Why call it ‘surreal’ when it is very real and even dear to millions of people? It continues to look and feel surreal to me ‘on the outside looking in’ or ‘looking over the neighbor’s fence’. Metaphorically speaking.
This week I watched a documentary “Putin’s witnesses” by an exiled Ukrainian/Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky who now lives in Latvia (which actually makes me very proud that Latvia now is a haven for Russian dissidents but also makes me very sad that people are forced to leave their true home). The story focuses on what happens right after Boris Yelcin, the president of Russia, on December 31, 1999 in a televised address to the Russian nation announces that he is stepping down as the president and has chosen a successor – Vladimir Putin. Putin then started as the interim president but already three months later won the official presidential elections and has been ruling Russia ever since.
It is also surreal to think back on that New Year’s Eve. The grandiose 2000! The world was celebrating the start of the millennium as turning some page in a magic book. Some were scared, especially many of my American friends expecting the infamous Y2K with stockpiled shelves, but most were euphoric to be a part of this history. (Actually I don’t remember much from that night.) Meanwhile in Moscow, Boris Yelcin and subsequently Vladimir Putin were making their own history.
Mansky has made a very personal film and things are seen through the lenses of his family. I guess I should not be surprised by the family’s reaction on that New Year’s Eve because they had a much clearer picture on the tragedy of this political decision. Still I was struck by Mansky’s wife Natalya commenting on camera: “I am horrified. We got the strong hand now which so many people want. Will see how the screws will start tightening! This is horrible. What will happen to us now. (…) The world is shaken. It will be afraid of us again.”
Another powerful scene is Mansky’s youngest daughter in the bathtub, holding her breath under the water. She is a shy kid who does not want to be filmed but more importantly – she has picked up the stress and anxiety of her family. And she tries to defy or push it away. But you cannot hold your breath for very long.
Of course, the world reacted with suspicion and shock that a KGB officer could become the president of newly democratic Russia. I remember my own shock was the return of the Soviet anthem. Yes, the lyrics were changed to reflect Russian patriotism but the melody was the same. For everyone still remembering this song about the might and eternal glory of Soviet Union, the real message behind the change was not lost.
The documentary reminded of another surreal aspect of bringing back this Soviet past through the national anthem. How it gets blended with more enduring symbol – the church bells! The choir was obviously made to sound like a church choir and the church bells were to give the whole thing a sense of “sacredness” and “eternity”. How in the world do you glorify the Soviet regime side by side with the traditions of the Russian orthodox church which the Soviet regime tried to completely annihilate!
I pulled off my shelf some books on contemporary Russia, realizing how tragically relevant are Mansky’s personal reflections in the film. Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who was assassinated in 2006, wrote in her book “Putin’s Russia” (2004): “We want to go on living in freedom. We want our children to be free and our grandchildren to be born free. (…) This is why we long for a thaw in the immediate future, but we alone can change Russia’s political climate. To wait for another thaw to drift our way from the Kremlin, as happened under Gorbachev, is foolish and unrealistic, and neither is the West going to help.”
Another very insightful book is Peter Pomerantsev’s “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible” (2014) about his time working in Russian media. “It was only years later that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom, but as forms of delirium, in which scare-puppets and nightmare mystics become convinced they’re almost real and march toward what the President’s vizier would go on to call the “the fifth world war, the first non-linear war of all against all.”
Doing it step by step while well-meaning filmmakers film for history’s sake, while technocrats drink champagne after a successful campaign for someone who will later remove or even kill them, while people are dancing in the streets because they are recovering some national pride. These kind of modern ‘chimera’ states mutate incompatible truths and make you believe that it is desirable and that you are seeing more clearly than before.
So the “normal” in Russia continues but to me it looks like holding breath underwater. And one day you have to come up from this “reality” to start breathing normally again.