On Sunday a tearful Vladimir Putin celebrated a decisive victory in the Russian Presidential Election. A series of films at Rich Mix looked at Russia’s progress under the strongman.
The first of the films, Putin’s Leap Year, from 2001, offered a fascinating insight into the largely unknown former KGB officer’s first year in charge. Director Vitalij Mansky received excellent access, revealing an unpolished, even human side to the newly elected President yet to find his feet. In one notable scene Mansky is shown around the Presidential desk. Putin picks up a piece of paper, looks at it, and places it face down. Perhaps I shouldn’t show you that, he says – it’s from the FSB.
It’s all a far cry from the Putin we see today, described as “cold, motionless… and very definitive in what he says” by David Miliband on Newsnight on Monday. Indeed, he balked at Mansky’s talk of a second term, insisting there was much still to achieve in his first. How things change: prior to Sunday’s election he was already talking about the possibility of a fourth term in 2018. Putin’s shift not only reflects his increasingly iron grip over the twelve years of his rule (depicted here in a two minute parody currently doing the rounds), but also the reality of his situation; absolute power corrupts, and Putin has a lot to protect.
Our client the Russia Foundation hosted an event last week with three prominent figures in the Russian protest movement – Artemy Troitsky, Maxim Trudolyubov and Mikhail Zygar – who all cautioned that Putin still holds the keys to power and is in fact probably still the most popular politician in Russia. But there was a definite mood that something is changing in Russia, and with opposition growing, the seemingly inevitable spectre of Putin as President for the next 12 years is now far from certain.
The second film, Cyril Tuschi’s Khodorkovsky, charts the rise and fall of one of those opposition figures, oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose case has become a cause célèbre, but about whom relatively little is known. Tuschi’s documentary is informative and absorbing, and his depiction persuasive. We are left in no doubt that Khodorkovsky is a political prisoner, his downfall traced to the infamous moment he dared to challenge the President at a public meeting in 2003.
The question is whether Khodorkovsky is simply a fool, who failed to heed the warnings of his impending arrest, or a martyr, who sacrificed his own freedom for that of his nation? Tuschi’s film argues that the answer, as ever, lies somewhere in between. As he noted in the Q&A that followed the film, it seems that Khodorkovsky both overestimated his own influence and underestimated Putin’s resolve to settle a score. He sits in jail as a symbol of Putin’s authority. Yet our accidental hero has grown into the role, suffering with dignity and good humour, even when betrayed by his cell-mate, and continues to speak out in favour of political change. Many see him as the natural leader of the opposition, and it would not be a surprise to see him make a move into politics.
It’s unclear what kind of Russia will await Khodorkovsky if and when he eventually leaves prison, or indeed, who will be running the country. Some give Putin a matter of years. Others, like Luke Harding, think he will cling on for a full term. Whichever way it turns out; most agree business as usual will no longer suffice. Arrests or not, the burgeoning opposition is unlikely to fade away any time soon.