Oliver Stone’s interview with Vladmir Putin in the time of Russiaphobia

June 27, 20170246c-putinvaldai

Sure, President Obama may have ordered countless deaths and deportations during his time as President. But, you gotta admit, the guy is good with a gag. In 2012 when human brochure for hate, Mitt Romney, told CNN that Russia was a “geopolitical foe” of utmost concern to the US, Obama countered later in debate with, “The 1980s called and they want their foreign policy back”. This is what the young people call a “sick burn”.

In the same year, Secretary Hillary Clinton called Romney’s claims about the Federation “somewhat dated”. At the Democratic National Convention, John Kerry quipped, “Mitt Romney talks like he’s only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV.” In 2012, Russophobia was such an unfashionable kind of bigotry, America’s largest political party could print a campaign parody poster mocking it, and no one but BuzzFeed bothered to report.

Five years later, things have changed. It is no longer “somewhat dated” for Clinton to say that Russia is going to bring the nation down. Instead, it’s up-to-the-minute to speak of Trump-Russian collusion, even in a pale shadow formed by remarkably little evidence.

What was So Last Season in 2012 is now the must-have bigotry not only for the Democratic Party and US late-night talk shows, but for Australia’s moderate pundits as well. In the Australian edition of The Guardian, it was claimed this month that Russia was a “gangster fiefdom”, whose chief overlord is, of course, Vladimir Putin, the leader whose domestic approval ratings remain high and stable, however we change our minds about him in the West.

If there is a competent Western filmmaker who feels like offering me an accessibly Western but different view of Vladmir Putin, I’m not going to complain.

Just to be clear: I’m not claiming that Putin is a heroic teddy bear who is terribly misunderstood. I am saying however, that his role as President is misunderstood by many, myself included. The “news” we receive on Russia and its leaders has been formed for decades by US powerbrokers, and the views we have on Russians have been often shaped by US screen.

I know that my unconscious is crammed with the puppy-kicking Russkies of John Wick. I know that my foreign policy opinions are largely a gift of the US State Department. I don’t have all day to correct this internal prejudice. So, if there is a competent Western filmmaker who feels like offering me an accessibly Western but different view of this man and this Federation, I’m not going to complain.

Which, apparently, puts me at odds with many consumers of Western TV. As Stephen Colbert, The New York Times, The Washington Post and many other advocates for True US Freedom have it, Oliver Stone should never have spoken to Putin at all. He sold Assad weapons, don’t ya know! You know. Assad. The guy who, for all his reported misdeeds, is likely to be a part of the solution to the horrific war in Syria.

If you’ve not yet seen The Putin Interviews, screened locally on SBS, I recommend that you correct this at once. There is, in my view, no threat that you will learn to love the guy. But, there is a real danger that you may acquire the knack of seeing the world outside of Western parameters.

Colbert and The Times are among many in the West who would prefer for this not to happen. Why try to understand something when you could just continue to malign it instead?

To watch the clip of Colbert on The Late Show is to see US exceptionalism at its peak.  The host asks Stone over and again why he would even think to talk to a world leader, and Stone keeps answering, reasonably, that this is his job.  Colbert asks Stone if he likes Putin, and when Stone refuses to say that he despises him—not a admission that anyone in the habit of interviewing world leaders could make and hope to keep interviewing world leaders—the host encourages his audience to laugh. Stone, who has been characterised as one of Putin’s “useful idiots” from the outset, asks, “What is wrong with détente with Russia? Why would you be against it?”

Just as there is no reasonable answer to the question, “Why would you interview a powerful man, instead of chiding him in ignorance?”, there is no answer to the question of better international relations. Of course we want to get on better, right?

Apparently not. It is better to paint the world, both as journalist and consumer, in uncompromised shades than it is to understand. No matter that Putin’s Russia forms part of an emerging trade association. No matter that the nation has leftover doomsday devices. No matter that a few short years ago, Obama and Putin were in accord about Ukraine.

Stone may not directly approach the truth on our Sunday night screens. But, he and SBS have permitted questions that could help us get there. This is important. Far more important than positioning yourself in opposition to this year’s fashionable villain.