Peter Pomerantsev is a journalist and long-time Russian television producer. In 2014 he published Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, a series of vignettes about his experiences trying to capture the ethos of contemporary Russia under the “postmodern dictatorship” of Vladimir Putin. A fascinating portrait in its own right, Pomerantsev’s book feels suddenly applicable under the bizarre, fact-free Donald Trump regime. Is the United States on its way to becoming the next Russia?
There are a lot of characters in Nothing is True, and I mean that in at least two senses. Pomerantsev introduces us to a lot of people, and they are wild. Prostitutes, gangsters, bureaucrats, and businessmen – all struggling to get ahead in one of the strangest places on earth. Russia under Putin – who Pomerantsev always references only as “The President” – is a tightly controlled society that is also flush with new money and spun by endless propaganda. You are left with the disorienting sense of being in a place where reality is always flexible and, for the right price, anything can be bought.
There are any number of examples we could consider here, but the one that stuck with me was the story of Yana Yakovleva, a 34-year-old businesswoman who was abruptly arrested at her gym, tried for drug trafficking, summarily convicted, and imprisoned indefinitely, all for selling a chemical used in common household cleaners – a product that was entirely legal and in which her company had specialized since its founding. Pomerantsev describes her hearing:
The prosecutor was another man in a polyester suit.
“Yakoleva is a highly dangerous criminal. She has been hiding from us. We had to hunt her down. She needs to be put under arrest until the trial.”
What had he just said? Hiding? Where? Where had she been hiding? At the gym? At work? What were they talking about? The prosecutor just smiled at her. The judge nodded and repeated what he had said word for word and said no bail was granted. She would await trial in prison. The next hearing would be in two months.
Everything was spinning again. The prosecutor walked up to Yana and whispered, “Bad girl, why did you hide from us?”
Eventually, after tireless effort from her family and their lawyer, Yakoleva is released from prison. But not, importantly, because of their effort. At least not entirely.
Pomerantsev explains that Yakoleva was the victim of a bureaucratic intrigue, launched by an upper-level Putin functionary who was trying to establish his agency, the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency, atop some high-profile busts. To do this, he simply declared several commonly marketed chemicals to be narcotics, and then arrested the people who sold them. Yakoleva was one of these.
Through her family’s efforts, Yakoleva’s case inspired some small-scale protests and a little media coverage – not that this helped.
In Russia you can protest all you like; it won’t change anything. You can scream and scream, but no one will hear you.
Ultimately, Yakoleva was freed as a consequence of political rivalry. The Putin functionary whose stealth policy change got her imprisoned was opposed by another Putin functionary who didn’t like being shown up, and it was only after their political clash prompted the first functionary’s fall that the law quietly returned to normal and a host of convicted drug dealers became legitimate businessmen once again. Things returned to normal, for now, with the ever-present caveat that they can go back and forth (or elsewhere) without a moment’s notice.
For me, now that Trump is president and his lackeys trade daily in “alternative facts,” the question is exigent – can we expect this stuff here?
I think we’re still a long way from Putin-style authoritarianism; as far as I know, the White House doesn’t manipulate the inner workings of private corporations, control the output of independent news organizations, or jail its enemies at will. That could all happen one day, but it’s hard to see it happening tomorrow. I think our traditions – and the pride we take in them – will take longer to erode.
For me, though, one of the things that’s so disconcerting about Trump is that I think he would do some of those things if he could get away with it. He seems to have little understanding of – much less respect for – the rights and liberties of a free, democratic society. He doesn’t even seem to have a sense of his own values.
What he does have, though, is an endless desire to pick fights (and to act as if others are picking fights with him). I’m no psychologist, and I don’t know anything about his childhood, but when I look at him, I see a guy who doesn’t seem to have been loved very well – and who never really learned how to love in return. Maybe there are other sides of him in private, but in public, he’s all sharpness and paper-thin posing – a bully who doesn’t want to throw punches, but doesn’t know how else to touch.
Fair, and I didn’t mean to suggest that we would be Moscow tomorrow. But given Trump’s pathological lying, the role Russia played in his election, and his continued, baffling embrace of both Putin and Russia, it certainly looks like a path he’s bent on following. As to his “getting away with it,” who’s going to stop him? The courts? Maybe. The Republicans? Probably not.
One of the themes of this book is that this crazy Russian surrealism is exportable. He describes its establishment in England, especially, and notes that the English seem to accept the Russian incursion as an acceptable imposition, assuming all along that the Russians will adopt English ways. But that’s not the case, according to Pomerantsev. The intoxicating blend of money, power, and freedom (of a sort) coming out of Russia is difficult to resist, and it influences wherever it goes. Who’s to say the mentality won’t gain influence here, now or in the future?
Word. One of the weird things about the idea of “American exceptionalism” is that it makes it harder to see just how vulnerable we are to stuff that everybody else is vulnerable to. What ensures that American democracy won’t wash away? Nothing – except for our belief that it shouldn’t, and our willingness to ensure that it doesn’t.
Things don’t look good right now, but I have hope for the longer-term. Here’s why: in the picture Pomerantsev paints of contemporary Russia, nobody is thriving. There isn’t one person in that book who is living a fuller, richer, more gratified life because of Putin’s authoritarianism. Some people are getting rich, of course, but often at great cost to their own integrity and wellbeing.
The one exception to this might be the people who are finding ways to resist (by protesting the demolition of historic buildings, for example). As Buddhism suggests, your enemy can be your greatest teacher.
Broadly speaking, though, I think the seeds of the system’s destruction are baked in. Putin-style government is not built to accommodate human beings. It forces people to sell the dearest parts of their own souls. A system like that – one so out of sync with what makes human lives go well – can’t survive forever. Eventually, people will feel the squeeze of the straightjacket and start struggling. They always seem to.
And yet, Putin remains in power. He’s been there for a pretty long time! And despite Trump’s chaotic first month in office, his supporters continue to support him. His approval rating among Republicans is over 80%.
Suppose – hypothetically! – that we can’t trust our fellow citizens to recognize the seriousness of the threat. Suppose that, in this thoroughly postmodern context, a portion of that population continues to celebrate the mindless irrationality of this thing. At what point do we actually start to worry about our institutions? What would have to happen before you would be genuinely concerned?
Eesh – I suspect I may have sounded less concerned than I really am! It’s really troubling, man. And I think if I were living in the US – and forced to confront these headlines every day – I’d be even more worried.
Just to be clear, then: I think Trump has done enormous damage to the basic fabric of our democracy, and I think he’s going to do a lot more before his time is up. If/when we stop the tide, it’s gonna take a long time to reckon and assess that damage, much less repair it. A lot of that work is going to take place off-camera – in hard conversations between citizens.
In the short-term, then, things look really dark. Some of the friends I most admire are thinking hard about how to organize meaningful resistance or offer alternatives, and it’s a struggle – though a damn worthy one.
My comments above were more about the long term. Our modern ideas about rights, liberty, democracy, and individual dignity have shaped our culture – and our views of ourselves – for hundreds of years, and I think that stuff runs deeper than Trump’s tenure in office. But I could be wrong – and every time that Trump’s crew attacks vulnerable people and twists language into meaningless, I’m less sure.