Q&A: Doc director says Russian emigres fear Putin can 'get them' here

At the recent Vancouver International Film Festival, attendance was high for the documentary On Putin’s Blacklist, the story of how Russian president Vladimir Putin used anti-Western sentiment with (literally) extreme prejudice to consolidate power.

Only one audience was missing – Russian-Canadians.

“They weren’t there. They were afraid,” Vancouver-based director Boris Ivanov says matter-of-factly. “I think there were two Russians at one screening I was at.”

The film connects Putin’s exploitation and banning of foreign adoptions of Russian children, anti-LGBT policies, exploitation of the Church, control of the courts and subjugation of the Duma (Russian parliament) to show how he’s created a cult of personality that Ivanov says could keep him in power for the next 20 years. And it introduces us to activists now living in the West and adoptive parents, some of whom were refused at the last minute.

Ivanov, now a Canadian citizen, spoke to Original-Cin's Jim Slotek prior to the Toronto opening of On Putin’s Blacklist.

Putin: "He's a Stalin"

Putin: "He's a Stalin"

ORIGINAL CIN: You show what Russians have to fear from Putin, but what do we in the West have to fear? Is he unstable?

IVANOV: “I don’t think he’s unstable. He’s a Stalin. But fear is very important. What was difficult for me to understand was that Russians who’d become American citizens were afraid to talk to me because ‘Putin is going to get them.’

“And this is fear just because of the news and things. I don’t think fear ever leads to anything good. I think we have to get past this whole concept of fear. I think Donald Trump got elected because of fear. A lot of things that are happening in the world right now are because of fear.

“So, I tried to profile fearless people. Justin (Romanov, a young Russian gay activist now living in Toronto) is a fearless person. So is Ilya (Ponomarev, the only Duma member to vote against the Russian annexation of Crimea, and who is now living in exile in Ukraine). So is Masha (Gessen, a Russian journalist and anti-Putin critic, who fled after threats of having her children taken away because of her same-sex marriage). So is Pussy Riot.

“And so are a lot of younger Russians now don’t have this fear. They are willing to stand up for who they are.”

OC: Do you think he’s an imperialist, an expansionist?

IVANOV: “I don’t know, necessarily. I think what happened in the ‘90s is that when the Soviet Union fell apart, everybody kind of dismissed Russia as, ‘Oh we don’t have to worry about them anymore. We can do whatever we want to do without listening to their opinions.’

“Their economy collapsed and Russians became like, ‘Wait, we have to protect ourselves.’ It was more protectionist than expansionist.”

OC: So, Putin’s message was, “Let’s make Russia great again.”

Journalist/LGBT exile Masha Gessen

Journalist/LGBT exile Masha Gessen

IVANOV: “Exactly. My example is that when we had the Olympics (Winter Games) in Vancouver, the Russian team did badly and Putin was upset. So, it’s no surprise that in 2014, the Olympics in Sochi, he wanted a guarantee that Russian athletes were going to win. So a whole system of doping and things was set up because there was not going to have another Olympics like Vancouver.

“The Olympics made Putin more popular than ever. It was a great success. The whole world came to Russia, and if it didn’t go off successfully, maybe things would be different now, who can say?”

OC: Putin’s campaign against foreign adoptions is a big part of the movie. That’s a very visceral issue.

IVANOV: “I felt like it’s exploiting the defenceless. I understand when people fight for power or money. But when you’re using absolutely defenceless children who have nothing, no parents to protect them. And you use that for your political gains, that to me is the most heartless.”

OC: The symbolism of adoption seems to be, ‘Our enemies have to provide for our children because we can’t do it ourselves.’

IVANOV: “Right. I believe in the Republic of Georgia, (Eduard) Shevardnadze’s wife onetime said, ‘We’d prefer our children to die on our own soil than to live somewhere else.’

“The whole film is about various anti-Western rhetoric. Part of it is adoptions, part of it is anti-LGBT, NGOs (non-governmental organizations, which Putin regards as CIA fronts), anything that’s viewed as Western influence is the enemy.”

OC: During the Soviet years at least, the impression was that Russians wanted Western things, like blue jeans.

IVANOV: “I think there’s still a desire to be Western for many Russians. Putin is not anti-Europe, he’s anti-‘Gay-Rope,’ this concept of gay-Europe which is not the true Europe of conservatism and Christianity. It’s the modern Europe of freedom and Muslims and things like that he doesn’t believe in. He gives it a nickname for propaganda purposes.

“So, I think Russians still want to be European, but many don’t quite understand what that involves is giving people freedom to choose what they want to be or who they are.”

OC: You must be very interested in the results of the probe on Russian interference in the U.S. election.

IVANOV: “It will be interesting. Putin was very upset because he thought Americans were trying to influence the election in 2011 when he was elected president. He thought all the NGOs and everybody else was financed by the CIA, and they were causing all these uprisings and people demonstrating, that it was not internal, it was external.

“At that time, the Democrats were in power and he’s not friends with Hillary Clinton and the Democrats at all. So, him meddling is like him paying back for what he feels happened in his country with all the unrest.

“What’s interesting about Trump is that he’s borrowing a lot of things from Putin. Controlling media, confusing media, saying things you don’t know are true anymore. It becomes much easier to manipulate people. Sometimes he says this, he says that, nobody really knows what happened. He says all these things, and at some point, people just turn of. And that’s when he can get control because nobody’s listening anymore.”

OC: And then there’s the manipulation of the Church.

IVANOV: “Of course, that has gone on a long time in Russia. The Czar used the Church.”

OC: The Czar made himself head of the Church. It kind of lost its identity in Russia when he was overthrown.

IVANOV: “You know what’s interesting is this year is 100 years since the Russian Revolution (on November 7). And in Russia, they’re not celebrating it. Putin does not want to celebrate revolutions.”

On Putin's Blacklist. Directed by Boris Ivanov. Debuts Thursday, October 26th at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema. Opens Friday, October 27 at the Kingsway.