When Oliver Stone announced at the end of June that he would be premiering a new documentary, Revealing Ukraine, at the Taormina Film Festival in Sicily, not many people noticed. That’s not itself so surprising given his slide over recent years from producing acclaimed Hollywood blockbusters into bootlicking hagiographies of dictators with axes to grind against the United States. The only media that did take an interest was controlled by either the Russian government or a certain Ukrainian businessman.
The trailer for Revealing Ukraine is a mess. Half-finished lines of dialogue are cut with sinister, dramatic music as if they are of great importance when they often seem to be cut from the middle of phrases, leaving them incomprehensible. The promotional material on the film’s website is exceptionally embarrassing, with grating Ringlish abundant:
In the move the main speaker—heavyweight Ukrainian politician, opposition leader—Viktor Medvedchuk is being interviewed by the filmmaker Oliver Stone. Oliver Stone also sit with Russian president Vladimir Putin to ask him a questions about Ukrainian crisis.
The re-use of so many elements from Stone’s previous documentary, Ukraine on Fire, screams of a bargain-bin production. In fact the promotional poster for Revealing Ukraine even uses the exact same photo of Stone from that of Ukraine on Fire—and in the same position no less.
Stone’s opening line in the trailer is: “Good morning Mr Medvedchuk, I’m Oliver Stone.”
Viktor Medvedchuk has remained an ominous figure in Ukrainian politics, despite a period lying low after the 2014 Maidan revolution, during which his office was raided by activists who discovered, inter alia, a portrait of the man often dubbed Ukraine’s prince of darkness in full, Napoleonic-era imperial military regalia.
Medvedchuk’s reputation dates back to 1980 when, just before the Olympic Games were due to be held in Moscow, the Ukrainian dissident poet Vasyl Stus was arrested for “anti-Soviet activity” and the young lawyer was appointed his state defense attorney, against Stus’s own requests. During his closing speech at the trial, Medvedchuk denounced his client and said that all of Stus’s “crimes” deserved punishment and further claimed that his serious health problems did not affect his ability to work. Stus was sentenced to 10 years of forced labor in the notorious Perm-36 Gulag camp where he died, while on hunger strike, in 1985. Notably, Medvedchuk also defended Viktor Bryukhanov, director of the Chernobyl nuclear power station, during the 1987 trial that served as the climax of HBO’s recent television series.
Having entered business and politics in the ‘90s, Medvedchuk made a fortune, estimated by various sources as between 270 and 800 million U.S. dollars. In 2002, he was appointed head of Kuchma’s presidential administration—this in spite of his known criminal record for violently assaulting a student while a member of the volunteer Druzhina militia in the 1960s, and accusations of having been an agent of the KGB, operating under the codename ‘Sokolovsky.’ Leaked tape recordings of conversations between Kuchma and the heads of the Ukrainian Security Service and Interior Ministry confirm that Kuchma was made aware of these reports, but considered Medvedchuk’s influence too great to dislodge him.
In 2004, as future president Viktor Yushchenko was campaigning against Kuchma’s intended successor Viktor Yanukovych, Medvedchuk was accused of orchestrating a rally for an openly neo-Nazi “virtual party,” the Ukrainian National Assembly, during which the party leader Eduard Kovalenko declared his support for Yushchenko. Notably Kovalenko reappeared in 2017, this time as an ostensibly pro-Russian activist, a strange turn for supposed Ukrainian nationalist.
After the 2004 Orange Revolution which saw Yushchenko defeat Yanukovych, Medvedchuk founded the amorphous Ukrainian Choice organization, which funded everything from political candidates to holiday camps across the country. Ukrainian Choice was an ideologically flexible outfit, utilizing language of both the left and the right, but their propaganda generally stuck to anti-European and pro-Russian lines. Some of this veered directly into the far-right, such as an article published on the organization’s website that espoused the classic tropes of Soviet-era anti-Semitism, claiming that prominent politicians opposing Viktor Yanukovych during the Maidan protests all had “secret Jewish surnames.” Ukrainian Choice also played upon homophobic attitudes by campaigning against the Association Agreement with the European Union with billboards declaring that the deal would lead to gay marriage.
Medvedchuk’s relationship with the Russian state is close, to say the least. Vladimir Putin is godfather to his daughter, Darya, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wife Svetlana is her godmother. When Putin addressed the annual Kremlin-organized showpiece conference in Valdai in 2016, Medvedchuk was seated front and center in the audience, next to the Russian president’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov.
When the U.S. imposed sanctions in March 2014, after Russian troops occupied the Crimean peninsula, Medvedchuk was on the list, highlighted for:
...threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, and for undermining Ukraine’s democratic institutions and processes. He is also being designated because he has materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support to Yanukovych.
But following the outbreak of war between Russia’s thinly disguised forces and Ukraine in the east of the country months later, Medvedchuk emerged as a key player in prisoner exchanges, with Putin negotiating directly with him rather than the Ukrainian government itself. In connection with this, he received a seat on the Minsk peace talk team, led by his former boss Kuchma. Medvedchuk was most notably central to the release of Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian officer and former pilot who was captured in 2014 and finally released following a long hunger strike and trumped-up conviction for murder in 2016. Savchenko herself returned a hero but soon became more erratic and was transformed into a pariah after making anti-Semitic statements and holding unauthorized meetings with Russia-backed separatists across the front line. In 2018, she was arrested and charged with plotting an armed coup d’état.
Ukraine’s prosecutor-general, Yuriy Lutsenko, said that he suspected Medvedchuk of involvement in the alleged plot. Nothing came of this aspect of the investigation and Savchenko has still yet to face trial, though was recently released and allowed to return to parliament in April this year. In March, Lutsenko announced that he had opened a criminal case against Medvedchuk and another pro-Russian politician, Yuriy Boyko, for illegally traveling to Moscow to meet with government officials.
In spite of all his public censure, Medvedchuk has leveraged this position to stage something of a comeback over the last year, worming his way back into front-line politics as leader of the “For Life” party which, following a schism in the Opposition Bloc, made up of former members of Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, has now formed an umbrella alliance of pro-Russian MPs with 27 seats in the current parliament.
He has also gone on a spree buying up media outlets, taking control of them either directly or via loyal associates. In the last 18 months he has taken over the 112, Zik and NewsOne television channels, swiftly changing their output to his favor, with rumors of moves on at least two other major broadcasters in the works.
Ihor Krymov, a broadcast editor at Zik, told the independent Hromadske TV channel that channel bosses had banned coverage of protests against the registration of pro-Russian candidates for upcoming parliamentary elections as they were “not interesting.” Krymov defied the order and relayed Hromadske’s own coverage of the protest on the channel. He has since been taken off air.
While the Ukrainian government and several other parties in parliament have roundly condemned Medvedchuk’s growing influence on the media, some Western politicians have ridden to his aid, most notably members of the UK Independence Party, which has often sided with Russia in international affairs. Another interesting Western connection of Medvedchuk’s emerged in 2017, when Reuters was told by officials familiar with the FBI investigation into contacts between the Trump campaign team and Russia that Medvedchuk was one of those contacts, something Medvedchuk himself denies.
So is Medvedchuk’s star role in Stone’s new film simply a reflection of his rising prominence or is it his own PR vehicle?
The fact that his wife, a former X Factor Ukraine presenter with a suspicious history of Russian business connections herself, Oksana Marchenko, receives title billing as a “journalist” certainly indicates the latter. Indeed 112 and NewsOne have been running indulgent reports on the lavish festival, broadcasting footage of Medvedchuk and Marchenko ostentatiously delivering a bouquet of flowers to Nicole Kidman, and attending a soiree with Stone and Domenico Dolce, whose garments Viktor apparently wears exclusively, and who considers him a “friend.”
Apart from the Medvedchuk family and President Putin, the other names attached to this film are pretty low-grade. Director Igor Lopatonok (Stone is the star and executive producer but was not behind the camera for this venture) has little to his name than his previous work on Ukraine on Fire, several colorized remasters of Soviet-era films and a quantity of real-estate videos. Lopatonok demonstrated either spectacular ignorance or mendacity regarding one of his subjects when he recently claimed on Facebook that Putin was never an agent of the KGB, something the Russian president has often publicly reminisced about.
The other “stars” listed on the film’s IMDB page are Ivan Katchanovski, an academic promoting conspiracy theories claiming that the protesters shot dead on the Maidan in 2014 were the victims of a “false flag” operation, and Lee Stranahan, an American host on the Russian state-owned Radio Sputnik and former Breitbart journalist. Stranahan was profiled in a 2016 New York Times piece for his role in spreading racially charged misinformation around the yogurt company Chobani in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Revealing Ukraine will receive its public premiere on Medvechuk’s 112 channel on July 13, with Russian state media already highlighting choice, if rather boring, lines from Stone’s interview with Putin. At Taormina, the film received the Best Documentary prize, despite the presence of Stone on the festival’s feature film competition jury. This whole affair looks sordid for Stone, who has for some time gone out of his way to bat for any regime as long as they are an opponent of the United States, but had hitherto refrained from quite so obviously doing the bidding of a private businessman.