Russia 1985–1999: TraumaZone

Russia 1985–1999: TraumaZone: What It Felt Like to Live Through The Collapse of Communism and Democracy

Since the late 1980s, BBC news crews have filmed all across the Soviet Union and Russia, but only a tiny portion of their footage was ever used for news reports. The rest was left unseen on tapes in Moscow. Filmmaker Adam Curtis obtains these tapes and uses them to chronicle the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of capitalist Russia and its oligarchs, and the effects of this on Russian people of all levels of society, leading to the rise to power of Vladimir Putin, and today’s invasions of Ukraine. The films take you from inside the Kremlin, to the frozen mining cities in the Arctic circle, to tiny villages of the vast steppes of Russia, and the strange wars fought in the mountains and forests of the Caucasus.


Perestroika. The dream of saving communism. But no-one believes in anything any longer. The managers loot the system. Soldiers return defeated in the war to liberate Afghanistan. This first part includes footage from the AvtoVAZ factory in Togliatti, the funeral of British double-agent spy Kim Philby, and the April 9 tragedy anti-Soviet demonstrations in Tbilisi.

There are no potatoes in Moscow. Things get worse. Then they get much more worse as the rational Communist plan runs out of control everywhere. McDonald’s opens in Moscow. President Gorbachev believes he can save communism. People travel to tiny villages to get food. Gorbachev’s rival, Boris Yeltsin, decides communism is finished. The army and the KGB realise their power is collapsing, and they decide to intervene.

The empire strikes back. Hardliners attempt a coup, and bring tanks to Moscow. Power slips through their shaking hands. Oligarchs publish a manifesto. Money will replace all ideology. Yeltsin seizes power and abolishes communism. Parts of the old Russian empire, including Chechnya and Ukraine, demand their freedom too.

Russia goes through the mirror into a chaotic dream world where nothing is stable any more. Dream visions of Russia’s imperial past start to rise up. People cannot afford food. There is a new plan to create democracy overnight, and those in charge say it is rational. What it creates is a terrifying world where nothing is stable. But in Moscow, women are taught to smile by American cosmetic companies.

Russian society implodes. Millions of people fall into the abyss. Many live underground or in forests. The president attacks parliament with tanks saying he is saving democracy. The oligarchs move billions into offshore financial havens. Factories have no money. They pay their workers with the very things they make.

Yeltsin believes a war in Chechnya will save him. The oligarchs seize control of practically everything. In the upside-down world, gangsters become heroes for defending democracy. This part includes footage of the Battle of Grozny, the electoral campaign of Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the trial of gangster Sergei Shashurin in Kazan. The group around the president believe a war in Chechnya will save him. Others want the war to restore the glory of the Russian Empire.

A massive boom spreads through Moscow. It seems that capitalism has arrived. But the bankers leave and the Oligarchs run with their money. The Russian people turn against the curse of democracy. Both communism and democracy are finished. Oligarchs take control of a ruined society and search for a new president to be their puppet, to avoid being prosecuted for their crimes. They choose Vladimir Putin.