Oliver Stone interviews Vladimir Putin. Reviewed by Gary Scarrabelotti
Among the most important geo-political questions of our time: What is Russia? Who is Putin? Where are they headed?
The Putin Interviews, directed by Oliver Stone; Showtime Documentary Films in four parts; screened by SBS Australia from 18 June 2017.
The Full Transcripts of the Putin Interviews, directed by Oliver Stone; forward by Robert Scheer; Hot Books, New York, 2017.
A few days ago a senior analyst at the Washington Institute for the Study of War, Christopher Kozak, lamented symptoms of America’s diminished clout in world affairs and the unforeseen rise of Russia:
“The U.S. is abdicating its role as a diplomatic powerbroker to Russia in Syria. The U.S. is ultimately empowering a political process driven by Russia that will not secure America’s strategic objectives in Syria.”
There are many reasons why this has come to pass: there are Syrian and Middle Eastern reasons; there are American reasons; and, then, there are Russian reasons. If you watched The Putin Interviews attentively you would have encountered the single most important factor in why Russia has become the strategically decisive player in Syria. That factor is Vladimir Putin: by far and away the most accomplished practitioner of statecraft in the world today.
The Putin Interviews were conducted by Oliver Stone in the course of four visits to Russia between 2 July 2015 and 10 February 2017. During the third of these excursions, at the end of an interview on 11 May 2016, there is this exchange between Putin and Stone:
VP: “You’ve never been beaten before in your life?” OS: “Oh yes, many times.” VP: “Then it’s not going to be anything new, because you are going to suffer for what you are about to do.”
And so it happened. Oliver Stone has been widely thumped across the Western world media for The Putin Interviews, particularly in the United States. A painful moment for Stone must have been his 12 June appearance on “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert. Stone’s attempt to give serious answers to Colbert’s hectoring questions were interrupted by continuous audience laughter. Unexpectedly, I felt sorry for Stone. The disbelief and mockery shared between Colbert and his audience for what Stone had attempted - even as Colbert admitted that that he had not actually seen the Interviews - was emblematic. The public culture of western societies exhibits radical incompetence - reinforced by hysteria and ignorance - at dealing with some of the most important geo-political questions of our time: What is Russia? Who is Putin? Where are they headed? Oliver Stone, who produced films like Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, Snowden, is an American Old Leftist. He revers John Reed, a foot soldier in the Russian Revolution, an unabashed Bolshevik and founder of the Communist Party of America. Stone has been an admirer of Communist dictators like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. He sees American foreign and military policy as the font of most world evils. He has a penchant for conspiracy theories. He is, however, an accomplished film maker and he knows the power of the filmic message.And he has a point, even if (quite often) one has to take it with a largish grain of salt.
Perhaps the most wince-making moment in The Putin Interviews occurs during an interlude when Stone and his team visit the Lenin mausoleum in Red Square. The awe that Stone evidently experienced in that placeis as revealing as it is repellent. The flaws in the Interviews are not my theme. Others have made much of them. Stone’s politeness in his engagement with Putin has been construed as deference and fawning. As the transcripts reveal, some of Stone’s questions were rambling and muddled. Putin could make of these what he liked. Stone, moreover, often failed to press his interlocutor with well-aimed follow-up questions, something he could have done without marring the conversational atmosphere he sought to cultivate. In any case, Stone did raise issues highly sensitive to Russia’s self-esteem as a power in the world: the alleged clumsy performance of its armed forces in the 2008 war with Georgia and the apparent failure of Russian intelligence to grasp, before it was too late, the seriousness of Ukraine’s the 2013-14 Maidan demonstrations which ended in a revolution. Putin offered perfunctory denials and Stone, quite rightly, let them pass. The point had been made.
In any case, it was not Stone’s aim to emulate the gladiatorial ten-minute interview beloved of “prime time” media buffs. His purpose was not to score off Putin, but to enter into a conversation.That was a fine objective and Stone pulled it off. His aim was to present Putin speaking for himself and, more importantly, for Russia. What, perhaps, has riled Stone’s many critics is that, in accomplishing this, he sidelined America’s establishment ‘commentariat’- The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs magazine and the East Coast archipelago of think-tanks- and, together with them, the Departments of State and Defense and the whole US intelligence apparatus. Galling. Here we have Putin in his own voice, with his own (Russian) arguments, and you and I can hear him, without ‘official’ interpretative interference, in our own lounge rooms. It should not have happened. But it did. That’s what I’d call an accomplishment. Putin presents as calm and disciplined, alert and professional, wary and precise, demanding and exacting. As a leader he appears flexible as to his means and unbending as to his main objectives. He comes across as a coiled-spring of a man held in check by a high degree of self-mastery. In the international sphere, his message is clear and his policy wears no disguise: the Soviet Union is no more; the Warsaw Pact “has faded into oblivion”; the Cold War is over; Russia is a normal nationwith an identity of its own and a great power; it should be treated as a partner and its interests respected. Throughout Putin resolutely refers to his American and European counterparts as “our colleagues” and “our partners”. Though the “colleagues” have refused resolutely, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, to treat Russia as an equal, Putin, who by now has seen off many a president and prime minister, never permits a disparaging word against their persons to pass his lips. From the high and impersonal level of policy he never strays. It is there, however, that his assessments can be acerbic.
Often Stone can’t rein in his personal narrative about ‘perfidious America’ and invites Putin to enter into it. Each time, however, that Stone sets up a free kick against the USA, Putin declines to take it, sometimes pointedly:
VP: “I know that you are very critical of the American government in many dimensions. I do not always share your point of view … Sometimes decisions have to be taken which are not entirely approved of in some parts of society. But it is better to make some decisions than [to] make none.”
Whatever he might feel about America and its policies, Putin never forgets his position as President of a nation capable, if it were to come to that, of destroying America – and, in that event, of being destroyed along with her. So there are no lose words; no emotions indulged. Statecraft is an unforgiving business in which there is little room for error. It’s a daunting standard Putin has set himself - he’d argue that it’s a standard set for him by Russia - and his on-camera performance as its advocate is impressive. More than that, it’s a master class. The conversation traverses his family background; the Stalin legacy; the failure of Gorbachev; the collapse of the Soviet Union and its disastrous consequences; Putin’s unexpected selection, by Boris Yeltsin, first as Prime Minister, then as his successor as President; the suppression of the oligarchs; the Second Chechen War; the Georgian War; the expansion of NATO and its strategic implications for Russia; Ukraine’s “colour revolutions”; the re-absorption of Crimea into Russia; the Snowden affair; the DNC hack; Putin’s supposed immense wealth; and more. Maybe the most controversial part of the Interviews would be Putin’s account of events in Ukraine, its political crises, the overthrow in February 2014 of the Yanukovych government, the subsequent loss of of Crimea and the outbreak of conflict in the Donbas. There is no scope here for an assessment of the Washington vs Moscow contest over Ukraine, except to say this: Ukraine today is an image of what Russia was, and likely would have remained, had not Putin come to power. Finally, on the question of his allegedly spectacular wealth, Putin responds disarmingly. When he’s done, it’s difficult to decide whether Putin is a man more than usually detached from sordid mammon or whether he has just offered an answer of serpentine cunning. For me, it’s the pivotal moment in the Interviews. Like no other it confronts us with the question: What are we to make of this man? Well, here we are near essay’s end, and I am not going to tell you the answer to that. It’s your call. What I will do, however, is to recommend a brilliant essay by Christopher Caldwell entitled How to think about Vladimir Putin.
What to think? is one thing. How? is quite another. The former requires a personal judgement that only you can make. The latter calls for something different: an appreciation of the historical circumstances in which Putin came to power; of the domestic and international challenges Russia has faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union; and of the remarkable (if incomplete) success Putin has accomplished in hauling Russia out of its nightmare: the oligarchic financial rapine, the rampant criminality, the social disintegration and demographic collapse with which, in May 2000, his first presidency opened.
Stone may not have got clear in his own mind the distinction between what and how to think about Putin. But he certainly has helped us, whether intentionally or not, how to think about him. In this regard - his fulminating critics notwithstanding - Stone’s Interviews are a marked success.