A stack of problems and a heap of fears Filmmaker Alexander Sokurov says Russia should jettison North Caucasus and confront its ‘constitutional crisis,’ enraging Vladimir Putin

Valery Sharifulin / TASS

About 20 years ago, Alexander Sokurov directed a film set in the Winter Palace of the Russian State Hermitage Museum, recorded on location and in a one-take single 96-minute sequence shot. In the movie, an unnamed narrator wanders from room to room, encountering real and fictional characters from various periods in St. Petersburg’s 300-year history. On December 9, 2021, during a virtual meeting between Vladimir Putin and the Presidential Human Rights Council, the same filmmaker offered another sweeping look at Russia, this time in just 15 minutes. Sokurov warned the president that the nation faces a constitutional crisis, suggesting that Moscow should permit certain regions of the country to leave the Russian Federation. Putin denounced the remarks, accusing Sokurov of wanting (“like they do in NATO”) to take Russia backwards to its days as a small principality.

When he gets the chance to talk to Vladimir Putin, Alexander Sokurov is not shy about speaking his mind. During a December 2016 meeting of the Council for Culture and Arts, he asked the president to reconsider the terrorism conviction of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov. (Putin refused to intervene, but Sentsov was ultimately sent home to Ukraine in a prisoner swap in 2019.)

On December 9, 2021, Sokurov unleashed what Putin would describe as “not a speech but a manifesto — a stack of problems and a heap of fears.” Sokurov began with comments about Russia’s “deeply troubled foreign policy,” noting that Belarus, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia are all drags on the federal budget, not unlike Russia’s own southern regions, which draw major subsidies, he said.

Sokurov acknowledged that significant spending is needed to keep Russia strong, but he argued that these resources should be allocated to defend people’s “constitutional interests.” He then focused specifically on the small town of Luzhitsy (west of St. Petersburg) and its struggling indigenous community. “We’re still in a kind of constitutional crisis: the text says one thing and we’re living something else,” Sokurov told President Putin, describing the supposed breakdown of Russia’s “federal national Constitution”: “The Bolshevik authorities put all their eggs in one basket and what hatched was chickens, eagles, ostriches, cats, and God knows what else.”

In the North Caucasus, he explained, Russia has a problem that is all at once “political, cultural, emotional, and economic.” During the Soviet era, he said, ethnic Russians’ dominance restricted opportunities for development. Today, most ethnic Russians have left and the republics in the North Caucasus are nearly “monoethnic.” “All authority is in the hands of the indigenous peoples,” said Sokurov, adding that he blames the underdevelopment of young people for the lack of progress in the region now.

This concentration of political power and the decline in ethnic diversity threaten Russia’s “basic republican foundations,” Sokurov told Putin, recalling how “lobbyists of the Chechen sector” enlisted Moscow’s support in the persecution of Ingush community leaders who organized protests two years ago against a controversial agreement that ceded territory to the Chechen Republic. “Many want to part from us,” the filmmaker declared, claiming that the people of the North Caucasus likely wouldn’t fight alongside Russians even in a hypothetical war with NATO.

Sokurov’s “heap of fears” didn’t end there; he went on to decry the “politicization of life” in Russia, arguing that formal politics has become apolitical while policing and national defense have moved in the opposite direction. “There’s uncertainty about the separation of church and state,” he said, adding that Russia also faces a looming “Islamic revolution” that “can be prevented but not defeated.” The country also needs to revive its labor unions, its officer assemblies, and its civil defense services!

Additionally, the Russian authorities have failed to inspire the public’s faith during the coronavirus pandemic, which is just a “preliminary test” of the mobilization capacity needed to address the climate crisis. Apparently alluding to the persecution of opposition activists, Sokurov asked, “Are we really going to meet the climate threat by chasing down the young people across this country who have found their conscience and collective outrage?” “We need an active, strong opposition across the political spectrum,” he told the president, also stressing the need to abolish state censorship.

Before concluding with a bit of pacifism (“Russia should not go to war except to defend”) and another plug for jettisoning “everyone who no longer wants to live with us in the same state,” Sokurov recalled Irina Savina, the journalist in Nizhny Novgorod who self-immolated after years of police harassment, and also asked Putin to intervene on behalf of imprisoned human rights activist Yuri Dmitriev and politician Maxim Reznik, who’s now under investigation for alleged drug-related crimes.

Vladimir Putin’s response

“Some things it’s better to say directly and some things it’s better not to say at all,” President Putin told Sokurov, objecting to the filmmaker’s portrayal of Russia’s allies as freeloaders. In defense of Belarus, he said Sakurov’s remarks “disrespect the entire people and the whole country, which is part of our Union State.”

“Mr. Sokurov, sir, do you want a repeat of Yugoslavia on our territory?” Putin asked, explaining that “the vast majority of people [in Russia] understand what they’ll face [if they try to secede], and the Chechen people know it better than anyone else in the North Caucasus.” It would be disastrous, the president warned, to try to tackle the thousands of territorial disputes that exist in Russia today.

“As the saying goes, let sleeping dogs lie,” he added.

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Kevin Rothrock

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