‘The Story Putin Doesn’t Want Told’: Filmmakers Talk About ‘Putin’s War at Home’ Documentary

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Roman, a law professor whose story is featured in the FRONTLINE documentary “Putin’s War at Home,” sits down for an interview.

Roman, a law professor whose story is featured in the FRONTLINE documentary “Putin’s War at Home,” sits down for an interview.

November 1, 2022

Days after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the largest crackdown on free speech and dissent since the Soviet era. New laws have effectively made it a crime to disseminate any information that runs counter to the government’s official statements, which includes accounts of Russian attacks on Ukrainian civilians or details about Russian soldiers’ deaths. Protesting or independently reporting on the war — or even calling what Putin has deemed a “special military operation” a war — carries a potential sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

Many of Russia’s independent journalists fled the country and several of the outlets they worked for shut down. In FRONTLINE’s new documentary, Putin’s War at Home, director and producer Gesbeen Mohammad and producer Vasiliy Kolotilov tell the stories of six activists and journalists still working inside Russia, in defiance of Putin’s new laws.

Gesbeen, who is based in London, and Vasiliy, who is Russian and filmed inside the country, spoke with FRONTLINE about the process of making a documentary in a country hostile to independent journalism and the risks their sources took to share their experiences. Pointing to the crackdown, Gesbeen said, “Putin’s War at Home is really the story that Putin doesn’t want told.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you first start working on the documentary? What inspired you to focus on opposition to the war within Russia?

Gesbeen: The project started right after the outbreak of the war. When the war broke out, the thesis was that Russia was plunging into full authoritarianism where dissent was no longer tolerated. The whole world was obviously looking at Ukraine, and there was limited information starting to come out from Russia about what was happening inside Russia after the March 4 law passed about “fake news.” There was sort of a mass exodus of journalists from Russia. With all these journalists leaving and the crackdown on independent media inside Russia, we felt it was important to also shed light on what’s happening to the people in the country who were continuing to oppose the war.

What were some of the most difficult decisions you had to make when deciding when to capture a moment and when it was too risky to do so?

Vasiliy: Well, the riskiest moments we had were with the characters that actually had to pull out from the film. In the end, they said that they were too afraid to go public with what they were doing because they were fearing that they would go straight to jail after the film came out. As for the others, there was always this kind of feeling that you might get in trouble, at any time, any minute.

“People can end up in prison for 10 to 15 years for publicly opposing the war, and I think that has created an atmosphere where people are too afraid to say what they want to say.”
Gesbeen Mohammad

Gesbeen: I’ve never worked on a film where you have multiple contributors drop out. I’ve made films in other oppressive states like Iran and Hong Kong, and I’ve never had so many people drop out because of fears. But I think it shows the degree to which the Russian state is now creating that fear. People can end up in prison for 10 to 15 years for publicly opposing the war, and I think that has created an atmosphere where people are too afraid to say what they want to say.

How did you see that atmosphere of fear change over the course of production?

Vasiliy: It seemed like it was getting worse and worse. If you look at the protest timeline, after February 24, there were protests. According to Russian standards, we could call them mass protests. But it just went down in a couple weeks. Still, in April, you could see some anti-war artists, activists doing kind of direct-action performances. That lasted until May, and then almost everyone just stopped doing anything, because they could see what was happening to the people who were actually exposing themselves and taking action. It all started again in September when the mobilization was declared and then there was another spiral of repression.

Producer Vasiliy Kolotilov interviews Natalia, a young woman who has gained an international audience on TikTok for documenting reactions inside Russia to the Ukraine war.
Producer Vasiliy Kolotilov interviews Natalia, a young woman who has gained an international audience on TikTok for documenting reactions inside Russia to the Ukraine war.

Gesbeen, you’ve worked on other projects for FRONTLINE that touched on intense surveillance and suppression of free speech. Did your work on those previous documentaries inform this process?

Gesbeen: Yes, it did, particularly China Undercover. That definitely informed both security protocols as well as understanding how Russian society works. When we started this project — naively, perhaps — there was a plan for me to apply for a visa, which we did apply for, but we never heard back from the Russian embassy in London. Very quickly after speaking to our Russian-speaking team, some inside Russia, some outside Russia, we realized that the only way to make this film was by filming without official permission from the Russian state. I found myself writing a very similar risk assessment that I wrote for China Undercover and realized that Russia was becoming an authoritarian state like China.

What are some of those security protocols?

Gesbeen: There’s always a sort of massive briefing on what the laws are in that country and how they’re developing. We are always aware that we can’t eliminate risk entirely, but we do everything we can to mitigate risks. And you can only do that if everyone is aware of the risks. One of the first conversations we had with Vasiliy, who courageously agreed to this job, was about the risks and whether that was something that he wanted to take on.

Elena and Olga, the Russian journalists from Siberia that you interviewed, continued to report on the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine even after their site was blocked by the government. What do you think inspired them to continue reporting?

Gesbeen: Olga and Elena, they are two inspiring journalists who work in a society where their journalism is essentially unwanted and repressed. They are very motivated by the truth. The biggest impact [of the war] is obviously not in Russia, it’s in Ukraine, but they are only able to report on the impact in Russia. But ultimately, what they saw was that a large part of the fighters that were being sent out to Ukraine from Russia were from their region. And they are motivated to cover the human cost of the war — a war that they don’t see as a just war, essentially. As they say in the film, the authorities want to send this message that this is something that doesn’t impact Russians. But the way that they see it is that it’s entered everyone’s homes and it is, in fact, impacting everyone.

Vasiliy: Also, in such regions as the one they live in, in Siberia, everything that is happening is much more visible. They could see with their own eyes. In the beginning of the war, Russia was sending great numbers of soldiers from the Siberia and Baikal regions.

By the documentary’s end, Roman, a professor whose parents live in Nikopol, Ukraine, still fears for their safety. Where are Roman and his parents now?

Vasiliy: They’re all still there, because Roman’s parents, in particular his father, don’t want to move. They’re saying, “Okay, we’ve lived our life.” And there are also lots of logistical problems in getting them out of Ukraine. Roman’s very worried about this. He calls them, I think, every evening or every other evening.

All our characters’ stories are tragic, in a way. But I think the ones of Roman and Sonia are the most tragic, because there’s nothing they could do; there’s no way they can change the situation.

Read more: She Posted Anti-War Stickers in A Russian Grocery Store. She Now Faces Up to 10 Years in Prison.

Roman, who was a scholar happily teaching students about Aristotle and law and classical logic, was expelled from the university. There was a criminal case against him. His life was just ruined and his parents are under bombing and shelling every day.

Gesbeen: He’s very saddened by the fact that he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to see them again.

Vasiliy: There is nothing he can do about it, basically. They don’t have the will to go anywhere. And he cannot just persuade them. He just cannot make his parents leave. And I think he feels bad.

Vasiliy Kolotilov, one of the producers of the FRONTLINE documentary "Putin's War at Home," prepares for a shoot.
Vasiliy Kolotilov, one of the producers of the FRONTLINE documentary “Putin’s War at Home,” prepares for a shoot.

Vasiliy, when the partial mobilization was announced, what was your reaction, and how did you plan for how it might affect you? Do you plan to continue reporting on the war?

Vasiliy: I didn’t plan. I just left the country. I was in St. Petersburg at the time for a final shoot with Sonia actually. I just took my bag, took the first train to Moscow, packed another bag and just got a ticket on the way and left the same night. It was really unclear what was going to happen. My biggest fear was that they were going to shut the borders. The other thing was that it wasn’t clear whom they’re going to mobilize.

Of course, I want to keep on reporting on what’s going on in Russia from abroad. And if there’s a chance of doing more stories inside Russia, I would, if I’m able to go back.

“There are still people in Russia who are trying to oppose the regime, who are trying to get their voices heard, who are trying to tell the outer world what’s going on inside the country.”
Vasiliy Kolotilov

Gesbeen: You make it sound so easy to say that you just left Russia. We looked for tickets for about 12 hours. All the tickets were selling out and they were going for I don’t know how many times more the price, because there were so many other people trying to leave Russia at the same time.

What do you want American viewers of Putin’s War at Home to take away from it?

Vasiliy: On my side, just for people in America to see and to know that not all Russians are the same. And there are still people in Russia who are trying to oppose the regime, who are trying to get their voices heard, who are trying to tell the outer world what’s going on inside the country.

Gesbeen: I think that Putin’s War at Home in some ways is about a unique moment in Russia’s history and its evolution. Obviously, and especially in America, people have been concerned about Putin’s increasing authoritarianism. But I think this captures that unique moment in history where dissent is almost, not entirely, but almost entirely crushed. Russia is one of the largest economies in the world. And we now have essentially two very large economies, China and Russia, which have this model of governance. And I think that this film captures a worrying trend in the world where some countries with huge economic power are taking on this model of governance, of authoritarianism.


Julia Ingram

Julia Ingram, Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship

Twitter:

@juliaingram_

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