There's a great moment in Tom Stoppard's play Jumpers when a husband tries to convince his wife that an election has been democratic. "I had a vote," he tells her, to which she replies, "It's not the voting that's democracy; it's the counting."
I thought of this line last December when, for the first time since the Soviet Union's fall, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets protesting what they insisted was a crooked parliamentary election. This was the first of three strikingly large demonstrations against Vladimir Putin, who has angered millions by seeking another stint as president in the upcoming March 4 elections — a maneuver that leads Russians to suspect he intends to be ruler for life. Which is something they know about all too well.
Now, it wasn't so long ago that Putin was so popular he was thought to be unassailable. But that has changed, and if you want to know why his support has fallen, you might start with Putin's Kiss, an absorbing new documentary by Danish director Lise Birk Pedersen. It charts four years in the life of Masha Drokova, who became famous as the girl who publicly kissed Putin.
When we first meet Masha, she's 16 and an avid member of Nashi, a youth group officially created to advance the Russian nation but designed, in fact, to promote Putin's party, United Russia. Ardent, articulate and full-figured — she's known as "the girl with the big breasts" — Masha quickly rises in Nashi. And because Nashi is linked to Putin, her fealty brings rewards. She gets a car, an apartment, a place in Moscow University, even her own TV show. Such are the glories of Putin's Russia.
But then this glory starts to curdle. Masha begins hanging out with people critical of Putin, including Oleg Kashin, a wry journalist who jokes that her life has become like a reality show. Not only does she grow more independent, but she also starts to see that Nashi has its sinister side. It marches through Moscow carrying placards showing the faces of people who are supposedly Russia's enemies — opposition politicians, muckraking journalists, even 80-year-old women renowned for their human-rights work during the Soviet era. By the time Kashin is nearly killed in a politically motivated beating, Masha's old certainties are evaporating.
Now, what makes Putin's Kiss interesting goes beyond Masha's personal rise and fall. For starters, it offers a fresh glimpse into how Putin's Russia actually works. We see why Putin, who always looked to me like a '60s James Bond villain, enjoyed years of popularity. Masha grew up watching him bring order and prosperity to a country that had melted down after the fall of communism. He seemed like a savior.
At the same time, we see how Putin, an ex-KGB man, has created his own version of democracy. He calls it "sovereign democracy," an oligarchy that uses everything from the police to street thugs to groups like Nashi to keep down anyone who might oppose him. Putin has created a Russia where you can do most of what you want — just so long as you don't question who's running it or how.
And because bad things can happen to those who do ask questions, it's hard not to marvel at those who stand up against the system. Most are not world-famous martyrs like the imprisoned oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Instead, they're like the heroes of Valery Panyushkin's recent book 12 Who Don't Agree — a gripping page-turner I highly recommend. It's about a dozen down-to-earth men and women who, for various reasons, have gotten fed up with Putinism. They oppose his rule — and pay the price in beatings, harassment, loss of jobs and social ostracism.
Masha's fate is less melodramatic, which is part of what makes Putin's Kiss so revelatory about what's happening in Russia right now. You see, Masha is no radical, no saint. This young woman who starts out the movie by kissing her idol ends it in bewildered disillusionment, standing on the street holding a sign demanding that the authorities investigate the beating of her friend Oleg Kashin. Like so many of her fellow countrymen, Masha knows that something has gone badly wrong, even if she's not sure how to put it right.