Moment that mattered: Vladimir Putin is re-elected
“Putin’s victory speech was the exact moment my interest in him stopped. For the whole five years I was making the documentary [‘Khodorkovsky’ about Mikhail Khodorkovsky – formerly the richest man in Russia, a vocal opponent of Putin who is now imprisoned in Siberia for tax evasion] I always wanted to meet Putin, but at that moment he ceased being an enigma to me. He’s a simple man, a man that wants to get power and keep power at any cost. As for [outgoing president and current prime minister] Dmitry Medvedev, he is just a sip of water. They hope that Putin will be in for another 12 years, then for Medvedev to come back for six, then Putin for another 12 until they are 120 – but things have changed. Putin’s aura is gone now and aura counts for a lot in Russia.
Although some will see 4th March as a victory for Putin, I think Russian people have lost their fear of him and see through him. It’s a great time to be in Moscow because people are standing up, forming flash mobs and taking to the streets. Putin tries to regain the fear by imposing harsher laws against gathering in public, but the mask of the monster has been pulled off.
I was lucky enough to be part of it. I’m not so vain that I think I was the cause, but when we screened ‘Khodorkovsky’ in Moscow in December it was at the right time. Of course I was scared. I’d heard about journalists being beaten up and threatened, the film was stolen twice and I know my phone is bugged, but somehow I got away with it. Of course they could have stopped me – ultimately I’m a chicken and if they really wanted to shut me up, I would have abandoned the project, but they didn’t. After that first screening we had a discussion and you could hear the anger growing – anger that had been building since Medvedev meekly declared Putin should have the presidency back. The questions were different and the fear was already slipping. One week later the big demonstrations started and I’d like to think we were a small part of that. You could sense the changing spirit.
Now things are getting really radical, people are rising up, they are trying to subvert the laws with intelligence and fun. At its most extreme it’s the true spirit of punk. If you look at Pussy Riot [female post-punk collective who performed anti-Putin songs during the election campaign] they are really artistic and brave [two alleged members of Pussy Riot, were arrested by Russian authorities and accused of “hooliganism” for performing an anti-Putin prayer in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour]. They are far more radical than any punk band ever produced by Germany or the UK – they really are risking everything. But if you live in such a controlling state you have to be more radical.
The interesting thing is what happens next and specifically if a movement needs a figurehead. You have groups like Anonymous who say no and of course Pussy Riot wear masks, but can a movement without a figurehead sustain itself? The young bloggers and activists I met all said, “We are going on the street and we are doing it, we don’t need a star, a face.” Those guys are happy that there is no leader, but when you consider things like the civil rights movement, it needed Martin Luther King – a face for the bright lights to shine on and for people to believe in. Does the way we communicate now mean that people can believe in ideas rather than people? I’m not sure. Regardless, in Russia who is there to believe in? What you have now is an entire generation of Russians who don’t want anything to do with people that have done business with Yeltsin or with Putin. That excludes a lot of people. They’ve seen power corrupt everyone and instead are doing it for themselves.
Putin will not give up his power freely or easily and it remains to be seen what he will do to hang on to it. We’ve seen his rivals imprisoned: could he start another war with Chechnya? Would he create a fake terrorist plot to justify military action? I believe he would. When the Arab Spring started Russia was gripped with fear. There’s this myth that Russians are not educated for democracy, that they need to be ruled and the Arab spring showed how wrong that was.
Meanwhile, it doesn’t look good for Khodorkovsky at the moment. His only hope is that the Russian Freedom Movement keeps gaining momentum. Putin is quite firm and keeps referencing back to the European Court of Human Rights judgment that said Khodorkovsky’s arrest was not politically motivated. This was a gift for Putin and I can’t see Khodorkovsky being released any time soon, if at all. So his hope is the movement and his fame. His instructions to his lawyer – and the reason I believe I got to make the film and interview him – was to keep him in the public eye. He believes if he falls out of the spotlight it will be like Stalinism [when political opponents of the leader were banished to Siberia, many never to be heard from again] and he’ll disappear forever. Khodorkovsky believes his fame can stop that, and maybe he’s right, but behind him are hundreds, maybe thousands of others – all without a reputation, without a fortune and without a voice. What happens to them remains to be seen.”
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