Letters to Myself – thoughts on war 20 years on
Letters to Myself, which screened at the Frontline Club on Monday 14 April, follows Russian photographer Oleg Klimov as he returns to the places he documented during the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and into the 2000s. The film combines Klimov‘s memories with the stories of the people he photographed at the time.
Director Masha Novikova spent some time filming Klimov in Chechnya in 2000 and later in 2003–05 whilst working on a different film but has known Klimov for over 20 years and has wanted to film him at work for just as long but it took some time to secure funding.
Novikova said through a translator after the screening:
“It was my first war and my first time in a ruined city and of course it was quite tragic for me . . . for Oleg it hasn’t been the first time so . . . he was much more cynical than I was.”
Klimov, speaking through the translator via Skype from his mother’s home near Moscow which appears in the film, spoke about how he felt being the subject of the film instead of being behind the camera:
“It did take us quite a long time, Masha and I, the crew, everybody was looking for the people we were asking about, trying to find out about their stories and it was a very moving, very emotional time for me, as you can imagine 20 years later. It took me back to those times.”
A question from the audience asked what he thought had changed in Grozny, having been back to since the war? Klimov said:
“I’ve actually seen Grozny during three times, pre-war, wartime and post-wartime. . . . These are three completely different realities.
“The first reality is basically Chechnya the republic, just like perhaps the majority of post-Soviet republics. People just lived normal lives, it was not very exciting, nothing was really happening. Although you could see that conflicts started breaking out.
“ . . . The second reality is the reality of war which is again quite similar to any . . . place which is in the state of war, which is terror and horror.”
“ . . . The third reality, which I’ve witnessed the most recent time I’ve been to Chechnya was last year, . . . that feeling was basically surreal, because when you walk down the street knowing about the two previous realities, having seen all that I’ve seen, the question rises that you do not understand what it was all for, why did it all happen? . . . All this money that went first on the wars, and then to restore the city it’s just incomprehensible.”
A further question from the audience asked, how did Grozny change so quickly, who rebuilt it?
“This can be what we call compromise at best for the Russian government. . . . Because they couldn’t win the war in Chechnya . . . the idea was to buy peace there. . . . They’ve invested a lot of money . . . but the price that the people are paying, that’s where . . . the fear comes from. . . . There is no freedom of speech, no freedom of expression. . . . That’s the price they pay for peace and stability.”
— Rasa Jusionyte (@rasajusionyte) April 14, 2014
“Even though it [the war] was a terrible time people did speak out very freely . . . about defending the land and about being free and independent. And I felt a huge respect and love for these people . . . but now I see that even my friends they try to avoid calling things as they are, they use very vague language.”
How does Klimov approach the wars he photographs? How does he feel about the wars as a Russian?
The translator explained:
“It’s very difficult being a Russian, while Russia is fighting Chechnya because of course this dilemma of being a citizen of Russia and being a journalist, . . . [he was] trying to find ways to be neutral, to be right on the front line, not choosing sides. It was really difficult. . . . At one point, Oleg decided that he is going to be guided by a principle, he is not actually going to choose a nation or a people but he is going to be empathetic with the weakest one or the side that is unarmed.”
And what are Klimov’s thoughts on the recent outbreak in Crimea?
“It’s a very absurd and strange situation when we have these polite armed men with Kalashnikovs who nobody knows who they are but everybody knows that they are either special forces or private army that is linked of course to Russia. But it’s not the official troops, it’s not the official Russian army so it’s a strange situation where everybody understands but nobody actually names it or discusses it as official Russian army.”