Review: ‘Russia 1985-1999, TraumaZone’

In a seven-part production for BBC TV, ‘TraumaZone’, Adam Curtis has delved into the predominantly unseen work of hundreds of BBC film crews carried out over 35 years across what was the USSR. In an extraordinarily varied assortment of footage, he aims to convey “what it felt like to live through the collapse of communism and democracy”.

In fact, it provides priceless insights into what happened when a vast, bureaucratically run planned economy ground to a halt and ga

ngster capitalism took over. Some of the material is horrifying, some actually amusing.

The series is peopled with oppressed workers, exploited women and children, high-living oligarchs and gangsters, as well as dictatorial presidents like Yeltsin and Putin.

Catalogue of disaster

The series goes from 1985, and Mikhail Gorbachev becoming the last president of the USSR, to 1999 and the financial and industrial meltdowns at the end of the 20th century.

At the beginning, nothing seems to hang together; the juxtaposition of footage is annoyingly random. This may be an art form but, for someone who lived in Russia for much of this nightmare period, it is frustrating. The treasure trove of film and personal commentary cries out for consistent and clear explanation and analysis.

However, as the series moves on, a number of insights emerge and it becomes compelling watching.

Early scenes range from the Chernobyl disaster to the Afghan war (with its 15,000 Russian deaths). They include President Gorbachev struggling with the increasing unpopularity of the ‘Communist’ Party he heads and his famous ‘Perestroika’ experiment of economic and political reforms.

Empty food shops and lengthening queues are mixed in with co-ops displaying expensive clothes.  Pensioners at metro stations sell their last precious possessions. Workers trade meagre share vouchers with grandmothers working for former party bureaucrats like Mikhail Khordorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky – labelled by Curtis as ‘Oligarch No.1’ and ‘Oligarch No 2’. They are shown looting publicly owned factories and banks to “make millions out of nothing”, as Berezovsky himself puts it. The giant Togliatti car factory is shown being carved up by armed gangsters.

End of USSR

Little of TraumaZone’s wealth of footage reached British TV screens at the time. In the USSR, chronic food shortages and queues were part of everyone’s daily experience, but reports of protests and strikes were suppressed. Mass meetings addressed by the popular Moscow leader Boris Yeltsin were rarely, if ever, shown on state-controlled TV.

Viewers in what was the USSR didn’t get a clear account of what happened in August 1991, when the ‘old guard’ of top generals and bureaucrats tried to carry through a coup against Gorbachev. They saw constant repeats of Swan Lake and a press conference by the coup leaders with the famous trembling hands of vice-president Gennady Yanayev.

Curtis mines a wealth of additional film from these dramatic days but without explanation. The ‘Emergency’ was over in three days and Yeltsin literally came out on top – leaving Gorbachev humiliated and the long-ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union outlawed. The USSR then rapidly disintegrated and was dissolved on 25 December 1991 (see ‘30 years since the end of the USSR – lessons for the workers’ movement’ at

Yeltsin’s decline

Adam Curtis’ films chart how the ‘golden boy’ and super-democrat Yeltsin turned into a power hungry and ruthless representative of the new capitalist class. It shows him using the army in a brutal attack on the Russian White House in September 1993. Former ally and chair of the Russian parliament, Alexander Rutskoy, is seen leading a group of men from the burning building waving a white flag!

The kaleidoscope of film shows ‘shock therapy’ enthusiasts Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, along with a later prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. American evangelists harangue an unimpressed gathering of school students in a field and the show goes on.

Over his years in power, Yeltsin accrued great personal powers for himself, but his health and popularity rapidly declined. TraumaZone shows how he was challenged by nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky; and how the ‘Communist Party’ was revived as a tame parliamentary buffer against real opposition. It exposes the president’s decision to send forces into Chechnya as a distraction from his own woes as his alcoholism gets the better of him.

The series goes on to show how the oligarchs then found their man in the inscrutable character Vladimir Putin, head of St Petersburg’s KGB. It shows how western leaders patronised this new representative of the now entrenched oligarchy. It exposes how foreign loans, given in times of trouble, would immediately disappear into private bank accounts abroad and much, much more.


TraumaZone is a quite fascinating creation. It brings out so many of the features of life in what was the USSR that make it a region of huge contrasts, both in the past and in the gruesome present. Tragic scenes are interspersed with comic episodes, like the repeated attempts to get the favorite horse of the president of Turkmenistan transported to Britain, originally as a present for prime minister John Major! It shows a number of visits by world figures – presidents, prime ministers and Queen Elizabeth II.

There are heart-rending scenes of soldiers’ mothers searching for proof that their sons are dead in order to claim a meagre pension. A girl begs for cash from car windows. The nouveaux riches attend banquets and have country mansions built for them.

A cosmonaut is abandoned when the USSR falls apart, only later to be brought back to earth. A Soviet-era museum of space becomes a parking lot. Computers and automatic checkout systems are beginning to be developed, but Moscow runs out of potatoes!

Mafia-style shoot-outs over the spoils of privatisation take place in streets inhabited by the unemployed and homeless. An aged couple is interviewed in a water-sodden tunnel under Moscow. Adults, children and dogs are shown living rough in Russia’s vast forests. What are said to be the last Russian Tsar’s bones are buried in St Petersburg and newly-weds pose at the place of his execution in Ekaterinburg.

Prostitutes in a hotel discuss who gets the condom. A girl in a ‘kommunalka’ (communal apartment) speaks of her fears of sharing a room with a stranger. Women are seen queueing up to have abortions – the only form of ‘family planning’ for most.

The extensive film footage in Curtis’ series certainly gives an insider view of the rise of today’s super-rich oligarchs, above all Putin. It also shows scenes from Ukraine over the years, as pro- and anti- Moscow governments succeed each other and oligarchs seek to protect their newly acquired wealth.

It has juxtaposed beauty parlours, fashion shows and art dealers buying Russia’s treasures with life in snow-covered rural areas of Russia where time has hardly moved on. Pony traps go by, laundry is washed in ponds and pensioners catch fish from ice-holes.

For anyone who lived in what was the USSR, TraumaZone will bring memories flooding back and even give some insights into what was happening. For those who have never been there, it is also an intriguing way of seeing how today’s disastrous situation came about.

No explanation

Adam Curtis is said to come from a socialist background and clearly abhors the society he sees that has evolved in the hundred or so years since the workers took power in Russia. He bemoans the fact that today’s left has “failed to come up with a consistent set of alternatives to capitalism”. He is actually unable to explain the very processes he so vividly illustrates.

It was not ‘communism’ that collapsed in 1991, but an ossified one-party dictatorship based on a bureaucratically run, state-owned planned economy. Nor, as Curtis’ material amply illustrates, was any real democracy established before the Yeltsin and Putin dictatorships.

It is down to a new generation to learn all the lessons of history, to prepare for a fight to the finish against capitalism in all its forms and for genuine socialism on a world scale.

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December 2022