THE MAIN CRITICISM that has been leveled against Oliver Stone following the airing of The Putin Interviews on Showtime is that he was too soft on the Russian president. “How could he cozy up to such a brutal autocrat?” Commentators, journalists, and comedians alike have taken umbrage with Stone’s convivial deference, not his inability to counter Putin’s arguments. Admittedly, the exchanges between the American filmmaker and the president of the Russian Federation border on the sycophantic. It is one thing to maintain a polite demeanor in front of a head of state; it is quite another to laugh at his sexist and homophobic jokes. But there’s a deeper flaw in Stone’s approach.
In all, The Putin Interviews are comprised of four hour-long episodes that go by with surprising ease. The episodes follow a loose chronological order, touching upon the most salient moments of the last 30 years of Russian history, from the collapse of the Soviet Union to Russian hacking in the recent US elections. When parting for the last time, Putin asks the American director if he’s ever taken a beating. Stone asks why, and the Russian president tells him to get ready for one from the American public when the Interviews air. This, of course, is exactly what happened. Yet what both Stone and his critics seem to share is the conviction that it is Putin himself — rather than what he represents — that needed to be addressed in the Interviews. Critics wanted to see the president of a sovereign nation ridiculed by the director of Natural Born Killers. Meanwhile, Stone refers to everything that has happened in Russia over the last 17 years, good or bad, as a direct emanation of Putin’s will. Both see him as the sole person responsible for all that is wrong — or, in Stone’s case, all that is sometimes admirable — about contemporary Russia. Neither Stone nor his critics seem to contemplate the possibility that perhaps Putin is the outcome, rather than the cause, of his country’s problems.
After all, in the increasingly privatized business of politics, individuality is all that matters. Receptacles for hysterical demonization or repositories of improbable hopes, politicians are seen as the beginning and end of all political possibilities (a role they couldn’t possibly fulfill but are very happy to dissimulate, especially when campaigning). This is a vision of the politician that The Putin Interviews reinforces: Stone rarely zooms out onto the wider historical context from which Putin has emerged, approaching him instead as if he is the lone architect of the society over which he presides with an iron fist.
Tellingly enough, sometimes it’s Putin who curbs Stone’s wishful conjectures about the president’s supposed accomplishments. Like when the director erroneously claims that following Putin’s election in 2000, the president proceeded to nationalize those assets that had been privatized throughout the 1990s. “I didn’t stop privatization,” Putin observes, “I just wanted to make it more equitable.” At this point, anyone vaguely familiar with the state of Russian society will have burst out laughing, or crying, since Russia happens to have the highest level of wealth inequality in the world. If anything, Putin’s administration secured continuity with the uncontrolled privatization that took place after the collapse of the USSR under the economic guidance of the United States’s finest minds (who, lest we forget, set the stage for the political system that they now vehemently condemn). Shortly after Putin was sworn into office, Western media outlets were matter-of-factly reporting that he was going to enforce radical Thatcherism à la Pinochet — which is exactly what he did. The difference between the gangster capitalism of the 1990s and the Putin years is merely a cosmetic one. Writer Kirill Medvedev describes the shift that took place after Putin’s rise to power in these helpful terms: “During the ’90s, it was ‘commercial structures’ that evicted Muscovites from their apartments and shut off their electricity; now it is the government that does it, passing in the process whatever law it needs.” Russia’s extreme income inequality is not the direct outcome of Putin’s policies, as Stone thinks. It is the result of the systematic looting of the country’s resources at the hands of the president’s extended clan. Paradoxically enough, it is those who benefited from his institutional mafianomics that are now opposing him: the oligarchs that were jailed or exiled under Putin were those who no longer proved useful to his despotic ascendency. To think, as Stone suggests, that the Russian president arrested them for justice’s sake is irresponsibly naïve at best.
When discussing Ukraine, Putin does point out some relevant facts that were at the time conveniently downplayed in the West, such as the role of neo-Nazis in Maidan and their toxic influence in today’s Ukraine. But that doesn’t automatically make him an anti-fascist, as Stone lets him imply. Quite the opposite. Twenty-first century Russia has been a safe haven for neo-Nazis from all over the world, so much so that xenophobic parties in Western Europe and beyond see Putin as an example to follow. Putin’s appropriation of anti-fascist rhetoric is an offense to those who did and do fight fascism. And yet Stone lets it go unquestioned.
This brings us to the most disturbing passage in the four hours of Interviews. Stone asks Putin about the supposed demographic decline of ethnic Russians, and the Russian president reassures him that social policies have been implemented to avert such a trend and to repopulate the society with ethnic Russians. Though most comparisons between Putin and Hitler are often gratuitous and offensive (not least to the millions of people who perished under the Third Reich), Russian nationalism is not to be taken lightly. The Soviet Union yesterday and the Russian Federation today have always been a multi-ethnic state, where white, so-called ethnic Russians have generally maintained a higher social status. Like everywhere else, xenophobia in Russia is on the rise, and the current government is very happy to capitalize on it for political purposes. Even Putin’s main political opponent, Western liberals’ darling Alexei Navalny, is an anti-immigration right-winger who has, in the past, compared migrants to cockroaches. (“That was artistic license,” he recently claimed to his defense.) Putin is not a “social conservative,” as Stone argued when defending his Interviews, but an ultra-cynical opportunist who doesn’t mind flirting with overt fascism if that helps him solidify his grip on power.
In Russia’s case, then, the usual stench of nationalism comes with an extra flavor of hypocrisy. While peddling toxic nationalist rhetoric, members of Putin’s government seem all but interested in their beloved country’s fate — and all too eager to send their over-privileged kids to study and live in the “decadent West.” The short-termism of Russian capitalism and the unwillingness to do anything about it speaks volumes about the fundamental indifference the Russian ruling class feels toward the well-being and future prospects of their country. It is worth noting that this profit-driven conception of politics is by no means exclusive to Russia: in this respect, the similarities between the “civilized” West and “primitive” Russia are many. The condescension with which commentators describe Putin — whether venal, in the case of most Western commentary, or vapid, in the case of Stone’s — only feeds into the wounded patriotism of Putin’s supporters. This is something the Russian president himself couldn’t be happier about.
This is why Stone’s politesse should have been paired with a more critical articulation of the root causes of Putin(ism). For instance, when Stone questions Russia’s institutionalized homophobia, and the legitimization of anti-LGBT violence that it bears, with the idiotic question, “Would you be okay to share the locker room with a gay athlete,” he reinscribes Russian politics within the mythology and personal caprice of Putin himself. Whether Putin is personally okay with homosexuality is beside the point. His legal responsibility in this and other matters lies in the instrumental use he has made of homophobia for political gains. Like nationalism, homophobia has served as the perfect bait to feed to a frustrated electorate desperate to blame their misery on anything but the political system that exploits them. The persecution of sexual minorities is a cynical expedient to yet again secure Putin’s support, stoking the vilest forms of toxic machismo and patriarchal violence.
At times, one wonders if the American director ever realized that Vladimir Putin is neither Fidel Castro nor Hugo Chávez, both of whom Stone has made documentaries about in the past. Putin is no alternative to neoliberal rule; nor is he a bastion of anti-imperialism (as some delusional leftists seem to think). On the contrary, he incarnates the very violence and prevarication that fuels contemporary capitalism in Russia as elsewhere. What really divides autocratic Russia from the West are diverging economic interests and clashing hegemonic ambitions. The obsessive focus on Putin as an individual has obscured the structural nature of his phenomenon, one that stems from the contradictions of global capitalism, and not, as it has once again become acceptable to believe, from the congenital cruelty of Russia’s inhabitants.
What Stone needed to address was not the Russian president himself, but the very conditions — social, political, and economic — that have made his neo-tsarism possible. Both his supporters and detractors tend to overestimate Putin’s agency. That is not to say that he doesn’t have political responsibilities for which he should be held accountable. But like many gray bureaucrats before him, Putin is at most a functional manager of power, or, as Stone aptly puts it, “the CEO of a company called Russia.” This is a company that thrives on exploitation and the suppression of human and workers’ rights, not unlike the most successful companies in the (free) world.
Celluloid Liberation Front is a multi-use(r) name whose writing is visible to the naked eye from outer space. For reasons that remain unknown, the name was borrowed from a collective of anti-imperialist blind filmmakers from the Cayman Islands.