thu 02/04/2020

Putin: A Russian Spy Story, Channel 4 review - inside the mind of a man without a face | reviews, news & interviews

Putin: A Russian Spy Story, Channel 4 review - inside the mind of a man without a face

Putin: A Russian Spy Story, Channel 4 review - inside the mind of a man without a face

The anatomy of power behind the man in the Kremlin, and where he came from

Vladimir Putin: character concealedPhotographer: Pro co

Director Nick Green’s new three-parter follows on the heels of his A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad and comparisons are sure to be made between his two subjects.

Director Nick Green’s new three-parter follows on the heels of his A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad and comparisons are sure to be made between his two subjects. Though the finer degrees of political power-play – and the sheer quantity of attendant blood-letting – may vary, both investigate how the two autocratic regimes concerned came into being and how they have managed to enjoy such almost total power for so long (and look likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future).

The two stories share a central paradox, too, namely the personalities of their leaders. When Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin assumed power exactly 20 years ago, it would have been hard to imagine less prepossessing would-be dictators than these two figures of almost zero charisma, one a diffident eye-doctor, the other a gawky former middle-ranking intelligence officer. The difference, of course, was that Assad was assuming the mantle of his butchering father, stepping into a regime that was prepared to unite around him even though he was never meant to be the successor.

Green suggests, even if the links don’t fit together quite as neatly as his title suggests, that the role Putin has been playing is every bit as dynastic. “Vladimir Putin’s background is the Soviet KGB, one of the most repressive organisations in the history of humanity,” the Russian opposition politician-in-exile Vladimir Kara-Murza opened this first episode, titled “The Rise of Putin”. The youthful Kara-Murza knows what he's talking about all too well: he came close to death after two near-fatal poisonings in Moscow that he is firmly convinced were the work of Russia’s internal security service, the FSB.

Kara-Murza’s remark about the 'strangely high mortality rate' among those who have chosen to oppose Putin rang with dark irony

Especially strong on archive footage and with some revealing interviewees, principally from the part of the opposition that now finds itself abroad, Putin: A Russian Spy Story ends up inevitably as a piece of wider history, close to the BBC's Putin, Russia and the West, the last time that British television took a course in concentrated Kremlinology a decade or so ago (how those nascent tendencies towards Russian isolationism have flexed their muscles since then!). And like that film, which appeared at least selective in some of those from the anti-Putin camp whom it spoke to, there was a sense of missing presences here, too, even of approved versions of historical events being polished for broadcast. It may have been a coup to get the first UK television appearance from Tatyana Yumasheva, the daughter of Boris Yeltsin who was herself a notable powerbroker in the late 1990s, but somehow it felt rather more like an attempt to burnish papa’s legacy and reputation than any sage appraisal of how, and why Putin rose to power so suddenly and so dramatically.

The omission of the quintessential “Oligarch”, Boris Berezovsky, from the story, as in the earlier film, looks glaring: we didn’t hear his name once in Green’s opening episode, though his presence may be felt in the next one, which is set to cover the epoch-setting deal Putin made with the Oligarchs after his accession. (Berezovsky himself died in 2013 in circumstances that remain, for a British court at least, suspicious: Kara-Murza’s remark about the “strangely high mortality rate” among those who have chosen to oppose Putin rang with dark irony.) Perhaps the likes of Vladimir Gusinsky, the more principled Russian media baron of the era, or Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who went on to become, from prison, perhaps Putin’s major international adversary, will be revealing insights into their erstwhile and enduring foe. We didn’t get anything new – in fact, really anything at all – from political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky (pictured below), a Kremlin insider under both Yeltsin and Putin: other past Kremlin players have elsewhere remembered their power days in that cauldron of realpolitik with far more independence of insight. Pavlovsky’s contribution, his manner included, suggested most of all the conviction that bread can be buttered – very comfortably indeed, thank you – on both sides.Putin PavlovksyThere were plentiful allusions to the classic 1970s Soviet television spy drama series Seventeen Moments of Spring, whose undercover protagonist, Stierlitz, played a brilliant role within the Third Reich: likening him to James Bond in British culture belies the fact that Stierlitz was so absolutely unflamboyant. In that sense at least, of never reaching for the limelight, Putin may have modelled himself on his hero, though the problem with such comparisons is that his relatively brief KGB career – his only overseas posting a few years in Dresden, a relative espionage backwater – was so far from stellar. One of the most perceptive contributors to Green’s film, Germany’s Alexander Rahr, remarked that, if the genius of a spy is to avoid attention, Putin’s time in East Germany is recorded by a whole array of photographs showing him in social contexts, a glass of beer usually close to hand.

If he wasn't exactly reflecting the cutting-edge best of KGB expertise – Putin’s career, after all, ended with the rank of colonel, suggesting levels of subordination to the outfit’s numerous superior officers – then Putin: A Russian Spy Story gave a more convincing sense of how, in addition to the legacy of hardship of his post-war Leningrad childhood, he has channelled the psychological dislocation that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bridget Kendall was revealing on that strand especially, and there’s no doubt that Putin’s genuine popularity in the first decade of the new century came from the sense that he was bringing a welcome order after the chaos of the Yeltsin years.

The question that really hung in the air, however, was whether that process had begun with the blowing up of apartment buildings in Moscow in autumn 1999, which would precipitate the Second Chechen War, which in turn would see Putin’s popularity soar. For many even today, like Russian Newsweek’s Mikhail Fishman, that seemed beyond possible in its cynicism, a step simply too far for someone who had reached the power circles of Moscow only three years earlier, as a rank outsider to boot. But possibly not too far at all for those with far greater experience who were standing behind him, believing that he could be manipulated… there's surely much more to be said on the Putin-Berezovksy-Litvinenko axis than we heard here. 

Such speculation aside, Putin was clearly learning his own ways rapidly, from the use of irreverent slang that drew popular attention to the growing cynicism of manner that seemed to conceal a character which couldn’t be fathomed (one early biographical account of his rise to power had the revealing title “The Man without a Face”). “For Putin there are enemies and there are traitors. Enemies are something you can live with. But the traitors are a totally different kettle of fish. Betrayal is one thing he absolutely doesn’t tolerate,” we heard from The Economist’s Arkady Ostrovsky. But if that was something Putin learnt within the KGB, similar traits had surely always been there in his character, and they would only be accentuated as he came up against a world that he saw as in so many ways slighting both him personally and his nation. Green's forthcoming episodes will no doubt bring home the consequences of that mindset, though here in Britain we surely need less reminding about that than most. Putin: A Russian Spy Story doesn't have quite the revelatory context that the director brought to the Assads, but it's a compelling story fluently told.

Putin's relatively brief KGB career - his only overseas posting a few years in Dresden, a relative espionage backwater - was far from stellar

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters