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Inside Russia: Traitors and Heroes 2023


Distributed by epf media, 324 S. Beverly Drive, PMB 437, Beverly Hills, CA 90212; 310-839-1500
Produced by Mikhail Kozyrev
Directed by Paul Mitchell and Anastasiya Popova
Streaming, 54 mins

College - General Adult
Human Rights; Russian Politics

Date Entered: 05/06/2024

Reviewed by Catherine Michael, Communications & Legal Studies Librarian, Ithaca College

According to IMDb, the documentary Inside Russia: Traitors and Heroes (1h 15m) first aired on February 20th, 2023, as part of the BBC TV Series Storyville, a series, “showcasing the best in international documentary.” The Russian invasion of Ukraine happened in late February of 2022.

Back in late 2021 I reviewed a biographical portrait of Michael Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union (2 March 1931 – 30 August 2022) by director Vitaly Mansky called Gorbachev. Heaven. At the end of that review, I noted that Putin was building up troops on the Ukrainian border. Since that review was submitted, Ukraine was invaded by Russia, and Gorbachev, who championed peace and democracy, died. More recently, on 16 February 2024, Putin’s chief opposition figure Alexei Navalny was killed (see Navalny by Daniel Roher reviewed by Michael A. LaMagna).

It is tragic to consider the erosion of peace and democracy in Russia. The documentary Inside Russia provides a picture of how citizens are coping with the loss of democracy and the erasure of their freedoms. It is watching the moment when the iron curtain begins to close again, and the people are faced with decisions to flee or stay.

The film follows four story lines: Nina Belyave a government councilor who fled Russia after video of her speaking against the invasion of the Ukraine went viral; actress Uliana and her father Boris; Alla and Misha, two independent journalists who conduct on the street interviews that they post to a YouTube channel @WhatTo; and artist Lyona and his friends who protested through street art.

The documentary deftly interweaves their stories, showcasing how the citizens have expressed themselves following the invasion. Their means of expression varied with their occupations: government forum, poetry reading, asking questions on the street, and posting stickers. While Nina’s expression was overt and public, causing her to flee quickly after the event, we immediately see how the public’s forms of expression had to be covert, subtle, or hidden. For example, Uliana hides the word war in poetry; paper airplanes become peace doves.

Responses to Alla and Misha’s direct questions are particularly interesting. The film opens with their asking: Is peace between Russia and Ukraine possible? One reply is, “After we kill all the fascists, we’ll have peace.” As a viewer, I can guess to whom the word fascists refer – but perhaps it is stated vaguely enough that the speaker can argue otherwise. When a youth was asked about her thoughts on Putin’s mobilization order, she said, “I don’t like it. What else can I say? Sadly, I can’t say more. It’s dangerous...” “To Talk?” “Sometimes even to think.” It appeared the elderly were apt to agree with Putin while the middle aged and younger speakers were more critical. In one interview between a husband and wife, the wife notes her husband will go to war if called; she admits to not wanting him to go; when the husband spoke for himself, he replied, “If necessary, of course I’ll go. Where could I hide?”

After the viewing, I looked up Alla and Misha’s YouTube channel @WhatTo and most the videos are from a year ago. Where are Alla and Misha now?

Lyonya, the artist, was imprisoned for “vandalism with political intent.” He used spray paint, stickers, words, and letters in his art. Watching him with his friends was like watching Robin Hood and his men; when there are sirens as they surreptitiously post their art (and the music creates a cinematic tension) you hope for their escape.

Uliana’s relation with her father is complicated. While she supported her brother and misses him dearly (we experience his funeral), she is not in favor of the war as her father is and this causes tension between them. She doesn’t feel her brother died for a good cause but struggles with processing what happened and will maintain relations with her father despite their differences.

Between segments teasing out the sentiment of the public by the citizen reporters, are clips of the Russian news propaganda featuring clips from speeches by Putin and his supporters. Putin distinguishes patriots from “scum and traitors” who will be spit out. One supporter advocated for the restoration of the death penalty to punish deserters. Perhaps the dichotomy between scum and traitors is related to the film’s subtitle: traitors and heroes. From the perspective of a democratic country, those who express themselves freely and bravely are the heroes. This can be a point of discussion in a classroom.

The direction (Paul Mitchell and Anastasiya Popova), editing (Guy Creasey and Haukje Heuff), and music (Felix Erskine) were well done. The translations were clear and easy to read, and I sympathized with all the characters. There are only minor criticisms: 1) when showing Nina’s phone posts, there was no translation of the written text (later, there were translations of Layonya’s textual artworks) and 2) it would have been helpful to include the character’s names and vocations in a chyron.

Teachers showing this current history have a lot to discuss with their students. It is a reminder of the importance of guarding our freedom of expression by opposing censorship, of questioning what those in authority say (propaganda), of maintaining relations with our family and friends despite differences, of the importance of the power of art during times of war, and of the ethical question of who a patriot is and who is a traitor.

DIG Award, Best Long-Form Investigative Documentary, Italy

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