The battle of Russia's past is played out in two films: one indescribably cynical, the other too painful to watchby Arkady Ostrovsky / August 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
on 12th june 2000, Russia celebrated the tenth anniversary of its new sovereignty. To mark the occasion, Vladimir Putin hosted a reception, giving out prizes for achievements in arts and literature. The prize for cinema-“the most important of all arts,” as Lenin said-went to Nikita Mikhalkov, a politically ambitious director and actor, for The Barber of Siberia, an uplifting hymn to the Russian state. Mikhalkov, whose father received Stalin’s award in the same Kremlin hall, took the microphone to thank Putin.
“Your Excellency, Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,” said Mikhalkov, “I am convinced that the national idea which is growing in this country today-and there can be no great state without an idea and Russia is a great state-will soon become universal, a force for unification, construction and spirituality.” Putin replied: “Nikita Sergeyevich is right. Without a national idea there can be no great state… and we are a great state… With your help, we must all find out what that idea is.”
Ten years after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia is still in search of a national idea and is still trying to define its relationship with the past. The two are inseparable: in Russia there can be no national idea without looking back to the past. Unlike pragmatic western societies which deal mostly with the present and the future, Russia is always dealing with its past. History plays a disproportionately large role in the Russian psyche.
That role is demonstrated by two films which appeared last year, offering two diametrically opposed approaches to the past. The Barber of Siberia, directed by Mikhalkov, is a colourful and expensive Hollywood-style melodrama, set in the 1880s, which offers an idyllic picture of Russia’s past. The other film, Khrustalyov, My Car!, the work of Alexei German, is an uncompromising black-and-white film set in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death. It tells the story of the mutilation and self-destruction of the Russian nation.
Both Mikhalkov and German are cult figures in Russia, albeit for very different reasons. Mikhalkov, whose father wrote the lyrics to the Soviet anthem, is a symbol of success and prosperity-a Russian Sean Connery, loved by people and governments. German is an artist, who has never been part of mainstream Soviet or post-Soviet life. In the old days his films were banned. His work has never appealed to a wide audience.
Both films were long-awaited and became cultural “events.” Mikhalkov’s film, conceived as a national blockbuster, took 12 years and $45m to make. The most expensive film ever made in Russia, it was premiered in the Kremlin to an audience of Russian political leaders, past, present and future. German’s film is also a life-long project. It was conceived as a masterpiece, destined to upset a wide audience, and to confirm German’s reputation as an unofficial genius.
The aim of Mikhalkov’s epic is to restore Russia’s faith in itself and fill the hearts of ordinary people with pride in their history. The film, whose release coincided with the beginning of the second war in Chechnya, is dedicated to Russian officers-“the pride of the nation.”
Set during the reign of Alexander III (Putin’s favourite tsar), it tells a tear-jerking story of a brilliant military cadet who falls in love with an adventurous American woman and, as a result, sacrifices his career and almost loses his life. The Barber of Siberia was filmed partly in the Kremlin (something no other film director has ever been allowed). Mikhalkov himself appears in the film on a white horse as Alexander III, famous for his doctrine of nationalism, orthodoxy and monarchy. In a soft, aristocratic voice he speaks the words of the tsar: “The Russian soldier is brave, stoic, and therefore invincible. Love the Russian soldier. Cherish him.”
This indescribably cynical film stresses the special nature of the Russian soul and ends with a soundbite used to promote the film: “He is Russian-it explains a lot.” (The line was also used to sell a man’s eau-de-cologne launched by Mikhalkov as part of the promotion campaign.) Filled with stereotypical, chocolate-box images of old Russia (bears, caviar, vodka and troikas) it has nothing to do with actual Russian culture.
The film invents history in much the same way that 1950s spaghetti westerns invented American history. Mikhalkov’s film is an attempt to replicate the American experience of creating a national idea. The result is a strange hybrid of Hollywood and Russian nationalism.
The Barber of Siberia did quite well at the box-office but did not become the nation’s favourite film as Mikhalkov intended. The audience cried over the fate of a romantic English-speaking Russian cadet in the same way as it would over any sentimental Hollywood melodrama.
A few months after releasing the film, Mikhalkov led a campaign defending the Russian army in Chechnya. An open letter to the media called on the west to stop anti-Russian propaganda. The letter was reminiscent of the collective letters printed in Pravda in which the representatives of Soviet culture rebuffed the capitalist media for slander of the Soviet people.
The fact that Mikhalkov signed such a letter is hardly surprising. Perhaps more surprising is the fact that it was also signed by Alexei German. German’s film contrasts with The Barber of Siberia in every way. It evokes horror rather than tears. Set in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, the film tells a story of a military doctor who is implicated in “the doctors’ plot,” arrested, gang-raped, and then taken to treat the dying Stalin.
It represents the country as a big communal flat in a state of chaos. It is hard to discern words in German’s film-both the speech and the thinking of its characters is impeded. Inhabitants of the giant communal flat utter sounds, rather than words. Nobody is excused in German’s film. As the critic Mikhail Aizenberg put it, the film is about “the flesh of the crime rather than its decorum.” It shows a country mutilated by a horrific experiment-the experiment in the artificial selection of human beings by the communist party
Stalin’s death is shown in all its sickening naturalism. Before dying, the great leader defecates. But German’s film is not about Stalin; it is about self-destruction. Joseph Brodsky once said that in a real tragedy the chorus dies not the protagonist. “This film is a requiem for the doomed chorus,” says critic Sergei Gandlevsky. German’s film is so dark that it is almost impossible to watch.
The film was shown in a few cinemas in Moscow and St Petersburg, usually during the day so there was little danger of a mass audience. The fact that it can be shown at all is an achievement of Russian democracy. But the fact that so few people want to see it is also an achievement of Russian democracy.
Lev Dodin, Russia’s most prominent theatre director, is a German fan: “A big layer of our history has never been properly analysed; and we do not even attempt to study it,” says Dodin. “There was time when I thought that if everyone read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, everything would change. But ten years have passed and the book remains unread.”
“German’s film is a rare attempt to show what really happened. It is one of the greatest Russian films of the 20th century; certainly the most honest one. It knocks down some of the clich?s about the greatness of the Soviet empire before the death of Stalin and portrays a society in which absolutely anything is possible.”
“But,” warns cultural historian Andrei Zorn, “people can’t live being told every minute that they are bad and that they must repent.” Neither can a nation live with a saccharine Hollywood version of its history. Russia can celebrate its sovereignty but cannot escape from its past.