"Unfortunately, this film will remain relevant for a long time," - director Vitaly Mansky

The latest film by Vitaly Mansky revisits rare behind-the-scenes footage of Operation Successor and chronicles Vladimir Putin's rise to power
By Vadim Dumesh in Riga November 26, 2018

The documentary "Putin's Witnesses" is one of the most talked about films of 2018 since its victorious premiere at Karlovy Vary (aka the Czech resort town of Carlsbad) this summer, for many reasons. The film baits the viewer with unparalleled access enjoyed by Vitaly Mansky, then head of the documentary unit of Russia's largest TV chain, to Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and the acting President Vladimir Putin, during a fateful period in Russian history: the transition of power from Yeltsin to Putin in 2000-2001 in “Operation Successor.”

But beyond the rare close-up glimpse into these prodigious events, the film develops into a complex and harrowing study of construction and inculcation of an image of a leader, the common man's passive role in the millstones of unfolding events, and Mansky's coming to terms with his own personal responsibility in the events he witnessed and documented.

Fast forward eighteen years and Vitaly Mansky lives and works in a self-imposed exile in Riga. Right after "Putin's Witnesses" boasted eight sold out screenings at the world's biggest documentary showcase IDFA in Amsterdambne IntelliNews sat down with its seasoned documentary-maker, who had an early privileged and intimate access to one of world's most powerful men. 



bne: Why did you decide to start making the film in 2015? What was the point of no return for you that urged you to revisit the materials of the TV film "Putin: The Leap Year" you originally did back in 2001?

Vitaly Mansky: By 2008, whether you saw Putin's presidency positively or negatively, he remained within the limits of law. After that [Prime Minister Dmtry] Medvedev [who replaced Putin as president] even signaled some chance of modernisation in 2008. But of course in 2012 it became absolutely clear that it was all just a game and none of people's business, which resulted in Bolotnaya Square protests. This threw me back to the events that I have witnesses and participated in. These flashbacks of memory have provoked revisions of the archives - the first immersion in these materials have clearly pointed to the need to make another film. In 2013 I was very involved in the film "Under the Sun" I did in North Korea. In 2014 when war was in the air, I felt I must start shooting "Close Relations". And after "Close Relations" I started working on the archives, on my memories, the concept of the film did not come right away, it always needs to be distilled. I wanted the film to premiere before the 2018 elections, not because I hoped it would have any impact, but just because it would serve as some kind of warning, invitation for analysis. But the production was very complicated, we restored the materials in Switzerland, and so we didn't force it for before the election. Unfortunately, this film will remain relevant for a long time.

bne: Speaking of the chronology - the film warns that compromises in politics allow the rise of populism, and ultimately authoritarianism, as well as the curbing of freedoms. You have previously said that the 1996 elections that were pushed through by Yeltsin, was the first compromise that led Russian politics to where it is today. 

V.M.: Absolutely. 100%. I am convinced that [Yeltsin's election in] 1996 was not only a compromise, but a grave mistake which allowed for no other possible development vector that the one Russia took. And the mistake was that the democrats decided to save democracy with un-democratic means. This is an absolute absurdity, the obviousness of which is still not acknowledged in Russia. The democrats are gone in Russia today, and this is the price we paid for their crimes against the ideals of democracy. Formally the democrats won these 1996 elections... But sometimes you lose everything by winning.

bne: So did this also allow the Operation Successor to organise a transition of power from Yeltsin to Putin in 2000?

V.M.: I don't think that in 1996 anyone was already rehearsing the Operation Successor for 2000. Back then in 1996 was seen as a one-off operation dealing with a specific goal in a targeted fashion. No one had a strategy at that point. But as they say - once a liar... Once you cross some line, you expand the boundaries of the possible, and the corrupt path becomes that of least resistance, the path with less obstacles to overcome. If not for 1996, nobody would dare to launch such a hotheaded bold operation as a resignation of the president on New Year's eve, few months before the election... The rest is history.

bne: It is impossible to turn away from the figure of Putin the man in the film. When you were making it, what did you aim to unveil about him to the well-informed viewer?

V.M.: When I was watching the old footage, I had the temptation to lay out a much more all-encompassing study of Putin's personality. Because we had sensationalist materials on his personal life, something that would be in high demand today. But there was a strict decision to follow the narrative of the Operation Successor and its consequences, and in this story, the role and personality of Putin, paradoxically, are secondary. The reading of the film as a "film about Putin" is a banal, simplified one. The film is first and foremost about Operation Successor, the reaction of the society, which seemingly is outside the frame, but it is present as of course this transition was made with a silent consent of the voters.

What has surprised me during the review of the archive materials was my strange and consistent insistence on questions of power transition, monarchical ambitions in my discussions with Putin. In retrospect I see no reason to have had such suspicions back then. He was a young politician, who was elected president, why was I so concerned about him grabbing power when he was still in his fist term? This was some kind of unconscious premonition.

bne: But your wife Natalia in the opening of the film, when she learns about Yeltsin's resignation, is very outspoken in seeing Putin as an omen of totalitarian. Did her position not influence you?

V.M.: No, this did not influence me, as I trusted the people who planned and executed the Operation Successor. I was too immersed in all the historic circumstances, and it blurred my judgement. We all had our consciousness blurred. The regular Russians were of course brainwashed by the impact of the mass media. But even the intellectuals let their guard down. For my wife, a person from the side, and most of all, a grandchild of the politically repressed on both her parents' sides, a KGB system man was a red line one cannot cross. Her reaction was immediate and very sincere. But after a couple of months even she got calmer after being massaged by the mass media campaign.

bne: Despite the blurred judgement, one of the most amazing things in the film is the open, daring, and even audacious communication with Putin. The most remarkable of those, of course, is the question you ask him at the site of horrific housing block bombing: "Does the end justify the means?" after which he stares dumbfounded in the camera. Did you mean what you were asking or was it a coincidence? 

V.M.: The question was not accidental, but frankly, we did not expect Putin to understand this question so sharply or in its most dangerous subtext context. We came to the site of the bombings to provoke discussions on other subjects. But he read the question as pointing exactly to the meaning that it took later [a conspiracy theory that the apartment block bombings were an inside job planned by FSB to stoke fear ahead of the election]. Of course for us this was a moment of immense tension. And I think it had consequences later for me personally. He made a mental note of this question. 

Film director Vitaly Mansky receives top documentary price at Karlovy Vary 2018 film festival for Putin's Witnesses
Vitaly Mansky awarded at Karlovy Vary 2018 film festival for Putin's Witnesses

bne: There is an impression watching both your films, that even if Putin seemed disoriented while being sucked into the Operation Successor in the beginning, quite quickly he started to get a grip over his new role, forming a paradigm of his power, coming up with answers for all the questions.

V.M.: I don't agree with this theory. By 1998 in Russia there was an absolute vacuum of power, with an incapable President, the unconstitutional rule of powerful interest group around him, the so-called Family. In this vacuum it was easy to create your own personal power paradigm. But he did not come up with it as he moved along. 

Let me remind you that Putin was the head of the FSB. Was there anyone more informed in Russia than him? Who but he could monitor all political planning and activity? Of course the head of FSB was the most informed person, and he knew perfectly well that Yeltsin's inner circle was looking for young blood. At some point, he understood that he was the one they were looking for, and he just had to present himself in the right way. And we have to give him credit: he was ready to risk and won big time. He made a move that made the "admission commission" that was choosing the successor to see him as one of their own. He helped Anatoly Sobchak [former mayor of St Petersburg and Putin's first patron in politics] flee abroad and avoid prosecution. From there on he was on the finish line for the job. He was seen as this liberally-mided strongman.

He also made sure to study his "lines." He knew what was the narrative of bringing him to power and made sure to study his role in this narrative perfectly. But as soon as he got the power, he started dropping the sandbags systematically to rise higher and higher in his own power. He also was feeling out how much society would be willing to let him do what he wanted and met no resistance. This is how he became the Putin that we have today and we will always have.

bne: While Yeltsin and Gorbachev in the film operate in systemic, historic terms, Putin first and foremost is motivated by the need to restore popular trust in power. In many arguments with you, he scores points based on simple people he meets on the campaign trail. Was it a genuine belief he held or simply a populist rhetoric?

V.M.: This was the beginning of the new populism. After the second world war, when the world realised to what horrors populism can lead, before the rise of Putin, populism was banned from the international political toolkit. There was no high-ranking populist politician. It was not fair play. Putin brought the populism back, perhaps it is his foremost historic role. Back then he started on this populist path to stress not the artificial manner in which he was brought to power by a decision of a group of people, but to position himself as an answer to the demand from the masses. So the populist rhetoric, for him, was a way to solidify his "chosenness" and further distance himself from the people who brought him to power.

Behind the scenes of Putin's first election campaign in 2000
Behind the scenes of Putin's first election campaign in 2000

bne: In behind-the-scenes of the election team of Putin, we see a lot of familiar faces - Dmitry Medvedev, former Prime Minister Kasyanov, Minister of Communication Lesin, the voice of Boris Nemtsov. But our readers would also spot the "Putin's Banker" Sergei Pugachev,  Rosneft's "oil tsar" Igor Sechin, Valentin Yumashev, the husband of Tatyana Yeltsina, Putin's long-time advisor, and an in-law of Oleg Deripaska. Yeltsin was famously dependent on the Family, the oligarchy that surrounded him. Do you think Putin is still on top of his Family, or he is being dictated too? 

V.M.: I am not the best person to answer this question, but based on my previous experience I believe that all the processes are controlled personally by Putin. Back then he was passionately keeping track of all the nuances and tried to comprehend even the minutest decisions. This is what makes me think that this phobia only strengthened with time. Yes, it is clear that the apparatus around him is very powerful, but it is always looking back to him to act. Or, some of them can risk taking front-loaded decisions and initiatives, but still not too stretched from the base, maximum a step ahead of what is allowed. But generally I would say everything stems from the center, and what we see in practise only supports this theory. Today Putin is deeply involved in the regional issues. There is no self-sufficient government, as the Prime Minister Medvedev is hardly an independent figure. So the executive issues also need to be controlled. This is an enormous amount of work, so when Putin says that he works as a galley slave, its true. He is not a slave of course, but he has become the main gear in the machine he devised.

bne: This description falls into the popular trope of Putin as an intricate strategist exercising total control. But in the film, his emotional sides surfaces, and it seems strong enough to cloud one's judgement. In the scene where you are arguing about the restoration of the Soviet hymn, his eyes betray an obsessed man, a man that cannot back down or accept disagreement.

V.M.: That's right. And this is how he picks people for his team. This is why some perfectly capable and harmless managers are switched for less proficient people who compensate for it with absolute loyalty. The principle of personal loyalty and unquestionable consent is above all. This is why we see his former bodyguards being brought to power now. When you are in power for so long, the paranoia is inevitable. 

bne: If Putin foreshadowed the rise of populism, perhaps Russia can help the world see the future of it? Today, despite the Crimea, the Olympic Games, the World Cup, and confidently won 2018 elections, the popularity of the president is sliding. Especially harmful was the pension reform. How aware and how worried do you think is he of this situation?

V.M.: The presidential elections in Russia don't exist. So there is nothing to fear there for Putin, he will keep winning presidential elections as long as he needs it. Remember: in the spring of 1991 the Russian people voted at a referendum to keep the Soviet Union. Moreover, on August 18, 1991, had I been asked how long the Soviet Union would keep existing, I would have said indefinitely. But what happenned on the August 19, hapenned, leading to the resignation of Gorbachev, protests, etc.

So the increasing popular discontent, this unsatisfaction in Russia can only lead to something tangible in some peak moments outside of the constitutional realm. I can't say there will be a revolution, but there will be some sort of outbreak. But within the system that Putin built, his power is timeless and flawless. And he knows that. 

But I think that he has one or two people in mind for some kind of reach-around that we already saw [in 2008-2012 with Medvedev]. Analysing and projecting into the future are his habit, contrary to Yeltsin and Gorbachev. He plays the long game. And I am sure that 2024 is on his mind, judging how fast after the last elections he pushed through the pension reform, so that by the next elections this wound will have healed and is no longer sore.

Obviously he understands that in 2024 he will have to make a bold unexpected move, because just leaving power does not guarantee his personal safety. I assume this could lead to some quasi-sovereign unions, possibly with Belarus or Abkhazia, and introducing some kind of new supra-presidential position.

Vitaly Mansky had unique access to Kremlin in 1999-2001
Vitaly Mansky had unique access to Kremlin in 1999-2001

bne: So a large-scale redistribution of resources and power, like what we saw post-2000, is not inevitable? 

V.M.: I don't think so. The temporary presidency of Medvedev did not lead to any redistribution. All we saw was some show-off innovation drive, a facade. Mugabe, Salazar, the history of politics gives us many examples that allow imagining Putin staying in power until his last breath as a very likely scenario for Russia. He knows history too and would not want to end up with the same fate as Milosevic. This is absolutely out of question. Or to play the role of Pinochet, participating in some grotesque pretence game, pretending to be sick. He sees a completely different perspective for himself and will work to implement it.

And I am sure he simply thinks Milošević is a naive fool. Who did he trust? These crooked Europeans? Did he really think they would let him off the hook? The Hague is what he deserves. I am sure is what he thinks about the Arabic revolutions, Hussein, Gaddafi, and does not intend to allow any of it.

"Putin's Witnesses" is available for online screening on ArtDocMedia platform on December 12

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