The man who filmed Putin's rise: "Compromises I made, we all made...led us to this deplorable state"

Salon talks to Russian documentarian Vitaly Mansky about "Putin's Witnesses," which just had its U.S. premiere

By Gary M. Kramer

Published September 22, 2018 1:00PM (EDT)

Putin’s Witnesses (Toronto International Film Festival)
Putin’s Witnesses (Toronto International Film Festival)

Russian documentarian Vitaly Mansky had the amazingly privileged position to film Vladimir Putin’s ascent in politics. He was commissioned (around 1999) to make a film for Russian national television about Putin’s election. He interviewed Boris Yeltsin, who selected Putin as acting President until the elections and had access to Putin’s war room and the man himself. Mansky’s new film containing and repurposing this earlier footage, “Putin’s Witnesses,” had its U.S premiere at the recent Camden International Film Festival, where Mansky was feted.

The documentary opens with home videos of Mansky’s family on New Year’s Eve, 1999, when Yeltsin, Russia’s first president, decides to resign. Mansky’s wife bemoans, “utopia is gone,” perhaps understanding the gravitas of this shift in power. As the film observes, Russians on New Year’s Eve were “incapable of sober analysis” of the situation unfolding.

As Mansky’s film for TV acted as a PR tool — Putin was to convince people that national interest is of the utmost importance — the director looks at the mobilization of support that occurred. Putin visits wounded Army soldiers, female workers on International Women’s Day, and even visited a former teacher, Vera Dmitrievna, in her modest home. Putin also gets a visit from Tony Blair, which suggests Western support of him, and Putin refuses to engage in televised debates with his opponents, which helps his campaign. Mansky also captures Putin the person: one brief clip features a victorious Putin swimming.

Mansky creates a feeling of unease by scoring many scenes with sinister music and providing a narrative that suggests not everyone supports President Putin. A stunning sequence an hour into the film indicates what happened to Putin’s campaign team: several went to the opposition, some died or were murdered, and another was demoted.

With the assistance of Oleksandr Tyutyunnyk, a translator, Mansky spoke with Salon at the festival about his film and his thoughts on Putin.

You had tremendous, exclusive access to Putin, Yeltsin and others in power. Can you talk about the footage you shot for Russian national television and how you came to make “Putin’s Witnesses”?

Well, many people are indeed interested how I found myself inside, so close to the heads of the state. But I can answer this question with nothing but the truth: it happened by an absolute chance. Speaking about circumstances, I found myself next to the epicenter, when events started happening, the nature of which I could not even personally understand at the time.

In 1999, as a director, I was shooting a documentary about Mikhail Gorbachev. This film was produced for the Russian State TV. One must understand that during Yeltsin’s presidency, Gorbachev was virtually excluded from the media. His name was not mentioned, let alone any movies were made. But when his name was mentioned, it was under some criticizing angle. When I was pleading with the heads of the Channel “Rossiya” (“Russia”) to make a movie about Gorbachev, they made their decision — based on considerations that I could not understand at the time — to shoot a film about Yeltsin to maintain some political balance of sorts. Thus, I started making a movie about Yeltsin, parallel to the one about Gorbachev. And actually, exactly at that moment, the figure of Putin emerged. The Operation “Heir” began. And I, as a producer of the State TV, launched into production a film about the acting President without his actual participation.

In other words, this film was supposed to tell Russian viewers who he was, where he was from, where he grew up, where he was brought up, who his neighbors were, to sum things up — a portrait of the man. And when I started working on this project, I received footage from our partners, who produced it on our orders, telling a story of his first school teacher. To be exact, his teacher of the German language, who was also his class teacher. I found that footage very touching and intimate, and in some ways emotional. And without any particular agenda, I sent the tape to Putin to watch. It was a human gesture. And Putin invited me for a meeting. And at that encounter, as we conversed, we agreed that first, he would visit his teacher, and second, that we could start working on a movie about his so-called election campaign.

You claim in “Putin’s Witnesses” that you are not ashamed of that doc you made for on state TV. How do you reconcile that film and then make this critical one?

Whether I was ashamed or felt guilty of what I did then . . . I am not ashamed. Because I created the film precisely according to how I felt and saw those things at the time. Moreover, I created a film that, in my view, posed serious questions for the viewers about Putin’s image back in the day. And those questions are even more important now.

And not before, nor after, have I seen a movie about the Soviet or Russian president that would have that extent of criticism and even irony towards the main characters. It will suffice to say that that movie shown in Russia in 2001 started with a big episode showing people wearing black suits unfolding a roll of red carpet and crawling on all fours picking specks of dust with their hands, and only then Putin is stepping on that carpet. And this is the very first episode of the film.

Did I make compromises when I was shooting and putting that film together? Of course I did. But without compromises, unfortunately, that film, in principle, could not come into being. But what I clearly understand now is that it was the compromises I made, we all made, the entire society made that led us to this deplorable state that we are facing now. I generally think that in politics compromises are the scariest thing.

Nowadays, I am trying not to make compromises (in movie making). And I am trying to live without compromises. Maybe that is why I left Russia.

READ MORE: Sally Horner was “The Real Lolita”: The 1948 crime that inspired Nabokov

What observations do you have about Putin and Yeltsin as you got to know and observe them through your filming?

Perhaps nothing impressed me. On the contrary, I was surprised that they were regular men with their weaknesses. I was rather more amazed by the reaction of the people that surrounded them. . . . I was astonished by the people whom I had seen on TV where they appeared on the screen so imposing and important and how they turned into little men next to Putin or Yeltsin; it almost felt as if they drooped their shoulders. For instance, I was surprised by an encounter with a governor who came to meet Putin. The man was in charge of a gigantic region, who had bodyguards, secretaries, limos, and he was like some kind of a tsar, a local regional tsar. But he is ushered into a room, his cell phone is confiscated, and he is kept there for five, six, seven hours, and he is sitting there, being pickled, until he is allowed to enter in the presence of the President for 15 minutes.

And of course, all that Tsar court reality was surprising. In principle, if power was removed from them [Putin and Yeltsin] would be turned into regular people.

Speaking of regular people, I love the scene of Putin swimming.

In reality, the events — swimming in the pool — had a broader context. He was quite persistent in trying to convince me to swim with him. That event in that film that was shown in 2001, I left that episode untouched, and it also impressed the audience. And I frankly told him that I would not swim with him because it would be embarrassing for me. With my heroes, no matter what they are — whether the Presidents or regular homeless folk — I prefer to be sincere as much as possible. Maybe because of that, my heroes, the heroes of my pictures open up to me in quite voluminous ways. Even at that time, my colleagues were asking me if I was terrified to communicate with Yeltsin, the Tsar. But if I had been afraid of my hero how would I have been able to make a movie about him, having meaningful conversations? But nowadays, when I see some films — no, actually, I do not see any films, but rather some programs about Putin — and Russian journalists are asking him something, I see that fear that is simply bursting out from the screen, I see how their entire bodies are petrified, I see and feel the sweat that is trickling down their spines.

I like how you used your family’s response to the change in power as a way of showing views of Putin. There was support for Putin from the Russian population, but back in 2000 around the election was Putin beloved, or was the situation more like in America, with Trump, where the tyranny of the minority rules?

Categorically no; it is in principle a different situation.

First of all, with all my critical attitudes towards Trump, he won in the honest elections. He prevailed over the party that was in power at the time. He won like Yeltsin who beat Gorbachev. But after that there were no honest elections in Russia. It’s exactly that compromise that we all (as the Russian society) accepted in 1996 when Yeltsin essentially falsified his re-election and we all agreed to it.

And, of course, the situation with the Putin election was very far from honest and democratic. A different issue (here) is that Putin made populism a very powerful, convenient, and more importantly, perhaps, not “convenient” but acceptable tool of politics. Since WWII, after demise of the Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, of those regimes, generally speaking, such kinds of populism in politics have not been around. A taboo was attached to them. Politicians, when ascending to power, did not use populism, because it was outside of the rules of the game. And Trump, of course, won by populism. He prevailed by the principle of fighting without rules. But he did win!

Yeltsin was an “outlaw,” he was fired, demoted, he was, let me say, in some kind of opposition to the political mainstream. But nevertheless, he was able to unite the electoral mass that put him in the President’s chair. Moreover, he took that chair by, in a way, destroying the Soviet Union. De facto and de jure, by destroying the country, he removed Gorbachev from the President’s chair.

Putin’s electioneering and campaigning were pretty effective. You document a bombing in September 1999 that suggests he used fear to generate support and show that the media cried out for a firm hand, which may have swayed some voters. There is footage of both Putin and Yeltsin voting, as well as Yeltsin’s grandson supporting Putin. It’s very propagandistic.

First of all, I am not hinting, but in direct terms, I am saying that Putin came to power using fear that existed at that time: the apartment bombings, the war in Chechnya, and so on.

I really do not know who blew up those apartment buildings. But no matter who blew up those buildings, those explosions, exploiting those bombings enabled Putin’s victory in the election. And I think the situation, about which, perhaps, the Americans are most likely not informed, when they discovered bags of hexogen [explosives] in the basement of an apartment building in Ryazan, is not the story of an attempted explosion of another building, but I think it was an attempt to spread more fear. Imagine the situation when in New York or Washington military patrols start strolling the streets checking everyone’s ID. No such thing happened even after the attack on the Twin Towers.

As far as little Vanya [Yeltsin’s grandson] and that episode, I think that even at that time it appeared to show plenty of irony. Even more so today, when the little child who does not yet know how to speak, but he is already trained, no less than by the president of Russia himself, that it is necessary to vote for Putin. I think it’s quite an absurd situation. Now as far as Boris Nemtsov [a Russian political leader], we must understand that Putin was brought to power not by the Communists, not by the Conservatives. Putin was brought to power by the Democrats. And the Democratic party, apart from the party of the power (Putin’s party “Unity”), was the only party that supported Putin in the election. And it’s ironic that already in the next election cycle they did not make it to Duma, the parliament.

You end the film stating that you were a witness who turned into an accomplice. Was there a form of Stockholm Syndrome covering Putin?

Yes, in some sense, when you talk to people, when you drink with them, when you discuss things with them, when they ask questions about my family life, of course, you start feeling deeper, let’s say, empathy towards them. That’s the first point. Second, objectively speaking, at that moment, they declared nothing suspicious or dangerous. Yes, of course, they cheated the elector by conducting the dishonest campaign. But by then it was already a sort of tradition; it was not the first incident, we already had the experience of 1996, which I am very well familiar with and which I remember well. And, of course, it was my compromise, as well as responsibility, because I reconciled with that. And I don’t want to justify myself by saying the usual: “What (was in my power that I) could I have done (differently)?” Of course, this is absolutely not the justification! By no means. And for that I carry, first of all, my own personal guilt and (understanding of) responsibility.

Did you believe what he was selling?

If I believed, I would not be asking him the questions that I was constantly asking. I was constantly, at some subconscious level, feeling some discomfort and I was trying to make sense of it by asking the same question again and again during the entire conversation with Putin.

Salon Talks with Ben Foster

Ben Foster burst into tears when he read "Leave No Trace"

Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

MORE FROM Gary M. Kramer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Documentaries Editor's Picks Film Putin's Witnesses Russia Vladimir Putin