Documentary Domination (March 2012)

This month is turning out to be a bit of a doc-fest. We’ve had Mikhail Kaluzhsky talking about documentary theatre, the makers of Putin, Russia and the West discussing their much-vaunted new television series, Cyril Tuschi and Vladimir Bukovsky on the new Khodorkovsky film and the Russian elections, and this Thursday, Bill Brauder will present a film about his former employee Sergei Magnitsky.

These films are, of course, towards the top end of the scale when it comes to documentary. Although judging by the way the film-makers talk about their experiences, this glamour is underpinned by an often anxious financial situation.


The highlight has obviously been seeing Bukovsky talk. Full of fire, he declared that the day after the presidential elections there would be half a million people out on the streets in Russia. The truth was rather more sober, as are the numbers for today on the Novyi Arbat. Interestingly, Bukovsky has recently accused the team behind the new four-part series broadcast on the BBC of pro-Putin propaganda. Referring to the pitiful 30 seconds of stock footage on Chechnya and the admission of Johnathan Powell (former aide to Tony Blair) concerning the spy rock, Bukovsky declared that the film-makers must be connected somehow to the FSB on his Echo Moscow blog.

Norma Percy addressed this briefly during the week when she said that the team behind Putin, Russia and the West had been accused of collaboration by at least three ‘ancient dissidents’, who were ‘out of touch’, set in their ways after spending their lives fighting the Soviet regime. But as Andrew Wilson’s 2005 book, Virtual Politics, suggests: the ‘political technology’ which has come to reign over electoral processes in Russia and Ukraine stems in principle from the KGB’s attempts to discredit and disperse dissident activity on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the 1970s.

But there is another level to this documentary phenomenon: the hundreds of films shown and repeated on Russian television daily. There is a strong documentary industry, which has crystallised in its Kul’tura variant with a rather recognisable formula of archive footage, reconstruction, and ‘shocking’ investigative journalistic style (typified by the Sovershenno sekretno model). There are several which deal explicitly with Soviet dissent, and often portray the dissidents as interpretative optics and witnesses for past history. They reveal what dissident activity really consisted of during the late-Soviet period, free of the old vocabulary attached to them as bourgeois nationalists, Western spies or morally and psychologically unstable individuals. Yet a stigma remains as individuals who were devoted to struggle against the regime (and by extension the ideal, although this was often far from the case) whilst the rest of the population enjoyed the ‘stagnant heaven’ (Mikhail Epstein’s pun of ‘zasrai’). Re-marginalised in light of the proliferation of positive images of the 1970s, the dissidents have glasnost-era visual and verbal topoi cast back at them in these recent documentaries.


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