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US News Profiling Putin: why a new documentary could enrage the Kremlin

08:10  23 march  2020
08:10  23 march  2020 Source:   ft.com

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Vladimir Putin at a rally in Moscow in 2012 when he claimed victory in the presidential election © AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev. The show made impression enough that decades later, Putin was willingly filmed for a Russian documentary with the theme tune as his accompaniment.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia January 20, 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. © Thomson Reuters Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia January 20, 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

The facial expressions of Vladimir Putin are typically so limited — the stern frown, the knowing smirk — it is odd to look back to March 2012 and find the Russian president weeping in public. The scene was his victory speech on reclaiming the presidency, having stepped aside four years earlier in line with the constitutional limit on two terms in office. His candidature had inspired Moscow street protests. Onstage in Red Square, Putin’s emotions appeared to spill over. Tears ran down his face. Then anger filled his voice: “We showed that no one can impose anything on us! No one!”

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The moment is revisited during the three-part Channel 4 documentary Putin: A Russian Spy Story, produced by Paul Mitchell, whose CV includes the BBC’s revered The Death of Yugoslavia, the well-regarded Inside Obama’s White House and several films on Russian politics made after living in Moscow during the 1990s. For all his experience, Mitchell finds himself unsettled by the footage. “It’s scary,” he says, in the dining room of London’s Union Club. “I see it as one of the most frightening moments of his presidency.”

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Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky hopes a new documentary film about his life chronicling his "If the Kremlin decides to kill somebody, it is very difficult for this person to avoid this fate," he said, a "I tell all my colleagues that the only thing we can do for you is to help you not to be forgotten, as I was

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That so many landmarks of Putin’s reign have played out on television is a boon for documentary-makers. But if the series aims to explain how he became probably the century’s most influential politician, part of the answer is sought before the cameras rolled, when he was just a keen new KGB recruit. Working alongside Mitchell have been executive producer James Rogan and director Nick Green, both also here at the Union. The interview Putin gave the FT last summer was, Rogan says, key to their approach: “His challenge to the west was so direct [“The liberal idea has become obsolete”], it was shocking. It made us consider the whole story through the lens of ‘Wait, how did we get here? How did he get here?’”

Even before Putin’s time as a secret policeman in 1980s Dresden, Mitchell, Rogan and Green pick out a particular milestone: the vastly popular Soviet TV spy series Seventeen Moments of Spring, with its laconic hero Stierlitz undercover in Nazi Germany. Putin was 21 when the series aired in 1973. Two years later, he joined the KGB. The show made impression enough that decades later, Putin was willingly filmed for a Russian documentary with the theme tune as his accompaniment. It was, the series suggests, a heady lesson in the power of television and the mystique of the spy. Mitchell smiles. “Maybe the other lesson he takes from Seventeen Moments of Spring is that spies never have to grow up. There is this side to him that is permanently adolescent.”

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Green makes a comment for the record: “That was Paul Mitchell speaking.” Ahead of broadcast, gallows humour pervades at the thought of enraging the Kremlin. Still, Rogan points out, exiled opposition figures such as on-screen contributor Vladimir Kara-Murza remain prepared to speak out. Mitchell and his colleagues also put considerable effort into persuading those who would be seen as insiders to take part. In the first episode of the series, Gleb Pavlovsky — adviser to Boris Yeltsin and, for several years, Putin too — helps narrate Putin’s 1990s ascent from redundant Soviet cog to fixer for St Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, and then to director of the FSB, Yeltsin’s successor to the KGB.

Someone stronger would have worked to build an outward-looking Russia with a robust economy, not recreate this inward-looking security state.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the State Council in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko ) © ASSOCIATED PRESS Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the State Council in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko )

The rising star’s profile was very different from that of conventional career politicians. That was the point. Pavlovsky describes a Russian focus group he asked to model their ideal president in the later days of Yeltsin. The most popular answer was Stierlitz, the double agent from Seventeen Moments of Spring. As the decade after the collapse of Soviet communism wore on, Mitchell says many Russian power-brokers were disappointed with the fruits of democracy. “And the only reasonably democratic election Putin had fought was in 1996 when Sobchak stood for re-election in St Petersburg, and they lost.”

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“He always had particular skills,” Rogan says, “which come from the KGB. It isn’t the skillset you would pick out to help nurture democracy.”

The election campaign that would first see him claim the presidency was notable for a lack of debate between the candidate and his rivals. Instead, what emerges in the series’ first episode resembles a bizarre echo of 1960s pop group The Monkees — a quartet of actors cast to play a band in a TV series, who learned their instruments for real after the fact. Arriving on the world stage, Putin initially cut an awkward figure in comparison with Tony Blair or Bill Clinton, politicians who traded on their ability to work a room. Putin, the programme notes, could sometimes be in a room for several minutes before anyone realised he was there.

But the story of the series is that of a quick learner. In London, Green retells the tale of Putin’s first meeting with the newly elected George Bush in June 2001, in which the Russian made a point of showing the deeply religious US president the crucifix owned by his mother that, he said, he later saved from a burning dacha. Bush famously spoke of having seen his peer’s “soul” before the relationship soured.

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More recently, his model of leadership — a stage-managed media presence, a bedrock of nationalism — has proved a popular export among western politicians. Another moment of archive used in the series finds Donald Trump praising the Russian leader to TV host Larry King as early as 2007. “You can see the lightbulb going off,” Rogan says.

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Of course, the popular image of Putin now is less Stierlitz than Bond villain, with thick files of kompromat and an army of bots stealing other country’s elections. That, the programme-makers say, risks explaining away the neglect of our own democracies — and creating an inflated sense of Russian strategic genius. “Again,” Rogan says, “what Putin is very good at is everyday spycraft, dealing with what’s in front of you. The phrase is, ‘You eat the elephant one bite at a time.’ I’m not sure he’s a chess grandmaster.”

But what the Putin of the series does have is an endless capacity for reprisals towards those he believes have betrayed him. In the first episode, the new head of the FSB is visited by a junior officer, complaining of corruption within the organisation. Putin is said to have listened, then ordered Alexander Litvinenko to leave. Litvinenko’s widow Marina takes part in the series too, 14 years after her husband’s fatal poisoning at Mayfair’s Millennium Hotel, a short walk from where we now sit. “That more than anything is what Putin has taught the 21st century,” Rogan says. “The sense that our politicians will spend their time prosecuting personal grudges.”

“He takes the easiest path,” Nick Green says. “Someone stronger would have worked to build an outward-looking Russia with a robust economy, not recreate this inward-looking security state. It’s not leadership — it’s survival.”

Among Russia-watchers, talk of how and when the Putin era may end has been sport for years. Paul Mitchell shakes his head. “I’m hesitant to make forecasts. Every time you do, the next day they become irrelevant.” Soon after we met, the president endorsed proposals that would leave him free to seek two more six-year terms, and remain in power until 2036. Arriving at the Duma to address lawmakers, Putin smiled broadly.

‘Putin: A Russian Spy Story’ starts today, 9pm on Channel 4

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