“Active Measures” Accidentally Makes Trump-Russia Collusion Sound Like Mad Propaganda

More a mega-thread than a movie, Jack Bryan’s tying-it-all-together Donald Trump–Russia doc connects its dots for 110 delirious minutes. Active Measures links Vladimir Putin’s rise to New York real estate to oligarchs buying Trump-branded condos to the poisoning of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko to the sale of 19 percent of the Russian oil company Rosneft to 77,000 more Pennsylvanians, Wisconsinites, and Michiganders pulling the lever for Trump than they did for Hillary Clinton. Few shots in Bryan’s film last longer than a second or two, always cutting from news photos to cable clips to footage of Putin smirking like he’s a little stinker to yet another screaming news headline, often with the words Trump and Russia helpfully highlighted. Tensely pulsing electronic music underscores great swathes of it, sometimes seemingly looped, sounding like the loading screen of some apocalyptic video game.

Active Measures is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the mind. By coming on so strong, so fevered, Bryan achieves the dubious feat of making his host of documented facts, reasonable inferences, and alarming subjects for further research all seem seem less persuasive than if they had been presented more soberly. Let me put it this way: I suspect that much of what’s asserted here by Bryan and his top-shelf roster of reporters, diplomats, and politicians is accurate. But as the film chugs along — dashing through the Russians’ manipulations and then invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, showing us a former Miss Hungary asserting that Trump once invited her to his hotel room — I found my certitude actually taxed. Yes, Trump is likely, in some way, in thrall to or under the thumb of Putin, but Bryan’s case is less journalistic than propagandistic, his film assembled like an endless negative campaign ad, just a series of dark assertions made and moved on from. With such conspiracies afoot, who has time to nail a fact down?

What’s especially frustrating is that Bryan has put together a team of experts who could walk us through the specifics, building a powerful case. Those inclined not to believe in a serious Trump-Putin connection might call the film’s cast the Deep State All-Stars. Thirty seconds in, Clinton herself gamely summarizes events of Putin’s childhood. And soon we’re hearing from John McCain, John Podesta, former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, former CIA head James Woolsey, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and the like, along with reporters like Michael Isikoff and Nina Burleigh. On occasion, they get to speak more than a half sentence at a time, as when former CIA chief of staff Jeremy Bash explains the three key tactics of what the intelligence community calls Russia’s “active measures,” its underhanded efforts to exert influence around the world as its military and economic power wanes. These include, Bash tells us, propaganda, cyberattacks, “and to recruit, enlist, and in some cases even run agents of influence.” Good to know!

Too bad, then, that the film’s nadir comes almost immediately after, during a quick recapitulation of 2010 news stories alleging that thousands of Russians in America are engaged in some sort of spying for the Kremlin. “America Is Infested!” a headline bellows. And Bryan, who presumably must type all his emails with the caps lock on, cuts to a close-up of those words and then highlights them before our eyes. An ominous whooshing sound even plays. America is infested.

The source of that claim: the New York Post. This year offers vile surprises every day, but it’s still a jolt to see a lefty issue doc starring Hillary Clinton borrow an alarmist headline tainted with the language of McCarthy talking commies or Trump himself targeting immigrants — a headline from a Rupert Murdoch paper, no less. Bash explains a moment later that some of these foreign agents might not even realize they’re foreign agents, but the film’s paranoid momentum doesn’t let nuance sink in. His words are little match for the music, the imagery, the sharklike surging toward the next troubling connection. Sometimes Bryan simply invents a connection, as if there weren’t enough already. One low point juxtaposes Trump’s crack about preferring war heroes who didn’t get captured with a clip of Putin saying in an interview that anyone who suffered what McCain did in Vietnam would likely have “gone nuts.” Two dudes both being assholes isn’t evidence of an international conspiracy. Why show us that nonsense rather than buckle down and truly nail down the flow of cash to the world’s many Trump Towers, or the efforts of Putin to overturn the Magnitsky Act, or the evidence linking the murders of critical journalists to Putin, or the players involved in the softening of the 2016 GOP platform on the subject of Russia’s seizure of Ukraine?

Bryan’s film inspires a state of conspiracy-minded agitation, to its own detriment. One talking head brings up the conspiracy theories surrounding the unsolved murder of Seth Rich, the employee of the Democratic National Committee whom the loathsome Sean Hannity has suggested was the real source of the hacked DNC emails that were released through WikiLeaks. The film invites us to scoff at the idea that this murder was no random occurrence, but for the previous eighty minutes it’s been insisting that no occurrence is random. It invites precisely the mind-set in which bullshit beliefs take root.

The problem becomes clearest when Bryan turns to the rash of vicious made-up troll stories that proliferated on social media during the 2016 campaign. These headlines are so outlandish that no thinking person should be quick to believe them. But so are the quite-likely true connections that Bryan makes throughout the film. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. By presenting his case without it, Bryan makes that case look like it’s just more fake news.

Active Measures
Directed by Jack Bryan
Super LTD
Opens August 31, IFC Center
Available on demand


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Paul Manafort Is Going to Jail. But in Ukraine, He Has Left Ghosts in His Wake.

On the morning of February 24, 2014, hundreds of Ukrainians streamed through the doors of the famed presidential palace of Mezhyhirya. The billion-dollar residence, finished in wood, as if to mimic a rustic cottage, was propped up by incongruous white columns; the crowd that flowed between them was witnessing, for the first time, the uses state coffers had been put to under the corrupt guidance of their ousted president. Viktor Yanukovych had fled overnight, vanishing into the depths of Russia, and his guards had deserted their posts. They had watched over the estate, its garages filled with luxury cars, a scale-model Spanish galleon bobbing in the manmade pond, on which Yanukovych had hosted guests for luxurious dinners, with sturgeon caviar served in golden dishes and libations from cellars stocked with priceless brandies; Now the place was left open for a crowd of ordinary citizens, whose average wage was less than $200 a month.

The crowd was awed, but relatively tame. There was no looting, just selfies in the five guesthouses, with the peacocks and pet ostriches and Burmese fowl, on the vast grounds a Washington Post reporter said reminded him “of Marie Antoinette’s idealized peasant village at Versailles.”

Days earlier, on February 20, 48 protesters had died in fierce clashes with Yanukovych’s paramilitary forces, the culmination of a months-long series of rolling street battles centered in Kyiv’s iconic Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square — site of the Ukrainian parliament. In 2014, facing pressure from his benefactor, Vladimir Putin, to crack down on civil unrest, Yanukovych had directed riot police to use live ammunition and snipers to fire into the crowd of thousands that had gathered to demand his resignation. The square, with its soaring pillar topped with a golden angel, was scarred with ash and littered with corpses.

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It was the climax of Yanukovych’s reign — and its end; he fled three days later, leaving his residence and all its trappings behind, as the protests continued to swell. In many ways, that bloody winter owed its tragic toll to the work of another man, one for whom Yanukovych had been one of many protégés: Paul Manafort.

Manafort began advising Yanukovych in 2004, the year Yanukovych became Ukraine’s prime minister. Manafort’s career had begun decades earlier as a shrewd and unscrupulous young Republican in the 1970s, and his star rose with the establishment of the firm Black, Manafort and Stone, a lobbying outfit Time magazine once dubbed “a supermarket of influence-peddling.” Notorious operative Lee Atwater, a Nixon-style dirty trickster for the ages, joined Manafort and Roger Stone in the business; together, they cleared millions nudging the levers of government on behalf of massive corporations. By the 1990s, Manafort’s appetite for luxury and excitement had outgrown domestic politics, and he turned his gaze abroad. He worked to soften the image of brutal Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos; Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, whose armies committed atrocities and conscripted women into sexual slavery; and Zaire’s infamous Mobutu Sese Seko, among others. The back-channel operations were wildly lucrative; moral lines meant as little as borders to the jet-setting power broker.

Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine in 2010, under Manafort’s oily guidance; a country that had been the first to break from the Soviet Union, ushering in its collapse, found itself drifting closer and closer to Moscow. The reforms brought about by a popular revolt against Yanukovych in 2004 dissipated under his renewed rule. Activists bridled against the appalling graft of the Yanukovych regime. In a country where women sell dill-flowers by the metro for kopeks, in which more than a quarter of the population was living in poverty, the capital was studded with exemplars of Yanukovych’s open corruption. From the long promenade at Mariinsky Park, Kyiv’s loveliest municipal garden, a breathtaking view of the banks of the Dnieper River was marred by the blocky gray bulk of a presidential helipad.

After Yanukovych’s ouster, evidence of Manafort’s activities — and the rich payments he received for them — were pieced together from drowned or half-burned documents in Mezhyhirya and the abandoned offices of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Manafort’s name cropped up again and again as the recipient of illicit payments. Manafort’s associate Rick Gates had boasted to friends, “in every ministry, he has a guy” in Ukraine, in what amounted to a “shadow government.” But the ledgers showed that even shadows sometimes leave receipts.

In 2016, investigative journalist and now-parliamentarian Serhiy Leshchenko received one such document anonymously: the infamous “black ledger,” which detailed, in chicken-scratch Cyrillic, some $12.7 million in payments to Manafort from 2007 to 2012. By the time Leshchenko made the document public, Manafort had stepped in to smooth the ascendance of another troubled and amoral politico: Donald Trump.

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Manafort is en route to a long prison term now, after a jury found him guilty on eight counts of tax and bank fraud. For decades, Manafort gave guidance to murderers around the world. It was only in America, the country that had shaped his tactics, that he found a partial comeuppance. But in Ukraine — and Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Philippines — there are bodies in the ground that will never rise again.

The 2014 revolution, known colloquially as “Maidan” or “Euromaidan,” after Independence Square, was led by students and activists; it swelled to become a grassroots movement that encompassed hundreds of thousands of protestors. These days, a war with Russia still rages in the east of the country, as Putin seeks to reclaim by force the influence over Ukraine he once achieved with grease. Some ten-thousand Ukrainians, soldiers, and civilians alike, have died, while 4.4 million have been impacted by displacement, famine, and continual shelling. In Kyiv, the ash has been washed from the cobblestones of Independence Square, and the angel spreads her wings on the top of a pillar that is once again white, presiding over the city’s living and the revolution’s dead.

The ill-gotten mementos of Paul Manafort’s life have been used as exhibits in trial: his stiff legions of suits; his numerous residences; an infamous $15,000 ostritch-leather jacket. Just outside Kyiv, where once-awed protestors touched with hesitant palms the gaudy fripperies of a life sustained on loot, Mezhyhirya remains, unscathed. It’s available for commercial tours, for the curious, but its colloquial name now illustrates precisely what it is: the Museum of Corruption. Perhaps one day, if the era Manafort and his ilk ushered in ever ends, Mar-a-Lago will serve a similar purpose.


Right Wing’s New Breed Are Loving Trump’s Putin-esca

Our Mainstream Media friends love consensus and comity the way little kids love Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and have been busy telling their readers that conservatives — who are, in their imagining, loyal opposition types like on The West Wing who you can count on to do the right thing when the chips are down — are, since Donald Trump’s disturbingly palsy-walsy turn with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, finally turning sour on the apparent Russian asset.

This may be true for certain old-fashioned wing nuts, but it appears right-wing up-and-comers, and some older ones keen to get with the new order, are actually loving this new Russia thing — or at least hating the people who are against it enough to go along.

Trump’s foreign policy ramblings last week — from his suggestion that our European defense arrangements with NATO just aren’t worth the effort, to his Monday meeting in Helsinki with Russian president Vladimir Putin and insistence afterward (later retracted) that, despite what his intelligence services said, Russia didn’t interfere with the 2016 U.S. election, to his seemingly impulsive invitation of Putin to Washington — made a lot of people nervous.

Big media outlets, perhaps trying to soothe these people, hastened to point out that some of Trump’s critics were conservatives.

“A conservative magazine criticized Trump for meeting with Putin,” headlined Vox. But they were talking about the Weekly Standard, already “a frequent critic of President Donald Trump,” Vox admitted.

“Even Conservative Media, Trump’s Usual Defenders, Struggle To Explain Helsinki,” announced NPR, offering in evidence a few right-wing demurrers, from mild (“I guess I don’t understand why he’s so deferential to a horrible person” — Fox News’ The Five) to spicy (“Disgusting” — Neil Cavuto).

“GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki,” reported the Hill, repeating measured criticisms of Trump’s Putinismo by such moral firebrands as Mitch McConnell.

The Guardian gave conservative writer Charles Sykes — from, surprise, the Weekly Standard! — room to criticize Trump. Sykes was more peppery than Trump’s congressional conservative critics (“He looked like Putin’s caddy”) and even went so far as to declare that Trump’s “vision is not conservatism,” which is rather like a parish priest accusing the Pope of heresy.

The Federalist let National Review author Jonathan S. Tobin grace its pages with “Here’s Why The Right Shouldn’t Excuse Trump’s Performance At Helsinki.” Tobin never quite followed through on his title, though, and if anything gave the impression that Trump’s actions, i.e., “abasing himself in front of Putin,” were less inexcusable than unseemly. Tobin also larded the essay with criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy, perhaps as a condition of publication, and ended by admitting, “If Trump continues to govern as a conservative he will not lose the support of his party,” and calling for Congress to “do something to restore American credibility.” What “something,” he didn’t say. Maybe another tax cut?

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But these criticisms, such as they were, came from an older, more publicly restrained species of conservative: those who support the same principles as any other kind (i.e., tax breaks for the rich and white supremacy), but who are obliged by tradition and social anxiety to pretend an interest in other, higher values as well — such as love of country and liberty and justice for all, if that’s not too embarrassing — if only to preserve their self-respect and protect themselves from public abuse.

The newer breed of conservative — rightbloggers, tweeters, internet Nazis, et alia — have no such anxieties, and are more inclined to approve of whatever Trump approves against all comers: liberals, national allies, other conservatives, whoever. Putin and Russia they saw as friends of Donald, like Roy Moore or Dinesh D’Souza, and that was good enough for them.

At the Federalist, in an article listed at this writing as their “Most Popular,” Willis L. Krumholz insisted Trump had “undermined” not America but rather “Our Power-Abusing Intelligence Agencies.” Krumholz first defended Trump by denouncing his attackers — for example, referring to a group of legal experts asked by Newsweek to assess Trump’s nearness to treason (and who had given mostly noncommittal, lawyerly answers) as “a group of liberal law professors, who naturally have an affinity toward bending the law to achieve their desired outcomes.” No, I don’t know what that means either, and Krumholz didn’t explain it, but he went on to tell readers the lib lawyers had “accused Trump of committing treason” and “treason is a crime punishable by execution.” In other words, they were calling for Trump’s death. So much for the tolerant Left!

As for Trump, Krumholz portrayed him as above suspicion, while saying that “of course it is appropriate to doubt the U.S. intelligence agencies” that were investigating him. These agencies were, Krumholz wrote, directly responsible for “arming bad guys around the world” — like those U.S. intelligence agents who traded arms to Iran in order to fund the Contras without the knowledge of poor, senile Ronald Reagan, and the CIA operatives who fucked up the Bay of Pigs, forcing an innocent John F. Kennedy to take the rap. (Just kidding: Krumholz’s references in this regard, and probably the long-term memories of most of his readers, only go back as far as Syria 2017.)

Some operatives lunged for former CIA director John Brennan, who unlike the Newsweek lawyers did accuse Trump of treason, for which Republicans in Congress, apparently not as skeptical of Trump as advertised, want to investigate him. “We see [Brennan’s] animus nakedly on display,” seethed Power Line’s Scott Johnson. “He is demented by hatred.”

“John Brennan is the epitome of the swamp…the one who knew that Hillary Clinton paid for a fake dossier,” yelled TV’s Judge Jeanine Pirro on Fox & Friends, presumably referring to the Steele Dossier, which appears to be coming true before our eyes. Pirro further vocalized, “What was [Trump] supposed to do, take a gun out and shoot Putin?” I wonder which congressional investigator will carry her question to Brennan.

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The cleverer Trump fans applied some imaginative spin to the problem. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat pooh-poohed the idea that Trump is a Russian asset on the grounds that he’s too dumb: “You would expect a real Russian asset to pretend he isn’t one publicly while quietly pursuing pro-Russian policies behind the scenes,” tweeted Douthat. “Trump has basically done the reverse.”

While Trump’s Russophilic effusions are obvious, Douthat did not delineate what Trump’s anti-Russian policies might be. NPR’s Scott Horsley did it for him: For example, Trump “gave U.S. forces in Syria more leeway to engage with Russian troops” — the helpfulness of which is limited now, however, as Trump has pulled U.S. support from the Syrian rebels. Horsley further noted Trump’s April sanctions on some Russian oligarchs, though it’s beginning to look as if Trump’s way of getting money to Russian oligarchs is more interesting — as well as more effective — than his way of keeping it from them.

The Federalist’s John Allen Gay backed Trump on his shocking dismissal of new NATO member Montenegro. It’s just a little dinky place, sniffed Gay, yet “we are tied to them for all future scenarios.” Makes you wonder why we have these stupid treaties in the first place! Also the Senate approved Montenegro’s entry in a “rubberstamp procedure” — they let anyone in these days — and “it will likely be a similar story when Macedonia joins next, even though Macedonia also can’t do much to defend America.” C’mon, let Putin have the place if he wants it so bad — and events suggest he does! At least it’s too late to let Ukraine drag us down with their membership.

On his podcast, Ben Shapiro did funny Trump and Putin voices, then shrugged off Helsinki as “anti-climactic” and claimed that even though Trump’s “rhetoric does kind of suck,” his policies were hard on Russia and that’s what counted — or, as Shapiro put it in his National Review column with the bait-and-switch headline “Trump’s Disgraceful Press Conference in Helsinki” (thus ensorcelling both pro- and anti-Trump punters to read it — that little feller ain’t dumb!), “only Trump seems blissfully unaware of the disconnect between the nonsense he spews and the policy his administration promulgates. In this case, we’re better off for that disconnect.” You have to admit, as far as defenses literally based on the imbecility of your president go, that one’s at least confusing enough that Shapiro can get away before the townspeople catch on and start boiling the tar and feathers.

Like all reform movements, the new conservatism has at least one elder statesman, though there may be more hiding in Argentina. “Trump Stays Defiant Amid a Foreign Policy Establishment Gone Mad,” declared ancient paleocon and lunatic Pat Buchanan at the American Conservative.

Buchanan may be old, but he showed himself adept at what modern young ultra-rightists consider the most important political skill of all: trolling. Shaking his head over calls for Trump’s impeachment, Buchanan tsked, “Not since Robert Welch of the John Birch Society called Dwight Eisenhower a ‘conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy’ have such charges been hurled at a president” — an obvious inside joke, as Buchanan and the JBS have a lot in common, not least that Buchanan actually chose a Bircher as his Reform Party presidential running mate in 2000.

“America’s elites have been driven over the edge by Trump’s successes and their failures to block him,” Buchanan scoffed — here one might imagine Buchanan, like Ben Shapiro, hoisting a “leftist tears” mug. He also claimed that people calling Trump “traitor” and “Nazi” used language that “approaches incitement to violence.” The tiki-torch boys couldn’t have projected blame for violence any better! Soon we’ll see Pitchfork Pat wearing a Pepe shirt and making the OK sign as the tear gas swirls.

And you know who else doesn’t care whether or not Trump sold out to Putin? Republican voters. According to an Axios poll, while most Americans disapproved of the co-presidents’ post-Helsinki press conference, 79 percent of Republicans thought it was good. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll, 66 percent of Republicans approved of Trump’s Helsinki performance.

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As I suggested before, this is probably more about Republicans’ general love of Trump — which is as high now as it’s been for any GOP president — than about their understanding of the issues, though Putin’s hardcore authoritarianism and, ah, other qualities would, if they knew about them, probably just make them approve even more strongly.

This may be why the conservative critics of Russia-Trump sound so wan and unconvincing; they know their own people aren’t listening to them. It may also be why defenders of Russia-Trump sound so confident, and so relaxed that they hardly even attempt to make any kind of rational argument for their position at all — it’s as unnecessary as a reasoned defense of a home team at a pep rally. The polls suggest that those who are not already fans of the home team are far less likely to be convinced, but we’ll have to wait and see if they will vote to register their disapproval — or, given the Putinistic tendencies of the American Right, whether they’re able to.


The Real Link Between the White House and the Kremlin

In the late 1980s, a scandal began to unfold in the Soviet Union that would ultimately engulf members of the highest levels of government and the military, a case of corruption that was astounding in its brazenness.

For decades, the leader of the Communist Party in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, Sharaf Rashidov, had overseen Uzbekistan’s cotton production. With the help of Yuri Churbanov — Leonid Brezhnev’s son-in-law and a four-star general — and a slate of local KGB officers, Uzbek officials had fed the Kremlin a steady stream of statistics detailing excellent harvests, quotas met and exceeded, new fields planted, and irrigation networks created. Some 3 billion rubles in crop subsidies flowed back to Uzbekistan to help keep this agricultural bonanza flourishing; the state’s resources poured into the cotton fields to such an extent that the crop earned the moniker “white gold” among Uzbek elites, according to Mark Galeotti’s magisterial history of Russian crime, The Vory. There was just one problem with the Uzbek bounty: The harvests were faked in their entirety, as hollow as the “dead souls” once collected by Gogol’s hero Chichikov. In 1982, the new general secretary, Yury Andropov — on the warpath against corruption since succeeding Brezhnev — resorted to desperate measures to break through the cozy patronage networks and cheerfully shameless conspiracy that defined the gambit: He directed spy satellites to photograph the fields where Uzbekistan’s cotton wealth supposedly flourished. The photos turned up endless swathes of scrub and steppe. The cotton had never existed.

At the heart of the Uzbek scandal was a vastly overpromoted son-in-law, one with unprecedented responsibility over national security. Churbanov, who had worked as a security guard before marrying Brezhnev’s daughter Galina, served as the well-placed Moscow connection for the cotton scheme; he was sentenced to twelve years in a prison camp in 1988. But the Uzbek cotton scandal, while dramatic, was merely the natural outgrowth of a culture of corruption that defined late-Soviet life. From ordinary citizens bribing doctors and shopkeepers for basic necessities to the ostentatious black-market ventures of party officials, the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union thinly veiled an economy that hinged on under-the-table transactions. The state was the prime mover of that society while, at the same time, serving as the personal bank of its highest-placed stewards.

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Here in the United States, bribery is a rarity in ordinary life; money is everything, but by and large it’s exchanged over the table. And yet over the past two years, we’ve watched an unprecedented culture of corruption take over the highest levels of the executive branch of our government. Unlike the Uzbek cotton conspiracy, American corruption is happening right out in the open. Our very own overpromoted son-in-law, Jared Kushner, takes in high-level national security information while raking in millions from outside ventures, including real estate deals with foreign countries. President Trump followed up on a disastrous NATO summit and a meeting with British prime minister Theresa May by spending a weekend at his own golf resort in Scotland, Trump Turnberry; the U.S. government reportedly paid nearly $70,000 directly to Trump’s private business for the privilege. As has become numbingly routine, Trump took advantage of his presidential audience to tout his own business: “This place is incredible! Tomorrow I go to Helsinki for a Monday meeting with Vladimir Putin,” he wrote on Twitter.  

In Helsinki, sure enough, Trump and Putin stood shoulder to shoulder at identical podiums. Despite the effort by the United States Department of Justice to uncover Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 election, and a punishing slate of sanctions leveled by the U.S. on Russia, there was a defiant intimacy between the two presidents; Trump’s open servility caused faces to blanch across the Atlantic. It was predictable, but still shocking: A U.S. president siding with a foreign adversary over his country’s intelligence community might suit Trump’s brawling temperament and personal pique, but it retained its power to appall, if only for a news cycle or two. It has become politically necessary over the past few days for Republican leaders to cluck their tongues in disapprobation, like a flock of startled pigeons, though, as ever, they have not acted.

Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, began to openly state a long-held suspicion among Trump’s political opponents: that he is beholden to Russia, and his actions smack of a Manchurian candidacy. “Millions of Americans are left wondering if Putin indeed has something over the president,” Chuck Schumer tweeted on Tuesday. Senator Tammy Duckworth openly stated that there was a possibility that Putin had “compromised” Trump and turned him into a “Russian asset.” This is not a new idea — the idea that an unsavory bargain, fueled by blackmail, exists between Trump and the Russian government has been floating around for years — but in the aftermath of Helsinki, a dam seems to have broken when it comes to the openness of such speculation.

What was most striking about the juxtaposition of Trump and Putin was not the suggestion of hidden conspiracy, but the open, undeniable parallels between the two men. The very issues that most enrage Trump’s opponents — his flagrant corruption, and his tendency to indulge in blatant lies — characterize Putin’s administration as well, and have been given ample time to flourish over the last two decades. It’s precisely Trump’s well-documented propensity toward graft and deception — honed over a boastful but tumultuous career in New York real estate and enmeshed with his ties to the mobbed-up construction industry in the Seventies and Eighties — that allow speculation about his ties to Russia to flourish. A president actively enriching himself via an opaque network of finances, and one who regularly indulges in overt and shameless deception, is one so untrustworthy as to be plausibly serving foreign interests over those of his own country.

Putin is all too familiar with the mechanisms of personal enrichment while in office. There have been persistent if unproven rumors over his nearly twenty years in power that his net worth has ballooned to enormity — critics have speculated that he may secretly be the richest man in the world, with a Bezos-eclipsing net worth of some $200 billion — despite his modest on-paper salary. What is certain, however, is that his close associates have profited enormously from their connections with him. The Panama Papers, a leak from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, revealed that the godfather of Putin’s daughter, cellist Sergei Roldugin, and a close childhood friend of Putin’s, Arkady Rotenberg, have each made millions from suspicious deals linked to a prominent Russian bank. During a brief marriage to Putin’s daughter, Kirill Shamalov acquired shares in Gazprom, Russia’s largest company, reportedly worth billions. 

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Putin, an ex-KGB agent, was formed in a Soviet system that ran on graft. Following the “wild Nineties,” in which criminal syndicates and unethical businessmen alike rushed to loot the wealth of the collapsed Soviet empire, petty black marketeers have prospered into oligarchs worth billions, and those oligarchs have been forced to submit to an increasingly centralized and brutal authoritarian regime. Systems of patronage, fealty, and rivers of illicit rubles flowing through Moscow have ossified into a state whose inequality is staggering and whose elite revel in ill-gotten gains — perhaps the most stratified the country has been since the abolition of serfdom. The massive scale of the corruption of Putin’s Russia makes the Uzbek cotton scandal seem quaint.

This system is propped up by a marvel of propaganda. Russian state television has been groomed into a state of such bullish defensiveness of Putin, and preening obsequiousness, that Rupert Murdoch himself would blush. Two decades of brutal repression of independent journalism, beginning less than a year into Putin’s presidency, have resulted in the unobstructed dissemination of state agitprop. The complete dominance of the Putin regime over most media is illustrated neatly by reactions to the Helsinki summit. Responding to Trump’s walk-back of his comments at the summit — intimating that a grammatical screwup had been responsible for his apparent coziness with Russia — an analyst on the Russia-24 channel explained that Putin’s charms had been responsible: “It may well have been dyslexia brought out by the charisma of our president.”

A state unaccountable to a free press is one that is unhindered in its ability to disseminate lies. Infamously, Putin insisted, against all available evidence and reams of documentation, that the Russian troops that began to invade Crimea in 2014 were actually native Ukrainian insurgent militias. Observers had noted that the invaders were carrying Russian military weapons; within months, after a sham referendum, Crimea had been annexed by Russia, an astonishing violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine. The blatancy of the deception, and its gleeful, winking nature, was such that Russians and Ukrainians alike began to joke that it was just as plausible that the invasion of Crimea had been carried out by aliens — and dubbed the troops “little green men.”

Over the eighteen months since Trump’s inauguration, the American populace has become accustomed to open graft and open lies. The president has a penchant for repeating baseless conspiracy theories, propagating maddening misunderstandings, and telling outright lies with alarming frequency. His administration is opaque to the point of deceptiveness with regard to even its most controversial policies — the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, refuses to release precise numbers about how many immigrant children have been reunited with their families after being separated at the border. Three cabinet officials have been ousted amid reports of lavish flights, vacations, and, in the case of Scott Pruitt, a raft of goodies, from Ritz-Carlton lotion to “tactical pants.” An array of officials and hangers-on who remain in the administration have also come under public scrutiny for alleged corrupt acts: from Ryan Zinke, currently under investigation for a shady deal with a Halliburton executive, to Wilbur Ross, senescent commerce secretary with an affinity for opaque financial dealings. The American taxpayer continues to subsidize Trump’s golf and real estate habits; foreign diplomats and lobbyists alike stay at the Trump International Hotel in D.C. and at Mar-a-Lago, depending on the season. All this has ossified into the status quo with alarming rapidity.

We can hope, if only faintly, to attain clarity at some point about Trump’s real relationship with Russia — a hope that a reinvigorated post-election Democratic Congress will engage in forceful investigation, and that the Mueller probe will continue its work. One hopes that whatever doesn’t pass the smell test will be found, rotting away, and scoured clean. But at the root of the Russia scandal are the parallels between Trump and Putin that animate all our president’s unsavory behavior: a willingness to loot and an eagerness to lie. Any solution must begin with enforced transparency with regard to the president’s finances, and continue with an unyielding commitment to deflect and debunk each lie. All this must happen before graft and deception calcify into a civic norm of open corruption; otherwise, any notion of public service in the United States will be our own version of that fictitious Uzbek cotton, a pale mirage over a barren steppe.


Summits Past: When the Evil Empire Out-Charmed the Great Communicator

In November 1985, Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev in Switzerland for a summit at which the two leaders hoped, among other things, to reduce the nuclear arsenals of both the United States and the Soviet Union. Voice correspondent A. Craig Copetas reported that Gorby “came to Geneva to field test the weaponry of public relations instead of the weaponry of war. He may not have met Reagan missile for missile, but he beat him badly press event for press event. The ultimate irony of the summit was that the Great Communicator was bested at his own game by a former Soviet agricultural minister.”

But even as the Communist leader was winning the PR stakes, the Soviet Union was tottering under its own paranoid ineptitude. Toward the end of an article that draws parallels between Reagan’s Star Wars defense initiative and the movie it was named after, Copetas points out that a nation that was already keeping its typewriters and copying machines under lock and key was also extremely wary of the burgeoning personal-computer revolution: “That’s the great irony of the Soviet Union, a country that yearns to give its people the tools necessary to compete with America yet remains frightened to allow them the personal freedom necessary for real growth.”

No one knows what KGB agent Vladimir Putin, assigned to a dreary post in East Germany, was up to at this time, but perhaps he was already fantasizing about using all that kompromat his agency had gathered on politicians, celebrities, and business moguls around the globe to blackmail his way to world domination. Whatever he was contemplating six years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, he clearly got over Russian qualms about utilizing computers.




Scenes From the Collapse: Putin’s Russia Gets Its Own Film Series

The gentle strains of Nina Simone singing “Wild Is the Wind” that open Aleksey Uchitel’s St. Petersburg–set The Stroll may have felt romantic, maybe even cautiously hopeful, back in 2003. At the time, Russia still seemed like it was in a period of possibility. The Wild West ethos of the Boris Yeltsin–dominated Nineties, a period of both democratic experimentation and existential uncertainty, of high-flying profligacy and economic ruin, had seemingly come to an end with the appointment of a dour but allegedly competent technocrat named Vladimir Putin as president on December 31, 1999, the eve of a new millennium. By 2003, Putin had already begun to consolidate his power through a variety of legal and extra-legal means, but the country was still coasting, it seemed, on the energies unleashed (in ways not always positive) by the end of Communism and the fall of the Soviet empire.

It was, by all accounts, an intensely chaotic time. But watching the opening of Uchitel’s film in 2018, one might miss the chaos. Today, the overwhelming melancholy of Simone’s song hits hard, like a funereal lament for what might have been. Through the prism of time, what hope there once was feels delusional, even pathetic.

Such unsettling reflections may hit you a few times over the course of the Museum of the Moving Image’s monthlong series “Putin’s Russia: A 21st Century Film Mosaic,” which begins today and runs through July 15. The films — more than thirty of them, encompassing shorts, features, narratives, and documentaries — cover a range of styles, from twisted sci-fi epics to gritty dramas of urgency and despair. But together, they tell the story of a society that entered a new century in a flush of anything-goes unruliness, only to see the bonds of community dissolve amid intolerance, despotism, and murder. I’ve rarely seen a film series that feels like its own tragic narrative: To watch these movies is to live through a world becoming disconnected from itself.

Maybe we can even sense the seeds of that collapse in The Stroll itself, which follows, in vérité fashion, a lovesick, eager young man and a buoyant, impulsive young woman who meet on the street and then proceed to fall in and out of love and everything in between as they walk through the bustling city. Along the way, a third man — stronger, sturdier, quieter — joins them, and a wild romantic triangle seems to develop, with the girl drifting between the comforting confidence of one suitor and the needy boisterousness of the other.

Irina Pegova and Pavel Barshak in “The Stroll”

Uchitel’s style is purposefully rough. In addition to the handheld camerawork, scenes develop in uninterrupted, improvisatory, occasionally fourth wall–breaking fashion. The sound doesn’t always match the action; bystanders constantly stare into the camera. The disorienting cinematography, unmoored narrative, and ever-shifting relationships reflect a world where anything seems possible, one that can’t seem to contain the breadth of all the emotions the characters are feeling. The movie feels like a dam bursting. But eventually, the turmoil comes to collect. The romantic rivalry threatens to become violent, and the girl’s capriciousness starts to feel downright neurotic. One final twist at the end, set in a colorful bowling alley, suggests that those exciting possibilities were illusory all along.

It’s noteworthy how many of these films feel like road movies, or nightmarish travelogues. Characters search for coherence, or meaning, or one another, and are faced with fragmentation and rejection. In Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy (2010) and A Gentle Creature (2017), these journeys start off simply enough, but soon take detours into dreamlike visions, history, and surreal ellipses. In the former, a truck driver transporting a shipment of flour finds himself face-to-face with his own capacity for both transcendence and violence in a world that threatens to strip him of everything, even his identity. In the latter, an unnamed woman travels to a Siberian town to inquire as to why the package she mailed to her prisoner husband never got to him. There, she finds herself rejected at every turn, plunged deeper into a corrosive bureaucracy, with her only lifelines sending her off into more dangerous, at times comically bizarre directions. The time period is uncertain: Modern-day elements are woven into Soviet-era imagery. But one suspects that the story doesn’t so much take place outside of time as it takes place within all time.

In 2013’s Blood, directed by Alina Rudnitskaya — one of the great documentarians of our time, and a director with four remarkable films in this retrospective — we follow a group of female nurses as they travel through Russia’s northwestern reaches, drawing blood from townspeople, many of whom make these donations simply to earn a few much-needed rubles. Blood is a film of literal collapse: Over and over again, the donors — malnourished, impoverished, ill — faint as their blood is withdrawn. These communities, such as they are, seem to be at the end of their rope. By contrast, the nurses themselves remain close; Rudnitskaya regularly shows them cutting loose at night, getting blitzed, dancing, hooking up with random men. As they travel through a country that seems ever more forbidding and unforgiving, their own sense of belonging becomes stronger.


In Antoine Cattin and Pavel Kostomarov’s documentary Mother (2007), a middle-aged dairy worker, fleeing abuse, desperately tries to hold her family of nine together in the forsaken countryside. Faced with poverty and rejection at every turn, and saddled with children who are starving, Lyuba is a figure of both resolute dignity and stark honesty: She speaks of the dreams she once had, and of how all her other ambitions were dashed over the years. And yet she demonstrates a strange optimism, an articulate, reflective self-knowledge. At times, we might even mistake her for a metaphor for the country itself — but that would be unfair to the specificity and urgency of her portrayal. She is, sadly, all too real.

The intimacy that develops amid desolation is also at the heart of Polish director Michal Marczak’s At the Edge of Russia (2010), a mesmerizing look at life in a tiny, ramshackle military encampment along the country’s snowbound Arctic border. There, a fresh-faced young recruit is trained to survive in the freezing weather — at one point, he has to spend two nights inside a hole in the ice — while also encouraged to bond with the older soldiers around him. These rough men still carry vestiges of their culture within them: They sing folk tunes, quote Lermontov and Lope de Vega poems, and joke around affectionately. But madness and violence are not far. Late in the film, one officer begins to ruminate on his wife’s infidelity, and what he intends to do to her when he returns.

Indeed, the possibility of violence hovers over many of these films. In Aleksei German’s posthumously completed, masterfully meandering Hard to Be a God (2013), it’s more than just a possibility. Set on another planet — one trapped in perpetual medieval gloom — German’s film offers a relentless orgy of savagery and gore, with intellectuals and scientists and other sages being slaughtered in pogroms. The film, based on a 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, was in the works for more than fifteen years; as such, it’s not so much about Putin’s Russia as it is about the violence, intolerance, and madness ever-present in the human soul — forces that find their expression through the brutality of unchecked power. Hard to Be a God effectively presents us with an alternate reality where the Renaissance never happened, where it was scuttled through unspeakable brutality — and then it dares us to draw conclusions about our own reality.

“Hard To Be a God”

In a somewhat more naturalistic vein, Yuri Bykov’s The Fool (2014) depicts a community’s breakdown in literal fashion. A crack appears through the middle of a massive tenement building, threatening to bring the whole crowded edifice down. Bykov then follows how the discovery of this crack percolates through the political and criminal sphere, with everyone covering asses, pointing fingers, and looking for ways to sweep everything under the rug. Meanwhile, a young plumber’s apprentice struggles to do the right thing, warning authorities and evacuating the residents. The film’s most disturbing moment comes at the end, with the building dwellers’ harrowing reaction to having their lives saved, suggesting a society beyond redemption. In that sense, The Fool might be one of the most cynical pictures I’ve ever seen.

Which is saying a lot, because this series also includes two Andrei Zvyagintsev films. In Leviathan (2014), we find ourselves yet again in a desolate corner of Russia — this time an empty coastal town on the edge of the Barents Sea, a landscape dotted with decaying boats and beached, rotting whales. A mechanic and his family, aided by a big-city lawyer, do battle against a corrupt mayor who wants them off their land. But Zvyagintsev is as interested in the conflict between spirituality and pragmatism as he is in that between the individual and the state. His film seems to ask at times if a lone individual can survive in Putin’s Russia.

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The director’s follow-up, Loveless (2017), seems to offer one answer to that question. A troubled young boy from a family that doesn’t want him goes missing during the height of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. His self-absorbed parents, who are in the midst of separating, mount a search for their son, but get little help from the police or any other institutions. As the parents keep looking, Zvyagintsev takes us through apartment blocks, dense forests, and other abandoned spaces — including a giant Soviet-era complex that now lies in ruins — presenting us with a vast, cold world that dwarfs ordinary humans. Within this emptiness, people strive for belonging, and the parents’ new relationships seem rather pointed. The father attaches himself to a young woman from a traditionalist family, while the mother shacks up with a wealthy businessman. Money and morality, the emotional and existential currencies of the new Russia.

Even so, the lesson of these films is not so much that Russia went from happy to hopeless within a couple of decades; that would be inaccurate, and simplistic. The sense that an all-consuming darkness is never far, held tenuously at bay by an increasingly frayed sense of community, tolerance, and good will, is perhaps the defining tension of the 21st century so far, pretty much all over the world. These films will still feel terrifyingly relevant to a viewer who knows nothing about Russia. I said earlier that experiencing this series is like watching a tragedy unfold; that tragedy is, ultimately, our own.

‘Putin’s Russia’
Museum of the Moving Image
June 15–July 15


“The Student” Is Urgent, Terrifying, and Prophetic

I was surprised and heartened recently to see the news of an upcoming project by Kirill Serebrennikov, one of Russia’s most important and talented theater and film directors. Serebrennikov has been under house arrest in Moscow since late last year, awaiting trial on what many believe are trumped-up embezzlement charges. The director’s star had risen during a brief period in the mid to late 2000s, when the Putin regime was actively seeking to encourage bold and even experimental work in the arts. After 2011, as the Russian government descended into increased paranoia, conservatism, and repression, artists like Serebrennikov started to become its victims. (For a fascinating account of the director’s career, and of the decidedly dubious charges against him, read this excellent New Yorker piece by Joshua Yaffa.)

It turns out that Serebrennikov shot Leto, his upcoming film about Soviet rock icon Viktor Tsoi, right before his arrest. (Indeed, he was taken by the authorities while he was filming the movie in St. Petersburg.) It’ll be interesting to see what happens with that project. But the news around Serebrennikov and his endless legal troubles in an authoritarian regime also bring to mind The Student, the film he premiered in Cannes in 2016 and which got a very cursory U.S. release last year. The Student opened briefly in San Francisco and Chicago, and a couple of other places. As far as I can tell, it never played New York.

The good news is that it’s now available on iTunes. And it’s more powerful than ever.

When I first saw The Student at Cannes, it seemed to be a pretty effective allegory of the slow slide toward religious authoritarianism in Russia. But over the ensuing year or so, the film started to feel less like a metaphor and more like a prophecy. For at its heart, Serebrennikov’s film, based on German playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s 2012 drama, The Martyr, is about this concept we’ve come to call “normalization” — the process by which the most extreme, most unthinkable ideas somehow become an acceptable part of the discourse, thanks to their insistent, aggressive repetition, and the cowardice of others. Watching it again now, I don’t see a movie about Russia anymore. I see a movie about the nightmare we’re all currently living in.

In Serebrennikov’s tightly wound symbolic drama, a Russian high schooler starts spouting off Biblical verses at the teachers, administrators, and teens around him, decrying the hypocrisy of their ways and of what he sees as a fallen world. You can feel the allegory coming from a mile away, but you still get pulled in to the film’s resonant, ideologically charged universe. Venya (Pyotr Skvortsov) is already pretty much a man possessed by the time we meet him, refusing to attend swim class because of the immodesty of the girls’ bikinis and the thought of boys and girls hanging out half-naked together. As his overworked single mother wonders if this piety might just be a phase her son is going through, Venya ratchets up the sermonizing, spitting rage and mockery, even stripping naked in outrage in a biology class when the teacher dares to talk about condoms.

That teacher, Elena (Viktoriya Isakova), eventually emerges as the one force of true resistance against Venya as the boy’s rhetoric becomes more unhinged, unforgiving, and even violent. Everyone else, though, starts to coddle him. Because on some basic level, what he’s saying is just a dramatically less politic expression of what they themselves already kind of believe. (Is this starting to feel familiar?)

Thanks to his complaints, the bikinis get replaced by full single-piece swimsuits, and the school principal challenges the idea of sex education. Later, when Venya objects to the teaching of Darwin, that same principal asks Elena why she can’t just teach both sides of the evolution “debate.” When Venya drags a giant cross into the music room and nails it to the wall, the only objection is that it’s a little crooked. Soon enough, Elena, the sole voice of reason, finds herself persona non grata, as the other adults begrudgingly reveal their own reactionary attitudes about sin, science, homosexuals, and Jews. And yes, a portrait of Vladimir Putin does occasionally appear in the background, though I imagine that’s a standard item in most Russian schools.

A simple description of The Student might make it sound ruthlessly blunt, and I suppose at times it is; helpful titles at the edge of the frame cite the biblical sources of Venya’s words. But Serebrennikov leans into the story’s theatricality while also finding ways to make it resoundingly cinematic. Each scene plays out in an uninterrupted long take, as the Steadicam glides up staircases and through corridors and around the characters. In the hands of a lesser actor, Venya’s crazed, lengthy tirades might have felt stiff and stagebound, but Skvortsov delivers them with such wild-eyed conviction and energy that they’re riveting. The film never stops moving. The actors dart around furiously; it all resembles an angry, fevered dance.

Serebrennikiov immerses us fully in the action, which makes the overt allegory easier to take. But his scenes also build to moments of delirium, as if creating a cinematic corollary to the dark exaltation Venya must be feeling as he spits bile and Bible at the world. The boy’s eruptions are terrifying, but they’re also powerful — we can understand why people follow lunatics like this.

The Student isn’t perfect, and I’m not sure it really can be. How do you end a movie like this? As the story heads toward a resolution, the symbolism does at times verge on the clunky, and the incidents start to feel increasingly contrived. But chalk that up to the tension of creating a work that speaks to our time while attempting to bring it to a satisfying narrative conclusion. For most of its running time, The Student is immensely compelling, a terrifying ride between hothouse realism and dreamy metaphor. If by the end it feels unresolved, perhaps that’s because the nightmare is far from over.

The Student
Written and directed by Kirill Serebrennikov
Under the Milky Way
Available on iTunes





Sundance: “Our New President” Fights Bullshit With Bullshit

The best promotional item I’ve received recently is a rag doll with Donald Trump on one side and Vladimir Putin on the other, complete with a set of pins to stick in it. It’s all part of an effort to promote Maxim Pozdorovkin’s documentary Our New President, a film assembled out of Russian news footage and YouTube videos about the 2016 U.S. election, which made for an appropriate collage-comedy-clusterfuck to kick off the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Last year, the festival coincided with Trump’s inauguration and seemed to try to appeal to the better angels of our nature by showing the (frustratingly weak) Al Gore doc An Inconvenient Sequel. Now, a full year into our new national nightmare, Sundance has gone in a somewhat less ennobling direction. Pozdorovkin’s film offers relatively little context; rather, it drowns us in clips of Russian news anchors breathlessly peddling obvious untruths and ordinary Russians gleefully parroting back this nonsense.

The film is certainly, on some base level, entertaining: It’s hard not to laugh — albeit bitterly — at the spectacle of deluded Russians on YouTube offering up their acoustic ballads to Trump, or drinking themselves silly in his honor, or droning on about Clinton conspiracy theories. What little structure there is centers on the development of television as a state propaganda tool in Russia — beginning with the opening of Moscow’s Ostankino broadcasting tower in 1967 (as a project “to influence moral life”) then moving on to the expansion of the country’s TV networks, including the inauguration of the notorious RT, Russia Today, as a purportedly respectable international news outlet with immense global reach.

Today’s Kremlin-approved channels deliver their fake news with a perverse gloss and flash. One executive proudly admits that they’re effectively indulging in propaganda: “The time of detached, unbiased journalism is over. … Objectivity is a myth forced upon us.” We also get to see how the Russian media turned on Trump after he assumed office and U.S. policy toward Russia didn’t seem to change all that much.

But what exactly is this film saying? That there are idiots and racists and sexists on the Internet? That the world is filled with misinformation, both unintentional and sinister? Russia doesn’t exactly have a monopoly on dingbats blathering online; you’ll find these jagoffs pretty much wherever you go. The targets here seem rather easy ones, and after wallowing in the spectacle of these people making fools of themselves online, I yearned for more context and depth.

Pozdorovkin’s work is most revealing when he presents footage of actual Russian newscasters — people who should know better — indulging in this grotesque nonsense. But again, go to any country and you’ll find loads of fake news, both political and apolitical. Is the world’s current love affair with bullshit really guided by the sinister goals of megalomaniacal despots, or by the traditional laws of spectacle and demand? People love a good story, and to hell with the truth.

I suppose all this might have been chilling if Russia itself ever had a reputation for journalistic integrity or rigor. What Our New President does demonstrate is the failure of the country to develop a culture of public discourse or honesty, but that’s an analog of its failure to establish democratic institutions. (The real tragedy is that this is also happening in the U.S., which supposedly does — or did once — value the idea of honest journalism.) The rot, in other words, lies deeper. Our New President merely scratches the surface, and in its own weird way, comes to embody the plague of shallow spectacle it purports to fight against.

That’s certainly one way to promote a movie

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer Proves Punk Lives

Anyone trying to run a civilized country should know that throwing musicians in jail for making music is always a bad idea. That didn’t stop Vladimir Putin’s government from arresting three members of the punk collective Pussy Riot, after the group stormed the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in February 2012 to perform a 40-second “punk prayer protest” denouncing the government’s melding of church and state in a few bars of ragged vocals and jagged guitar chords.

At least five women took part in the demonstration, but only three—Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina, and Katia Samutsevich—were arrested. The charges: trespassing, wearing “inappropriate” (sleeveless) dresses, and disrupting the social order. The upshot: A brief, orchestrated flash of anger originally witnessed by only a few shocked worshippers hit YouTube and turned these brazen, previously unknown young women into international free-speech heroes. Who’s got egg on his face now, Vlad?

Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s sharp-edged little documentary, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer—which played Sundance earlier this year and airs on HBO on June 10—tells the story of the Pussy Riot Three, two of whom are currently serving jail sentences. Lerner and Pozdorovkin outline the genesis of the guerrilla punk-art collective (it was formed the day Putin returned to power), assemble footage from the women’s kangaroo-court trial, and conduct interviews with family members. One particularly supportive dad says that he tried valiantly to dissuade his daughter from joining the group. When he realized he couldn’t stop her, he instead helped her write lyrics to a Pussy Riot protest song. He takes credit, specifically, for the snappy little line “Shit! Shit! It’s God shit!”

Maybe it’s not particularly shocking that a few young women could be imprisoned in modern Russia for performing a noisy, disruptive song in a place of worship—that could happen in New York, too. But it remains legitimately shocking that the Putin government would dig its heels in so stubbornly to silence these young women, and to make examples of them even as the world howls. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer plugs right into that.

In one of the film’s most unsettling sections, members of a conservative Russian Orthodox group known as the Carriers of the Cross—a bunch of guys who look like ill-tempered Hells Angels—denounce the Pussy Riot crew in language straight out of the 11th century. “The main one, she is a demon with a brain,” says one. Another pipes up, “She’s a strong demon—you can tell by her lips, her mouth—she’ll fight to the end.” They openly liken these women to witches, and it doesn’t bother them that they’re part of the witch-hunt. WWJD? You can bet it wouldn’t be this.

It’s Pussy Riot’s aim to provoke—you don’t give yourselves a name like that unless you want to attract attention. But the official government response affirms that what the group did—pull on some popsicle-colored balaclavas to jump around on an altar for a few minutes—is genuinely subversive. It struck a nerve, and the wound still stings. Lerner and Pozdorovkin tell us that the remaining—that is to say, the unjailed—members of the collective are still active, but they don’t clue us in to any of the group’s current protests. You can understand why Pussy Riot would want to lie low for a while. But it’s dispiriting to think that Putin really has succeeded in intimidating them. (On the other hand, Alyokhina’s hunger strike is still drawing international headlines.)

If there’s anything heartening to be found in the story of Pussy Riot, a story that’s still unfolding, it’s in the reminder that the spirit of punk can never be completely co-opted by flaky forces like the Met Ball. In his comprehensive and grand 1991 history of punk, England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage quotes the writer Jacques Attali: “Music is prophecy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible; it is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future.” The women of Pussy Riot have an idea of what the new Russia should sound like; Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer shows just how hard it is to make that new world audible.


Vladimir Putin Has Sandwich in Manhattan Valley

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s oft-shirtless prime minister, has his own sandwich at a Manhattan Valley coffee shop.

Oligarchs not included
Oligarchs not included

The $8.10 snack, called “The Putin,” comes made-to-order at Zanny’s Café (975 Columbus Avenue), and features smoked turkey, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, and spicy Russian dressing (of course!) on a ciabatta-style hoagie.

Asked whether the offering really is named after the Russian leader — who also served as the country’s president and spy chief — the woman at the counter said yes, but didn’t offer any more explanation (or seem like she wanted to do so).

Whatever. High camp is high camp, right?

At any rate, the pick — priced reasonably for the generous salad or hefty chip bag that gets included as a side — can easily compete with the eats at any downtown coffee shop.

Sure, the selection seems simple, but the tomatoey accents give the mild cheese and meat a deeply satisfying, pastoral vibe.