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…