Putin: A Russian Spy Story, Channel 4
- Brian Donaldson
- 25 March 2020
Documentary series about Russian leader packs a punch without manipulation or exaggerated effects
It's the classic case of being careful what you wish for. In the late 90s, Russians had become weary and embarrassed with seeing their leader, Boris Yeltsin, stumbling (often quite literally) from crisis to chaos as his presidency began to dissolve in a vodka haze of incompetence and shame. The people demanded someone who would fit the Theresa template of 'strong and stable'. They got ex-KGB man Vladimir Putin. More than 20 years in the Kremlin clearly hasn't diluted his thirst for power given that he recently sought to change the constitution in order to remain de facto leader until 2036.
In this excellent three-part documentary by Nick Green, we see that Putin's rebooting of his nation as a totalitarian orthodox state was aided by the sheer brutality of war in Chechnya (a conflict rumoured to have been started by his own special forces blowing up apartment blocks across Russia and blaming it on Chechen rebels), the assassination of enemies both home and abroad, and his own personal reinvention. Described initially by his PR guru as 'a weak man' (his lack of height also seemed to count against him), Putin sought to bolster an image of raw machismo; so he perfected the 'gunslinger walk' with his right arm stock still in place as though ready to draw a firearm at any moment, plus there's all that footage of him acting the tough guy on the judo mat or in the ice hockey rink.
Yet after every outcry over atrocities such as the deaths of an investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya (gunned down in her home), former allies Alexander Litvinenko (radioactive poisoning) and Boris Berezovsky (an open verdict remains on his mysterious death) plus the hacking of elections in other countries and the Salisbury nerve-agent attacks, there's always a 'who, me guv?' reaction and a shrug of the shoulders.
With wonderful use of footage of Putin before and after he took power, and interviews with some of the players who are still deemed to be his at-risk enemies, it would have been easy for Green to have upped the tension and atmosphere of dread with 'spy'-like music and shadowy visuals. But he knows the material readily tells the tale without requiring any manipulation and simply places images and sound in tandem rather than slamming them together for over-the-top dramatics.
'He seems to be quite good at his job', one commentator acerbically notes of Putin. As Green's film shows to startling effect, if that job is to commit crimes at home and abroad without impunity while tightening his grip on power, then he is quite probably the best in the business.
Episodes watched: 2 of 3
Putin: A Russian Spy Story airs on Channel 4, Mondays, 9pm; episodes available on All 4.