Masha Karp reviews "Putin, Russia & the West"

Unequal Sides of the Triangle

by Masha Karp

On 19 January 2012 BBC2 began screening a four-part documentary, “Putin, Russia and the West” (Series Producer - Norma Percy, Series Director - Paul Mitchell, Executive Producer – Brian Lapping, BBC Executive Producer – Fiona Campbell). The film has already caused a great deal of controversy (see, for example, comments by Vladimir Bukovsky and Masha Slonim [in Russian], and Victor Davidoff [in English]).

Masha Karp reviews the first part of the documentary for Rights and Russia (her reviews of the subsequent parts of the documentary can be read here: Part 2Part 3, Part 4). 

Imagine Colonel Gaddafi is still alive. Imagine he announces he will rule Libya for another 40 years, setting off street protests demanding his resignation. Imagine, then, that at this point, just as a new stage in his rule is about to begin, the BBC brings out a documentary “Gaddafi, Libya and the West”, where apart from westerners we see only Gaddafi himself, his leading politicians and people working for his propaganda unit. No Libyan opposition leaders (apart from those who used to occupy top posts in the government), no journalists, no ordinary people. The greater part of all the major atrocities of the regime is omitted, and as far as the West is concerned the narrative generally follows the official Libyan line: “Don’t interfere with our internal affairs!” Do you think the BBC viewer will be getting an objective picture of the situation in Libya?

As the Russian saying goes: every comparison is lame. But what the BBC is showing us in the four-part documentary “Putin, Russia and the West” is very similar to the scenario described above. There is not much of the real Russia there: the film concentrates on Putin’s concept of the West and (partly) the West’s concept of Putin. A rather important part of the triangle – Russia! - is all but missing. And all this in a brilliantly crafted documentary made by the team deservedly famous for making “The Second Russian Revolution” and “The Death of Yugoslavia”.

The contrast between the high level of professionalism of the filmmaking and the lack of understanding of Russia’s recent history is striking. The BBC is accompanying the film with a blurb: “How the great Soviet superpower, crushed and humiliated, has been resurrected in the form of Vladimir Putin's new Russia”. It sounds ambiguous, to say the least: is it a good or a bad thing for the “great Soviet superpower” to be resurrected? As someone who happened to be born and live in this superpower, I am sure it’s bad. But those who have put in the words “crushed and humiliated” are obviously of the opposite opinion. Who, incidentally, has crushed “the great Soviet superpower”? Hasn’t it crushed itself because of an inability to combine the arms race with an economy suited to the modern world? I have always thought that the fact that Russia attempted to relieve itself of the burden of “the great Soviet superpower” adds to its pride rather than to its humiliation… This is only a blurb, but the confused thinking behind it reflects the lack of grasp of the complex issues the film attempts to tackle.

“Taking Control”
The first part “Taking Control” presents a splendid panorama of top players - from Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to Russian former Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov and former Economics Minister German Gref. Its exquisite montage of interviews and outstanding selection and use of the archive footage make it fascinating to watch. And yet there are so many omissions from Putin’s and Russia’s history in 1999-2003, that the portrayal feels false from the start.

Beginning with Putin’s first interview as Russia’s Prime Minister on 9 August 1999, through a remarkable shot of Yeltsin staggering and nearly falling into the arms of his bodyguards, the documentary takes us straight to Yeltsin’s resignation on 31December 1999. Five months, which proved crucial in the country’s history, are missing. There are no controversial apartment bombings, which helped Putin to make the case for the Second Chechen War, there is nothing of Berezovsky’s TV campaign to promote Putin and help him win the presidential elections in March, and – most importantly – there is no Chechen war!

The bombing of a refugee convoy and massacres of Chechen villages, which took place at the very beginning of the so called “anti-terrorism operation”, launched in September 1999, were the first in a long line of crimes committed by the Russian authorities and subsequently condemned by the European Court of Human Rights. Together with thousands of other events, which never received international attention, these were the early atrocities of the Second Chechen War which horrified Anna Politkovskaya and inspired her commitment to writing the truth about Chechnya, and eventually giving her life for it. They are not even mentioned in the film.

No, “Putin, Russia and the West” does not completely ignore Chechnya. The commentary claims: “By the time Putin became President [March 2000], the Russian forces had pushed the rebel fighters into the mountains”. The price of this “achievement” does not seem to bother the filmmakers much, as they carry on: “Putin’s triumph boosted his popularity, but in Moscow he could not be an effective President, while the government remained a mess”. After this, how can anyone be in any doubt that he must have been an effective President in Chechnya? Only why has the war never stopped and eventually spread all over the North Caucasus? By 2012 the filmmakers should have an answer to this question.

Half an hour into the film, just after George W. Bush’s 2002 visit to Moscow, we see footage of a Chechen teenager being taken away during a “routine raid on a village” by Russian forces and learn that his remains were dug up 8 years later at a Russian base. For those in the know, the fate of this young man will perhaps stand for the thousands of Chechens killed by the Russian army in both wars. But as the numbers of murdered or kidnapped civilians are not given, the uninformed viewers can as easily believe that they have just witnessed a one-off tragic incident.

The decision to ignore Russia’s ruthlessness in the Chechen war was of course taken long ago by the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who invited Putin to tea with the Queen in Buckingham Palace in April 2000, even before Putin’s inauguration as a President. And when PACE, shocked by the reports from Chechnya, recommended expelling Russia from the Council of Europe, it was Blair’s friendship with Putin that helped to bury this suggestion. One would think that this extremely important episode in the Russia-West relationship would attract the attention of the authors of “Putin, Russia and the West”. But they do not mention it either.

Apart from these most glaring gaps in the narrative, there are dozens of other, not immediately noticeable, deviations from the historical truth, or rather slight distortions. Taken together, these steadily add up to create an image of Putin that will by no means be unpleasant to him, and will be quite useful to those in the West who would like to justify their support for him.

Even the nearly-forgotten myth of Putin as liberal reformer makes a sudden come-back. The story of economic reforms is told by a charming German Gref, Economics Minister in 2000-2007 – interestingly, the first part of the film does not give these dates or at least use the word “former” when giving Gref’s title, so viewers are misled into thinking that Gref, together with Andrey Illarionov, Putin’s advisor in 2000-2005 and now a severe critic, still keep their jobs.

But more importantly, Putin is introduced as someone who would do anything to liberalise the country’s economy. Picking up on Colin Powell’s assertion that looking Putin in the eye only makes one see “KGB”, the film commentary carries on: “Putin had been KGB, but by now he has turned his back on communism”. The sentence seems to have more contradictions than words. It is a well-known truth that “had been” is not a turn of phrase to be used with regards to the KGB - unless of course someone deliberately breaks off all ties with the organisation and attempts to fight it (usually losing one’s life as a result). But Putin, who filled practically all the top positions in the country with his former KGB colleagues, can hardly been seen in this category. Besides, the KGB does not equal communism, nor is it just another name for it, as it is not about ideology, but about control and repression. And has Putin really turned his back on communism? To prove the latter, the filmmakers tell the story of the passing of the Land Act through the Russian parliament, the Duma, which met communist obstruction and even saw fisticuffs in the parliament chamber! They don’t however say that the new law passed in 2001 still failed to give landowners full property rights, and has not played any significant role in reforming the Russian economy …

Trying to keep the narrative simple, the filmmakers obviously have not bothered about such a detail as the Russian economy, especially as Russian affairs are quickly overshadowed by the international: the story of US-Russian discussions about the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and of America’s missile defence plans confidently take the central place in the film. Russia’s “remarkable cooperation with the West”, as the commentary puts it, is covered in every detail by high-profile politicians, who are not often heard talking in a lively and informal way. The trademark of the film is a quick interlacing of short clips from different interviews, so that one episode more often than not is simultaneously told by two speakers, who represent different sides in international politics and are thus joined in a dialogue: Colin Powell and the Russian security adviser, Sergey Prikhodko, for example; or Putin’s Defence Minister of the time, Sergey Ivanov, and Condoleezza Rice. The informality of the latter couple, however, seems as carefully prepared as the adventure they are talking about: the allegedly impromptu visit to an experimental ballet show, which they made while Putin and Bush stayed to watch the classical “Nutcracker”. The studied playfulness of Ivanov, with which this self-confessed spy of 25 years' standing says: “I looked around. The guards were not paying attention. The Presidents were glued to the Nutcracker….” reveals the extent to which this man feels himself the master of any situation or any facts staring him in the face. To add to the intimacy and romantic character of the episode, Ivanov, while rendering in Russian his conversation with Rice, uses the informal form of “you” - “ty”. The main practical result of this private intimacy and public cooperation, however, was the unconditional support the USA gave Putin for his methods of fighting terror, including the gassing of 129 hostages after the take-over of a Moscow theatre by Chechens in 2002. In the context of the priorities the filmmakers chose for themselves, this blood-chilling event gets much less time than the revelations of Sergey Ivanov.

The only part of the first film that seems to probe more seriously into the grave matters of Russian politics is the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It is not accidental that this is the only instance in the series so far where those who have not worked for the government are allowed their say. Leonid Nevzlin and Alexander Temerko, former associates of Khodorkovsky, both living abroad now, give their accounts of the stand-off between the President and Yukos. It is here that Putin’s contempt for the rule of law becomes apparent for the first time. The film’s justification for Putin acting the way he did is that he was seeking more proceeds from oil exports for the state. But it becomes immediately clear that the affairs of the state by that time had already become deeply immersed in corruption. The first part of the film ends with the words: “Now Putin became the unchallenged master of a stronger and less democratic Russia.” And this made me wonder: “stronger” in what?

To read Masha Karp's review of Part Two of the documentary 'Putin, Russia & the West', click HERE
Rights in Russia,
30 Jan 2012, 11:17