Our Spirits Were Kindred
“When we met in person, our spirits were kindred,” Masha Drokova says of Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minster and former president of Russia, currently running for president again. “He’s the role model for the person I’d like to share my life with, because he’s a very strong, charismatic, and intelligent man. But most important,” she adds, “He acts responsibly.”
As Masha speaks at the start of the documentary Putin’s Kiss, she looks awfully schoolgirlish. In this interview, recorded when she was a leader of Nashi (Youth Democratic Anti-Fascist Movement). The organization, also called “Ours!”, was conceived in 2005 by Vasily Yakemenko in order to encourage “youth” to support Putin’s administration against Nazism in Russia; Nashi representatives deny the “movement” was formed to oppose the Orange Revolution of 2004 and January 2005 (protesting the electoral fraud), Nashi organizers deny such concerns. Lise Birk Pedersen’s film focuses closely on Masha—16 when she joined Nashi in 2005—as well as former seaman Oleg Kashin, who says right off, “I’m an independent journalist and I don’t support the ruling power.”
This makes Oleg something of a foil for true believer Masha, as does his later experience, when he’s savagely beaten by thugs whom he contends might have been associated with Nashi. And as Oleg narrates how he came to know Masha—a bright light at the movement’s summer camps and vivacious media presence—the film provides footage of her during various stages with Nashi, much of it shot when Pedersen expected that her film would have a different shape, that is, not critical of Nashi or the Kremlin. But Putin’s Kiss is transformed as Masha is also transformed. In this, the film offers an unusually intimate look at belief and doubt, as she comes to rethink her commitment and ever her sense of self.
That sense of self is forged during the post-Soviet Union years, when democracy and capitalism were the watchwords, and a “standard consumer pattern” evolved, a pattern illustrated by snapshots of young Masha and her “average Russian family,” visiting a water park, learning to drive, visiting Paris, and posing for prom night. The Drokovas’ experience seems to illustrate what Putin has done to improve life for Russian citizens (despite Oleg’s introduction to the photo sequence, noting the absence of “the law” and “democratic institutions” under Putin’s rule). This experience is also juxtaposed with protests by the opposition (Solidarnost and the People’s Freedom Party), voiced here by Ilya Yashin. As Yakemenko exhorts “The best country in the world!” and urges followers—assembled in conventions and rallies—to understand that “There is no authority for the movement except in the policy of Putin” and to ask themselves, “Am I ready to sacrifice myself to change things?”, the opposition posits a “Russia without Putin,” where elections might be fair, the press free, and police dedicated to protecting citizens.
Oleg points out that Masha’s loyalty as a spokesperson for Nashi served her well: she had a car, a chance to go to university, and a chance to host her own TV show. The film follows Masha’s shifting thoughts regarding the movement and democracy: in one scene, she tries to reconcile the basic tenets of democracy (say, free speech) with her own inclination to burn a book featuring a homosexual protagonist (“I’m not being violent to people or to things, but the description of sex between two men…” she says, unable even to complete the sentence). In another, she confides in a friend that she’s feeling increasingly “independent” of Yakemenko: “Imagine there’s one person who controls your future,” she says, “and it all depends on his mood.”
Here Masha’s interactions with Yakemenko do look grim, as he criticizes her amid a crowd of supporters and she ducks her head, visibly hurt. If for Masha the problems of the movement are embodied by the charismatic and egocentric Yakemenko, the film offers opinions from opposition leaders. “Modern Russia, Putin’s Russia, is different from the Soviet Union,” submits Yashin, “We have an authoritarian state which hits you on the head when you try to participate in the political life.” As he finishes, the film shows footage of Yashin being grabbed by police, who put a hood over his head.
Masha comes to know about such activities as she takes up a new career, as a journalist and begins “hanging out” with other reporters, including Oleg. As she comes to see the world, Russia, and her place in either differently, she comes to question her former self, her beliefs and assumptions. As a new election day approaches in Russia, the film’s version of her experience is partly cautionary, partly frustrating. Putin’s Kiss assumes the perspective indicated by its title, a moment remembered fondly by Masha, when she believed without question, when Putin visited a Nashi camp and gave her a kiss. Moreover, as she comes to see herself as a journalist who might be at risk from the very government she has supported throughout her life, the film maintains its tight focus. In doing so, it reveals how a limited view might be forced to open out, that is, gradually. In this process, both trust and distrust are hard to assert.