A still-frame from the BBC documentary series "TraumaZone" by Adam Curtis

For the majority of us who’ve never visited, lived-in, or studied Russia, trying to understand Vladimir Putin and the collective culture and psychology of the nation he and his inner circle control can feel almost futile at times. Not only does Russia embody both Eastern and Western mores in a way that few, if any nations do, but it has also experienced a variety and degree of tumult that we aren’t able to imagine without having lived through it.

I’ve just watched a 7-part BBC documentary series on Russia, entitled ‘TraumaZone: What it Felt Like to Live Through the Collapse of Communism and Democracy.’ I can’t recommend it enough—as not just the bizarre and spellbinding romp through recent history it is, but as an object lesson in how collective trauma impacts the perceptions and behaviour of groups.

Director Adam Curtis presents a collage of random story vignettes drawn from old BBC archival footage to give us a sense of what it was like to live through Russia’s turbulent and destructive emergence from the Cold War years, between 1985-1999. The old video montages are a cross between Instagram video reels, and the ‘No Comment’ segments from Euronews. There is no formal narration per se—only sparse titling marking important milestones in the story.

Curtis implicitly shows us, masterfully, the devastating experiences that have shaped the Russia we see—behaving as it does—on the world stage today.

His narrative ends with the instalment, by Russian Oligarchs, of a much younger and more spritely Vladimir Putin into the country’s presidency—a final desperate act to stave off collapse caused by a fast-and-furious embrace of liberal democracy which was ill-suited to Russia, and promulgated by the West.

You can watch the series on BBC’s iPlayer in the UK, or on YouTube where the episodes also run.