By Tomáš Tengely-Evans
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TraumaZone—vivid snapshots from the collapse of the Soviet Union

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Using archive footage, Adam Curtis’s Russia 1985 to 1999: TraumaZone is an insight into the lives of the people who lived it
Issue 2826
A collage of archive footage shows a miner, a dancing performer, a parade with balloons, two dancing cossaks, a couple getting married in the snow, and a ballroom dance

TraumaZone uses Adam Curtis’s trademark collage style

Adam Curtis’s seven-part documentary begins with a series of snapshots of a collapsing system. The first episode of TraumaZone plunges us into the turmoil that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Vorkuta coal mines had been built at the height of Joseph Stalin’s terror in the 1930s. Tens of thousands of people, locked in the Gulag forced labour camps, tunnelled underneath the ice sheets of the arctic region.

They had helped fuel the Soviet Union’s rapid industrialisation and economic growth. But, by the time the BBC filmed in the 1980s, lots of the infrastructure was falling apart—a symbol of the state’s stagnation.

At a TV factory, a woman bangs a set with a mallet, hoping to make it work. In the decaying town of Petushki a pallid-looking man tells us, “Apart from drinking there is nothing to do here.”

Further south in Volgograd—formerly Stalingrad—mothers bid goodbye to their sons, who’ve been drafted into two years’ military service. They hope for “peace” and “quiet” in the world.

But, in Afghanistan, more than 13,000 young men have already died in the Soviets’ war for imperial control. “What for? I ask,” says a voice in another piece of footage.

Onto the stage steps Mikhail Gorbachev, who was appointed Communist Party boss in 1985. “He still believed Communism was the future of the world”, but wanted “radical reform,” TraumaZone tells us.

That’s not quite the full story. While the Soviet Union claimed to be “socialist”, it had since 1928 been a state capitalist society where workers had no control.

The bureaucracy had begun to behave in a similar way to capitalists in the West. Locked into military competition with other states, its aim was capital accumulation.

By the 1970s, the Soviet Union was deep in crisis. The state capitalist economies continually crashed against the limits of accumulation set by their national economies.

And this was compounded by the burden of arms race spending during the Cold War. Gorbachev’s aim was to make state capitalism more efficient.

He travelled to the town of Togliatti, home to one of the world’s largest car plans. There he unveiled “perestroika”—reconstruction.

Gorbachev gave the bosses of individual firms more power. And, as TraumaZone reveals, they proceeded to loot the factory and positioned themselves to profit from the collapse of the Soviet Union that came in 1991.

TraumaZone tells us how, under a new law that introduced some free market mechanisms, young Communist Mikhail Khodorkovsky began to amass a vast fortune through a financial scam. He would become one of the first “oligarchs”—super-rich businessmen that looted Russia in the 1990s.

TraumaZone has no voice-over and, if the view is unfamiliar with the subject, it could be hard to follow. But the footage gives fascinating insights into the lives of working class Russians—and doesn’t write them off as a passive mass.

By 1989 at Vorkuta, we see a meeting of coal miners, who’ve just launched one of a wave of strikes.


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