putin / russian politics

Late to the Party: Thoughts on ‘The Putin Interviews’, part I

When it comes to movies, TV shows, and even books, I am notorious for being “late to the party”. They’ve made a fifth ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’? I watched the original film for the first time last month. ‘Orange is the New Black’ Season 5 opens to critical acclaim? What’s that? I bought Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin when it first came out in 2012 – and it has sat on my shelf unread for five years now.

So it’s actually quite surprising that I got ahold of Oliver Stone’s new 4-part documentary ‘The Putin Interviews’ the same month it aired – despite not having Showtime, being behind on the regular review schedule, and receiving advice from my friends not to watch it. I’m still late to the party, of course – the documentary was aired almost two weeks ago; critics, journalists and the punditocracy have already voiced their (mostly) disapproval; and the companion book has been published. I’ve taken great care to avoid reading any reviews about TPI, however, in order to head in with a tabula rasa.

So below are my loose, stream-of-consciousness impressions of part I of ‘The Putin Interviews’.

Disclaimer: This is my first time watching any of Oliver Stone’s movies. I know nothing about the man.

Stone wastes no time in rolling out the klyukva: red and yellow, the hammer and sickle, matryoshka dolls, “Soviet font”, and troops marching on Red Square within the flashy opening credits. This is not an encouraging sign. But things do improve later on.

Part 1 of ‘The Putin Interviews’ appears to focus on biographical info. However, I’ve read enough about Putin for most of the information in TPI-1 to be old news. Putin’s family history and upbringing are covered in a few minutes, as are the events of the ’80s and ’90s. There are a lot of holes in this story – it seems only the most visible bits made it in. In fairness, though, filling in those holes would likely require more time and space than an interview/documentary allows. But if this documentary’s duty is to inform or correct a misleading narrative, then it must contextualize.

Putin relates his experiences of working with Yeltsin and Bush, and comments on NATO expansion. Clips of Yeltsin’s drunkenness and soundbites from Putin’s 2007 Munich speech are played. But again, this information will sound familiar to seasoned/semiseasoned Russia-watchers, and will be incomplete for those new to the game.

I’m not sure I like Stone as an interviewer. On the one hand, unlike other Western TV personalities Stone is not consumed by the urge to demonstrate “toughness on Putin”. As any seasoned interviewer (or a careful viewing of the Fareed Zakaria or Megyn Kelly interview with Putin) will tell you, hurling insulting questions at an interviewee is likely to do more harm than good: the interviewee will usually retreat into canned talking points, so nothing is really learned; the viewer/reader gets a show but no insight into what makes the interviewee tick. Stone avoids such confrontation, and for that I’m appreciative. On the other hand, he still brings baggage – not hostile, but conservative, revisionist, maybe even conspiratorial:

I think, or many learned people think, that U.S. strategy right now is to destroy the Russian economy and bring it back down to 1990s levels […]

Stone comes across as nonthreatening and personable, but I do wish he’d pose more challenging questions. Personal preference, really (I find an interview like this more interesting). Perhaps this style will grow on me in the parts to come – or perhaps Stone’s just warming up.

The Russian president looks awkward as all heck under that spotlight, but is for the most part his usual deadpan, reserved self. Though partway through, we do get this:

When Yeltsin offered me the job for the first time, I refused. … He invited me into his office and told me he wanted to appoint me Prime Minister, and that he wanted me to run for President. I told him that was a great responsibility, and that meant I would have to change my life, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. …

It’s one thing when you are a bureaucrat, even a high-level one, you can almost live an ordinary life. You can see your friends, go to the cinema and the theater, and not assume personal responsibility for the fate of millions of people and for everything that is going on in the country. And to assume responsibility for Russia back then was a very difficult thing to do.

Frankly speaking, I didn’t know what President Yeltsin’s final plans were with regard to me. And I didn’t know how long I would be there. Because at any moment the President could tell me, ‘You are fired.’ And there was only one thing I was thinking about, ‘Where to hide my children?’ …

Just imagine, if I were dismissed, I didn’t have any bodyguards. Nothing. And what would I do? How would I live? How would I secure my family? And back then I decided if that was my fate, then I had to go to the end. And I didn’t know beforehand that I would become President. There were no guarantees of that.

That – I haven’t heard before. At least not from the mouth of the man himself. Where is the conspiracy, the Machiavellian plot explaining Putin’s rise favored by the likes of Gessen? Instead, we have a politician and bureaucrat who found himself, somewhat unwittingly and unwillingly, thrust into a historical role at an extraordinarily challenging time for his country. Of course, Putin could be playing Stone, and it seems entirely within his character to do so. But if he is sincere, then this is a much more vulnerable and sensitive Putin than the one I’m used to.

Stone’s attempts to make small talk with the Russian president are frankly hard to watch, but this is made up for by Putin’s attempts at English and that shot of Sandy Mustache Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov awkwardly holding up the boom mike at 44:35. It’s the little things that count.

My overall thoughts on the docuseries thus far? Eh. Hopefully the next installment will be more informative. I’m keeping an open mind.

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