I picked up this book thinking that it would be like a male-narrated, Russian version of Unreal. I wasn’t even sure if it was nonfiction until I looked it up about 1/3 into the book. (It is.)
Turns out, it wasn’t like Unreal at all. That’s not a bad thing. It was actually a shocking look inside Russian culture (not in a “my culture is so much better than yours” kind of way, but definitely voyeuristic).
A favourite part of the book was the focus on the individual stories of Russian people - pulling from the author’s documentary days. Those personal stories and experiences were really interesting (and often tragic) and would have been so had they happened to people from any country or background. I feel like narrating an individual’s story in long-form is a bit of a dying art, and I really appreciated the way Pomerantsev found characters with interesting stories and brought them into focus. I feel like I have a better sense of Moscow after this than I had after all the lengthier, more detailed historical fiction I read last winter.
I had no idea, for example, about the suicide epidemic that challenges former Soviet societies:
Six of the seven countries with the highest suicide rates among young females are former Soviet republics … Emile Durkheim once argued that suicide viruses occur at civilizational breaks, when the parents have no traditions, no value systems to pass on to their children.
Some quotes that reveal the basic premise of the book:
Many in the Russian public, cynical after living among Soviet lies so long, often assume the Kremlin’s reality is scripted. There were indeed some grounds for skepticism: the Russian security services had been caught planting a bomb in an apartment block (they claimed it was a training accident); the speaker of the Duma had publicly announced one of the explosions before it had taken place.
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.
So the book wasn’t funny and it wasn’t a satire and it was true, not fiction, but it was a fascinating read and absolutely something students of Western (esp. US) politics and media today should scan.