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Life in the Russian ‘Pentagon’ A new documentary film series captures conditions in a crumbling public housing complex amid the full-scale invasion of Ukraine

Source: Meduza

Roughly one in ten Russians — more than 15 million people — live below the poverty line, surviving on a monthly income of less than 14,200 rubles ($146). Many endure abhorrent conditions in crumbling homes without heating, functioning sewage facilities, or running water. In a new documentary, “Pentagon,” journalist Andrey Loshak captures the lives of residents in one of these buildings in Russia’s Saratov region. The RFE/RL news outlet Current Time is releasing part one of Loshak’s miniseries on October 14 on YouTube. Meduza summarizes the project.

Loshak’s crew filmed “Pentagon” outside Saratov in a small town called Novouzensk. The documentary follows the lives of people living in a former dormitory converted to public housing, in a ramshackle building that lacks heating and indoor plumbing, where the sewage empties directly into the basement. Residents refer to their dilapidated home as “the Pentagon.”

The film’s events unfold between October 2022 and February 2023 during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In four parts, Loshak’s miniseries captures the lives of “Pentagon” residents as they go to work, argue about politics, fight with neighbors, watch Putin’s speeches on television, leave to fight in Ukraine, and return home from the front. 

In one scene, residents are informed that their roof is scheduled for renovation, albeit not until 2043. Later, a group of small children marvel at a photograph of a soldier — “lil’ Dima with a weapon.” In another scene, a man tells another, “You’re fighting for Putin, not for your country.” The film cuts away just as his shirtless companion angrily answers, “Seriously?”

‘Pentagon’ trailer
Current Time

Throughout the film, Loshak’s crew asks people if they’ve complained to the authorities about their housing conditions and if they hope to move elsewhere. Some in “the Pentagon” refuse any outside help and try on their own to make their homes more comfortable, while others say they’ve spent years begging and waiting for help from the state. However, the building has only continued to decay in all that time.

Not everyone living at “the Pentagon” was willing to speak to Loshak’s crew. Some worried that interacting with journalists could only worsen their situation, possibly risking eviction. When one resident asks why the film is being made, and the cameraman says it could improve life at “the Pentagon,” the resident’s response is cryptic:

Try living here for a year or maybe five, and then let’s see what you’ll say. If I didn’t know, I wouldn’t speak.

Andrey Loshak told Meduza that he and his crew hope to pressure Novouzensk officials into investing some money into maintaining the building, and they wanted to mobilize the residents themselves to stand up for their rights:

We tried to rouse them [“Pentagon” residents] somehow so people would start to fight. Sure, fighting is scary… But at least they’d begin asserting their fundamental rights. That’s what the state owes them.

It’s a miserable, impoverished existence that they cannot escape. I also thought: What do people actually want when they ask why Russians don’t protest? [They don’t protest] because Russians are in survival mode. And they’re terrified that even this life could become worse. Everything hinges on this fear.

Speaking to Ksenia Sokolyanskaya at Current Time, Loshak said he grew especially interested in making a film about the poorest Russians after seeing Moscow use these people as “cannon fodder” in the invasion of Ukraine. Every town in Russia has homes like these, he explained, admitting that his documentary resulted in a horror film of sorts.

The Ukraine invasion doesn’t become a major plot point until the second episode of the miniseries. Loshak says he was surprised to find no consensus about the war among “Pentagon” residents. Despite their poverty, the people in the documentary demonstrate a capacity for critical thinking and political reflection Loshak says he didn’t expect. “And they come to conclusions that would hardly please [Russia’s] leadership,” he told Sokolyanskaya. “The people seem like they should be brainwashed by propaganda because they’ve all got working TVs, because there’s no other entertainment that’s really available to them, but I didn’t see any particular loyalty to the authorities there.”

Out of personal safety concerns amid Russia’s crackdown on free speech, Loshak says he wasn’t able to be present for the filming itself, so he hired a team on the ground and directed them remotely. That crew recorded 150 hours of footage on multiple trips to Novouzensk. 

At the same time, Loshak admitted to Sokolyanskaya that he worries his work might harm the very people at the center of his film: “Of course, I’m concerned. This is my main fear now.” If the authorities try to punish the “Pentagon” residents, Loshak said he hopes for a public outcry and a crowdfunding campaign to resettle them. On the other hand, he added, his miniseries’ attention to their situation might even help them. Maybe.

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