Vladimir Putin isn’t known for really opening up during interviews, although there are a few things we can learn from Oliver Stone’s The Putin Interviews.
The first is that Oliver Stone is a bit of a brown noser, because the general consensus is that viewers witnessed a “series of softballs lobbed lovingly in the direction of one of the most powerful and dangerous men in the world” (we’re not including that in the five things we learnt, though).
Rolling Stone‘s words, not mine, who also accuse Stone of seeming “serenely unconcerned with anything beyond flattering his subject”.
There are still a few lessons to learn from the four part series, which draws on 30-plus hours of Stone / Putin interviews between July 2015 and February 2017, so let’s get stuck in:
Putin’s Really, Really Into Fitness
The two things that Putin invariably brings up out of nowhere: how much he hates NATO; and how much he loves Judo. He says he’s been practicing the discipline since he was 13, and he has a statue of the founder in a place of privilege in his extensive private sports facility, which he proudly shows off to Stone.
He claims that Judo informs his actions in politics, saying that he favors [sic] flexibility and sometimes giving in to others “if that is the way leading to victory.”
Women to the Sidelines
It’s impossible not to notice that in four hours’ worth of footage, there are almost no women who ever make an appearance – even in the background – in Putin’s insular, patriarchal world…
But the ladies do get a mention in one of the few jokes that the po-faced Putin ever makes: When Stone asks him if he ever has “bad days,” the president replies, “I’m not a woman, so I don’t have bad days.” “There you go,” Stone responds with a chuckle. “Now you’re gonna insult 50 percent of the American public. The way they’re gonna take it.”
“I’m not trying to insult anyone. That’s just the nature of things,” Putin replies. Did we stumble into an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale?
It’s Totally Cool to Be Gay in Russia, Right?
According to Putin, Russia doesn’t engage in “any restrictions, any persecutions” of homosexuals, which is demonstrably untrue: A sweeping anti-gay law that Putin signed in 2013 places restrictions on distributing LGBTQ “propaganda” to minors, an act vaguely defined enough to allow for sweeping discrimination.
Though he does eventually acknowledge the existence of this law, Putin’s defense is that hey, at least it’s not as bad as the death penalty. Um, pretty low bar? He insists that it’s a matter of holding up “traditional values” and birth rates, because “God has decided.”
When Stone asks if Putin would be comfortable sharing a shower with a gay man in a military submarine, the president laughs and says: “Well, I prefer not take a shower with him. Why provoke him? But you know, I’m a Judo master and a SAMBO master as well.” Nope, no homophobia to see here. Move along.
How Many Offices Does One Man Need?
If you’re Vladimir Putin, the answer is apparently three, all right next to each other, somewhere inside the vast gold-flecked maze of the Kremlin. “It used to be bigger during the Soviet era,” the president says of Office Number One, which used to belong to Joseph Stalin. He then proceeds to lead the camera crew through two adjacent offices, one stuffed with framed prints leaning against the wall and another with two desks scrunched up side by side.
Then it’s off to the situation room, where Stone sits back to watch what seem to be some highly staged video calls with his subordinates. “At a set time, we will take further steps to accomplish this mission,” a general calling from Syria announces from the screen. The whole tour seems designed as a performative demonstration of Putin’s power, and the only one who doesn’t seem to get that it’s all for show is Stone.
What Election Hacking? [Whistles Innocently]
In their final interview, held in February of this year, Stone asks Putin why he decided to hack the election. “We did not hack the election at all,” he declares. He goes on to says that the “unrecognized hackers” who broke into the DNC’s computer network “have brought to light the problems that existed, but they didn’t tell any lies.” And anyway, “Hackers are not the ones to blame. These are internal problems of the United States.”
Putin doggedly, brazenly refuses to admit to what the intelligence community has all but agreed to be true, but he gives himself away: As he dodges Stone’s questions, his usually calm demeanor gives way to nervous finger-drumming and lowered glances. There was no way he was ever going to admit to anything here, but watching the president’s usually controlled body language betray him was perhaps the one true revelatory moment of this series.
So no pee tapes then? Come on, Vlad, share that gift with the world.
I suppose it takes a pretty brave person to go into the dragon’s den and put Vladimir on the spot, and it’s clear that Oliver Stone is not that person.