I have now watched the first three episodes of the Putin Interviews, which is sufficient to give an overview of the series.
In my opinion it is by far the best and most interesting series of programmes which have appeared on Western television about Vladimir Putin.
I would say that claims that Oliver Stone fails to raise ‘difficult subjects’ with Putin are simply untrue. All the usual stories about Putin – his KGB past, his reputed homophobia, his ‘billions’, his ‘murders’, his ‘aggressions against Georgia and Ukraine’ etc – are all there.
There is also one telling moment when Stone and Putin strongly disagree with each other. This is in relation to a recent Russian law that requires Russian internet providers to store data for longer than previously, and to hand it over to the Russian security services if requested following a court order.
The US whistleblower Edward Snowden has denounced this law as a ‘big brother’ law. Stone clearly agrees with him and tells Putin as much. Putin predictably enough doesn’t agree.
The key difference between Stone and other Western interviewers is that Stone doesn’t try to get the better of Putin by bullying and hectoring him.
This more conventional approach in my experience invariably ends in disaster, resulting in the humiliation of the Western interviewers rather than Putin, as Putin invariably turns out to be far better informed about the facts than the interviewers are and is by now well practised in dealing with the absurdities they throw at him. The recent Megyn Kelly fiasco is merely the latest example.
By contrast by letting Putin talk and by conducting what are in effect long conversations with him, Stone let Putin speak for himself, in this way revealing the man. For anyone who really wants to get to know Putin – as opposed to the comic strip villain of the Western media – these programmes are both essential and compelling viewing.
Given that we are talking about is 20 hours of interviews distilled into four programmes each lasting more than an hour, any selection of key points or highlights must be arbitrary. I make no apology for the fact mine are. Here they are
(1) Putin came across to me as a very Russian man. I have seen him twice in person (at the SPIEF plenary sessions in 2014 and 2016) and I have watched many of his interviews, but I have never previously sensed this so strongly.
Putin’s initial reticence in dealing with a Westerner, his readiness to speak more freely as his trust grows, his extraordinary directness, and his worldliness, are all in my experience very Russian, as is his habit of sometimes giving terse or monosyllabic answers – “yes”, “no”, “not quite like that” etc.
In all other respects Putin as he appeared in the Putin Interviews is Putin very much as I have come to know him: humorous, extremely polite, very self-controlled (he barely reacted when Stone told him of the comparison Hillary Clinton has made between him and Hitler) and completely on top of his brief. He never evaded any questions or appeared at a loss for an answer on any question of substance.
(2) Putin’s combination of directness and worldliness is almost certainly the quality that Western leaders who have to deal with him find most unnerving. Not only is his conversation totally free of clichés – so unlike Western political rhetoric today – but he even says at one moment “I know how the world works”. At another point he jokes that if Russia had the same resources for intelligence gathering as the US does “probably we would be as bad as they are”. I cannot imagine any Western leader making a joke like that, especially on camera.
Western leaders – who know that Putin in his cynical assessments of their motives is invariably right, but who are never able to admit as much probably not even to themselves – must find this both infuriating and alarming, and this surely is one reason why they both fear him and dislike him so much.
(3) Putin has become completely disillusioned with the US. He makes it quite clear throughout the interviews that he feels that the US took Russia for a ride at the end of the Cold War, and has never stopped being hostile to Russia even as Russia reached out to it. With hindsight he is astonished at the misguided trust Russia placed in the US and in its promises – for example not to expand NATO eastward – and though he clearly wants ‘dialogue’ with the US, the possibility of mutual trust and genuine friendship between the US and Russia at least whilst he is President is surely gone.
(4) Following from (3), Putin – speaking before the US election – made it quite clear that he had no expectations of any significant improvement in relations between the US and Russia regardless of who won the election on the grounds that whoever is President the US ‘bureaucracy’ (by which Putin clearly means the US political class) is single-mindedly committed to its policy of hostility towards Russia. He provides a striking example of this by telling a story of how the CIA sent Russia a defiant letter saying it would continue its contacts with Chechen terrorists notwithstanding the disapproval of US President George W. Bush.
Putin said these words before the US election and before the Russiagate scandal well and truly got off the ground. Reflecting on this scandal since then, Putin must feel that his words of cynicism about the US have been completely vindicated.
(5) Though Putin appears at times unwilling to discuss the motives behind US foreign policy – at one point he jokes that he will explain it all at great length and in great detail after he retires – it is in fact obvious that he feels that the so-called ‘unipolar’ moment following the end of the Cold War went to the US’s head, and caused it to embark on a megalomaniac policy of world domination.
He sees in this the cause of all the major problems in international relations, including the catastrophic breakdown in relations between Russia and the US, the chaos in the Middle East, and – as he said at length – the rise of violent Jihadism and the crises in Ukraine and Syria.
He says that as a result of this policy the US is making repeated mistakes and is becoming less efficient because this policy is unachievable and is causing the US to lose touch with reality.
(6) It is clear that for Putin the US anti-ballistic missile programme is a very big deal, and that he considers that it is clearly aimed at achieving US military dominance over Russia. However he seems fully confident of Russia’s ability to counter this programme at a fraction of its cost. He clearly sees this programme as another manifestation of the lack of realism of US policy and of its hegemonic drive.
(7) Notwithstanding his conviction that the US’s policy of achieving world domination is unachievable and unrealistic, Putin is seriously troubled by the fanaticism of those driving it. When Stone tells him that the neocons scare him Putin replies that they scare him too. It is the only moment in the Putin Interviews when Putin admits to fear.
(8) Putin takes great pride in Russia’s sovereignty and independence – by which he of course means its independence from the US. He contrasts this with the way the US’s ‘allies’ have in effect made themselves ‘vassals’. He points out that what this actually means is that the US has no real ‘allies’ at all.
Though the Putin Interviews never touch on relations with China, it is almost certainly a contrast with Russia’s alliance with China that Putin is making. Pointedly, he says that ‘true’ allies never spy on each other, as the US spies on its ‘allies’ in Europe.
That incidentally provides confirmation that Russia and China do not spy on each other.
Putin points out that it is because Russia is sovereign and independent that it was able to give refuge to Edward Snowden. He says that very few countries in the world today are truly sovereign and independent in the way that Russia is, and that Snowden was very lucky to find himself in one which was and which was therefore able to protect him.
(9) Putin also takes great pride in his success in turning round Russia’s economic situation. He points to the transformation in real incomes in the period since he became President. He also contrasts the heavy indebtedness of the US economy with the lack of indebtedness of Russia’s. The first three episodes of the Putin Interviews which I have seen unfortunately touched very little on Russia’s internal situation or how Putin sees it, and this in my opinion is a major omission of the programme.
(10) Putin does however touch on some of the internal structures of Russia’s government and political system. He refers to the Security Council – Russia’s most important policy making body – pointing out that it meets regularly every week. There is even a brief photograph of it in session.
This is a unique reference to this key Russian institution in any Western discussion of Russia or of the Russian political system.
Contrary to Western myth the programme shows that Putin works very hard, consults widely with his officials – Stone is astonished at the number of ministers and officials who report to Putin on any particular day – and that the way the top levels of the Russian government work, far from being personalised and informal as the West imagines, are in reality highly structured.
(11) With respect to (10), Putin is however quite clear that Russia today is a democracy. This is of course the most contentious topic of all, with the Western media and the Western political class passionately disagreeing (it is now standard practice in the British media to refer to Putin as “the dictator of Russia”).
Putin ridiculed suggestions that the Russian government controls the entire Russian media or is even able to do so, referred to Russia’s multiparty political system and corrected Stone on the alleged difficulty of registering a political party in Russia.
Western viewers might be surprised to see Russian television film incorporated in the programme showing Russian political leaders – Zyuganov, Mironov and Zhirinovsky – engaging in fiery denunciations of Putin, in Zhirinovsky’s case in the presence of Putin himself.
(12) One of the central stories of the Putin mythology – believed in even by many of Putin’s admirers as well as his detractors – is that shortly after he became President he called all the oligarchs together to a meeting and told them that they would be allowed to retain their properties and businesses provided they did not interfere in politics.
Putin alludes to this meeting but gives a different account of what he said at it. He claims that he told the oligarchs that they would be allowed to retain their properties and businesses, even if they obtained them illegally, provided that in future they obeyed the law.
I have no doubt that this is what really happened at the meeting, and that the story of Putin striking a bargain with the oligarchs in which he in effect coerced their loyalty by threatening to take their property if they were disloyal to him is false.
(13) Putin gives a unique insight into his style of work. Not only is he very much a hands-on manager – Stone makes a highly pointed contrast to the lackadaisical style of management of former US President Ronald Reagan – but in the numerous meetings Putin convenes to discuss problems he is not satisfied and dislikes ending meetings until a solution is found. He compares himself to a painter who dislikes getting up from a painting until the painting is complete.
By Putin’s own admission that means that meetings almost invariably overrun their times. Putin is notorious in the West for his habit of turning up late to appointments. This style of work provides the reason why.
Though it must make heavy demands on the officials who attend these meetings, this style of work does have the immense advantage of producing decisions which can then be acted on. With Putin there is evidently no question of the can being kicked down the road.
(14) Putin takes obvious pride in the effectiveness of both Russia’s intelligence services and its military. Though he has apparently been the target of no fewer than five assassination attempts he trusts his security services to keep him safe. Though he was careful on camera to say nothing that might ruffle feathers, he is clearly amused – and proud – of the fact that Russia is able to field highly effective armed forces at only a tenth of the cost of those the US and at less cost than those of Saudi Arabia.
(15) Putin places a very high value on frankness and honesty, and expects his own honesty to go unquestioned. When Stone floated the possibility of Russia releasing the CIA’s letter discussed in (4), he said his word about it should be enough. He also hinted at the very great weight he is known to place on personal loyalty when he said that it is not right for him to discuss the faults of his predecessors – Gorbachev and Yeltsin – in the case of Yeltsin undoubtedly in part because Yeltsin was once his boss.
(16) Despite the extraordinary tension in international relations, Putin overall comes across very much an optimist. He clearly believes that the ‘correlation of world forces’ is moving in Russia’s favour, and he repeatedly accuses Western leaders of short term thinking and of failing to see the direction of events clearly. Though Stone never asks him to enlarge on this, it is clear that the reason for Putin’s optimism is the continued decline of US and Western power, the corresponding growth of Russia’s power, and above all the rise of a new centre of power in China.
Quite clearly, though he believes Russia is going through a difficult period at the moment, in the not so long term Putin expects the international situation to stabilise on Russia’s terms, and foresees a world in 20-30 years which is radically different from the world as it exists today.
Whilst these were for me the main points to come out of the Putin Interviews, there were also some interesting pieces of trivia, of which the ones that stood out for me were the following
(17) Putin’s office suite in the Senate Building in the Kremlin is located the same room as the one used by Stalin for his Kremlin office from 1939 until his death in 1953. Our sister publication Russia Feed has provided the extract from the Putin Interviews in which Putin shows Stone round his office.
Pictures of the office when Stalin used it are surprisingly hard to find on the internet – the reconstruction at the Stalin Museum in Gori which is often shown is either wrong or must be of another office – but a very accurate reconstruction appears at the beginning of this episode of the Soviet spy drama Seventeen Moments of Spring.
To Russians of a certain generation Stalin’s Kremlin office is as famous as the Oval Office in the White House is to Americans, and its appearance is familiar to them from countless films, such as the Fall of Berlin (made in 1949 during Stalin’s lifetime) or from the Liberation series made in the 1960s. The windows of this office overlook Red Square, and according to legend one of them came to be called in Stalin’s lifetime “Stalin’s window”.
I had suspected for some time that Putin’s office occupies the same room as Stalin’s office because of the obvious similarity in general dimensions and layout. Putin has now confirmed it.
The fact that Putin’s office is located in the same room as Stalin’s office is not Putin’s choice. The office suite in the Kremlin he uses was originally created for Boris Yeltsin, and Putin has simply taken it over. Also, as Putin has pointed out, the room has been been reduced in size since Stalin’s time through the creation of a reading area cut off from the main office by a partition wall.
(18) Putin’s father appears to have been a much more important person in Putin’s life than had been previously realised. Putin has a picture of him in naval uniform in his Kremlin office and is clearly proud of his father’s record in the Second World War when his father fought in an NKVD special forces unit on the Leningrad front.
Putin’s father is known to have been a staunch Communist who contrary to myth rose to a fairly senior position in the Leningrad Communist Party. Though Putin attributes his decision to join the KGB to the influence of films like Seventeen Moments of Spring, I cannot help but wonder whether his father may have played a role in it.
The Putin Interviews by contrast have nothing to say about Putin’s grandfather, in some ways an even more interesting person than Putin’s father, who at the time of the 1917 Revolution was a chef in St. Petersburg’s Astoria Hotel, and who subsequently worked as a chef for both Lenin and Stalin. He lived into the 1960s, and Putin is known to have known him.
(19) Despite being the son of a committed Communist, and despite having surely been a committed Communist himself when he joined the KGB and worked for it, it is clear that Putin is no longer one and that he feels no lingering loyalty towards the Communist Party or its cause. Though he says little that is critical of the Communist period, he refers in the Putin Interviews to the “so-called 1917 Revolution” and speaks of the basis of Soviet society as having been inefficient and incapable of reform.
Putin is known to have left both the KGB and the Soviet Communist Party at the time of the August 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev. He gives no indication of when he lost his Communist beliefs, but it was probably at this time.
(20) Though Putin is now divorced he still wears his wedding ring. Like many Russian men he wears it on his right hand, and his watch on his right wrist. Here is a portrait of Tolstoy also wearing his wedding ring on his right hand.
(21) Putin is clearly a practising and even devout Orthodox Christian. There are icons in his office and his official residence at Novo Ogaryovo contains a whole Orthodox chapel. It is not however a subject he is much given to talking about.
Putin does not say when he converted to Orthodoxy but his comments appear to link it to his loss of belief in the Communist Party and its cause.
(22) Putin is obviously one of those people who is not well in his physical or mental health unless he is physically active. Not only does he exercise intensely every day but many of the interviews with Stone were carried out walking, with Stone trying to keep up.
Whilst this constant physical activity – including daily sessions at the gym and in the pool, judo sessions, horse riding on the estate at Novo Ogaryovo, driving his own car, and playing ice hockey – no doubt helps Putin relax and keeps him fit, it must also seriously increase the risk of physical injury, especially as he grows older. It seems that he no longer has a personal trainer to warn him off exercises that might be dangerous, and that he has already on at least one occasion fallen head first from his horse. However if anyone in Putin’s entourage has warned him of the risks he is running with all this activity the Putin Interviews give no hint of it.
(23) Putin was prepared to give very little information about the tangled circumstances of his rise to power. Indeed he claims to be as mystified by the fact that Yeltsin chose him for his successor as everyone else. He also says that he initially refused Yeltsin’s request that he become Prime Minister of Russia, something which may explain the strange and hitherto unexplained brief premiership of Putin’s immediate predecessor Sergey Stepashin.
However the fact that Putin by his own admission was seriously concerned for his own safety and for that of his family, and that he was worried of what might happen to him if Yeltsin dismissed him, points to a serious political crisis which he is clearly not willing for the moment to talk about.
(24) On the subject of Soviet history, the only previous Soviet or Russian leader of whom Putin speaks with straightforward disapproval is Nikita Khrushchev. In this Putin echoes what in my experience is the well nigh universal view of Khrushchev in Russia. Khrushchev has a far lower reputation in Russia than he does in the West.
(25) Certain of Putin’s humorous comments to Stone are being reported in the West as sexist and homophobic despite Putin’s strenuous attempts to appear neither.
I doubt most Russians would see them that way. On the contrary most Russians – men and women, gay and straight – would take the way the West has reported these comments as further proof the West has lost its sense of humour.
For the record, on the subject of homophobia, I think Putin is basically right when he says in the Putin Interviews that Russian society far from being homophobic is on the contrary basically tolerant and liberal, and that it is indeed altogether more socially liberal than it is widely believed to be in the West.
Those were for me the most striking things to come out of the Putin Interviews.
Western viewers will no doubt be struck by the fluent and forceful way Putin spoke about the Chechen, South Ossetian, Ukrainian and Syrian crises and wars, all of which he discussed at length, and about which he offered a Russian perspective which Western viewers scarcely ever hear.
However the details of these crises and wars – and the differing points of view about them – are subjects with I am very familiar. For me Putin said nothing about them which was new.
It is Putin the man I was interested in, and it is on this subject that I have chosen to concentrate here.
Though inevitably there is much about Putin that remains unknown, Oliver Stone is to be congratulated on his success in making this very proud and very private man – who is not even prepared to disclose the names of his grandchildren – open himself up to the extent that he did, and as he has never done before.
The Putin Interviews offer us at one and the same time the best biography there is of Putin, and the clearest and most accurate picture of the sort of man he is, of what he believes in, and of how his mind works.