Why the Putin-Stone In­ter­views Re­mind Us How Lit­tle We Know

The Moscow Times - - LOOKING BACK -

Amer­i­can film­maker Oliver Stone has faced in­tense crit­i­cism since the re­lease of his 4-hour “Putin In­ter­views” ear­lier this month. His de­trac­tors have at­tacked him for giv­ing a plat­form to the Rus­sian pres­i­dent and ask­ing soft­ball ques­tions.

The con­tro­ver­sial film, just broad­cast on Rus­sian state tele­vi­sion, does have its in­trigu­ing mo­ments. Most com­pelling are the ca­sual out­takes in­ter­spersed be­tween the in­ter­view ques­tions. In a film re­port­edly cut down from 18 hours of footage, th­ese scenes can be counted on the fin­gers of one hand.

For ex­am­ple, Putin mov­ing from one room of the Krem­lin to an­other, or just walk­ing down the Krem­lin hall. (“Don’t you feel lonely roam­ing here at nights?” Stone asks. Putin fudges.)

Or Putin is feed­ing a stal­lion in a barn. Or chat­ting about women’s “bad days” and “nat­u­ral cy­cles.” From that lat­ter scene, it’s ob­vi­ous that Putin is not in­tend­ing to send any real mes­sage, but just say­ing the first thing that came to his mind. Telling, no doubt, in its own right.

In one mo­ment, Putin tells Stone he is go­ing to have a fam­ily meal with his daugh­ters right af­ter the in­ter­view. He then ad­mits he is now a grand­fa­ther sees his grand­chil­dren “very rarely.” Of course, we never see this fam­ily re­union, not even from a dis­tance.

Af­ter the reve­la­tion about his grand­kids made news, Putin took the point fur­ther dur­ing his live an­nual phone-in show. “I have grand­chil­dren and they live a nor­mal life,” he said. “One of them is al­ready in kinder­garten.” He added: “My sec­ond grand­son was born just re­cently.”

Putin ex­plained that he was not go­ing into any de­tail— age, names — to avoid jeop­ar­diz­ing his grand­kids’ “nor­mal lives” and “their or­di­nary in­ter­ac­tions with other chil­dren.” But with so lit­tle in­for­ma­tion avail­able, we wouldn’t know if Putin was stretch­ing the truth.

It is hardly news that Putin is ret­i­cent to dis­cuss his pri­vate af­fairs. What’s in­ter­est­ing, though, is that his rare reve­la­tions about his own fam­ily stylis­ti­cally fall into the same cat­e­gory as his judg­ments on any other pri­vate or non-po­lit­i­cal mat­ter. The more spe­cific Putin answers about, say, the events of Fe­bru­ary 2014 in Ukraine, the more he is vague about his own in­ter­ests. It’s as if he doesn’t have much to share.

Dur­ing the last 16 years, the pres­i­dent has given us no more in­for­ma­tion about his fam­ily as he has done about his per­sonal in­ter­ests. We don’t know what he reads, what movies he likes, or whether he has friends or hob­bies.

We know the pres­i­dent re­ally likes hockey. And that Putin’s per­sonal pur­suit turned into a highly pub­li­cized na­tional event known as the Night Hockey League . We know that he drunk tea and played bad­minton with Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Medvedev, who served as pres­i­dent from 2008 to 2012— though th­ese scenes had the air of an or­ches­trated PR stunt. Other than that, we’ve seen Putin play­ing with a dog, rid­ing a horse and fly­ing with a stork.

Take a step back, how­ever, and you’ll be hard-pressed to think of a sin­gle im­age of him hav­ing fun with oth­ers. We have never seen Putin en­joy­ing some­thing or shar­ing a mun­dane

emo­tion with any other hu­man be­ing. It’s al­most as dif­fi­cult to imag­ine Putin hav­ing a fam­ily din­ner—or play­ing with his grand­son — as it is to call him a pro-Western lib­eral.

Oliver Stone in­ter­viewed the Rus­sian pres­i­dent in his nat­u­ral habi­tat: Red Square, the of­fices and halls of the Krem­lin, Putin’s vast man­sions in Sochi and out­side Moscow, his of­fi­cial jet, his car, his gym, his pool. Even the venue of an empty hockey sta­dium had the sense of a huge pri­vate am­phithe­ater.

But all th­ese pres­i­den­tial spa­ces seemed free of any trace of Putin’s own per­son­al­ity. His re­sponses to Stone’s friendly ques­tions were – as usual – a weird mix of pompous bu­reau­cratic clichés and col­lo­quial ob­ser­va­tions, jokes and in­ter­jec­tions. Noth­ing was dis­closed be­yond them; noth­ing that would re­veal the in­di­vid­ual be­hind a states­man.

Putin has not al­ways been this way. In­deed, Stone’s film be­gins with Putin re­call­ing how he be­came pres­i­dent. In 1999, when Rus­sia’s first pres­i­dent, Boris Yeltsin, sug­gested that the then FSB di­rec­tor run for pres­i­dent, Putin is said to have hes­i­tated. That path would mean giv­ing up his “nor­mal, or­di­nary life,” Putin tells Stone.

The archival footage from the early 2000s Stone in­cludes also de­picts a hu­man be­ing rather than pow­er­ful strong­man. But over the years, Putin’s per­sona has ex­panded — or shrunk, de­pend­ing on your per­spec­tive — into that of a de­per­son­al­ized Rus­sian pharaoh. Nearly seven­teen years af­ter Putin made his choice, there is no way back.

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