In Other Words

The KGB Oscars

In Putin's Russia, it's the spies that are handing out the awards for the year's best movies.

MOSCOW — Last fall, when Russian filmmaker Karen Shakhnazarov learned that he was up for another prize, part of him wished he could politely decline. It's not that the award was a Razzie, the annual Hollywood prize for the worst in film, or anything like that. It was just the first time he stood to receive an FSB Award -- known here in Moscow, irony fully intended, as the Oscars of the KGB -- and he knew that some of his peers would whisper if he accepted an honor handed out by the secret police. "But whether you like it or not," said Shakhnazarov, "that is a very influential organization." So when the ceremony rolled around in late November, he dusted off his tuxedo and prepared a little speech about the need for the state and the movie business to work together. This is Russia after all; it went over very well.

The Federal Security Service, the KGB successor known as the FSB, has been ascendant in Russian society ever since its former director, Vladimir Putin, became president in 2000. Since then, the agency has been obsessed with finding ways to bring Russian movies and TV under its patronage. As early as 2001, the agency began financing Russian whodunits and spy thrillers; in 2006, it handed out the first FSB Awards -- glass statuettes embossed with its sword-and-shield insignia -- to the filmmakers, actors, and novelists who had "most accurately" portrayed the warriors of the secret front. The galas had all the pomp of a Western awards ceremony, except they were held at the FSB's notorious headquarters on Lubyanka Square, inside the hulking mass of orange stone that many Russians still associate with the KGB's interrogation chambers. That, of course, meant no paparazzi, red carpets, or pesky independent journalists -- just a few hundred Russian cinematic insiders packed into an auditorium with the country's top spies. By the time the sixth one was held in January 2012, the agency's mouthpiece newspaper, Granitsa Rossii, proclaimed that the ceremony had become a "platform for creative dialogue" between the art world and the security services.

In itself, collaboration between spy agencies and the silver screen is nothing new. Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books, was himself a British naval intelligence officer; even in the United States, it's not uncommon for Langley and Hollywood to team up. Former spooks often spice up their retirements with work as on-set movie consultants, and the CIA in the 1990s even established a liaison program for the entertainment industry to influence how its agents get portrayed on screen, according to Tricia Jenkins, author of The CIA in Hollywood. Claire Danes, in preparing for her starring role in the television series Homeland, was helped along by a CIA officer who took her on a tour of Langley, and the screenwriter for the film Zero Dark Thirty met with multiple CIA officers, including the analyst who helped track down Osama bin Laden and was the model for the film's lead character, Maya.

But ever since Putin came to power, the FSB has taken this type of cooperation in a new direction -- or, rather, one not seen in Russia since the days of the KGB. The awards today are actually a revival of the KGB honors bestowed on Soviet authors and filmmakers from 1978 to 1988. And just like its Cold War-era predecessor, the FSB has started financing and producing films from start to finish. "These have been attempts to rewrite reality, to cast the FSB brass in the role of comic book heroes like Batman and Robin," says Alexander Cherkasov, an expert on the security services at Memorial, Russia's leading human rights organization.

The most egregious is, fittingly, also the FSB's most ambitious artistic project to date: the 2004 feature film Personal Number, which offers a reinterpretation of the controversial and macabre real-life siege of a Moscow theater two years earlier. In 2002, Chechen terrorists took some 850 hostages during a performance of the musical Nord-Ost; when special-operations forces stormed the building, about 130 of those hostages were killed by an incapacitating gas used by the FSB to subdue the hostage-takers. In the cinematic version of the events, the theater is replaced by a circus, and when the FSB raids the building, all the hostages are triumphantly saved. The terrorists in the film are meanwhile revealed to have links to foreign intelligence services and a shady Russian oligarch living in London -- the latter a crude nod to Boris Berezovsky, one of Putin's staunchest enemies. "This pretty picture is not made out of a love for art," says Cherkasov, "but with a totally practical goal: to justify the [FSB's] crimes, those of the past and those yet to be committed."

According to Andrei Soldatov, a journalist and historian of the Russian security services, the FSB spent $7 million on the production of Personal Number, but that's just a taste of the movies and television shows it's financing. The Special Department, a detective series that aired in 2001, tells the story of an FSB agent descended from St. Petersburg's blue-blooded intelligentsia who tracks down art thieves while defending the treasures of the Hermitage. The agent was the first favorable protagonist from the secret police to gain attention on Russian television since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the show played into the notion of Putin's long-serving security chief, Nikolai Patrushev, that the FSB should be treated as a "new nobility" in Russia. Four years later came Secret Watch, a popular TV show about the agency's modern-day surveillance practices that showed FSB officers nabbing terrorists and protecting innocent Muscovites. In 2007, a 16-part TV series, Special Group, depicted FSB agents in Moscow foiling attacks and tracking financial swindlers.

As the general director of Mosfilm, Russia's largest movie studio, Shakhnazarov has watched these developments with a mix of resignation and fiscal pragmatism. The son of a high-ranking functionary in the Communist Party, he first gained renown in the mid-1980s for directing Jazzman, a wryly iconoclastic comedy about a student who gets booted from the communist youth league for his love of jazz in the 1920s. The film helped make Shakhnazarov an icon of the perestroika era. But in the tumult that followed the Soviet collapse, many of Russia's movie studios were shuttered or sold off, including one across the street from Mosfilm. A garish high-rise of luxury apartments now stands in that spot, and its giant red banner -- "For rent!" -- serves as a constant reminder to Shakhnazarov of what could have become of his studio without the state's support.

As for the price he paid in creative independence, Shakhnazarov sees it as par for the course in Russia. "Our country has always been ruled from the top down," he told me in his office at Mosfilm, where he was holed up like the Wizard of Oz toward the end of the winter holidays, the shades drawn, chain-smoking Montecristo cigarillos. "It is our mentality, our historical fate," he said. And the FSB's money, he points out, is no less green than Disney's. "We're not in a position to turn down sponsors."

On the wall just above Shakhnazarov's head, flanked by posters of his recent films, was a framed photograph of him giving Putin a tour of a movie set in 2005. The two men, both in black overcoats, are in the middle of an animated conversation, the director pointing at the chest of the president, who smiles with amusement. It was around that time, Shakhnazarov said, that Putin really started to realize the value of cinema, rather than just television news, as a tool of propaganda.

Entertainment certainly made an impression on Putin as a boy, sparking his obsession with becoming a spy. In his official biography, the only creative work that Putin names as having an impact on his early life was Shield and Sword, a spy movie that inspired him to seek work in the KGB while still in high school. But during the first two terms of his presidency, Shakhnazarov argues, Putin was more concerned with bringing Russia's television networks, as well as the oligarchs who owned them, into line. "Putin has since undergone an evolution on that front," the director told me, glancing up at the photograph. "Now he has changed. Now he has a sense that film is important, not only as an industry, but as an instrument of ideology for the state."

That change has pushed Shakhnazarov into the spotlight of national politics. During Putin's 2012 campaign to return to the Kremlin for a third term as president, and amid unprecedented protests against him by thousands of previously apolitical members of the Moscow middle class, the director acted as one of his "trusted faces," along with a couple of hundred other celebrities from the worlds of sports, culture, and the sciences, who spent a few months lauding the national leader. Although Shakhnazarov didn't go so far as to publicly criticize the democracy protesters who crammed Moscow's streets in the 2011-2012 winter -- "they are part of my audience," he told me -- after Putin's reinauguration in May, Shakhnazarov said on Russia's leading talk show that the president was the only man capable of leading Russia. A few months later, at the seventh annual FSB Awards, Shakhnazarov was seated in the front row alongside Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the spy agency, whom he affectionately calls Bortka.

The prize for best picture that night went to White Tiger, Shakhnazarov's feature film about an unhinged Soviet tank driver hunting a phantom Nazi panzer through the battlefields of World War II. The protagonist, a sort of tank-whisperer who worships a mechanized god whose engine makes lightning appear in the sky, loses his memory doing battle with the ghost-panzer and then dedicates his life to destroying it. (Think Moby Dick with heavy artillery.) In the beginning of the film, a Soviet counterintelligence officer asks him if he wouldn't rather be cured of amnesia and return to his family. The soldier answers, "I remember that I'm Russian. I remember I'm a tank driver. What more do I need?"

This kind of robo-patriotism is one of the values White Tiger extols -- one clearly endorsed by the FSB -- but Shakhnazarov, who co-wrote and directed the film, suspects Bortka and Co. were more flattered by his depiction of the counterintelligence officer, Maj. Alexei Fedotov. Partial to liquor and French cigarettes, Fedotov is assigned to oversee the hunt for the ghost-panzer, and his stoic devotion to the loony Soviet tank driver makes him the film's most likable hero. The actor who plays Fedotov, Vitaly Kishchenko, also won an FSB Award for best actor, making White Tiger the only feature film to receive the FSB's blessing for the year.

But Shakhnazarov insists he wasn't following orders in making a movie the FSB found so favorable. "We never set out to portray the secret police in a positive way," he told me. After accepting his award, he got a chance to ask Bortnikov what kinds of films the FSB chief would like to see on the big screen. "Bortka didn't give me any explicit instructions," Shakhnazarov said. "He just said to keep up the good work."

Peeter Viisimaa/Getty Images

In Other Words

The Disappeared

Even the Soviet Union eventually acknowledged Stalin's Great Famine. Why does China still hide evidence of its own mass starvation under Mao?

For decades, the Soviet Union hid its horrors behind the Iron Curtain. The worst of them was Joseph Stalin's man-made famine in Ukraine and southern Russia, the result of his program of forced rural collectivization that claimed the lives of 7 to 10 million people in 1932 and 1933. Land, property, livestock, even houses were requisitioned as farmers became state employees forced to deliver ever higher grain quotas. Those who resisted or tried to hide food were deported to the Gulag or executed. Whole parts of the Ukrainian countryside turned into death zones. Millions perished, yet Stalin managed to silence all talk of the famine, sending those who breathed a word of it to labor camps in far-off Siberia. The census data, which would have shown a huge spike in mortality rates, were locked away for half a century.

But even before the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Communist Party leaders in Ukraine started investigating the famine in their own party archives. They found a wealth of gruesome documentation. Some of the most shocking evidence came from photographs of starving children with skeletal heads, ribs poking through their skin, begging for a scrap of food on the pavement in Kharkov, Ukraine's capital at the time of the famine. One picture showed emaciated corpses piled onto a cart, drumstick limbs akimbo amid a tumble of bodies. These were not a few isolated snapshots -- there were hundreds of images. Leonid Kravchuk, who would later become Ukraine's first democratically elected president, was one of the first to see this evidence. He was so haunted by the faces of the children killed by the famine that he persuaded Vladimir Ivashko, then the first secretary of Ukraine's Communist Party, to approve the reproduction of 350 photographs in a book released to the public in 1990. Today, the famine is officially and universally remembered across Ukraine as the Holodomor, literally "death by hunger."

A man-made disaster of even greater magnitude shook China in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In a campaign he called the Great Leap Forward, Chairman Mao Zedong herded the countryside into giant collective farms in 1958, believing that they would catapult his country into a utopia of plenty for all. As in Ukraine, everything was collectivized: Villagers were robbed of their work, homes, land, belongings, and livelihood. The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known; at least 45 million people died of starvation over four years, as I found out when I was given unprecedented access to recently opened Communist Party archives in China.

I read through thousands of documents: secret reports from the Public Security Bureaus, detailed minutes of top party meetings, investigations into cases of mass murder, inquiries compiled by special teams tasked with determining the extent of the catastrophe, secret opinion surveys, and letters of complaint written by ordinary citizens. Some were neatly written in longhand, others typed out on flimsy, yellowing paper. Some were excruciating to read, for instance, a report written by an investigation team noting the case of a boy in a Hunan village who had been caught stealing a handful of grain. A local Communist Party cadre forced his father to bury the boy alive. The father died of grief a few days later.

Other documents presented the famine's horror in the sterile language typical of communist bureaucracy. A police report I discovered in one provincial archive listed some 50 cases of cannibalism, all in a city in Gansu, a province in northwestern China:

Date: 25 February 1960. Location: Hongtai Commune, Yaohejia Village. Name of Culprit: Yang Zhongsheng. Status: Poor Farmer. Number of People Involved: 1. Name of Victim: Yang Ershun. Relationship with Culprit: Younger Brother. Number of People Involved: 1. Manner of Crime: Killed and Eaten. Reason: Livelihood Issues.

But despite months of patient work sifting through mountains of yellowing folders, I never came across a single photograph of the catastrophe in those archives.

Historians in Beijing explained away the lack of photographic evidence by telling me that party cadres at the time did not have any cameras, as China was still a poor country. It's not a convincing explanation: The archives are replete with criminal investigations that contain exhaustive photographic evidence from the 1950s and 1960s -- mug shots of criminals, photos of crime scenes, even rolls of film documenting land disputes between collective farms. Certainly the state propaganda machine never lacked for photographic equipment. Today, it's easy to find online black-and-white photos from 1958 to 1962 showing peasants cheerfully driving the latest tractor model through the fields; rosy-cheeked children gathering around tables laden with fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat in collective canteens; and Chairman Mao plodding through the fields in a straw hat and cotton shoes, or marveling at a bumper harvest. There are even photos of Mao's nemesis, head of state Liu Shaoqi, investigating the famine in his home district in Hunan province in 1961.

So what happened to the visual evidence of one of the world's most horrifying atrocities?

The Red Guards, Mao's armed revolutionaries during the Cultural Revolution, probably destroyed it. Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, in part to eliminate senior officials who criticized his reckless economic experiments that had led to the famine. As Red Guards started seizing state institutions by force in 1967, government servants destroyed records and any visual material en masse -- anything that could have discredited Mao's Great Leap Forward. Individuals with photos of the brutal starvation acted with the same impulse. Rae Yang, the daughter of a family of diplomats who had served abroad, saw her parents burn all the letters they had kept, as well as some old photographs, flushing the ash down the toilet.

But not all the evidence was reduced to ashes. It's a pretty good guess that photographs of the famine are still locked away deep inside party vaults. After all, some of the most sensitive material on the Great Leap Forward remains classified. Entire collections -- most of the central archives in Beijing, for instance -- remain beyond the reach of even highly accredited party historians. In their acclaimed biography of the chairman, Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday report that during the Cultural Revolution, when senior officials like Liu were tortured to death, security personnel took photographs and sent them to Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai. These, too, are probably filed away in some secret gallery of horrors.

For four years, I studied Mao's famine, and only once have I seen a visual illustration of its awfulness. In 2009, I visited a historian in a drab concrete building in the suburbs of Beijing. He, too, had been working on the history of the Great Leap Forward, burrowing in archives for more than a decade and obsessively documenting the starvation that had decimated the region of his birth, a county barely 100 miles north of Mao's hometown in Hunan. Stacks of photocopied archival material bulged out of filing cabinets in his sparse office. I asked him whether he had ever seen a photograph of the famine. He frowned and reluctantly pulled out a folder with a reproduction of the only picture he had discovered. It came from the files of the party committee in his home county and was from a police investigation into a case of cannibalism. The small, fading picture showed a young man standing against a brick wall, peering straight into the camera, seemingly emotionless. By his feet stood a large pot containing the parts of a young boy, his head and limbs severed from his body. 

Jean-Yves Bajon Collection (International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam)