A thought struck me towards the end of the fourth (of seven) episodes of Adam Curtis’ new documentary series about the fall of Communism (and democracy) in Russia between 1985 and 1999. Obviously, the series (Traumazone) provoked a lot of different thoughts, along with horror and sorrow and pity, but this was one in particular, which hit me in the midst of the most farcical week of British politics I can ever remember.
But before I get to that thought, another: shame on the BBC for sticking this on the iPlayer and not having the balls to broadcast it properly. Yeah, yeah, I know, we live in a new universe of streaming, but the BBC isn’t Netflix and its audience is made up of a broader set of demographics. I was complaining about the BBC just the other day, and the concealment of something as playfully provocative and tragic as this (and the previous Can’t Get You Out of My Head) on the iPlayer is just cowardice. But maybe Curtis likes it that way.
Traumazone was advertised as having “no commentary”, which wasn’t strictly true. It had subtitles and captions, so if you looked up (as I was forced to do, for once, like an animal) you could read his deliberately ugly captions, which were so clearly written in his voice that you could say them out loud in his style. So what I wish is, Adam Curtis had read out his script instead of sticking it on as captions. I suppose it was shorter and less detailed than usual, but still.
I’ll confess that I probably missed a good 50% of it, because I am long out of the habit of actually watching the television. This is partly because I am a chronic second screener, but also because most television appears to be just a black screen at the moment (see recent episodes of House of the Dragon, for example).
With that caveat, let’s call it. Russia: what a shithole. Always has been and apparently always will be. I read (heard?) somewhere that the population of Russia is about half what it ought to be because of Stalin’s murderous regime, and that probably helps explain its backwards economy, but if we’re honest, life for ordinary Russians hasn’t really improved since the time of Peter the Great.
The overall impression of shittiness is not helped, of course, by the low-grade video quality, and that sense that you’re watching B-roll and outtakes. But when you do look up at the screen, you see people scrabbling about in the dirt like people in that Millet painting, The Gleaners, wearing shabby clothes, or ill-fitting uniforms, driving crap cars through crap streets from crap flats to empty supermarkets.
And while the ordinary people suffered in their ordinary way, the moneyed class, liberated by Gorbachev and unleashed by Yeltsin, continued to loot and steal and cheat their way to oligarchy.
But it was when it got to the bit where the hopelessly drunk Yeltsin was crying, ‘They are stealing Russia’, and British politics was going through its most recent turmoil that the thought struck me. What happened in Russia between 1985 and 1999 was happening here, too, at more or less the same time. Maybe it started earlier, in 1979, but it has been exactly the same process.
The privatisation of state assets and the concentration of money and power so that a tiny minority can accumulate vast wealth, pay no tax, and escape prosecution because state regulation is toothless? How is what happened to the UK economy, starting with the privatisation of British Aerospace and British Telecom, any different? Only this summer, everyone was tearing their hair out about private water companies making vast profits whilst losing huge quantities of fresh water to leaks and spewing sewage into rivers and onto beaches. Consequences so far? None.
So it’s easy, isn’t it, to watch a documentary like this and gasp at the state of Russia and the squalor and poverty and misery. But we’re really just a couple of clicks of the dial away from living in tunnels underground. We’ve got energy companies reaping the enormous benefits of Putin’s war while we avoid running the heating. We’ve got a movement clamouring for the return of the useful idiot Johnson, just like the oligarchs made use of the idiot Yeltsin. And we had fictitious companies, set up by friends of members of the government making quick money (not) delivering PPE during the pandemic. Corruption? They got it, but so do we.
Talking of useful idiots, it was really quite eye opening to see visits by Bush Snr, the Clintons, the Queen, and even Blair to a Russia that was really already a failed state, with homeless people living in abandoned tunnels, armed gangs shooting each other on the streets, workers not being paid, and endemic corruption.
They are stealing Russia? Look around you: they already stole the UK.