Since the election of Donald Trump as the American president and the leaking of revelations that the Russians may have played some part in helping him win, Western politics has refused to bow to neat ideological categories. If Trump is conservative, what is the ex-KGB Vladimir Putin doing assisting him?
Oliver Stone, who has never shied away from his Communist leanings, has now added his own spice mix to this whirling paradox. In The Putin Interviews, Stone sits across from the Russian president and gets him to answer a series of questions that are intended to give us a deeper peek into the mind of one of the world’s most devious politicians.
The Showtime series, divided into four episodes of one hour each, takes us through a panoramic view of Putin’s life, an account that is suitably embellished by Putin himself. (Stone speaks no Russian and hired the services of an interpreter to help him conduct the interview.) Most of the facts about the President are well-known: he was born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and took an early interest in judo; he rose quickly within the government first in St Petersburg and then in Moscow; he was chosen by Boris Yeltsin himself to take over the Presidency in 1999, a position from which he has never strayed too far in the interim.
Stone allows Putin to list his political achievements with candour, often egging him on. Over his two terms as President (2000-2008), Putin stabilised the Russian economy and brought poverty numbers down. The problem – and this is not restricted to the economy – is when Stone lets Putin get away with gross falsehoods. At one point, Putin speaks of his success in ridding Russia of oligarchs, and Stone nods sagely. This would be funny if not for the serial assassinations of critics of the state that well-heeled Russians have financed in other countries.
This policy extends to other realms. Stone fawns over Putin as the latter speaks at length about media freedom and LGBT rights, topics on which the President’s version of reality is dramatically at odds with that of his compatriots. There are no questions on Russia’s support of North Korea, its annexation of Crimea or its ruinous meddling in West Asia.
Rather, Stone, who famously makes movies about conspiracy theories that he perhaps believes to be true, gets into friendly banter with Putin about the “ways of the West”. It is one thing for the acclaimed director to believe that the West is still trying to dominate Russia and turn it into its own image. That’s Cold War territory which gave Stone some of his most exciting ideas.
But it becomes something of a parody when he gets the President of Russia to wax eloquent on how the West is out to get him/his country with nary a thought spared for the changed geopolitical dynamics since the 1990s or the very real consequences of Russian expansionism.
Not everything is a letdown, though. There are some interesting takeaways, such as Putin’s defence of granting asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden while also clearly enunciating that what Snowden did was wrong. Likewise, he channels Machiavelli when he says he did not help Trump in the election because a change in the leadership means little when it is the bureaucracy that runs government.
Stone has been defending Putin in media interviews since the release of the documentary. There is no stronger evidence that he has been played than the fact that even people in his camp – the Leftists, say – are turning away from his strident advocacy of a man who they find singularly responsible for installing Trump in the White House. Now that’s a conspiracy Stone should have explored. What we get instead is a political puff piece.