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Travelling Backwards

A review of Putin’s Progress: Four Films on Vladimir Putin and his influence over Russia. Shown at The Rich Mix (London) March 3rd 2012.

March 10, 2012 - Josh Black - Articles and Commentary

putins kiss.jpg

putins kiss.jpg

  • Putin; The Leap Year (Vitalij Mansky, 2001)
  • Khodorkovsky (Cyril Tuschi, 2011)
  • Our Newspaper (Eline Flipse, 2010)
  • Putin’s Kiss (Lise Birk Pedersen, 2011)

Documentary films often lack the exactness of the printed word. Where books can describe generalities and challenge existing explanations, film excels at showcasing a society’s predilections, mores and inconsistencies.  Four films about Russia in the age of Vladimir Putin, curated by DocHouse and shown at the Rich Mix cinema in East London, expose all of these things and more, highlighting the ways in which Russia has changed over the past twelve years, and those in which it has not.

Such is the grip that Putin has exerted over Russia’s government that scholars regularly refer to him as shorthand for the establishment in general, and use the term Putinism to describe an inexact, unwritten and almost indescribable reach – not quite ideology, nor political science. Certainly, Putin himself has not sought to deny this, believing that the idea of a single strong leader appeals to the Russian consciousness. Yet the extent to which Putin and Putinism have pervaded Russian society has never been quite as brilliantly portrayed as in these films.

Perhaps the most beautiful is Our Newspaper, by Dutch filmmaker Eline Flipse. Concerning the efforts of an independent journalist called Andrej in Ulyanovsk to produce a newspaper that truly matters to the people, it highlights the pressure which is brought to bear on any form of challenge to the authorities. Rather than repeating the dreary self-congratulatory stories of the state-sponsored provincial paper (still called The Leninist after Ulyanov’s famous son) Andrej publishes stories about environmental catastrophes perpetrated by the local butter factory, forgotten roads left unpaved or water towers frozen in the depths of winter. For this he is constantly harassed by local officials beholden to their superiors for their employment and therefore duty-bound to suppress dissent and ‘obtain the right results’.

More than any other Russian, Mikhail Khodorkovsky exemplifies the dangers of quarrelling with the Kremlin, especially over business. Although Cyril Tuschi’s film raises more questions than it answers and suffers from a lack of structure, the story itself is well deserving of the attention lavished on it. What is most interesting is not so much Khodorkovsky’s chequered past, but the direction he was heading when he fatally challenged the Kremlin over links to corrupt officials.

As well as taking Yukos from an opaque, undoubtedly corrupt firm to a transparent group with international shareholders and PwC audits, Khodorkovsky also invested in civil society and education – areas other oligarchs feared to tread (one interviewee tells of an oligarch who states that donating to sick children is fine, whereas education is seen as ideology). The fall was no less dramatic; Khodorkovsky, having settled a tax dispute with the authorities, proposed a windfall tax for the oligarchs and agreed the sale of part of Yukos to US firms with the Kremlin, was arrested after challenging Putin to fire corrupt officials. The charges on which Khodorkovsky was convicted and the sale of Yukos at auction to a shell company that no longer exists (before being sold to Rosneft) appear to be far too slick to be credible.

More relevant, however, to the recent protests in Moscow is the story behind Putin’s Kiss. The subject of the film, Masha Drokova, rose through the ranks of the youth group Nashi (Ours) to become a national spokeswoman and organiser (before failing to achieve election to the Federal Executive). The benefits of this were extensive  – a car and apartment in Moscow, a place at a prestigious university and a chat show on television; yet they proved inadequate when Masha was faced with the prospect that an attack on her friend, the journalist Oleg Kashin, was carried out by members of Nashi. The founder of Nashi and subsequent head of the Federal Youth Agency (a government appointment), Vasily Yakemenko, responded by openly mocking Kashin, reflecting the ugly emphasis of Nashi rallies on so-called ‘enemies of the people’ and Putin’s off-kilter comments following the death of Anna Politkovskaya. Putin’s response to Kashin’s beating, incidentally, was to hold a televised meeting with Yakemenko.

The advantage of Danish director Lise Birk Pederson’s film is that it shows the contrast and conflict between the different elements of Nashi. The presentable arm, personified by the self-improving Drokova, contrasts dramatically with the scatological, phallic humour of the more vicious, sometimes alcohol-fuelled types who carry placards with human rights defenders names and addresses. Both are obsessed by the relative decline of Rusia used by Putin as a piece of political rhetoric, arguably to the detriment of their personal development.

However, one of the most interesting details is not covered by the scope of the film. Drokova’s decision to leave Nashi was a brave one, considering the circumstances in which she took it. Thankfully, it appears to have done her little harm in the short term; since Putin’s Kiss Drokova has accumulated several PR Directorships and a partnership in a media consultancy. Once upon a time, loyalty to the authorities was not only a sufficient but also a necessary condition for self-advancement. Now, Russia is diverse enough to offer opportunities to anyone with talent. Therein lies a clue to the movement that is causing so many headaches for the Kremlin.

All of which brings us back to Putin himself. Few would have guessed that the shy, awkward, character of Putin: The Leap Year would be returning to the Presidency in 2012, with the potential to stay in office until 2024, or that any of the above would happen. The Putin of 2001 may not have been plagued by self-doubt, but his inexperience as a politician was exposed by tragedies such as the sinking of the Kursk or the bombings in Pushkin Square. A gentle, amusing film, with scenes of Putin being chided by his German teacher for using slang, the traits and preoccupations that would define Putin’s tenure were nonetheless already evident in The Leap Year; the emphasis on stability, restoring Russia’s reputation and military power and the priority of mercantilism over liberalisation.

The Russia that Putin continues to oversee rests uneasily on political patronage, artificial anger and a fear of the chaos of the 1990s. Few businesses or areas of society are unaffected by corruption or the need for self-censorship. However, while the unaccountability and Soviet-mindset of many officials and well-connected businessmen has hardly changed, much of society has. How far Putin can keep up with Russia’s many other complaints will determine how the next six years pan out.

Josh Black is a graduate of Modern History from Leeds University and specialises in Russia and Eastern Europe. Josh regularly blogs at his own site Out of the Black at http://joshblack2.wordpress.com/

Photo: Scene from Putin’s Kiss. Courtesy of Kino Lorber Inc.

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