The Latvian investigative documentary The Master Plan, directed by Juris Pakalniņš, will be the Gala film at the EstDocs film festival in November. This year’s films will be moderated by Riho Västrik, an associate professor at the Baltic Film, Media Arts and Communications School in Tallinn and co-owner of the production company Vesilind. EstDocs program director Kalli Paakspuu interviewed screenwriter Sanita Jemberga about the importance of making the documentary and her views on Russia’s reinvented propaganda machine.
KP: Kalli Paakspuu
SJ: Sanita Jemberga
KP: The Master Plan documents much of the Russian nationalism movement outside the Russian Federation and its boundaries. It documents how the Kremlin’s propaganda machine functions worldwide. As the screenwriter, you would have some idea of how difficult it is to get footage of the worldwide activities of the NGO, World Without Nazism. What can you say about this organisation today?
SJ: It is a typical example of how Russia builds fake organisations to represent its interests internationally and act as a loudspeaker in the mass media. You take a legit concept (who in their right minds would be against fighting a resurgence of fascism?), adapt it to your foreign policy interests (brand fascist basically everyone you disagree with), mix the true activists of the cause with Russian-funded agents of influence, pretend that there are many of them…and register in a European country which does not require transparency. Voila! And, when it gets exposed, leave the shell and move on to the next one. This is precisely what happened.
KP: It has been an issue in the Baltics that the Russian populations get most of their news from the Russian Federation’s state owned broadcasting systems, which does not value a balanced view on political events. They report to their Russian listeners that Euromaidan is a fascist movement and that Crimea was liberated when it was annexed to the Russian Federation.
SJ: Many Baltic persons live in the reality of Kremlin-controlled TV where Russia is surrounded by enemies which are attacking, starting from NATO…. Kremlin-controlled TVs are freely available and watched also by local Lithuanians, Latvians or Estonians due to habit or entertainment value. It rubs on them as well. But we cannot blame just Russia. For 25 years, until the Russian annexation of Crimea, we pretended that the Russians in the Baltics did not exist and we lived as two separate communities. We never offered them a narrative as part of the countries.
KP: The common folks buy into myths like Latvia is an American state and the Russian occupation never took place. What percentage of the Russian ethnics in Latvia buy into this mythology?
SJ: For a while it was taboo to ask what the Baltic Russians think and where their loyalties lie. Perhaps we did not want an answer, but it has changed and now the countries are trying to assess how big the vulnerability is. Surveys have been done post-Crimea which show that, at least in Latvia, the myths of the resurgence of fascism and alleged Russian discrimination are finding support. We agree about the biggest challenges of the country: prosperity, demography, etc., but disagree on what is going on in Ukraine. In the qualitative survey by Latvian Defence Academy about 40% of Russian-speaking respondents said they believe the rights of Russians are violated so badly that Putin has to intervene. On one hand, it is scary, but on another, it’s a fake pretext anyway. Putin is an opportunist who pounces when he feels he has a chance. Even if we had a single Russian in the country, “defending” him perhaps would be a good enough pretext.
KP: How is this Russian nationalism movement driven by the Russian state produced propaganda impacting the different generations in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania?
SJ: Last Sunday, Russians voted in their parliamentary elections. In the Baltics about 135 000 people were eligible to vote as they have taken up Russian citizenship due to visa free travel, pensions and a general likeness of the country. A bit over 27,000 voted and you could see at the queues forming at the embassies who these people are: the elderly generation for whom the end of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical tragedy of 20th century, as Putin put it. In Latvia, about 75% voted for Putin’s “United Russia”—more than in Russia itself. Part of the Baltic Russians are more pro-Putin than Russians themselves, as they have been to Russia just on television…Younger people, and I have many friends among them, consider themselves attached to the Baltic countries, but with a distinctive Russian identity. Which is understandable and totally fine by me. We will not be able to agree on the past due to very different experiences. For their granddads the end of World War II meant survival and victory over Nazism. For mine, it meant deportation and death in Siberia. But, as long as we can agree on the present—-that we want to live in an independent, democratic European country that respects fundamental freedoms and where people prosper on their merit—-I need no more.
KP: Since language education is a big issue in the Baltics and Russian ethnics are not entitled to citizenship without competency in language, is citizenship granted by birth, inheritance or language competency?
SJ: To get Latvian and Estonian citizenship, people who cannot prove Latvian [or Estonian] inheritance pre-1940, have to pass a test in language and constitution/history. Lithuanian policies were different as their ethnic composition was more balanced: Soviets resettled less of their people there. These kinds of tests are not unusual in most European countries now. Latvian language courses are available for free and the state funds secondary education in minority languages. However, in the beginning of ‘90s there were restrictions on age groups who could apply for citizenship as the new states were so fragile. They were lifted later, but we had already offended a lot of Baltic Russians who wanted to be part of the new countries, but were pushed away and mentally ended in no-man’s land. About 12% of Latvian inhabitants are still without any citizenship.
KP: When Putin says our country will “vigorously” defend the rights of Russians “to self defense under international law,” what does he mean?
SJ: That he can invade any country which he fancies on whatever fake pretext he can come up with, and gradually get away with it.
KP: As a screenwriter, what were your biggest challenges with finding out the breadth and scale of Kremlin’s propaganda machine? Were there any surprises? If so, what were they?
SJ: The biggest surprise came early in the development of the film. When we were pitching the idea in the Baltic Sea States Forum, where filmmakers from the North Europe convene, an intelligent Danish filmmaker asked a question: “What is Maidan?” At that moment we realised that what is evident for us isn’t clear to others: secret financing of NGOs, both real and fake, by the Russian state, corruption of politicians, constructed public opinion against the West in general, and anti-US in particular, and meddling in the internal affairs and aggressive foreign policy. Ukraine is a litmus paper of how far Russia is allowed to go. It is a novelty outside the Baltics, but the method is employed in many EU countries. The only reason for making this film was to show that, no, this is not just a Baltic problem, it is happening on your home turf, too. So watch out.
KP: What were your challenges in telling a story, well known in countries that had experienced Soviet occupation, to western democratic countries that may have only known the false histories spun by Russians?
SJ: True, the further the country is from Russia the more loveable it seems, because the aggression ebbs off and all that are left are Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky and stereotypes of encrusted samovar. Putin’s regime has also invested a lot to keep Europeans interested, starting with pipelines and ending with investments in various sectors of global economy—-and that is only the visible money. The challenge was to keep the story line clear, simple and bullet-proof for what we are saying.
KP: Given that the Olympics was the Russian Federation’s moment to use their propaganda machine on the west, how did it or didn’t succeed?
SJ: I think WADA [World Anti Doping Agency] sort of ruined it.
KP: Where is Galina Timchenko and the independent broadcasting station Meduza today?
SJ: In Riga, alive and growing. Which is not a small achievement, taking into account the near-total state control over media and their owners in Russia and sneaky attempts to control what people are reading on web. I have huge respect for their work.
KP: What is the Great Patriotic War?
SJ: A propaganda concept which symbolizes the highest point in Soviet history and on which the resurgence of Russian nationalism is based these days: hence not World War Two, but on the Great Patriotic War. For me, it is the defeat of Hitler’s evil ideology which happened at the expense of my family and my country. For the Baltics it was not liberation, it was three occupations (Soviet, Nazi, Soviet again) and lays the basis for the problems we face today, i.e., aggressive resurgence of nationalism in Russia which resonates among the older Baltic Russians.
KP: How difficult was it to source the material in the film? What percentage came from state run broadcasting stations? Was there a percentage also coming from Russian Federation state run stations?
SJ: We tried to get as much as possible from the other sources than Kremlin-controlled TV canals. Russian authorities put out quite a lot for open access, but you have to know where to look. Also, the Berne convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works is massively helpful when some TV channels refuse to sell their footage for political reasons since it allows use the footage as a quote even without the permission of the owner.
The Master Plan will be featured at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, 506 Bloor St. W., in Toronto on Nov. 4th. Reception at 6:30 PM. Screening at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $15.
Please visit EstDocs for more information on this year’s festival.