Sunday, July 1, 2012

All Hail the Motherland: Musings on "Putin's Kiss"

The worlds a mess it's in my kiss

As someone who has spent time in Russia and in Moscow I watched the premiere of Danish director Lise Birk Pedersen’s 2012 documentary Putin’s Kiss ( on PBS World today with great interest.

Putin’s Kiss focuses on two journalists in Putin’s Moscow, Oleg Kashin, journalist for Kommersant and critic of the Putin regime, and Marya “Masha” Drokova, the teenager who rose to journalistic prominence thanks to her skills and her connections to Nashi, translation, Ours, the pro-Putin, nationalist, pro-democratic, and anti-fascist youth movement founded by Vasilly Yakanenko in 2007.

Drokova joined Nashi in 2007 when she was 15 and gained fame as the teenage girl who asked and was allowed to kiss Russian leader Vladimir Putin on the cheek, the strong, upright, and decisive man who, she said, at the time, was the man of her dreams. With fame came fortune. Drokova rose to become a commissar and spokesperson for Nashi. Soon she was enrolled in one of Moscow’s top universities, had her own apartment, had her own brand new car, and had her own pro-Putin television talk show.

Putin’s Kiss’s tale of Kashin and Drokova is a fascinating one. Kashin, because of his opposition to the Putin regime, was brutally beaten and almost died on 6 November 2010, two days after National Unity Day, a holiday near and dear to Nashi hearts and Nsshi minds, a day on which Nashi holds pro-Russian anti-enemies of Russia marches on.

Drokova strikes up a friendship with liberal journalists, including Kashin, though she doesn’t necessarily agree with them in each and every way, and, in the course of the film, moves further and further away from the Yakanenko and Nashi orbit and breaks with it when she joins a picket in front of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs in Moscow demanding that the authorities investigate the beating of Kashin. That is her carrying a placard at that picket in the picture above.

From one point of view Putin’s Kiss, like Bonnie Sherr Klein’s National Film Board of Canada 1981 documentary Not a Love Story before it, is a tale of redemption, a story about how someone from the dark side, thanks to a road to Damascus experience, turns, serendipitously of course, from the dark side to the side of truth and justice during the course of the film. In Not a Love Story it is the former stripper Linda Lee Tracey who sees the light and is transformed from someone who sees pornography in a positive light to someone who takes a much more critical view of the world of porn. In Putin’s Kiss it is Drokova who sees the light and while she doesn’t think that Yakanenko, who is now the head of the Russian Ministry for Youth Affairs (while at the same time still essentially running Nashi), had anything to do with the attack on Kashin she begins to see the darker side of Nashi ultra-nationalism.

As I was watching Putin’s Kiss I couldn’t help but reflect of the dark ultra-nationalism of Nashi. One of the most powerful of many powerful scenes in the film is when Pedersen and Company take their camera to one of Nashi’s demonstrations on National Unity Day. Through the kino eye we see Nashi activists carrying signs with pictures of the "enemies of Russia" prominently displayed on them, Russian “enemies” who include politicians, human rights activists, and journalists. They bring these placards in a line up to a preordained place on the street where they then throw them down in disgust while a handful of Nashi activists stomp on and poke at the faces of the “enemies of Russia” on the posters with their sticks.

Such sentiments are, of course, the sentiments that ultra-nationalism creates and these actions are the actions ultra-nationalist sentiments sometimes give rise to whether it is the ultra-nationalism of Russia’s Nashi or the ultra-nationalism of some of the groups on the American right. No longer, in the mental world of ultra-nationalism, is it possible to agree to disagree with the "loyal opposition". In ultra-nationalist ethnocentric culture there is no loyal opposition, you are either with us, the ultra-nationalists, or against us. You are either good Russians or enemies of Russia or true Americans or socialist, commie, nazi, liberal traitors who are undermining the very essence of America and what it means to be American.

The binary demonology that ultra-nationalism creates is, not surprisingly, sometimes an open invitation to the more thuggish elements in ultra-nationalist groups to brutalise and terrorise the "enemy", as the actions of Hitler's the Brown Shirts, of the thugs of Nashi who defecate on the cars of the "enemies of Russia, and brutally beat or even kill the "enemies of Russia"--and remember hundreds of journalists and critics of the Putin regime have been killed since he took office in 2000--or of those right wing Americans who kill parishioners in a Unitarian-Universalist Church because that is, they say, where they think the evil "liberals" are, show. If such ultra-nationalism is fascist then groups like Nashi and some of the groups on the American right are very close to crossing over the line into fascism or have already crossed the line into the very fascism they claim to detest and struggle agains.

Let me close by saying that I am giving a thumbs up to Putin’s Kiss. It has proven to be as much of a favourite with me as it was with the Sundance Film Festival where it won the World Documentary Cinematography Award earlier this year. See it if you have any interest in Russia, in Russian ultra-nationalism, in ultra-nationalism in general, in ethnocentrism, and in historical documentaries.

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