Russia's 'era of excess' ending with fallen ruble: Peter Pomerantsev

The Russians were the new jet set, says Peter Pomerantsev, author of "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of The New Russia." All that is now about to change.

Q&A with Peter Pomerantsev, author of "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible"

Mannequins in a Moscow department store put on a brave face. The T-shirt reads, "In Rouble I trust". Many stores, though, have sales 70 and 90 per cent to move merchandise against the discounted currency. (REUTERS)

Russia seems to be in for a bout of economic free-fall at the moment, thanks to tumbling oil prices and a severely battered ruble.

That hasn't fazed President Vladimir Putin, though, who said in his year-end media conference last week that his country has seen worse times and will bounce back within two years.

Those who lived through the economic hardships of the 1990s might agree, but Russia's monied class must be wondering whether the era of excess, propelled by huge oil revenues, are winding down.

That period has no better chronicler than Peter Pomerantsev, a British writer whose parents emigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

He returned to Russia in recent years to work as a reality television producer, and to make entertainment programs like "How to Marry a Millionaire" that were Western in style, but avoided politics.

In his new book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of The New Russia, Pomerantsev explores the cynical, brutal, and dazzling world of the nouveau riche.

"The Russians were the new jet set," he writes, "they were the richest, the most energetic, the most dangerous. They had the most oil, the most beautiful women, the best parties."

A woman, suspended from the ceiling, serves champagne to a man at the opening night of the Millionaire Fair in Moscow in 2008, when the good times rolled. (Reuters)

They were also "ready to buy anything, football clubs in London and basketball clubs in New York; art collections, English newspapers and European energy companies."

"The cash came so fast," he writes, " like glitter shaken in a snow globe."

Pomerantsev introduces us to the people whose fortunes rose and fell in this world: the successful businesswoman framed by government officials so they could steal her company; the fatherless gold-digger girls prostituting themselves in the hope of finding a sugar daddie; the ex-gangster who lives out of his car and becomes a novelist; the British university lecturer who comes to Russia to make big money as an economic consultant, only to wind up writing news propaganda for a Russian television station.

CBC News interviewed Pomerantsev about the fears of recession in today's Russia, and the closing of a chapter on the glittering , gaudy early years of Putin's rule.

How might a recession impact the Russia you describe?

This isn't yet a huge crisis by Russian standards. For a generation that grew up with complete economic collapse in the 1990s this is nothing new.

The question is whether Russians have become softer after the years of growth under Putin.

In that sense he might become a victim of his own success: he delivered a better life, now people are used to it.

I wouldn't underestimate the tenacity of Russians. But Putin is definitely losing his aura as a credible money manager.

It's a clever title "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible". What do you mean by it?

Russia had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression — from Communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich — that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable.

British-Russian writer/broadcaster Peter Pomerantsev, author of "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: the Surreal Heart of the New Russia." (Renate Milena Findeis / CBC)

This mindset permeates the country from top to bottom, and I try to show how it is common to both political rulers and gold-diggers.

As the book progresses we see how this ideology undermines itself: without core values society starts to lose its mind. The tumble from decadence to madness. 

Whose stories did you want to tell? 

I was looking for the archetypes who define key themes in society. The first characters are actually the last vestiges of the 1990s: the gangster and the gold-digger.

But we see how, in the 21st century, they have become self-aware: the gangster makes movies about himself, the gold-digger attends psychology courses.

Then we move through the decade: the up and coming businesswoman, the young globalized millionaire obsessing over modern art (and who wants to make his life into art), and then as the society loses its mental moorings we encounter cults and suicide.

Even Russian liberals are exposed as hypocrites and corruptible, as are Western expats who travel to Russia with the mandate of "democratization." Did any of this surprise you? 

Yes. Russia was an interesting place to watch the story of the West unravel.

I was there during Iraq, then the crash, and you could see all those words like "freedom," which had been so powerful in the Cold War, crack and crumble and become parodies of themselves.

It seemed to confirm what most Russians I met think: that "everything is PR," that there are no true values.

Could the Gorbachev period of the late 80s then, be seen as an aberration in Russian history with its values of idealism, humanism, liberalism?

Certainly the Russia I saw rejected those ideas. It is a territory of triumphant cynicism.

But we saw hundreds of thousands come to protest against Putin just two years ago. And the Maidan [the recent Ukrainian revolution] showed how Russian-speaking peoples are prepared to risk their lives for values and freedoms the West takes for granted.

So the cynicism and oppression is not something essential, it's a question of concrete political practices, which create it.

I reject the argument Russians are somehow meant to live in a dictatorship. I've always found that approach (so popular among the pro-Putin camp in the West and inside the Kremlin) Russophobic and racist. 

Western pundits talk about a new Cold War with Russia. How accurate, in your opinion, is this term?

It's unhelpful. Russia isn't turning back, it sees itself as the true avant-garde in a chaotic 21st century where all the old, Western institutions (NATO, EU ) are geriatric, and the future belongs to rising, largely authoritarian regimes who define the rules as they go along.

Russia's aim is to be a disrupter, a sort of corporate raider of globalization.

In foreign policy and war it has weaponized the use of money, culture and information, and combined them with covert military action. This could well be the trend for future conflict.

And its ideology of triumphant cynicism is only growing worldwide. 

What do you see as Putin's grand strategy in the former Soviet sphere?

I wonder whether he has a grand strategy. He has a sense of the future of the world, a very dark, Hobbesian vision, and how Russia can play it by being subversive and disruptive.

Ukraine was simply a massive miscalculation on his part. The idea, I suspect, was to win a PR victory by "breaking" Yanukovich and bringing Ukraine into the Eurasian Union, or rather keeping it out of the Association Agreement with the EU.

Not because of real economic strategy: until 2013 Russia had no problem with Ukraine signing the Association Agreement with the EU, no one in the Kremlin is stupid enough to think it was an important document or that the EU is a threat.

Quite the opposite, because they knew the EU was soft they decided to make a big deal out of a process they knew they could win. A small, victorious, safe political PR war.

But then Maidan happened and Putin had to start improvising. Anyway that's my sense of what happened. It will take many years, if ever, before we know the real, behind the scenes discussions. 


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