JURMULA, Latvia — Vitaly Mansky’s creative output is inextricably linked with the political history of his country—wherever that may be. The documentary filmmaker built his career in Russia, a country he left in 2014 and with which he no longer identifies. He was born and raised in the Ukrainian city Lviv when it was still part of the Soviet Union, which ceased to exist in 1991. Its collapse gave way to an independent Ukraine, where Mansky now calls home.
Viewed against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the displacement the war has forced on hundreds of thousands of people from both countries and the continuing debate about accusations of Russians’ collective complicity in the war, the themes Mansky’s films since the 1990s examine—the struggle of ordinary people for freedom, reflections on the concept of homeland and loss of homeland, and the rise of authoritarianism—feel unusually prescient.
I met Mansky on a rainy July afternoon in this Latvian seaside town, at a cafe canopied by pine trees, connected to the train station by a gravel path. He often travels to Ukraine for his current projects, otherwise divides his days between his summer cottage in Jurmala and an apartment in the capital Riga, where he serves as head coordinator for Artdocfest, his documentary film festival and nonprofit that was pushed out of Russia after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
The 60-year-old filmmaker—with gray beard and haggard-looking eyes—expressed bitter resentment toward former colleagues in Russia’s cultural industry and the “free-thinking public” as a whole. They share a portion of blame for tolerating the authoritarian President Vladimir Putin’s regime despite the red flags that he believes were present.
Many younger Russian émigrés I met—including journalists and other filmmakers—spoke critically of Mansky, calling him zanuda, or a “drag of a person,” for his overly critical outlook and accusations he directed at people who don’t feel they deserve them. But his bitterness can be read as a direct response to how the educated Russian public ignored his warnings about Putin’s regime.
‘The inevitable always happens’
In the Soviet Union, schoolchildren completed all eight years of primary education as part of the same group of students. Mansky and his classmates were disciplined and indoctrinated under a communist system they thought would exist forever. But just a few years after they finished school, the USSR collapsed, and their socialist inculcation was suddenly rendered meaningless.
Some 20 years after he graduated, Mansky produced a film that traced the disparate life trajectories of his former schoolmates in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Some left Ukraine for the United States or Europe, others remained in a post-Soviet world that was plunged into poverty and imperial ressentiment.
The result was his 2004 feature-length documentary Nasha Rodina, or Our Motherland, which attempts to grapple with the ghost of a bygone homeland. “We swore allegiance to a system of coordinates—to a motherland and the Communist Party—that vanished seemingly in one day,” he told me.
During the production of this film, he said, he first began to ponder the question of his own home.“As it turned out, the question of a motherland was not an easy one,” he said. “I thought it would be possible to live my life as a cosmopolitan, free of ties to a particular place.”
Ten years later, Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea would prompt such musings again. “Until then, [Ukrainians and Russians] lived comfortably in a shared space, and there were no external factors raising these questions,” he said.
The annexation—and his opposition to it—prompted him and his family to flee the country. They chose Latvia as their destination because it was relatively easy to acquire residency and still near the two countries he called home. He already felt a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine was imminent.
He compares his departure from Russia and dissipating relationship with that country to a ship edging away from the coastline. It “slowly departs into open waters, and from the deck, you can see the city in its fullness,” he said.
Watching Russia from afar during the eight years between its annexation of Crimea and full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Mansky came to realize he had nothing in common with it, “a foreign country where I simply spent a part of my life.”
The invasion hammered home his allegiances. “It may have taken eight years, but the inevitable always happens,” he said.
‘Hope is the most wonderful thing’
Moscow’s prestigious Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), founded in the early days of the Soviet Union, was once a place free of national distinctions. It kickstarted the careers of legendary filmmakers from all corners of the Soviet Union, including the Georgian-born Armenian Sergei Parajanov, Georgian-born Otar Iosseliani, Ukrainian-born Larisa Shepitko and Russian-born Andrei Tarkovsky.
Nikita Mikhailkov, the Muscovite filmmaker who is now a leading cultural mouthpiece for Putin’s nativist regime, and last year asked the Kremlin to place Mansky on its wanted list for alleged slander, is also an alum.
Although Mansky attended the institute during the twilight years of communism in the 1980s, it retained its “ideological, Soviet” brand, which meant censorship was ever-present. Many of the films the students produced—including Mansky’s Portrait from Memory, about a poet who hanged herself after failing to emigrate—were “placed on the shelves” to collect dust.
Oppressed by late-Soviet era stagnation and, like many artists at the time, seeking tolerable compromises within a rigid ideological framework, Mansky decided he would focus on music. Breakdancing was gaining worldwide popularity at the time, so he pitched a documentary about the new dance form. His professors deemed the idea “unnecessary,” he said.
But the swift and unexpected arrival of the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or “openness,” in 1986 eased ideological restrictions and ushered in a wave of unprecedented optimism. VGIK’s professors were suddenly brushing off student films they had previously shelved, and the positive reception Mansky received at the screening of Portrait from Memory encouraged him to create even more pointed cinema that reflected the new society emerging around him. “Gorbachev’s leadership instilled lots of hope, and hope is the most wonderful thing for a person to have,” he told me.
In 2020, he released the documentary Gorbachev.Heaven, an intimate portrait of a man who reckons with the consequences of his actions and the troubling direction in which his country was heading during the final years of his life.
In the 1990s, Mansky had made his first experimental documentary films while residing in a city that was now the capital of the newly formed Russian Federation. In 1999, he was hired to produce a documentary for the main state-funded television Channel One about the incoming president, the nearly unknown Vladimir Putin. He characterized it as a “meet-the-president” film.
Mansky often leaves cameras running during his shoots, waiting for spontaneous moments that offer a closer look into his subjects. Almost two decades later in 2018, he revisited some of the unused footage for his Putin film, repurposing it to make his now-seminal film Putin’s Witnesses. With the benefit of hindsight, the film focuses on whether the former KGB operative’s authoritarian inclinations should have been evident from the start.
In a teaser to the film, Mansky writes of the Russian people as “always being silent witnesses of their own destiny.”
The 2003 arrest of the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky served as a warning to Russia’s financial oligarchics that dissent would be punished and loyalty rewarded with political immunity. That meant corporate money, often filtered through the offices of Kremlin-appointed officials, was harnassed to promote the government’s agenda.
“Film festivals were born in the offices of officials,” he said.
The development compelled Mansky to create his own independent film festival, Artdocfest, to enable Russian documentary filmmakers and foreign directors who shot films about Russia to come together and share their work unhindered by relatively small budgets and outsider politics.
“We could combine perspectives from the inside and outside, which created a unique effect of diverse points of view,” he said of the festival. Artdocfest’s original symbol was a street sign featuring a crossed-out television.
But as Putin’s politics grew increasingly repressive and nationalistic, the environment became inhospitable for Artdocfest. “The festival didn’t fit with the emerging conservative doctrine of government control, and eventually it culminated in the impossibility of coexistence,” he said. “Artdocfest and the country could not exist on the same territory. It wasn’t conceived of as a politicized festival, but life turned it into one.”
Mansky continued to organize the festival in Russia even after his 2014 departure from the country. But the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine drew the curtains on it.
The last festival was scheduled for late March 2022, a month after Russian troops entered Ukraine. Participants had already purchased tickets and made bookings in Moscow and St. Petersburg when police stormed the theaters where premieres were to take place and ushered audiences out.
Under the Soviet-era mosaics of Moscow’s Oktyabr cinema, located on the grand New Arbat thoroughfare, a visibly distraught Mansky was approached by a bearded man who provocatively asked the filmmaker why he didn’t just hold the festival in eastern Ukraine, “where [Russian] children are dying.” In a clip of the interaction widely circulated by Russian media, Mansky turns his back on the man, who responds by throwing red paint on him.
“This became an irreversible moment when the paths [of the festival and Russia] were forever separated,” he said of the incident.
‘Putin’s Witnesses,’ or Operation Successor
“Reddish” was the only word mumbled by a withdrawn and unsettled-looking former President Boris Yeltsin on New Year’s Eve eve in 2000 when Mansky asked his thoughts on first hearing Russia’s new national anthem. On Putin’s direct order, it consisted of new lyrics set to the music of the resuccitated Soviet anthem.
The moment is captured in Putin’s Witnesses, in which Mansky repurposes footage from three television documentaries he shot between 1999 and 2001: one about the Yeltsin family, another about Putin and a third about Gorbachev. In the scene, the filmmaker is at an intimate dinner party with the Yeltsin family to usher in 2001. They watch Putin’s televised New Year’s address after his first year as president. Exactly one year to the day had passed since Yeltsin announced his resignation and anointed Putin his acting successor.
In the film, Mansky tries to demonstrate, with hindsight, the grave mistake the supposedly liberal political elite made in elevating Putin. The documentary features behind-the-scenes footage of the new man’s campaign staff and offers insight into Putin’s thinking.
At one point, after Mansky interviews the new president about his decision to change the national anthem, a seemingly desperate Putin invites Mansky back into his office to further elucidate on camera what he clearly recognizes is a controversial decision. As his reign grew more authoritarian and public image more curated over subsequent years, such intimate depictions of the leader would be unthinkable.
“Putin was accidentally selected by people of a liberal orientation who believed the public was not ready to take on the task of engaging in a political transformation,” Mansky said about the fate of democracy in Russia. Speaking about Putin’s first election in March 2000, three months after his temporary appointment, he added that “they orchestrated ‘Operation Successor’—which was not an actual political campaign but rather a referendum.”
Mansky believes the groundwork enabling Putin to go on to consolidate power was laid earlier, in October 1993, when Yeltsin’s decision to send tanks against a rebelling nationalist parliament––the 30th anniversary was marked this month––had “transferred all political power from parliament to the presidential seat.”
In the film’s final scene, Putin is featured swimming alone in a large, empty pool.
The liberal elite “chose a person who had no public experience and placed him in the presidential seat with hyper-presidential authority,” Mansky said. “He was a lone man who did not need anybody else. And this loneliness, coupled with the abundance of power he was granted, is what I wanted to depict—a large swimming pool is not intended for a lone swimmer.”
By 2016, Mansky added, it had become clear that Putin represented a “horrible mistake and a horrible danger.”
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” he concluded, saying his intention was to demonstrate society’s role in its “indifferent witnessing of a crime” was itself a crime.
‘A form of betrayal’
Russia’s oil riches enabled the state to allocate huge sums to artists, filmmakers, producers, gallerists and curators who didn’t step out of line with the regime’s political agenda, Mansky said.
He invoked the example of Kirill Serebrennikov, an independent filmmaker and theater director who was placed under house arrest in 2017 after facing trumped-up embezzlement charges. Many perceived the case to be punishment for the filmmaker’s dissent. “Even he was granted a theater and a budget as long as he followed an unwritten set of rules,” Mansky said. “The second he broke those rules, problems arose.”
The artists who went along with the system were complicit in allowing the regime to exist unchallenged, he says. “I think the ‘free-thinking’ Russian public slept through the tragedy and failed to confront it when resistance was still possible.”
The cultural elite still had resources to open a “second front” against Putin’s 2012 election to a third presidential term, Mansky believes. Instead, it “gave in to compromises, sold out, accepted offers and aligned itself with the state,” he said. “That was a form of betrayal.”
Putin’s regime also spent big on the development of Moscow and St. Petersburg. It helped create habitable, modern surroundings for many millenials, for whom entrepreneurial projects—like opening coffee shops and bookstores—took precedence over politics. In that way, the Russian state cultivated a depoliticized “hipster class.”
“The Culture Ministry and Moscow mayor’s office allocated money for bicycle lanes and restaurants so the creative class could go to a Michelin restaurant instead of attending a protest,” Mansky said. “It was very deliberate work. Even the [independent news channel] TV Rain was included in the government’s paradigm, to create the illusion” of a democratic, modern country.
Many young creatives left Russia in the wake of the Ukraine invasion. But a year later, a number of them—including in the film industry—are returning after struggling to find work in exile. Some have gone back for an indefinite period while others come to Russia for short periods to earn money shooting commercials and films.
When I told Mansky about my conversations with such returnees, his response was bitter. “I feel very negatively about people who return,” he said. “It means they’re not willing to pay a price for freedom and that they have a low bar for dignity.”
“There are no independent projects, even in the creative industry,” he added. “They now make money on the budget of an aggressor country. I experience nothing but shame and disgust when I hear that people are returning.”
Mentioning the sacrifices of those in former waves of emigration following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, he said that “former aristocrats became couriers just so they could put food on the table.”
Artdocfest continues its programming in Riga with the support of Latvian nonprofits and government funds. It has also launched a grant initiative for filmmakers in former Soviet countries willing to produce films in which “the factor of war is present—about life where war has arrived,” Mansky said.
In his own typical fashion, he is currently working on several documentaries at once, including one about how the war is affecting his Ukrainian hometown of Lviv, which he says is no easy task. “When you’re recording, it’s important to balance the volume, so that it doesn’t go into overdrive,” he said of the film. “And when you’re recording emotions, it’s important to apply the same principle and maintain a balance. To create a powerful war film that can analyze the why and how, distance is an important factor.”
His mother and sister still live in the Ukrainian Black Sea city Odesa. A few hours before we spoke, Russian missiles had pounded the city’s port again. When I asked if distance and time would enable him to return to Russia someday, he said he would never qualify such an arrival as a “return.”
“Maybe I’ll re-enter the country, but as an expat, maybe even on the first tank,” he said. “Morally, emotionally, there is nowhere to return. This is not my country. This is a country to which I have many ties, that I feel very personally about, to which I am ready to pass on my strength and my wisdom—but it would not be a ‘return.’ I can only return to Ukraine.”
While Putin’s Witnesses tried to recontextualize the past through the prism of the present, it is the moving conversations with his fomer classmates in another work, his 2005 film Our Motherland, that cast light on the crises of war and migration our world faces today.
One former classmate, Larissa, who remained in poverty-stricken Ukraine relates the story of a young man from her hometown Zhytomyr who volunteered as a peacekeeper in Iraq to earn money to get married. The wedding never took place; the young man’s body came back in a zinc coffin used to transport corpses.
“I sit here and think: What kind of country do we live in where young men go to some war in Iraq to get money for their wedding?” she says.
Another classmate, Sasha, who became an Israeli citizen, drives Mansky to a settlement on a road that borders the Gaza Strip, pointing out locations where violent acts were committed in previous weeks. A burly Israeli soldier with a shaved head who looks more machine than man sits in the back of the car. “He was wounded in both Lebanon and Gaza, but he says if he needs to serve his motherland again, he’ll go because that’s all he knows,” Mansky’s classmate explains for the camera.
A third classmate, Ella, left Ukraine for California, where she built a successful career as a doctor, with a car and suburban home. In one scene, she reflects on a creative writing assignment she submitted in college in which she described the “most significant moment” in her life—saying a final goodbye to her grandmother at a train station before leaving the country just before the Soviet collapse.
Her professor had only one remark: “Why do all Russian tragedies end on railway platforms?”
Top photo: Mansky in Jurmula