Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, Vladmir Putin has reemerged as a figure of public scrutiny. His rise to power and relationship to the oligarch class in Russia are the subject of the new documentary Secrets of Oligarch Wives, but how juicy are the secrets?
SECRETS OF THE OLIGARCH WIVES: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Multiple women — former and current partners of exiled oligarchs, journalists, and historians — recount their experiences as people who lived in proximity to wealth in Russia and as observers of Putin’s rise to power.
What Will It Remind You Of?: The documentary plays a little bit like a segment of 60 Minutes with a narrator and talking heads guiding audiences through the story.
Performance Worth Watching: Countess Alexandra Tolstoy who was a former partner to an oligarch and is a distant relative of Leo Tolstoy had the most interesting perspectives on the oligarchy and Putin’s life given her years teaching English to young Russians and her later close proximity to those in power in the country.
Memorable Dialogue: In a heartbreaking realization near the end of the film, Tatiana Fukina voices her sadness about what her country has become: “I want to still be proud to be Russia, but it’s not possible at this moment in time.”
Sex and Skin: Zero.
Our Take: When you first hear the title Secrets of the Oligarch Wives, it feels like it could be a reality show documenting the double lives of women who situated themselves near the oligarchy — a potentially soapy outing with real world ramifications. But in actuality, it’s a documentary that is mostly about Putin vs. the Russian oligarchs who used to hold significant power in the country, told through the eyes of former and current wives of the oligarchs. Based on this, the title is a bit misleading but it’s still an eye-opening account of the lengths to which Putin has taken control of the country.
The documentary doesn’t exactly breach new ground: especially since declaring war with Ukraine in early February 2022, the world has had a front row view to the destruction sought out by Putin. But it does solidify the details based on first-hand accounts, which somehow makes the whole thing seem bizarrely more believable. Further, the documentary serves a great history lesson for those uninformed about Russian history, dropping tidbits like how the former oligarch billionaires installed Putin themselves not knowing he’d eventually turn on them or how it’s believed that Putin’s greatest wish is to cement his legacy as the President who restored “Mother Russia” to its former glory.
Secrets of the Oligarch Wives is chock full of interesting facts but really doesn’t gain much from positioning these women at the center of the frame. Only three wives participate in addition to a few other talking heads, and it doesn’t feel like quite enough to warrant an entire documentary about their experiences, especially since they aren’t recounting groundbreaking experiences. Many of their claims are things we’ve seen and heard before, and the breadth of their stories don’t contain shocking facts (at one point two participants posit that Putin is mentally unwell, suffering from a hero complex and unable to feel emotions, which doesn’t feel as groundbreaking as they filmmakers may think).
Unfortunately the film reads as more of a history lesson, and the truth is that we can find most of this information elsewhere.
Our Call: SKIP IT. The documentary promises one thing — secrets — and fails to deliver on that front.
Radhika Menon (@menonrad) is a TV-obsessed writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared on Vulture, Teen Vogue, Paste Magazine, and more. At any given moment, she can ruminate at length over Friday Night Lights, the University of Michigan, and the perfect slice of pizza. You may call her Rad.