In August 1991, a failed coup d'état attempt led by a group of communists in Moscow ended the 70-year-long rule of the Soviets. The USSR collapsed soon after, and the tricolour of the sovereign Russian Federation flew over the Kremlin. As coup leaders detained president Gorbachev, commandeered state-run television and radio channels broadcast Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake instead of news bulletins, and crowds of protestors gathered, preparing to defend the stronghold of democratic opposition led by Boris Yeltsin. In the city of Leningrad, thousands of confused, scared, excited and desperate people poured into the streets to become a part of the event, which was supposed to change their destiny.
A quarter of a century later, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa revisits these moments, which were hailed worldwide as the birth of Russian democracy. What really happened in Russia in August 1991? What was the driving force behind the crowds in Leningrad? What exactly are we witnessing: the collapse of a regime or its creative re-branding? Who are these people looking at the camera: victors or victims?