After 19 years in power, Vladimir Putin’s reign can seem in retrospect an inevitability. Yet when Boris Yeltsin made his surprise announcement appointing Putin acting President on December 31, 1999, few Russians knew anything about the former KGB officer, and fewer still anticipated the scope of the crackdown to come. Ever since, debate has raged over who is most responsible for Putin’s rise, and whether his rule was the natural continuation of the Yeltsin era or a sharp break from it.
Entering the fray now is acclaimed filmmaker Vitaly Mansky, whose new documentary Putin’s Witnesses recently debuted on RFE/RL’s Current Time network. Mansky, a former filmmaker for Russian state television who now lives in exile, has assembled a cinematic time capsule that pairs rare archival footage of the Yeltsin-Putin transition with his own present-day voiceover, reflecting on events he both witnessed and participated in.
We sat down with the filmmaker as he brought the film to Washington to discuss the film’s origins, the debates it has re-ignited in Russia about Putin’s rise, and why Mansky intends it as both personal repentance and cautionary tale.
Sean Keeley: Putin’s Witnesses is a chronicle of “Operation Successor,” the process by which Vladimir Putin was installed as Russia’s leader in the final days of Boris Yeltsin’s tenure, and the early days of his rule. Nearly two decades have passed since Yeltsin’s surprise resignation. Why revisit the subject now?
Vitaly Mansky: I was not interested in the topic until 2012, because in general I think before 2012 Putin acted more or less within the law. I know not everyone agrees with that, but nevertheless he served two presidential terms, he ceded power to Medvedev, and before that cynical statement the two made—that all that had been agreed upon in advance—I didn’t give a deep thought to the events of 1999. But when he returned to his so-called third term, I started coming back to those events that I had witnessed and of course, the subsequent events gave me no choice whether to make this film or not. And specifically after the events of 2014 this dimension of the film was clear to me: the necessity of my own repentance, and an appeal to society to reckon with its own participation, or non-participation, in these events.
Karina Orlova: If I understand, then, before the infamous rokirovka [“castling,” the Putin-Medvedev switch – ed.] in 2011, you, like many of us, hoped that Putin wouldn’t come back to his third term? Some now say that it all was predetermined from the beginning.
VM: I thought that Medvedev would at least stay for two terms, and then it somehow would resolve itself. I didn’t idealize Putin and to me it was all clear by 2003, but still I didn’t perceive Putin to be eternal. I was personally affected by the changing of the Russian Constitution, when they increased the presidential term from 4 to 6 years, the rokirovka and the way it was done. It was offensive to everyone.
KO: Is it fair to say that although the Moscow mass protests of 2011-2012 were provoked by fraud in the 2011 parliamentary elections, the real reason was Putin’s comeback?
VM: Of course. I don’t see those protests as anything other. But my pessimism is largely based on the results of that same Bolotnaya opposition, because it ended up not so powerful and quite short-lived and, worst for me, it was the last large-scale resistance. The total absence of public resistance has made me the ultimate pessimist. It also made me leave Russia in 2014. Of course, the events in Ukraine were the primary reason, but the public’s lack of will stripped me of any chance for optimism.
SK: Let’s return to your film. This movie is composed almost entirely of archival footage filmed from 1999 to 2001, affording viewers a rare, intimate glimpse into the lives of Putin and those who facilitated his rise. How and why were you allowed to capture such footage? What was your original assignment for Russian television at the time?
VM: It might be hard to believe now, but the situation was as follows. I worked as the head of documentaries on the state TV Channel Rossiya. In 1999 I was making a film about Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin was still in power, and Gorbachev was on the blacklist, so it was quite a hard task to make a film about Gorbachev on state-owned TV channel happen. And when I started production on that film, a political decision was made by the channel to also produce a film about Yeltsin. I heard the “I’m tired, I’m leaving” speech with the rest of the country; I didn’t know about the resignation in advance. And on January 2, 2000, even though it was just the beginning of the long national celebration for the New Year holiday, and without seeking an approval from the TV channel CEO, I started production on a film about Putin, who was announced as Acting President of Russia.
The film was supposed to answer the question “Who is Mister Putin?” for a Russian audience. I didn’t plan to film Putin himself. I assigned a production team in Saint Petersburg with the task of finding and filming the testimonies of the people who lived in the same neighborhood as Putin, who studied in the same classrooms, who went to the same gyms. And among the first footage that I got was a very long and emotional interview with Vera Gurevich, Putin’s German teacher, which made it clear that she had a very serious influence on him. It was also clear that she was in a tough economic situation at that time. So all those facts made me pass the video tapes of the interview to Putin. I acted out of purely humane motives. And a couple of days later the CEO of Rossiya Channel let me know that I had been invited to his office at the Kremlin, where Putin welcomed us. He asked us who else we were filming and other details.
That is when I first met Putin. Strictly speaking, he invited me to a meeting. What I’d like to underline here is that a film about the Acting President was launched without any prior arrangement with the Administration. This is a telling detail about how things were in 1999.
KO: And how did you get access to Boris Yeltsin and his daughter Tatiana? Why were you allowed to film them?
VM: I knew Tatiana a little bit when I worked for the REN-TV channel. I was known through my work, I had a certain social status. And basically, they discussed who would be the director of the film. Essentially, our communications started in an informal way, without protocols. It might seem strange, and I recall that some of my colleagues asked me while I was filming if I was scared. But at the time it was clear. And this is a general principle of my work, that I treat participants of my film very informally, whoever they might be: homeless people, babushkas from a village, the Dalai Lama, or whoever.
I think, too, that this was part of their doctrine at that time. Yeltsin had been filmed by many Russian directors before me, and before that Valentin Yumashev (his PR advisor, and later son-in-law – ed.) had carefully crafted Yeltsin’s official public image. That’s how Yumashev actually emerged. He was a journalist at the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper and he made up a Yeltsin who for some reason took a tram to get to a medical center—no matter that the tram only went in the opposite direction, so this was an absolutely fake image. And Muscovites perfectly know that there is no such tram route. But “Yeltsin on a tram” appeared as a very down-to-earth guy who shared the burdens of the people.
Of course, Operation Successor was engineered mainly by Yumashev. Putin was his creature. So I think that it was Yumashev who decided that a documentary that pictured Yeltsin in an informal ambience would be better than an old-fashioned documentary. But that all is my conjecture, because I never discussed it directly with anyone.
SK: Speaking of Yeltsin, one of the film’s most memorable scenes unfolds in his private quarters on election night, as he watches Gorbachev comment on TV. You say in voiceover that Yeltsin was surprised to see Gorbachev because Yeltsin “knew perfectly well what happens to ousted leaders in Russia.” Soon after, Yeltsin finds himself on the outs, when he awaits a phone call from President Putin that never comes. Did you have a sense even then, on election night, that Yeltsin worried he would be quickly forgotten or repudiated like Gorbachev was?
VM: No, I’d say that Yeltsin didn’t understand anything at that time. And to be precise, the day after the election Putin, accompanied by TV cameras, came to him with flowers and followed the protocol completely. Moreover, if Putin knew that Yeltsin was being filmed when he awaited Putin’s call, he would have phoned him, undoubtedly.
But it’s not a question about Yeltsin so much as Putin. I’m almost certain that by the end of the first year of Putin’s governance that, if not disillusioned, Yeltsin did have questions about Putin, at least from what I witnessed while filming in their apartment. There’s a shot in the film, when Yeltsin is watching Putin’s first address to the nation on TV and Tatiana’s look is caught on camera, looking not at the TV but at her father, watching his reaction. This silent scene speaks volumes about the nerves that existed in the family at that time. We know that Yeltsin learned Putin’s name from Valentin, through Tatiana. That’s why Tatiana makes the first phone call after the election results came out, to Valentin, to connect her father to him.
KO: And what doubts or questions with regard to Putin did Yeltsin have at that time? It was probably not concerns about Russia derailing from its democratic path. What did Yeltsin care about? Preserving the wealth of his family and clan?
VM: I think that Yeltsin expected that Putin would be more manageable. I think they all thought they had created a puppet. And Yeltsin had certain principles, he had his basic idea that he should have been consulted on some issues, that his opinion should have counted. And it becomes clear from my short dialogue with Putin about reinstating the old Soviet anthem that those decisions were made without Yeltsin, and this was absolutely not the Family’s plan. Of course, written agreements were formally upheld. And indeed, until the end of Putin’s first term the government was not changed; the Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, was the Family’s.
KO: You mentioned that they thought Putin would be their puppet. And here is my next logical question: Where is Boris Berezovsky in your film? He is nowhere to be seen: a person who brought Putin to power, created the Unity political party, and won the parliamentary election in 1999 that made Putin’s win possible.
VM: That’s not true, not true.
VM: Because Berezovsky was kept in the dark, and he was tricked. In fact, even before Putin was announced as acting President, he was out of the game.
KO: But the Unity Party, the election to the Duma?
VM: Of course, but that was a year before.
KO: But could Putin have won otherwise?
VM: The thing is, everyone saw that Berezovsky was aspiring to too big a role, and nobody wanted to grant him it. I was not present when all those talks took place, but I saw Berezovsky’s reflection in various situations I witnessed, and it was clear that Berezovsky was out of the game. The timeline was laid out very nicely in Petr Aven’s book about Berezovsky. He was basically convinced that everything was tip-top, he was pushed to take a trip with his mistress to a sea resort, and when he got back he was already a nobody.
KO: You are talking about the book by Alfa Group’s co-owner Petr Aven, The Time of Berezovsky, which diminishes the role of Berezovsky in politics in 1999 and 2000. The book has been criticized for its deliberate and unfair erasure of Berezovsky from those events, mainly by Echo of Moscow chief editor Alexey Venediktov and by Sergey Parkhomenko, a journalist, publisher, and senior advisor to the Kennan Institute.1
Why is there now such a passion to rewrite the role of Berezovsky? Why is it that people suddenly claim that Berezovsky was a nobody?
VM: First of all, I am not rewriting the role of Berezovsky because I never wrote it in the first place. But what I saw, what I felt at that moment, was that Berezovsky was out of the game. Basically, Berezovsky’s person in Putin’s campaign was Ksenia Ponomareva [the campaign deputy chief and former CEO of a TV channel owned by Berezovsky – ed.). She was the only person whom Berezovsky could rely on, and the first person to be thrown out of Putin’s group. Others left quietly over a long period of time. Ksenia was gone by the summer of 2000.
KO: I understand that your film was conceived from the start as an assemblage of old footage, meaning nothing could have been added later.
VM: Foreseeing your question, I’ll say that of course I had the idea of talking to the participants of those events today. But it is completely obvious that no one, even if they had agreed to talk, would have given me more than 10 percent truth and 90 percent personal interpretation. By the way, those who criticize me blame me for passing judgment retroactively, from today’s vantage point. But if you listen to my voiceover, there is no analysis at all, except for some biographical facts about the fate of those who are in the film and my final words, a short monologue. I do not give any opinions. This is an unemotional account of the events of that time that I witnessed.
KO: You just said that no one would have told you the truth if you were to interview them today. Well, then, Petr Aven’s book must be a pack of lies, since he interviews exactly the same people we see in your film, and his book is a series of interviews.
VM: They didn’t tell the truth but they established the timeline of events. And those are two different things, truth and timeline. It’s not even so much what they say as the author, who provides additional data to the described events. We know on what day Berezovsky wrote an open letter to Putin on the pages of his own Kommersant newspaper, where he addresses Putin as “Volodya,” and so on. These are all facts; their descriptions of the facts are interpretation. And the interpretations they provide are, of course, dodgy. Let’s put it this way.
SK: There is a scene in the film where you note all the members of Putin’s team on election night who would later go into opposition or exile: Gleb Pavlovsky, Mikhail Lesin, Ksenia Ponomarvoya, Mikhail Kasyanov. The implication seems to be that Putin was surrounded by liberals, or democrats perhaps, who only later saw his true colors and grew disillusioned. Was that your impression? What would you say to critics who say these people were never liberals in the first place?
VM: First of all, we need to define our terms. Can we say that Anatoly Chubais [Yeltsin-era businessman and official in charge of privatization – ed.] is, was, and will be a liberal democrat? Well, he was more liberal than others. And certainly, in the group of people who orchestrated the successor operation there was no Ozero Cooperative, the almighty Igor Sechin [Chairman of Rosneft and leader of the Kremlin’s siloviki faction -ed.]. There were no people who are the faces of Putin’s elite today. And the people who worked for Putin then were in one way or another members of Yeltsin’s team. Can we consider Yeltsin a liberal? Well, in the context of the whole civilized world, of course he was not. But for Russia he was more liberal than his main rival Zyuganov [the Communist Party candidate for President in 1996 – ed.].
KO: You antagonize in a peculiar way the Ozero Cooperative [a group associated with Vladimir Putin’s inner circle – ed.), and seem to distinguish between them and the so-called Yeltsin oligarchs who brought Putin to power. Do you really think that there is a difference between on the one hand, “Putin oligarchs” like Igor Sechin, the Kovalchuks, and the Rothenbergs, and on the other, “Yeltsin oligarchs” like Abramovich, Fridman, Aven, and Deripaska? I have argued that they are all cut from the same cloth
VM: Well, actually, I think there is a big difference. I’ve known some of them, though not Deripaska. But Fridman is no Sechin, that’s for sure.
KO: He is not, but that did not prevent him from facilitating a sketchy deal between TNK-BP and Rosneft, allegedly with the personal approval of Putin, which saw Fridman and company mysteriously receive up to $8 billion dollars from the Russian budget.2 How are these people any different from the almighty Igor Sechin?
VM: They are more liberal. And therefore, less horrible. Do you want me to say that all of them are scoundrels? Absolutely, to a certain extent everyone is a scoundrel, but this is how the system has been constructed. Because Russia did not have the time for a civil society to build up that could influence the political climate in the country. That’s why in the absence of civil society the political climate shapes itself, at random, into a direction that suits it best. And nothing constrained this development in Russia, there were no constraining institutions in the state. That is why by the end of his second term Yeltsin had transformed into anything but a liberal President.
And when in 1996 we all agreed that we would trample on democratic principles for the sake of saving democracy, well, Putin’s succession resulted precisely from that year. Some trace it back to 1993 but I disagree, I think that the shelling of Russia’s White House was a different story. But democracy in Russia was finally deflowered, and in a very perverted way, in 1996. In 2000 it started sleeping around without sticking to any principles.
KO: You might want to agree, then, with one of the critics of your film: Boris Vishnevskiy, a Saint Petersburg State Representative and member of the liberal Yabloko party. Writing in Novaya Gazeta about your film, he says that “Putin’s system is not a rejection of Yeltsin’s but is its direct continuation. Today’s constitutional autocracy was built precisely by Yeltsin’s team.”
VM: Well, in this sense we might say that death is a continuation of birth. Nevertheless, 1999, for all its shortcomings, mistakes and failures, was a more liberal time than 2018. I have to insist on this definition of more liberal. At least in 1999 there was political competition, for what it was worth. There were political clans, officially named or not, that competed with each other. Those clans owned rival media outlets, there was NTV and ORT. There was the Puppets political comedy show where politicians were criticized heavily.
KO: And nevertheless it all led to Putin.
VM: Because the civil society that would prevent Operation Successor did not exist. I would like to remind you that when it was announced to the country that Putin became Acting President, basically the following was announced, too: there will be no more presidential elections, and we are not interested in your opinion, because we, with our narrow circle, have decided what happens in Russia for at least the next four years.
Those two statements, had they been made in a country with an existent civil society, would have provoked an immediate, severe, and explicit reaction. In Russia no one took to the streets, no one protested. Not a single person did. Even in 1968 when Soviet tanks invaded Prague, eight people came out with posters protesting against it. In 1999 not a single person came out. Everyone just swallowed it. And by the way, I’m convinced that Putin has become the Putin he is today because he did not meet any public resistance on his path to power. If he did face resistance at any turn, he would have had to slow down. But there was no resistance, as there is none now.
KO: Returning to our discussion on the 50 shades of liberalism of the Yeltsin and Putin clans, the people who really brought Putin to power, are, first of all, very well established and still rich. They are also relatively young: Abramovich, Fridman, Aven, Chubais, Surkov, Volodin, Deripaska. They might indeed look not only more liberal, but very liberal compared to Putin’s siloviki.
VM: Thank you! That is exactly what I meant.
KO: Yes, but if the transition of power were to happen now—and Putin’s regime will come to an end, sooner or later…
VM: We all will come to an end, so it’s not an argument. Salazar was unconscious, laid in bed, when he was brought specially printed newspapers and kept being the leader of Portugal.
KO: The Russian people are known for their sudden unpredictability…
VM: That is our only hope.
KO: Exactly. And if this hope is to be fulfilled, those people, the so-called Yeltsin oligarchs, who have the money, the power, their people in the highest positions of the government,3 if they again put their man into the Kremlin, should we allow this to happen for a second time? Is it fair to make this artificial, in my opinion, contrast between the terrible siloviki and the Yeltsin clan, rather than some real examples of Western liberalism and democracy, for once?
VM: I absolutely agree that it is better to be healthy and wealthy, than poor and sick. What’s there to debate?
KO: The debate is whether we should objectively assess the people who were behind Putin’s arrival in order to prevent them, the very same people, from performing Operation Successor 2.0.
VM: Am I right that you think that I idealize the team that brought Putin to power and, moreover, call for sympathy for them because they were later kicked out?
KO: My point is that you made a brilliant film, and if the events were to repeat, we would probably enjoy another great documentary of yours.
Those who argue about your film lived through the 1990s as adults, they were conscious witnesses to that time. Do you think that those who did not—either because they were too young, or they have never been to Russia, like many Hill staffers here in DC who will shape future policy—will get a full picture of those events from your film?
VM: Honestly, I wouldn’t want to see any film that would attempt to give a full picture of anything. But we’ve screened this film to audiences that had absolutely no idea about Russia’s realities, zero. We’ve screened it in Australia, Brazil, Canada, for ordinary people, not political experts. And to me their reaction was very telling because what they got from this film was documented evidence of the anti-democratic, absolutely corrupt and informal codes that govern relations inside the Russian political elite. In Russia, among audiences with knowledge of the 90s, some would want to see this film more propagandist, some more oppositional. But to non-Russian audiences, it is more than enough when they see the film to understand the downfall of political morality in Russia. And the film is a very clear and convincing testament to that.
KO: You’ve said yourself in previous interviews that your film is a repentance. What do you personally repent of?
VM: I personally repent that I took part in Operation Successor, the unconstitutionally performed transition of power. I don’t think it’s even important to define the scale of my role. The percentage of my participation makes no difference. The very fact of my participation is enough. I also think that every other citizen took part in those events, in one way or another. Even if it was an action as simple as turning off the TV and not paying attention.
Yes, indeed, such an action is a million times less significant than what others did, including myself. But all together we allowed this absolute abuse of democratic principles and every one of us today bears some guilt for what happened to the country. This is the main narrative of my film. And when some Russians, including very respected ones, now claim that “No, I was part of a deeper resistance, I was bombing bridges, I was poisoning wells, I put up a protest flag on the city hall building in my village,” this all comes from the devil. Because none of them, none of us, did anything to resist the process of anti-democratic seizure of power. Period.
1Parkhomenko commented to TAI that Aven’s book indeed altered history to minimize the role of Berezovsky in lobbying for Putin’s appointment, albeit before the events depicted in Mansky’s film. For more on the controversy about Aven’s book, see Karina Orlova, “Putin 4.0: It’s All in the Family,” The American Interest.