Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, President Vladimir Putin has cracked down on internal dissent, threatening long jail sentences for Russians who oppose the war or independently report on it. Drawing on remarkable footage from inside the country, a new FRONTLINE documentary Putin’s War at Home tells the stories of Russian journalists and activists who are defying orders and seeking the truth about the war — including its true death toll among the country’s soldiers.
Directed by award-winning filmmaker Gesbeen Mohammad, who produced and directed an episode of FRONTLINE’s The Power of Big Oil and produced China Undercover, the film introduces viewers to Natalia, a young woman whose TikToks have gone viral internationally; Roman Melnichenko, a university professor whose parents live in Ukraine; and Sasha Skochilenko, an artist facing up to 10 years imprisonment for posting antiwar stickers in a grocery store. The film was produced by Vasiliy Kolotilov, a Russian journalist who risked his freedom to work with FRONTLINE. Watch Putin’s War at Home at pbs.org/frontline or on the PBS App.
“The Russian government wants people to think that all Russians are supporting the war. It’s not true,” he said in the film.
Gesbeen said they interviewed 80-100 potential contributors to get the final six, many of whom declined to participate out of fear of repercussions.
“All of these contributors are risking their freedoms by taking part in this film,” said Gesbeen. “We had a very rigorous casting process that involved ensuring our contributors knew what risks they were taking.”
As one journalist said in the film, “Putin’s Russia is based on fear. We decided to continue without censorship, whatever the cost.”
Numerous camera operators, sound technicians and others stepped up as well, said Gesbeen. “They are the unsung heroes of this documentary. For every shoot we had very long discussions about security, protocols and exit strategies in the event of the police showing up. All of that was very carefully managed.”
The Russians’ bravery is very meaningful, she said. “It shows that in every society, no matter how repressive it gets, there are people who are willing to fight for the causes that they believe in.”
“The true power of journalism is giving a voice to the voiceless,” said Raney Aronson-Rath, FRONTLINE’s editor-in-chief and executive producer. “We’re proud that Putin’s War at Home can share the stories of a few brave Russian citizen journalists and activists who, in the face of political retaliation, refuse to be quiet about the true toll of the war.”
For Gesbeen, who has covered human rights abuses and authoritarian states around the world, the issue of government repression is personal.
“It's in my blood. I'm Iraqi Kurdish and my parents were activists during the nineties under Saddam Hussein’s rule. We had to flee to Europe when I was small,” she said. “So, I’ve always been interested in how societies get cracked down on and the human costs of that.”
The suffering of the Russian people is devastating, she said.
“They are not doing anything wrong — they are not violent. They are just well-meaning people who don't want to see Ukraine being attacked and who are suffering for simply saying that they don't support the war. It’s very tragic.”
She said the film gives voice to people who have been silenced.
“Many of us who are fortunate enough to live in liberal democracies often take it for granted that we are able to speak our truth.”