Peace and War: The View from Russia

By Melanie Anstey
From poisoning former spies in London to tampering in US elections. Leading the military support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and playing a part in the pro-leave campaign in Britain’s Brexit referendum. From nurturing friendly relations with Iran and Turkey to a military attack on Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea… Russian President Vladimir Putin finds himself at the centre of the world’s political map.

Not since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has the Kremlin seemingly wielded so much influence in international affairs. This very much fits in with Putin’s ideological makeup. As a former Soviet spy based in Germany he was very invested in Russia expanding its sphere of influence… and was certainly not adverse to the use of skulduggery to achieve these goals.

What is Russia hoping to achieve and who are the people devising the strategy that has put Russian President Vladimir Putin as a lead actor on the world stage? 
It was not once that I called this film ‘Mission Impossible’ to myself. What was the mission? To persuade high-level Russians to talk openly and honestly about their foreign policy in the current climate of cyber-wars, poisonings, election interference and more tangible conflicts like the war in Syria. How does Putin take his decisions? Who takes them with him? And what is motivating these decisions?

Unwrapping this mystery had to start with understanding who the decision-makers really are, and on discovering that they are often members of the security services or rich and unattainable businessmen and businesswomen, and that they are highly unlikely to want to talk to a journalist, especially a foreign one, was perhaps the first time the word “impossible” came to mind.

A person on a white horse was needed to rescue me from my dilemma. And in addition, I needed a Russian journalist to work with, to get a truly Russian perspective, someone both Russians and outsiders could respect. Our presenter Mikhail Zygar is a renowned journalist, producer and author of the work “All the Kremlin’s Men”, an insightful portrait of recent Russian history, and its key figures. Mikhail helped me select the movers and shakers who could give us an unique insight into our topic. His reputation opened the doors to people of all political colours and perspectives, and from different levels of the Russian establishment and anti-establishment.

Mikhail Zygar in Moscow during the shoot. [Al Jazeera]

My other knight in shining armour came in the shape of the film’s editor Philipp Gromov, whose knowledge of his own country’s history, cautiousness about “Western” received opinion, experience putting together films partly based on key archives, and love of music, brought thoroughness, creativity and flair to the film.

When I started working in Russia, styles and approaches to making documentaries differed from that of my home country Britain. Today, camerapeople and sound technicians in Russia draw on their own rich cinematic traditions, while also being familiar with all the international creative and technical styles, and I was lucky enough to work with the excellent cameraman Dimitri Rudakov, and sound recordist Sorin Apostol.

Former presidential candidate, Ksenia Sobchak, speaks to Mikhail Zygar about whether Russia’s elite supports President Vladimir Putin. [Al Jazeera]
Nothing is possible without great producers, and I was lucky enough to have three: Yulia Fernandes, Nelli Muminova and Anastasia Shkatova. The task of organising and persuading busy high-level people to give their time to a documentary is an arduous one and the three producers excelled at it.

Did I achieve my mission? I think so. I have been making films in Russia for a long time, but I was fascinated and surprised by the rich variety of opinion and perspective that came across from our impressive participants. We gained a rare insight into how Russia’s foreign policy is viewed from the point of view of influential and quite different Russians. Given recent events around the world, this film, although I say it myself, could qualify as important if not essential viewing, and I think it is gripping and quite moving too.
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