Blog Post

“A Bitter Taste of Freedom”—How Sweet It Is!

Thanks to my friend Tom Luddy, the Director of the Telluride Film Festival, I had a pleasant surprise waiting for me in my mailbox on Sunday afternoon, “A Bitter Taste of Freedom” (2011), a cinematic biographical tribute to and about Anna Politkovskaya. The film was directed and, in part, shot by a much acclaimed Russian documentary film maker, Marina Goldovskaya, who had known and interviewed her subject personally, but it is not so much Anna Politkovskaya (much has been written about her) as the film itself that I am most interested in thinking about.

Anna Politkovskaya

As we all know, a biographical tribute, documentary or otherwise, is always a mythology, because the materials are both selected and organized by the author—who always keeps one eye on the present, the moment that is shaped, among other things, by the outlook and interests of the author, whether they are acknowledged or not. "A Bitter Taste of Freedom" is no different in this respect from any other work of this kind. Two ostensibly historical lines frame its film narrative. One is Russia’s passage from perestroika to the fall of communism and, eventually, the Chechen war and the Putin presidency; the other is a personal story of Politkovskaya, her student years, her happy marriage to a man who became the center of the most daring and entertaining TV news program in the perestroika years, their eventual estrangement, divorce, and her professional rise in the late 1990s as an investigative journalist working for one of the few remaining independent news outlets, Novaya gazeta. Inside this frame is the strong and attractive, not to say beautiful, face of Anna Politkovskaya.

In a nutshell, “A Bitter Taste of Freedom” is a hagiography of a latter-day Russian martyr and, perhaps, a holy woman, and perhaps, even a saint. The voice over tells us more than once that the Chechen women – whose loved ones had been killed, tortured, or kidnapped by the Russian forces, and whose cause Politkovskaya fearlessly publicized – prayed to her. Goldovskaya shows masterfully – and here she really hits the mark – what a charismatic person is about: intense and radiant with the sense of purpose and rectitude, wholly dedicated to her cause, and perhaps most important, vibrating with the sense of vocation. Charisma of course is the name of a type of social bond existing between the charismatic person and her followers, and Goldovskaya never tires of showing the worshipful admiration with which the Chechen women and others treated Politkovskaya. As a study in charismatic journalism, although it may not have been intended as such, the documentary wins high marks and will be worth studying in schools of journalism.

There is also plenty of good footage from the 1980s to the present, along with a series of interviews of Anna Politkovskaya that the film maker had recorded over a course of several years (among them, a lot of close-ups of Politkovskaya being interviewed in her bathrobe in her hotel in LA, just before she rushed to Moscow to participate in negotiations with the terrorists who had seized a Moscow theatre).

Unintentionally, though, and most interesting for this writer, the film provides plenty of food for thought about the way that members of Russian intelligentsia, including Goldovskaya herself, look at the world through the prism of victimization: innocent victims of evil power who are redeemed symbolically in the acts and above all, death of a martyr-intercessor. There are other “habits of thought,” all too familiar to the students of Russian culture and society, for example, that Moscow equals Russia. There is a long shot of the Moscow 1990 or 1991 march along Gorky Street meant to illustrate the real freedom enjoyed by Russian citizens that has now been lost under Putin. The sad truth is that Moscow, more exactly, the center of Moscow, is not Russia. I was in Moscow in the heady days of the August 1991 Putsch, and I remember being shocked by the routine normalcy of life just outside the small perimeter around the White House, not to mention outside Moscow or in other parts of the vast USSR, save St. Petersburg. This is probably the hardest truth for the Moscow intelligentsia elite to absorb (and has been for over a hundred and fifty years, at least since Alexander Herzen's acute observation).

The context provided by the film leads the viewer into believing that it was by sheer transcendence that Politkovskaya managed to stand up to the Russian Leviathan. These intelligentsia elite optics cast Politkovskaya into a giant herself while Putin awkward explanation (the footage of his press conference in Prague) that the Kremlin had no rational motive to kill Politkovskaya, because her activities “had very little impact on Russian politics” begins to sound like a denial of a self-evident fact of Politkovskaya’s importance and, by an unspoken implication, of Putin’s complicity. Putin, of course, as well as those who might wish to please him by assassinating the Kremlin gadfly, the FSB, the Chechen Supremo and his minions, have been mentioned in the press as possible conspirators. By the same token, though, their opponents had as much to gain from the assassination by embarrassing the authorities and showing how helpless these strongmen really were. Goldovskaya seems to be pointing her finger, though never explicitly, at Putin and nobody else. To the extent that Putin is where the proverbial buck stops, she has a point (Politkovskaya, too, Putin was the ultimate anti-hero) but given the fact that, pace Wikileaks, only 40% of Putin’s orders are ever followed up, it would have been only appropriate to mention other possibilities.

What is, perhaps, most puzzling about the film is its actual voiding of history in favor of myth in its presentation of the turmoil in Chechnya, the main focus of Politkovskaya’s investigative journalism and, ipso facto, the documentary itself.There is no mention that Yeltsin decision to send troops to Chechnya, however ill-fated, was a response to the civil war raging in Chechnya, de jure still under Russia's jurisdiction, in which Chechens had been killing Chechens and the central government had lost all control 1991-1994. Nor is there a single word about the apartment building bombings in Moscow in 1999 (and elsewhere) that preceded Putin's notorious "we'll look for the terrorists everywhere and we'll rub them out, and if we find them in the toilet, we'll rub them out in the toilet." Nor will anyone watching this film have any idea that Chechnya enjoyed a virtual independence in 1994-1999, with no central government presence in the republic itself, until Shamil Basayev (who had just resigned as Prime Minister of Chechnya), along with his Jordanian jihadist confrere Al-Khattab, led their Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade <sic> into the neighboring Dagestan - de jure and de facto, part of the Russian Federation. In response to this act of aggression, Putin and Yeltsin, then still President, sent Russian forces back into Chechnya, beginning what is known as the Second Chechen War (1999-2006).

The brutality and atrocities perpetrated by the Russian troops in Chechnya are, of course, well-documented by human rights groups, journalists, foremost among them Anna Politkovskaya. But watching this film, you will learn little about the forces on the other side – those who chose violence, unleashing what is now a decade-long civil war in North Caucasus, whether in the name of independence of Chechnya or the establishment of the Caucasus Emirate, or joining the fight for the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate. What we see in the film are Chechen women weeping, mourning, pleading – and praying to their only savior Anna Politkovskaya. Even the seizure of a crowded Moscow theater (Nord-Ost) by a group of Chechen terrorists in 2002 that resulted in the death of one hundred and thirty hostages, largely because of a botched rescue, is placed by the director at the feet of Vladimir Putin. True, he had apparently overseen the rescue himself and must bear the responsibility for his mistakes, but surely the blame should be with the terrorists, who threatened to blow up the theater and its nine hundred hostages and probably would have, had it not been for the rescue, botched or otherwise. For Goldovskaya, it seems, there is but one source of evil.

The film sounds a tragic note: a brilliant, fearless reporter, who took on a whole state establishment, is gunned down in the prime of her life. Paradoxically, though, it is this tragic note that sounds false, because in the end, “A Bitter Taste of Freedom” is a feel-good documentary: good people are on this, our side, the side of the good; the evil are on the other. Politkovskaya herself, judging by her own book, Putin’s Russia, knew better: 

All of us are responsible for what has been going on [in Russia]. The responsibility is ours above all, not Putin's. Our “kitchen” reaction to Putin (grumble about him over the kitchen table) and his cynical profanation of Russia – this is what made it possible for Putin to do what he had done to the country in the last four years. Political apathy shown by society is bottomless, and it is this apathy that has given Putin the pass to continue for four more years <treating the Russian people> like cattle…

 

Copyright © 2011 by gfreidin@stanford.edu

Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
Gregory Freidin has written and taught extensively on Russian culture, literature, politics and society. His long-standing project on the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel includes a series of essays, the Norton Critical Edition of Babel's writings, letters, reminiscences and critical reception Isaac Babel's Selected Writings, W.W. Norton, 2009); a collection of essays on Babel's works and days, The Enigma of Isaac Babel, Stanford UP, 2009); his own critical biography of the writer, A Jew on Horseback: The Worlds of Isaac Babel, is forthcoming.  Freidin’s first critical biography, Coat of Many Colors (1987), a study of the life and oeuvre of the poet Osip Mandelstam, was reissued in paperback in 2010.  In 2004, Freidin organized an International Isaac Babel Conference and Workshop at Stanford, producing the U.S. premiere of Isaac Babel's play "Maria" (directed by Carl Weber) and curating an exhibition on Babel at the Hoover Libraries and Archives. These Babel-related events have received a permanent lease on life in “Babel in California,” by Elif Batuman, the events’ participant observer, who opens with it her critically acclaimed collection Possessed (FSG, 2010). Freidin's interest in contemporary Russian politics and culture found its venue in the US and Russian Press, as well as in the major conference held at Stanford University in 1998 - Russia at the End of the Twentieth Century - that brought together scholars, journalists, editors, and government officials from Russia and the US, including the Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott, with who he translated the second volume of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament (1974). The First Russian edition of The Federalist Papers came out in Freidin's translation and with his introduction in 1990. Freidin grew up in Moscow and emigrated to the US in 1971. He attended Brandeis University in 1972 and University of California at Berkeley in 1972-78 (M.A. and Ph.D.). Freidin career at Sanford spans 1985-2014. Professor Emeritus, he now resides in Berkeley, California, where he continues his writings and research. A contributor to Arcade, Freidin maintains a personal blog on culture and politics The Noise of Time.