There are no heroes in Alexander Rastorguev’s engaging 90-minutes documentary. The documentary traces the recent history of the failures of Russia’s opposition to Vladimir Putin’s corrupt state that creates little more than headlines in the West and cannon fodder for police beatings and arrests at home.
Rastorguev has a rare talent for critical, political documentary. He is both an opposition activist (who has been arrested and roughed up by the police in the course of his work) and a cool, calculated observer. In Electing Russia he combines brilliant photography in the midst of often violent events with a clear eye for beautifully framed, telling shots.
Electing Russia is a carefully crafted documentary, produced by long-time collaborators: Russia’s Yevgeny Gindilis and Germany’s Simone Baumann, who are mindful that European viewers need a degree of explanation and guidance to understand just what is going on in Russia.
The opening shots alone will convince even viewers with only a passing interest in Russian domestic politics to keep watching.
«We are the power»
The footage opens with jolly images of historic military re-enactors gathered in the centre of Moscow on June 12, 2017 to celebrate Russia’s National Day.
Pretty girls and handsome young men in khaki uniforms from WWII and Red Army soldiers dance close to the Red Square in Moscow, while kids clamber over vintage military vehicles and classic weapons.
These are the sort of Kremlin-approved images that the Putin regime loves: promoting the last unifying national myth of Russia’s greatness and victory over fascism during what the Russians still call the «Great Patriotic War».
A little further up Tverskaya Street (known in Soviet times as Gorky Street) helmeted riot police wearing body armour are struggling to contain a crown of opposition demonstrators intent on pissing on Putin’s parade.
«We are the power here! We are the power here!» kids of 15, 16 or 17 chant punching the air with their fists. Rastorguev is in the thick of it, pointing his camera in the faces of the equally young OMON riot police officers [special police force], gently sweating in the summer heat behind the visors of their helmets. Scuffles break out and demonstrators are pulled away and pushed into waiting police vans.
«Electing Russia is an engaging and possibly disillusioning journey into the heart of a complex world.»
It is a day that will go down in history for the scale of arrests. Over a thousand youngsters in Moscow alone got arrested that day, and the fact that it seemed to mark a shift in the demographic of support for Russia’s opposition from older, more middle class members of the intelligentsia ( the sort of people in Soviet times who secretly read clandestine samizdat journals), to kids who weren’t even born when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Having hooked the audience’s attention, Electing Russia carefully sets the scene. The film introduces its main characters: Alexander Navalny – a Moscow lawyer and anti-corruption activist now in his early 40s – and Ksenia Sobchak: a glamorous mid-30s socialite, TV presenter and daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak.
In the late 1980s Sobchak was the reformist mayor of Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) who was supportive of an unknown former KGB officer part of his staff called Vladmir Putin.
Navalny and Sobchak have both been around Russian opposition politics for much of the last decade. The director’s excellent use of archive footage is woven in to tell the back story – giving clarity and context to a story that is essentially focused on the separate efforts of the two to get onto the ballot to run against Putin in Russia’s presidential elections that was held in March this year.
It is clear what Navalny is against – corruption – but what is he for?
Sobchak’s campaign has glamour, money and social acceptance by Russia’s ruling class (of which she is definitely a part). Sometimes described as a kind of Russian Paris Hilton, Sobchak is attended to by an entourage that includes media coaches, dressers and make-up artists.
Navalny – who comes across as somewhat aloof – tries to present himself as a man of the people during a nationwide tour to speak to people on the stump across Russia’s vast landscape. The cameras that are there as sanctioned rallies are disrupted or cancelled at the last minute when Navalny is attacked and covered in a staining green liquid.
But for all the speeches, rallies, and stunts (that include Sobchak taking a traditional Russian epiphany dip in the freezing waters of a frozen lake), the essential emptiness of both her campaign and that of Navalny is exposed under the glaze of Rastorguev’s unwavering camera.
In one telling scene Sobchak, who insists she will step down to make way for Navalny should his presidential candidature be accepted, pushes him to explain what his programme is. It is clear what he is against – corruption – but what is he for?
And it is Putin himself who exposes the hollowness of Sobchak’s platform when she questions him (as a journalist) at his annual televised meet the press show and he ridicules her for standing on a platform that is ‘against all’. What does that mean? What are you for? He asks.
Producers Gindilis and Baumann (a fluent Russian speaker who was born in East Germany and studied in Russia during Soviet times) make all these Russian domestic disputes simple by framing the film with commentary by a leading German political analyst. The latter repeatedly points out that Navalny is no liberal, failed to oppose Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and is in fact a Russian nationalist who essentially differs little (apart from the corruption) from Putin.
There are also some intelligent comments from Mikhail Khodorkovsky – the former Russian oligarch now living in exile after being pardoned and released from a Russian prison a few years ago.
Electing Russia is an engaging and possibly disillusioning journey into the heart of a complex world. One can only hope that the youthful optimism of those kids that we see chanting: «We are the power!» is not misplaced.
Rastorguev died alongside his two other members of his documentary film team in late July in an armed ambush in the Central African Republic, where he was researching a new film about the involvement of a shadowy Russian mercenary group in Russian strategic aims in the country. Se Idfa.