Masha Karp reviews Part Four of the BBC documentary 'Russia, Putin & the West'

16 February 2012

By Masha Karp

Unequal Sides of the Triangle

From 19th January to 9th February 2012 BBC2 showed 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 caused a great deal of controversy (see for example Vladimir Bukovsky and Masha Slonim [in Russian], and Victor Davidoff [in English], and comment in the UK press [see pieces by Luke Harding in The Guardian and Peter Oborne in The Telegraph]).

Here Masha Karp reviews the fourth part of the documentary for Rights in Russia (her reviews of the previous parts of the documentary can be read here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Under the Spell of Myths

The main impression of the “New Start” - the final part of the series – is that, luckily, real life intervened to expose the wrong focus that the film-makers had chosen to treat the relations between Putin, Russia and the West. Of course, it did not help the film, which bears all the traces of a hurried adaptation to developing political circumstances, but I think it would have been even worse if it had been released before the December events in Russia. As it is, the film’s viewers get a glimpse of crowds protesting in the streets with slogans like “Putin Out”, “Fair Elections” and “Down with the Party of Crooks and Thieves." They don’t know why these people have suddenly taken to the streets, but at least they see them there. If the protests had not happened the film-makers perhaps would not have known that anything was wrong with Russian society: they were busy dealing with events on a much grander scale.

The film starts with a triumphant and hopeful President Obama pledging to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In terms of America’s relations with Russia it meant “reset” – starting afresh. Obama was prepared to forget the Russian troops in Georgia and to put on hold the programme of deploying missile defence weapons in Poland and the Czech Republic, which for years had been irritating Moscow. The title of the film plays on the title of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the new reincarnation of which (New START) was signed by Obama and Medvedev in April of 2010 after a year of negotiations and four months after the expiry of the previous treaty.

Every stage of these negotiations is carefully followed in the film. Moscow, aware that reducing the number of nuclear missiles was really important for Obama, was doing its utmost to link it to the freezing of the missile defence programme, which they had long been demanding. Washington, for its part ready to freeze the programme, tried to keep the two issues separate. By treating every turn of the negotiations as “dramatic”, the film-makers somehow forget that naturally both sides were entirely sure that nothing really dramatic – i.e to the extent of upsetting the balance between the nuclear potential of Russia and the United States – was likely to happen. Suspending the treaty for 4 months did not make much difference. And yet all the twists and turns of the profoundly boring negotiations take up about half of the film, only to bring the viewers to the conclusion that “Obama’s decision to deal only with Medvedev was paying off.” 

In all, more than a quarter of the film is devoted to stressing the difference between Medvedev and Putin. The commentary talks about “love at first sight” between Medvedev and Obama and shows, without any comment, Medvedev’s adviser, who explains that the Russian and American Presidents enjoyed a particularly good mutual understanding because they were “ both lawyers” (Putin, of course, was also a lawyer, but somehow Obama did not like him that much). The authors of “Putin, Russia and the West” forget nothing: they emphasise Medvedev’s allegiance to genuine democracy and his intention to unravel Putin’s top-down control system, his interest in technology and efforts to start a Russian Silicon Valley ( Skolkovo), his fight against corruption and plans to attract foreign investors. They melt, together with Dmitry Muratov, editor of Novaya Gazeta, at the fact that Medvedev actually expressed sorrow about the murder in broad daylight in the centre of Moscow of a human rights lawyer and a journalist, even remembering – what thoughtfulness! – the names of the 25-year-old journalist’s parents. The Kremlin’s classic ploy of “good cop-bad cop”, which had been seen through by many experts at the very early stages of the “tandem’s” existence, and by virtually everybody by the time the verdict was read out at the second Khodorkovsky trial in December 2010, seems to be taken at face value by the film-makers. Even at this stage they talk about Medvedev’s inability to stand up to Putin!

Meanwhile, Medvedev’s real record during his four years in office shows how much he has actually done not to undermine, but to strengthen, the regime created by Putin. Here are just some of the things sanctioned personally by Medvedev : the war with Georgia, the broadening of FSB powers, the creation of operational police units fighting “extremism” (i.e. dissent), the extension of the presidential term to six years and the parliamentary term to five, the far-reaching plans to militarize the country., etc, etc (see Irina Pavlova’s article 'Under the Spell of the Tandemyths'.

Myths of course can’t last forever. Even 'Putin, Russia and the West' feels obliged to mention in the final part that the 2008 recession “revealed that Russia’s economic success was due to high oil prices rather than eight years of Putin’s presidency”. The documentary shows the unhappiness of workers losing their jobs during the crisis, especially in one-factory towns, but fails to address many other painful problems of Russian life which have been hidden from the West thanks, primarily, to its own indifference, but also, of course, to the glittering façade which has been tirelessly built by sophisticated Russian propaganda.

One of the most important issues, which can’t help affecting the West’s relations with Russia, especially when it attempts to do business, is the ugly transformation of the country’s law-enforcement bodies and their FSB patrons in high places into criminal gangs. This, undoubtedly, was one of the reasons behind the outburst of protest in December 2011. Arrests on trumped-up charges, illegal confiscation of property, torture in custody, unsolved murders and - at the core of it all - utter dependence of the judiciary on the authorities, which all figure under the umbrella name of “corruption”, have been thoroughly exposed by, to name just two out of dozens of people, the Russian blogger and political activist Alexey Navalny and by the American head of Hermitage Capital investment fund William Browder, whose lawyer Sergey Magnitsky was murdered in pre-trial detention. The discussion of 'Kardin’s list' and 'Magnitsky’s Law' in the US Senate seems to fall directly under the brief of the series 'Putin, Russia and the West' – but is, of course, completely ignored in the film.

And this is no accident. The authors of the film clearly formulate their position on this. When confronted by The Guardian with the question whether she would have made a programme about Gaddafi while he was still alive by interviewing only his cronies and loyal advisers, the series producer Norma Percy responded unexpectedly agreeing with the analogy.

"It's like making a programme about Gaddafi but before the Arab spring. When the Russian spring happens you talk to the Russian opposition.” This surely means that in a country with no free media, where any dissent is suppressed, where protesters are beaten up, imprisoned or murdered the documentary-maker would talk only to the rulers. One can easily imagine the films Norma Percy would have made about the Soviet Union – it’s doubtful whether she would have noticed Sakharov or Solzhenitsyn. In the Soviet Union of course, hardly anybody, apart from fearless heroes, dared open their mouths. In today’s Russia, despite all the pressures and threats some people do, but Norma Percy is not interested in talking to them…

In the BBC programme Newswatch series director Paul Mitchell gives a slightly different explanation of their choice of subjects: “It (Jonathan Powell’s interview) was recorded at the time when politics in Russia had essentially gone dormant. The NGOs barely played any real role. Unfortunately, they had been cut out. What’s happened in the last few months is that Russia suddenly has become incredibly interesting, the NGOs have become incredibly interesting…”

Paul Mitchell surely does not notice that his words about NGOs literally echo Putin’s words about Politkovskaya, which are quoted twice in the film: “Her influence on political life in Russia was insignificant.” The activity of Russian NGOs in March 2011 (when the interview with Powell was done) is hard to overestimate, although of course, as Paul Mitchell rightly puts it, they had to work in very difficult circumstances, relying mostly on the enthusiasm of their members: they helped people in prisons, explained the ways of legally defending an individual against the state, they monitored the rise of racism in the country and tried to stop ecological disasters. But this did not seem like 'playing a real role' to the director of 'Putin, Russia and the West'… 

Or maybe Paul Mitchell, despite the three years of research, just did not know what was happening in Russia or was not sufficiently curious? Or maybe the consultant of the series, Angus Roxburgh, did not provide him with the relevant information? “We do not interview pundits. We don’t interview journalists… We only interview people who were inside the room taking the decisions… presidents, prime-ministers,” Norma Percy says proudly in the same TV programme. Obviously, this is an absolutely legitimate and often fruitful method, but if, before interviewing the people at the top, you do not talk to pundits or journalists, who tell you something beyond the official line, you risk getting a distorted picture. And then it turns out that “Russia has suddenly become very interesting”. Maybe earlier too it had not been as “dormant” as it seemed to your advisers? I doubt whether a 'power vertical' approach to gathering information works in any country, but it certainly does not help much in Russia.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West has lost a great part of its interest in Russia. The fear was replaced first by euphoria about the country’s transformation, and then by indifference to its sliding back to its former self. That is why when it comes to protests in the streets of Russian cities or Russia’s vetoing the UN resolution on Syria, thus basically supporting President Assad’s massacre of his opponents, many people in the West feel puzzled and shocked. Unfortunately, apart from a number of individual instances, the BBC has failed to give its viewers an objective picture of Russian people or of Russia’s rulers, and missed a rare opportunity to explain Russia’s relations with the West.