Russia’s TV star
Books | Putin’s use of Western media methods mixes ‘show business and propaganda, ratings with authoritarianism’
by Peter Pomerantsev
Posted 11/11/17, 09:09 am
As books about Vladimir Putin’s Russia continue to pour out, it will be hard to find one more tragically amusing than Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev (Public Affairs, 2014), with its stories of oligarchic revolutionaries, cynical television producers, Siberian crime bosses, and super-rich surrealists. Western consultants pushed Russia downhill when they developed “logical framework matrices” to achieve “objectively verifiable indicators of democratization.” Key bullet points: “Elections? Check. Freedom of Expression? Check. Private property? Check.” But after three-fourths of a century of totalitarian rule, the internal gyroscopes that keep us from being nasty, brutish, and short with each other did not flip on when Westerners said, “Go,” and the result is amorality.
In the following excerpt, courtesy of the publisher, Pomerantsev takes us inside the world of Russian television, where “The task is to synthesize Soviet control with Western entertainment.” —Marvin Olasky
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. “I want to try on every persona the world has ever known,” Vladik Mamyshev-Monroe would tell me. He was a performance artist and the city’s mascot, the inevitable guest at parties attended by the inevitable tycoons and supermodels, arriving dressed as Gorbachev, a fakir, Tutankhamen, the Russian President. When I first landed in Moscow I thought these infinite transformations the expression of a country liberated, pulling on different costumes in a frenzy of freedom, pushing the limits of personality as far as it could possibly go to what the President’s vizier would call “the heights of creation.” It was only years later that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom but as forms of delirium, in which scare-puppets and nightmare mystics become convinced they’re almost real and march toward what the President’s vizier would go on to call the “the fifth world war, the first non-linear war of all against all.”
But I am getting ahead of myself.
I work in television. Factual television. Factual entertainment, to be exact. I was flying into Moscow in 2006 because the television industry, like everything else, was booming. I knew the country already: since 2001, the year after I graduated from university, I had been living there most of my time, jumping jobs between think tanks and as a very minor consultant on European Union projects meant to be aiding Russian “development,” then at film school, and lately as an assistant on documentaries for Western networks. My parents had emigrated from the Soviet Union to England in the 1970s as political exiles, and I grew up speaking some sort of demotic émigré Russian. But I had always been an observer looking in at Russia. I wanted to get closer: London seemed so measured, so predictable; the America the rest of my émigré family lived in seemed so content; while the real Russians seemed truly alive, had the sense that anything was possible. What I really wanted to do was film. To press “record” and just point and shoot. I took my camera, the battered metal Sony Z1 small enough to always drop in my bag, everywhere. A lot of the time I just filmed so as not to let this world escape; I shot blindly, knowing I would never have a cast like this again. And I was in demand in the new Moscow for the simple reason that I could say the magic words “I am from London.” They worked like “open sesame.” Russians are convinced Londoners know the alchemical secret of successful television, can distill the next hit reality or talent show. No matter that I had never been more than a third-rate assistant on other people’s projects; just by whispering “I come from London” could get me any meeting I wanted. I was a stowaway on the great armada of Western civilization, the bankers, lawyers, international development consultants, accountants, and architects who have sailed out to seek their fortune in the adventures of globalization.
But in Russia, working in television is about more than being a camera, an observer. In a country covering nine time zones, one-sixth of the world’s land mass, stretching from the Pacific to the Baltic, from the Arctic to the Central Asian deserts, from near-medieval villages where people still draw water from wooden wells by hand, through single-factory towns and back to the blue glass and steel skyscrapers of the new Moscow—TV is the only force that can unify and rule and bind this country. It’s the central mechanism of a new type of authoritarianism, one far subtler than twentieth-century strains. And as a TV producer I would be directed right into the center of its workings.
My first meeting took me to the top floor of Ostankino, the television center the size of five football fields that is the battering ram of Kremlin propaganda. On the top floor, down a series of matt-black corridors, is a long conference room. Here Moscow’s flashiest minds met for the weekly brainstorming session to decide what Ostankino would broadcast. I was taken along by a friendly Russian publisher. Due to my Russian surname no one had yet noticed I was British; I kept my mouth shut. There were more than twenty of us in the room: tanned broadcasters in white silk shirts and politics professors with sweaty beards and heavy breath and ad execs in trainers. There were no women. Everyone was smoking. There was so much smoke it made my skin itch.
At the end of the table sat one of the country’s most famous political TV presenters. He is small and speaks fast, with a smoky voice:
We all know there will be no real politics. But we still have to give our viewers the sense something is happening. They need to be kept entertained. So what should we play with? Shall we attack oligarchs? [He continued,] Who’s the enemy this week? Politics has got to feel like … like a movie!
The first thing the President had done when he came to power in 2000 was to seize control of television. It was television through which the Kremlin decided which politicians it would “allow” as its puppet-opposition, what the country’s history and fears and consciousness should be. And the new Kremlin won’t make the same mistake the old Soviet Union did: it will never let TV become dull. The task is to synthesize Soviet control with Western entertainment. Twenty-first-century Ostankino mixes show business and propaganda, ratings with authoritarianism. And at the center of the great show is the President himself, created from a no one, a gray fuzz via the power of television, so that he morphs as rapidly as a performance artist among his roles of soldier, lover, bare-chested hunter, businessman, spy, tsar, superman. “The news is the incense by which we bless Putin’s actions, make him the President,” TV producers and political technologists liked to say. Sitting in that smoky room, I had the sense that reality was somehow malleable, that I was with Prosperos who could project any existence they wanted onto post-Soviet Russia. But with every year I worked in Russia, and as the Kremlin became ever more paranoid, Ostankino’s strategies became ever more twisted, the need to incite panic and fear ever more urgent; rationality was tuned out, and Kremlin-friendly cults and hate-mongers were put on prime time to keep the nation entranced, distracted, as ever more foreign hirelings would arrive to help the Kremlin and spread its vision to the world.
But though my road would eventually lead back to Ostankino, my initial role in the vast scripted reality show of the new Russia was to help make it look and sound and feel Western. The network I initially worked with was TNT, no relation to the US channel of the same name, which is housed in a new office center called Byzantium. On the ground floor is a spa done up in faux Roman style with Doric plaster columns and ruins, frequented by languid, leggy girls here to deepen already deep tans and have endless manicures and pedicures. The manicures are elaborate: rainbow-colored, multilayered, glitter-dusted designs of little hearts and flowers, so much brighter than the girls’ bored eyes, as if they pour all their utopias into the tiny spaces of their nails.
The network occupies several floors higher up in the building. When the elevator door opens you’re greeted by TNT’s logo, designed in blindingly bright, squealingly happy pinks, bright blues, and gold. Over the logo is written the network’s catchphrase, “Feel our Love!” This is the new, desperately happy Russia, and this is the image of Russia TNT projects: a youthful, bouncy, glossy country. The network sends a beam of hyperactive yellows and pinks into people’s darkling apartments.
The offices are open plan, full of shiny, happy young things hurrying about, sprinkling their Russian with Anglicisms, whistling the tunes of Brit-pop hits. TNT makes hooligan television, and the young staff buzz with the excitement of cultural revolution. For them TNT is a piece of subversive pop art, a way to climb into the nation’s psyche and rewire it from inside. The network introduced the reality show to Russia: one raunchy show is—joy of TV producer joys—censured as immoral by aging Communists. TNT pioneered the Russian sitcom and the Russian trashy talk show à la Jerry Springer. The network gobbles up Western concepts one after the other, going through more formats in a year than the West can come up with in a decade. Many of the city’s brightest are defecting to entertainment channels and glossy magazines; here they won’t be forced to make propaganda, are encouraged to be rebellious. They just can’t do real politics here; it’s a news-free zone. Most are happy with the trade-off: complete freedom for complete silence.
Excerpted from Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev. Copyright © 2014. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group Inc.