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By Sean — 5 years ago
Direct Line with Vladimir Putin seeks to solidify the personal bond between President and citizenry. Through a mix of national and local issues, Putin strives to measure the pulse of the nation, assure his people, and send signals to his subordinates. Often lampooned for its staginess, it’s a key component to Putin’s rule. Dismissing Direct Line as mere cultic spectacle undermines its symbolic value in constructing a unified national body. After all, the call-in show serves as one of the few national spaces where vlast and citizen and center and periphery are in, an albeit managed, dialog.
Nevertheless, the fact that it’s managed threatens to render Direct Line as a spectacular misfire. The pulse Putin is taking might not be that of the nation, but of his own. The audience’s effort to see its own concerns in Putin could cause misrecognition. The virtual binding of Russia’s vast geography might reveal its incongruity. And Putin’s many masks—commander-in-chief, erudite technocrat, the all-knowing, all-seeing eye, and compassionate Tsar-batiushka–could imprint that of an indifferent and out-of-touch ruler.
Basically, the effectiveness of Direct Line depends on whether it still resonates with viewers.
So does it?
The latest episode of Direct Line with Vladimir Putin aired late last month. The initial metrics were still impressive. The call center received over a mission questions. Putin set a new record for stamina: a four hour, forty-seven minute performance. He fielded 85 questions. Ratings remained high with up to 49%of the country tuning-in.
Now we have a better indication of viewer reception thanks to a recent VTsIOM survey. The results are ambiguous. Over half of Russian polled, 52%, still follow Direct Line in some capacity. But Putin remains mostly a star mostly among the old (67%) and residents in Moscow and St. Petersburg (62%) followed performance. Young people 18-24 years old (62%) are for the most part uninterested. In all, however, attention toward Putin’s call-in has been dropping since 2005:
When it comes to the issues, Putin remains salient. Forty-two percent of respondents still find the individual topics of interest. This has remained steady since 2005. Fifty-one percent felt satisfied with Putin’s overall discourse.
Things, however, get interesting when respondents were asked about topics. The results were polarized between the rising cost of housing (23%) and nothing (28%). Everything else scored in the single digits with many rating a single percent. The big national issues—the anti-corruption campaign, the country’s economic development, foreign policy, the street opposition and many others—unsurprisingly rated in the basement. Like pretty much everywhere else, the immediacy of everyday life matters to Russians the most.
But what does this say about the effectiveness of Direct Line? If VTsIOM’s poll is any indication, viewers still find spectacle of interest but attention is steadily falling with each episode. Viewers still tune in to hear what Putin has to say but more and more of his words are unmemorable. The national body is there but its various cells are mostly looking inward.
Lara Ryazanova-Clarke, “The Discourse of a Spectacle at the End of a Presidential Term,” in Helena Goscilo, Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon, Routledge, 2013.
By Sean — 3 years ago
In January, Novaya gazeta held their annual online documentary film festival. Each film was available for online viewing for 24 hours. A Facebook friend posted a link to Elena Demidova’s Men’s Choice (Muzhskoi vybor). He had written the English subtitles for it. It looked interesting so I checked it out.
What I saw was something outsiders rarely hear about Russia—the lives of the thousands of people, mostly men, who travel extraordinary distances to Russia’s far north to work in the natural gas fields. These men work on rotations—a month of constant work on, and a month back home. This labor forces them to be separated from their families for long periods of time. Why do they do it? For money, quite simply. Working at Russia’s vast gas fields is far more lucrative than the work available in the small towns and villages many of these men hail from.
I found Men’s Choice fascinating for its human touch against the backdrop of hard labor and a harsh environment. So I reached out to the film’s director, Elena Demidova, for an interview. I originally wanted this to be a podcast, but technical issues and scheduling made it impractical. Luckily, Demidova was kind enough to answer my questions in written form. The interview is below.
Elena Demidova is currently raising funds for her next film, The Last Man. You can donate here.
Watch the trailer for Men’s Choice (English Subtitles)
Tell a bit about yourself and your filmmaking. What are some of the issues that interest you?
I didn’t come to the film industry right away. My first education is in engineering, and then I got a degree in History and worked as a journalist. Then almost by accident I started to study in the Internews film school in Moscow (under Marina Razbezhkina) [Internews Moscow was closed down after a raid by the Russian Interior Ministry in 2007. You can read about the incident here and here as well as the appeal to Vladimir Putin signed by over 1100 Russian journalists and filmmakers.—Sean]. It completely changed my life. I didn’t just get anew profession, I also discovered а new world and new possibilities. I’ve been working as film director since. I’ve made about 10 films. This work is interesting and important for me. Men’s Choice is my second feature-length documentary.
What inspired you to make Men’s Choice?
The Russian North and the Arctic aren’t just words to me. I went to the North when I was a student. We skied at Northern Urals and Kola Peninsula. In addition to this, I shot one of my previous films in the train travelling from the Arctic Circle to the Black Sea. I got the idea for [Men’s Choice] there. When I got on to the train at one of the northern stations, I noticed that only men were travelling in it. So I became acquainted with shift workers, who went home and went back to work a month later. And I realized that I’m really interested in how they live and work in the North and what is going on with them.
Beside this, I wanted to make this film because I lived in a Russian village for quite a long time. I know very well how men and women live there. I feel really bad for the women who must play the man’s role in family because their husbands are unemployed and drink. And I feel sorry for those men who are losing the man in themselves. And I understood that if a man must leave for a long time to support his family, he will not just earn money but he will also have problems. And so it was interesting for me to investigate this situation and these men. I generally believe that a film is always more interesting when it explores something.
And I felt so close to them because I understand their problems. I also used to live in a small town and used to have a husband who earned little money. Granted, we didn’t move to the North, but to Moscow. But it was a lot like moving to the north—there are more opportunities, but you also have to work more as well. My husband gave up; he couldn’t cope with these challenges. My characters can, however. I am interested in how these men manage it.
Your film takes place on the Yamal Peninsula 500 kilometers from the Arctic Circle on the Bovanenkovo gas field. What were you trying to capture by filming the lives of workers in such a remote place?
I wanted to understand how they live, how they work, and the environment around them. It like being on Mars. And in fact, these people go to Mars for their families, that is, out of love for them. But sometimes they lose the family as a result. Other times, they sometimes find a new family. They choose this way of life and they pay for it.
Men’s Choice focuses on three very different men: Andrei, a young man recently married; Alexei, a middle aged man in his second marriage. He met his wife at Bovanenkovo. And Dmitry, who has a wife and a young son. Why these men?
It took a long time find these characters. It was a big problem. I wanted to go to the gas field where the men I met on the train a few years before were traveling. But I could only get therewith Gazprom’s permission. Gazprom didn’t allow us to go there and they permitted us to only film at Bovanenkovo.
There were 3000 men when I got to but I didn’t find the film’s characters. Since the subject of the documentary, as I understood it, is someone who is currently making a choice, who changes, and loves and suffers in front of our eyes. And most of workers had been working in this field for a long time and all the critical moments in their lives had already past.
I met Dmitry first. I don’t like him but he gave us permission to film his wife in their hometown, and when I first saw her, I realized that there is the love and an invisible bond between her and Dmitry. That there is pain.
Dmitry led me to Alexei. I immediately liked Alexei. He’s an unusual man. All the men pump gas, but he pumps shit. All of them are pragmatic but he’s a romantic. All of them just want to make money, but he writes songs. But I had only one problem with him. His life didn’t change the whole time I was filming him and this later presented problems while editing.
And from the beginning I wanted to find a guy who was in the North for the first time and to see how it transforms him. But it turned out that such people rarely get to this gas field. Usually, they’ve previously worked in other gas fields in the North. I only met Andrei when I was on the second filming expedition. His coworkers were surprised that I wanted to film him. They thought that he wasn’t interesting. But I knew that I would film him for more than a year, that I would see the changes in his life and that he would end up in a different and interesting situation. And I was right.
Moreover I think these three stories are interlinked through parallel editing. They support, explain, and move each other forward.
How did these three men react to being filmed? They are not very talkative in the film.
They don’t come off very talkative because these people are generally not talkative. It’s because of their work and incessant tiredness. Besides, it is very hard to talk a lot in this climate.
I also think that words aren’t very important in documentary films. The camera tells a story through images–facial expressions, poses, lights, color—and we understand everything about these people without many words.
Why do they do this type of work where they work a month at a time without time off and in some cases 2000-3000 kilometers from their families?
They have chosen this type of work because there is no regularly paid word in those places where they live. In some small towns in European Russia up to 70% of inhabitants work in this way. They either go to the North or to Moscow.
The alternative to this is to either become a bureaucrat, but not everybody can get such a job, or to earn very little money and live in poverty. But this situation is also very bad for the families. So the choice before a person is actually to separate from their family but earn good money or to live together in poverty.
The film briefly shows women working at Bovanenkovo and Alexei’s wife worked there are well. What do the women do and what are the relations between them and the men?
Alexei’s wife is the woman in film shown in the trailer with Alexei at Bovanenkovo. He talks about how he came there to earn money for his first family, but met her, left his family and now they travel [to Bovanenkovo] together. She’s a cook. I think it’s not that he met her but more like she met him. I think she had come to the North looking for a man. And she found him. This is one of dangers of rotation work.
Many of the shots in the film show the daily life of these workers—As Alexei says in their habitat. Why did you focus on this?
I focused on this because we will never see this anywhere else. The majority of the audience had never been to such a place and they never will. Many people believe that this is easy money, but in fact this money is earned by the very hard work and it was important for me to show it. It was also important to show that the living conditions there are almost like living on Mars.
Also there are many shots just showing the environment—the cold, the darkness, the tundra. Why did you show so much of the landscape?
I don’t think that I show too much of landscape. I actually think the opposite that I don’t show this enough. Showing the people was more important for me so I show landscape mostly through them. I only have four frames that show nature without humans. I think this impression is because nature is perceived as brighter and stronger when you show it through a person. We cannot just see images of nature; we can actually feel how a person feels it. Whether he is cold or warm, whether the wind blows in his face or snow flies. Film for me first and foremost about people.
Given that oil and gas are Russia’s lifeblood, in what ways do the lives of these men, their work, and their families symbolize Russia as a whole?
I wouldn’t make such a generalization. In fact, life in Russia is much more diverse. The lives of the government and the oligarchs depend on oil and gas pipelines. But ordinary people earn their living in different ways. In the southern part of European Russia, where black soil is rich, a lot of people work in agriculture. The main source of life in the taiga is the forest. People’s lives in cities are very similar to people’s lives life in cities around the world. In the poor areas (outside the Black Earth zone) to the north of Moscow, (But not in the Arctic, where, yes, oil and gas are the main sources for life), people are very poor, agriculture is destroyed, everyone survives however they can. But even here people aren’t dependent on oil and gas. It’s just poverty. But of course, gas and oil indirectly affects the lives of many, many people working in rotation, and they are a considerable portion of the population.
What is your next project?
I’m currently working on several projects. The first is a co-production with France. It’s called Paris 1986. It’s a story about a mother and her adult son. Pavel is forty years old and Anna Grigoryevna is seventy. Paul isn’t married, has no children, and no steady job. He and his mother are very different, live different lives, have different dreams, and different daily routines. They hurt each other, argue and make up, but they have to live together in the same apartment. This is their only home.
Ever since Pavel found strange old photos in a closet, he’s been constantly occupied with digitizing them on his computer. These are the photos his mother took during a trip to Paris in 1986: three frames in one, poorly focused, with strange angles… At the time, he and his father decided that the photos weren’t any good and didn’t want print them. But now Pavel believes that they’re very interesting and wants to arrange an exhibition for his mother. What if he succeeds?
His mother dreamt about that trip to Paris for thirty years. The trip was almost unreal for a Soviet woman, but this dream came true, and not the dream for grandchildren or a successful life for her son. The son feels guilty and hopes to apologize by getting her back to Paris, at least with the help of a photo exhibition.
I film both of them together and individually to try to find the answers to the eternal questions: How do you learn to understand and accept a loved one? Why does the mother need to feel happy, and how could her son not to feel guilty in front of her? Moreover, I’m very interested if the exhibition will take place.
The film is currently in postproduction.
The other film was shot practically without any money. Just with help of volunteers. The main protagonist—Lesha—is the last man in his village. The other men have died or left. The village was burned down during the terrible fires of 2010. But Lesha doesn’t want to leave. He’s looking for a wife but instead a female director periodically comes to him. He’s looking for love but I’m trying to make a film.
Watch Lesha (English Subtitles)
This is a very personal projector me. I met Lesha in the summer 2010 when the entire European part of Russia was on fire. The village where Lesha lived burned down. I came there with volunteers. We brought humanitarian aid. We went with him on the only village street where his house was and where his cat and dog lived. He had to feed them. We walked and talked. About the fire, but not only. At the time, I thought I would shoot episode of film about the volunteers. But when I looked at the material, I realized that this hour walk was a film in and of itself. This movie was released in 2011, it was simply called Lesha. But during the hour we spent together in that burnt village, something happened that caused me to come to him again and again, first with volunteers and then by myself and to shoot new big film. I came into his life, and he became a part of mine. Once the movie is over it is also be important how.
And I have other plans and dreams. I really hope they will all come true—just like my dream has come true to make a film about male rotation workers in the North.
By Sean — 3 years ago
Recent reports in Vedomosti and RBK dovetail nicely with the editorial I’ve translated below from the folks at OpenLeft.ru. Vedomosti predicts that in 2016 Russia’s economy will only worsen—the price of oil will be cheaper, inflation higher, incomes lower, and the ruble weaker. Along these lines, RBK evaluates the growth of social protests in 2015 and suggests that the trend will only continue after the new year. These social actions are a different animal from the protests of 2011-2012. Then Putin could simply wait out angry urbanites with only yielding to a few minor, and mostly cosmetic, concessions. The subsequent tightening the screws effectively neutralized the more radical remnants.
But Putin did something else in 2012 that was no less important to neutralize the threat from the streets. He shifted his constituency away from the cosmopolitan urban classes to the so-called “silent majority” of the working classes in the provinces. This Nixonian move incorporated heavy doses of populism, patriotism and conservative identity politics. Putin’s “populist turn” never contradicted elite rapaciousness. It was never meant to. Elite acquiesces was the other side of coin, and in many ways only continued, not contradicted, the tenor of his first two terms. And until recently, this unity of opposites worked.
As the editors of OpenLeft.ru write below, the social protests of 2015 symbolize the potential fracturing of the “Putin consensus.” It is this splintering of “national unity” that poses the greatest threat to the system. This is not to say that the Putin system is teetering on the precipice as many would like to imagine. Rather it looks to face challenges that expose one of the “third term’s” inherent weaknesses—the system’s lack of political and economic flexibility and dynamism. One of Putin’ successes has been his ability to sell “stability” as legitimization for his continued rule. Now legitimacy is under pressure as “stability” slides into ossification. As the editors suggest, in the context of the economic downward slide, attenuating those pressures might require pitting the two inherently contradictory elements of the “Putin consensus” against each other.
Editors, 25 December 2015
Summing up the past year
The system Putin built wants to appear unchanging: it is based on “stability”, that is, the illusion that there is no alternative to its policies and authority. Analysts’ numerous apocalyptic prophecies signaling the impending collapse are the flipside to “stability.” This past year has witnessed the end to “stability,” but the collapse has not occurred. Instead, a third option between stasis and disaster has prevailed: The quickening oscillation of a downward spiral.
The main elements of the Putin system remain in place, but it’s clearly obvious this very system cannot cope with the deep and extensive crisis. It’s a crisis of incomes of the population (their unprecedented fall since the 1990’s); the crisis of the social sphere (the authorities’ rousing populist statements are not able to conceal their deadly policies of austerity: pervasive “optimization”, budget cuts and the increased pressure on the public sector, and the freezing of pensions); the crisis of regional budgets, upon which the federal center unloaded the main burden of social spending; and the crisis of the Putin economy and its inability to find new engines of growth.
In the context of contracting incomes Putin’s politico-economic system can no longer conceal its predatory nature. The novelty of the past year has been the attempts to resolve budget shortfalls while at the same time filling the pockets of officials and businessmen close to the government with the help of new taxes and fees. It’s not just the Platon system, which provoked the most significant social protests this year, but also tax increases on small businesses, the introduction of paid parking, and additional charges for utilities. The population will pay, that is those who still have something to pay with, for the crisis and so that state corporations and Putin’s friends will have “a very large amount of money.” The conflict is unequivocal: the minority of haves are against the majority of have-nots.
This conflict is becoming more pronounced. It’s not just about the truckers’ protests. The number of labor protests is rapidly growing. According the Center for Social and Labor Rights (TsSTP), the number of protests has increased by more than a third, 37percent, compared to last year, and more than half, 53 percent, to previous years (2008 – 2013). Petr Biziukov, an analyst at TsSTP, concludes that the quantity of protests has transformed into quality. “Physicians’ protests across the country, as well as the truckers’ protests comprised dozens of regions, and showed that the new kind of protests will be connected by a network rather than by local actions. Interregional, multisectoral and even intraregional actions arise more often. It seems that in this instance, the transition from local (isolated) protests emerging in disparate industries to networked actions uniting workers and organizations from different industries, cities and regions under the same slogans is a qualitative shift in the Russian protest movement.”
The “patriotic” consolidation over the last two years, the only purpose of which has been to mask the fundamental conflict of Russian society—the minority haves against the majority have-nots—has stopped working. The “Crimean Consensus” presaged this rift. Surveys show a decline in the public’s confidence in the media which throughout the “third term” has played a major role in maintaining the illusion of national unity against numerous internal and external enemies.
Boris Nemtsov’s murder and the perpetual “Bolotnaya Case” has completely demoralized the urban White Ribbon movement. However, though today’s urban middle classes are forcibly denied political rights, it doesn’t mean that they will not try to go back into the streets. This return, however, won’t be a simple replay of 2011-2012 but will be tied to the current crisis. Only time will tell what form it will take: part of a broader social coalition against austerity or an attempt to mobilize around the 2016-2018 election cycle.
The “Putin majority’s” potential collapse contributes amazingly to Russia’s cynical and unprincipled foreign policy which experts prudently call “the predominance of tactics over strategy.” Faced with a deadlock in the Donbas, Russia “has shifted the theater of war” and rushed into Syria to restore relations with the West. For the Kremlin, the bombing of Syria is a trump card in the “Great Game”, but it is by no means a game for Syrians: it’s a horrific civil war, the end of which Russia’s participation only delays, and whose bombing results in civilian deaths. Russia’s bombs are no less deadly than those of the United States, England, and France.
It’s unknown how much longer the authorities will be able to spin their adventurous imperialism for “restoring Russia’s place in the world.” To keep its own citizens eyes on the illusion that the Syrian adventure is “a war without consequences,” the ruling elite has resorted to regularly falsifying the numbers of military casualties. Another glaring example of this information strategy was the two weeks of deliberate deception about the true cause of the passenger deaths in the A321 Russian airliner over Sinai. In Russia itself, the mass production of external enemies has acquired the traits of a petty and despicable farce. The harassment of Turkish citizens in the last weeks of the year are an especially disgraceful page in this history.
The accelerating economic and social crisis exposes the existing regime’s limited room for maneuver and its stunning lack of flexibility. At the present moment it is practically incapable of reforming itself, or at least, significantly restraining the elite’s appetites. The regime with the country in tow can only barrel downward and bitterly defend “their own” from public criticism, intensify repression, defiantly refuse to make concessions to demands from below, and cut off any possibility for unauthorized political participation from above.
The country enters a new year fearful of the still hidden future, but the “grapes of wrath” are clearly ripening.