‘A thorn in the side of the authorities’

A filmmaker reflects on observing Russia’s grassroots pro-democracy movement as those within it size up their next move.

By Oliver Englehart

In December of 2011, Russia began to witness its greatest wave of street protests since the fall of the Soviet Union amidst widespread allegations of fraud in parliamentary elections.

Protests have continued throughout 2012. After changes to the constitution, Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in April 2012 for a third term and could now be in power until 2024.

With a majority in parliament, the ruling party has been able to rapidly pass a spate of ominous new laws in Russia.

Unsanctioned acts of protest now face massively disproportionate fines. Defamation laws have been reintroduced. Non-governmental organisations that receive any foreign funding are now categorised as “foreign agents”.

And the legal definition of treason is currently being broadened.

In July 2012, Putin asked the FSB, the successor organisation of the notorious KGB, to deal in a timely way with attempts to destabilise the social and political situation in Russia.

While it is clear that Putin enjoys large-scale support, the new laws clamping down on dissent are a worrying precedent for a young democracy.

In July of this year, I set off to make a film for the Al Jazeera series, Activate, about the grassroots pro-democracy struggle in Russia’s nascent opposition movement.

From the plethora of different activists and voices, we chose to follow Roman Dobrokhotov on his mission for democratisation.

Roman had a colourful history of being a thorn in the side of the authorities. He told me he had been arrested about 120 times for his actions, although he had lost count long ago.

I first heard of Roman in 2008, when he gained international notoriety for heckling Dmitry Medvedev, the former president, about changes to the Russian constitution at a Kremlin conference.

The next time he reappeared on my radar was in April of this year, when in the wake of Pussy Riot’s imprisonment, Roman tried to stage a mass prayer at Moscow’s main cathedral called “Mother of God, Banish Putin!”, a lyric from Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer.

I read in the newspaper how Roman had been arrested, and subsequently beaten up by thugs on his way home after his release from police custody. I got in touch.

There were a few expletives used in the making of this film. Covering an activist in the fluid political situation of Russia was difficult. Before filming, we had no idea what would happen during the shoot, if anything.

This was not meant to be a scripted interview-based documentary. It was meant to be a live embed on the frontlines of the opposition movement and full of action.

By the time I arrived for the bulk of the filming in September, I wondered whether I was too late for the party.

Pussy Riot had been tried, convicted and sentenced. The media response to the September 15 protest was a bit flat.

Was the opposition movement fizzling out? Were the government’s draconian new laws clamping down on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly having the desired effect on activists? No, I was told by the activists, it was simply that the honeymoon period was over, and the players were sizing up their next moves.

Moscow is a cosmopolitan city, where activism is combined with full time jobs, relationships and a social life. The narrative only started to unfold in my head when I zoomed out to look at the bigger picture. I started to notice how I kept on seeing the same faces, and most of the tensions had their roots in the political situation.  

Roman was difficult to direct and that is testament to his authenticity. Looking over the rushes, he provided his best bits of documentary naturally, rather than when I was trying to shoehorn sequences.

I think the fact that I do not speak Russian was also a good thing as it meant I kept the camera rolling in a way I probably would not have done filming in English. This brought about some of my favourite moments; moments which seemed unreal or absurd.

In the film, Roman mentions Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, recalling the epithet that once you can laugh at something, you stop being afraid. I really enjoyed the sense of humour of the activists in what for them are pretty insidious circumstances.

On my final night of scheduled filming, as I said goodbye to Roman, he mentioned that he would be doing an action the following week on Putin’s 60th birthday. Sixty is the official age of retirement in Russia.

I returned to London to start the editing process and immediately booked a flight back to Moscow the following weekend for the action entitled “Send Grandad into Retirement”.

Opposition activists were planning to take symbolic retirement gifts to the presidential administration.

I met Roman at home, we drank an Armagnac and he made a toast to freedom. I will let you see what happens next, suffice to say I think the police helped prove his point about the state of civil liberties in Russia.


You can watch this episode of Activate from Monday, November 19, at the following times GMT: Monday: 2230; Tuesday: 0930; Wednesday: 0330; Thursday: 1630; Friday: 2230; Saturday: 0930; Sunday: 0330; Monday: 1630.

Click here to return to the Activate map.