Kiss from a Rose
Putin’s Kiss (2011): 8 out of 10: is a Danish documentary film directed by Lise Birk Pedersen that tells the story of Masha Drokova, a Russian teenager who becomes a spokesperson for Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth movement in Russia. Nashi and its effects on young Russians are examined in the film, as well as Masha’s transformation and dissatisfaction with the group.
Initially, Masha is a devoted and enthusiastic member of Nashi, embracing the organization’s values and goals. She even receives a prestigious award and a much-publicized kiss from Vladimir Putin himself. However, her loyalty to Nashi is tested when she befriends a group of liberal journalists, including Oleg Kashin, who is critical of the Russian government and Nashi’s tactics.
As Masha becomes increasingly aware of Nashi’s darker side, including their campaigns of intimidation and harassment against political opponents, she finds herself torn between her loyalty to the organization and her newfound understanding of the importance of freedom of speech and democracy. The film climaxes with the brutal attack on Oleg Kashin, which forces Masha to reevaluate her allegiance to Nashi and confront the personal and political consequences of her decisions.
Putin’s Kiss offers a rare insight into the complexities of modern Russian politics and the experiences of young people caught between opposing ideologies. The documentary highlights the power of propaganda, the dangers of unquestioning loyalty, and the importance of independent thought in a society struggling to find its identity.
The Good: You can really see why the opposition had such a hard time. Putin’s policies (Helped by high oil prices) really raised the standard of living for the average Russian. He brought pride back to the country.
Putin understood people want to live in a stable country. He sold stability. His youth group preached sobriety and exercise and working hard and self improvement. It may be all a facade and reminiscent of Nazi youth, but the reality on the ground is that it works and you can easily see how it appealed to Masha.
The opposition, however, seems about as effective and confused as the Florida Democratic Party. Outside of opposing Putin, I cannot think of one particular policy they brought forward and they are in the film quite a bit.
To use the best example I can find in Putin’s Kiss, there is a scene where attractive female pro Putin journalism students put out a lingerie calender to celebrate Putin’s birthday. The response from the opposition was to find twelve somewhat unattractive female journalism students, dress them like suffragettes and put out anti Putin calender, asking the “Hard questions”. No matter what side you are on, you cannot help to see the fun, cool side vs the humorless scolds.
Putin’s Kiss is a well-shot film with fantastic footage. When Masha talks about how Ukraine needs to know their place, you can see the covers coming off the grill. It’s interesting that’s 12 years ago they’re talking about the Orange Revolution which was in Ukraine and how that made Putin very paranoid because they were able to replace a pro Putin government with a pro-western government through street protest. And that is one reason Nashi was so focused on boots on the ground and controlling the protest squares.
There is also some wonderful slice of life moments. My personal favorite is Vasily Yakemenko, (Nashi head and I believe Masha’s lover) is a dead ringer for that boss in the sexual harassment videos that makes the new girl take notes for the meeting and then steals her ideas. Honestly, it is uncanny how boldly he wears his disdain for women on his sleeve.
The Bad: Masha Bucher is portrayed by events as a naïve farm girl who came to Moscow at sixteen, entered a one-sided affair with a powerful man, and lost her way. She comes across as a puppet. A pretty face that the regime put on TV for their youth group Nashi. When she calls herself a journalist and hangs out with the other reporters, the reaction is a bit of oh that’s cute. Here is the problem. What if she is more Margaery Tyrell than Sansa Stark?
Our other main character is crusading reporter and blogger Oleg Kashin. He is beaten nearly to death by people who are probably linked to Nashi or the government. Maybe… Here is the thing. He is very protective of Masha. So much so that I really got a “Nice Guy” vibe. She is cute and sweet and seemingly naïve. He takes her under his wing and introduces her to the liberal journalists. When he is beaten almost to death, she breaks from her allies and holds a protest sign in public demanding justice. She resigns from Nashi, where she was a commissar.
It is a great narrative that director Lise Birk Pedersen has drawn how the naïve Masha Bucher was taken in by this pro Putin fascist youth group that she became a leader and spokesperson, though she had no power. But one crusading journalist by crossing the political lines showed her another world and slowly changed her mind despite his own colleagues claiming she was a spy. (the delightful quote is “The girl with big breasts was sent to talk to liberals”). But what if Oleg Kashin was more Tyrion Lannister than Ned Stark?
Okay, what happened?
After watching Putin’s Kiss, one could certainly expect to look up Masha Bucher today and see she is living on her parents’ farm. Or maybe she ran off with a journalist and is living in Berlin working for an underground newspaper pursuing her journalism dream.
What one may not expect is she is listed in Forbes 30 under 30 and runs her own venture capital firm in San Francisco. A firm that specialized in getting investments for unicorns focusing on Russian enterprises. Well, knock me over with a feather.
Here is her latest tweet
“We launched Day One same week 5 years ago Here’s what we achieved: – 6 unicorns, 1 IPO, 15 exits (returned fund I in 3 years-usually happens on year 6th for a seed fund!) – portfolio companies value $25B+ in aggregate w/$2B+ raised – raised over $100M for the fund from 50 LPs”
Unfortunately, she cannot celebrate this success with her good friend, Oleg Kashin. Oh, he is not dead or anything. He is just busy covering the war, as Oleg is still an active reporter in Russia. (Like most reporters, that means he just lives on Facebook.) Yes, in Putin’s Russia and in 2023. He thinks the war is going badly, but he supported the taking of Crimea as “restoration of historical justice”
Which brings up the obvious question. Was the documentary telling us the truth? Much is made of Masha Bucher throwing her future away and risking her very life standing by her friend. But soon after she is at Stanford. Oleg was certainly beaten by people who thought they were doing the regime’s bidding. But I have the feeling it was an unauthorized screw up. The president of Russia called for an investigation of the beating and, a few years later, the youth group Nashi was no more.
At the very least, Masha Bucher is more ambitious and resourceful and Oleg Kashin is more crafty and nuanced than the documentary would indicate. Like I said, Margaery Tyrell and Tyrion Lannister.
The Ugly: The title Putin’s Kiss is a bit of a lie. Putin doesn’t actually kiss Masha Drokova. She kisses him and he politely accepts a kiss on the cheek, awkwardly followed by a quick hug. Putin comes across as a bit of a germaphobe who doesn’t know what else to do.
The other more obvious ugly are as bad as things appear with Putin in 2011. They are much worse in 2023. All those opposition leaders shown in the film are either exiled (Garry Kasparov). Imprisoned (Ilya Yashin) or assassinated (Boris Nemtsov)
In Conclusion: I really enjoyed this documentary. It is well shot and despite some minor complaints above, it does not hit one over the head with its conclusions. Masha Drokova is delightful and Oleg grew on me. It has great footage of people being what they are in real time. And it is an amazing insight to a part of the world I have never seen.