Vitaly Mansky had a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
An early fan of Vladimir Putin, he shot an intimate portrait of the new president two decades ago.
Coming of age in the 1980s, Mansky lived through the tumultuous times of Mikhail Gorbachev, when what Ronald Reagan called the «evil empire» made a peaceful, at times alarming, the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Two years ago, Mansky aimed his thorough eye on Gorbachev, a man in his twilight years now side-lined from contemporary Russian events.
Today, the opening title sequence of Gorbachev. Heaven seems prescient. The camera walks through Gorbachev’s country home, settling on a tabletop of old-fashioned dial phones here, a painting of flowers and an AK47 assault rifle there, and a peripatetic cat wandering into the scene.
Slowly, the viewer’s eye is drawn to an old man sitting in a large office chair, archive footage from his greatest moment – the Reykjavik Summit of October 1986 that came very close to a US-Soviet agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons. It’s riveting stuff – and for those of us who lived through those times, still fresh in our memories – but the tubby elderly figure is fast asleep, dozing soundly before a Swiss cuckoo clock awakes him from his slumbers.
Viewed from today’s perspective, the Gorbachev of two years ago (he passed away at the age of 91 on August 30 this year) and Reykjavik 36 years ago are now ancient history.
Vladimir Putin has turned Russian history on its head, sweeping away decades of progress towards a more peaceful world with his vindictive and increasingly personal war against Ukraine. The widespread rocket attacks on civilian targets on October 9 in Kyiv and across Ukraine were clearly revenge for the explosions that rocked the road and rail bridge connecting Russia with Crimea the day before. Putin asserted that the bridge – which he opened in 2018 – was civilian infrastructure, though its role in the logistics route supplying Russian forces waging war in Ukraine has been key to the invasion since February 24.
Gorbachev did not live to see this act of Kremlin-ordained terror, but he did not need to. Despite a reluctance to comment politically in public since he stood down as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party on December 25, 1991, Gorbachev’s views on the progress of post-Soviet Russia have often filtered through. He was known to be deeply unhappy about the war in Ukraine but said nothing. After his death, his close associate and former interpreter Pavel Palazhchenko let it be known that Gorbachev died «shocked and bewildered» by the war in Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin has turned Russian history on its head
Mansky’s film – screening mid-October at Oslo’s Baltiske Filmdager – allows us to reflect upon Gorbachev’s enduring contribution to world peace away from the current conflict. At a time when Putin’s war is faltering, and his professional army has been decimated by fierce Ukrainian resistance, it enables us to have the faith to look beyond the current descent into insanity led by the paranoid Putin and dream of Russia’s eventual return from its self-inflicted global isolation and abhorrence.
Here we are privy to conversations with a man who acknowledges his frailty, deteriorating health, and mortality. And yet his faith that the reforms he initiated are still driving history and will bear full fruit remains undimmed.
«All nations should have the opportunity for freedom, for breadth», he tells Mansky in an interview shot in the gloom of a winter’s afternoon.
«Russia has always returned to non-freedom as its natural form of existence», Mansky, off camera, insists.
The fact that the director had already been effectively hounded out of Russia and had decamped to Riga, Latvia, will not escape those that follow his career. Although he continued to come and go to Moscow for some years, Mansky is now on a Russian wanted list and thus effectively exiled from Putin’s Russia.
Mansky’s approach is abrasive, sparring with Gorbachev over notions of freedom in Russia as pure «onanism». Gorbachev does not disagree – he himself once said that the wish for freedom in Russia was an unnatural desire – but despite his age and waning powers, he is a perky and energetic adversary, at one point directly asking Mansky if he still practised onanism himself. «Not for a long time», Mansky deadpans.
Gorbachev declares that he still considers himself a socialist and Lenin, his god. For those who know Russian history well, it will be both unsurprising and shocking – but one needs to understand Gorbachev is speaking at an ideological, theoretical level here. And although Mansky always makes his documentaries with an eye on an international audience, his films are at the same time always intensely Russian in their focus and obsession.
But this is far from a dull or purely political film; there is plenty of humour here, with Gorbachev’s cherubic wit never far from the surface. Asked if any Soviet leaders were socialists, he replies: «I was!» It would be funny, he reflects, that if asked who else, he answered, «None».
There is, of course, sadness here. The sadness of a man who, though feted around the world, is blamed at home for the disorganised collapse of the Soviet Union and the harsh economic winds that accompanied it. And there is the sadness at a more human level – the ubiquitous portraits and photos of his beloved wife Raisa, who died of leukaemia, aged 67, in 1999.
Mansky draws subtle and unfavourable comparisons between Gorbachev and the modern Russian elite. When he stood down as head of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s personal property consisted of one modest Moscow apartment, the director notes. No multi-million-dollar apartments were held through opaque financial structures for this former tsar.
Gorbachev lived out his days in a house given by the governments of the former Soviet republics that declared independence after he stepped down as General Secretary. It was given for life. As for what Gorbachev lived on, Mansky elicits the response that all his expenses have been covered by fees earned from public speaking. His modesty and lack of self-promotion had always been a mark of the man and are again another contrast with the bloated, egotistical criminals that run Russia today – that are running Russia into the ground today.
It is the intimate moments that are most touching in this film.
When asked about the meaning of life, Gorbachev says that without Raisa, for him, there is none. The closeness of their bond – the fact that he so clearly loved and adored Raisa – was always a mark of the man. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once famously declared that Gorbachev was a man she could do business with. But, for many around the world, it was that Gorby – as he was affectionately known – was so very human. And Raisa was the key to his charm.
The sadness hovering at the edges – or sometimes centre frame – in Gorbachev. Heaven is both a personal poignancy for a man whose days are coming to an end and a fugue for the future Russia has lost.