What happens to the mind of a director of a scrubby kolkhoz who is trying to reach the top of the state hierarchy?
When in November 1996 I showed my new movie Ordinary President to a couple of co-workers, my Moscow friends’ reaction was modest interest, reserved applause, occasional laughs and smiles. Since then, during 15 years, they have been telling me: “Buddy, why don’t you leave politics? What’s in it for you?”
Meanwhile, they made wonderful movies about writers, test-pilots, people selling bread in villages, pop-stars and old ladies searching for their missing pups.
Indeed, in the world that they filmed, cherished and dreamt of, no president was as important as the missing pup.
Nothing strange with that: all creators consider worlds of their art most important and treat daily routine ironically. This way, for a painter, the quality of paints is much more important than the quality of the national court system.
But not everyone is a painter.
How about directors of documentaries? Daily routine is their “paints”!
What shall they do if their “paints” become bad?
In the late 1994 I noticed for the first time that Belarusian “paints of everyday life” became bad. It was the time when major papers started to publish “white stains” instead of critical articles, when all Belarusian TV-channels got flooded with shameless lies, when the “sincere and honest” face of a certain person with a hoarse voice and agrotechnical combover settled on all TV-screens.
From that time, it was this person who authorized search of any “missing pup”.
“Imagine that you are given a bag of dollars that you swap to two bags of rubles,” The-Most-Sincere-And-Honest-President explained principles of currency conversion to his voters.
When I heard his words I realized that the History will not forgive me if I don’t make a movie about this Wonder of Nature.
In fact, it is very interesting to speculate what happens to the mind of a director of a scrubby kolkhoz who is climbing the political ladder, turning into the nation’s key specialist in economy, culture, education, hockey, show-biz and all other nonsense including architecture and high energy physics.
”I grew up among animals,” my future character proudly announced to the people and the world.
To cut the long story short, we decided to make the movie. “Us” were me, co-scriptwriter Leonid Mindlin and producer Piotr Martsev.
It was mid-1995, the Belarusian people hadn’t been frightened yet. Our colleagues from the television also were still brave, and material came to us from all sides.
For example, the notorious story about a national white-red-white flag being torn on the roof of the presidential residence and executive secretary Ivan Titenkov signing the torn pieces, got to me before it landed on the desk of the customer – the editorial of TV-news.
Everyone wanted this movie to be made.
Everyone was cheering.
So I spent more than a year staring at Lukashenka in the TV-screen.
I believe that no virologist watches bacteria as closely as I watched the Belarusian president.
Everything was of interest to me: the way he turns his head around (obviously afraid of a sniper!); the way his eyes get all dark and he drifts away for several seconds losing connection to the reality; the way he gets back, so painfully; the way he squeezes his palms till they turn completely white…
Once I had to leave my character and take a one-day trip to Moscow. After finishing my business I joined my friends in a little cozy restaurant close to the Belarusian railway station before catching the train.
We were a group of ten.
A lovely lady, probably a mother to one of us, sat beside me.
- What movie are you making now? - She had intelligent shrewd eyes. It was obvious that she really wanted to know the answer.
- I’m making a movie about Belarusian president Aliaksandar Lukashenka.
- Why? Her smile was ironic. - What is so interesting about him?
I started to tell her about the “white stain”, “bags of dollars”, the way he looks, squeezes his hands, the way his eyes get dark…
- Well then, you’re dealing with a latent epileptic!
I looked at her, stunned, not knowing what to say. My friend who was listening to our conversation told me:
- Pay attention now. Ludmila Mikhailovna here is a psychiatrist, corresponding member of the Academy of Medical Sciences.
This conversation had taken place many years before psychiatrist Dmitri Shchigelski announced Lukashenka’s diagnosis. It was not “latent epilepsy” but “mosaic schizophrenia”.
Which of the two psychiatrists had a more correct diagnosis? I believe that both were equally right. Anyway, ever since then, for nearly 20 years of Lukashenka’s rule, the Belarusian economy suffers from occasional epileptic attacks, while mosaic schizophrenia proved to be contagious and has spread among all state authorities in Belarus.
Once director of the Brest region Konstantin Sumar told Aliaksandar Lukashenka:
“You are above the God!”
Isn’t it a diagnosis? For both of them?
However, let’s get back to Ordinary President.
I watched the character on the TV-screen during the second half of 1995.
By the beginning of 1996, I realized that I had a few question to him.
I was eager to ask these questions but it was completely unrealistic, since by that time the presidential administration knew about our “unauthorized” movie. Rumors about the movie spread and reached some high-ranked ears.
Anyway, alarmed by the rumors, head of the Main Administration of public political information, lieutenant colonel Vladimir Zametalin called our old friend, operator of the correspondent office of TV-channel ORT Sergei Gelbakh.
- Who is Khashchevatski?
- A director. Gelbakh’s reply was provocative; Sergei Pavlovich enjoyed nothing more than teasing his top management.
- A director? The lieutenant colonel thought for a second, gathered all his intellectual capacity and asked the main question of his entire zampolit’s life. – Is he a creator or destructor?
- It depends on whom you ask. Gelbakh was sensing something interesting was going to happen. – For you, he is the Terminator!
Obviously, after that there was no way I would get an interview with the main character.
Nevertheless, I didn’t give up. I was searching for a way.
Our friend Vitali Semashko had an idea:
- If you want, I can make a call to Krasnoyarsk to my friend, Russian correspondent Gennadi Nikolaev. He will come and ask all your questions!
All that happened next went surprisingly quick and smooth. Right after our phone call to Krasnoyarsk, Nikolaev contacted the presidential administration, booked an interview and four days later we went to meet him at the Minsk airport.
Today, it feels like a fairy tale. It’s hard to believe that someone could arrange an interview with a president on such a short notice. But let me remind you that the year was 1996. Belarus was still in its democratic phase, the Parliament was still efficient, independent trade unions were still functioning and independent media were still engaged in their undermining activities…
In other words, it was a completely different time – a time of hopes when the most vibrant dreams came true.
I have to admit that the most daring ”dream” belonged to Aliaksandar Lukashenka. I mean his secret dream about the power of the Kremlin, Monomakh’s hat.
That is why Russian journalist Nikolaev got permission to interview the Belarusian president so fast. Lukashenka used every chance to launch his PR-campaign in Russia.
A couple of years later it became clear to everyone, but back in 1996 nearly nobody believed that he could have such plans. Our task was to crack Lukashenka and make him reveal these secret intentions in the interview.
We hoped that the peculiar nature of our hero would help us. In every interview he unavoidably starts to praise his own high intellect talking about all sorts of things with no hesitations and doubts. He goes all in.
Preparing for the meeting with our hero, we focused Gennadi’s attention on this peculiarity of his.
- You did your homework well, Gena! Lukashenka praised Nikolaev after the interview.
If he only knew whom he actually praised!
In the best tradition of a proper kolkhoz, security guards handed two bottles of vodka wrapped in a newspaper to Nikolaev when he was on his way out.
Honest Gena NIkolaev shared his “success” with us. We, too, had something to offer, so next morning he left Minsk with an easy heart and heavy head.
Afterwards, of course, lieutenant colonel Zametalin called Nikolaev and asked for the material claiming that they “would like to correct a couple of things”, but it was too late. To Zametalin’s horror, Gena told him that he only had a copy while the original recording had been sent to Khashchevatski.
There is no need to wonder what Zametalin was going to “correct”. During the interview, excited by how important he felt, our character told how he had reviewed Yavlinski’s program “500 days”, explained to Gorbachev what to do with the agriculture, and taught doctor of economics Otto Latsis the basics of economics.
He also said that “we (Belarusians and Russians) are destined to live together”.
He reached his favorite topic: “The question is WHO will unite our people?”
The following instant he replied to his own question with his self-absorbed looks.
It became absolutely clear WHOM he had in mind.
I have to admit that in 1996 Lukashenka’s plan to conquer the Kremlin was not that unrealistic.
Moreover, this plan had already been put into action.
As a matter of fact, when the movie was finished in November 1996, our producer Piotr Martsev sent a copy to the Kremlin administration via his friends.
Next day he got a phone call from the Kremlin and was asked to send twenty more copies.
Many years have passed before we realized what it was all about.
Those who knew what had happened told us that the events reminded of a political thriller.
The project of the Union agreement was already lying on Yeltsin’s table. One of his assistants got the project through on Lukashenka’s order. According to the agreement, the Union would be extremely tight; basically it was going to be one country with a common emission center, armed forces and so on.
The most important thing: during the first two years the post of the president of the Union of Russia and Belarus would go to Yeltsin, but Lukashenka would rein the following two years – and mark my words, all other years to come!
In this case, Belarus’ sovereignty would be non-existent.
Had the kolkhoz director got hold of the big red button, the entire world would face a real problem.
Yeltsin was about to sign the agreement, but some people who realized the danger of giving the power to a dictator didn’t let it happen.
I don’t know to what degree our movie influenced the minds of the Kremlin.
I just know it did play a role.
Basically, that is why we made the movie, why we dag for material and watched hundreds of hours of archives, talked to people close to our main character, and finally summoned Gena Nikolaev from Krasnoyarsk.
By the way, after the interview that revealed Lukashenka’s dearest dreams the administration of the Belarusian president sharpened its approach and our lives became even better.
In the headquarters of the Defense Ministry, during an extraordinary meeting Chief General explained that certain “dark forces” were trying to make a bad movie about “our good president”. He urged the entire management of the cinema studio of the Defense Ministry to make sure that the criminals wouldn’t get anything from the video archives.
My friends who had retrieved all shots that we needed from the archives the week before, told me about this meeting laughing.
But a real “gift” to us was Lukashenka’s testimony in the interview to the German paper Handlsblat’s correspondent Markus Zimmer.
I was listening to the Belarusian radio devoted to the national leader when I heard this interview for the first time:
“The history of Germany is a cast of the Belarusian history during its certain periods. Many years ago Germany managed to rise from ruins due to a very rigid power. The famous Adolf Hitler did more than just bad things in Germany… Let me emphasize that a process or a person cannot be all black or all white. There are positive sides, too: Hitler created a powerful Germany due to his strong presidential power. (…) The German order took centuries to form. During Hitler’s rule, this formation reached its peak. This is exactly our understanding of the presidential republic and the president’s role in it.”
It was clear at once that we had to use this interview in our movie, but all our attempts to get hold of it in a decent quality led nowhere. Probably, the interview was the reason why all sound and video recordings with the Belarusian president have been thoroughly guarded since then.
Markus Zimmer helped us. He let independent journalists make a copy of the interview from his recorder.
Leonid Mindlin gave me the recording and I tanked Lukashenka’s testimonies to the movie. I used video of the Belarusian president’s visit to the death camps as a background.
This way everyone could see that Lukashenka did understand what he was saying.
When this part of the movie was shown on the First Channel in Russia, a “circus” with all Belarusian state-owned media began…
In the show Hero Without Tie, Lukashenka looked in the camera with his honest eyes and confessed to hostess Irina Zaitseva that the interview was a fraud odered by the CIA and Polish Solidarnosc.
I was not just surprised when I heard it - I was shocked! How can a person lie so “sincerely and honestly” after millions had heard the interview on the Belarusian radio?!
He can, apparently!
Apparently, all those millions who had heard the interview believe that it never happened!
Can the “mosaic schizophrenia” be transmitted via monopolized electronic media?
How could Lie become Unquestionable Truth?
How could Lawlessness become Law?
How could our society change commandments of the Torah, Quran or Bible to something completely opposite?
By the way, Lukashenka did make it to the Kremlin.
However, nowadays his name is Putin…
During these 15 years that my Moscow colleagues have been telling me, “Buddy, what’s in it for you?”, TV-channels NTV, TV-6 and TVS were destroyed, Khodorkovski went to prison, children were murdered in Beslan, Politkovskaya was murdered, the country was split into “liberasts” and “white trash”, war against Georgia passed and war against Ukraine began…
15 years have passed. Today my Moscow friends are making political movies.
Better late than never.
Yuri Khashchevatski for charter97.org