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Film legend Sokurov writes open letter in defence of free speech and tolerance

Film legend Sokurov writes open letter in defence of free speech and tolerance
Vadim Zhernov / RIA Novosti

12 February 2014
Text & translation Jamie Rann

Alexander Sokurov, one of Russia’s most important film directors, has written an open letter to President Vladimir Putin criticising censorship and intolerance in Russian politics and state television. In the impassioned letter, Sokurov speaks in defence of independent television channel Dozhd (Rain) TV, which has recently come under official scrutiny and has been removed from a number of cable providers.

Dozhd, which is Russia’s only non-state-funded television channel and is known as an outpost of liberal dissent, came in for criticism after running a poll questioning whether the blockade of Leningrad in World War Two — in which more than one and a half million civilians and soldiers died — was a worthwhile sacrifice. Many, however, have seen a political motivation behind attacks on the channel. Sokurov does not mention the incident specifically but defends the professionalism and youthful energy of the channel.

In the letter, the director, who is best known for his 2011 film Faust, winner of a Golden Lion at Venice, and the virtuoso one-take film Russian Ark (2002), lambasts the standard of Russian state television and deplores the climate of intolerance in contemporary Russian politics. The appeal to the president, which has a personal and often allusive tone, was published in news and lifestyle magazine Snob on Monday. Sokurov had originally wanted it to run in state newspaper Rossiyskaya gazeta.

The letter is published here, translated into English in full for the first time.

Dear Mr President,

For several months now my soul has not known peace.

I have been deeply immersed in the atmosphere of work on my new film about WWII. But all the time I hear the voices of my compatriots, which have once again clashed in a desperate political conflict.

And once again my Motherland is in the trenches, again there are curses, action on the front, vicious speeches.

And there is no end in sight. Once again our energies are being spent not on constructing but on fighting — and once again with an internal enemy. And even the Orthodox Church is joining in these political battles.

Our joint efforts are not aimed at resurrecting our economy or our industry, or at answering the political issues of international relations, or even in the slightest at fostering the culture of large and small towns, the culture of the village.

We should join forces and start solving these problems… but all our efforts are increasingly going towards the accumulation of political ill will and irreversible embitterment.

I am overcome by despair when I have to watch politics programmes on state channels. People with official positions call for people to be burned, discriminated against, hounded, killed. Being different is officially deemed to be a crime.

There is a violent madness in the words and in the eyes of our parliamentarians.

But how can this be so?

All around us are the Russian people.

A varied people. One inclined to be excitable, one whose life is, for the most part, hard.

The young part of our people was born and started to take shape in a new time, without totalitarian accompaniment. And this remarkable young population are in a fragile state: many are very badly educated and have not gone through even the slightest socialisation.

The other part, deprived of a guiding hand from above, is inclined to Nazism, something their very fathers and grandfathers fought to the death to oppose.

A third part — passionate, fiery figures — takes close to heart all the troubles of the Fatherland, as if they were their own troubles. And they, unable to evaluate their capabilities, are actively opposing the forces of the authorities.

It is the fate of these young people that pains me — these people I have just written about. All of them are excluded from creative life and with the passion of youth they are being drawn into deceitful political spectacles.

All this would be fine, but the Russian people are not a theatre troupe; and we are not very artistic, and the Russian state has not been a theatre for a long time.

What is to be done…

If we want to live in one country with these young people, we need to know how.

You, Vladimir Vladimirovich, have called on us to do this many times.

My generation already knows how to turn up, how to “sing in unison” — in a large choir or a small one… We have the “social experience” and the memory of the hard times we lived through.

And, of course, we also have our knowledge and love of a great culture, of Russia’s great art. But we know the hard work which was needed to create this love for culture — we were brought up to love it, but we could have dragged ourselves out of the mire.

The best of us — our great humanists and oppositionists — were dissidents. They started the battle against political deceit. They fought for human rights when millions stayed silent.

And these people were young. It was these people who brought our current politicians and billionaires to power. It is thanks to them that religious cults got freedom.

It’s suicide not to value, not to protect our young compatriots. In whatever area of society in which young energy manifests itself, it should be met with warm and wise attention — and rewarded. We should listen, hear and pay attention to these young voices. Life is in itself a heavy burden — “an unmatched shoe” — which will of itself cool the ebullient fires that scorch other people. The energy of the young is our hope for warming people.

On 10 February the “networks” cut off the channel Dozhd, from us, its consumers. What law allowed them to do this?

Someone told them that you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, gave this order. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe the Russian president would be scared of satire, of criticism.

These guys are being officious.

Give them a clip around the ear. They’ll do yet more things wrong in your name.

Every day for decades now they have been eagerly broadcasting tacky vulgarity, filling the screens of millions of people with violence and the destruction of people who think differently.

They don’t show any initiative, quietening down brave broadcasters on days of mourning, on days of catastrophe or national disasters. These are cynical people, with small eyes and big ears.

Mr President, Dozhd is the youngest creative team in the world working in television. Whatever people might be saying, that is a national achievement, an exception from all the rules. I am surprised, how such a team could even come about? And in this country, where there is no national federal broadcasting, no fully-fledged professional community, where all there is is Moscow television, Moscow politics and culture. Where did Dozhd find these young, smart, beautiful, brave people? What planet are they from?

It’s immediately clear — they’ve not been whipped.

They’re young. And they make mistakes, like young people should…

And what is the mistake in asking questions which this generation should give? Only once did I have the good fortune to talk to the great Russian [the writer Viktor] Astafyev, and in that conversation he spoke with great bitterness, with tears in his eyes: the blockade, the blockade… so many people died… was there a way out…

However much we hide from historical issues, they will find us — and at the worst possible moment.

How strange it all is. Hundreds of times, we citizens have asked questions, in amazement, about the programming policy of the state channels. Tastelessness, a huge number of films with open scenes of violence, with complete impunity. And did you know, Vladimir Vladimirovich that Russian television today is overflowing with formats bought from western and American television? There are no ideas, no development for Russian television directors, no masters.

With sadness I remember the triumph of Leningrad TV, of Central TV, during perestroika when we ourselves were thinking up entirely new ways of talking to society. Independence of the language and form of talking with our people — that, it seems to me, is in many ways, the foundation of our national independence.

To me, that’s axiomatic.

I am sure that Dozhd is looking for its own language, tightly connected to the life of society in the new Russia. They don’t import anything. They create everything themselves.

Vladimir Vladimiriovich, Kultura TV channel came to me asking me to participate in their programmes. So I ask will there be censorship? They weren’t sure. So I’ll wait, I say. What sort of time is this that even such an apolitical person as myself might have to undergo censorship… OK, I can put up with it. I love Russian culture and my Fatherland too much — I can put up with it.

I’m not young.

The young shouldn’t have to put up with things.

And they won’t.

We have to have a separate conversation with them. Paternal, patient, with faith in them, supporting them.

On equal terms.

I don’t know, respected Vladimir Vladimirovich, whether you will have time to read this letter.

I couldn’t not write it.

You are the president of my country.

I have no one else to write to, except perhaps a letter addressed to no one in particular.

With the very best wishes,


Alexander Nikolayevich Sokurov