The collapse of Russia becomes a docu

A dark road cuts through an icy landscape as ghostly music plays. Welcome to thepost-Soviet hell, where people queue for food, workers are paid with the items they produce, the poor sell anything to survive – from blood to their own bodies – and those who enter are better off abandoning all hope. Or at least, this is the message that the overture of TraumaZonesthe last one documentary series by the British Adam Curtis produced by the BBC. Seven episodes for seven hours, trying to tell the story of double collapse occurred in Russia between 1985 and 1999: the destruction of communism and that of democracy.

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For those unfamiliar with the style of Curtis, a cult intellectual in Great Britain, we recommend watching an amusing pastiche that can be found on YouTube, entitled The Loving Trap. The poor director is being parodied as a pioneer of the documentary-collagea genre that resembles “an all-night Wikipedia hangover with pretensions to narrative coherence” and that “spews grainy library movies onto the screen to a soundtrack by Brian Eno and Nine Inch Nails.”

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Not only that: on Twitter someone has also invented a Curtis Bingo, which pigeons the author’s obsessions and distinctive features into a grid: his narrative voice that often repeats the phrase “but this was just an illusion”, the electronic music , the dance scenes apparently out of context, the inevitable clips with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the big white titles in Helvetica font that separate one chapter from the other, the clips of warlike atrocities. All mounted with one typical postmodern stylefull of irony.

Courtesy BBC

In TraumaZones, however, there is little to laugh about. Now Curtis’s voice-over is absent, and the music reduced to an industrial sound, frozen, limited to the end credits. The subtext accompanying the images is minimal. The rhythm is dictated by the pitiless succession of one countless amount of footage, almost unknown to the general public, depicting a world at the end of its days. This is the body of the work, which leads us in unsettling directions: at the mythological Hotel Cosmos in Moscow, for example, built in 1980 for the Olympics and inhabited mostly by prostitutes, we see water flowing from the taps so brown that there can’t be only rust inside. A cut then takes us to a space station, where the cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev is abandoned and alone. He was among the stars when the USSR collapsedand no one bothers to bring it back anymore.

The body of the work consists of an innumerable amount of footage, almost unknown to the general public, depicting a world at the end of its days

There are the harbingers of a conflict that will explode thirty years later: while the miners of Donbassround and drunk, are on strike while their industries about to be sold off to the oligarchs, in the coldest western Ukraine raise their heads anti-Russian nationalists, and a patrol of US evangelical preachers visits young prisoners. The decaying colossus releases the ethnocentric spirits in the Caucasus and the Baltic countries; in Central Asia, the transition from the soviet to democracy is not even simulated, autocratic and bankrupt satrapies are immediately established. All of this takes place under the eyes of a West convinced that it has won the match with history.

traumazone russia documentary adam curtis

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Some moments are grotesque, like when you see a Moscow space museum turned Eurotrash nightclub, or a couple filming porn so desperate, so sleazy that it seems born from the mind of Werner Herzog. Some women of the metropolitan bourgeoisie, believing they are closer to Paris than to Siberia, spread the word about Mary Kay, a brand of beauty products spread thanks to a multi-level marketing system, by word of mouth among unsuspecting housewives, through not too much mental manipulation. different from that of religious sects.

However, the more intimate and bleak stories prevail: a poor mother who bids farewell to her son just before he leaves for two years of military service during which, most likely, he will end up killed in Afghanistan; another of her has the purpose of life to find the body of her son mangled in Chechnya – war fought by Moscow to consolidate public opinion – because without the official status of the corpse it could never have a pension. There are teenagers queuing up for abortions, some have already done it a dozen times, because abortion has been legal in Russia for decades but sex education is lacking, and then mature women who have abortions because they live in families of five or you are in a room: yet they are mercilessly blamed. In other scenes, a BBC crew bribes a little girl with hamburgers to make her beg on camera.

Some moments are grotesque, like when you see a space museum turned Eurotrash nightclub, or a couple filming porn so desperate it looks like it was born from the mind of Herzog

Curtis’ vision is rather orthodox, it must be said, and whoever expects a nostalgic re-reading of theUSSR will be disappointed. What emerges is rather the emotion for a universe that, seen today, seems impossible to have existed: in its weakened and adaptive humanity, in its desolate spontaneity, in its kitsch. From the very first episode of the series we are shown the crimes and sins of the Communismstarting with the urban legend about the man-ape army dreamed of by Stalin, or from the Gosplan mega-office, where the Moscow gerontocracy established what and how much was produced in Yakutia or Kamchatka. The planned economy, we understand, was never going to work anyway, and the protests would have turned into unstoppable waves. Gorbachev tries to react to the crisis by opening the system to reforms, but it will end up revealing its rottenness and its irrecoverability. Hence the arrival of “shock therapy”.

traumazone russia documentary adam curtis

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Within a handful of meetings supervised by Western economists, prices are abolished in Russia to create a system in which the natural equilibrium is that of the market. The negative hero of 1991 is Yegor Gaidar, the architect of shock therapy, a round, sweaty little man who bangs his head in the voting booth and stammers when the first effects on the population make themselves felt: life expectancy falls by six years, the deaths in excess of the average are those of a war, the people indulge in bad vodka and mass nihilism. “If you had one wish, what would it be?” asks the interviewer of a humble woman, who is trying to re-stick the damp wallpaper on one wall: “I have no dreams and even if I did they wouldn’t come true. I don’t believe in nothing and nobody… I don’t even believe in you”, she replies.

In the mid-nineties, throughout the post-Soviet region never dormant cultural tensions explode and opportunists take possession of national industries and become extra-rich, while the implementation of neoliberal policies results in a prolonged recession. Nothing sums up the tragedy more accurately than a Yeltsin drunk man staring at the wall and telling his bodyguard that “they [gli oligarchi] they’re stealing all of Russia from themselves.” This is where it emerges Vladimir Putin, to fill the vacuum of power that had arisen, receiving once again the support of the West as the only man apparently able to stabilize the situation without socialist regurgitations. Any meaningful semblance of democracy in Russia is as good as gone.

traumazone russia documentary adam curtis

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Some might argue that TraumaZones it’s flawed because the shooting is too random, like a blobs, the historical story too superficial, and the narration too summary. The testimonials? Perhaps too Moscow-centric, given that the voices of true nostalgics or communists who crossed their arms, yes, but to save the Union, are not heard enough. They existed too. Yet this is one of the aspects that make the documentary more fascinating: it is as if we were looking at a family album, among photos that are partly mocking, partly mystifying. We are allowed to make up our own mind. Like when, at the end of the series, there’s a scene where two desperate men dig up the grave of a German soldier, hoping to find valuables. It is impossible not to feel, we spectators, the real repulsive monsters, gazing into the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe in peacetime, to which we have given no response.

It is impossible not to feel, we viewers, the real monsters, digging into the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe in peacetime, to which we have given no response

Despite numerous simplifications, Curtis’s obsessive attention to all things morbid and even a certain fetish for the misery porn, the series remains a valuable document and at times moving, which helps to remember what many have an interest in removing: Russia is a nation that collectively still suffers today from stress post-traumatic.

The collapse of Russia becomes a docu-series