Everything you know about Russia is wrong, according to this eye-opening, mind-bending memoir of a TV producer caught between two cultures.
Born in Russia but raised in Europe, where he is now a London-based writer, Pomerantsev felt compelled to return to his homeland after the turn of the century: “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 Russia seemed truly alive, had the sense that anything was possible.” He got more than he bargained for, an experience far different from anything he had anticipated, though he did return from Russia with a wife and daughter (barely mentioned until the end, where he also acknowledges that he has “scrunched time mercilessly to tell my story”). Instead of a cohesive overview or chronological progression, the author records his impressions more like a kaleidoscopic series of anecdotes and vignettes, absurd and tragic, with characters that might be tough to believe if they were presented as fiction. There are the legions of strikingly beautiful women who blur the distinction between gold digger and prostitute. There are the Night Wolves, a motorcycle gang that is “the Russian equivalent of the Hells Angels” but who “are bikers who have found a Russian God.” There is corruption at every level, from officials who prefer bribes to taxes to a criminal system in which “99% of those charged in Russia receive guilty verdicts.” There is also reality TV, which demands heroes and happy endings, even when the subject is a ravishing model who was either murdered or committed suicide after indoctrination by a brainwashing cult, which the author suggests are as inherently Russian as vodka. And there is “the great war between Holy Russia and the Godless West” in a Russia that both emulates and reviles the crass excesses of capitalism.
Not always cohesive, but the stylish rendering of the Russian culture, which both attracts and appalls the author, will keep the reader captivated.