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Adam Curtis on Russia

Adam Curtis is a documentary filmmaker known for his films stitched together from archive material. His latest film Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone departs from his usual format, simply because Curtis has realised that he has exhausted his style. The Curtis voiceover, self-narrated, to his documentaries goes as so: “In Vladivostok, Yevgeny Prokorov was still trying to make his cybernetic monkey-human interlink work. He was getting nowhere—then the Soviet space program lost faith in the project and cancelled it. Meanwhile, in Spring Meadows, Illinois the Applied Games Theory Laboratory noticed something strange about teenage mothers and LSD. Their research caught the eye of an up-and-coming Soviet bureaucrat, Mikhail Gorbachev, and he invited the scientists to give a presentation in Leningrad…”

The Curtis voiceover style and cadence have become so familiar over the past two decades, as his niche career as a documentarist blossomed into mainstream success, that he approaches self-parody at times. In my head, I can just say “meanwhile” and a whole Curtis documentary unfolds in my mind. Hence, in his latest documentary, Curtis has removed the voiceover completely (it should be noted he has a pleasant voice to listen to)—the documentary just has minimal commentary provided by titles. He clearly noticed that he had almost turned into a parody of himself.

The subject matter is still pure Curtis: he likes to mix together marginal science projects, often connected to cybernetics or psychedelic drugs, with media-saturated contemporary politics and bureaucratic incompetence—he shows the unlikely connections between these things through archival footage, often quite mundane footage from technical documentaries (which are actually fascinating, contrary to what people think—I used to watch British Rail films about their train braking systems from the 1980s on YouTube). A prospective Curtis documentary would be called The Bleeding Edge of Now and would trace the connections between Game Theory, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, RD Laing, the Frankfurt School, Nick Leeson, the Mayfair Club, Lacanian psychoanalysis, the ruble’s devaluation in the 1990s, and Tony Blair—all tied together with the theme that life now is “unreal”.

The latest Curtis project traces the collapse of Communism. I want to get something straight about Curtis: he is often seen as a “dissident”—he is not, not at all. He is funded to the hilt by the BBC. The implicit Curtis view, if you listen carefully to what he says in his narrations—and I have listened very carefully over the past two decades, from The Century of the Self to Bitter Lake—is that we need to go back to the post-war consensus. Similarly, the message in Curtis’s Russia is that the fall of Communism was a disaster and the Russians need to go back to Communism—or Communism-lite. What else would you expect? He works for the BBC, for the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation—Curtis is ultra-orthodox; and you can almost feel his smug condescension towards the Thatcherites, the neoliberals, and so on in his voice—the fact he uses the currently popular progressive term “trauma” in his latest title is a dead giveaway.

The conclusion of Curtis’s Russia, put together while the war with the Ukraine was already underway, reflects the party line on Putin—what “good people” in the West are meant to believe. Putin was an anonymous bureaucrat elevated to power by oligarchs who wanted to avoid prosecution after Russia collapsed in the 1990s—he was a placeman put into power to keep everything “ticking on as usual”. A socialist argument: the problem is about rich people who “loot the country”.

But hang on…Curtis depicts Russia in free fall in the 1990s, complete with starving kids on the streets and blood donations for cash (the blood was rejected, the donors were too malnourished), now, per Curtis, this situation has carried on—Putin was the “business-as-usual candidate”. Yet, however, it seems to me that Russia in 2022 is not a continuation of Russia in 1999. Obviously, I haven’t been—so perhaps I’m wrong, but I get the impression that the situation has been stabilised; perhaps improved. Could it be that Putin is in fact a strongman who, while not totally dispensing with the oligarchs, used his connections with the security services to whip things into line? Could it be that Curtis is anti-Putin because Putin ruins the socialist thesis that the Russians need to go back to Communism or else suffer under “gangster capitalism”? It could be—and it is.

The underlying theme in Curtis films is that we need to go back to about 1956—proper, old-fashioned total state socialism; no wacko cybernetic free-market casinos—and, of course, there is no authoritarian “third way” either; no neo-Tsar who could offer you some free markets and some corporate stability. Indeed, if you watch this documentary you will see that Curtis does not like the Tsar; he plays with footage of mothers trying to identify their sons killed in Chechnya with ambiguities over whether the Tsar’s bones, reburied with honours, really are his. The link in your mind that Curtis wants to establish is as follows: Tsarism, war, gross inequality—it has all come back, now socialism has gone; and, per the doubts over the Tsar’s bones, it is all “fake”.

He even features a ballerina in the mid-1990s who held an 18th-century-style ball in a restored palace that once belonged to the Tsars—the unfeeling hag, like some character from Brechtian agitprop, sips her champagne and laments that so many people had to die for “this” to come back (cut to Russians selling their blood to get food). The message is as subtle as a Pravda editorial.

Remember, Curtis is a star for the BBC—and when I flick up iPlayer today I see endless documentaries about the struggles of black women, about white supremacy, and, of course, documentaries from Curtis that peddle his soft socialism. Curtis operates in an artistic way, he produces some beautiful images—he knows how to use the archive to cultivate wistfulness about technology. Yet underneath it is a lie.


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