The Kremlin Cynic

June 27, 2017

Vladimir Putin’s entry into the ranks of “Stone’s heroes” is a milestone in his biography.  However, it’s hardly likely to satisfy the president himself, writes Open World author Stanislav Kuvaldin.  This article first appeared at in Russian.   

In his documentary films, Oliver Stone tends to leave the technical details of the shoot in the film. This was the case in his film ‘Comandante’, dedicated to Fidel Castro, and also his film ‘Persona non grata’ about Yasser Arafat.  He didn’t stray from this principle in his latest film, “The Putin Interviews”.

Throughout the course of his discussions with the Russian president at his dacha at Novo-Ogarevo, in the imperial halls of the Kremlin, or in his Sochi residence, Stone is not only filming Putin, but also includes into the set such equipment as a long microphone, a moving camera, assistants who are trying to avoid being in the shot and other aspects of the filming process.

Perhaps this was intended by the director, in order to give his “picture” a little added authenticity.  However, in the case of the Russian president, he seems to have achieved a very different effect: the Kremlin’s ceremonial halls and Putin’s dacha lounges give the impression of a facade which has been put together specifically for the benefit of the film’s main hero.

Vladimir Putin’s entry into the ranks of “Stone’s heroes” is a milestone in his biography.  However, it’s hardly likely to satisfy the president himself.  Stone carefully dedicates his documentary films to figures who do not enjoy the best reputation in the American mainstream.  Being a man of long-held left-wing convictions, Stone accuses the American establishment of attempting to achieve world domination by any means necessary, and in his films he attempts to show the truth behind these so-called “outcasts”.

However, the problem lies precisely in the fact that this method — controversial, but still effective in revealing an image of charismatic people such as Fidel Castro — in the instance of Putin leaves the viewer in perplexity.  Stone worked on the film for nearly two years, and the Putin Interviews were recorded between 2015 and 2017.

Regardless of this, Stone fails to draw from the president any kind of genuine truth that would prove to be a valuable message for humanity.

It’s difficult to say to what extent Stone is pleased with the finished product, as well as how much he managed to learn about Putin during the two years they spent together in intermittent intervals.  In his interviews Stone repeatedly stressed that Putin, with his views, would look like a regular American conservative politician.

Given what Stone thinks about American conservatism, this is hardly the most inspiring revelation.  Anyway, leaving aside the personal feelings of the author; what did the viewers learn from the film?

First of all, it’s worth noting that Stone is a peculiar type of interviewer.  He seldom asks questions.  Often when he was talking with Putin he would simply set out his own views that he had formed long before the interview, suggesting that Putin agree with what he says.

For example, at the beginning of the film, Stone simply tells Putin facts about his own biography; about his uneasy childhood in Leningrad, the importance in the president’s life of Judo and his admission to the KGB school.  Throughout this scene Putin is unable to get a word in, as everything he is expected to say is already explained by the director.

What’s curious, though, is Putin’s remark that he ended up in the KGB through conscription, as in the Soviet Union, after graduating from university one was obliged to work wherever the government wanted you to.

This will cause confusion among those familiar with the realities of the late Soviet period and the conventions of selection for the KGB, as well as among those who understand that the concept of hereditary service in the secret service goes against common sense.

From a psychological perspective this is a very important detail.  Putin does not even deny that this “conscription” coincided with his own desires, instead he presents this fact as an exotic detail, thus distancing himself from the KGB and suggesting that his fate was predetermined by other forces other than himself.

Likewise, still in Putin’s presence, Oliver Stone talks about the president’s achievements, among them “restoring respect for the elderly”, raising pensions, developing the technology industry (it’s hard to say why, but Oliver Stone seems to think so), and strengthening the power of the state in Russia.  All that’s left for Putin to do is to nod in affirmation at the appropriate moments, or occasionally interject with a weak objection to the director’s left-wing worldview when it contradicts Putin’s view of his own achievements.

Putin objected to Stone’s praise for “stopping privatisation” (which is in fact not true) and said that he had actually got privatisation under the control of the law, making it beneficial both to the country as well as to business.  This is also far from the truth, and therefore it suits Vladimir Putin quite well.

In no less detail Stone gives Putin his views on what he thinks America and Wall Street’s plans are for Russia.  From the point of view of Stone, the United States is trying to break down Russia’s economy, impose regime change and subordinate the country to American interests.  To a Russian audience this may seem like a parody of REN TV [one of the largest Russian state TV channels], whereas to an American audience it is simply an expression of Stone’s extravagant views which are already relatively well-known.  Putin then has to proceed softly so as not to offend the director, making it clear that he believes not all American businessmen and politicians think that way, while not excluding the possibility that “some people” may think that way.

In general, Putin’s behaviour throughout his interviews with Oliver Stone seems to be akin to how one would treat a deserved, but nevertheless inadequate admirer.  You can’t offend him, his attention is flattering to a certain extent, but the admirer has to be put in his place when the picture that he draws, or the views attributed to the “idol” could damage an already unquestionable reputation.

Nevertheless, Putin relatively patiently spent time with the American director over the course of the last two years, although, it’s clear that he had the chance to spend his leisure time elsewhere.  Oliver Stone himself suggests that through this film Vladimir Putin intended to transmit some kind of message to American society.  If this is indeed so, it means that all other channels for such a transition are closed.  However, the content of the message itself raises some questions.  In the film Putin discusses at considerable length the need for a balance of powers in the world today, and explains that NATO as an organisation does not pose a threat to Russia, but that leaving the security decisions of so many countries to a structure that is dominated by the United States is a definite cause for concern.  The American missile defence system can give off the illusion of security, whereas in fact it could lead to careless decision making, and leads to a number of observations as to the state of the international balance of power.

With these argument one can agree or disagree, but in any case they are a part of the framework of serious discussions on international questions.  Putin seems to be trying to show that he is not a disturber of the peace, nor is he trying to take on the “system”; he is trying to show that he simply wants to agree with everything in an amicable way.

Perhaps the most revealing moment is Putin’s assessment of Edward Snowden.  For Oliver Stone the former National Security Agency employee, who decided to leak a great hoard of state secrets, is an unconditional moral authority.  Stone even seems to give approval of Russia’s decision to grant Edward Snowden asylum.  However, Putin responds coldly to any enthusiastic assumptions, stating that Russia has not extradited Snowden because America has never returned Russian citizens who fled there, although he repeatedly offered to sign an extradition treaty.  As regards the leaked NSA activity, Putin seems angered only by the fact that they were shown to have spied on foreign heads of state.  He refrains from further assessment, only to hint that if Russia had such technology then nobody would know how it operates.  Putin’s evaluation of Snowden is cold-blooded and typical of a former member of the security services, not interested in the struggle for justice for its own sake.

However, Putin seems to relax into the agreeable situation created by Stone, where the interviewer clearly sympathises with his interlocutor.  Not expecting any dirty journalistic tricks or a rebuke, he begins to talk about the fact that he cannot prohibit the opposition from accessing television, as in Russia there are “hundreds of channels” that can not easily be monitored.  He also states calmly that the main principle of Russian politics is to not interfere in other countries’ affairs.  Or that the order he established did not appeal to those businessmen who earned their money through their connections with the government, rather than through their own talents.  Each of these statements, authored entirely by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, became perfect satire for social networks.  This in part explains why the interlocutor in such “open conversations” with the head of the Russian state turns out to be the one seeking an alternative truth; Oliver Stone.

The interior and surroundings are important for any portrait.  Surely Stone was aiming for something akin to this, but the techniques used in the film, where the technical details of the shoot are shown to the audience, paint a very convincing picture of the emptiness surrounding the president.

He is simply a figure, drifting between the Kremlin halls, or the rooms of country residences, accompanied by guards, as Dmitry Peskov is occasionally caught for a moment on the edge of the scene.

In one episode we learn that the president’s daughter has come to visit him at the dacha (Putin also mentions his grandsons for the first time), but they remain somewhere behind the scenes, a mere object of conversation.  The president plays hockey, but Stone manages to show his participation in this team game as if there were no team element whatsoever: the president comes striding out of the locker room, next he appears on the podium to talk about his own individual sporting achievements.  As we learn from the film; Putin even practices judo without a coach, because (it’s difficult to see whether it is a joke), he is himself a master.

We’ve all had time to discuss the farcical episode in which the president shows Stone a video demonstrating Russia’s military prowess in Syria, which turns out to be a video showing American forces in Afghanistan.

But even if we choose to forget about this, it is alarming to think on the basis of what information the president of the Russian Federation is making serious decisions, if such a blunder like this could make its way into a film intended for an international audience.  Other examples that appear throughout the film which demonstrate how the president has his finger on the country’s pulse also raise a lot of questions.  For example, the night hike with Stone at the command centre, where the president holds a video call with the Ministry of Emergency Situations, receiving a report on snowdrifts on Russia’s highways.  If this was intended to demonstrate the centre’s capabilities, then it hardly achieved the intended effect: it’s hard to say whether the president requests entirely unnecessary reports for fun, or whether he is genuinely concerned about snowdrifts on Russia’s highways.

Stone managed to paint a picture of a very lonely man, far off from the charismatic leader and warrior for world justice he is held up to be.  Putin desperately tries to show that all he wants is to achieve a good bargain for everyone, that he looks at everything from a practical point of view, seemingly not understanding that his other words show very clearly why not everyone is willing to trust him.

Stanislav Kuvaldin is a journalist and historian.  He works with Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Arzamas, and others.

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