Over the last two years or so, Moscow has gotten back into the international spotlight in a way that it hasn’t been since the end of the Cold War. As a result of its reckless moves, Putin’s regime has gotten a reputation in the West as dangerous and unpredictable. Nevertheless, a profound lack of understanding as to who or what we are dealing with still pervades the halls of power from Berlin to Washington DC. For proof, one need look no further than just how well the Kremlin has wielded the element of surprise when dealing with its Western counterparts.
But is Putin’s regime just about Putin himself, or is it about the whole system behind him? How much would it be transformed if Putin is forced out for whatever reason? Who are the pillars of the regime, and who could we reliably count on as a potential driver of change? The debate has been inconclusively raging among academics and policymakers for the better part of this decade. It's time for some clarity.
A well-known Russian writer and filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov, who has been called a "critic of Putin’s regime", added a new wrinkle to the discussion recently. Nekrasov’s recent film, which plays a key role in a broader campaign to discredit the murdered Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and the American businessman Bill Browder who has worked tirelessly to shine light on the tragic affair, not only exposed new tools and techniques Russia is ready to use for its propaganda war against the West, but raised many eyebrows about the filmmaker’s supposed personal transformation.
But what if there was no transformation at all? What if Andrei Nekrasov has always been just one of the countless faces of Putin’s regime? For most in the West, especially for those who know Nekrasov by his films Disbelief (about the apartment bombings in Russia that brought Putin to power), Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case (about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, using a rare form of polonium, in London) or Russian Lessons (about the war in Georgia), the very idea that one might call Nekrasov anything but a brave opponent of Putin’s regime, or a courageous seeker of truth, might sound insane.
However, it only takes watching his much less internationally publicized film Together Forever to start to question the filmmaker’s anti-Putinist bona fides. To get a real impression of why this particular film puts Nekrasov in line with Russia’s chief propagandist, the journalist Dmitry Kiselyov, one really ought to see the film for oneself. At the time of writing, however, it is available only in Russian, so an outline of some of the details from the film will have to do. It can serve as an eye-opener to those thaе need convincing, and helps shed light on how Nekrasov is in fact an integral part of the Putin regime's "information warfare" strategy.
For starters, it is important to keep in mind that Together Forever was released in 2010, well before the current "personal transformation" of Nekrasov into a filmmaker more in tune with the Putinist line. All the tendencies on display today have in fact always been there.
Together Forever revolves around Russia’s relations with Belarus at the time of ongoing trade wars between the two countries in 2010. Though the film can be read as a criticism of Putin and Putinism on one level, such a reading is too superficial. One of the main narrative threads in the film is a thoroughgoing nostalgia for the Soviet Union. One wonders if Putin, who is known for saying that the collapse of the USSR is the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, would not subscribe to these exact sentiments. Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus, in the filmmaker’s interpretation and in his own words, was a reflection of everything that people in Russia and Belarus considered as having been good and holy in the Soviet Union. The vision presented is a far cry from the modern reality of Belarus: a repressive police state with a stagnant, Russia-dependent economy—the “last dictatorship in Europe” as most in the West still called it at the time the movie was made.
But a film brimming with Soviet nostalgia alone is not what puts Nekrasov in line with the likes of Dmitry Kiselyov. Rather, it is the techniques used by Nekrasov that ultimately tip his hand.
One of these techniques, currently widely used by Putin’s information warfare machine, is twisting the truth while trying to justify something using the testimony of independent Western experts. Nekrasov uses this technique throughout the film to whitewash Lukashenko’s reputation from allegations that his regime is guilty of murders. From a variety of cases available, for example, Nekrasov picked the controversial death of the Belarusian journalist Aleh Byabenin, and presented an original OSCE report as evidence that all allegations of murder were false. The only catch is that the OSCE experts conducted no new investigation into the crime—and clearly stated so in their report! They were only allowed to view existing documents from the official investigation, and concluded that according to these official documents there was no basis to question an official version of suicide being the cause of Byabenin’s death.
The other well-known technique of the Putin’s regime information warfare, frequently in use these days, is interviewing "independent" experts from the countries which the Kremlin wants to put in a bad light. These so-called experts are usually in some way related to Russia and its propaganda machine, and say exactly the things the Kremlin wants them to say. No alternative views are ever presented. Nekrasov in Together Forever does exactly that. Trying to show Belarus as a better alternative to not only Putin’s Russia, but to the European Union as well, he went to Latvia and interviewed just one "expert": the pro-Russian activist Alexander Gaponenko. At the time of the film's making, Gaponenko was little-known outside Latvia. Even so, Nekrasov somehow found him. (And as luck would have it, one can learn about Gaponenko's role as a tool of Russian propaganda from a newly released documentary “The Master’s Plan”, which sheds light on Russia's information war against Latvia and singles out Gaponenko as a key player in the campaign.)
On top of all that, Nekrasov used actors rather than real people in his "documentary" Forever Together, primarily to show the Belarusian opposition in a bad light.
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. Similarly, if Nekrasov uses half-truths in propaganda efforts like Putin’s regime does, if he shares nostalgia for the Soviet Union like Putin himself does, and if he can produce a film Kiselyov could be proud of, then probably, at least mentally, he was already a part of the larger phenomenon of "Putin’s Russia" no later than 2010. His openly joining the ranks of the Russian propaganda machine's attacks against Magnitsky and Browder in 2016 should have come as no surprise.
A serious question is still left unanswered: how can a person be an integral part of Putin’s Russia, and a critic of Putin himself, both at the same time? What is behind these apparent two faces of Nekrasov?
The answer to these questions lies in the understanding that the Putin regime is not just about Putin. Putinism truly has a thousand faces. Nekrasov’s case helps illuminate this insight, especially in the context of the filmmaker’s relations with the controversial anti-Putin oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who was once one of the most powerful people in Russia.
Nekrasov has been repeatedly asked to explain his relations with Berezovsky, a man who was once called the godfather of Putin’s presidency, but who then turned into an embittered opponent of the Kremlin once in exile. Most of Nekrasov's answers have been quite vague. Nekrasov has tried to emphasize his friendship with Alexander Litvinenko and has tried to deflect attention from his relations with Berezovsky, in large part denying that the latter financed his films. Nevertheless, Nekrasov’s creative trajectory always seemed to neatly dovetail with Berezovsky’s political agenda.
Nekrasov's work did not concern itself much with Putin before the release Disbelief in 2004. Following his falling out with Putin, Berezovsky was a driving force behind a campaign to convince both a Russian and an international audience that Russian security services were behind bombings of the apartment buildings in Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk in 1999. Nekrasov’s Disbelief is built around just those allegations.
Berezovsky himself made little secret of his moral and financial support for the Orange revolution in Ukraine in 2004, which he thought could help to get rid of Putin in Russia as well. It just so happened that Nekrasov ended up in Kyiv right after the Orange revolution. There he wrote and published a book about anticipating a Russian revolution, which was heavily promoted by Berezovsky. Around the same time, Nekrasov was considering making a film about the assassination attempt against the new Ukrainian President Victor Yuschenko during his election campaign, as well as other crimes of the outgoing Ukrainian regime. One of Berezovsky's close associates, Alexander Goldfarb, told Ukrainian media that the fugitive tycoon was ready to put in $100,000 towards the project. Berezovsky was outspoken about the exceptional role that Ukraine and Georgia played in the democratization of the whole post-Soviet region. Nekrasov’s films about the murder of Litvinenko and the war in Georgia gelled nicely with Berezovsky's political crusade against Putin, as well as against rival Russian oligrachs.
Berezovsky’s support for Belarus' dictator Lukashenko has been less well known in the West. Lukashenko admitted in 2014 that the oligarch had financed at least part of his publicity campaign to improve Belarus' image in the West. And, as the well-known Russian analyst Stanislav Belkovsky pointed out, Berezovsky wanted Belarus to make an alliance with Ukraine (and Georgia) against Putin’s Russia. Once again, Nekrasov’s Together Forever nicely lines up with Berezovsky’s political agenda.
With all that in mind, it is worth thinking through whether Berezovsky himself was as real opponent of the regime, or was just driven by personal animosity against Putin.
Berezovsky’s support for Lukashenko’s dictatorship, which is in some ways grimmer that Putin’s own regime, suggests that he is not all that concerned about democracy. And while he was an influential power broker in Moscow, Berezovsky's preferred policies didn't much differ from those being pursued by Putin’s regime today. If we call Putin’s Russia a kleptocracy, we should remember that Berezovsky was himself a symbol of the corrupt oligarchy. The reality of today's Russia is that while the names have changed, the system in place exhibits many of the pathologies that were incubated under Yeltsin. We call Putin’s Russia a "mafia state", citing Putin’s ties to gangsters; at the same time, allegations that Berezovsky worked hand in hand with Chechen gangsters never really went away. Yes, Berezovsky opposed Putin’s reckless and brutal behavior in the international arena, especially the intervention in Georgia. But at the same time, there are allegations that Berezovsky had an important role in orchestrating the second Chechen war.
Ultimately, the fact remains that Berezovsky was instrumental in Putin’s rise to power, and started his crusade against him only when realized that he had lost control over him.
All this makes a strong case to be wary of the idea that everybody who opposes Putin is actually an enemy of the dangerous phenomenon we call Putinism. Putinism is much more complex than just personal loyalty to Putin, or to the Kremlin's policies. The West will likely have to deal with a form of Putinism in Russia well after Putin is long gone.
The Russian ‘hero’ of the war in Ukraine, Igor "Strelkov" Girkin, is now attacking Putin, but we cannot call him an opponent of Putinism in any way. The late former Russian Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Director of the Foreign Intelligence Services Yevgenyi Primakov was a staunch opponent of Russian intervention into Eastern Ukraine and made all effort to stop that war. But none of that made him an opponent of Putinism either, however gauzy an image some Western papers tried to paint of him upon his death. Or consider the recent spat between the editor of Moskovskyi Komsomolets Pavel Gusev and Dmitri Kiselyov. Tempting though it might be to think otherwise, this is probably not a sign of a weakening regime, either. Most probably it is just one more example of the constant internal conflicts—a struggle for power and influence within the system, rather than a sign of some kind of looming collapse.
Putinism is more about "values" and the mentality all representatives of the system more or less share. These values and mentality are best expressed in the actions of the individuals in question—much more so than in their words, which are after all cheap. If a supposed "opposition figure" has previously behaved in a way consonant with Putinist ideas, we should be constantly on guard against expecting too much from them in reforming the system going forward.
Nekrasov's "transformation" has thus not surprised the kind of people who have the right kind of eyes for such things. TAI contributor David Satter, who took Nekrasov to court over unpaid royalties over the film Disbelief (which was based on Satter's book), put it best in a recent interview with a Russian journal:
I think the problem is that many people in Russia lack moral principles. They have certain ideals, but they lack strength to live according to them. After decades of material poverty, the money is for many an irresistible temptation. This is a very sad state of affairs. Russia needs an intelligentsia which lives according to its principles. As long as it lacks this, the country will not be free.
Nekrasov is a case in point, but so is Dmitri Kiselyov. In 2014, Lithuania decided to revoke a state award it had bestowed on Kiselyov in 1994. In 1991, Kiselyov had bravely refused to read aloud the official Kremlin news reports on the main Soviet TV channel whitewashing the bloody crackdown on protesters defending Vilnius' TV station. These days, Kiselyov does not hesitate to spread any vicious propaganda deemed necessary by the Kremlin.
The faces of Putinism are legion, and at first glance, one might be tempted to draw sharp distinctions between them when in fact more unites them than divides them. In order to understand whom we are really dealing with when we deal with the Russian regime, we need to learn to recognize and publicly name them. And we must avoid the lulling illusion that we might be able to count on some of them as driving forces for regime change.