Monday, December 19, 2011

In Memoriam: Václav Havel (1936-2011)

Yesterday, on December 18, I was saddened to read that Václav Havel had passed away.

Havel in Prague, 1989.

For those who may not know, Havel was a dissident Czech playwright, poet, essayist, and activist.  As a writer, he specialized in absurdist drama.  After the Prague Spring of 1968 was crushed by Soviet tanks, however, his works were banned in his own country.  In addition, while his plays continued to be performed outside of communist Czechoslovakia, he was prevented by the authorities from ever seeing them.

In 1977, partially in response to the arrest of the members of a non-conformist rock group, Havel, along with other Czechoslovak dissidents, formed the civic initiative Charter 77.  Its purpose was to draw international attention to the human rights abuses of the Prague communist government.  Subsequently, Havel's political activities resulted in several imprisonments (the longest from June 1979 to January 1984) and constant surveillance, harassment, and questioning by the Czechoslovak authorities.

By the late 1980s, with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost (political openness) in the Soviet Union, regimes all over the Eastern bloc began to weaken.  Czechoslovakia was no exception and it was Havel who took the initiative to lead the Velvet Revolution that ultimately led to the demise of communism in Czechoslovakia.  Subsequently, he became of the first and only president of post-1989 Czechoslovakia and, after the split with Slovakia, of the newly-formed Czech Republic.

A visionary artist and a courageous activist, Havel was a true nonviolent revolutionary.  May he rest in peace and continue to serve as an inspirations to others.  After all, as history has shown, pravda vítězí!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Recounting Revolution

It has been twenty years since the dissolution of the USSR, an event that effectively meant an end to approximately seventy-four years of Soviet communism.  This began with the 1917 October Revolution when the Bolsheviks, led by the revolutionary Vladimir Iliych Lenin, ousted the Russian Provisional Government of Alexander Krensky and seized power, proclaiming Russia a socialist state.  This was followed by five years of brutal civil war between the Bolsheviks and their allies (the "Reds") on one side and an amalgamation of anti-communist, monarchist, and liberal forces on the other side (the "Whites").

The events of the October Revolution have been variously interpreted over the years.  There is the Marxist view of the Revolution, the Western Totalitarian view, and, since the 1960s, the Western Revisionist view.  Of these, the Marxist view held that the Revolution was an inevitable outcome of class struggle.  The Western Totalitarian view held that the people were misled by the Bolsheviks and that their totalitarian tendencies inevitably led to the rise of Stalinism.  The Revisionists, meanwhile, viewed the Revolution not from the viewpoint of major leaders (like Lenin, the Tsar, or Kerensky), but from the vantage point of ordinary people who held a genuine revolutionary fervor and a sincere desire for change.  They argued that the success of the Bolsheviks was contingent on this as well as several other factors and circumstances.

Of these, it was, not surprisingly, the Marxist view of the Revolution that served as the basis for Sergei Eisenstein's 1928 landmark film, October: Ten Days That Shook the World.  With a title based on the name of the book by American socialist journalist John Reed, the film is a visual masterpiece, combining striking images, fast action, and rapid film editing to create an overall emotional impact on the viewer.  Commissioned by the Soviet government in honor of the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, it is a prime example of film as agitprop.   It also notably features Trotsky in a prominent role, though Eisenstein was later forced to edit out these sequences in subsequent versions of the film, after Trotsky's defeat and exile.  A score composed by Dmitri Shostakovich was added in 1966, something that only enhances the power of an already potent work of art.

October is well-known for being featured frequently in documentaries on Russian and Soviet history, often with a disclaimer that "this is not actual footage from the Revolution."  Footage used from the film usually includes the sequences of the workers running throughout Petrograd/Leningrad/St. Petersberg holding rifles and, of course, the famous Eisensteinian depiction of the storming of the Winter Palace.  Below are images from both scenes:

However, in the world of film, October is much more famous for the instances where Eisenstein employs something known as "intellectual montage," editing two seemingly unrelated images together to convey a single idea or message.  One of the most outstanding moments of this occurs during the depiction of the ill-fated Kornilov affair in which General Lavr Kornilov attempted an unsuccessful putsch against the Kerensky government in the fall of 1917.  In the film, Kerensky's government calls upon the people to "Defend Petrograd, in the name of God and Country."  With this phrase, Eisenstein critiques both religion and nation individually, by employing "intellectual montage."

It is his critique on religion and the concept of deity, however, that is especially visually enticing.  Through a succession of images of religious art, both frightening and strikingly beautiful, Eisenstein makes a statement, effectively illustrating that all icons are one and the same.  The images include icons and architectural monuments of Russian Orthodox Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Shamanism, and indigenous African faiths.   All of these are connected by slight visual similarities.

Though this sequence does have a very Bolshevik anti-religious message behind it, it is difficult to deny its very eye-catching and visually captivating quality.  Below are a few select images from this sequence:

Eisenstein also employs a similar technique with regard to Kerensky.  During the Kornilov affair, Kerensky (expertly portrayed by Vladimir Popov) is shown folding his arms in a pensive manner:

This image is then followed an image of a statue of Napoleon, striking a similar pose, thus comparing Kerensky to Napoleon:

Kornilov himself receives the same treatment and, at one point, two images of the same Napoleon statue are brought together, emphasizing the point that both Kerensky and Kornilov are attempting to be Napoleons in their own right:

In any case, October is a classic of Soviet cinema that is must for any student of film or Russian/Soviet history.  You can watch it online on YouTube here or purchase it on DVD from here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Waiting for a Soviet Godot

The road to nowhere in Turkmenistan
as seen in Aleksandr Gutman's
The Russians Have Gone (1990).
Continuing the Central Asian theme, I recently came across this offbeat documentary posted on YouTube by Journeyman Pictures.  Entitled The Russians Have Gone, it was directed by Russian documentary filmmaker Aleksandr Gutman in 1990 and focuses on the emigration of ethnic Russians from the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic (modern Turkmenistan) during the late glasnost era.  Though it appears to be a shortened version of a longer film, it is still an enjoyable, if somewhat quirky, work nonetheless.

Oddly, Journeyman's accompanying description of the film refers to it as taking place in Armenia in the aftermath of the 1988 earthquake.  This error most likely derives from the fact that they confused this film with another Gutman documentary called Frescoes (2003) which dealt with the aftermath of the 1988 Armenian earthquake.  You can watch that film in its entirety online here.

In any case, this film possesses a strong postmodern quality to it and, as the YouTube description even states, it almost has "the feel of a Beckett play."  Set against a landscape blighted by desolation and industrial decay, the work includes footage of dromedary camels lazily strolling into rundown cities, Turkmen children reciting Mayakovsky, and prisoners marching dutifully behind a wire fence.  It also includes thoughts from a local immigrant from Daghestan who notes that while most of the Russians and other Soviet nationalities have left, he has decided to stay and learn the Turkmen language.

The Russians Have Gone was Gutman's third documentary film and it won awards at international festivals in Egypt, Finland, and Belgium.

UPDATE (26 February 2017): Journeyman uploaded Gutman's full film on YouTube in June 2016, just four months after the filmmaker's passing on 17 February 2016.  Notably, Journeyman still oddly and erroneously insists that that the film is about Armenia rather than Turkmenistan.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Setting the East Ablaze

Thanks to British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), almost everyone is now, to some degree, familiar with Kazakhstan and its neighbors Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in post-Soviet Central Asia.  Colloquially known as "the stans" ("-stan" being a Persian suffix meaning "place of"), four of these nations speak Turkic languages while only one speaks a dialect of Farsi (Tajik).  Though they are all predominately Sunni Islamic, they also share strong cultural affinities with mainly-Shia Iran.

Map of Post-Soviet Central Asia

Home to grand Islamic cultural centers like Khiva and Bukhara, post-Soviet Central Asia is also rich in natural resources and occupies a key strategic position between China and India.  It was for these reasons that the region was coveted by so many powers, dating back to Alexander the Great.  In the nineteenth century, it was at the center of a major geopolitical competition between the Russian and British Empires, famously dubbed "the Great Game" by writer Rudyard Kipling.  This "Game" finally concluded in 1907 with a sporting entente between the two European powers.  By this time, however, most of the region had been absorbed into Tsarist Russia.

Seven years later, World War I erupted, thrusting Russia violently into modernity.   For many Russians, the war was a miserable experience that only fed a popular desire for major political change, a sentiment that had already been brewing for years.  The war eventually led to the collapse of the Romanov Dynasty, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and the bloody Russian Civil War of 1917-1923.

This brings us to the film that I will be focusing on today.  Set in the Central Asian front of the Civil War, it is a prime example of a popular genre known as the "Ostern," a Soviet spin on the traditional American Western, set in Samarkand as opposed to Santa Fe.

So while Western audiences were being awed by the violent world of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns...

...Soviet audiences were being captivated by stories of how valiant Bolshevik heroes secured control of the East, bringing literacy and women's lib to the locals.

This is the basic idea behind the film White Sun of the Desert.  Released in the Soviet Union in 1969, the film was initially scripted by Andrei Konchalovsky, who also was slated to direct the film.  However, he became dissatisfied with his work and brought in Valentin Yezhov (Ballad of a Soldier) and Azerbaijani-born Rustam Ibragimbekov (Burnt by the Sun) to co-write a new script.  Despite this, Konchalovsky ultimately left the project, believing that only American actors could truly pull off the "Western" lead.

Original poster for White Sun of the Desert.
The new Yezhov-Ibragimbekov script was then offered to several different directors, including cinematic auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, the Lithuanian director Vytautas Žalakevičius, Armenian native Edmond Keosayan, and the comedy-oriented Yuri Chulyukin.  All, however, refused it until it was finally accepted by Vladimir Motyl, who had previously fallen out of favor with Soviet authorities over his World War II-based romantic comedy Zhenya, Zhenechka, and "Katyusha"

Because of this falling out, Motyl executed the film under the Experimental Creative Studio, a relatively autonomous film company established at the height of the Khrushchev Thaw.  Strongly influenced by popular American Westerns like Stagecoach, High Noon, and The Magnificent Seven, Motyl immediately set to work on making further revisions to the Yezhov-Ibragimbekov script, notably adding in the character of Vereshagin, the former Tsarist customs official played by the Russian-Armenian actor Pavel Luspekaev.

In the end, the finished film (as well as its accompanying theme song Your Honor Lady Luck) became a major hit within the USSR and continues to maintain a cult status in Russia and the former Soviet Union to this day.   After its release, the film also became a sign of good fortune for many cosmonauts, who ritually viewed it before launching into space.  In fact, it was so influential that quotes from the film even entered the Russian language as common, everyday phrases!

Anatoli Kuznetsov as Sukhov
Set in the bleak and torrid desert landscape of Turkmenistan, White Sun of the Desert is the story of Red Army soldier Fyodor Sukhov, expertly portrayed by Anatoli Kuznetsov.  He has been involved in the Russian Civil War for some time and his ultimate ambition is to simply return to his home and to his wife Katerina Matveyevna.

However, duty comes first.  Sukhov and a younger soldier Petrukha (Nikolai Godovikov) are instead tasked with guarding the abandoned harem of a notorious Central Asian rebel (Basmachi) leader named Abdullah (played by Georgian actor Kakhi Kavsadze).  The task proves more complicated than Sukhov might have foreseen when Abdullah and his men return.  Fortunately, Sukhov is able to face them with the aid of the former Tsarist customs official Vereshagin (Luspekaev) and the Central Asian Sayid (Spartak Mishulin), who he rescues earlier in the film.

Gyulchatai (Tatyana Kuzmina), the youngest and most independent-minded member of Abdullah's harem,
is seen here reading a sign in Russian indicating the local "Museum of the Red East."

Some of the best scenes in the film involve Sukhov's efforts to modernize and liberalize the nine women of Abdullah's harem.  After removing their burqas and unveiling themselves, their very form immediately reminds Sukhov of his faraway wife.

What makes these scenes so humorous and so charming is their basic human quality.  As scholar Birgit Beumers states, while Sukhov "clumsily tries to instill in [the harem] Soviet values," he also "fails to understand the full meaning of local Muslim traditions, which gives rise to a series of amusing misunderstandings and funny situations."

Sukhov and his "harem."
For instance, though Sukhov declares to the women that "the Revolution has set you free," they continue to regard him as their "master," a scenario that prompts him to daydream about bringing them back to his native Russian village as his wives along with his beloved Katerina Matveyevna.

Perhaps one of the most interesting shots in the film, however, is the final scene showing Sukhov trekking off into the desert, hoping to return home to his wife, a hope that we never know is fulfilled.  This lonely shot immediately called to my mind one of the most iconic images of the American Western: that is, the final scene in John Ford's The Searchers of John Wayne's character Ethan Edwards walking and disappearing into the wilderness all by his lonesome.

The final shot in John Ford's The Searchers.

The very concept of that scene, which no doubt had some influence on Motyl, emphasized the fact that the Western hero is a rugged, untamed individual with one foot in nature and the other in civilization.  Indeed, as a "Western" hero, Sukhov arguably fits the bill here.  Still, one has to wonder: doesn't his lone trek seem to uphold a sort of individualism that one might classify as anti-Soviet?

A human speck in the Karakum.  The final shot of White Sun of the Desert.

Questions of individuality and collectivity aside, however, White Sun of the Desert is an amazing film.  A classic of Soviet cinema, it possesses an intrinsic human quality that makes it enjoyable for audiences of all countries.  Its mix of humor, drama, suspense, and history, all make it a superb watch.

...and thanks to Mosfilm's awesome YouTube channel, you can watch the entire film online here.   You can also purchase the film on DVD (Region 1, NTSC) from the Russian Cinema Council (RUSCICO) via here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Now entering the Red zone...

Здравствуйте, comrades and welcome to Back in the USSR!

No, this is not a blog about the Beatles nor is it even a blog about music.  It's actually a blog about movies – that is, movies produced in the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1991.  Its scope includes live-action features, documentary films, and animation.  This blog will also occasionally explore cinema produced by Eastern bloc countries like Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany.

So sit back, enjoy and learn!