Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible

I was catching up on Leningrad while reading this book (thanks Vitya), and found the combination of the two to be very powerful. The song about Prada bags is great, as are many others, but didn't see easily accessible English subtitles. I don’t have much to add, but here are some excerpts that I found to be extremely powerful:

Vivid description of the influx of huge cash in Russia:

The cash has come so fast, like glitter shaken in a snow globe, that it feels totally unreal, not something to hoard and save, but to twirl and dance in like feathers in a pillow fight and cut like paper-mache into different, quickly changing masks. At 5:00am, the music goes faster and faster, and in the throbbing, snowing night the cattle [telki] become the Forbeses and the Forbeses cattle, moving so fast now they can only see the traces of themselves caught in the strobe across the dance floor.

And the accompanying faux chique of the nouveau riche:

On the ground floor is a spa done up in a 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.

Mom and Galia’s Forum experience was probably the Landmark Forum, which is a close relative of the Lifespring movement, which Pomerantsev highlights in his book, as a potential cause of depression and suicide for several models featured in the book. These organizations terrify me.

The topic of Russia fascinates me not just because of multiple generations of my ancestors living there, but also as a view into human nature, perhaps at its most extreme.

This has always been the paradox of the new Russian nationalism: on one hand wanting to conquer all regions around, on the other wanting an ethnically pure great power. And all that comes out of this confusion is an ever-growing anger.

Well described profoundly split personality of Russian people: it’s not that some are dissidents and others are believers, it’s that a single person can embody both, at different times. This is a super fascinating of people In general.

The great drama of Russia is not the "transition" between communism and capitalism, between one fervently held set of beliefs and another, but that during the final decades of the USSR, no one believed in communism and yet carried on living as if they did, and now they can only create a society of simulations. For this remains the common, everyday psychology: the Ostankino producers who make news worshiping the President in the day and then switch on an opposition radio as soon as they get off work; the political technologists who morph from role to role with liquid ease- a nationalist autocrat one moment and a liberal aesthete the next [Surkov], the "orthodox" oligarchs who sing hymns to Russian religious conservatism— and keep their money and families in London. All cultures have differences between “private" and "public" selves, but in Russia the contradiction can be extreme.

Also terrifyingly effective is his depiction of bureaucrats:

They conjure motions to “ban untraditional sex” or “ban English words”— and to sanction Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Glance through the careers of these new religious patriots, and you find they were recently committed democrats and liberals, pro-Western, preaching modernization, innovation, and commitment to Russia’s European course, before which they were all good Communists. And though on the one hand their latest incarnations are just new acts in the Moscow political cabaret, something about their delivery is different from the common Russian political performer who gives his rants with a knowing wink and a nod. Flat and hollow-eyed, as if they have been turned and twisted in so many ways they’ve spun right off the whirligig into something clinical. Because isn’t some sort of madness implicit in the system?

Peter ends with a warning, uttered by a British investor in Russia, which resonates strongly with me:

We used to have this self-centered idea that western democracies were the end of evolution, and we’re dealing from a position of strength, and people are becoming like us. It’s not this way. The whole of western civilization, "this is fragile".

Super well written, incredibly engaging throughout. Incredibly so for non-fiction about a depressing topic. Much more entertaining than Gessen’s barrage of pessimism.