Tania Rakhmanova: How Putin Came to Power
(La prise du pouvoir par Vladimir Poutine, France, 2005)

reviewed by Jonathan Harris© 2007

During the last year of his reign as president of the Russian Federation Boris El'tsin became increasingly concerned about the selection of his successor. Ailing, distracted, incompetent, and unable to run for office again, he sought to identify a powerful political leader who could continue the dismantling of the political and economic system of the USSR. How Putin Came to Power reduces this legitimate process to its seamiest side—a cynical effort by El'tsin and his coterie (known as the “family”) to protect themselves from prosecution for a variety of suspected corrupt activities. No one denies the role of the “family” in this process, but the film refuses to recognize the need to stem the disintegration of state authority that had emerged during El'tsin's second term. The documentary uses a series of artfully edited and dramatic interviews with the major participants to demonstrate that they were all corrupt, craven, and cynical, and skillfully intertwines innuendo with accurate reporting to create a consistently one sided narrative.

The film summarizes its orientation in its first three shots. The first shows President-elect Putin reviewing his goose-stepping Presidential regiment just before his inauguration; the second is a rapid series of TV images and brief interviews to demonstrate both Putin's use of and dependence on TV, and the creation of his own cult of personality; and the third is a brief and rueful interview with Ksenia Ponomareva, the former director of his Presidential campaign regretting her own significant role in bringing him to power.

The film then presents a detailed account of the Russian government's abortive investigation of corruption by the Swiss firm Metabex in the restoration of St. Andrews Hall in the Kremlin under the direction of Pavel Borodin, the director of the Kremlin's property office. Metabex had charged outlandish prices for every aspect of the restoration and was accused of providing “kickbacks” to both Borodin and his associates and indirect payments to the President and his daughter. The interview with Borodin shows that he had created a vast “state within a state” to administer the restoration, and portrays him as sleek, evasive, arrogant, and hypocritical. The interviews with Iurii Skuratov, the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, who launched the investigation with some misgivings, show him as alternatively determined and indecisive and frightened of the power of the Federal Security Service (FSB). These negative portrayals are balanced by the extremely positive presentation of the Swiss Attorney General, who travels to Russia to provide Skuratov with the documentary evidence necessary to act on the case. The contrast between her deep commitment to the primacy of law and the erratic behavior of her Russian counterpart seems designed to dramatize the vast difference between Western and Russian judicial systems.

Putin is implicated as an active participant in the Russian government's corruption of justice in this case in a number of ways. First of all, the film implies that Putin was a protégé of Borodin (Borodin brags that he personally hired Putin for his first position in the President's administration). Secondly, the film highlight's Putin's role, as the newly named director of the FSB, in the public humiliation of Prosecutor General Skuratov that undermined his capacity to pursue the Borodin case. The film shows Putin vigorously identifying Skuratov as the principle figure in a compromising video shown on TV. It should be noted that enough of this video is shown to raise doubts about Putin's damning identification. Most important, Boris Berezovskii, the powerful oligarch who was a member of the “family” at this juncture, explicitly declares that Putin's action convinced the family that Putin could become “its man.”

The film then attempts to demonstrate that each stage of Putin's extraordinary rise to power was a product of the manipulation of the political system by Berezovskii and his associates. Although the Constitution allows the President to name his own Prime Minister at will, El'tsin's appointment of Putin as Prime Minister on 9 August 1999 is portrayed as the first step in the family's conspiracy to avoid prosecution. The outbreak of renewed warfare in Chechnia in August and September is presented in similar fashion. While the film acknowledges that it was prompted by the invasion of Dagestan by a radical faction of Chechens, it hints that “those closest to the Kremlin” and the FSB may have accelerated these actions in order to win support for the new prime minister. No evidence has ever been presented to support this allegation. Furthermore, the film shows former Prosecutor Skuratov implicating the FSB as responsible for the bombings of a number of apartment houses in September that bolstered popular support for the resumption of military operations later that month. The film also interviews former military commanders who suggest that the campaign in Chechnia was conducted simply to bolster support for Putin. In fact, the initial campaign was rather hesitant and gained momentum only when the weakness of the Chechen forces became apparent.

The film also highlights Berezovskii's effective and cynical use of TV journalist Sergei Dorenko, the leading and most influential commentator on Berezovskii's own Channel One, to provide a barrage of positive coverage of Putin in the second half of 1999. The formation of the pro-Putin political party (Unity) to contest the parliamentary elections of December 1999 is treated with considerable sarcasm, although it was a legitimate political response to the establishment of the Fatherland-All Russia bloc formed to support the political agenda of former Prime Minister Evgenii Primakov who had made a serious effort to expose the corruption of the El'tsin regime. The film is on far firmer ground in its critique of the vicious TV campaign against Primakov and his ally, Moscow mayor Iurii Luzhkov, which was orchestrated by Berezovskii and implemented by the most influential commentators in his employ, who are portrayed as more than willing to bamboozle the citizens of Russia.

The film's characterization of President El'tsin in the last months of 1999 and during the actual transfer of power to Putin as acting President is extremely distressing. El'tsin is shown as bloated and bewildered, as a senile, petty tyrant who uses the seating arrangements at meetings of the government to project his political preferences. The filming of the actual transfer of power to Putin dramatizes both the President's deterioration and Putin's coldness and lack of humanity. In fact, the film consistently portrays Putin in negative terms. References to his career in the KGB appear throughout the film and he is pictured as sly, tough, unemotional, and a chameleon-like figure who uses his training as a “recruiter of spies” to charm important individuals when it suits his purpose. He is shown throwing a series of opponents in martial arts and as the darling of the troops that he reviews in Chechnia.

In keeping with its major theme, the film reports that Putin's first decree as acting President granted El'tsin—and all future presidents—immunity from prosecution, arrest, search, and interrogation. But it totally ignores Putin's coherent program of political and economic reform (29 December 1999) that served as the ideological/political basis for his campaign for the Presidency in March 2000. The election itself is largely ignored except for reference to the use of “state resources” to support Putin's candidacy. Putin is shown as firm and determined when taking the oath of office, but his legitimate efforts to end the chaotic system of governance that had taken root during El'tsin's second term is completely overlooked. Instead, the film implies that Putin is a throwback to the USSR by showing him endorsing the continued use of the music of the USSR's national anthem composed in 1943. The repudiation of the Stalinist text is not reported.

The film comes full circle at the end by reporting that Putin was “enthroned” as President in May 2000 in the Kremlin hall renovated by Borodin and that the investigation of Metabex was suspended. Putin's snide and off hand repudiation of Berezovskii, who went into political exile in London at the end of 2000, is presented as final proof of Putin's cynicism and political cunning. In sum, this is a carefully crafted narrative sure to delight those who reduce Russian political life to political conspiracy and who prefer negative stereotypes to more careful political analysis.

Jonathan Harris
University of Pittsburgh

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Stills provided by the author.

How Putin Came to Power, France, 2005
Color, 52 minutes
Director: Tania Rakhmanova
Scriptwrites: Paul Mitchell and Tania Rachmanova
Production: Quark Productions, Juliette Guigon and Patrick Winocour
Co-Production: Wilton Films
TV Production: Arte France
TV Co-Production: TV Polska, Euskal Telebista, RDI, and HRT

VHS Distribution: First Run/Icarus Films. All stills courtesy of First Run/Icarus Films.

Tania Rakhmanova: How Putin Came to Power
(La prise du pouvoir par Vladimir Poutine, France, 2005)

reviewed by Jonathan Harris© 2007