Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone is the latest offering by Adam Curtis, consisting of seven hours of footage recovered from the BBC archives in Moscow.
The series opens a window into what life in the Warsaw Pact looked like during its collapse.
Unfortunately, however, Curtis keeps the window as tightly shut as possible for those looking to actually understand these events.
Curtis’ only input amounts to his editing and subtitled commentary. In this, he turns this historic material into yet another means of attacking the Soviet Union.
Instead of a real analysis of the collapse of the USSR, Curtis regurgitates all of the usual slanders pumped out by bourgeois academics.
From the very first episode of the series, the viewer is assaulted with the sins of “the communists”. A lot of this points to the very real crimes of the Stalinist’s mismanagement of the economy, and the resulting social ripples that were soon to turn into waves.
When it comes to offering any answers, however, Curtis simply blames “the plan”. He shows us the Gosplan office riddled with unproductive meetings, trying to decide in Moscow what will be produced in Kamchatka. Almost all of episode two is spent on driving that one point home: that a planned economy will not work under any circumstances.
Curtis’ view basically parrots the line of the libertarian economists of the Austrian School – capitalism’s free-market fanatics – and their so-called ‘Economic Calculation Problem’. This is the idea that a modern economy simply cannot be planned due to its complexity.
Curtis argues that even with computers – which were widely adopted in a crash programme in 1985 – the Soviet bureaucracy was simply attempting to plan too much.
Marxists agree that no amount of computers can automatically propel you into socialism – not to speak of communism, which is the term Curtis stubbornly sticks to. But it doesn’t occur to the director that the missing components were in fact genuine workers’ democracy in drawing up and carrying out the plans, and the need for the revolution to be spread globally. Curtis, therefore, throws out the baby with the bathwater.
And it couldn’t be otherwise. Not just due to Curtis’ liberal outlook, but also his uncritical approach to the material he’s dealing with. Whilst the archive footage is an invaluable historical source, let’s not forget it was produced by the BBC in Moscow – who had their own agenda. Only a fool would take it all at face value.
In the seven hours of footage, Curtis’ coverage of strikes amounts to maybe 30-45 minutes. And where strikes are portrayed, the BBC cameras looked for the most politically backwards elements amongst the working class, such as a group of Vorkuta miners holding anti-communist banners.
Yet according to the official state records from 1991 to 1998, there were 42,947 strikes, in which a total of 2,911,000 workers participated. These covered a huge range of issues: from protesting against the different wings of the Stalinist bureaucracy; to fighting against the economic chaos involved in the restoration of capitalism; to demonstrating in favour of preserving the USSR.
But you would be none-the-wiser about any of this from watching Curtis’ extremely one-sided account.
Offensive sensationalism permeates the whole material, with Curtis bringing up facts of no relevance or without providing context, just to fit them into his simplistic narrative. There are countless such examples of this littered throughout the footage.
In one such scene, the BBC crew bribes a child with hamburgers to beg in front of cameras. What Curtis omits, however, is that this occurred in the late ‘90s, despite him showing it in an episode entitled ‘1989 to 1991’.
And without batting an eyelid, Curtis repeats some of the most insane slanders thrown at the USSR, such as a claim that Stalin ordered the breeding of apes with humans to create an army of ‘super-soldiers’.
Then there’s Curtis’ explanation, or rather lack thereof, of the actual processes of the capitalist transition.
Yegor Gaidar, the architect of ‘shock therapy’ in Russia, rightfully gets a lot of flak for the process. Yet Curtis’ criticism is only that Gaidar was being a bit too extreme, i.e. the process should have been done more humanely.
Curtis blames the ‘Chicago boys’ (free-market economists) and US presidents for the ‘excesses’. But ultimately his explanation pins the problems on just some bad apples. It’s all individuals you see; capitalism can do no wrong.
Similarly with the new bourgeois ruling class created during the restoration of capitalism. Curtis tells us everything about this or that oligarch or gangster: Smolensky did this, Berezovsky that. They’re all painted as some bad individuals that exploited the transition period for their own interests.
But Curtis can’t accept that this is precisely how the capitalist system works. The only reason he points his finger at these ‘oligarchs’ is because their interests are now at odds with the billionaires in the West.
By the end of the series we witness the deep economic crisis of 1998 in Russia. There is a scene where two desperate men dig up a grave of a German soldier, hoping to find some valuables.
Yet it is Curtis who is really the repugnant ghoul, digging up footage of the worst peacetime humanitarian crisis in history – where ‘excess deaths’ were more than the Russian casualties during WW1 – and offering absolutely nothing in terms of answers.
For those who want to understand the real reasons for the decline and collapse of the USSR – in all its complexity – we highly recommend Ted Grant’s book Russia: From Revolution to Counter-Revolution, available from wellredbooks.co.uk.