Reviews: Putin’s Russia

Putin’s Russia: the Rise of a Dictator,
Darryl Cunningham,
Myriad Editions

Darryl Cunningham, for my money Britain’s finest non-fiction comics creator, returns, following up his previous, fascinating and insightful books such as Graphic Science and Billionaires, here turning his studied gaze upon the vile, despotic Vladimir Putin. Putin’s Russia: the Rise of a Dictator takes us from his birth in Leningrad (now back to its pre-Soviet name of Saint Petersburg) in 1952.

As with many from that generation, his parents were veterans of the Second World War (or Great Patriotic War as Russians often refer to it), and he would, like many across Russia and Europe, grow up in a city still bearing the very visible scars of that grinding, global conflict. A relatively small child, he was picked on, and learned not just to fight back, but to fight dirty, something he has clearly carried with him throughout his adult life; one is moved to wonder how very different the world may have been if his childhood had been filled with happier moments with better friends.

By his mid-teens, young Putin had already decided he wanted to be a part of the dreaded KGB, at the height of the Cold War. This is an era where the KGB spent at least as much time spying on and dealing with their own citizens as it did in spying on and taking covert actions against Western powers, with a vastly inflated number of informers prepared to rat out their own neighbours and colleagues; the fact a young lad was so keen to join such an agency at that time doesn’t speak very well of his intentions or characters.

Cunningham takes us through Putin’s early KGB career, much of which is still murky and hidden, and his supposedly post-KGB life (I say supposedly because there’s a strong likelihood he was still secretly on the active reserve list), and his early brushes with political power, as an advisor to the Leningrad city council, and even at this very early stage there is both indicators that the intelligence services may have been involved in influencing his appointment, and also of massive corruption (and subsequent cover-ups by any means).

While I was aware of his KGB past, I had no idea of these early political appointments for Putin, or the way he and his cronies misused their growing powers even back then – this was still in the era of Glasnost and Gorbachev, then the attempted coup in Russia,by die-hard Communists, the rise of Yeltsin, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the once formidable Soviet Union, all the related changes in what had been the effectively occupied Eastern Bloc.

Many of us of a certain age will remember these tumultuous, world-changing events, and reading here brought much of it rushing back to me, not least that fragile then slowly blooming hope so many of us had, that this was it, the Cold War was over, Russia was becoming a democracy, we were all going to be friends, the terrifying spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction by nuclear war was fading. You have to remember that back then we had lived for years with the monstrous thought that our entire shared civilisation could be annihilated with only the notice of the five minute warning, before the nukes started dropping. It was one of the most insane periods in human history, and here we were, thinking my gods, we’ve made it through and it’s going to get better.

Of course it didn’t work out that way, and that optimism was so sadly misfounded. And while we may not have quite returned to the hair-trigger, stand-off days of MAD, the world’s great powers have again been badly divided, and with quite clear intent of aggression and harm being directed against us. And the rise of Putin is a part and parcel of this. Cunningham explores this rise, the new Russia where a few become obscenely rich through massive corruption, dining out on the nation’s resources, all with Putin’s connections. The way this spreads across the globe as this dirty money enters the global financial system, not least the greedy financial centres of London and New York which were happy to take oligarch’s money, letting them buy property, connections, influence in Western countries, with Putin always behind this growing, sinister network.

That baleful influence has spread throughout the world, not just in terms of dodgy finance and dealings (no surprise to those of us who read Cunningham’s excellent and informative Supercrash book), but in openly hostile, physical acts beyond Russia’s borders. Not content with “accidents” befalling critics at home, Putin has overseen both large-scale military interventions, such as in the continuing horror of the civil war in Syria, with its massive butcher’s bill of civilian casualties, or the illegal annexing of the Crimea, to the intimate but just as nakedly aggressive assaults, such as the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the poisonings in Salisbury, or the despicable shooting down of the civilian airliner MH17, or attempts to influence the US presidential elections.

Behind it all, Putin. Who, naturally, spins out some obvious fabrications to blame someone else, not really caring if anyone believes him, because even if they don’t it spreads more confusion and mistrust in the West. It’s quite sobering, not to mention terrifying to see Cunningham so effectively laying out this rise from corrupt advisor in a city council to one of the most powerful men in the world, all, as always with his work, drawing on a huge amount of in-depth research that Cunningham somehow distils down into accessible, understandable narratives.

While much of the artwork here is familiar in style to some of his earlier work, there was also here, I feel, a more mature, finer-detailed aspect to some of the panels, especially those depicting some of the people. I felt as if he were trying to convey more not just of the emotion but also to do justice to the people he was depicting here. I felt this particularly strongly in the segment dealing with the downing of the MH17 airliner, where Cunningham doesn’t just cover the events, he takes some of the innocent victims and names them, draws their faces, tells us about some of them. They’re not numbers, not statistics, they are people, and clearly Cunningham wanted to make that clear: these are people, affected by the whims of a madman in another country, with living family and friends still mourning their loss and angry at the lack of justice for them.

Some panels on the Syrian conflict switch to a black and white, much heavier inked-line style, taking us through ruined cityscapes, in a style very different from the rest of the book, or indeed Cunningham’s more regularly-used styles I’ve seen before, and it is highly effective. It’s only a few panels, but their effect is powerful, it’s some superb cartooning work, conveying so much with just a few panels, and, like the MH17 pages, it packs a very strong emotional punch.

This is a story that really doesn’t yet have an ending – Putin is still in power, those who oppose him, even in the supposed security of another sovereign state, have a habit of dying mysteriously, he makes aggressive moves on the international stage, and is making plans to cling onto power for as long as he can (even rewriting the constitution) and to take steps to make himself legally unaccountable even if he leaves office. Where this complex, fascinating, disturbing history leads to, I do not know, but I will finish with some word from Cunningham, drawn from his conclusions:

Murder and corruption should be punished, never rewarded. Either we support democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law everywhere, or we will see these values wither away.”

This review was originally penned for Down The Tubes.

Reviews: The Final Stand

The Final Stand,
Directed by Vadim Shmelyov,
Starring Artyom Gubin, Lubov Konstantinova, Igor Yudin, Aleksey Bardukov, Yekaterina Rednikova

Russia, 1941: the full weight of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, is upon the Russian people. The Nazis, having already taken Western Europe with their Blitzkrieg tactics, have turned this ferocious might on the vast lands to the east, storming through huge areas so swiftly that defences are overwhelmed before they can make a proper account of themselves. The enemy is trampling almost at will over the Motherland, seemingly unstoppable, with Moscow itself now in imminent danger of being overrun. The Red Army is bringing in more troops and equipment from far afield, but desperately needs time to marshal them for a defence. The cadets of the Podolsk infantry and artillery schools are going to buy that time.

The Final Stand begins with some beautifully shot battle scenes – if that’s not oxymoronic. Crisp, high-definition shots in slow-motion capture pouring rain (you can almost see the droplets hitting the helmets of the troops), the expressions on the soldier’s faces as they yell in alarm, the mud splashing around them, explosions. And as the film goes back to normal speed we realise this is the cadets in training, not in combat. It’s a good opening, on the one hand Shmelyov is setting out his stall – this is not a film which will hold back in depicting the realities of combat, and it will use refined film techniques to capture them in fantastic clarity – on the other hand it brings in a moment of light-heartedness to contrast against the brutality (the film mixes in some welcome little bursts of humour here and there, it isn’t all action and suffering).

The cadets are all young, so very, very young, just as their real-life counterparts would have been. They are aware of the war coming their way, most have not seen battle but feel they must do their duty to protect the Motherland. They’re willing to serve and risk their lives, but it’s also obvious that these young, untried cadets have that invincibility of youth feeling – while they know many are dying, they don’t quite get that, they are young, unstoppable, eager to prove themselves, it is almost an adventure, they are courting some of the equally young military nurses (their officers, older, more seasoned, know what is coming and are trying to prepare their young charges). Despite the advancing Nazi invasion their mood is high, but they are about to be put to the test, and a great many of these eager young cadets will not return to tell the tale.

While the film has its flaws – Shmelyov is a bit too fond of the high-definition slow-motion, or the fast action that suddenly goes to slow-motion then back to fast (which can be an effective technique, but needs to be used sparingly, I think), the characters and main plot are fairly generic (the big, tough lug with a heart of gold, the shy one, the schoolboy one etc) – it has some damned impressive moments, and some interesting details, such as the threat of Russian-speaking Nazi infiltrators in Soviet uniforms going ahead of the main forces, or the small forces of special troops who operate behind the enemy lines to get information back to the main forces.

And the main battle sequences are impressive set-pieces – screaming artillerymen trying to drag and move their cannon and line it up quicker than the turret on a German panzer can turn and target on them is tense and terrifying. The fearsome Stuka dive-bombers screaming out of the sky – the Russian airforce at this point having been largely knocked out of the game by the Luftwaffe – bombing and strafing almost with impunity, and its horrendous. As with the scenes as German aircraft attacked the almost helpless soldiers on the beach in Nolan’s Dunkirk, you can feel the visceral horror and terror of it, and you’re aware that what you feel is only a shadow of what the real historical characters went through.

While it does have some generic elements and sometimes leans too much on certain visual techniques, like the aforementioned slow-motion, it is beautifully shot, clarity and production values matching any Western war or action film. Like many of a certain age I grew up on war movies, The Longest Day to Reach For the Sky, In Which We Serve, Battle of the River Plate and more, and I still have a soft spot for WWII films, which were once such a huge part of cinema but, like the Western, is a genre that has largely faded these days to a few entries, so I’m always intrigued to see a new one appear, and in this case it is also very interesting to see the Russian perspective.

In Russia the Second World War is often referred to as The Great Patriotic War; while the West took its share of the horrendous butcher’s bill of the war in both military and civilian casualties, the sheer scale of the Soviet losses is just unbelievable. Shmelyov knows he cannot depict all the millions lost in the maelstrom of the Eastern Front, but his group of young cadets, answering their country’s call in its darkest hour, allows those few to stand for the many. A solid, beautifully shot war movie.

The Final Stand is released by Signature Entertainment on DVD and Digital from March 8th.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

Kursk: the Last Mission

Kursk: The Last Mission,
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg,
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Léa Seydoux, Peter Simonischek, August Diehl, Colin Firth, Max Von Sydow, Bjarne Henriksen, Magnus Millang

The K-141 nuclear submarine Kursk was laid down in the early 1990s, but by the time she was fully commissioned the former Soviet Union had collapsed. She became part of the Russian navy’s Northern Fleet, a class known to worried NATO observers as the Oscar-II class, larger than her predecessors at some 154 metres, a truly massive beast, stealthy, hard to observe even with NATO’s sophisticated submarine detection equipment, and heavily armed (this class was designed to makes holes in entire enemy battle groups all by herself), with a hull and conning tower reinforced so she could even surface through the Arctic ice. But by the end of the last millennium, with Russia essentially broke, much of this once-huge and impressive fleet is lying at anchor, rusting in the sea air.

For all the power Kursk and her sister ships had, we see a sadly depleted, run-down force – as the film opens we follow a group of shipmates from her crew, lead by Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts), desperately trying to raise money for the champagne for one of their fellow’s wedding reception; none of them has been paid in ages, a common occurrence during this part of Russia’s history, wages not being paid by the state, little money even for fuel for regular sailing patrols. They each barter their prized submariner’s watches with the quartermaster to get supplies for the wedding, a warm act of brotherhood for one of their own, an act which leaves the new bride in tears.

And the next day she sails into the frigid northern oceans – for the first time in years the run-down, post-Soviet Russian navy is holding a major exercise, and Kursk is joining it, tasked with launching sneak mock attacks on several of the surface vessels. Despite the lack of pay and resources this crew was still reckoned to be one of the best in the submarine fleet, and their ship a tremendous achievement of engineering and power. As we see her leave her base, watched by their families, the gargantuan scale of this ship is quite clear, and you understand the pride her crew have in sailing on such a vessel. Sadly, of course, for those of us familiar with recent history we know this will be Kursk’s final voyage. On the 12th of August, 2000, an explosion was detected beneath the waves around the exercise fleet. The worst had happened.

You may ask what mileage there is in a disaster film based on real history, when we all know what the outcome is, and it is a legitimate question. I have to say it entered my mind early on, but Thomas Vinterberg crafts his film in such a way that you get to know the men and their families. We see their strong bonds at the start as they try to find supplies for their crewmate’s wedding, we see their families, we see a group of elite sailors who live and work in close quarters at sea and whose families live next to one another on shore, they are all one extended family, and it is clear they would do anything for one another. As we get to know the men on the ship and their families back home we become enmeshed in their lives – I found myself wanting, against the odds, against real history, for some of them to make it, even though I know that all of her crew perished down there, in the deep, cold northern waters, far from the light. But Vinterberg made me want that to happen, his Kursk really does pull you in emotionally to this desperate struggle for survival.

The explosion destroys the forward compartments of the ship – it is generally believed that a badly-made torpedo leaked the unstable hydrogen peroxide fuel (similar to that used in some rockets), causing an explosion, which in turn lead to a bigger explosion as it set off some of the other torpedoes. You can imagine the devastation this wreaks on the stricken ship. The crewmen we follow survive only because they were in the rear section. They are now stuck on the bottom of the sea in the last few sealed compartments, water leaking in, air thinning, waiting, hoping, praying for rescue. But the cutbacks in the Russian fleet have also affected their search and rescue teams – the British Royal Navy (in the shape of Colin Firth’s Commodore David Russell) and Norwegian navies monitor the situation and offer their own far better technical resources to rescue the men they think may be trapped aft, but a proud and suspicious Russia refuses the offers of help, until it is too late.

We’ll never know for sure now if those twenty three men surviving in the aft compartments could have been rescued if Russia had accepted that help more quickly. One officer there made a list of the surviving men, so we know they were there for some time after the explosion, hoping for a rescue that came far too late (Firth has his British officer down perfectly, the obvious despair and resignation mixed with that classic stoic and professional in public persona we expect of an RN officer). The rescue attempts by the Russians, the help offered by the British and Norwegians, the cutting back and forth from the slowly filling compartments of survivors to their frantic families on land, demanding information and being given little by the authorities, all builds to a tremendous if tragic emotional climax. This is all handled in a very realistic, down-to-earth manner, a million miles from the action of the likes of Hunt For Red October, in many ways it has the feeling of one of those classic WWII submarine films, when all the men can do is wait in their ship, deep below the surface and hope.

Yes, we know the outcome here – this event only happened nineteen years ago, we all saw it on the news, we all heard of the Royal Navy’s offer of help, the standard forgetting of enemies when in trouble at sea, because then all sailors are fellow sailors and the code is always to help, and the wait to find out that it was all too late. And yet Vinterberg’s film draws you into the desperate emotions of these men and their families so effectively you find yourself longing for a Hollywood happy ending that you know never happened and cannot be, but he ensures these men are not just some stereotypes, he gives them depth, families, makes us emote with them until we feel their struggle. And he gives them honour, heroism and professionalism as they face their end together.

Kursk: the Last Mission is released by Signature Entertainment in cinemas and on Digital HD from July 12th