By Paul Goble
April 28, 2015

The 150-minute film “The President” about Vladimir Putin is mostly boring and predictable in that it insists that “without Vladimir Vladimirovich nothing in the country will work,” Kseniya Kirillova notes. But she points out that there are three “lessons” contained in the film that must not be ignored.

First, she argues, despite all the anti-Americanism he has promoted, Putin clearly indicates in the film that the model of the world order he would like to see is one in which Russia and the US would jointly decide all of the world’s “most important” geopolitical issues and divide up the world into “spheres of influence.”

While the Kremlin leader does not say so, this would be a return to what he now sees as the way the world worked between the Yalta and Potsdam conferences at the end of World War II and the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and one in which other countries, especially small ones, would have little or no voice about their fates.

Second, in the film, Putin offered the clearest indication yet that not only does he consider the disintegration of the USSR the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the last century but views it in a way that is absolutely at variance with the facts, one that points to more trouble ahead for all of the former Soviet republics and occupied Baltic states.

According to Putin, “all of us had illusions: it seemed then that after the destruction of the Soviet Union and after Russia voluntarily – I stress this – voluntarily and consciously” gave up its “own territory, productive capacity and so on, with the departure of the ideological component which separated the former Soviet Union and the entire rest of the civilized world, than now the fetters would fall and ‘freedom would greet us joyously at the entrance.”

Such ideas have been circulating in the Moscow elite for some time, Kirillova says, pointing to a recent essay by Pavel Kazarin who noted that “in the consciousness of many representatives of the Russia elite, Moscow did not lose ‘the cold war.’ More than that, in their opinion, the division of the Union took place not so much as a result of the collapse of the Soviet model… but rather as a result of the Kremlin voluntarily agreeing to join the club of western players.”

As a result, Kazarin says, “Moscow conducts itself as if the Soviet Union had not fallen apart, as if it had only been reformatted but with relations between the vassals and sovereign retained in their former state.” (For a discussion of Kazarin’s argument and its implications, see this.)

In “The President,” Putin goes even further and declares that “Russia voluntarily gave up its own territories,” Kirillova says, an assertion so sweepingly at odds with reality that it is important to remember what actually happened 25 years ago.

“When Putin speaks about the territorial losses of Russia, he is directly declaring that all the former union republics are Russian territories! Nota bene: he designates them already not as ‘zone of influence’ … but as [his country’s] ‘own territory,’ from which Russia ‘voluntarily withdrew.”

“In fact,” Kirillova observes, “the present-day Russian Federation exists in the very same border that the RSFSR had; that is there were no territorial changes in Russia itself in connection with the collapse of the USSR. The republics which acquired independence after 1991 were never part of the RSFSR.”

From this it follows, she continues, “when Putin speaks about the territorial losses of Russia, he is directly declaring that all the former union republics are Russian territories! Nota bene: he designates them already not as ‘zone of influence’ … but as [his country’s] ‘own territory,’ from which Russia ‘voluntarily withdrew.”

That is simply an Orwellian retelling of what happened: In reality, “all the union republics, including even Ukraine and Belarus the closest to Russia, proclaimed their sovereignty in 1989-1990, that is, before 1991, and this phenomenon even received a name, ‘the parade of sovereignties.'”

There was nothing voluntary in Moscow’s response: It tried to crush Lithuania first by an economic blockade and then by the direct application of military force. But it failed to stop “the movement for exit from the USSR” that was “born in all the union republics.” As a result, after the failure of the August 1991 putsch, “the disintegration of the Union was inevitable.”

The Belavezha Accords of December 8, 1991, usually seen as the death certificate of the USSR simply put on paper what had already taken place, a reminder that “even when these republics were in the USSR, none of them called themselves ‘Russia’s own territory.'” That is a Putinism that goes back to tsarist times.

And finally third, Putin’s film underscored how isolated Russia is in the former Soviet space, not how much the peoples and countries of that territory continue to look to Moscow as Vladimir Putin suggests they should. The only foreign leader who gets a positive reference in the film is Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev.

One might have expected there to be some reference to Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the leader of a country that is part of Putin’s union state of Russia and Belarus. But “obviously, the prospects of considering his country Russia’s territory do not generate any pleasure” with the Belarusian leader who has been distancing himself from Moscow over and as a result of Ukraine.

Putin’s “myth about the voluntary, carried out ‘from above’ demise of the USSR, which completely ignores the will of the peoples populating it, shows,” Kirillova concludes, “that the Kremlin has not drawn any conclusions from its collapse, and lessons which are not learned as is well known, have a tendency to be repeated.”

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. He has served as director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn, and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. Earlier he has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.