Sergei Davidis: On the film ‘Traitors’

21 April 2024

Source: Facebook


These days everyone seems to be writing about the first episode of the series ‘Traitors’, but I don’t like to watch such things, and I don’t think it’s right to write without watching, so I didn’t write.

But anyhow I did get round to watching this film yesterday, so now I can give my view, like all other good people.

I will not say, however, that my impressions are highly original or that I was strongly moved by what I saw.

The facts described in the film are more or less common knowledge. Even if there are some minor inaccuracies in their presentation.

Maybe for very young people the story of fraudulent privatization, the transformation of power into money and money into power, in the 1990s might seem like a revelation. But strictly speaking, of course, it is not.

It is clear the film presents events in a schematic and simplified way, something quite natural for political propaganda. To reproach the authors for this schematism would be rather odd. All the more ridiculous are statements that the authors are too young to judge the epoch.

Accusations that the authors are guilty of Bolshevism, or too ready to draw up lists for the firing squad and the like, based on the film’s contents, are nonsensical, as are accusations that those who criticise the film are working for the oligarchs, the FSB or the presidential administration – as in fact are all attacks of a personal nature when what should be discussed are the contents of the film itself.

As for these contents, of course, the film’s most important and useful message is that Putin and Putinism did not fall from the sky, destroying the wonderful democracy created by Yeltsin. As the film shows, Putin and Putinism have been a natural, organic continuation of what happened in the 1990s, a development of the worst aspects of the regime that existed in Russia before him.

At the same time, the authors’ inevitable simplifications are of such a kind that the picture of the world they present and the conclusions they draw are clearly distorted.

Corruption is bad, there is no disputing. However, reducing all the problems and difficulties of the world and of Russia in particular to corruption is a nonsense and involuntarily evokes associations with the image of the teacher from South Park telling his students, ‘Drugs are bad.’

On the one hand, to some extent, corruption exists everywhere and it is far from always the case that it leads to dictatorship and war. What matters is whether this corruption is systemic, whether there are institutions capable of curbing it and, most importantly, how intolerant society is of it. In this sense, treating the apartment on Osenny Boulevard or, even more absurdly, the hypocrisy of Yeltsin’s visits to a local health clinic, as the root causes of Russia’s catastrophe is obviously wrong.

On the other hand, while ‘corruption’ is, of course, a broad concept, its economic aspects, as described in the film, are in themselves clearly insufficient when we are looking for the causes of dictatorships and wars in general, or specifically in the case of Russia. The desire for power as such is a motive related to, but not the same as, the motive of corruption. And often the former is more important than the latter. Without referring to obvious examples from world history, we see confirmation of this in both the late Putin and the early Yeltsin.

As many commentators have rightly said, the political events of 1993 played a much bigger role in Russia’s fate than the corrupt deals that followed.

On another point, I agree with those who believe that the problems of the 1990s – both those described in the film and those omitted – were only the preconditions for future dictatorship, in terms of a ruling clan with a vested interest in holding on to power at any cost. But preconditions are not predetermination, and in the event, intentions are not always realised. Of course, the leaders of the 1990s bear a significant share of responsibility for the subsequent developments, but a much larger share of responsibility lies directly with Putin and his cronies, who established a dictatorship and plunged Russia into catastrophe.

Finally, and most importantly, the reduction of Russia’s problems, especially the problems of the 1990s, to personalities, as in the very title of the series, ‘Traitors,’ seems the most serious flaw in the picture of the world presented by the authors. True, those who came to power in the 1990s failed to justify our hopes. But the fact that they used public trust for personal enrichment and to keep their hands on the levers of power was possible because society allowed them to do so. Now it is difficult for society to stop Putin from doing anything – the process of creating a brutal dictatorship in control of all the country’s resources is over. In the 1990s, there were such opportunities. But there were neither the necessary will nor skills. There was no understanding of the importance of the exercise of oversight over political power, or of the importance of political participation. This condition of society was largely the result of the previous trajectory of the social and political developments over at least the preceding 70 years, or even longer. A result of the fact that freedom was given from above, and not won. And so on.

I think this was the main factor in creating the preconditions for everything that followed. No doubt bad luck also played a part: in the form of Yeltsin’s and Putin’s personal characteristics, in the dynamics of the commodity markets, in the policies of Western leaders, and so on.

The film quotes Aleksei Navalny as saying, ‘And now I come to my great fear. I don’t just believe, I know that Russia will have another chance. This is a historical process. We will once again come to a fork in the road. Sometimes at night I jump up from my prison bunk in terror and a cold sweat at the thought that we have had that other chance, and we wasted it as we did in the 1990s.’

To prevent this happening, it is by no means enough to point to some bad individuals who ‘betrayed’ Russia.

Moreover, reducing the film’s pathos and rhetoric to a denunciation of these scoundrels is, in fact, harmful. It creates the false impression that all we need do is call on good people to take up the reins of power next time round – instead of bad ones – and then we will be able to build the Beautiful Russia of the future.

But that won’t happen. God knows when we shall build it, but we won’t even be able to start moving in that direction until a significant part of society (not the whole of society – that never happens) takes on responsibility for the future instead of shifting it onto the bosses, leaders and heroes.


Translated by Simon Cosgrove