Trauma Zone—Russia 1985-1999
Comments on a Documentary by Adam Curtis, shown directly on BBC iPlayer, 13th October 2022
This is a documentary about Britain’s current Enemy, Russia, made in the form of a collage of clips from suitably ugly and doom-laden old films. Yet what strikes the viewer is the sight of Bush, then Clinton, then the Queen, then Tony Blair, visiting Moscow to support a regime shown by Curtis to be corrupt and brutal. Tony Blair stood next to Putin, at the time when, according to Curtis, he was the oligarchs and Yeltsin’s chosen puppet, destined to continue the regime of corruption, profiteering, intense poverty and crime.
Seven episodes of one hour each start in 1985 with contemporary BBC footage showing that socialism had failed, in standard anti-communist vein. The films make the country and the people appear as ugly as possible. There are ‘artistic’ portrayals of poverty in film, and this is the exact opposite. The square format and faded colours of 1980s film help with the impression of an outdated society on its way out. This style is kept up throughout the documentary. In the last instalment a Vogue representative exclaimed that before Vogue came: “Everything was so ugly!”. A nature report in Belorussia even managed to make forest animals unpleasant to look at, for example deer, usually graceful beasts, filmed wallowing in mud like pigs.
The BBC reports are split up into short clips made into a collage, occasionally with subtitles by Curtis; dialogue is occasionally translated. Curtis does not ‘say’ anything directly, he lets he juxtaposition of shocking pictures create an impression.
The only beauty allowed the Russians is the singing: we hear various groups beautifully singing, in an effortless, natural manner that shows long habit. The context usually manages to spoil the impression. In Ukraine for example, graduating high school students, tawdry in cheap glad rags, sing marvellously, next to an open mass grave presented as results of events in the thirties. The two ceremonies, graduation and commemoration are on the same day.
In a different set of clips, a man on the piano teaches a small group of pregnant women to sing to their unborn babies; they sing gladly and naturally. But this is done ‘to produce stronger men’.
Then Curtis tells the story of the privatisation of the system. All that follows here is gleaned from his film. The economist Gaydar, counselled by Western economists, started the ‘shock therapy’ to turn a socialist society into a capitalist society in 18 months. He started with removing price controls overnight. Overnight people stopped being able to afford necessities, and factories stopped being able to buy raw material. The state distributed vouchers for people to buy shares in privatised enterprises. Individuals who had made money under Gorbachev’s economic measures, and others, started buying up these vouchers from ordinary citizens selling everything they owned in order to survive. This is the birth of the oligarchs.
This caused discontent. Parliament opposed Yeltsin who responded by bombarding Parliament from tanks (1993). From then on, oligarchs completed the plundering of Russian resources, still with the support of the West. Poverty became intense, crime and gangster warfare exploded, as shown in gruesome footage. Yeltsin and the oligarchs decided a war in Chechnya would be good for their prestige, to occupy the army and to divert public opinion from economic problems. The war is illustrated with pictures more shocking than normally seen on television in war reporting.
At some point in the Yeltsin years, Queen Elizabeth came to Moscow to attend the ballet and a production of Hamlet.
In 1995 the Communist Party won a majority in the legislative elections for the Lower House. In response, the oligarchs put together a vigorous campaign to re-elect Yeltsin the following year, taking over all media, putting up a fake opposition candidate etc; this is when Clinton appeared in Moscow to support Yeltsin, who won with a small majority.
As his health deteriorated, the oligarchs cast around for someone who would be a malleable successor whose task would be to let the system continue. They made Putin head of the Security Services to make him a public figure and chose him as candidate. Tony Blair came to Moscow to show his support for the new candidate.
A woman politician, friend of Gaydar and Yeltsin, drew a parallel between Russia in the 90s and Germany after WW1; both tried democracy, and look what happened. Democracy is a dangerous system, she said. Some people might come away from the film thinking that Putin is the new Hitler.
On the other hand, a Russian commentator is heard saying that the West recommended shock therapy because they wanted Russia ruined altogether. This comment is not endorsed by Curtis, but it’s the impression one is left with. It seems to me that this film is a terrible indictment of the West’s actions in Russia in the 90s.