- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
There is a documentary to be made about Russia under President Vladimir Putin that shares the Russian perspective, dispels American myths about the historic U.S. foe, and offers Putin’s perspective on some of the thorniest questions on Russia today.
Oliver Stone’s The Putin Interviews is not that documentary.
The Putin Interviews, a four-part series created from two years of conversations between Oliver Stone and Putin, somehow manages to both spout the Kremlin line and fall back on the laziest American clichés about Russia. In the opening credits, a map of the Soviet Union is transformed into a matryoshka doll. In at least the first two of the four parts, Stone aids and abets Putin, who lies by omission and pushes conspiracy theories, all while adding in such helpful information as “Russians are strong” and “Russians are macho.”
Showtime is touting the series as offering “Unparalleled access to the most controversial man in the world…in his own words.” And there is indeed some information that viewers will get from this access. They will learn that Putin feels he does not have bad days because he is not a woman (women, he explains, have natural cycles). They will learn that Putin has a flexible mentality because of judo. They will learn that Putin’s daughters are not interested in politics and corporate business, but in education and science (“You’re a very lucky man,” Stone says, not mentioning that one of Putin’s daughters is indeed allegedly tied to big business).
But when Stone recounts Putin’s rise to presidential power, they will learn that he at first rejected Boris Yeltsin’s attempts to make him prime minister, and that he won the office of president the first time with 53 percent of the vote based the successes of his first term. Nowhere is it mentioned that all of this was orchestrated by very wealthy, very powerful anti-communist forces of the day. They will hear Putin say that he did not put an end to privatization, but rather halted unfair schemes that only oligarchs who disrespected rule of law wanted to see continued. And privatization schemes did make oligarchs fabulously wealthy in ways that were not lawful in the 1990s, which were something of a Wild West. But the viewer will then see photos of Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Viewers will not learn that Berezovsky is one of the men who orchestrated Putin’s rise to power. Nor will they learn he fled to London after he began criticizing Putin, falling out with his his former protege, or that his death in the United Kingdom is still shrouded in mystery. The viewer will not learn that Khodorkovksy’s public accusation of government corruption got him a decade in a Siberian prison cell.
Viewers will learn that Putin worked as prime minister before returning to the presidency with 63 percent of the vote. If Putin has thoughts about the protests that surrounded his return to the Kremlin, viewers do not learn them; if Stone asked, both question and answer were left on the cutting room floor, at least in the first two hours.
Stone and Putin discuss Putin’s hesitancy to delegate, and Putin agrees with Stone’s assessment that he is the CEO of the company that is Russia. This could have been an opportunity to hear what Putin thinks of the idea that Russia is a mafia state, or of the connection between business and politics in Russia. Instead, we learn that Putin has “to have this sense of completion” when he begins a task.
Perhaps most insulting to the viewers, Putin says that he has evidence that the United States provided technical support to the Chechens, against whom Russia waged the first and — and Putin the second Chechen war early in his presidency. Putin says he cannot show Stone that evidence, however. Stone accepts that he cannot see this evidence and says it is contradictory that the United States would fight terror in Afghanistan while supporting it in Russia, which is perhaps the most simplistic rendering of the Chechen wars possible. Stone’s documentary doesn’t discuss how the Second Chechen War boosted Putin’s approval ratings, or that the Moscow bombings that the Kremlin blamed on Chechens were carried out by Russian agents. We see graphics showing the death tolls in the 2002 terror attack on a theater in Moscow and that of a 2004 attack on a school in Beslan. That many of the casualties in both cases were caused by a bungled Russian security response is not brought up.
It would be one thing if Stone just let Putin speak and reveal himself, allowing the audience some unique insight into a famous politician, similar to what Eroll Moris did with former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in Fog of War. But Stone is not content to hear Putin’s side. He wants to encourage Putin’s side. He says he fears American neo-conservatives and their hunger for war (Putin fears them, too). He presents Foreign Affairs as an official government outlet. Foreign Affairs is many things — a journal, a leading publication, an outlet often confused with Foreign Policy — but it is not an official government publication.
In fact, the essays Stone presents to Putin come from the May/June 2016 issue, “Putin’s Russia: Down But Not Out.” Maria Lipman, Sergei Guriev, Gleb Pavlovsky (who used to advise the Kremlin), Daniel Treisman, and Stephen Kotkin all contributed writing for that issue. The authors are academics and think tank analysts and Russians.
Nevertheless, Stone tells Putin that he’s up against the official line. He points out the irony of Edward Snowden defecting to Russia — Soviet citizens, after all, used to defect to the United States. It’s not ironic, Putin says, because Russia is a democracy. That protesters from the Bolotnaya Square case — twelve of the 400 activists who were detained protesting Putin’s regime — were on trial as Snowden stayed in the Sheremetyevo Moscow airport is not a point Stone felt compelled to raise.
To be fair, there is one moment at the end of the second hour in which Putin gets a chance to respond to claims that Russia is not democratic. He says the issue is that the Russian people don’t want to vote for any of his opponents. And this may be true. We are then treated to a series of clips of opposition figures who are backed by the Kremlin. They are candidates from parties other than Putin’s United Russia who run with the Kremlin’s blessing to show some semblance of opposition. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, one of the men shown, is one such longstanding figure. Alexei Navalny, the actual opposition candidate of Russia currently running for president, is nowhere to be seen.
At the very end of the second hour, Stone, who filmed the interviews prior to the 2016 presidential election, asks Putin what he thinks of the candidates. Putin declines to comment on the candidates. This is not his place; he will work with whoever is elected. Stone marvels at this restraint. “If you say you didn’t like Trump, he’d win,” Stone tells Putin. “You have that amount of power in the U.S.”
This isn’t true, of course. Though hardly effusive, Putin’s statements about Trump during the election were generally positive. And Trump won. But the exchange is telling as emblematic of the entire series: at best, misguided, and at worst, just wrong.
Photo credit: OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images