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Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Sokurov's Open Letter to Putin.

Away from the highlight of Sochi where foreign correspondents appear to spend their time checking out their toilet facilities or harassing the local gay community, the situation in Russia as a whole can't be said to be a very rosy one. Clouds do seem to be gathering and what seems to be a landmark moment- the judgment on the Bolotnaya Case- seems to be coming soon. Moreover while the Winter Olympics took place there was the absurd spectacle of people being arrested for opening their umbrellas in the centre of Moscow. Another group of demonstrators who sang the Russian hymn in Red Square (with rainbow flags) were also arrested and reportedly beaten and humiliated at the police station. It is facts like these as well as a ratcheting up of the aggressive rhetoric by the, at times, hysterical mouthpieces of the regime on state television which lead Sokurov to write an open letter to President Putin.

The letter centres around the closure of the liberal television station Дождь (meaning Rain, hence people demonstratively opening their umbrellas in the centre of Moscow and being bundled into police vans for the temerity) but sets it in the context of a general situation of rapid degeneration into a search for internal enemies and an increasingly aggressive atmosphere. He talks about the despair that grips one when one watches TV channels stating that

"Establishment figures have called for people to be burned, discriminated against, expelled, killed. Diversity is officially deemed a crime. In the words and faces of our politicians there is a war-like madness".

He then goes on to talk about the younger generation excluded from a creative life and in the grips of either a sense of bewildered powerlessness and disorientation, or worse, of some holding the kind of Nazi ideology fighting against which a previous generation had lost their lives, or others who have thrown themselves into an active struggle against the powers that be. Sokurov suggests there is a need to grow wiser.

He then goes on to tell Putin that the wiser ones in the past were the dissidents who stood up to the deceit of power and for human rights while millions were silent.

It is at this point where Sokurov launches into his attack on those who have closed the Liberal television 'Rain'. Characterising those who have served in the state run media as little more than lackeys, Sokurov suggests that they should be 'given a tongue lashing'.

"Each day for decades now they assiduously translate vulgarity, deliver violence to the screens of millions as well as the crushing of those who think differently." These television bureaucrats, Sokurov calls them cynics with 'small eyes and large ears'.

He then goes on to describe the television channel 'Rain' stating that they have the right to make mistakes- that it is a channel searching its own language and strongly in touch with the society of the new Russia. He talks of a meeting with the Culture channel where he couldn't be assured that his own words wouldn't be subject to censorship. Sokurov then went on to ask what it was coming to when an apolitical person like himself is subject to censorship.

In a way this is a traditional ploy of complaining to the 'tsar' about the bad decisions made by his subordinates. Maybe Sokurov genuinely believes that he has the ear of Putin (he did receive funding for his film Faust after a meeting with Putin). This is Sokurov's own account of his meeting and his relation to Putin in an interview with a Guardian journalist:

He was preparing Faust, his most expensive film, just when the economic downturn struck, and couldn't find funding. But a surprise saviour stepped in: Vladimir Putin. Sokurov met Putin at the Russian PM's country residence. "I told him, if I don't have this opportunity to make this film, it will never happen. A few days later, I was told that the amount I needed was going to be allocated. How and why it happened I don't know. Maybe because he has a very clear idea of German culture and history. I don't think it was because of me. I've never demonstrated my loyalty to his party."
Wouldn't Putin himself make a good subject? "I'll never make films about people like Putin because they're not of interest to me." Does his association with Putin compromise him? "When I met him recently, he asked if I was going to dub Faust into Russian. Reading between the lines, you could see these words as a sort of order. But I wasn't afraid to say no to him. The money allocated by him was the state's, not his own. I don't know whether he has any money. According to his official salary, he shouldn't have any money. I can only be responsible to my audience, that's all."   

It will be interesting to see if this letter does have some effect. Will it change the vector of discourse in an increasingly repressive Russia. Sokurov, after all, is a figure of some cultural stature in Russia.Yet it is hard to see any sea change. There are few signs that the Bolotnaya prisoners are about to be released and that, in many ways, is the litmus test. Repression will only necessitate the Mamontovs and Kiselevs to continue their hysterical transmissions. Mobilization in society against repression is at a very low ebb. Will Sokurov's words gain nothing more than a murmur of approval or will be they be a spur to a more active resistance to the trends that Sokurov pinpoints is a matter for some debate.

In many ways perhaps it will be in the reaction (or lack of reaction) to this open letter that one will be able to view how much the intellighentsia still counts as a check on the state's overbearing role.

Here is the link to the original article written in Russian :
Interestingly in a blog for the radio station Ekho Moskvy where he calls the surpression of the Rain Tv channel 'outrageous', Sokurov stated that he was hoping to print the article in a state-run newspaper (probably the Rossiskaya Gazeta). Instead it was published by Snob.

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