PBS-TV’s Frontline Misrepresents Russia’s Vladimir Putin

Eric Zuesse

On January 13th, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) telecast the FRONTLINE documentary, “Putin’s Way,” which purported to be a biography of Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin.

The press release about this film states: “Drawing on firsthand accounts from exiled Russian business tycoons, writers and politicians, as well as the exhaustive research of scholar and best-selling Putin’s Kleptocracy author Karen Dawisha, the film examines troubling episodes in Putin’s past, from alleged money-laundering activities and ties to organized crime, to a secret personal fortune said to be in the billions. … These accounts portray a Russian leader who began by professing hope and democracy but now is stoking nationalism, conflict and authoritarianism.”

This documentary opens by describing the corruption that pervaded post-Soviet Russia and the Presidential Administration of Putin’s sponsor Boris Yeltsin during the transitional period of ending communism and starting capitalism, which was the period of privatization of the former Soviet Government’s assets. This film ignores the role that the U.S. and especially the then-World-Bank President Lawrence Summers and his protege Andrei Shleifer and other members of Harvard’s Economics Department played in planning and largely overseeing that entire process. Yeltsin brought that team in, to plan and oversee the process, because he figured that Harvard would know how to set up capitalism. On 10 February 2006, the Harvard Crimson headlined about the result, “‘Tawdry Shleifer Affair’ Stokes Faculty Anger Toward Summers,” and noted that the affair was such an embarrassment to the University that, “Shleifer, the Jones professor of economics, was found liable by a federal court in 2004 for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government while leading a Harvard economic reform program in Russia as it transitioned to capitalism in the 1990s. Shleifer settled the case for $2 million.” An extensive article by David McClintick in Institutional Investor magazine described the sleazy details of this affair, under the banner of “How Harvard Lost Russia.” However, this FRONTLINE documentary ignores all of that history, and pretends that Yeltsin established Russia’s crony-capitalism with no help or guidance from the U.S., the World Bank, and Harvard’s economists. Putin is instead portrayed as having been, and as now being, just a continuation of Soviet-era corruption, not at all as functioning in what was, to a significant extent, actually a U.S.-headed transition into capitalism.

Then, the film presents Putin as having first come to power in Russia on account of his attacking Chechnya after several apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities were bombed and Chechens were blamed for the bombings. This film fails to mention that Chechnya was a part of Russia, rather than a foreign country, and that, as wikipedia summarizes the origin of the Chechen war:

With the impending dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, an independence movement, initially known as the Chechen National Congress, was formed and led by ex-Soviet Air Force general and new Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev that rallied for the recognition of Chechnya as a separate nation. This movement was ultimately opposed by Boris Yeltsin’s Russian Federation, which firstly argued that Chechnya had not been an independent entity within the Soviet Union—as the Baltic, Central Asian, and other Caucasian States had—but was part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and hence did not have a right under the Soviet constitution to secede; secondly, that other republics of Russia, such as Tatarstan, would consider seceding from the Russian Federation if Chechnya were granted that right; and thirdly, that Chechnya was a major hub in the oil infrastructure of the Federation and hence its secession would hurt the country’s economy and energy access.”

The documentary mentions none of that, but, instead:

NARRATOR: And Putin’s invasion would be brutal.

CHECHEN CHILD: [subtitles] It’s my grandpa lying there!

NARRATOR: The man who waged it [Putin] was a new national hero.

It also notes that both Yeltsin and Putin refused to allow those bombings to be officially investigated, and that a possibility exists that the Russian Government itself had bombed the apartment buildings and falsely blamed it on Chechen separatists in order to enable Putin to win a popular election so as to succeed Yeltsin.

If that possibility was the actual explanation of the apartment-building bombings, then it was what’s called a “false flag” incident (one set up so as to be falsely blamed on the opposite side), such as the United States Government has often used. Two recent examples of this tactic were the coup that overthrew Ukraine’s Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 (which was based on sniper-fire that the U.S. blamed on Yanukovych’s Government but which really came from U.S. paid mercenaries who were dressed to appear to be Yanukovych’s people), and also the subsequent downing of the Malaysian MH17 airliner by the Ukrainian Government on 17 July 2014 (which was based on firing that the U.S. and its new Government in Ukraine claimed came from pro-Russian separatists but which actually came from a Ukrainian Government attack-plane). The first of those incidents was done by the Obama Administration in order to enable Ukraine to be used as a base for NATO nuclear missiles aimed against Russia; and the second of them was done in order to get the EU to hike its economic sanctions against Russia.

Whereas it’s likely that the 1999 Moscow apartment-building bombings were a false-flag operation, it’s practically certain that the two recent events in Ukraine were false-flag events — but they were perpetrated by our side, not by Russia, and so this documentary ignores these Ukrainian incidents and pretends that whereas Putin uses false-flag tactics, Obama and the U.S. do not.

Here is the way that wikipedia describes the apartment-building bombings (and the PBS documentary ignores all of this):

The Invasion of Dagestan was the trigger for the Second Chechen War. In August and September 1999, Shamil Basayev (in association with the Saudi-born Ibn al-Khattab, Commander of the Mujahedeen) led two armies of up to 2,000 Chechen, Dagestani, Arab and international mujahideen and Wahhabist militants from Chechnya into the neighboring Republic of Dagestan. This war saw the first (unconfirmed) use of aerial-delivered fuel air explosives (FAE) in mountainous areas, notably in the village of Tando.[39] By mid-September 1999, the militants were routed from the villages and pushed back into Chechnya. At least several hundred militants were killed in the fighting; the Federal side reported 279 servicemen killed and approximately 900 wounded.[18] …

Before the wake of the Dagestani invasion had settled, a series of bombings took place in Russia (in Moscow and in Volgodonsk) and in the Dagestani town of Buynaksk. On 4 September 1999, 62 people died in an apartment building housing members of families of Russian soldiers. Over the next two weeks, the bombs targeted three other apartment buildings and a mall; in total nearly 300 people were killed. Khattab initially claimed responsibility for the bombings, but later denied responsibility. This was followed by an anonymous caller, who said he belonged to a group called the Liberation Army of Dagestan.[40] There were no other calls or acts by the Liberation Army of Dagestan.

The fact that the Chechen separatist movement was supported by the Saudis and entailed “Wahhabist militants from Chechnya” wasn’t even mentioned in the PBS documentary, though it certainly is relevant to deciding whether Putin waged the second Chechen War solely in order to win election to the Presidency and was doing something he shouldn’t have been doing there.

The PBS documentary notes:

DAVID SATTER, Author, Darkness at Dawn: Well, the apartment buildings saved the Yeltsin system. They saved the corrupt division of property that took place after the fall of the Soviet Union. They cost thousands of innocent lives, both Russian and Chechnyan, by starting a new war. They brought to power someone from the security services — and that’s Putin — who, of course, had no interest in democracy.

NARRATOR: His first act as president was to grant his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, immunity from prosecution. But Putin’s administration would quickly ensure his own safety, too. Case number 144-128, that corruption investigation in St. Petersburg, quietly went away.

Nothing is said about U.S. President Barack Obama’s having done the same thing with respect to his predecessor, George W. Bush, who had lied his country into invading Iraq in 2003, and also about Obama’s having protected from criminal prosecution the megabank chiefs who grew rich from mortgage-backed-securites frauds that brought down America’s economy in 2008, and whose Administration covered up much else besides. The pretense is instead put forth that Putin is evil in ways that today’s American Presidents are not.

Then, Russia’s richest man, whom Putin had placed in prison for tax-evasion, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is interviewed and says that all he was really trying to do was to fight against corruption and against dictatorship, and for capitalism and democracy.

Then, the liberal political leaders Tony Blair from UK and Gerhard Schroeder from Germany are described as having been corrupt for having supported Putin’s policies.

EDWARD LUCAS: Putin was trained in the KGB to deceive foreigners. He has a very sharp eye for human weakness. He’s good at persuading people and intimidating them, and he’s been doing this with Western leaders, sometimes with charm, sometimes with threats. But boy, does he do it.

Then, others are interviewed who similarly describe Putin as being corrupt in ways that America isn’t, such as:

KAREN DAWISHA, Author, Putin’s Kleptocracy: So the system is a system of mutual support and tribute. It’s a pay-to-play system. If you are on a list of possible people who might be approached to be a member of the Duma, for example, you have to pay for your seat. Once you’re in there, then you can turn around and charge businessmen to have line items in the budget. Same thing all across all sectors.

Then, Putin is described as being like an unpopular Middle Eastern tyrant.

NARRATOR: The Arab spring surged out of Tunisia into Tahrir Square and on to Tripoli. For Putin, these mass demonstrations overthrowing powerful dictators must have been worrying.

STANISLAV BELKOVSKY: It was the first stage of his coming to understanding that he could never quit the post because the destiny of Gadhafi could be waiting for him.

NARRATOR: In 2011, when Vladimir Putin announced he would run again for Russia’s presidency, the response was mass demonstrations in Moscow’s streets, protests which had to be put down by police.

Actually, however, Putin’s entire time in public office since becoming President in 2000 has ranged between 60%-85% approval-ratings, though propagandists in and for America have constantly been saying such things as “There is no doubt that Putin’s popularity is falling.” (His approval-rating currently is above 80%.)

This documentary assumes, unquestioningly, the U.S.-propaganda line, that Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, and that the economic sanctions against Russia are punishment for that, and also punishment for Russia’s supposed guilt in the shooting down of the MH17 airliner.

NARRATOR: Putin has invaded Crimea and redrawn the map of Ukraine, claiming he is protecting ethnic Russians. According to his spokesman, it is a justifiable response to Western encroachment on territories the Soviet Union once held. …

The United States was calling for strong sanctions against Russia. But in the capitals of Europe, there was reluctance.

EDWARD LUCAS: We keep on trying to bring Mr. Putin in. We invite him to our summit meetings. We try and treat Russia as a normal country. And we think we’re trying to calm things down, but in fact, what we’re doing is we’re stoking things. We’re giving Mr. Putin the impression that we’re not to be taken seriously, and he continues to push us harder and harder and harder, and that’s extremely dangerous.

NARRATOR: But then in July 2014, one violent act would transform the political landscape. Malaysian passenger plane MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine by what was widely believed to have been a Russian-supplied weapon. Two hundred and ninety-eight people were killed. Suddenly, the West was galvanized.

TONY ABBOTT, Prime Minister of Australia: I demand that Russia fully cooperate with the criminal investigation into the downing of MH17.

STEPHEN HARPER, Prime Minister of Canada: It’s necessary to make it clear it will not be business as usual.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: We’re opposing Russia aggression against Ukraine, which is a threat to the world, as we saw in the appalling shootdown of MH17.

However, actually, Russia didn’t “invade” Crimea, but instead there was a coup on 22 February 2014, which installed a new Ukrainian Government, which wanted to oust from Crimea Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which had been stationed there since 1783, and Crimeans immediately demonstrated against that coup-Government, and they held a referendum on rejoining Russia, of which Crimea had been a part until 1954. 96% voted to rejoin Russia. Gallup polls taken in Crimea both before and after that referendum showed similar majorities wanting to rejoin Russia. What was illegal wasn’t Crimea rejoining Russia; it was instead the coup that precipitated Crimea’s rejoining Russia. But this documentary doesn’t even mention that coup, at all, nor the ethnic cleansing that has followed it. Russia’s accepting Crimea back into Russia was legal, and it was also essential for Russian national security. It was the right thing to do. The coup, however, and the Obama-demanded ethnic cleansing of Ukraine’s Donbass region — the area that had voted 90% for the Ukrainian President whom Obama overthrew — were violent U.S.-backed actions to impose upon all of Ukraine a far-right, rabidly anti-Russian, Government, which authentically constitutes a national security threat against Russia.


Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of  CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.

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  • Stephen Collens

    The same happened in Canada on the Natioanl or the Fifth Estate on the CBC TV network.They had quotes from the CIA he painted a dismal picture of Putin. These programs used to be some what real in the past in their reporting but this one was an endless line of straight on programming. I guess that why they call it a new “program” . So it seemed like they where doing their job for the public broadcasting corporation.

  • Best article yet Eric.
    The sad thing is that many people will use this documentary as a source of information and parrot it to other people as fact.

    A swear PBS is an arm of the CIA.

  • colinjames71

    Publiganda Broadcasting System. No one ever mentions Putin (resigned from the kgb by then) organized the defense of Leningrad against the military coup in ’91, which had taken Moscow, and had they not been defeated at Leningrad would have succeeded in maintaining the old Soviet Union. And that he has sought good relations with the west and been rebuffed at every turn simply for not being willing to be our little bitch, and that their overall stance has been quite moderate as NATO and the US broke every agreement with them time and again, surrounding them with missile bases and hostile nations, or that a revanchist Russia would almost certainly have just taken back Georgia when they attacked South Ossetia, as opposed to pulling out immediately after trouncing their forces in a week or whatever. No, it’s evil Putin and corrupt oligarchs and private fortunes and kgb chicanery and yada yada yada. What a travesty that PBS would air something like that, Frontline viewers being at least somewhat more enlightened I assume, on whole. I’m really getting disheartened lately, with the Hebdo Schmebdo BS, Banderistan gearing up for more genocidal attacks, Cromnibus, TiSA TPP TTIP on the verge of implementation, Syraq and ISIS and that whole sham having no end in site, the potential for serious financial catastrophe with the oil price plunge and the damage that’s doing to Russia and Venezuela and Iran and the sure loss of tons of good jobs in the oil services sector here, as much as I hate fracking… hate to be negative sorry, need an injection of hope, puhleeeeeze. Excellent reporting as usual Eric, hey, at least I have access to the truth of things. And that’s something.

  • goingnowherefast

    The western elites had control of Russia under Yeltsin, but lost it under a sober and intelligent Putin and of course they are outraged.

    PBS has been a joke for some time. Loss of government funding forcing them into the financial arms of global corporations to stay afloat. They are no different now than the rest of the commercial media.

    The western press and it’s criminal owners can stomp and complain all they want. Putin is no fool and has already made some serious strategic moves to protect the Russian people from the aggression of the west.

    The US/NATO Empire is in its death throws thanks to the short sighted hubris of its ignorant bought off governments.

  • ClubToTheHead

    What else could one expect from the Pentagon Broadcast System?

  • truth

    Propaganda Broadcasting Station

  • Daniel Goleman

    Eric Zuesse stared at the computer screen with despair. How could he find words adequate enough to describe Ukraine’s descent into chaos – and the Jewish media’s witch-hunt against Russia, which it directly caused? How could he accurately explain the facts – monstrous as they were! – to his readers?

    Hands frozen over the keyboard, he considered those facts – at least, the facts he knew for certain, after reading them in the Israeli press, and Jewish-owned newspapers like the New York Times:

    An armed coup against a democratically elected government, organised by Jewish Victoria Nuland – wife of Jewish Robert Kagan, infamous co-founder of PNAC, and champion of the Patriot Act, 2001 Afghan invasion, and 2003 Iraq Invasion… Then there were the Maidan agitators – funded by Jewish billionaire George Soros, according to Soros himself… And the Euromaidan snipers – caught on camera using Israeli-made Tavor assault rifles… There was the Israeli ambassador to Ukraine – described in the Times of Israel and Jerusalem Post as forging close personal links with Right Sector and Svoboda throughout 2013… There was the incredible fact that in Ukraine – a nation of 45 million, with a population of just 250,000 Jews – the post-coup government was Jewish! …The violent coup brought to power an unelected Jewish president, Yatsenyuk. Not to mention his Jewish Head of State Turchynov. Quickly followed by a rigged vote that brought a second Jewish President – Poroshenko. And a Jewish chairman of the Rada, Groysman.

    Who could forget that Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs, eager to fund and support the new government, were all Jewish – Kolomoisky, Pinchuk, and the rest of the crooks who funded the gullible Right Sector nationalists. Who could forget the words of Jewish investigative reporter Israel Shamir, who wrote that Ukraine was taken over by “mainly Jewish oligarchs” controlling foolish, duped thugs – the expendable cannon fodder that the oligarchs would use on the front lines. Who could forget the endless articles in Ynet, Haaretz and other Israeli newspapers, explaining that Ukraine’s Jews were eager supporters and funders of the post-coup government?

    How could Zuesse explain to his readers that Ukraine’s Jews were chiefly responsible for the Communists’ earlier crimes against Russia and Ukraine, in the 20th Century? After all, Jews, many of them Ukrainian, formed 80% of the first Bolshevik government – yet they were just one or two percent of the population of Russia. In the 1930s, the Jewish head of the NKVD, Genrik Yagoda, personally planned the Ukrainian Holodomor – a campaign of ethnic genocide, carried out by mostly-Jewish secret policemen, that killed 7-10 million Ukrainian Christians and Moslems. Even that monster Stalin was a Ukrainian – and a Jew to boot! He married three Jewesses in a row! Why, even the “Harvard” mob that looted Russia in the 1990s was a bunch of Jews! Lawrence Summers – Jew! Schlieffer – Jew! Before the 2000s, when Putin started to jail them and most fled like rats to Israel, Russia’s wealthiest 1990s oligarchs had been almost entirely Jewish – like Khordokovsky himself! Jews, looting yet another nation!

    So much suffering in Ukraine. And at the root of it, always – the Jews. Zuesse realized: there was only one way to handle this story. He knew what he had to do. Determinedly, masterfully, he began to type: “UKRAINE’S NAZI ARYAN FANATICS THREATEN JEWS WORLDWIDE! ECHOS OF THE SHOAH TERRIFY JEWS EVERYWHERE!! EUROPE’S ANTI-SEMITISM LAID BARE, FOR ALL TO SEE!!!”

    It was the same story he always wrote.

    • John

      Looks like they control just about every government on the planet today, with just a handful left to take over. And they are using the American Military to do it.

  • Sainthip

    Concerning Crimea, this province has tried several times to rejoin Russia: in September 1991, January 1991, August 1991 and declared it’s independence on May 5 1992. Unsuccessfully. One should add that Ukraine was in October 1945 one of the founding members of the United Nations with certain boarders, and that after having missed a few annual meetings, has rejoined the UN with different boarders, having included in the meantime against their will several provinces, including Criméa.

  • hank33

    PBS gives a voice to those that are shut out of Politics in Russia = the opposition. If you don’t like what they have to say you can just stick your head in the sand or not watch it. You believe what you want to believe in life,not always the truth.

  • donni

    median wealth per adult in russia is 2360 usd, according to credit suisse global wealth report 2014 while india’s only 1008. apparently this “documentary” for those who don’t bother to check facts, means for the most.

  • Philip K

    The writer of this blog, Eric Zuesse, is a sophist, and no amount of knowledge can break a sophist out of his own self-deception. (A sophist is a person who reasons with clever, but fallacious and deceptive arguments, and Eric is at the head of the list). Just because someone has learning, doesn’t mean that they’ve also got great understanding. One can read a thousand books or have a thousand degrees, and be all the worse for it. The defining characteristic of a sage is his simplicity, humility, clarity, and deftness at comprehending and using what he knows “without” doing any violence to the facts…as the world presents them! And that’s just not who Eric is.

    The change of government in Ukraine last year “wasn’t” a revolution (or a coup). That is why PBS did not mention anything about it – end of sentence, period.

    Unlike the troll dribble spewed out of Eric’s pen, above, and unlike decrepit Mother Russia with their long history of living the lie of democracy…so called, this happened because a kleptocratic leader exceeded his power and authority and committed grave acts against his own people. Had he not run, his tail between his legs in abject shame, he’d have been impeached and sent to prison. At least he’d have been in any functioning democracy, unlike Russia!

    When he absconded, the parliament (previously democratically elected) formed an interim government. There was then a Presidential election (at which time Poroshenko received an overwhelming mandate) and fresh Parliament elections. These latter weren’t even a legal necessity as the existing parliament had time to run, but Poroshenko and the interim government recognised the particular circumstances and decided that a fresh election would be needed to re-establish the democratic mandate.

    All of the above is a functioning democracy, albeit in strained and exceptional circumstances – thanks to their so called neighbor to the east!

    Meanwhile in Crimea, an illegal invasion/occupation by armed Russian troops in clear violation of their lease agreement in Sevastopol and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances (the newly independent Ukraine received promises that Russia would “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine”), usurped the legitimate regional government of the region. They then held what can only loosely be described as a referendum, effectively at gun-point. This parody of democracy, which would not have stood up to inspection by international observers had they been allowed to observe, cannot legitimize the flagrant land grab by the Russian Federation.

    In the Donbass a similar pattern emerges. Armed thugs seize government and local authority buildings. Hesitation by the disorganized central authorities is not used to seek dialogue or discussions, but to consolidate control and seize even more buildings. These thugs morph into increasingly well trained and armed militias as Russia adopts a slightly less obvious role compared to Crimea. Finally, just as the militias seem on the verge of defeat, Russia steps up it’s involvement (the so-called little green men) and sends large quantities of materiel and even men into Ukraine to stop and reverse the Ukrainian army. The cherry on the cake is another set of illegal elections, in flagrant violation of the agreement signed by the rebels at Minsk.

    Now, while the change of regime in Kiev may not have been perfect by Western standards, it was largely within the democratic mechanism and the Ukrainian constitution. The shenanigans in Crimea and Donbass are entirely outside the law and have no democratic credentials.

    So, I can see it now – a group of comrades are sitting by the fire, pouring a shot of vodka by the hour, asking the Czar, “what can we do tonight?” Putin responds, “We’ll do the same thing we do every night – provoke tensions in a small neighboring country, claim to be protecting ethnic Russians, and then initiate a covert land grab!”

    Cue theme music!

  • Alan Dean Foster

    In re Crimea: nobody and no proposition wins 96% in an honest election, anywhere.