Is Russian President Vladimir Putin showing his true colours?
Early on he said he would “reclaim what was rightfully Russia’s” and now this seems to be playing out in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and other countries. Hillary Clinton called it “re-sovietisation”.
And there are other more subtle ways in which Putin seems to be turning Russia’s clocks back – with apparent support from many Russians.
In the four-part series In Search of Putin’s Russia we travel the country, meeting Russians from vastly different parts of society, exploring the nature of Russia today and asking how they feel about their recent history under Putin. What do Russians want and why do they repeatedly vote for a man who seems to be pulling them back to a new version of their past?
Andrei Nekrasov, well-known Russian writer, filmmaker and free-speech blogger, leads this journey across his homeland. From power brokers to prison reformers, analysts to anarchists, bloggers to priests, Nekrasov engages with a range of people in cities, provinces and the countryside.
In Search Of Putin’s Russia digs deep into the Russian landscape and psyche, giving an analytical overview as well as personal insights into its recent history under Putin.
The first episode, Kremlin Rules, can be seen on Al Jazeera English from Thursday, October 29 at 2000GMT.
By filmmaker Melanie Anstey
Almost 30 years ago I was part of a team who made one of the first series of documentaries from the then Soviet Union by a western TV network – Ted Turner’s network TBS: Portrait of the Soviet Union, a series in six parts.
The legendary film director John Huston wrote wryly that Turner had colourised the Soviet Union pink, a reference to the archive of black-and-white films he had bought and was turning into Technicolour, colourising them. It was a bold move for a broadcaster at a moment when most of the world shunned the Soviet Union, and Turner was also funding an alternative sports event to the Olympic Games, the Goodwill Games.
I don’t think we were pink, as a team. We just wanted, all of us, to get a bit closer to real Russians, even if we knew that part of the deal was having KGB minders, and Potemkin families and events to film (Potemkin was the general who travelled ahead of Catherine the Great’s entourage to make it look as though all was well in her Tsardom). Even so, for a moment the iron curtain felt like it was made of cloth, and could be moved aside for a glimpse of real lives, and real people – in some ways just like us, in others exotic and mysterious, but just as human and just as fascinating.
As someone who had nightmares about wars from an early age, from a Russian-British family, communicating, talking, understanding, meeting, was, for me the way to avoid the insanity and futility of hostility and conflict.
Now there is at least one generation of people for whom the Cold War is something from spy movies; the Berlin wall a moment in history, an unimaginable period, like the second world war, or the Stalin purges, or other distant historical tragedies.
From the Soviet Union, Russia moved into a period of independence, wild west capitalism and now the Putin era, and I have made films in Russia through all of these modern periods of Russia’s life. The films have always been poetic in their intensity and revealing in ways which films in other countries rarely are.
When I started out filmmaking it was fashionable for well-travelled filmmakers to fly in and fly out of foreign countries with intelligent interpreters of what they found for the home audience. These days it is no longer like that. These days, it is possible to find local filmmakers who can show their country in all its nuances and with a true depth of understanding – from Russia directly, not always with love, but with respect for its history and cultural values and traditions.
Russian writer and director Andrei Nekrasov has spent many years in other countries – and is a mirror image of myself in a way. I was born in the UK but with a fascination for Russia. He was born in Russia but has lived in Berlin, Paris, London and so on. Almost every single other member of our team is Russian. To them, showing the country the way it really is, is even more important than it is for me, especially in this new era of heightened tension between Russia and the West.
We still don’t understand Russia, but working with Andrei, I feel I have got closer. I hope our films will bring our audiences closer to what it really means to be Russian now, in this third term of a Putin presidency.
It’s especially hard to make films in Russia, but I think it’s hard to make good films everywhere – but perhaps Russia does have a bit of an edge. There is an unpredictability about it, which makes it quite exhausting.
Then there are the fears of course. It would be foolish to say that you don’t wonder as you embark on a project like this, who will listen to your calls, hack into your computer, monitor your movements. They do of course. A wise Russian friend of mine once said it’s the KGB (now FSB’s) job to keep an eye on you, not the other way around. And I decided to stop worrying. It wasn’t my job. They could do it, the worrying, the following and looking over their shoulders.
Nevertheless, Russia is not known for its love of journalists, despite the many good and brave ones. It’s not known either for its transparency or ease with criticism of itself. So it was no surprise to me perhaps to have a young man filming me with his iPhone in a deliberately intimidating way as I made my way from a restaurant to my hotel in Moscow, or for a colleague to receive strange phone calls when she was filming in Nizhniy Tagil. They were out there, we knew, like the sunshine or the rain.
It was something we talked seriously about before going of course. I had been involved in setting up a TV station in Tbilisi, Georgia, a balanced channel which the Russians could have construed as anti-Russian for that very reason. Andrei has made films which can hardly be described as pro-Putin: the story of the death by poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, for example, the story of the war in Georgia, and of the apartment bombings in Ryazan. I have not been an investigator like him, but I don’t believe in avoiding difficult topics or the main story of the day.
So, you could say we took a calculated risk, which could have rebounded on us at any point. At times of especial difficulty, we did wonder if forces were at work against us that we couldn’t see.
Luckily, Al Jazeera wanted a series about ordinary people, and so access was less of a priority than perhaps for other kinds of series, so we had to bang on fewer official doors than we might have done. Instead we had the fascinating and difficult task of choosing which stories to pick out of literally millions: which stories showed you the beating pulse under Russia’s skin, that revealed to you a glimpse of her enigmatic heart.
Making a series about the popular view of Putin posed a challenge, because it is certainly Andrei’s view that many people have a wrong perspective about this. In his view the Russians are not the victims of a quasi-dictator, but rather that Putin is a leader who in many ways reflects the majority of Russians, who they really are and what they really want.
I would say this certainly isn’t true of all Russians, but certainly of many. And it is not that they are victims of propaganda, although the country is not short of brilliant state controlled ideological programming, but rather that the media reflects what they want to believe, what comes naturally to many Russians to believe.
Russians are proud of Russia and they want it to be understood and respected. As one of our contributors said of the West, “They liked us when we were poor and they could send us food parcels. Now that we are strong and grown up and arrogant…and we are arrogant”.
It has been a fascinating year. Working with Andrei and our AP Vetta has taken me to places in the Russian mind, that I could never have travelled as the daughter of a Russian emigree from the White Russian generation of emigrees. I have learned more about this country on this series than before.
In Search of Putins Russia set out as a journalistic exercise in exploring four key aspects of Russian society under the leadership of Vladimir Putin: politics, economics, empire and culture.
Through my collaboration with Andrei Nekrasov, it has become even more than that ambitious task. It has become the creative exercise of capturing the zeitgeist of contemporary Russia through those four broad themes, on a deeper, historical, and philosophical level. You can’t understand the present without a glimpse of the past. And you can’t understand either without an understanding of the Russian mind, soul and way of life.
No story lives without its characters, and we have some fascinating and outspoken characters from a woman opposition mayor in Petrozavodsk in Karelia near Finland, to an amnestied fighter in the North Caucasian nation of Dagestan; from a disillusioned soldier back from the Ukraine, to a survivor of cancer, who has invented his own currency, and many many others.
There may be no more iron curtain, but I hope that we have raised the fabric curtain sufficiently to reveal the vibrant theatre of Russian life.