Oliver Stone gives Vladimir Putin a comradely easy time, but elicits interesting insights into the man and his policy framework. The second half will be worth watching, as will the first half in replay for those who missed it.
[Note: for balance against my following rather favourable review essay on Oliver Stone’s The Putin Interviews, see this recent negative American review by Dominic Patten, Oliver Stone’s Mini-Docuseries Full Of Softballs & Teases].
We are now halfway through the Oliver Stone four-hour miniseries of interviews he made over a two year period in various interesting venues with Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, screening in two two-hour episodes on 18 and 25 June (Sunday evenings 8.30 pm) on SBS national television. I have not been able to obtain any Australian viewing figures but my guess is that this program would have attracted a discerning and generally open-minded Australian current affairs audience. The series has been described by hostile American critics – who have only seen review footage of the first half, the second half is being tantalisingly held back by Stone – as ‘fawning’, uncritical, lacking in ‘gotcha’ moments. Even liberal Stephen Colbert, who gave Stone a guest spot on his prime-time TV show to talk about the program, mocked Stone’s alleged naivete about Putin , to the studio audience’s evident great amusement. Stone patiently admitted to Colbert, as he has to other critics, that he was not seeking to put Putin on the spot or trick him into embarrassing admissions or signs of anger. Yet Stone’s gentle approach produced in the first half, which I saw , some interesting confirmations and amplifications of impressions I had already formed of Putin’s world-view, and wrote about in my book Return to Moscow ( UWA Publishing 2017) . There follow some comments on high points for me of the interviews so far – of course this is very subjective, and people will react to the program in different ways.
What comes through most strongly to me as a former public servant who was close enough to some former Australian Prime Ministers is Putin’s patriotism, his iron self-discipline and work routines, and his utter professionalism. We in the West have not had leaders like this for almost as long as I can remember. Menzies had this dedicated quality in his later years, as did Fraser and I would guess Keating.
Putin has already been mocked for the male chauvinism and homophobia of his remarks about women’s menstrual periods affecting their decision-making, and about him not wanting to see Russian gay couples adopting children. Easily mocked in terms of current majority Australian values, but undoubtedly expressing current values of a majority of Russian voters; and somehow endearingly reminiscent of Australian mainstream values before the late 1960s sexual revolution began to change everything . When Putin explained his attitudes to homosexuality I could situate these views as coming from a man who had watched his country on the point of demographic suicide in the terrible 1990s when the birthrate, national morale and self-respect had all collapsed. He said that Russia needs traditional families of men and women to have babies, to rebuild the nation’s strength. I can see where he is coming from, in a nation that lost 26 million people in WW2 and then saw a similar number of ethnic Russians stranded outside their homeland when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.
Putin’s existential mistrust of the United States came though strongly: a mistrust that would have been confirmed by the early chaotic months of Trump’s Presidency, and the mounting opportunistic Russophobia of Trump’s many enemies in Washington. He bluntly accused America of military support of Islamist rebels in the Russian territory of Chechnya in the early 2000’s, while professing friendship for Russia.
All of the interviews in the first half of the miniseries were made before the US election. Putin was careful not to express preference for any candidate, despite being teased by Stone to endorse the candidate he liked least. Putin said meaningfully and I am sure sincerely that whoever gets elected won’t be able to make much difference anyway: the Washington power structure (or as some of us now call it, the deep state or military-national security complex) will continue to produce similar policies. Putin spoke with passion on the coming end of America’s unipolar moment and American difficulty in coming to terms with this historical fact.
There was chilling footage on the uneasy nuclear arms balance, enlivened by a showing of excerpts from Dr Strangelove, which Stone obviously found funnier than Putin did. Putin left viewers in no doubt that for Russia, second-strike nuclear deterrence means exactly what it says. Russia will hit back if attacked, even in a suicidal exchange – Putin made that very clear. This is the world in which we now live.
Putin was unforgiving of Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s leadership failures. He says Gorbachev lost control of what he was doing, he was out of his depth as a reformer. Yeltsin, he implied , had serious personal failings that made him a weaker leader than what Russia needed at the time.
On human rights, Putin confronted Western criticism head-on. He said Russia does not yet enjoy similar human rights as do Western countries , but it is on the right pathway. He said Russian history and culture must be taken into account.
He was interesting on Russian dealings with Snowden.
Based on this first two hours, well worth watching on replay in my view, I look forward to possible surprises in Part Two.
What impact is this program likely to have on Western public and elite opinion of Putin and his government?. To an extent, I think, it will push at an already beginning-to-open door. In my view, the vehemence of Western Putinophobia peaked at around the time of the infamous Economist cover image of Putin as the devil (October 2016). The success of Russian policy in and around Syria, the Ukrainian civil war stalemate, the self-absorption of the West in Brexit and the US, French and British elections, and the current Trump vs Congress political chaos in Washington, have all taken the focus and heat off Putin. We are now all too busy at home to go on bashing Putin.
Putin came out of the recent Megyn Kelly interview in St Petersburg quite well – so much so that her network NBC truncated the interview to a few minutes of an agreed 20 minute duration, for fear Putin might be too persuasive with American viewers. The Russian news agency rt.com trumped that move by putting the whole 20-minute interview up on free public access Youtube . Putin met Kelly’s direct and confronting questions with a kind of steely good humour and even charm , that makes an interesting counterpoint to the Stone-Putin encounters, which were aptly described by one US critic as ‘Baloo the bear meets Shere Khan the tiger’ in Kipling’s Mowgli stories. I recently wrote on this encounter.
Good intellectual and cross-cultural entertainment. My recommendation is to watch both Oliver Stone’s and Megyn Kelly’s efforts to show us what makes Vladimir Putin tick. We really need to know.
Former DFAT officer Tony Kevin is the author of several non-fiction books, most recently Return to Moscow (UWA Publishing 2017)