Theater of Cruelty

From prosthetic to dictator

Putin's Witnesses
Regissør: Vitalij Manskij
(Latvia, Sveits, Tsjekkia)

In Putin's Witnesses, we follow Putin's path to power in Russia and see how early promises of free press end in full rejection of democratic rules of play.


What one may have forgotten since the increasingly ill Boris Yeltsin New Year's Eve 1999 designated Vladimir Putin as his successor is that the incumbent president once embraced certain democratic ideals. The perfected image of the head of state and macho – a clear aid on the way to his fourth term as Russian president – did not come until later.

In retrospect, however, the exclusive fly-on-the-wall footage that Vitalij Manskij filmed during 1999 and 2000 reveals much of the essence of the threatening, cunning and aggressive leader figure to come. Mansky's film – which in July won the Crystal Globe Award for Best Documentary at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic – provides an honest and disturbing glimpse into the first days of Putin's presidency.

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We get an in-depth description of the autocratic state that has developed after the wild optimism and the heyday of liberalism – but also the criminal chaos of the Yeltsin years. The Putin we see here, who was thrown into the limelight a few months after he was named the sixth prime minister under Yeltsin, is still a relatively unknown figure. He appears quite serious, eager to make a good impression and a little insecure about himself.

Anxious Putin

Mansky, in a film that could have been both shorter and tighter edited, saves some of the best material in the end. Here we see an anxious Putin calling the director back to the Kremlin to resume yesterday's conversation about why he chose to reintroduce the Soviet national anthem just after the presidential election. "State decisions should be made regardless of whether they meet with a positive or negative reaction," says Putin, adding that the reintroduction of the national anthem – a lively tune with nationalist lyrics, written by the father of Oscar-winning director Nikita Mikhalkov – was a gesture to older Russians who felt they had lost "everything" with the fall of the Soviet Union.

In retrospect, Mansky believes that this conversation had a deeper psychological meaning: “Why was it he wanted to discuss this with me? Did he already have no one around whom he could disagree with? "

Now Mansky lives in self-imposed exile in Latvia as it became increasingly impossible for him to work in Russia.

Putin's inner circle was initially a diverse assembly: former dissident Gleb Pavlovsky (deputy leader of Putin's election campaign); economist, Soviet minister and future Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov; politician and privatization advocate Anatoly Chubay; press minister Mikhail Lesin; Valentin Jumashev, later married to Yeltsin's daughter Tatjana; and Vladislav Surkos, co-author of "The Power Vertical" and supporter of fake groups and "opposition parties" to legitimize a Potemkin facade of the country's democracy.

Political supporters in disgrace

All of the above would later end in disgrace with the president – be demoted or join the opposition. Some would also lose their lives: Lesin was killed in a hotel in Washington DC in 2015, and another early critic of Putin, Boris Nemtsov, was shot outside the Kremlin that year. A few years later, even Putin's wife Ludmila was wrecked – with some extended remarks on live television just before the couple's divorce.

Apparently objective observers like Mansky have also paid their price for "floating too close to the sun": Now the director lives in self-imposed exile in Latvia as it became increasingly impossible for him to work in Russia.

Mansky enjoyed the benefits of being granted exclusive access to Boris Yeltsin and his family, with whom he spent the election night in March 2000, while the results ticked. The campaign jumps and cheers reign as Putin's scarce victory – with 51,2 percent of the vote – reported, and shortly thereafter, Yeltsin, ironically, declares that "if Putin wins, the freedom of the media will be greatly safeguarded". But already then we see the signs of the autocratic Putin we know from today.

Yeltsin's first phone call goes to Jumashev – the former head of the Russian government administration – to thank him for securing the election result. Yeltsin is also waiting for a phone call from his teacher, but Putin neither answers his phone nor calls him back.

Unclear agenda

The use of "administrative resources" to secure Putin's electoral victory – a fixed part of subsequent presidential elections – is already in place: to completely turn our backs on democratic norms and use a tax-paid bureaucracy to support the "power party". In addition, Putin's peculiar style is neither to campaign nor showcase any kind of political program. He is already watching everywhere on Russian TV channels – out on country tours and in full swing to "serve the interests of the kingdom", with no idea what his agenda actually is.

"If we were to find the terrorists on the duck, that is where we will crush them."

Power, and only power, that is Putin's agenda, Mansky suggests – and although he states that he does not believe Putin was personally involved in "terrorist attacks" – such as the explosion in a Moscow housing block in September 1999 – there is no doubt who came out victorious from these attacks. Polls showing Putin's support in the population rose from around 2 to 50 percent in the months before Yeltsin appointed him as successor.

The story of these actions is explored in more detail in Andrei Nekrasov's documentary Disbelief from 2004, which is based on Alexander Litvinenko's book Blowing Up Russia. Litvinenko died, as is known in London, after being poisoned with polonium, and a British investigation suggested that the killing could not have been carried out without Putin knowing it.

At all costs

The vulgar Machomann-Putin also smiles when he tells the world press that the Chechen terrorists who allegedly were behind the bomb attacks will not be met with mercy: "If we were to find them at the duck, that is where we will crush them." shortly, evidence will be provided that suggests that the Russian security service had a finger in the game.)

Still, Putin seems to demonstrate some self-reflection these first few days, when he is quite gravely telling Mansky that he will one day resume his private life – and get the final verdict for his presidency.

Almost two decades later, Putin's grip on power is stronger than ever, and with the Winter Olympics, the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula, the support of Assad in Syria and the World Cup behind him, Putin's only goal seems to be to doubt it – and it at all costs.

Also read: Putin as a rescuer about the book Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia

See also: The film's website

Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Holdsworth is a writer, journalist and filmmaker.

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