putin / russian politics

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

So, I finally finished ‘The Putin Interviews’! What…a…ride?

A few words before I dive in to the conclusion of ‘The Putin Interviews’:

Reviewing was off to a bad start as I discovered on Jun. 29th that all four original videos of TPI had been taken off Vimeo. I eventually found a new video of part IV, but it was of significantly lower audio quality than the original one. Everything sounded soft, even with the volume turned up on my laptop, so I was able to glean only pieces of the conversation.

Edit 7/2/17: Aaand now all Putin Interviews videos have been taken off Vimeo. It was only a matter of time.

Part IV of TPI focuses on cybersecurity and recent U.S. claims about Russian interference in the presidential election. As such, most of the footage is from February 2017. I can’t help but notice how tired and puffy Putin looks compared to the older clips from ’15 and ’16. (And by the way – Don’t. Smile. Ever.)

Might as well get the remaining nitpicking out of the way while I’m on the subject. A segment where Stone tries to “direct” Putin is downright silly, and I’m glad the Russian president flips the script on him. There are a number of gratuitous Putin hand shots – no, I’m not kidding. In most of these shots, Putin isn’t even gesticulating with them; the camera just jumps to Putin’s hands resting on the table or the arm of a chair. Yes, cameraperson – Putin’s hands are thick and sinewy, but for the love of all that is holy, keep your weird hand-fetish out of the documentary!

*awkward silence, as J.T. contemplates whether she took the “joke” too far*

Stone also doesn’t know how to work with an interpreter (even after 20 hours of interviewing!), referring to Putin in the third person when the president is sitting right in front of him.

Moving on. Stone asks Putin a loaded question regarding allegations of election interference: “So why did you bother to hack the election?”, to which Putin replies (unsurprisingly) that Russia didn’t hack the election at all and that it would be hard to imagine any other country – even Russia – seriously influencing its outcome. He says that talk of “Russian meddling” serves to a) undermine the legitimacy of President Trump, b) create conditions to prevent the U.S. and Russia from improving relations, and c) create additional instruments to wage an internal war.

At 45:00 Stone asks Putin about his personal wealth and the rumors that he’s the richest man in Europe. Putin dismisses the rumors, saying that he has no such wealth. He points out that money doesn’t always bring happiness and you can’t take any of it with you when you die. At least Putin and I can agree on something.

Perhaps the most standout exchange comes somewhere around the 50-minute mark, when Stone brings up concerns about the legitimacy of Russian elections:

Putin: Do you think our goal is to prove anything to anyone? Our goal is to reinforce our country.

Stone: That’s a dangerous argument, because it goes both ways. Those who abuse power always say it’s a question of survival.

Putin: We are not talking about survival and we are not trying to justify ourselves. Certainly taking into account all the negative tendencies you’ve been talking about, the Soviet legacy, the imperialist legacy, it is something in the past. […] This is not a question of helping someone cling to power or to claim it for myself. This is about ensuring economic growth and sustaining it, improving our defense capabilities, and not just during periods of crisis and difficulties.

[…]

Stone: We all know the price of power. When we’re in power too long, we feel, no matter what, that the people need us. Meanwhile, we’ve changed, and we don’t even know it.

Putin: Indeed this is a very dangerous state. If a person in power feels that they have lost it, this bond connecting this person to the country and to the rank and file citizens of the country, then it’s time for them to go.

Stone (looking offscreen, presumably for a clock): What time is it?

Aide: It’s time.

(all laugh.)

So, is ‘The Putin Interviews’ worth watching?

Eh, it depends. If I were rating TPI, I’d give it 3 out of 5 stars – not good, not bad, just middling.

Several glaring problems prevent TPI from achieving “good documentary” status. First is its lack of context. TPI is about as superficial as a Russia special aired by the MSM. As I expressed in multiple ‘Late to the Party’ posts, Stone leaves gaping holes in his retelling of Russian history, ’80s thru 2000s. You may hear about visible, hot-button issues, but for proper background information, you’ll have to pick up several books. Also disappointing is Stone’s failure to follow up on Putin’s claims with any kind of serious, informed challenge. His friendliness is welcome respite from the smugness and bashing I’ve come to expect from Western journalists interviewing Putin, but he lets the Russian president get away with a lot. Nor does Stone seem to realize how thoroughly American (even “left”) his interpretive framework is. In part 1, Stone calls Putin a “real son of Russia” for stopping privatization, only to be told by Putin that he did no such thing. Stone similarly revels in stories of Putin’s defeat of the oligarchs. The oligarchs were bad just like Wall Street is bad. So that must mean Putin is the champion of the little man, right? Well, those who note that many of Putin’s childhood and KGB friends seem to have enriched themselves under his rule might disagree. Stone’s main questions about freedom involve NSA-style surveillance, and he pushes hard on questions concerning LGBT rights – again, an issue Americans and Westerners are more likely to care about than Russians.

Those things being said, TPI has its strong points. Perhaps its biggest success is its humanization of Vladimir Putin. He is presented as a more complex individual than the one we see on television. He’s no choirboy, but no world leader is. Putin comes across as fairly well-informed about U.S. policy (though he occasionally indulges in projection) and pragmatic in his efforts to solve some of the pressing problems that he inherited from the Yeltsin era. The docuseries allows Putin to explain his thinking regarding some of the key controversies that have inflamed tensions between Russia and the U.S. While none of the Russian president’s explanations are new, they will be news to many American viewers because Putin’s side of the story is usually either omitted or bastardized in the MSM. In a similar vein, the parts of TPI detailing how NATO expansion and military buildup on Russia’s border prompted a less-than-warm response from Russia – thereby demonstrating the chill in relations is not entirely Russia’s fault – could be considered a frickin’ public service. Whether you agree with it or not, the Russian perspective on U.S. foreign policy and conflict in Ukraine and Syria is right there for you to see. In theory, better understanding of the Russian POV would help the U.S. develop smarter foreign policy that reduces prospects for open antagonism. I doubt many of our politicians will watch TPI – what with their general lack of spare time and all the criticism TPI has received in the mainstream press – but at least We the People (We the Interested People, anyway) can still watch TPI and learn from it.

‘The Putin Interviews’ is definitely uneven, but it’s bound to be informative to someone.

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One thought on “Late to the Party: Thoughts on ‘The Putin Interviews’, part IV

  1. My biggest… gripe… with the series was – “Who is the intended audience of this?”. It can’t be Russians. I, honestly, found the series extremely boring. It might surprise some, but, for the most part, there is no cult of personality among the Russians. All those widely discussed stunts that Putin performed – diving for amphorae, flying with birds on a motor glider, climbing in the fighter jet or (ehwwwgahd!) riding shirtless on the horse – we just “mehed” through it. The West – they became obsessed with it. I don’t care whether Putin has an entire stable of horses in his Novo Ogaryovo state dacha, or that he in his 60s began playing hockey.

    No – the people are interested in Putin (or anyone as the head of the state) to get stuff done, and concern their words and speeches seriously only if they are followed by the actions. The people began respecting Putin in early 2000s not because of his stunts or the massive “brainwashing” via his biography book (which the vast majority of his potential electorate didn’t read anyway), but because he said once that “We will be mugging terrorists in latrines” (rus. “Будем мочить террористов в сортире”), which was followed by the successful offensive of the federal troops during the 2nd Chechen war and elimination of many prominent Chechen terrorist field commanders in the matter of just few years. The phrase became memetic – among the Russians.

    That fact that Oliver Stone (obligatory – HIMSELF!) graces Putin with his time, attention and effort means nothing for me and for the people at large. Simply put – Stone is not as popular here as he is in America. Most of his movies focus on American problems and events – it’s simply hard to relate to them for the people who have no previous knowledge about it. And it really doesn’t matter who are those Westerners who interview Putin – going over the top in sweetness Oliver Stone, or Megyn Kelly [insert obligatory joke about the blondes], or those two clowns from the “Bild” tabloid. Watching either of these interviews I don’t see that Putin is successful in communicated Russian POV to the Western audience. All three of them (and many, many more others) came to his with their own clichés and preconceptions, and left from his with the same set.

    I also don’t see how the Americans could be an intended audience for the series either. In the current climate of official Russophobia and knee-jerk thoughtless reaction even from the “thinking people” in the West, the series would be dismissed right out of hand. Several reviews in thoroughly handshakable durnalistic outlets (i.e. NYT, WSJ, etc.) laid bare what they wanted and what they were denied. They wanted “Frost vs. Nixon 2: Electric Bugaloo”, with a priori guilty of every cries possible and impossible Putin/Nixon, dissed and verbally dismembered by the plucky representative of their own caste. They wanted their revenge on Putin, for everything they hate him, whether their plight is real or not. That’s the only “good” interview of Putin they might recognize – for him to appearing worse than them for him to confessing his since and for them (plucky journos) to re establishing their totally undeserving Power of the Fourth Estate.

    They were denied that. And if they didn’t like it, they surely still have the power to make other dislike it, but for the reasons of their own. These days it would be incredibly easy. Now, the journos could employ old tried and tested fallacy of “First they came for [X] and I was silent…”, with their typical avalanche of “Russia represses people domestically” (that’s already pre-programmed as “standard” information in virtually all Westerners), “Russia invades their peaceful neighbours” (and thanks to the punditicracy of the West it is also “true”) and now “Russia invaded Our Democracy” (ditto). They invested too much time and effort creating this narrative, which took roots and life of its own ages ago. Do you really think they’d allow the work of their life, their Russia hating essence given form to be eradicated by anyone? And to imagine that so many “Democracy promoting” NGOs and “Think-Tanks” would loose their funding and their useless Russophobes would have to find real jobs… Horror, horror.

    So, I think, Oliver Stone made this… “piece of art”… purely for himself. He is well-established guru to indulge some of his caprices. *He* wanted to talk to Putin. Obviously, he liked the experience, the “thrill” of adventure and the knowledge that he alone is a “chosen one”. The filming itself and production, IMO, came to him as distant second, as an afterthought. I, honestly, have no idea about the viewership of TPI on the showtime and how much money they made thanks to it. Yet I assume (knowing full well that I don’t possess the entire body of information) that the thing didn’t become either a “mega-hit” or a “block buster” in the financial sense.

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