In June 2022, journalist Andrey Loshak released his documentary Broken Ties on Russian families torn apart by their views on the war in Ukraine. On December 23, he received a Profession: Journalist award for his film - and dedicated the award to Oksana Baulina, a journalist for The Insider and his friend, who was killed in a rocket strike on Kyiv in March 2022. The internationally acclaimed documentary follows seven pairs of close relatives separated by a chasm of discord. Conversations only deepen the divide: the brother cuts all ties with his sister, and a married couple is bordering on divorce. Shortly after the premiere, The Insider spoke with Andrey Loshak about his film and his perspective on the war, his departure from Russia, and the “diseased society”, which, according to the director, stands a chance of healing only through a profound crisis.
A schism within families
“Television of the Thousand Hills”
The big crisis is yet ahead
On fascism and Ruscism
Life and work outside Russia
A schism within families
– War offers a great many topics, and yet you chose this particular one. Why?
– The idea of showing the schism within families emerged back in 2014. The events in Crimea and the Donbas made me acutely aware of the discord not only between the countries but also between close relatives. However, if I were to give a truthful answer to the proverbial question “Where have you been for eight years?”, we barely paid attention to that situation until 2022. Ukraine was a cautionary tale from television, a meme: “Do you want it to be like Ukraine here?” “Is Crimea truly ours?” some wondered – and soon moved on.
This is what goes for the responsibility each of us carries for what happened. After 2014, I didn't even consider addressing those events. However, February 24 brought a new urgency to the matter. Seeing all those comments online, I reached out to many people: “Would you like to participate?” I needed two sides that had lost connection because this is where dramatic tension lies. Then I connected with Current Time, which agreed to become a platform for my documentary. We spent six weeks or so digging around for stories. The production continued from early April to May 9.
– How hard was it to find your subjects and get them to speak on camera?
– It wasn't hard because I had a lot of people like that in my media bubble. Getting them to speak, however, was a whole other story. They would respond: “Sure, I’ll do it. But I don’t want to speak to my brother or father because we’ve fallen out. Contact them yourself if you like.” So we did, but the other party would tell us to “go to hell”. Even if our subjects approached their parents with the request themselves, some would categorically refuse to speak to “agents of the West” – which was their idea of Current Time. It was hard to get the pro-war side to speak. I wasn’t calling to invite them to Vladimir Solovyov’s show.
It was hard to get the pro-war side to speak. I wasn’t calling to invite them to Vladimir Solovyov’s show
Nevertheless, we found seven pairs of relatives who came on board. And I couldn’t be more grateful. It was a responsible and considerate decision because those “against” were risking their careers and future. However, those “for” the war made a courageous choice as well because they realized what channel was going to stream the documentary.
– Did you consider bringing in a third party: experts, psychologists, and so on?
– We did, yeah. We even had a list of relevant experts. But then I realized how unethical it was in our subjects’ respect. We would be taking the stance of a researcher, an anthropologist studying human behavior. It would have been a dishonest, snobbish approach that would have devalued their input. I felt that offering my personal commentary was a more fair approach. As the author of the movie, I am entitled to an opinion. And it was a conversation of equals because I am no expert – just an ordinary citizen with my own perspective. Our opinions differ, and I do my best to understand their way of thinking. This way, I introduce my own opinion.
Furthermore, one of our subjects, Natalia Markovich, is a psychologist living in London and approaches the phenomenon from a professional position. She set up a website along the lines of the Ukrainian portal papapover.com (“Dad, trust me”) which borrows the idea from a Ukrainian guy who had started writing to his Russian father shortly before. Natalia's website, mamapover.com (“Mom, trust me”), focuses more on women. She tries to debunk their arguments in support of the war delicately, as a psychologist, understanding their position. Natalia explains that their conduct is resemblant of totalitarian cult followers, who are extremely hard to “get out”. Most people are incapable of the effort: it's easier to keep their heads in the sand, ignoring what's going on.
– Working on the documentary, were you looking for answers to your own questions? Did you find any?
– If there's something I struggle to understand, I make a movie about it. This was the case with The Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, which I made in 2014 to understand these people and how they feel. Social media always offer a hyperbolized version of reality.
I can't find an explanation for why people’s logic fails. Why do they stop seeing reality and instead start seeing an altered picture the television shows them? Why do cause-and-effect relations disappear? Is it a phenomenon of the Russian soul? I don't believe it's a matter of national mentality, though; rather, it’s about psychological and propagandist mechanisms. I never found an answer to the question of why they stand where they stand. What matters, however, is that I saw the people behind proponents of a particular position, people who suffer and feel; people who aren’t hopeless. They aren't beyond salvation yet if you don’t condemn them or leave them alone with [Vladimir] Solovyov.
They aren't beyond salvation yet if you don’t condemn them or leave them alone with Solovyov
It's an important realization that saves me from spiraling into despair and hatred. Because these emotions are overwhelming when you witness the crimes committed by your compatriots. You want all of them to burn in hell. Such a state is counterproductive to work. And why do anything at all in this case? So I have to get an emotional response from the other side. I want to forge a connection, to feel what these people feel instead of wanting them to burn in hell.
– The documentary leaves a grim impression, with glimmers of hope for the better, an awakening, rediscovering and mending those ties.
– Actually, I’m not too hopeful about changing their minds in the short term. What mattered is to show that they are humans, ordinary people who have undergone massive brainwashing. It is their fault, of course, that they fell for it. But they are people. Our country is made up of people like them.
– It is commonly believed that most war supporters are narrow-minded, undereducated elderly people. However, some of your subjects are well-educated and perfectly self-sufficient. Some even live abroad.
– As we all see, there are a lot of educated people in the so-called “elite” – much better educated than I am. And they are gunning for war. It’s not a working-class thing. I visited Uralvagonzavod [a railway car plant in the Urals] two years ago on a different occasion and spoke to the workers. They were very anti-government for the most part. The schism does not occur along the lines of education, wealth, or age. There are sociological statistics, but the shares vary from category to category. Indeed, there are more pro-war supporters among the elderly, who lived in the Soviet Union and could relate to Putin's ressentiment. There are more undereducated people from remote regions. There are patterns, but none of them are absolute. My mom lives in Germany, and I know that many Russian who already have German passports vote for Putin – he leads in every election there.
“Television of the Thousand Hills”
– What role does television have to play in the situation?
– Television abets what is happening, up to the point of carrying the most blame. All these propagandists sh*tting on our people’s brains must be brought to justice along with those calling the shots on the battlefield. They deserve the most severe punishment.
TV propagandists must be brought to justice along with those calling the shots on the battlefield and deserve the most severe punishment
– For a while, you got the front-row seat to the evolution of Russian television...
– I worked at NTV since 1995 for a long time. They fired me eventually. Since I got chucked out, I’ve been a freelancer. I remember the change of power and purges at NTV. I had nothing to do with this, even though [Leonid] Parfyonov's team I was part of took a collaborator stance. Things were vague, ambiguous, and complicated back then. Today, the representatives of the fabled “unique team of journalists” became the most zealous propagandists. They might as well have stayed at NTV. Our program was called Namedni (“Today”), and it was a milestone show for Russian television. We aren't blameless, though; we were also complicit. However, as a member of Parfyonov's team, I took a passive role.
Four years later, they fired Parfyonov and shut down Namedni. In 2004, I joined the news service and suddenly noticed some guys who looked ex-military. They read our texts and said things like: “No, you can’t put it like that, and this also has to go.” We had our own “Third Section”, secret police keeping us in check. Earlier, you’d never had to worry about anything being off-limits. And then suddenly almost everything was. I spent six years with the show Professiya Reporter (“Profession: Reporter”), making stories on cultural and social issues, without much regard for politics. In 2008, I had my first documentary canceled, about [Moscow mayor Yury] Luzhkov’s policy of demolishing historical buildings. I uploaded it online myself, masking it as a “leak”. Then they canceled my documentary about the youth policy. I had to readjust myself to censorship again because I grew up in the times of perestroika and glasnost. I never thought we’d go back to it. I was most stricken by how the core of our team, whom [founder of NTV Vladimir] Gusinsky had hand-picked from the faculty of journalism, my peers, quickly adapted to the new environment. They accepted the new rules of the game and even led the way. It was my first disappointment in people.
– Did you have any discussions in the smoking room?
– No, I’ve never crossed paths with them since. Only with Vadim Takmenyov, with whom we’d worked on Professiya Reporter for six years and who has undergone an amazing evolution. He still hosts a prime-time show. I feel physically repulsed by the thought of talking to them. Ostankino [Russia's main television studio] is a radioactive zone, as far as I’m concerned. I tried to steer clear of it while I lived in Moscow. Those who left said it was unbearable to be there in the last few years. The place had become toxic.
The big crisis is yet ahead
– Have you experienced similar issues with your relatives or friends after February 24?
– I’ve had this kind of problem with my cousin. He took a pro-imperial stance back in 2014, so I stopped discussing politics with him. We're peers; we grew up together and went to the same school – but there you go. His mother, my aunt, is this way too. But I still have warm feelings for them – except I think they should watch less TV. I left for Georgia three months ago [in March-April 2022], and not once have they called me to ask how I was.
– A chasm opening between people – isn’t it how a civil war begins? Putin and the likes of him may disappear, and the war will end, one way or another, but the differences will remain.
– Our society is diseased. I can't stop wondering: how could we have put up with everything throughout this madman's rule? He cracks down on freedom, on journalists’ stance, on everyone opposed to him – in total lawlessness. People live in humiliation and poverty, without any prospects. But they tolerate and support everything he does. Look at what happened to Navalny and his party. How they tried to destroy him, but he came back. But the rallies in his support were negligent. We have all deserved divine retribution for this. And for Crimea: what went down there has found massive, profound support in Russia. Betraying your closest neighbor, a brotherly nation to which so many people have ties – I don’t think it can be forgiven on the karma level. This boomerang will return to us soon. Our diseased society can only heal through a crisis, which is yet ahead. As we can see, no one has realized anything yet – nor are they going to.
On fascism and Ruscism
– Several Western and Russian political scientists have argued that today's Russia is a fascist society. However, others have countered that the core element is missing, as Russia does not have an ideologically sound party that would go all the way down to the grassroots level. What's your take on fascism in Russia?
– Some believe the enthusiasm of the masses to be an important sign of fascism. And I don't see it. I don’t see any enthusiasm in people – except maybe a few. Most just want everything to be over, and side with the government simply because joining the powers that be is the easiest way to go. Very few raise their hands in a Nazi salute. Soldiers aren't anxious to join the battle, and volunteers aren't many. Pro-war hardliners are the absolute minority. It doesn't look like fascism. However, I agree that the current developments match the definition of Ruscism. Wikipedia has an entry on Ruscism in twenty languages already. It isn't available in Russian for some reason, but this is what we should call it. It is an accurate definition of the current mindset, the policy pursued by Russia, and the state-forming outlook.
– Ruscism could be a fitting title for another documentary.
– I don't appreciate it when the term is applied to all of Russia and all Russians. It is an apt term for drawing the line between Russians who support all that and those who are opposed. It's important to understand that there are two Russias at the moment.
Life and work outside Russia
– Do you limit yourself to online releases by choice? Can you make projects for the big screen? How are your personal endeavors going?
– I’ve never made any festival movies because I’m a journalist by nature and want to show my work to the biggest possible audience. My approach is different from the festival paradigm, which suggests taking a long time to make a movie and then touring festivals to screen it. I work in a different mode, which is probably why I work with online platforms. I’ve had a traumatic experience working with [the Russian streaming portal] Kinopoisk. It made me realize I wasn’t going to interact with Russian platforms anymore. I started looking for ways to earn a living here because no one has the money for my projects and I could no longer accept funding from Current Time due to the law on “foreign agents”. However, the war resolved my issues, and I resumed my arrangement with Current Time, which makes me happy.
Now I’m terrified by the nasty, disgusting feeling that I can't visit Russia. Even though I’m not being charged with anything or even labeled a “foreign agent”. They can still jail me at any given moment and take away everything. I don't want to be a lab rat in this experiment. Nevertheless, almost all of my research and work revolved around films about Russia and its residents. It's like taking away the driver's car: how can they work without one? I don't know how we can work around it yet. So far, we’ve been able to do it by recording conversations remotely. There is also an amazing crew in Russia who can shoot the story. So we made it work and made the film.
– What has to happen for you to return to Russia?
– My suspicion is that the regime will have to change. People are very nervous in today's Russia. They take offense whenever you tell them one has to leave: “How dare you talk to us about it?” Personally, I couldn’t bear to stay: I can't live or function in a fascist regime.
– Then there are the children.
– Yes, and the children. Am I supposed to pretend nothing is happening? I can't do it. I would have to protest and would most likely go to jail for it. I don’t want that. In our film, I was thrilled to have Alisa Gorshenina, who continues to voice her position in such an exquisite and incredibly courageous way through her imagery and art events. You’ve mentioned hope – and she is just the kind of person who offers this hope. She is a fragile flower of the Urals, very easy to crumple – they could do it without batting an eye. People like her are angels, with immense strength, inner and civil stance; they are still in Russia and have not despaired.