By Tony Wesolowsky
December 30, 2015
ARussian filmmaker is urging viewers to share his new documentary focusing on the less savory side of President Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, hoping to reach the widest possible audience.
"I call on all viewers out there to download and distribute the video so viewing of it can’t be blocked," said Valery Balayan, the creator of Khuizmisterputin.
The film, chronicling Putin’s ascent from the St. Petersburg mayor’s office to the presidency, was premiered for media in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, on December 29. It comes on the heels of fresh reports detailing allegations of corruption and links to organized crime.
"My task was to make an informative and entertaining film, to explain some things to people in a clear way. To explain that Putin began his career with thievery -- only on the scale of Leningrad, St.Petersburg -- and that he hasn’t changed," said Balayan, who has made more than 60 documentary films and has worked for RFE/RL.
"A person doesn’t change, just develops. [Putin] has developed to such a degree that a corporation of [former KGB officers] and representatives of the criminal underworld has taken control of Russia," Balayan said.
The film's tongue-twister title is a Russian transliteration of "Who Is Mr. Putin?" but also includes a play on a vulgar Russian word for the male sexual organ.
Balayan said that, for the most part, filming went smoothly -- until he and his team went to Ozero (Lake), a dacha cooperative that Putin and a group of business, political, and security acquaintances founded in 1996.
Their presence there apparently raised alarm bells.
"What you see in the film is just the tip of the iceberg, because there were security guards everywhere. They took video of us, filmed the car I arrived in, its license plate. They were making calls, reporting something or other," Balayan said.
"So, the four of us working on the film decided not to recount anything from that incident so as to avoid any information leaks," he said. "We understood that our subject was such that it was better not to attract any attention. And we were able to keep it quiet despite the fact that our work took eight months."
The film begins in the 1990s when Putin, after 16 years serving in the KGB, had a short stint in the mayor’s office in St. Petersburg, his hometown. Balayan said that it explains the future president’s involvement in barter deals that, he said, appear to have lined the pockets of Putin and his associates while bringing little benefit to the city itself.
The film focuses on a 1991 deal in which previous accounts have accused Putin of understating prices and permitting the export of metals valued at $93 million in exchange for foreign food aid that never made it to shop shelves.
"The most well-developed bandit-bureaucrat criminal system [in Russia] was in St. Petersburg," local journalist Vladimir Ivanidze recounts in the film.
Suspicions of connections with organized crime have dogged Putin for years. Such charges, however, have gained fresh momentum in recent weeks.
In November, the Russian journal The New Times published a summary of the findings of a Spanish probe into Russian organized crime that includes claims reaching all the way to Putin himself.
With reporting by Dmitry Volchek of RFE/RL’s Russian Service