- Interview by
- Taylor C. Noakes
Adam Curtis’s Russia 1985–1999: TraumaZone, released last year, does such a good job in setting the stage for the Russo-Ukraine war that one might be tempted to view the documentary as an attempt to explain — through archival film — how the Ukraine conflict came to be. However, the acclaimed documentarian clarifies that, as is customary with his work, there are broader narratives to explore.
Curtis is acutely aware of mass media’s propensity to consult ill-advised and unlettered self-described experts to “Ukrainesplain” a country and a conflict few understand and fewer still saw coming. But while TraumaZone leaves its viewers better equipped to understand the recent conflict, the film is actually about the death of Communism, and then of democracy, over a roughly fifteen-year period in Russia at the end of the twentieth century. While viewers may indeed discover valuable insights into Russian and Ukrainian history, Curtis’s latest work also serves as a window with which we can consider the recent past of a crumbing empire that bears uncomfortable resonances with aspects of our present circumstance.
Jacobin’s Taylor C. Noakes recently caught up with the director to discuss Russia, Ukraine, oligarchs, Communism, democracy, and hyperrationalism.
Living Through the Fall of the Berlin Wall
One of the things I appreciate about your work — particularly the documentaries HyperNormalization and Can’t Get You Out of My Head — is that you are unafraid of creating “grand unifying theories” with which to understand recent history. And I think I’m attracted to this because, as a historian, we’re often dissuaded from looking at history in this way — we’re instead supposed to focus on very niche, specialized topics at the small end of the scale.
TraumaZone was a bit of a side project, a bit different from HyperNormalization and Can’t Get You Out of My Head, in that, although I was trying to describe a great period of history that I think is very important, I tried not to have a “grand unifying theory” about it because I thought that was wrong in those circumstances. So, it is slightly different from what I normally do.
Why did you avoid spoken narration in TraumaZone?
Well partly because I got my hands on such extraordinary material, thousands of hours of just raw, unedited stuff that was recorded during a period that, if you look back at it, was one of the great, extraordinary changes of the twentieth century.
Because I had that material, I decided that I wanted to show what it actually felt like. I started working on this film before the invasion of Ukraine. One of the reasons why I didn’t use my voice is because I was fully aware that many Russians are suspicious of what they call “Westblaming” or “Westsplaining” — which is rather like “mansplaining.” I was very aware of that, very conscious of that. But I was also very aware, from the last four years since Donald Trump was elected, of the weird fantasies the Western liberals have projected onto Russia, such as the idea that [Vladimir] Putin gave us Trump, which no Russian — whether they’re opponents of Putin or not — believes at all.
I was very conscious of all that. I felt that showing people the experience of living through recent Russian history would explain far more about Russia today than another Western rant about how awful Putin is or how corrupt the oligarchs are. I wanted to actually show the complex experience of that extraordinary moment, because I think it’s out of that that you get Putin. That was my idea. It’s really a different kind of history. Instead of viewing powerful men as always in control and making decisions, there’s an alternative perspective that sees them as products of intricate moments, and that’s what I wanted to convey.
Also, I didn’t want to impose an overly dominant narrative on the remarkable material I was fortunate enough to have. It’s nearly unprecedented to possess such an extensive collection of recorded footage from such a profoundly significant historical period. This was made possible by the technological advancements of the time, particularly the widespread use of beta video from the late 1980s until the end of the century. There was an extraordinary amount of recorded material. Prior to that point, film was used, and most of that has disappeared. After that period, news crews started using camera cards and were told to wipe their cards every night.
Such extraordinary material made for a unique window, and I thought it would be wrong for me to try and come forward, so I decided to pull back and just show what it felt like. I mean, obviously I’m not naive, I’m editorializing in how I edited it together because I’m telling you a story. But it’s a very simple and clear story of what it was like to have lived through that era.
What inspired you to make this film?
The footage. The guy who digitized it from the Moscow office of the BBC gave it to me. I kept looking at it, I mean, I had it for a year or so, perhaps a bit longer, and I found myself repeatedly drawn to it, pondering what to do with it. I decided to try and start building a thing out of it and see if it could take shape as a coherent project. I wasn’t certain if I could make it work, and I faced a couple of false starts initially, but then I found the right approach. It all began with the footage itself.
I’ve always been fascinated by Russia, and I’ve done films that are partly about Russia or contain footage from Russia, and I’ve always liked a lot of Russian music. But really it was the footage that ignited the project. When you consider the rapid transformations — the fall of Communism and the fall of democracy in Russia in the span of just twelve years — it is an extraordinary historical occurrence. I felt compelled to do something with this wealth of footage at my disposal.
Russia, Ukraine, and the Soviet Union
Did you intend for TraumaZone to provide some broader context for the war in Ukraine?
That wasn’t my aim, no, because, what I felt about the war in Ukraine, to be honest, is that no one understands it at this present moment — no one. And I think quite a few other people, are fed up with columnists trying to tell us about Ukraine.
What I was very aware of is that Ukraine has this very complex relationship with Russia, and it was an incredible and important part of the Soviet Union during its collapse. So, I covered it, but I didn’t do it for any special reason. I felt it would be inappropriate to single it out for special treatment. Instead, I chose to address Ukraine for the same reasons that were widely acknowledged at the time — it held great importance. And I tried to show that Ukraine had its own internal divisions, oligarchs, and corruption issues, as well as a distinct trajectory in the development of democracy. You can’t really tell the story of Russia without telling the story of the states that used to form the Soviet Union. Therefore, in addition to Ukraine, I explored Poland, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan because they all held significant relevance. I wanted to convey the complexity of the Soviet Union — a peculiar, multilayered empire in the throes of collapse.
I feel there are many journalists who talk about Ukraine, but what I was trying to do is something else entirely. I wanted to show the context from which Putin emerged, because I feel that at the present moment, what we are attempting to do — and this is in no way a justification of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine — is to simplify this conflict into one between “goodies” and “baddies.” What I considered crucial was to offer insight into the aftermath of an empire’s collapse, which, in turn, sheds light on Russia and Putin. I didn’t want to talk about the war in Ukraine because I don’t think anyone understands what is going on in Ukraine and how the war is going to play out.
What specific events from 1985 to 1999 do you think are perhaps the least appreciated in the West or most instructive to a contemporary audience to help explain Russia?
We in the West, ever since we “won” the Cold War, have tended to simplify the world into one of good versus evil; “goodies” versus “baddies.” Speaking as a journalist, I think most people have a simplified, cartoon-like vision of what happened to Russia ever since the collapse of Communism. The prevailing narrative often reduces it to a sequence of events: Communism collapsed in 1991, a group of oligarchs emerged, chaos ensued, there was a surge in crime, and then Putin took power. This basic outline seems to be the extent of many people’s understanding.
What I wanted to show, and what I believe is a profoundly significant but often overlooked aspect in the West, is that not only did Communism crumble in 1991, leading to the fragmentation of a vast empire, but within a decade of these developments, the majority of Russians lost their faith in democracy. It’s crucial to recognize that alongside the collapse of Communism, there was a parallel collapse in trust in the other dominant ideology of our era in Russia — democracy. This fact tends to be greatly underappreciated.
What this means is that Russia, along with its various fragments emerging from the disintegration of its empire, no longer held belief in the two central ideologies of our time. I don’t think we understand that in the West at all and it helps to contextualize Putin. It doesn’t explain everything about him but it’s important to know.
There’s a guy at the end of the series, I think he was one of the most famous television presenters in Russia at that time, who’s on the BBC doing an interview, and he says, “Look, you just do not understand that now, if you accuse someone of being a democrat, you’re cursing them. Democracy is a curse word now.” It’s important for our society to know this . . . we’re rather smug about our democracy. We can say we hate Trump and all that, but we’re still very smug about it. We don’t realize the disenchantment people had for what they were told was democracy.
I very gently try to hint — very gently — that you could look at certain aspects of America and Britain in the last few years through the prism of what was happening in Russia through democracy. Mainly I was hinting at the corruption. As one Russian journalist said to me, London now does feel a bit like Moscow in 1988. My primary goal was to tell the story, but I also wanted to convey that disenchantment with democracy can have its roots in corruption. And there’s quite a lot of corruption in Britain, Canada, and the United States, especially since 2008. I still don’t think we got our heads around what quantitative easing was about, which essentially entailed a massive wealth transfer to a tiny elite, creating what is now known as the “asset class.”
I think we may look back at the last ten to twelve years and say that the rise of the “asset class” was as powerfully significant as the rise of the oligarchs in Russia from about 1992 onward. They’re not the same, it’s not the same kind of society or the same kind of corruption, but it is the same extraordinary transfer of power and wealth to a tiny elite. I don’t think we’ve got our heads around that yet.
My main aim, I must emphasize this, was to show people what that period in Russia looked like, what it felt like, because I had all this extraordinary footage. You asked the question “What’s the thing I think people should know?” and it’s what it actually felt like for that young girl begging on the streets of Moscow, or two old women eking out a living in a village in the middle of the snowy wastes of Siberia. It’s about feeling the impact of this cataclysm unfolding around them. To me, this is the material of exceptional novels, and to actually have the real footage was an extraordinary opportunity.
Hyperrationalization and Madness
In the second part, there’s a notable emphasis placed on Soviet efforts to try and organize society rationally. This theme is underscored by the failure of the “Intensification 90” program, epitomized by the oligarch who profited immensely from selling off oil, then reinvested in a large number of computers, ultimately selling them back to the state at an exorbitant price. The scene then cuts to a guy using one of those computers to play video games while he’s supposed to be working. The Soviets placed their trust in technology, which ultimately didn’t yield the desired outcomes, and we might be seeing a similar trend today in the West.
The Russians have always had an obsession with rationality. In that same film I tell the story of what happened to the Soviet plan, the idea that you could rationally organize the whole of society, and how it ended in madness. People often ask me, and I think it’s quite an interesting question, why do I think democracy failed so badly in Russia.
I think the answer is that the person in charge of creating that democracy overnight, a man by the name of Yegor Gaidar, came out of the technocratic establishment under the Soviet plan. I think he was trying to bring democracy to Russia in a “rational” way, and it was completely mad. He thought that if you got the right things in the right place it would work just like a machine. But as I’ve shown, it was ruthlessly exploited by the oligarchs for their own advantage, and it led to a total and utter, cataclysmic, disaster.
I’ve always been suspicious of the techno-utopian projects, which people try to see as an alternative to politics and power. You see it in Silicon Valley today, this idea that somehow the dirty, nasty corruption of politics and power can be bypassed by a simple, rational, management of society. The internet is fantasized as a new kind of democracy in which people would talk to each other one-on-one without power interfering.
I’m always suspicious of this idea because I think the one thing that we don’t acknowledge enough in our present individualized society is power and how power can be ruthlessly used. This is especially true when you have a society where people are very much on their own as individuals, which was happening in Russia in the 1990s, and it’s sort of happening now in our societies in the West. People feel very alone, they’re very frightened about the future and they have no way of actually challenging the corruption that’s going on all around them.
It is extraordinary that politicians seem unable to stop the corruption — we all know it’s happening and they know that we know it’s happening. And they know that we know that they don’t know what to do about it. It’s absurd. And actually, in many ways it’s as absurd as what was happening in Russia in the 1990s. I’m always suspicious of techno-utopianism. It’s the easy fix — this weird idea that you can simplify the world into a simple machine and somehow then run it in a rational way. The Russians went further than anyone else has, but Silicon Valley from the 1990s onward was always trying to push that idea. Still is.
The similarity between Moscow in 1988 and London today is that everyone knew the elite was looting society. Everyone knew that those in charge didn’t know what to do about it. But they also knew that no one, including themselves, had any idea of any alternative. And that is very similar to today. We all know it’s happening. We know the politicians don’t know what to do about it, but none of us have any idea of what an alternative solution would be. This particular juncture in history is quite interesting. Historically, there have typically been alternative ideas waiting in the wings. However, in the current context, we seem to be lacking such alternatives, which strikes me as exceedingly peculiar.
Why do you think that is?
I have no idea. It’s like we all got stuck in a strange theater full of pantomime villains that we all shout at. I didn’t buy into the whole “Trump is fascist” thing at all, he was a pantomime villain that we got into a kind of “call and response” thing with. And the same is true of Brexit here. And somehow it became a way of avoiding having to face the fact that none of us, whether it’s Donald Trump or nice liberals, have any idea of how to create an alternative, fair, and just society that would work. We have a lot of dreams, but we know we don’t know what to do. And we know that those in power don’t know what to do.
What happens in the face of that is an addiction to a historical pantomime that doesn’t actually change anything. I think it’s astonishing that in America, between 2016 and today, despite the hysteria, nothing has actually changed to deal with the inequalities, the corruption, and the decay of the infrastructure. And the same is true since Brexit in the UK.
And I’m afraid I have to point the finger as much at the Left and the liberals as the Right. They did nothing, they played their role in the pantomime, which is to say that they shout and shriek and say, “He’s behind you!” While outside the theater they were locked in too, money and assets were moved in vast quantities into the hands of a tiny elite, and they did nothing to stop it.
It’s a shocking indictment and I don’t know why that happened. You tell me. Why? Why did they do nothing? Why did they not go to the voters who voted for Trump and Brexit and tried to change their mind? Why didn’t they go to them and say, “You’re right, you are living a horrible, shitty, corrupted, decaying existence because you have been ruthlessly used and abused — you’re right to feel this way but you’re being conned by people on the Right. We can offer the better solution.” Why didn’t they do that? Because they didn’t have a solution of their own and they still don’t. And I can’t claim the higher ground either because I don’t have it.
It’s easier to hit the panic button.
Yes, it’s an addiction to crisis. It’s like when people are constantly hysterical about one thing, but they’re actually avoiding having to deal with something else altogether. It’s a bit like that, but on a much grander scale. Constant hysteria. I’m quite shocked by the fact that no one did anything over the last four years. It’s a very static society, one that’s full of performances.
Everyone performs. The politicians perform as politicians, but they’re shit and everyone knows they’re not going to do anything. Some of us perform as indignant, outraged liberals, but we know in our heart of hearts that it’s not going to have any effect. The Right does its pantomime culture war thing, but it’s all just performance inside the theater. What we seem to lack is the ability to leave the theater and understand what’s going on outside its walls.