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18 October 2022

Adam Curtis’s magic lantern through Russia

The documentary-maker’s new series shows how a country traumatised by the failures of communism and capitalism ended up with Vladimir Putin.

By John Gray

An official working at Gosplan, the central planning agency created in 1921, explains how it collects and distils data, then distributes the information across the Soviet economy, where it “falls like rain” on workers. A factory manager and a taxi driver describe the subterfuges to which they resort when pretending to be following the plan. In an office in Leningrad, as part of a technocratic project called “Intensification 90”, secretaries feed data into computers via large floppy discs to make central planning work more efficiently. Meanwhile, shoppers rake through ill-assorted piles of goods as the economy disintegrates.

These images are gleaned from thousands of hours of unused tapes left in the BBC’s Moscow offices from footage shot all over the Soviet Union. The tapes were discovered by a BBC cameraman, who digitised them over a period of weeks and brought the drives back to London, only to find no one at the corporation was interested in them. He gave a set to the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, who found an extraordinary record of what it was like to live through the collapse of communism and its aftermath. The footage was not only much longer than the clips used on news programmes. Most of it was not made up of consciously composed shots. The crews went on filming long after they had recorded the events they had come to report. The result is what someone would see if they were simply looking at the country Russia had become.

Using this raw material, along with some from BBC documentaries, Curtis has given us Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone. The seven hour-long episodes are only partly a chronological record of political events. The clips include beauty pageants, military parades, occult ceremonies, factories in which workers have not been paid, the Cambridge spy Kim Philby being given a state burial in an open coffin, heaps of skulls and bones from mass graves uncovered in Ukraine and other scenes from the last years of the Soviet regime and its aftermath. Sometimes the images are vignettes, at others a story unfolds across the episode. A woman reluctantly has an abortion because she lives with another family in a cramped apartment and cannot afford a second child. In a string of clips, monkeys are shown cowering in an experimental laboratory in the city of Sukhumi in Abkhazia, Georgia, where Stalin tried to interbreed them with humans to produce a new species of soldier. Later used in spacecraft, the monkeys are left shivering and presumably starving in their cages when the city is devastated during the 1991-93 civil war. Throughout the series, Curtis focuses on the faces and voices of ordinary Russians, sometimes angry but more often resigned or despairing, as they watch a society they had been told was everlasting disappear around them.

TraumaZone is more purely visual than Curtis’s previous series, and for that reason more compelling. Except when they occur in the clips themselves, there is no music or voice-over, only a commentary in the form of occasional sentences of text. Over the past 20 years Curtis has created an archival art form that is uniquely his own. The bricolage he fashions from a chaos of lost images presents an alternative history of our time. Looking through Curtis’s magic lantern, we glimpse unexpected links between events. In some of his series, though, one could not help suspecting that chaos was more real than the patterns he found in it.

The Mayfair Set (1999) dealt with a band of buccaneering Thatcherite capitalists, who emerged from the Clermont gambling club and embodied a swashbuckling individualism that would soon be eclipsed by the power of large corporations. I knew some of the people Curtis profiles, and he captures them and their milieu vividly; but his story of an elite wrenching power from the masses is belied by the fact that Thatcher’s experiment floated on a wave of popular support even as it destroyed industrial communities. The Century of the Self (2002) was a highly original inquiry into how psychotherapeutic ideas of self-actualisation became part of a consumerist economy; but the shift was portrayed as the work of a cabal of right-wing social engineers, when it was actually an inchoate cultural metamorphosis nobody controlled or comprehended at the time. The Power of Nightmares (2004) represented the threat of radical Islamism as a legend constructed by American neoconservatives. In fact the threat was genuine, but the Americans failed to understand it. Blind to the complex causes of Islamist movements, they tried to co-opt or crush them and ended up exacerbating the danger.

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For me Curtis’s most powerful film to date was Bitter Lake (2015), an exploration of the events leading up to the war in Afghanistan. In a sublimely surreal scene, a British lecturer standing in a darkened room in front of an image of Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated urinal explains to a baffled Afghan audience how Duchamp’s art was “a huge revolution” aimed at “fighting the system”. That the Afghans had suffered rather more violent kinds of upheaval seems not to have occurred to the speaker. Rescued by Curtis from oblivion, this is a scene that will live forever as an example of how the West exports its values and conceits into societies about which it knows next to nothing.

[See also: Will Putin go nuclear?]

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TraumaZone continues this theme in its treatment of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform programme. In Russia Gorbachev, who died in August of this year at the age of 91, is commonly regarded as at best a bungler, who in the course of attempting to reboot an unworkable system plunged the Soviet Union into anarchy. In the West he has been feted as a hero. The only problem with the Soviet system was that it wasn’t rational enough. This was the message of an American voice-over in the clips of Leningrad secretaries feeding floppy discs into computers. There was nothing wrong with the system new technology couldn’t fix.

When Gorbachev’s attempt at reforming central planning imploded it was succeeded by another variety of economic rationalism – the cult of the free market. Whether from ideological frenzy or predatory greed, Western governments and companies promoted policies of shock therapy that had a catastrophic impact on Russian society. Yegor Gaidar (1956-2009), acting prime minister of Russia between June and December 1992 and the country’s leading liberal economist, is cited by Curtis as declaring: “Everything that is economically efficient is morally justified.”

As a result of applying this proto-Trussite injunction, pensions became worthless, savings evaporated as inflation spiralled out of control and life expectancy fell to third-world levels. Large sections of the Russian population came close to destitution. It was an ideal environment for an astute political operator like Vladimir Putin. A little-known bureaucrat made acting prime minister in 1999, he used the lawlessness of the Boris Yeltsin era to extend his authority. For perhaps a decade after he first became president in May 2000, he presided over a system of oligarchical rule in which living standards improved and a degree of freedom was allowed. He went on to use any opportunity that presented itself to create a totalitarian regime, which is only now beginning to crumble.

The near break-up of the state is a recurring theme in TraumaZone. Clips of the wars in Chechnya show its capital Grozny being razed to the ground in the battle of December 1999-February 2000. A similar kind of terroristic warfare (also used intensively in Syria) is being waged by Russian forces in Ukraine, but the upshot may be different. The defeat of the Chechens helped Putin come to power, whereas Ukrainian resistance could well lead to his downfall. Putin’s most dangerous critics are not oppositional politicians like Alexei Navalny, but figures such as the war-lord Ramzan Kadyrov, appointed acting president of Chechnya by Putin in 2007 and Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the Kremlin-affiliated Wagner Group army of mercenaries, who want the war prosecuted more ruthlessly. Kadyrov has urged Putin to launch tactical nuclear strikes on Ukraine, while Prighozin has publicly ridiculed Putin’s generals for their incompetence and softness. Both men are positioning themselves as deciding forces in the scramble for power that is breaking out around the Russian leader. There can be no assurance that the assault on Ukraine will end with Putin’s demise, or be any less barbaric.

A larger prospect is that the Russian Federation could fracture and fragment. Liberals will cheer the end of Russian imperial power, but they would be wiser to restrain their enthusiasm. The dissolution of the Russian state would hardly be peaceful. A more realistic scenario would be something like the wars that raged for a decade after the break-up of the Yugoslav state in 1991, but on a bigger scale. Many of the natural resources on which the country’s wealth is based are located in regions without Russian majorities, and it is not hard to foresee resource wars breaking out. Though exact numbers cannot be known, conscripts from minority peoples almost certainly account for disproportionately high numbers of Russian casualties in Ukraine. Even assuming the country’s massive stock of nuclear weapons was somehow neutralised, a breakdown of the Russian state would trigger an economic meltdown and flows of refugees beyond anything that has been seen so far. Western governments have not begun to prepare for the consequences of the disorderly regime change that now seems possible.

In the mainstream media Russia is a blank screen on which the West gazes transfixed at its own visions. First with communism, then the free market and chimerical notions of transition to democracy, Western commentators and policymakers have projected fanciful ideas of rationality on to a society they have not troubled to understand. If Curtis’s astonishing new series has a message, it is that Putin will not be the last of the monsters produced by the dream of reason in Russia.

[See also: The moral corruption of Holocaust fiction]

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This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder