The Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked curiosity in the West about what happened in Russia over the past thirty years to make this war possible. The BBC rose to the challenge, releasing a vast archive of footage filmed in post-Soviet states. Pop-documentarian Adam Curtis has turned it into a seven-part series, Russia 1985–1999: TraumaZone. Diving into the economic, social, and political state of Russia in those years, the series challenges Western perceptions of the post-Soviet era.

Curtis is less traditional documentarian than provocative storyteller. He wants viewers to learn from the region’s mistakes. TraumaZone speaks first and foremost to the British audience, positing that if dismantling democracy was possible in one country, it might also be in another.

This is not the first time Curtis has tackled the issue of Russia and democracy. His 2014 short film, Oh Dearism II, focused on the Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov, who shaped the Russian political landscape in the 2000s. In the short, Curtis warned that UK officials might use a similar system of smoke and mirrors to cover up what was happening with the economy: overcomplicating and oversaturating the news cycle and making people so sick of it that they would stop caring about politics entirely. In that sense, TraumaZone may be viewed as a sequel to the 2014 work.

Curtis’s visual storytelling balances between documentary and fiction. There are no graphics or special effects, but he manipulates viewers by rhyming seemingly unconnected recordings, turning the footage into an illustration to his narrative. For instance, in the finale of the first episode of TraumaZone, a shot of soon-to-be-president Boris Yeltsin dozing off in a bus seat is followed by an excerpt from the Soviet TV adaptation of The Lord of the Rings depicting Gollum being corrupted by the powerful One Ring. Such a crude, if lucid, metaphor is sure to be perceived as cheap by many viewers. 

So what exactly is the narrative that Curtis creates? He follows the money. TraumaZone first depicts the fall of the USSR, giving due to the war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, but focusing on the collapse of the planned economy and Mikhail Gorbachev’s failed attempts to rescue it.

The series goes on to introduce President Boris Yeltsin and his mastermind of economic reforms, Yegor Gaidar. Yeltsin believed that Russia could be a democracy just like the United States, and Gaidar thought that he had a plan to make this work. The plan, known as “shock therapy,” essentially envisaged an immediate switch to a market economy with as little government interference as possible. The results were chaos and extreme poverty for many, and great fortunes for a few who became oligarchs by looting the country.

The plan’s failure doomed Russian democracy. When the Russian parliament tried to stop the experiment in 1993, Yeltsin used force to intervene, and concentrated all power in his own hands. In 1996, extremely unpopular due to economic problems and the war in Chechnya, Yeltsin teamed up with oligarchs to engineer his unlikely reelection. And a few years later, in poor health, he stepped down, handing over control to a young bureaucrat, Vladimir Putin, who was anointed by the oligarchs as a guarantor of their privileges. Russian society, meanwhile, prostrated by the results of “shock therapy” and deeply disenchanted with democracy, cared little about politics.

This is how Curtis interprets the Russian history of the late 1980s and 1990s. Despite certain shortcomings, his view can hardly be dismissed as inaccurate. Closer to the end, the series becomes less and less detailed, as if everything is suddenly in “fast forward” mode. The segment on the 1996 elections is especially disappointing: those unfamiliar with the media hysteria against the Communist opposition and the scale of vote-rigging can barely appreciate why it was such a big deal.

Instead, a lot of footage is used for comic relief or visual impact. At times this works well, but at others Curtis gets dangerously close to making fun of people’s struggles. The series brings up the issue of Ukraine, but has little to say about it, concentrating on Ukrainian grassroots nationalism: something that Russian propagandists will be thankful for, but not the people of beleagured Ukraine.

The most underwhelming part of the series is its finale. All TraumaZone has to say about Putin is that he was Yeltsin’s replacement, groomed by oligarchs. The film fails to mention that Putin later turned on the very same oligarchs, and that his ability to tame them was one of the key reasons that Russian society agreed to trade democracy for stability.

Curtis’s idea that Putin’s regime is built on prioritizing economic reforms over democratic ones is not new. The Swedish economist Anders Åslund, among many others, touched upon it in his 2007 book, Why Market Reform Succeeded and Democracy Failed in Russia, and Princeton’s Katharina Pistor detailed it in her recent piece in Project Syndicate. But Curtis is not trying to rival academia; he is targeting pop culture, where 1990s Russia is still widely romanticized as a blessed land of freedom and unlimited possibilities, single-handedly destroyed by Putin in the 2000s.

This narrative is often promoted by those members of the Russian opposition who benefited from the reforms of the 1990s and tend to dismiss the errors committed in 1993 and 1996. Such an approach has proved surprisingly resilient, as evidenced by the 2014 project, Museum of the Nineties, created by the liberal online media outlet and the Yegor Gaidar foundation. It explores only the freedom of the era, ignoring the turmoil facing wider Russian society.

This is where Curtis’s perspective as an outsider comes in handy. He sees the 1990s as they were: a disaster for most Russians. Curtis juxtaposes the glitzy economic and cultural boom of late 1990s Moscow with scenes of extreme poverty in other regions and the horrors of the Chechen war.

This contrast is something most Russians can still recall from their own experience. In my childhood, my family’s need to survive the winter on a bag of potatoes went side by side with a flood of new Western films, video games, toys, and sweets. Both were a result of “shock therapy.” My family appreciated the newfound abundance of choice, even if many of the goods on offer were way beyond our means. For this reason, we supported Yeltsin against the parliament in 1993, and feared the return of the Communists in 1996.

Since the romanticized picture of the Russian 1990s still dominates public discourse in the West, Curtis’s TraumaZone is timely. Although the damage done by “shock therapy” has been thoroughly studied in Western academia, many pundits still talk to the media about the “justified sacrifices” Russians had to make for the sake of reforms. TraumaZone offers an alternative narrative, which pays due respect to the era’s spirit of freedom without letting it eclipse the numerous downsides of those years.

Curtis is right that if democracy could be dismantled in Russia, it can be dismantled in other countries as well, even if their institutions are more mature. It is crucial to understand the real dynamics that made the dismantling possible, instead of shrugging it off as the ill will of a single person in power.

  • Georgy Birger