The Russians have perfected the art over the last hundred years of criticizing authoritarian power through allegory in literature and poetry. Sometimes they get away with it but sometimes with novels from Solzhenitsyn like “Cancer Ward” or “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” it goes too far for the authorities to tolerate.
In this documentary directed by Svetlana Rodina and Laurent Stoop in my mind, suspicious of authoritarianism as it may be, what jumps out is the Tsar like attributes of Vladimir Putin. News clips from television programmes show a confident leader promising stability and a solid economy coupled with strong defence forces like an imperial force saving the Russian minority in the Ukraine. And the characters in the documentary eagerly lap it up perhaps compensating for their poverty. And like a father they write him letters asking for more rights to fish in the Caspian Sea, medical facilities, fishing permits and electricity. I just get that feeling it is like old Tsarist Russia where a dispensation from the Tsar was one way of getting what you wanted. Of course, it is old news in the Western press that Putin is seen as a new Tsar. It is slightly implied in this film.
Aside from political implications the “main story” is about Ivan a fifty-year-old fisherman and his family who are living on Ostrov Island in the Caspian Sea the source of caviar from sturgeon. But with the fall of the USSR the fishery collective collapsed and permits for fisherman seemed to disappear so to survive Ivan and many of his fellow Ostrovians must poach hoping not to be caught by the coast guard or police. A precarious and stressful existence. Commandos roam the island looking for “evidence” of poaching. Some powerful interests are being protected!
Ivan is a proud Russian and fails to question how much state property and privileges ended up in oligarch’s hands. So he has his daughter write letters to Putin lamenting the loss of a military training base, schools and medical care. Well the man delivers with a fish warehouse being opened, medical staff sent, electricity made available and fishing permits granted. Ivan remarks Putin has given us powerful weapons and we are indestructible now. It is clear that May 9th Victory Day where Russians celebrate victory of the Second World War emphasizes the huge sacrifices and death the Russians suffered at the hands of the Germans that national security will be a concern for decades to come.
An interesting documentary about the effects of the collapse of the USSR and the ingrained thought by many simple Russians pattern supporting imperial leadership in Russia.
The film is playing as part of Toronto Hot Docs from April 29th to May 9th. You can purchase tickets here https://hotdocs.ca/p/hot-docs-festival
Only available for viewing in Canada.