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.
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.»
Mansky, in retrospect, feels there was a deeper psychological significance to this conversation in the early weeks after Putin’s election as president in March 2000: «Why did he pick this argument [about Putin’s controversial decision on restoring a national anthem with the same melody at the Soviet anthem] with me? Perhaps, already, there was no one around him with whom he could disagree.
Putin’s inner circle in the early days was a broad church. There was former dissident Gleb Pavlovsky, who was deputy head of his election campaign; Soviet era minister economist and soon-to-be appointed prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov; politician and privatisation advocate, Anatoly Chubais; minister of the press Mikhail Lesin; Valentin Yumashev, who would marry Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana; and Vladislav Surkov, one of the authors of the so-called ‘power vertical’ and advocate of the creation of specious ‘opposition’ parties and groups to legitimise a Potemkin façade of democracy in Russia.
All of these characters would later fall out favour, be demoted or join the opposition. Some would die: Lesin bludgeoned to death in a Washington DC hotel in 2015 and another (and early critic of Putin), Boris Nemtsov gunned down outside the Kremlin the same year.
Even Putin’s then wife Ludmila would be dumped – discarded in some casual live TV remarks that preceded a divorce – a few years later.
Mansky suggests that even apparently objective observers, such as himself, have paid a price for being too close to the sun: he now lives in self-imposed exile in Latvia after finding it increasingly impossible to work in Russia.
«If we find them in the toilet, excuse me, we’ll rub them out in the outhouse. And that’s it, case closed.» – Putin
The director also enjoyed privileged access to Boris Yeltsin and his family and spent the evening of the March 2000 presidential elections with them as the results came in. There is champagne and jubilation as Putin’s narrow win of 51,2 per cent comes in, shortly after Yeltsin [in retrospect, ironically] pronounces: «If Putin wins, the freedom of the media will be guaranteed by all means.»
But already then there are signs of the autocratic Putin we know today.
Yeltsin’s first call is to Yumashev – a previous head of Russian government administration – to thank him for securing the election. Yeltsin waits for a call from his protégé, but Putin does not call and fails to return Yeltsin’s calls.
The use of «administrative resources» to secure Putin’s election (a consistent feature of subsequent presidential elections – the flagrant disregard of democratic norms to use tax-payer funded bureaucracy to support the «party of power») is already established, as is Putin’s peculiar style of neither campaigning nor revealing any kind of programme.
Putin is already ubiquitous on national TV – touring the country and being seen to «serve the national interest» but no one has a clue what his agenda is.
Mansky suggests that power – and nothing else – is his agenda, and though he explicitly states that he does not believe Putin was personally involved in a series of «terrorist» explosions that demolished apartment blocks in Moscow and elsewhere in September 1999, it is clear who the main beneficiary was: Putin’s approval ratings went up from a couple of per cent to over 50 per cent in the months before Yeltsin anointed him successor.
The story of the bombings is more fully explored in Andrei Nekrasov’s 2004 documentary Disbelief, based on Alexander Litvinenko’s book, Blowing Up Russia. [Litvinenko died in London after being poisoned with polonium; a British investigation suggested it could not have been done without Putin’s knowledge.]
And the vulgar, strongman is also glimpsed when Putin tells the world’s press that the Chechen terrorists suspected of the bombings [though soon evidence would suggest Russian security service involvement] could expect no mercy: «If we find them in the toilet, excuse me, we’ll rub them out in the outhouse. And that’s it, case closed.»
And yet there seems to have been a residual sense of self-reflection in Putin in the early days, as he earnestly tells Mansky that he understands that one day he will return to private life and be judged on his time in office.
Nearly two decades later, his grip on power stronger than ever and with the winter Olympics, occupation of Crimea, support of Assad in Syria and the World Cup behind him, Putin’s only aim today seems to be to cling on at all costs.