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Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZoneCourtesy the BBC

TraumaZone: Adam Curtis’s nightmarish study of the Soviet Union’s downfall

The documentarian’s new series, Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone, is a dark and eerily familiar look at the collapse of the Soviet Union

People chopping park trees for firewood. A never-ending cycle of violent protests. Chernobyl’s ‘liquidators’ wrapped in sellotape as they deal with nuclear disaster. Clubbers dancing in an abandoned astronaut museum. Wars that leave parents searching for dead sons for the rest of their lives. Children begging for money from strangers in cars. Scuffles breaking out in empty-shelved supermarkets. Brutal gang murders in factories, restaurants and on the street. Car explosions. A desperate couple filming an amateur sex tape for cash. Oligarchs stealing the wealth of an entire country. And a perpetually-drunk president. 

These are just some of the memorable scenes from Adam Curtis’s new seven-part documentary Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone, which explores what it felt like to live through the collapse of the Soviet Union. Each episode comprises a 60-minute montage of carefully selected footage from thousands of hours of raw video, shot or sourced by BBC Moscow’s staff – much of it never seen before. To capture the mood of this extraordinary time, Curtis provides no voice-over commentary and only basic contextual information through text on the screen. “The material was so strong that I didn’t want to intrude pointlessly,” he explains in The Guardian, “but rather let viewers simply experience what was happening, because it is was out of this – the anger, violence, desperation and overwhelming corruption – that Vladimir Putin emerged.”

Beginning with the glasnost and perestroika years – a period in which a series of desperate attempts were made by Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, to reform the union’s failing economy and lack of democracy – and ending with the final act of Yeltsin’s disastrous presidential reign in Russia, Curtis juxtaposes one truly absurd scene after another to accentuate the chaos of economic collapse. When Gorbachev’s attempts at reform destabilise an already weakened political and economic system, incite nationalist and independence movements and eventually lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, newly independent states fall into uncharted territories. 

Overnight, Russia goes through ‘shock therapy’, where all controls over prices are removed to create a system that would try to find its natural equilibrium. Instead, such drastic neoliberal reforms result in excess deaths and decreased life expectancy. They also pave the way to more corruption. In the entire post-Soviet region, civil wars begin, opportunistic individuals gobble up national industries and become oligarchs, and hasty policy implementations to create market economies result in deep and prolonged recessions, with poverty rising more than tenfold. Nothing sums the tragedy up more accurately than a drunk Yeltsin staring at the wall and telling his bodyguard that “they [the oligarchs] are stealing Russia”.

Watching TraumaZone is like looking through a broken kaleidoscope, where all you see are iterations of the same despair and destruction. Nearly seven hours of footage detailing the collapse of the Soviet Union will leave anyone feeling depressed, especially when we know that what comes after is Putin’s authoritarian dictatorship which leads to more wars inside Russia and across borders. For those looking to understand the general gist of history that contextualises Putin’s emergence and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, TraumaZone is an excellent source for first-hand accounts. Yet it struggles to tell the whole story in the detail the subject deserves.

It is an awfully large mission to capture a decade’s worth of Soviet collapse in a documentary series and it’s admirable that Curtis tries to rise to the challenge. Though ultimately, he fails to give it the necessary depth and breadth – despite the documentary being seven drawn-out hours. TraumaZone’s limitation is that it can only tell the story of BBC’s footage, much of which is set in Moscow, the former capital of the Soviet Union and now the capital of Russia. Though Ukraine has the second most features as a Soviet and post-Soviet nation – some of which feel a bit shoehorned to create a retrospective narrative on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – other post-Soviet countries are only shown for what feels like a flicker of a second. The story of the Soviet Union’s collapse is not Moscow-centric or even Russian-centric, yet watching TraumaZone, you would be forgiven for thinking it is.

History often tells the story of a handful of powerful men, while ordinary people get forgotten. TraumaZone captures the human suffering at the centre of these unfolding crises. The viewer sees how police brutality is applied to protesters demanding a better future, many of whom end up needlessly dead, and gets to listen to the wailing women on both sides of the war who can’t find their kids as a result of the civil war in Chechnya. We watch how workers strike as a result of not being paid for six months, and women get abortions because they can’t afford to raise kids. This documentary interlaces vignettes of everyday life with significant political moments to create an authentic atmosphere of pandemonium. 

Despite some shortcomings around the plot, much political analysis can be gleaned from Curtis’ latest work. Russia’s disastrous neoliberal experiment paved the way for more corruption and severe inequality. While the UK economy continues to shrink, our own government keeps trying to enact a more extreme version of its neoliberal project, with disastrous consequences. As warnings that workers will face two decades of lost living standards ring and a spiralling cost of living crisis takes hold, it is the working class people who shoulder the burden of greed and corruption. As the famous saying goes, history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. TraumaZone is not just a pretext for the rise of Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also a dire warning for the rest of us.