A revealing documentary about Kadyrov’s Chechnya, or a propaganda film in favour of Putin’s Russia? The latter, says our reviewer.

Sigurd Lydersen
A freelance writer on Russian politics in Norway.

2015_05_26_cc_ap145574170-d50b4The documentary The Family. A film about Ramzan Kadyrov on Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was launched in May 2015 in several different languages – including an English edition. Every version is available on Youtube. The film is produced by Mikhail Khodorkovskij’s foundation Otkrytaja Rossija – An Open Russia. Khodorkovskij was the owner of the oil company Yukos and an oligarch when he was arrested for financial crimes in 2003. He and his supporters claim that the reason for the arrest was the financial backing he had provided to the Putin opposition. Yukon was expropriated by the State, and Khodorkovskij sentenced to 14 years in prison. He was pardoned in connection with the 2013 Sochi Olympics, on Putin’s condition that he would no longer be involved in politics. Later, Khodorkovskij applied for political asylum in Switzerland where he still lives. In 2014, he founded the organisation An Open Russia.

Hell’s forecourt. Khodorkovskij’s 26 minute-documentary is professional, featuring both voice-overs and special effects. Scenes taken from the ground in Chechnya has a red filter, thus emphasising the portrayal of Ramazan Kadyrovs’ Chechnya as a sort of hell’s forecourt. The soundscape is uncomfortable and gloomy akin to a horror film. We are introduced to a Chechen dictator who rules the country with an iron fist, and a population in fear of his arbitrary power abuse. Representatives from the Russian human rights organisation The Committee against Torture tells about attacks on their offices and the torture they themselves have suffered at the hands of Kadyrov. We are told about the Kadyrov family fund, into which all Chechens must contribute 10 percent of their salaries, which funds the Kadyrov-family’s luxuriously extravagant lifestyle. Footballing legend Diego Maradona was paid millions worth of kroner to play football with Kadyrov, whilst world class artists are flown in for private functions, entire Grozny city blocks are painted orange in homage to the city’s football team coach Ruud Gullit, and high rise buildings are constructed in the centre of Grozny which no one can afford to live or work in. We are told that one in ten Chechen men form part of Ramzan Kadyrov’s well-equipped army, and that Kadyrov brags that he dispatched 74,000 soldiers to East-Ukraine.

PUTIN has every reason to be satisfied

Frankenstein character and enemy image. Whilst The Family has been portrayed as a revealing documentary about Kadyrov’s regime and Chechnya’s critical human rights situation, the film’s most prominent feature is its Russia-orientated, oriental approach. It is worth noting the way in which the roles are distributed and who we hear in the film. Kadyrov is cast as the tyrant, the Chechen play the victim, and expert commentary is provided by Russian journalists, political scientists, human rights activists and Mikhail Khodorkovskij himself. When we encounter Chechens human rights activists in the Grozny-department of the Committee against Torture they are not cast as experts – instead they are portrayed as victims alongside the rest of the Chechen people.

In the film, Russian political scientist Stanislav Belkovski claims that Kadyrov’s regime in Chechnya is really about Putin losing the Chechnya-war, and that the country, under Kadyrov, is enjoying a sense of independence never experienced before. The Russian journalists Ksenia Sobchak and Xenia Sokolova paint a picture of Kadyrov akin to a Frankenstein-character that can turn against Russia. The Committee against Torture leader, human rights lawyer Igor Kaljapin, who is part of Putin’s human rights board, expresses worry that the only thing that connects Kafyrov to Russia is the close personal relationship between the two state leaders. We see two sequences where Putin refers to Kadyrov as a son, and Kadyrov describes Putin as his idol.

The summarising and conclusion is done by Khodorkovskij, who closes that the backward Chechnya must be elevated to Russian levels, if the country is to remain in the Russian sphere and danger averted.

The purpose of Mikhail Khodorkovskij’s documentary is to paint a picture of Kadyrov as the enemy – not just to the Chechen, but to Russia and the rest of the world – whilst exonerating the Putin regime. Putin has every reason to be satisfied. Khodorkovskij has learnt his lesson: He abides by the release provisos. This documentary does not challenge, but validates the power and legitimacy of Putin’s regime.

Chechen lawyer:”It’s a propaganda film”

«This film obscures the real situation in Chechnya, » says Chechen Akhmed Gisaev.»

Modern Times contacted Chechen lawyer and human rights activist Akhmed Gisaev to hear his comment. Gisaev’s background is from the Grozny human rights organisation Memorial, but was in 2009 forced to flee Kadorov’s security forces with his family due to reprisals. He gained Norwegian asylum and has since lived in Oslo. Here Gisaev instantly got a job as advisor for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, until he, in 2015, founded his own organisation called the Human Rights Analysis Centre. The days are busy for Gisaev who is also a frequent visitor to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg as well as other European and Norwegian courts and consultative bodies, as an expert on the Caucasus human rights situation.

1x-1He is merciless in his review of both the documentary The Family and its originator. «To me, this film is a piece of Russian propaganda, » Gisaev emphasises. «Khodorkovskij is obscuring the real situation in Chechnya. Why does the film not explain that Ramzan Kadyrov was placed in the role of President of Chechnya following Putin’s decree and on Putin’s mercy – without even trying to legitimise it democratically through elections?» he asks.

Scapegoat. Gisaev believes that Kadyrov is a quisling for Russia’s occupation of Chechnya. «He represents the interests of the Putin-regime, not the people of Chechnya. Kadyrov is scarcely able to go to the loo or drink a cup of tea without asking Moscow for permission, » says Gisaev.

«What Putin does in Chechnya through Ramzan Kadyrov, was described a long time ago by the political philosopher Montesquieu, and should be familiar. It is the ruler’s need to create a scapegoat, a ‘mini-me’, to be able to have someone to blame for his own crimes. This should be obvious to Western researchers and educated decision makers, » says Gisaev, and explains that he never ceases to be amazed by the naivety of western decision makers and media when faced with Russian propaganda.

 « Kadyrov is scarcely able to go to the loo or drink a cup of tea without asking Moscow for permission. »

Pretend-opposition. He feels that the angle of the documentary illustrates the difficult position Russian democracy finds itself in. «The opposition is split – between those who fight for their own interests and those driven by democratic principles. Mikhail Khodorkovskij belongs to the first category, this financially orientated and harmless opposition is the only one Putin will allow. Democratic opposition is heavily penalised, » says Gisaev. «Please remember that prominent members of the democratic opposition element, such as Anna Politkovskaja and Boris Nemtsov, were killed to serve as a warning to others. »

Gisaev’s Chechen human rights and democracy perspective is absent in Khodorkovskij’s documentary on the Chechnya of Kadyrov. We, however, are fortunate enough to have this expertise in our midst, exiled from Putin’s Chechnya.

What do you think? Watch the film on YouTube and judge for yourself.


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