Last Night's Viewing: Putin, Russia and the West, BBC2
Mad Dogs, Sky1
"I looked in his eyes and I was able to get a sense of his soul," said President Bush about Vladimir Putin, when he was ambushed at a summit press conference with a question about whether he trusted the Russian President. In the footage of the event, Putin looked genuinely gratified to have passed the test, but in Norma Percy's Putin, Russia and the West, the moment was offered less as evidence of Putin's bona fides than as an example of Bush's naivety. Colin Powell, not an obvious knee-jerk hawk, was a bit more wary. "I look in his eyes and I still see KGB," he remonstrated with the President afterwards. "There's a reason he speaks fluent German." The reason was that Putin had been a chief for the KGB in East Germany, not to mention head of the FSB, one of the agencies that replaced it. Percy's series is about the transformation of that career intelligence officer into the most powerful man in Russia.
Percy's stock in trade is history that gets inside the room. She has an unequalled track record when it comes to persuading the chief actors in contemporary events to give their versions of what happened behind closed doors, all the while keeping a beady eye on the fact that their version is bound to be highly partial. But the nature of Russian politics means that there are some occasions that still elude full disclosure. We got Putin's version of the meeting with Yeltsin in late 1999 when power was handed over, but Yeltsin isn't around to fill out the details. "I have decided to resign," Putin recalled him saying, leaving floating the highly salient question of what exactly had prompted that decision. You got the sense that he was made an offer he couldn't refuse.
In fact, some of the most gripping moments in the film were passages of opacity, such as Putin's confrontation with the oligarchs – an assembly of the capo di tutti capi at which he made it plain that the rules were about to change. "It's like when two dogs fight. First, they sniff each other. That was the sniffing," said one participant. Eyes flickered backwards and forwards as everyone present tried to feel how the ice was shifting beneath their feet, and work out which floe to jump to. Incidentally, if you've ever wondered why there have been so many Russians on the ski-lift in recent years, the revelation that the Russian income-tax rate is only 13 per cent might offer one answer. Tellingly, cutting the rate to that and then actually getting people to pay it resulted in an increase in the state's revenues
There were intriguing passages about Putin's solidarity with the Americans after 9/11 and an odd anecdote about Yeltsin's Minister of Defence playing hooky from a state function with Condoleezza Rice (a "spontaneous" gesture that just happened to have been recorded by an official camera crew). But the really interesting stuff lay in Putin's confrontation with the oligarchs, and in particular Mikhail Khodorkovsky's dangerous decision to tell the truth (or at least a version of it) when reporting on state corruption. Again, you had the footage of the critical moment, as Putin absorbed the fact that his power had just been openly challenged. Khodorkovsky looked nervous, Putin looked bored, and everyone else in the room tried to look as if they weren't there at all. Unfortunately, Khodorkovsky wasn't available to offer a commentary on this dramatic moment. Even Norma Percy can't get into a Soviet jail.
Mad Dogs is back – to see whether it can pull off the trick of re-engineering a really good end-stop drama into a continuing series. The lads had laundry problems in this first episode, with the tricky business of getting a fortune in €500 notes into spendable denominations. The explosion in the final frames may also have left them in need of clean underwear.
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