Putin’s Kiss is a rare insight into the core of Russian democracy “Putin-style”. We meet Masha, 19, who has become a spokesperson for Nashi, a political youth organisation working to support the current political system. Their agenda, however, is also to keep the political opposition from spreading their views among the Russians. When Masha is up for election, she starts questioning her role in the Nashi movement for the first time.
How to gain power, and more importantly, how to sustain that power. These are the deep-rooted themes of Lise Birk Pedersen’s Putin’s Kiss. More explicitly the films tracks the rise and some might say the fall of Masha Drokova, who as a teenager became the queen of Nashi, a Russian political youth organization with direct and close ties to the Kremlin and Putin. The first post-Soviet generation is now in its teenage years and Masha is one of them. The post-Soviet generation has no recollection of living in the communist Soviet Union but it does have a recollection of how things were early in the 1990s when a lot of societal institutions were not functioning and lawlessness prevailed.
According to the documentary, Vladimir Putin was the first man who managed to gets things on the right track and give the Russian people a reason to believe in themselves again after years of bewildered wandering. This might explain why so many Russians still hold Putin dear to their hearts. And it might also explain the strength and scope of Nashi. As mentioned, Nashi is a political youth organization and as such shares certain characteristics with any other community. All communities are exclusionary by nature. Automatically they create an ‘us’, who is a member of the group and a ‘them’, who is not a member the group. This binary opposition is necessary for the community to establish itself and for it to carry on being a community. It has to matter whether or not you are in or out, so to speak. The difference between communities is thus how this opposition is manifested and to what extent this manifestation can be said to be rational and humane. As far as Nashi is concerned, at first sight, it seems rather rational and humane. Most democratic countries, as far as I know, have political youth parties who support their “mother party” and believe in their leader though some may also criticize this leader. Nashi might be just one of many political youth organizations. However, after watching Lise Birk Pedersen’s documentary, one starts to have second thoughts. First of all, there is the discourse. The way the members speak about the non-members is rather radical and approaching hateful. It’s quite thought-provoking to sit there in the cinema and look at seemingly rational, young people who suddenly start to speak of the non-members in their group as cowards and enemies of the state.
Words are one thing, and words do matter, but action might again speak louder than words and Nashi’s way of acting is in no way more humane than its way of speaking. We get a sense of this at a few of the counter-demonstrations against the opposition when we witness Nashi members destroying images of opposition members, and are almost reminded of Stalin’s death list enumerating the enemies of the state.
The strength of Putin’s Kiss is that we get to experience Nashi through the eyes of Masha, who develops from a rather naive and Putin-admiring Nashi member to a Putin disciple and Nashi queen and then turns into a rather more reluctant, Putin-critical young woman able to see two sides to every story. When Masha begins to question her own affiliation with Nashi and starts to hang out with people from the opposition, these opposition members suspect her of being a spy and many of them will not have anything to do with her. This cleverly illustrates that even though the opposition groups might be driven by more humane and rational grounds, they can still end up thinking in a somewhat reactionary and binary oppositional way.
Masha still seems to believe in most of the patriotic values presented by Nashi but after a brutal assault on the journalist and political blogger, Oleg Kashin, for which Nashi is very likely to be responsible, Masha starts to feel that the relation between the values held by the group and the methods it employs to fight for these values has become too radical.
The weaknesses of the film have a lot to do with psychology. Even though Masha’s is a great case for depicting Nashi, we don’t really get a deep understanding of why and how so many young people associate with the patriotic organization. What are the driving forces behind their community and how come they keep on admiring and refraining from criticism? We don’t get any reflections on questions like this which is quite a shame. Instead the film has a tendency towards a staccato composition where you feel you are watching similar scenes again and again. Here is yet another demonstration. Here is yet another meeting. Here is yet one more scene from summer camp and yet another speech. I would have preferred less of these reportage scenes and more psychology, more in-depth reflection on Nashi and its appeal.
The film is very relevant seen against the March 6th election which most likely has put Vladimir Putin in power for the next eight years, and judging from the film there are many reasons to be worried about the political status and level of critique in Russia – both among experienced politicians and up-and-coming ones.