”Из всех искусств для нас важнейшим является кино” -В. И. Ленин
“Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important” -V.I. Lenin
I recently watched the famous Russian documentary film Путь на Родину – Crimea. A Way Back Home (2015), which presents the developments and events leading to the referendum to unite Crimea into Russia in 2014. The film was made by and published simultaneously in the Russian state-owned television channel Rossiya 1 and Youtube on March 15th 2015 for the one-year anniversary of the unification. It featured an interview with president Vladimir Putin telling his view of the story and set the frames for the story, re-enactments starring the people who experienced these events first hand, numerous interviews, and archive material. The premiere TV broadcast reached viewers as many as 40,6% of Russian population over 18 years old. As one of the biggest Russian television events in recent history, this film well demonstrates the media techniques we are interested in our VMK project. In this blog post I analyze the documentary film for its crowd appealing features – mostly the argumentation. To expand my perspective, I asked documentary filming student Niko Väistö to join me for watching the film for supplementary comments.
When it comes to the popularity of political actions and events, the Krym nash (Crimea is Ours) is a phenomenon without parallel in contemporary Russia. It is fair to assume that the makers of this film tried to use those stimulants they understood to be the most important for their public in this phenomenon. The author and interviewer of the movie, Andrei Kondrashov is one of the 300 journalists, rewarded by Putin for “objective coverage of events in Crimea”. He has stated that journalists perform war efforts, and that globally, “any propaganda in the media is journalism”, which is a recognizable philosophy behind the mixture of journalism and propaganda in this film.
The film starts with showing violent pandemonium of Ukraine in the Maidan uprising in the end of February 2014, and Putin telling how he nobly saved his colleague Viktor Yanukovich from assassination to safe haven in Russia. Also many other people try escape from the new post-Maidan order in Ukraine, which is portrayed as a war field, where the lives of Russian-speakers and anti-Maidan supporters are threatened. Comparing the portrayal of the Maidan events in this film to a document film made by Maidanists, “Winter on Fire”, the roles of the peoples in the daylight and those in shadows are obviously turned upside down.
“I don’t know how to call them, they are not people, but monsters”
-Auto mechanic, Simferopol resident, anti-Maidanist whose convoy was attacked against when trying to leave Maidan and return to Crimea.
Despite of the more journalistic framing of this film, comparing to the “Winter on Fire”, the protagonists and antagonists are again very clear from the beginning. In the re-enactments, the drunken Maidanist groups with torches in the dark remind of witch-hunt mobs, which are previously highlighted in Russian popular historiography as a particularly non-Russian, Western European phenomenon (which it arguably is). On the other side, the depiction of the way how the Berkut forces and the ‘Polite (green) men’ were welcomed to Crimea brings in mind the frames of returning of the victorious Red Army soldiers after the Great Patriotic War. While the violent mob is a clearly negative concept, it was later shown exceptionally in a positive light when the Night Wolves captured a special force commander with aversion of a violent mob, since the mob was given faces, voices and a noble cause.
Like in the “Winter on Fire”, the row antagonists are not given faces or voices, instead they represent some unexplainable evil without understandable backgrounds or goals. The Maidan ideology, ‘Bandersism’, Right Sector etc., are portrayed without further need of presentation, as the audience is expected to know them by their reputation and make a proper automatic judgement. While the Crimean peoples are presented to be strongly unified in their goals, the antagonists are portrayed as a credible force to fight against; hence the heroism of protagonists gets more value. The muscle behind the antagonists is told to be the US, Nato, and Kiev and their resorting into underground terrorist tactics, that made fortification and special conditions necessary measures from Russia. Nato appears so dangerous that the only Ukrainian ship, which Russians took by force, was the one in Feodosia, supposed to be defecting to the rapid-deployment units of the alliance. By the argumentation logic, the defect to Nato would have automatically led to an attack against local civilians. These forces were from western Ukraine, spoke in English and carried Nato certificates and in retrospective they were connected to the war operations in eastern Ukraine.
The evil is a foreign export
It is highlighted how bad influences came to Ukraine from the outside, and the Right Sector infiltrators from Kiev and Lvov in Crimea. On the other side of the spectrum it is repeated accordingly, how the protagonists working against the Maidan movement and for the Crimean annexation, acted purely on their own free will and initiative, with which Kremlin had little to do in beforehand. In comparison, Americans are declared as “the real puppet masters”, whose manipulation is seen to be particularly wrong in the Post-Soviet countries, because they are still “underdeveloped, fragile and vulnerable”. Perhaps because of this juxtaposition, the influence of the traditional Russian language – and often imported from Russia – mass communications media informing the people was not credited as an important factor in the events.
The Crimean Tatars were portrayed as protagonists, and only few of them were shortly manipulated to stir up chaos. Their suspicious leaders are described as professional human rights activists, that – I would argue – has gained some negative connotation in Russia at least since the ‘foreign agents’ accusations in Russia targeted notably often human rights organizations. Putin states that the ethnic multitude of Crimea in general would enable faith even worse than in Donbass, if Maidanists would take over the peninsula. While it is said that almost all the peoples of Crimea were united for the good cause, the main row protagonists are presented to be workers of traditional industries or agriculture. The local people are described as happy, active and co-operative with militias and soldiers. They are portrayed patriarchal family(mostly)-men, who are trusted by their families and communities, while they themselves rely on authority figures, mainly the Russian army, as compared to the foggy ideas and puppet government on the other side.
Niko notices the repetition, the use of slow motions and epic music on the background directing sympathies in the stories like in a classic Hollywood movie. There appears no controversy of right and wrong, except for the controversy claimed by outsiders – the West. The movie is made so clearly that even the simplest of the audience would understand the message correctly. Because there is barely any dialogue with the other side of the story, it seems that the target audience is the people rooting for ‘their side’. Scholar Anna Novikova has stated that it is rather usual that no acceptable motive of the ‘others’ is given in the Russian media. To appeal in more ‘enlightened’ way, lots of military, technical and political details are added to the film. The main element however, remains the emotional and collectively unifying personal stories.
While the heroic stories are in the film’s focus, the victims are given little voice in the film, and the first of them, Viktor Yanukovich, does not appear personally at all after escaping to Russia. The film rather tells more heroically appealing stories with noble personal self-sacrifices for a greater cause: The Berkut men killed in Maidan, the families of the martyr soldiers and the Night Wolf Alexander Medvedev, who defended Russian Crimea with a recently injured leg, which later resulted into amputation. The film ends in summarizing the main lesson and references to the war in Donbass pointing the kind of a certain faith Russia saved Crimean population from. All in all, the Russian patriotism and values celebrated in this movie, appear for me as normative models of proper peoples, working for a greater cause and not trusting any foreign ‘false prophets’.
Democracy, safety and historical justification
In justification of the measures taken, Putin emphasizes democratic principles perhaps even more than security: He repeatedly states that it was most important that the Crimeans themselves supported the annexation and nothing would be done without it, while the Western leaders on their side had opposed to the referendum in any way they could, but Russia was too strong for them to object. The armed Ukrainian army in Crimea was a threat to the expression of free will of Crimeans, unless the soldiers defected to the Russian side. This is also why it was necessary to send many Russian troops to Crimea. Secondly, Putin emphasized the security perspective on how the lives of locals would be seriously endangered without these measures. He concludes that the Maidanists and the USA gave him no alternative, but to take over Crimea. I note that this ‘they gave/would give us no chance but to react, and hence they should take the responsibility’, is an often repeating reasoning in Russian foreign policy. Thirdly, Putin uses the historical argument to state that Crimea never was anything else but a part of Russia. Putin adds that from his own heart, he feels that Crimea was robbed away from Russia.
Enlightening and (un)believable dramatization
Niko noted how, when it comes to directing, the film is surprisingly close to its western peers. The interviews are shot between face close-ups and turning into rotating cameras from distances. The documentary format and techniques used are popular in western countries as well. He compares the film to Finnish TV program “A-studio”, which also aims to produce enlightening journalism utilizing achieved material and interviews. However, in documentaries such as this, authors can have the intention to make a film, with clear movie elements e.g. scheme apexes and resolutions.
Few dramatizations like the Green/polite men appearing to save local activists from execution, first-person shooter point of view in special operations on Ukrainian boat and the alone self-scarifying Night Wolf being attacked by a group of masked man in the dark, for me seemed too much over the top for the documentary format, resembling more of a 90’s Hollywood film instead. There is even the Lion King scene with father and son watching over the field in the rise. Despite the clichés getting too over the top in my expectations of document, Niko noted that this is not too contradictory for a documentary film, because the peoples might as well have experienced the events accordingly. With movies it is noteworthy to consider the story culture of the target audience. It can be considered more or less acceptable to color the stories, without losing the credibility of a presenter. As pointed out above, the author of this film Kondrashov himself admitted the subjective positioning of journalism and talks about “the romanticism of the Crimean spring”. Moreover, Sarah Oates for example, has argued that this honest subjective promotion of one’s own group against the other is widely supported in Russian media culture.