Inside Putin’s Russia at war: This journalist chose to film when others fled

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun14,2024
Key Points
  • London-based filmmaker Andy Hayward worked with the international team of VICE News in Moscow.
  • He arrived in Russia one month before it invaded Ukraine and witnessed the changes it went through during the first year of the war.
  • His film, Warped by War: Inside Putin’s Russia, is available for free streaming on SBS On Demand.
Journalist and filmmaker Andy Hayward arrived in Moscow to join the Russian bureau of VICE News in January 2022, barely a month before the Kremlin launched a full-scale invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.
While he describes the timing as “somewhat accidental,” he spent the following year reporting and filming inside Russia.
The year of work resulted in the production of the documentary film, capturing the fractures within Russian society and the government’s tightening grip.
At the outset of the war, Hayward felt a sense of “shock” when news broke of Russian soldiers and tanks entering Ukraine.
“There had been a build-up of troops on the border, and everyone was in that ‘will he [Russian President Vladimir Putin] or won’t he [invade Ukraine]’ kind of a situation,” Hayward told SBS Russian.
“Then one early morning, it happened…it was shocking.”

Thumbnail of Warped by War: Inside Putin's Russia

Warped by War: Inside Putin’s Russia

On the first night of the invasion, Hayward and his colleagues at VICE reported from anti-war protests in Moscow.
At the time, and in the ensuing weeks, the filmmaker said there was a feeling of division within Russian society.
“For Russians who aren’t pro-Kremlin, I think there was a lot of grief about the war, a lot of sadness as well, that this is a sort of watershed moment which is changing things in their entirety, and it’s not going to be easy to go back from,” he said.
Life in Moscow carried on as usual despite the war, Hayward recalled, with members of the public seemingly unaware or indifferent to the situation.
“We see the protests and speak to people grieving this tragedy, and then you go to a cafe, and it is bustling.
“Everyone is going about their business with no real understanding of what is happening in their country, or no desire to know or to look into what’s happening.”

He details the changes that he witnessed.

On some level, it’s a much more subdued and quiet time than ever before. A lot of colour has washed out of society, and it is just people going about their business and keeping their heads down.

Andy Hayward

Two weeks into the war, Russia adopted strict censorship laws, with punishment of up to 15 years imprisonment for “discrediting” the Russian Armed Forces.
The crackdown extended to the reporting of alleged war crimes by Russian soldiers or using the term “war” rather than “special military operation” when referring to the conflict.
As international news bureaus, including the BBC, CNN and Bloomberg, in Russia, Hayward chose to stay on.
He explained that the idea for the documentary film came about organically, as it was becoming increasingly difficult to prepare packages for the daily news.

“I had a very rare bit of access to Russia…[But] what can we do? What can we say? In itself that was a challenge.”

The film

One of the key stories of the film revolves around the persecution of Artyom Kamardin, a 33-year-old poet from Moscow.
Kamardin recited a poem as part of his anti-war performance in September 2022, after which he was arrested, , and coerced into apologising on camera.
He for “inciting hatred” and “calling for activities threatening state security”.
Hayward’s film tracks the journey of Kamardin’s girlfriend, Alexandra Popova, as she navigates through court hearings and arranges to marry him in one of Moscow’s prisons.

“I think that was an interesting way of showing what’s going on in Russia. The story is the spine [of the film], and then we’ve got vignettes of different things happening in the Russian society,” Hayward said.

In some ways, it’s not an exceptional story. It’s an example of the amount of the huge force put against anyone for even such a small infraction.

Andy Hayward

The film also includes the views of Russians who support the invasion of Ukraine.
However, Hayward felt that the general belief in the war in Russia was “fragile”, with individuals seemingly parroting the government line without true conviction.

“It’s like going through the motions. We spoke to Yaroslav, the father of a conscript, towards the end of the film, he’s reeling out the party line,” Hayward said.

Artyom Kamardin during court hearing.png

Artyom Kamardin was sentenced to seven years in jail for making calls “undermining national security” and “inciting hatred”. Source: Warped by War: Inside Putin’s Russia

“It’s like he’s repeating things, ‘well, to the best of my knowledge’, and ‘I think the president says this’, but it didn’t seem to be that deeper belief.”

Yaroslav’s son Oleg appears on camera at a conscription centre.

“Oleg was like, ‘these decisions aren’t for me, they are made by someone else’,” Hayward said.

Like that’s not his business if he’s being sent to fight a war, it’s not for him to question.

Andy Hayward

Hayward explained that Oleg’s response was indicative of “what’s happened to people” in Russia.

“It is the tail end of the 20 years of being told not to engage, of being told to be apathetic, of being told that politics isn’t your business and you shouldn’t really worry about it.”

Experiences of working in Russia

In March 2023, Russian authorities arrested Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal’s correspondent in Moscow.
The arrest of a US journalist on espionage charges
As of May 2024, Gershkovich remains in prison in Russia.

“Fear is obviously a factor when working in Russia. The arrest of Gershkovich changed the status quo completely,” Hayward said.

There used to be kind of unwritten rules about what would happen to you as a foreign journalist. Evan Gershkovich’s arrest just basically meant that those did not exist anymore.

Andy Hayward

“What you saw with Gershkovich’s arrest was that it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. If someone decides to take you for whatever reason, you can be in a situation like his or even potentially worse.”
The arrest of Gershkovich impacted the VICE News team, who restricted their movements and tightly protected their sources, wary of any activity seen as espionage, he explained.

“[If] we speak to a soldier who’s come back from Ukraine, could that be construed as you’re talking to someone about military intelligence on the battlefield in Ukraine?” Hayward said.

presscard_supplied by Andy Hayward.png

A copy of the foreign journalist press card issued to Andy Hayward by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Criticism 

Critics of the film suggest that, as a journalist, Hayward should have been more direct with those interviewed, he explained.
“The mother of a killed conscript who we spoke to in the film, Zinaida… We couldn’t really have a conversation if I started going on air asking her, ‘What do you think of the war?’
“Someone might say, ‘well, the only thing I should be doing to a Russian like that is asking them, ‘what do you think of the war? Why don’t you condemn the war?’ I understand that perspective,” Hayward explained.
“But the film we’re making is about trying to understand, and that requires some empathy.
“That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but you need to understand. I think that’s what we tried to do.”
Hayward said he “understands” if Ukrainians would not want to watch the film, though he believes it might be useful for the general Western audience, as it offers an important glimpse of life inside Putin’s Russia.

“I think if you actually spend time in Russia and you look at the mental and the political landscape that’s being created there, you understand the gravity of the situation.”

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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One thought on “Inside Putin’s Russia at war: This journalist chose to film when others fled”
  1. As a journalist myself, I find Andy Hayward’s work truly inspiring. It takes a lot of courage to document the realities of a war-torn country, especially at such a critical time. The insights shared in his film shed light on the complexities within Russian society and the impact of the government’s decisions. Kudos to Hayward for his dedication to truth-telling.

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