This article was originally published in June 2017.
On May 31 and June 7, SBS VICELAND will air The Putin Interviews, a series of conversations between filmmaker Oliver Stone and Russian president Vladimir Putin. The project had been in the works for several years, but the most recent conversations occurred in February of 2017.
Last year, I published a book about Stone’s life and career titled The Oliver Stone Experience. One unifying thread was the controversy that has followed him throughout his career, from Midnight Express through Snowden. The tradition continues with the release of this new series, which has already been attacked in some quarters for being too favourable toward its subject. I asked Stone about the documentary and its detractors last Thursday, on the same day former FBI director James Comey went before Congress to accuse President Donald Trump of trying to suppress an investigation into his administration’s alleged ties to Russia.
An edited, condensed version of our conversation follows.
Oliver Stone: Do you remember Hate Week, from George Orwell’s 1984? They had a Hate Week every few months, which was where all the crowds got together and they hated the perceived enemy of that time.
Do you think that that’s what’s happening with the attitude towards Vladimir Putin and the United States?
Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of demonisation of foreign leaders in my lifetime. [Saddam] Hussein, Manuel Noriega — remember him? We wanted to make Noriega our enemy, and he was working for us. We had Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. We had Mr Assad in Syria. The hate against Putin has been steady since 2012–2013, and now it’s gotten heavy, heavy, worse. The election has brought this into a focus, which is intense. Our story started before that. This series was not done because of the election. Most of it was shot earlier. We went back to see him after the election, in February, and added a part.
You’ve done documentaries on Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro and now Putin. How would you compare Putin to these other leaders, in terms of their presence?
Different. Putin doesn’t have the same personality as Fidel or Hugo — they were very outgoing, very Latin, very charismatic. He’s definitely more Byzantine, semi-Asiatic, gruff, with small eyes. He doesn’t photograph in the same way, so it’s harder to see his eyes. You could make a whole thesis about why actors have to have big eyes.
How would you compare him to Castro or Chavez as a leader?
Well, they all have their national interests in mind. I would say that Putin is very much devoted to Russian national interests; he is a son of Russia. You have to remember, he inherited an economy that was rotting away. It was worse than our Great Depression. Their GDP under Boris Yeltsin had dropped 40 percent in value, maybe more. Poverty was endemic. The oligarchs were corrupt and getting rich like mad.
Those oligarchs, in the ’90s, became a problem. Boris Yeltsin was very unpopular, but the ’96 election of Yeltsin was a complete fraud. The US supported the election to make things work and gave him an [International Monetary Fund] loan before the election. They gave him all they could to make him win. We sent over teams of advisers. They were a disaster. The country privatised as much as they could, as fast as they could. It was like Ronald Reagan Comes to Russia. It didn’t work. People suffered greatly.
Putin came in in 1999, although he was the accidental president because Yeltsin appointed him at the last second [Editor’s note: On August 9, 1999, Putin was initially appointed one of three first deputy prime ministers, then was appointed acting prime minister of the government of the Russian Federation later that same day]. Putin was working for Yeltsin, but he was never seen as a contender or as a leader. He was appointed by Yeltsin arbitrarily, and then in 2000 he won an election as president. But he was seen during that 2000 election as the anti-Yeltsin — as a man who could clean up Russia.
He cleaned up, as best he could, a very difficult situation. He established a better economy: the GDP went up; people’s incomes went up. There was a general satisfaction with what he did. He made new rules for the oligarchs. In other words, he didn’t stop the privatisation, but he moderated it, and he said, “You’re going to have to work with the state.”
In doing that, he made lots of enemies, of course. Many oligarchs hated him, told stories about him, and a lot of the rumours we hear about Putin come from that time. He gave Russia its pride back. Even now, 16 years later, you see that he has an 80 percent approval rating in Russia — he would win any election, probably. He’s won three. He may go for a fourth. He’s like a Roosevelt figure.
Not here, though. Whenever you’ve done a project like this, there’s a sense among potential viewers of, “Why is Oliver Stone offering a defence of a leader that so many Americans hate?” And it’s happening again. What do you think about it?
I’m not offering a defence of Putin. I’m going there out of curiosity and I’m letting him speak for himself. I’m saying to the American people: Listen, if he is so dangerous, as they say, let’s listen to the man and see if you understand what he wants, because you’re giving a hell of a lot of your taxpayer money to this Defense Department to build its muscles up with steroids against a perceived Russian threat, and we point out, and as Putin points out, his defence budget is about 10 percent of ours. Less, probably, given all the hidden ops and black ops we run. No, I don’t defend Putin. He defends himself. I put a camera on him.
Well, yes and no. You’re augmenting the Putin interview with documentary clips in some cases, additional information, and so forth. And that other stuff is, for the most part, not material that is hostile towards him.
That’s correct. I’m allowing him to speak for himself. But I don’t know that it would have worked out the same way if I had offered a hostile face. I tried to question him on everything. I pushed him, especially in chapter four, when we go into the election. I pushed hard on hacking and cyber warfare. I think I pushed hard in one and two as well.
There’s a truth to what you say in one sense, which is, at a certain point, we would have been cut off if we’d pushed harder. But remember, the reason he talked to me and gave me 19 [unedited] hours of film was because my questions were going deeper. I was asking things that most people don’t ask. And I was asking them in a way that most people don’t ask, because I’m not a journalist. I’m a director, of actors. I know how to be fun with them. I want any actor in one of my movies to give the best performance that they can. So there is certainly a bit of that going on. I’m interested in bringing out the qualities in Putin that people can see.
I didn’t cut things that were ugly. He gets subtly angry at me sometimes. You’ll notice that probably more in the body language in episodes three and four, but you would call it “making him look good”, not “making him look interesting” or “exciting”.
He gives a lot of interviews to Russian and other media interests, and he’s bored by them. Did you get the sense that he was ever bored with me? I sensed that he was engaged.
No, he’s definitely not bored. There’s even a moment where you say to him, at the beginning of the second interview, “Did you miss me?” And he says, “I cried every now and then, but we’re finally here.”
He has a wry sense of humour. You see in the series that I’m always teasing him; I’m just always teasing him. And he teases me back, because frankly I was jet-lagged a lot. We’re hanging on him, because he’s so busy. He works 12 hour days; he has meetings all the time. But he kept very disciplined sleep hours: in bed by two, probably up at seven. Judo has given him a very strong framework, and sleep, I think. He doesn’t dream, he says. He never remembers his dreams. He’s not a very subconscious man.
I’d say to you that he’s a conservative leader, in a traditional sense. The Russian traditions are important to him. He established those again because, you see, Russians had lost their ideology. Communism was dead; there was no belief in that anymore. So it became about money in the ’90s, only money.
And that’s not the Russian way. The country has reverted back under him to a traditional church valuation. The Eastern Orthodox Church is very important to him. So he goes to church and he promoted that, because he’s looking for a way for Russia to negotiate between American capitalism — which seems like a wild and crazy ride to him, and judging from 2008 in this country, I’d say he’s right — and a socialism that is more evident in European economies. He calls what they have a “market economy”.
I’m saying to the American people: Listen, if he is so dangerous, as they say, let’s listen to the man and see if you understand what he wants.
He says at one point in the documentary that the goal was not to stop the privatisation, but to make it more systematic, more equitable. Do you believe he’s sincere about that?
Yes, that’s correct. That’s factually correct. The facts are correct. Economic facts vindicate that. What is your question? What is your counterargument?
There’s a widespread perception, in this country that what actually happened after the fall of the Soviet Union was that Russia became a kleptocracy or a mafia state.
Well, you can say that was true about Yeltsin’s era, and that what Putin has done is scaled that back considerably. The corruption in the ’90s was a nightmare. It was like the 1920s in America, in the sense that rich people got richer, poor people got poorer. But when you’re pushing back at all that, you can’t do it radically — you’d have to throw too many people in jail.
But he also believes that privatisation is good for the old Russia. Remember, he lived through the communist system and he saw how corrupt it became, so he doesn’t believe in communism at all. He understands the balance between socialism and the market economy — a very interesting concept.
About corruption, though: There are problems in Russia, but there was always endemic corruption. And Putin probably made money [in the ’90s], but I don’t think that that is his goal in life. We talked about money in chapter four — what he has and doesn’t have — and it seems to me that he really has an appreciation of what a man achieves in life. He believes in a traditional Russia, and he believes that they can develop more industries. Their computer business could be much better. He obviously sees a future without oil. He wants a working middle class that is educated. He wants all the things that are good for countries. He could be that kind of person for Russia.
I want to read you some early responses to this documentary.
Oh, man, here we go.
You know that some early responses to the documentary have accused you of being manipulated by Putin.
I’m OK with that.
There are people who were going to accuse me of that no matter what I did.
There’s a writer from Foreign Policy who said that you “aid and abet Putin”. A writer for the Daily Beast accused you of “hero-worship” and “failing to challenge Putin”. Among other things, the Foreign Policy piece said viewers of the documentary will learn that “Putin worked as prime minister before returning to the presidency with 63 percent of the vote, and if Putin has thoughts about the protests that surrounded his return to Kremlin, viewers do not learn them.”
That’s not true. We get into that in chapter three.
You get into that in chapter three? That wasn’t made available at the time the writer wrote that piece. Showtime only made the first and second parts available. And those are the only ones I’d seen as of June 8, four days before the series debuted on American TV.
Well, it’s still not fair because we’re looking forward from the beginnings of his presidency, we broke the ice about that subject, and then chapters three and four take us forward to these present days.
In any of the chapters, do you ever ask Putin what he thinks about the perception in US that the post–Soviet Union Russia has become a mafia state or a kleptocracy?
Yes, I do. And I go back to what I’ve said to you: it was that. Under Gorbachev, things fell apart, and the Yeltsin period was extremely troublesome. And they had to pull back from that.
What these people are writing about the series is very easy to say, but I wonder, why don’t they talk to economists?
Well, the point is that these writers that I’m quoting to you think you’re telling only half of the story, and it happens to be Putin’s half. Or the half that is favourable to Putin. They are not alone in that perception. What do you think about that?
OK, well I can’t argue that, because he is the interviewee. He is the only sole interviewee, so you’re seeing things from his point of view, which you’ve got to admit is what [this documentary] is.
That reminds me of what you said to me in a different interview, for the book, where you talked about filmmaking. You described yourself as a “method filmmaker”, in that you take on the characteristics of the subject. Is that also true with your documentaries?
Yes. But I don’t think you’ll find a place where I’m speaking independently. I’m following Putin’s line of thought. Actually, there is a moment in chapter four where I step out of that line of thought. There’s a scene of me alone, going to Lenin’s tomb, where I talk about the history of Russia, but that’s not really about Putin’s policies.
No, I don’t ever do that. I don’t editorialise about Putin, do I? I’m following the curve he’s taking, and I’m asking him provoking questions. These people obviously don’t want people to watch the documentary and hear it for themselves, but even if what they saw represented there was Putin’s point of view, what’s to prevent them from reading something from the West that completely destroys him? There’s no shortage of pieces like that.
Why do you think it is that you, as recently as 11 years ago, were blasted on Fox News channel and outlets like that as “Oliver Stone, the Commie Lover” for making these documentaries about Castro, and now it’s centrist Democrats who are coming after you over this Putin series?
It’s funny. I’m not a communist; I’m a capitalist. My father was a market person. I see the balance that is necessary, in capitalism, between excessive control of the economy by corporations and the need for government involvement.
I went to the Soviet Union in 1984, I wrote a script about it, it was very supportive of the dissidents. It was never made, but I was there during the that era; I interviewed a lot of dissidents, many of them who were not allowed to speak. So I saw the old system. And I saw the system under Gorbachev. I made a hero of Gorbachev in The Untold History of the United States, and one thing I learned while shooting this Putin series is that he’s not a hero to the average Russian person. Gorbachev is a hero to some Western people, and we all loved his love of peace, but he was not a practical man. I think Putin was able to see that, from the inside, because he was in the KGB — he resigned, by the way, in principle. So he set out to fix things. But what Mr Gorbachev could not achieve, and what Mr Yeltsin could not achieve, Putin has achieved — the balance of Russia, which is stable. That obviously worries the United States from a foreign-policy angle.
By the way, your readers should know that Foreign Policy and the Daily Beast have a history of being anti-Russian. Why [Showtime] even bothered to show them the film, I don’t know. And you’re inviting this kind of critique. This is American thinking! Please, listen to [Putin] and then make your decision. I also think these critics are premature in jumping ahead, criticising the handling of subjects that I didn’t cover in the episodes they’ve seen.
Well, yeah, but in the critics’ defence, they only had two episodes to go on — what are we supposed to do, not write about the series until it’s done airing?
Should I have released the whole thing at once? Then they would have only written about the fourth hour, which is about post-election, which is trivial compared to the overall subject matter, which is Putin’s presidency and what it means to Russia, which is pretty important. This series is not just about a temporary crisis.
Of course, a lot of Americans who read this interview are going to say “Oliver Stone, how is this a minor crisis? Our democracy is at stake!” There’s widespread suspicion that the Russians meddled in the US election. Do you believe that they did?
No. But I’m not going to say that on film sitting across from Putin. I do, I ask him, though. And he says no. “Meddle in an election? What does that mean? Influence the election? No, not at all.” Whether you believe him or not is up to you, but that’s what he said.
Russia had no influence in this election. Trump got elected because Hillary ran a bad campaign, and he ran an effective one. She won the popular vote, but he found the electoral votes he needed in targeted states. Who influenced the American election the most? Think about it. Was it the Koch brothers, with their spending? Was it the Israelis with AIPAC? Or with their visits by the prime minister to the American Congress that were critical of President Obama’s Iran deal? Or was it Sheldon Adelson spending a fortune on Republican candidates? Or was it Robert Mercer, the hedge-fund billionaire who gave millions to Trump?
What I’m saying is that American influence is where the influence is. The influence comes from spending money.
As I sit across from you, on Thursday, June 8, 2017, former FBI chief James Comey is giving testimony in front of Congress about President Trump allegedly trying to squash the bureau’s investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia. You have been, throughout your career as a political filmmaker, highly critical of the CIA and the FBI. Did you ever imagine a day when large numbers of Americans would be counting on the FBI and the CIA to save the day?
No. And I hope everyone understands the irony of that.
Do you think the Trump administration, or any members of the Trump family, have political ties with Russia?
That’s possible. Yeah. But whether they have any influence in the US, I doubt it. Because if it was some Russian mafioso that got involved with Trump, or family members, back in 2000 when he was running scared, when one of his deals had fallen apart and he needed Russian money — yeah, that’s possible. But it’s a long stretch to go from there to “Russian influence on the election” and “blackmail of our president to make him a Manchurian candidate”. I’m surprised you even believe it.
I don’t believe that Trump is a Manchurian candidate, but I’m not going to unilaterally shut down any discussion of Russia and the 2016 election to protect whatever narrative I personally have of what happened. Mainly, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on it.
This is, as Putin says, an internal political conflict in America, raised by the Democrats seeking to get rid of Trump and make his administration ineffective. It’s actually, in my mind, very dangerous to the American body politic. The Democrats have raised the issue of distrust between the government and its people, and they are pushing it toward the destruction of America.
Russia had no influence in this election. Trump got elected because Hillary ran a bad campaign, and he ran an effective one.
But the Republicans did that long before the Democrats. Capitalising on distrust between Americans and their government is as hallowed a tradition as apple pie and fireworks.
No, not to this level. The Democrats are accusing the president of treason and being influenced by Russia easily.
But that’s not unprecedented, either. Right-wingers have accused a number of Democratic presidents of treason, including Obama. They did it to John F Kennedy. “Wanted for Treason: John F Kennedy” was an actual flyer that was distributed around Dallas before the president was murdered. It’s right there in the opening montage of your movie.
That’s true, and it’s ugly. And as you know, that’s why Allen Dulles and people like him were concerned about Kennedy — because Kennedy wanted to reach out to people who were perceived as our enemies at that time. There was something in the air.
And you know I’m no fan of Trump. I didn’t vote for Trump. I voted third party. Frankly, all of Trump’s decisions have been bad ones. I’m very sad to see them. But what would Hillary Clinton have been? She was also a war monger. Is there a peace party in America? I’d like to join one. Is it possible to move away from this insane military budget that we’ve been labouring under throughout my lifetime? Is it possible to move away from all these prolonged wars we’ve been engaged in since World War II, none of which have been effective, all of which have made the world strongly suspicious of America? Is there hope at all in changing the way we think?
I don’t know. You and I discussed in the book, within the context of your films and your political beliefs, an idea that Norman Mailer crystallised in his book, Harlot’s Ghost, that the CIA was the secret author of American history after World War II. You believe there’s some truth to that. The military-industrial complex that you talk about in many of your films is the organ playing the tune that presidential administrations and Congress dance to.
That’s absolutely true. The creation of the CIA as we know it was a huge mistake by [President Harry] Truman. We gave birth to a monster. It’s probably the most dangerous organisation — criminal organisation — in the world. I said this in JFK, and I keep saying it, because the CIA keeps proving that the accusation is correct. They cooked the intelligence on the Bay of Pigs invasion, they cooked it before the Iraq War, and they are cooking the intelligence again now, on this Russian hacking situation. They politicised intelligence in this country, and I’m shocked by it. At least there should be some evidence, and if you’re going to have investigations like we had with Watergate, at least in that case there was evidence of a break-in.
We may not have hard proof yet, but the Trump administration keeps telling flagrant lies, lies that they’ve been caught in easily, about whether they had contact with people in Russian government or in business. The number of business ties and legal ties between the Trump administration is off the charts. It’s not normal. Can you blame people for thinking that with such a prodigious amount of smoke, there’s got to be a fire?
Well, who lied? I don’t know. I mean people had contact with — I guess [Mike] Flynn sat next to Putin at a dinner, but that doesn’t mean that they colluded.
Have you ever been to a political dinner with lots of people in a room? I might find myself sitting next to somebody because of their rank or our connection to some third person. Does that mean I am colluding with that person, or that am I being associated with them for reasons that have nothing to do with me?
I don’t know. But if I asked you later about why you were sitting next to that person, and you denied being at the dinner, would you blame me if I thought that was kind of weird?
You’re taking me in another direction, so let’s not go there. Let’s stick to Putin. He has nothing to do with this. This is an internal, American affair, and a bad one.
OK. Let’s talk about Russian media. The new French president Emmanuel Macron called the Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik “propaganda outlets”. Would you agree with that?
Because I look at RT and I think it’s very effective. It sends reporters into the dirtiest jobs. It had reporters behind the front lines in Ukraine, it tried to give both sides, several of its reporters were killed by the government. They’re real reporters over there and they pay the price. Most reporters in the US wouldn’t go to the places they go to. Most US reporters would just sit back and take the government line because they’re corporate media.
Trump praises Putin a lot, and he also praises the leaders of the Philippines and Turkey, who are authoritarian and exceptionally violent. What do you think Trump sees in these men?
Again, you’re not talking about Putin, you’re talking about Trump’s view of the world. I don’t know what Trump’s view of the world is.
We know that Putin is an important figure in Trump’s imagination.
I think Trump probably likes him. And I’m assuming that what he sees in Putin is what he’d like to be: a strong person with the ability to organise a country and push it in a particular direction.
So it’s hero-worship?
He has the instinct of a real-estate broker. If you talk to these sorts of gentlemen, and there are a lot of them in New York, they’re movers, they’re shakers. They go to parties, they’re always looking over their shoulder to see if there’s somebody more important they could be talking to instead, they’re interested in meeting the top people. They’re on the go, man. They’re not people who read philosophy books, or for that matter, read. It’s very depressing to hear that Trump doesn’t read very much, and that he doesn’t sleep.
But how could I be in Trump’s mind? You’re stretching it, man. Now, you’re really stretching it!
I’m not, actually. I keep bringing up Trump because of the accusations of Russian ties, and because Trump was fascinated with Putin before and during his run for president. The records are right there in his tweets.
In his tweets.
Yes, really. He’s constantly taking Putin’s part.
Trump has confidence in himself as a negotiator. He probably looks to Putin as another tough negotiator. [Putin] is looking for a partnership, not based on false intelligence but on real intelligence. It would be helpful if Trump had access to good, true files on Ukraine and Syria. I’m worried that he doesn’t, because the true files may be burned or trashed. The CIA destroys things that they don’t want to be read. So I’m very worried about what’s going on in the intelligence agencies in the United States. They’ve been corrupted.
Whose assessment of Putin do you trust more? The Trump administration’s or the CIA’s?
I’m not sure. I don’t know the Trump administration’s assessment because I don’t know where Trump gets his information. If it’s as bad as some things I’ve heard, it’s probably not very good. Has Putin really done all the things that he’s been accused of? Kleptomaniac, murderer, thug… that’s not what I believe he is, but if people really have to make these accusations, then they better do some hard homework and get some honest, raw information.
And if they really had evidence of a hack of the US election, why is it that we haven’t heard it? Where is it? And do you think leaving Russian footprints behind makes any sense? Do you think professionals would leave the names of Russians in Cyrillic in codes so other people could pick up in it? As Jeffrey Carr [the author of Inside Cyber Warfare] said, anything that points to Russia, the Russians didn’t do. If it points to Russia, that’s not the way they do it. They do it very well. If Putin wanted to truly hack us, he would never allow his people to leave sloppy fingerprints around. They’re too good for that.
On the other hand, what if the Russians are not as sneaky and as excellent about that stuff as we seem to believe they are?
All right, wise guy. If the Russians are so stupid, tell me how they can spend, as the film says, $66 billion a year in defense, which is what Trump has added to our budget, but we spend ten times more than they do? How can they have parity with us in cyber warfare? Believe me, the Russians don’t have that kind of money to spend. And if the election was going ridiculously in favor of Hillary Clinton, why would they even get involved? Trump didn’t even have a chance, remember? Why would the Russians want to piss off Hillary Clinton and throw a huge amount of money into hacking the election? It’s just not logical.
Do you think Trump will serve the rest of his first term?
It’s a possibility. If we had an impeachment, it would be the silliest impeachment. It would be the order of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. A waste of time.
The Putin Interviews airs Thursdays at 9pm on SBS VICELAND, and is now streaming on SBS On Demand.
This article originally appeared on Vulture ©2017 All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.