Vitaly Mansky’s Putin’s Witnesses exposes the kingmakers who killed democracy

P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958) is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.

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BIFF 2018: We’ve all witnessed the decline and fall of Russian democracy but where did it go wrong? In Putin’s Witnesses (2018) Vitaly Mansky turns the spotlight on the chief culprit and reveals some home truths about his home country.

Russian democracy, if it ever took root at all, has at any rate long since withered on the vine. Strongman Vladimir Putin picked it apart from the inside and substituted a disingenuous charade. Yet who can forget the hopeful beginnings of the post-Soviet order? How could it all go so terribly wrong? The search for answers starts here, with the remarkable footage assembled by that formidable documentary-film impresario in exile, Vitaly Mansky.

Putin’s Witnesses (2018), which won the prize for best documentary at KVIFF, takes us on a remarkable and very personal journey. In reworking and reframing his earlier, commissioned material, including pro-Putin propaganda, Mansky traces his own path, from unwitting accomplice of a deeply embedded authoritarian agenda to its unflinching whistle-blower. Hence, we get closer to the man who is Vladimir Putin than he ever intended, but we also get pretty close to the man who is Vitaly Mansky. The filmmaker has a broader, metaphorical place in the movie, however, as a kind of archetype. He stands for all Russians, past and present, who have passively borne witness to the betrayal of one cherished ideal after another.

The film is a fascinating factual investigation but also a compelling moral statement, and Mansky speaks to us with all the authority of a reformed man, as one of the misguided souls to hitch his horse to the wrong wagon. He was once the tool of Putin’s propaganda machine. Now he documents how the early members of Putin’s team who dared to dissent have been ruthlessly purged from public life. He does so at considerable personal cost and risk, notwithstanding his relocation to the relative safety of Latvia. Thus he delivers a message to his countrymen by the most powerful known medium, that of example: Don’t be mere witnesses to the making of your own history.

Our point of departure, then, is the sense of responsibility he, Mansky, and Russians in general, must share for standing by and watching the rise to power of this political opportunist and enemy of democracy. This makes for a highly personal film. The opening images set the tone: home-movie-style footage of Mansky and family. We follow their reactions to the TV news on New Year’s Eve, 1999 – the eve, no less, of a new millennium. Yeltsin has unexpectedly announced his resignation, effective immediately. The sheer intimacy of the images lend them a peculiar power to transport us back to that historical moment, to share (and perhaps recall) the sense of disbelief.

Vitaly Mansky receives honors at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

As viewers our disbelief may also extend to Mansky’s stubborn determination to keep filming his family’s reactions, in defiance of all protests. Thus, we find ourselves in Russia and, specifically, the very bosom of Mansky’s household, at the close of the millennium. This represents a huge Gestalt switch, to recall that first sight of Putin, the complete unknown, emerging from nowhere (it seemed), to become, to all intents and purposes, the Head of State.

What is remarkable, as our filmic gaze increasingly turns towards this new figure on the Russian public stage, is not only how close we get to the enigma that is Putin but also to the behind-the-scenes machinations, which brought him to power. Here are glimpses of customarily unseen institutional forces, which continue to shape and animate the state apparatus. The film thus highlights an otherwise occluded truth: the depressing continuity of Russian power-politics. We see nowhere more clearly than in this remarkable film, how the ruling elite has adapted to, and ultimately triumphed over, the democratic impulse, which had once seemed strong enough to bring genuine change to this deeply authoritarian political order.

We are thus transported back to the fin de siècle, par excellence, and a fascinatingly personal experience of a major public upheaval, and, as it turns out, a new political era in the making. We see, through Mansky’s eyes, the making of a new Russia for the 21st Century, or, more accurately, the re-emergence of the tried and tested practices of the past. The sad reality is that there were no other perspectives to bring to bear, to supplement Mansky’s, and lend the film an aura of objectivity. No expert or commentator inside Russia can speak freely about the events in question. As Mansky suggests in an interview with Jean Perret, reproduced in the film’s press release, ‘[T]o assume that they would have taken part in the film, and if they had taken part, that they would enrich it with any revelations carrying historical truthfulness, would be extremely naïve.’

The film hinges, then, not on ‘voices of authority’ but an on-screen encounter with the man himself – and here there is much to learn. We learn a whole lot more about how and why he is not to be trusted, as a man who can say black is white with disarming sincerity. Just listen to his heartfelt ‘oath of allegiance’ to democracy and liberalism, and remember that his subsequent actions have proved it, not just worthless, but a statement of truly risible hypocrisy. For all that, it is hardly possible to watch this movie without also feeling the quiet power and even the attraction of this curious figure.

Is Putin charismatic? On the basis of a cursory appraisal we would surely say ‘No’ but we would just as surely be dead wrong – and quite possibly also dead. For he is the quintessential strong(-man) silent type, that ‘man of few words’ to be found in some gin-joint or gambling den (though I’m sure our readers will steer clear of them). It would be a big mistake to dismiss him as unremarkable, let alone harmless, for his are the proverbial deep-running waters.

With his air of quizzical watchfulness and half smile of ironical self-satisfaction, he exudes composure. As you reluctantly inhale the second-hand cigarette smoke, you are bound to be wary. You suspect he does not suffer fools gladly, and you would be ill advised to become his fool or, for that matter, his witness. For Putin embodies all the dangerous power of the KGB, which, of course, is where his career began in all its febrile obscurity. This is a subtle but powerful form of charisma, with all the decorous ambivalence of a macho-market aftershave. Like Old Spice, it is meant to fill us, not with rapture, but a quiet awe.

Putin’s ‘charisma’ raises another difficult question. The apparent sincerity of his eulogy to democracy is hard to resist, and it represents a memorable cinematic moment, as he ‘lays his heart on his sleeve,’ in close-up, for the camera. Was this a genuine expression of heartfelt ideals, subsequently corrupted by the temptations of power, or was it pure manipulation, saying whatever a gullible public wants to hear if it will further his own cause? Mansky, at any rate, is in no doubt. As he told me over coffee and biscuits in Karlovy Vary, ‘I believe that in fact it was manipulation from his side because he was brought to power by the liberals and at that time the Russian Federation was, at least in theory, a democratic country. So I believe he was working with this historical moment.’

Putin’s motivations might be cynical and well hidden, but they are not hard to comprehend. We have a pretty good idea why he did what he did – to concentrate power in his own hands and keep it there – but how is another matter. How could a democratic transformation so far advanced be so easily derailed? Here we need to recall a little historical context.

In the light of subsequent East-West estrangement, it’s hard to believe how heavily Americans and others were meddling in Russian affairs in the 1990s. This was a unique historical moment when outsiders were welcomed with open arms. Harvard economists, among others, flocked to Moscow to explain how to privatise public assets. The reformed communists were fast learners and initiated a globally unprecedented wholesale ‘overnight’ privatisation, often referred to as ‘the big bang.’ Its effects, among other things, were to cripple GDP and entrench world-class levels of inequality for years to come. Also with the help of ‘expert’ Western advice, the new regime drafted and refined a ‘democratic’ constitution, which combined an American-style President with a British-style Parliament, and seemed destined to create the worst of both worlds. Even without abuses, enormous power was concentrated – constitutionally – in the hands of the President.

The trajectory of Russian change was at least partly the consequence of the blinkered mainstream view of our own social order, which equates democracy with periodic elections, and freedom with the institution of private property. Russia thus became the caricature we mistakenly attributed to our own system. The very language we use betrays the problem. We commonly think of our system of elections as democracy, which it is not. Our political system is in any case more than a system of elections. More accurately it is liberal democracy or, even more precisely, representative government combined with liberal constitutionalism.

Mansky is right to call Russians to account for what has happened to their country, but the rest of us should be called to account too, and not least our Western leaders. The acquiescence of ordinary Russians has a long history but so does misguided Western interference, the stoking of a civil war in the aftermath of the October Revolution being the most conspicuous and surely the most disastrous example.

Westerners and Russians alike underestimated the importance of institutional checks and balances, and the juridical protection of individual rights, especially freedom of expression. Their neglect allowed the hallowed Czarist system, already reinvented in its Soviet – or Stalinist – form, to now creak into pseudo-democratic mode. In such a system elections bestow absolute power on the new leader and hence elections themselves are of little enduring meaning or value, given the absolute power to ‘elect’ to have no more new leaders, at least as long as He lives. Yeltsin knew this and the film makes crystal clear that this was why he took such care to handpick his successor. The prosperity and safety of his family depended on it. So we see that very little has changed. The Czar, as always, picks his successor. The only modification is a token nod to modernism in the form of a new ‘democratic’ ritual to rubber-stamp his choice.

I hate to say I told you so, but here is my warning to a miniscule audience of academics back in 1997:

[T]he ostentatious role of the West’s ‘guiding hand’ in Yeltsin’s reforms, given their punitive impact on…most Russians, has contributed to the rise of a virulently anti-Western Russian nationalism. When Yeltsin finally steps down…such political forces may be in a position to assume the reins of power. Under the existing constitution…the potential for the abuse of such power, up to and including the elimination of all vestiges of a liberal democracy, is considerable.

So much for voices in the wilderness! Such bold prognoses notwithstanding, what looks inevitable with the gift of hindsight on closer examination appears much more contingent, subject to the vicissitudes of luck and circumstance. The Chechen war, in particular, loomed large in Putin’s rise to power. He was able to foment and exploit a growing hysteria about the terrorist threat and thus present himself as the very hawk and strongman Russians needed to keep them safe. The film raises more questions than answers regarding just how far Putin and his colleagues in the FSS (successor to the KGB) were prepared to go in this regard.

Is it really possible, as some suggest, that FSS operatives attacked their own citizens as a way to demonise the Chechen rebels? Conspiracy, at any rate, was long the stock and trade of the KGB, as it was for its traditional adversaries. The CIA-orchestrated ‘popular revolt’ in Cuba in 1961 – the infamous ‘Bay of Pigs’ fiasco – is one of the most notorious examples to come to light. That would nevertheless pale by comparison! If the charges against FSS should prove correct, it would be a scandal of unprecedented proportions – for any country. As it happens, we get to see Putin – up close, on camera – expressing moral repulsion at the unconscionable Chechen attack on innocent civilians. Under the circumstances, we might grant ourselves a modicum of doubt about his sincerity.

With forensic precision, Mansky has shed new light on the nature and causes of what he dubs the ‘grave and far-advanced illness’ afflicting his country. One can only admire the courage, determination and skill he has brought to the task. In the manner of Werner Herzog at his best, he just leaves the camera running – whatever the cost – until the deeper truths emerge. No one describes his methods more pithily than Mansky himself. As he observed near the close of our interview, ‘If I film a man dying, then he is going to die.’

Putin’s Witnesses is a powerful historical document, but it is so much more besides. It is a resounding call to all of us to take responsibility, to learn about our past and to act upon it. As long as we remain passive witnesses to Putin and his ilk, and there are many more like him waiting in the wings, or already walking the corridors of power, then, in Mansky’s words, ‘we turn out to be accomplices.’

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