LONDON—Vladimir Putin will fight to preserve his authoritarian grip on Russia for decades, according to a former Kremlin insider who has a unique insight into some of the president’s most closely-held beliefs.
Vitaly Mansky was granted unparalleled access to the Kremlin and Putin’s original presidential campaign in order to make films for state TV, which were effectively pro-Putin propaganda. He has now turned against the Russian president, making an extraordinary documentary—using footage shot from the inside—that explores Putin’s uncompromising thirst for power and his quest to restore what he sees as Soviet-era glory to the country.
Mansky told The Daily Beast that Putin’s dictatorial instincts and record in the Kremlin meant he now “has no choice” but to cling to power forever.
Not only was the filmmaker allowed to accompany Putin during the first years of his presidency, but he was given a license to question him on camera in a way that has not been seen in almost two decades since.
That footage remained under lock and key until now.
In Putin’s Witnesses, which is up for the Grierson Award for best documentary at the London Film Festival this week, we see the president’s unguarded explanation of how he will enforce full control over Russia and restore the Soviet Union’s prioritization of state over the individual. In one candid conversation in the back of his official car, he explores the limits of democratic authority.
As well as unique footage of Putin, Mansky has behind-the-scenes footage recorded with Putin’s predecessors Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, which shines a light on the historic situation now facing Putin.
Yeltsin explains on camera that he handpicked Putin from 20 candidates to succeed him in the dying days of the last century. Mansky was with Yeltsin at his home on election night in March 2000 when the Russian people validated his choice by sweeping Putin into power in the first round of voting, which was held three months after he was appointed acting president.
“This is my win,” he says, smiling at his daughter. No sooner had the family enjoyed a glass of Champagne than Mansky was asking why he didn’t phone Putin to celebrate their victory. The former president placed the call straight away.
After much family speculation about how Putin must be traveling or perhaps taking a shower, Yeltsin retired to bed that night still waiting for the call.
Mansky told The Daily Beast: “The day before, Putin would have known that Yeltsin had the power to change the whole situation. After he was elected, he knew he was safe. He didn’t feel the need to return the call.”
On screen, we had already seen exactly how an ex-president was treated by his successor. Gorbachev, who had been virtually removed from public life when Yeltsin moved into the Kremlin, popped up on the election coverage to give his verdict on Putin’s victory.
A few seconds into his appearance, Yeltsin had seen enough. “I’m sick of it, how long are we going to listen to him?” he demanded. His daughter hastily picked another channel.
It was a reminder of why Yeltsin had chosen his own successor so carefully. But even though Putin owed him everything, the power shifted the moment those election results were announced.
Earlier in the day, Mansky had been at the polling station where Gorbachev cast his vote. After voting, he sat down at the election center with some old colleagues for a glass of vodka.
Gorbachev had been General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985. Previous leaders of the USSR, such as Leonid Brezhnev and Joseph Stalin, had been in the post for decades at a time. After establishing the first post-communist Russian presidency in 1990, Gorbachev lasted less than two years.
In the film, we see one of Gorbachev’s old comrades ask why he hadn’t chosen 15-year terms for the new presidential system. He replied solemnly: “Because then I would be a General Secretary in hiding.”
After years of economic turmoil, Putin didn’t share Gorbachev’s qualms about returning to aspects of the Soviet era, the history of which he was busily trying to re-write. Among his first acts as president was restoring the red flag—complete with hammer and sickle—to the presidential regiment at the Kremlin. By the end of the year, he reintroduced the Soviet national anthem, which had been ditched in 1990.
Mansky confronted Putin over the anthem decision inside the Kremlin.
The director had a professional cameraman with him for most of his sessions as well as a handheld video camera that he carried everywhere. In this private exchange, which was captured only on the camcorder, Putin explained that “it is necessary to restore the citizens' faith” in the establishment. We should consider the great victory in World War II—not just the Gulag—when we think of the Soviet Union, he argued.
Putin said he had recently spoken on one of his tours of the country to a middle-aged woman who begged him: “Give us back our old life—the way it was 20 years ago.”
The president said one must understand that many citizens felt this nostalgia for the USSR. “We cannot take everything from the people… why consign that to the dustbin of history?” he asked.
Soon after this impromptu discussion, Mansky was called back to Putin’s office. “I’m not trying to impose anything,” the president insisted, but he suggested that the national anthem chat may not be appropriate for the film, which was to be broadcast on national TV.
He explained that not everyone understood his controversial move to bring back the anthem, which was associated with the brutal reality of communist rule. The young president said he had to make decisions “in the interests of the state,” whether or not they were popular with individuals.
Putin naïvely said he believed he could convince anyone on the anthem if he got the chance to speak to them one-to-one. “And you say it’s impossible to persuade you?” he asked Mansky.
The director interjected during the film’s narration: “Was there no one left to persuade?” Putin, who came to power promising a “firm hand,” had already reshaped his team of advisers to ensure that no one challenged his vision; perhaps that explained why he was still trying to persuade Mansky—a lone voice of disagreement in his inner circle.
Yeltsin was also among those who still needed persuading. Mansky joined his family on New Year’s Eve after Putin’s first year in power. He was asked if Putin had brought the anthem back without consulting him. He offered a barely perceptible nod of the head. Did he think the new lyrics saved it? A tiny shake of the head. Then a one-word response: “Reddish.”
He was suggesting Putin’s move had a hint of pure red communism about it.
Of course, Putin wasn’t going to be asking Yeltsin for his opinion any time soon.
Back at the Kremlin, Mansky said to the current president: “No offense, but I’m not going to share your opinion on the anthem.”
Putin pondered this rare moment of insubordination, offered a bemused half-smile and said: “You should.”
Although the footage was never likely to be aired, these exchanges prompt the question: Why did Putin allow the filmmaker to speak to him like this?
“That’s difficult to answer,” Mansky told The Daily Beast. “I must admit I haven’t seen any footage of Putin over the last 18 years in which he would allow this style of communication with him.
“There’s this recent Oliver Stone film and it was very strange to watch it because Oliver Stone has Oscars and he’s got an American passport. It’s not clear what he could be really afraid of but he agreed with absolutely everything Putin said.”
There is no legal question over the intimate footage as the copyright belongs to Mansky’s production company, but politically he is taking an enormous risk by breaching Putin’s confidence. He moved out of Russia in 2014, but his home in Latvia offers no realistic protection from the wrath of the Russian president.
Mansky was speaking to The Daily Beast in a luxury London hotel just across from the one where Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by a cup of tea laced with radioactive Polonium-210.
Hunched over his own tea, Mansky said he tries to forget the consequences that his actions may one day bring down upon him. A series of dissidents and exiles have recently been targeted in Britain by Putin’s regime, including the former double agent Sergei Skripal, who was hit by a novichok nerve agent attack that contaminated the front door of his home in Salisbury earlier this year.
“I try to expel or get rid of this question completely—not to think about it,” said Mansky. “When it comes, I just try to tell it to go, because I want to feel and be free, and I don’t want to think twice before touching some door handle and worrying about what might happen.”
Toward the end, Mansky reflected on the title he had chosen for the movie. He was not employed directly by the Kremlin, but working on an insider film for state TV meant he was far from an impartial journalist. “There was always the price I had to pay,” he said. “Witnesses become accomplices.”
He explained that the film was a form of apology for his role in helping to spread Putin’s propaganda. “I would not call it an apology exactly, but the realization of your own guilt,” he said. “This realization is not enough. I would like the audience of the film, especially people in Russia, to contemplate—to think about all the mistakes that have been made in the past so that in future we won’t make so many of them.”
Putting Putin into historical context is one of Mansky’s masterstrokes. The film focuses on Yeltsin and Gorbachev being erased from public discourse, but most former Russian leaders were also exorcised from the public memory. “That applies to basically all Russian rulers perhaps with the exception of the Romanov dynasty,” said Mansky.
The imperial family lingered in the memory but they came to a famously sticky end during a mass execution in 1918, which inspired the current Amazon TV series The Romanoffs.
“Putin has studied the lives and history of his predecessors very well,” said Mansky, suggesting he will try to stay in power for the next 20 or 30 years. “He has no choice now.”
Putin’s authoritarian impulses were obvious even before he ascended to the presidency. Mansky was at the scene of the alleged Chechen bombings that killed hundreds in Moscow apartment blocks in September 1999 when then-Prime Minister Putin arrived on the scene.
He said flatly: “We can counter this only by force.” An early scene in Putin’s Witnesses features Mansky family home video. On the day Putin was inaugurated as president, the director’s daughter said: “He’s like Mao Zedong; he was also a dictator.”
Specifically, Mao was a communist dictator—and Putin would soon be showing similar impulses. “It’s the mindset of any society which is not free and is ruled by a dictator,” said Mansky. “The film as a whole gives us a good idea what Putin really thinks, especially the future of the country and the role of the state in shaping that future.”
Mansky said that Soviet mindset was confirmed when Putin responded to the hostage situations in a Moscow theater in 2002 and the Beslan school siege two years later by sending in commandos armed with noxious gas, grenades and flame-throwers to kill the terrorists despite the huge risk to the lives of civilians. Hundreds of innocent men, women and children were killed on both occasions.
“It was very clear that for him the fate of the people involved were absolutely immaterial if compared to the goals he had before him in relation to the state,” Mansky said.
The power and limitations of democratic authority was one of the philosophical issues debated by Putin and Mansky. At one point, the filmmaker asked about the “all-embracing unity” his leadership had brought to Russia. “I can sense a slight irony in your question,” Putin said.
In another exchange in the back of his official car, Putin ruminated on succession, imperial power and autocracy.
“I’ve met monarchs, their fate does not inspire me,” he said.
Putin argued that it was good discipline to remember that everything you did as president you would one day have to face as a citizen. That, he said, was why he preferred democracy to autocracy.
In an incredible moment of chutzpah, Mansky replied: “Fingers crossed.”
By way of reassurance, Putin replied: “Thumbs up.”
In the 18 years since Mansky was making these impudent but ultimately futile remarks, Putin has faced ever-decreasing accountability. It is virtually impossible that this film will be shown in public in Russia while Putin is president. Every individual screening—even at independent film festivals—must be licensed by the government.
“There is a famous poet, Alexander Pushkin—a Russian Shakespeare—he wrote this play Boris Godunov, which deals with an illegal power takeover and the establishment of the Romanov dynasty,” Mansky said.
“The final line in the play when Boris takes power illegally is: The people were silent.”
“It’s very sad to see that nearly 500 years since that happened not much has changed in Russia.”
The 62nd BFI London Film Festival runs from 10 - 21 October. Tickets available now from www.bfi.org.uk/lff