultural/historical background now that places like Crimea and the eastern Ukraine keep blasting into the news.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, A Novel of the Gilded Age, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.