Nick Holdsworth
Journalist, writer, author, filmmaker and film and TV industry expert – Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

In the exclusive fly-on-the-wall footages in Vitaly Mansky‘s Putin’s Witnesses, we’re offered a glimpse into Vladimir Putin‘s raise to power – from his early promises of media freedom to the flagrant disregard of democratic norms.

Putin's Witnesses

(Svideteli Putina)

Vitaly Mansky

Natalia Manskaya

Latvia,Switzerland,Czech

What we tend to forget now that so much time has passed since an ailing Boris Yeltsin personally anointed Vladimir Putin as his successor and president-elect on New Year’s Eve in 1999, is that Putin once espoused certain democratic ideals.

The finely-tuned, well-honed image as a statesman and strongman that are now set to carrying him through a fourth term as Russian president until 2024, only came later.

Nevertheless, the exclusive fly-on-the-wall footage that Vitaly Mansky shot during 1999 and 2000, reveals in hindsight much of the threatening, insidious and belligerent persona that was to come.

«State decisions should be taken regardless of whether they generate a positive or negative reaction,»  – Putin

Mansky’s documentary – which won the Crystal Globe for best documentary film at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic early July – is a frank and disturbing glimpse into the earliest days of Putin’s presidency. The film goes a long way in explaining the autocratic state that has developed following the wild optimism and liberalism – but also the criminal chaos of the Yeltsin years.

The Putin we see here, thrust into the limelight a few months after being appointed the sixth prime minister to serve under Yeltsin, is still a largely unknown quantity. He is slightly earnest, keen to please and not entirely sure of himself.

Political supporters falling out of favour

Mansky – in a film that would much benefit from losing around 20 minutes and some tighter editing – saves some of the best material for last: showing Putin anxiously summoning him back to the Kremlin to reprise a conversation from the day before about why he chose to reinstate the Soviet-era national anthem.

«State decisions should be taken regardless of whether they generate a positive or negative reaction,» says Putin, adding that by restoring the Soviet melody to the Russian national anthem (a stirring piece with nationalistic lyrics written by Sergei Mikhalkov, the father of Oscar-winning Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov) he was doing a kindness to older people who felt that with the collapse of the Soviet Union they had lost everything.

«Mansky now lives in self-imposed exile in Latvia after finding it increasingly impossible to work in Russia.»

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