PUTIN FOREVER – the title of this documentary film – is an unsettling thought. The fact that Vladimir Putin’s rule over Russia could be a lasting feature of the world order that’s being born from the ashes of the Pax Americana is no longer geopolitical fantasy but a concrete possibility. Putin’s ascendancy in Russian and the region raises many difficult questions given the turbulent state of world affairs and Russian’s revanchist interventionism in Crimea and Syria.
Presented at the last Warsaw Film Festival by Kirill Nenashev, PUTIN FOREVER narrates the struggle of Russia’s liberal reformers against Vladimir Putin’s regime towards the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012, also known as the Snow Revolution. It’s the story of what could have been Russia’s Orange Revolution. A time when it seemed that Russians were ready to choose an alternative to Putinism and reinvigorate Russia’s ailing democracy. History teaches us that Putin emerged victorious from this battle. In many ways, this chapter in Russian’s recent history can be read as Russian pro-western liberals’ last hope of ousting the regime, a hope which was grossly over-estimated by many Western governments.
The film is rich with first-hand accounts, images, and music. PUTIN FOREVER seeks an answer to some of the most difficult and scary questions: Why didn’t the liberal opposition to oust Putin succeed and what do Russians really want? Is Putin, Putinism, and 21st Century neo-czarism set to last “forever”?
In the words of the film’s director Kirill Nenashev, PUTIN FOREVER deals with:
“The passage from hope and above all an awareness of being active citizens of this country to fear”
Hope, Fear, and Despair. These are the 3 phases of the failed liberal revolution as told by the 25 year old Vsevolod Chernozub, one of the protagonists of the Boris Nemtsov’s Solidarnost (Solidarity) movement. Young Russians like Vzevolod belong to the generation that are called the Orange Baby Boom due to their explicit emulation of the orange revolution in Ukraine. Born just before or after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they are the children of the intellectual bourgeoisie who supported Gorbachev and are very politically active and westernized.
As any young idealist, Vsevolod is convinced that pacific protest will win in the end:
“Our generation needs its own revolution”
On the eve of elections for the Duma in December 2011, few observers expected that Putin’s party United Russia would come out of the elections with such a strong majority.
Hope – Protests explode in Moscow
February 4th 2012
It’s minus 20 degrees and columns of people march towards Bolotnaya Square in the center of Moscow to the tune of patriotic anthems such as Rodina (motherland) dedicated to Great Russia. Slogans such as “Free elections” and “Russia without Putin” are everywhere. Demonstrations as big as this one hadn’t been seen in Moscow since the 1990’s.
Not far away from Bolotnaya Square, a counter-protest organized by Vitaly Morozov, one of Putin’s supporters, is being held. The rally’s slogan is “Conserve Russia”, aiming to highlight the subversive nature of the opposing rally and paint it as a threat to national unity.
“Lately everybody has the word orange on their lips” a protester ironically quips […]. We’re scared that we’ll go back to the 90’s.
The 1990’s was a time of poverty and misery for the majority of Russians. Their savings were swallowed by a racing inflation while the nation state was dismantled and their national pride humiliated by Russia’s loss of power in the world. As a consequence, the yearning for a charismatic and strong leader began to grow.
“Before Putin I was ashamed to be Russian. Not anymore.”
Vitaly Morozov is the other face of Russia, the one which many westerners struggled to believe exists. A former hippie who used to be called Till, Vitaly Morozov is a fervent believer the in Russian Orthodox Church. His faith is no less strong in Putin and Putinism, and these two beliefs have coalesced together to form one very strong quasi religion.
“We’re against every revolution. Ours is a spiritual movement. Russia must become the primary advocate of this counter-revolutionary movement in the world. It doesn’t matter what I think of United Russia; I don’t need to see your videos. I wouldn’t ever try to overturn the government of my country whatever is in your videos. Nobody has got anywhere with actions like this. Why should I organize a revolt against my own country? Rather than solving problems, they just create them.”
Fear – Boris Nemtsov
March 2nd 2012
In the headquarters of Solidarity, two days before the elections, Boris Nemtsov is speaking to young supporters of his movement.
Former prime minister under Boris Yeltsin and founder of the political opposition movement Solidarnost (Solidarity), Boris Nemtsov was known as an intelligent, witty and ubiquitous champion of political reform in Russia “who never backed down”. By fearlessly denouncing the widespread corruption under Putin and his criticism of the increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic nature of his regime, as well as the conduct of the military operations in Ukraine, he became one of Putin’s most popular, influential and awkward opponents. After voicing fears for his life, on 27 February 2015 Nemtsov was killed close to the Kremlin on the day of the Peace March against Russia’s annexation of the Crimea.
There is no doubt that Nemtsov’s death was not an accident. It was an contract killing commissioned by his many enemies and it’s very unlikely that anybody will be brought to justice for this crime.
“What I have to ask you Boris is what would you do if Navaly Ponomarev and I organized a demonstration at Pushkinskaya Square. Are you with us? Or are you against us? (Vsevolod Chernozub)
“My big problem guys is that I’m a liberal. I won’t go against you but nor will I side with you. You are our future. I’m happy to have such young friends, but I’m too old to man the barricades all night with you. I need to take a shower each morning.” (Boris Nemtsov)
“Putin isn’t a manic depressive or a sadist, he’s a thief who’s trying to save his skin. He’s hasn’t got any personality disorder like Stalin who actually got a kick from killing people – Putin just wants to be left undisturbed in the Kremlin and kept out of prison! If we carry on protesting, then he’ll go sooner or later.”
March 4th 2012
The Russian president elections. Electoral station 3183. Volunteers from the Voters’ League check that voting is taking place within electoral regulations.
“We’ve sent a load of people away who’d voted in other electoral districts in the last 3 hours!”
“No videos are going to save you. Most people are here because they’ve been paid, and they’ll continue to vote for money.” (A women outside a polling station)
“Russia without Putin?” It’s only a slogan and doesn’t mean a thing. I vote for the winners; I don’t want to side with the losers” (Interviewee)
April 8th 2012
The film compares Vitaly Morozov and Vsevolod Chernozub. It’s Palm Sunday.
“This whole thing is about honesty and how we want to live. I want to live an honest life” (Vsevolod Chernozub)
“Suppose that I like Putin as a person, that I like his charisma” (Vitaly Morozov)
“If you close your eyes then you may even like the stability under Putin, but if you open them then what you see if very different.” (Vsevolod Chernozub)
“We can make Putin better. Those who support him aren’t enemies of this country. We mustn’t fight amongst ourselves. The old enemy is always the West. They make us fight wars on their behalf. They don’t even need to come here, they use words, information, and govern the world through the computer. They’re spies and pay spies.” (Vitaly Morozov)
It’s May 6th 2012 and the day before the inauguration of Putin’s third term as President. It’s the day of the ‘millions’. The March of Millions, as it was baptized by its organizers, was a rally in which millions of Russians gathered in Bolotnaya Square to protest under the slogan “for fair rule, for Russia without Putin.”
As was inevitable, the peaceful protest was marred by violence between the protesters and the police, leading to arrests and accusations of police brutality and rioting from either side. For Putin’s supporters, the violence of the Bolotnaya Square demonstrations equated democratic protest with political extremism.
32 people were accused or sentenced for public disorder. Today the “Spring of Bolotnaya Square” is a distant memory.
According to Vsevolod Chernozub “The problem with the leaders of the opposition is that they want to be on the front page of the papers rather than in the history books”. Vsevolod, like many of the leaders of the Snow Revolution, was granted political asylum in Europe at the end of 2012.
As soon as Putin was re-elected as President in May 2012, he instigated one of the most brutal crackdowns against opposition political forces since the darkest days of the Soviet Union. Rather than sending tanks into the streets, Putin whipped up popular support for this crackdown by creating the image of Russia as a nation under siege, playing on Russians’ innate nationalism and the old idea of the state and Empire.
Vitaly Morozov still lives in Russia and he continues to support Putin and the Russian military intervention in the Ukraine. Alexei Navalnij, one of the main promoters of the 2012 protests, has been tried 10 times. 10 months under house arrest were enough to dissuade him from standing for election as Mayor of Moscow. The first time he stood in 2013 he obtained almost 30% of the votes even though the election was marred with irregularities and attempts to fix the election in favor of his opponents. Sergei Udaltsov leader of the Left Front and another one of the main organizers of the March of Millions was sentenced to four and a half years in prison. Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion, has been forced into exile outside of Russia. The office of Solidarity has been closed.
Boris Nemtsov, on the other hand, is no longer with us. But that’s another story, one similar to the sad tale of Anna Politkovskaja, Alezander Litvinenko and other critics, dissidents and opponents of Putin’s Russia. Akin to the mammoths who were gradually extinct in the darkness of Russia’s Arctic wastelands.