Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Against the tide

RUSSIA / Askold Kutov's compelling documentary Of Caravan and the Dogs details the final destruction of independent voices in Putin's Russia that oppose his war on Ukraine.

It was with a sense of dread and impending doom that I began watching Askold Kurov’s documentary of the destruction of independent journalism and public witness in Russia in the months preceding Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Of Caravan and the Dogs Askold Kurov
Of Caravan and the Dogs, a film by Askold Kurov, anonymous creators

Countdown to war

These were days I lived through in Russia myself. As the countdown to the start of the war moved from months through weeks to days, I felt myself back in Moscow reporting on the events that fill the first part of this compelling fly-on-the-wall doc: the liquidation of Memorial, the venerable Russian human rights group that assiduously researched and revealed the dark crimes of Stalin’s days; the growing pressure on the last remaining independent media: Radio Ekho Moskvy, Dozhd TV (TV Rain) and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta – whose editor in chief, Dmitry Muratov had just won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The clock counts down. Putin announces the ‘recognition’ of the secession of Donbas and Luhansk regions of Ukraine; those pirate ‘states’ announce full mobilisation; Dozhd TV reports that the war will start within 48 hours. We arrive at the morning of Thursday 24th February 2022. It is just past 6:30 am, and Tikhon Dzyadko, the chief editor of Dozhd TV, is on air announcing that the war has started. I was already up too, that morning, having slept just 3 hours after a late-night party at my apartment where fireworks celebrating ‘Defenders of the Fatherland Day’ (formerly Red Army Day) had resounded outside, giving the party a dread sense of celebrating the end of the world. My hangover had been interrupted by a telephone call from the newsroom of France 24 in Paris – I was the international network’s Anglophone Moscow Correspondent – telling me: «It’s started. Can you be on air in 15 minutes?» I was – and barely had a minute to draw breath in the coming days, such was the demand for ‘lives’ updating viewers across the world on Putin’s war.

The staff at Ekho Moskvy had also had a party – on New Year’s Eve – where they also felt the impending doom descending on Ukraine (and their own country.) Dmitry Bykov, a writer and journalist, gave a speech full of dark humour. By late January, he had left Russia to work at an American university. At Novaya Gazeta, Muratov feels the screws tightening, and when tough new rules on media censorship are introduced, he tells staff they should consider closing down. By Day 3, he is sufficiently spooked to offer ten members of staff evacuation. That was the Saturday, my last full day in Russia, and my thoughts were also turning to what to do. By Day 4, with reporting becoming all but impossible – and potentially dangerous – my own newsroom in Paris asked me if I was in danger. I said I did not think so, but when they said I could get on an evacuation flight that evening, I decided to go. Most of my colleagues in Moscow’s foreign journalist community would leave in the following days. I have often struggled with that decision. Should I have gone? Why didn’t I go back? But as time has worn on, I feel I made the correct moral decision – hard as it was and remains to this day.

As Novaya Gazeta deputy editor Kirill Martynov observes as he leaves in a car for the airport to flee Russia – «Moscow is a nice city. People can live here.» It is just what I felt as I left for the same airport – on the same weekend. I thought I would be back when things settled. They still haven’t, and I have no idea when I shall again see a city that I enjoyed living in for so many years, where I still have friends and layers upon layers of memories.

As Martynov says: «The task of educated people is to chain the government and tame it. If to do that you need to work outside of Russia, then work outside of Russia.»

His words are in stark, civilised contrast, to the filth that issues from Putin’s mouth, as he talks of «spitting a fly» out of his mouth in references to what he calls «scumbags and traitors» – those that oppose his appalling evil.

«The task of educated people is to chain the government and tame it. If to do that you need to work outside of Russia, then work outside of Russia.»

«Foreign agents»

The trials faced by those in the Russian media who had always stood up for freedom – and had increasingly been labelled «foreign agents» under a draconian law only a little short of dubbing them ‘enemies of the people’ – may seem small compared with the death and destruction by the Russian armed forces on Ukraine and its people, but comparisons mean little for individuals whose lives are destroyed in one way or another by Putin.

Askold Kurov puts the case well, showing that there was opposition to Putin when the war started and shining a light on the damage this war is doing to Russia and Russians, as well as the Ukrainians. There is gut-wrenching telephone footage of civilians dying under Russian fire in Ukraine and images of the sheer horror of modern war.

Of Caravan and the Dogs Askold Kurov
Of Caravan and the Dogs, a film by Askold Kurov, anonymous creators

Continuing broadcast

Kurov’s film continues as events unfold as rapidly in Russia as on the frontlines in Ukraine: by Day 7, 2nd March 2022, Ekho Moskvy is taken off air. Meanwhile, Memorial has spirited its archives away to secret – hopefully secure – locations. And in the streets of Moscow, this initially curious symbol ‘Z’ appears, and young, patriotic Russians hold impromptu demonstrations in support of the war. Others, anonymously, paint graffiti opposing the war: «No War! Don’t Remain Silent!» the slogans on walls and lampposts state.

Ekho Moskvy chief editor Alexey Venediktov calls an impromptu meeting similar to that a few days earlier at Novaya Gazeta. There are offers to continue broadcasting overseas, he tells staff. One of the few British journalists to remain in Moscow – the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg – is seen talking with Venediktov. Meanwhile, Novaya Gazeta struggles to continue publishing under censorship, but it is clearly a losing battle. By Day 8, Dozhd TV realises it can no longer function under a slew of new media restrictions and suspends operations. It later moves to Riga, and it is today broadcasting from Amsterdam, after falling foul of Latvian media regulators.

Of Caravan and the Dogs is a compelling and deeply disturbing account of the crushing of independent thought and speech in Russia during what is likely to one day be seen as the apotheosis of Putin’s criminal rule.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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