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No more Russian heroes

Electing Russia
Regissør: Alexandr Rastorgujev
(Russland, Tyskland)

Electing Russia sheds a depressing light on the opposition in Russia. Do they really represent a real change for the benefit of the people?


There are no heroes in Alexandr Rastorguyev's engaging 90 minute documentary. Electing Russia sheds light on the mistakes the Russian opposition made to Vladimir Putin's corrupt state, which created little other than headlines in the West, and victims of police violence and arrests at home.

Rastorguyev has a rare talent for critical political documentary. He is both an opposition activist who has been arrested and beaten by the police during his work, and a cool and sharp-eyed observer. IN Electing Russia combines brilliant photography, often even in the midst of violent events, with a clear eye for beautifully framed and narrative footage.

This is a thoroughly executed documentary, produced by two who have collaborated for a long time: Russian Yevgeny Gindilis and German Simone Baumann, who know that European viewers need both explanation and guidance to understand what's going on in Russia.

National myth

The opening images will convince viewers with even just a passing interest in Russian domestic politics to look further: The film starts off cheerfully, with people dressed in military uniforms gathered in central Moscow on June 12, 2017 to celebrate Russia's National Day. Gorgeous girls and handsome young men in World War II uniforms and Red Army soldiers dance near Red Square, while youngsters crawl over old military vehicles and classic weapons. These are the kind of images that the Putin regime loves and the Kremlin approves: They promote the latest, unifying national myth of Russia's greatness and victory over fascism during what the Russians still call "the Great Patriotic War."

A little further up the Tverskaya ulitsa (in Soviet times known as Gorky Street) we see rebel police with helmets and bulletproof vests trying to surround a group of counter-protesters to prevent them from sabotaging Putin's parade. "We are the power here! We are the power here! ”Yells the youths, striking the air with their fists. Rastorgujev is in the middle of the crowd. He points the camera at the faces of the almost-as-young men of the rebel police OMON (Military Special Forces Division), where they sweat behind their helmet visor in the summer heat. It will be hand mixed. Then the protesters are pulled away and pushed into waiting police cars.

Of course, Navalnyj is against corruption, but what is he for?

The day has gone into history books because of the scale of the arrests: Over a thousand youths were arrested in Moscow alone. Moreover, it seemed to mark a demographic shift in support of the Russian opposition, from the older middle-class members of the intelligentsia (those who in Soviet times read the secret friendly(newspapers in hiding) for young people who were not even born when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Having secured the audience's attention sets Electing Russia caring tone by introducing the film's main characters: Aleksey Navalnyj, a lawyer and anti-corruption activist living in Moscow in his early 40s, and Ksenija Sobchak, a glamorous celebrity in her mid-30s, television program director and daughter of the deceased Anatoly Sobchak.


Towards the end of the 1980s, Sobchak was the reform-friendly mayor of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), who supported an unknown, former KGB agent in his staff: Vladimir Putin.

Navalnyj and Sobchak have both been part of Russian opposition politics for much of the last decade. The director excellently weaves in archival footage to clarify the background story and contextualize a story that is essentially about the efforts of the two, each on their own, to become counter-candidates to Putin in the March 2018 Russian presidential election.

Sobtsjek has been described as "Russia's Paris Hilton".

Sobchak's election campaign has glamor, money and social acceptance from the ruling class in Russia (of which she is definitely a part). She has sometimes been described as "Russia's Paris Hilton" and is surrounded by an environment that includes media trainers, stylists and make-up artists. Navalnyj, for his part, seems a little reserved, but tries to present himself as "a man of the people" during the election campaign tour of the whole great country. The cameras film when approved meetings are stopped at the last moment and when Navalnyj is attacked and sprayed with green liquid. But in spite of all the speeches, meetings and stunts (which include Sobchak taking a quick, traditional Russian "revelation dive" in ice water), the fundamental emptiness of her election campaign as well as Navalnyj's is revealed by Rastorguiev's merciless camera.

Electing Russia is engaging – and probably disillusioning.

Sobchak insists that she will withdraw in favor of Navalnyj if his candidacy is approved. But in a contradictory scene, she pushes him to explain what his program really is: Of course he is against corruption, but what is he for? And Putin himself shows the hollowness of Sobchak's program when she (as a journalist) asks him questions during his annual meeting with the press. He ridicules her for having a program that is "against everything." "What does it mean? What are you for? " he asks.

Complete the world

Producers Gindilis and Baumann (who speaks fluent Russian since she was born in East Germany and studied in Russia in Soviet times) make all of these Russian domestic disputes understandable by commenting on a leading German political analyst. The analyst repeatedly reiterates that Navalnyj is not a liberal; he did not object to Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, and is – in fact – a Russian nationalist who is little different from Putin (apart from the corruption). There are also some intelligent comments from Mikhail Khodorkovsky – the former Russian oligarch who now lives in exile after he was pardoned and released from a Russian prison a few years ago.

Electing Russia is an engaging – and probably disillusioning – journey into the heart of a complex world. One can only hope that the youthful optimism of the young people we see singing "We are the Power!" is not out of place.

At the end of July last year, director Alexandr Rastorguyev was killed in an armed ambush in the Central African Republic, along with the other two on his film team. The film team did research for a new documentary about The Wagner Group – a company made up of private mercenaries and affiliated with Putin.

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

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