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