Monday, January 16, 2017

"Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible"

Dominic Cummings said that no-one should 'pontificate on Putin’s mafia government' before reading this book.

Amazon link

Here are some excerpts from The Guardian's review.
"Pomerantsev, born in the UK to Russian émigré parents, spent almost a decade in Moscow working as a TV producer, making documentaries and reality shows for Russian audiences. He arrived in the early 2000s, in the midst of an oil boom that brought a measure of prosperity to many and huge wealth to a select few, creating a tidal wave of glitz and extravagance, especially in the capital.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible is an entertaining if at times bleak chronicle of these years, depicting a world “where gangsters become artists, gold‑diggers quote Pushkin, Hells Angels hallucinate themselves as saints”.


"We also meet Vitali Dyomochka, a Siberian hoodlum turned cineaste. Dissatisfied with the quality of crime dramas on Russian TV – “it was all fake” – he took to making his own series, giving starring roles to several of his henchmen. There were no scripts, stuntmen or makeup: “all the blood you saw on the screen was real”, Pomerantsev writes, adding that “the guns and bullets were all real, too; when they filmed a shoot-’em-up in a bar the place was wasted”.

Djomochka allegedly got the series broadcast by getting his goons to threaten local TV stations; needless to say, it was a huge hit."


"Putinism itself is built on an ideology of all ideologies at once: liberalism; nationalism; conservatism; Orthodox tradition; an “anti-hegemonic” foreign policy.

As Pomerantsev points out, one key to the success of this new authoritarianism is that “instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting them and rendering them absurd”.

The clearest example of this is the creation of a political system that has the appearance of democracy – regular elections, multiple parties, a free media – without any of the substance: the elections are rigged; the parties are all under the president’s control; the media do what their owners tell them, and the owners obey the Kremlin.

It’s this mismatch between form and content that has earned the Putin regime the name “virtual” or “imitation democracy”.


"Corruption, which affects almost every sphere of life, from major corporations to visits to the doctor, has taken root in the vast juridical twilight zone that emerged during the 1990s, and which the authorities have an active interest in maintaining.

Among the many other stories Pomerantsev follows is that of Yana Yakovleva, a businesswoman suddenly arrested for “illegally” trading in chemicals she has been selling perfectly legally for years. She’s the victim of “state raiding”, a widespread phenomenon in which government officials put the squeeze on businesses – finding owners to be in breach of fire-safety regulations, say, or in arrears with taxes they never owed; or, as in Yakovleva’s case, charging them retroactively with having broken a brand-new law.

She spends several grim months in prison before coming to trial; astoundingly, she wins and is released – but less because of her actual innocence than because her campaign has made her a useful pawn in a battle between two powerful Kremlin factions. “To make something happen in Russia,” Pomerantsev concludes, “you have to be both valiant protester and Machiavellian.”

"By the summer of 2010, when Moscow was wreathed in suffocating smoke from peat-bog fires, Pomerantsev had become increasingly frustrated by the constraints he faced in his work. His channel only wanted “positive” stories, and there were clear limits on what could be said and shown: he had to cut all the high-level politics out of Yakovleva’s story, for instance.

But on returning to the UK, he encountered the beneficiaries of the system he thought he had left behind – the oligarchs and bureaucrats turned businessmen who have siphoned wealth out of Russia and into London, the gilded post-Soviet youth who spend their time surrounded by their peers in an exclusive network of Mayfair nightclubs."
The words we use are value-loaded. In most historical societies, what we call corruption is the normal operation of 'big man' factional political economy. The Romans would have understood.

There is an economics literature on corruption, conceptualising it as rent-seeking and adding gratuitously to transaction costs. However, liberal democracies also have expensive mechanisms for arbitrating differences and setting priorities. The difference is more about stability and predictability: in a sense, liberal democracies have nationalised corruption and rebranded it.

The main thing I get from Peter Pomerantsev's book is that in today's Russia, society-wide trust does not exist and most state institutions do not work as such, being merely facades for powerful and arbitrary interest groups.

This so accords with history and natural human psychology that it jarringly reminds us again just how unlikely the relatively non-corrupt western model of bourgeois democracy actually is. The rule of law and the effectiveness of institutions requires elites to inhibit their emotions and personal drives, subordinating them to the rules.

Who knows how much of this is cultural and how much genetic? What we do know is that corrupt, clannish societies have enormous historical inertia, southern Italy being a case in point. The Russians haven't had much luck with their history in this regard, unfortunately.

As a root-and-branch picture of modern Russia, I'm with Mr Cummings. We should not be seeing Putin's state as a 'more vigorous capitalist society with more traditional values and less politically-correct nonsense'.

No, Russia is more like a capitalist version of Game of Thrones.

As a piece of writing, "Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible" is mostly fascinating, but could have benefited from the attentions of an editor to cut out the occasional longueur.

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