Youtube is awash with full-length Russian films, many with English subtitles.
Many are worth watching, firstly because they’re good movies and secondly because often they’re showcases in propaganda. It’s easier to see propaganda with hindsight and a certain cultural distance, I suppose. We take for granted a lot of the Hollywood nonsense that passes before our eyes because we’re so used to the world-view it promotes. Things that should jar with our experience of reality simply don’t.
The most blatant Russian example I’ve seen is a film called Admiral. It’s a historical film about the Russian Revolution and Civil War. It’s one-sided and selective and it skates over oppression and mass bloodshed, making a hero out of a bloodstained monster and a glamorous utopia out of a horror.
It is not a Stalinist film. It was made in 2008 and it’s a biopic of Admiral Kolchak, a leader of the anti-Communist White Armies.
We first meet the Admiral in the Baltic Sea, fighting Germans in 1916. He sets his ship into a suicide course against a much bigger ship, gets the crew to kneel on the decks and leads them in prayer. As luck (or, we are to believe, a higher force) would have it, the German ship hits a mine and goes under.
Back at the naval base we see the gritty reality of the First World War. Or not. The naval officers, in white, clean uniforms, drink, dance, joke and play with glamorous ladies in sumptuous ballrooms. The ladies fondly tell each other about quaint sexist traditions. A love triangle develops amid this atmosphere of splendid nostalgia, and Anna Timareva, who falls in love with Kolchak, sends him letters full of religious slush. Admiral Kolchak goes out to sea again, wins a great victory and gets promoted by the Tsar himself, a mild-mannered man who gives him a religious ikon.
The Revolution comes along, out of nowhere, and cruelly shatters this romance; this stately elegance, heroism and high-minded religious musing. The naval officers don’t seem to notice the men who run their ships, who we see in the background fighting, dying and burning, until the revolution.
Doctor Zhivago, a classic anti-revolution film, at least gave some slight impression of the desperate poverty, corruption and violence of the Tsarist regime. The first thing we see of the revolution in Admiral, and the first hint that anyone’s bothered by anything other than romance, is the sudden mass murder of an unfeasible number of naval officers. The February revolution is a catastrophe – Petrograd is now dominated by hooting, baying gangs of soldiers who now refuse to salute their officers, and who flirt with aristocratic ladies.
That two million Russian soldiers and sailors have died since 1914, that food supplies are breaking down, that the workers of the cities stagger under the industrial demands of the war, that the peasants yearn for the land that is being held by these aristocratic families – of all this there is not even a hint. That the kind, mild-mannered Tsar was an enthusiastic sponsor of anti-Jewish, anti-leftist pogroms – orgies of looting, violence, rape and murder backed by the police and army – doesn’t register on any level. Nor does it register that the war was one of the most senseless and cruel episodes in history; that the Tsarist state was the most oppressive government in Europe; that the White armies were funded to the hilt by the allies, supported by the far right Black Hundreds, the aristocrats and the wealthy.
I suppose it might be an interesting exercise to make a film that shows the revolutionary events as someone in an elitist bubble, someone like Kolchak, might have seen them. It would be a perverse, heavily ironic project. But here there’s no sense of irony. The point of view of the absolutely miniscule number who were top dog in the Tsarist regime is presented as the truth. I’m afraid that very many Russians watching this film will be swayed by the glamour and nostalgia, and the presentation of the revolution as just a series of mass executions of people in cool uniforms; of lack of appreciation for the military heroism of the nobles, and end up having no sense of their own history.
Kolchak goes on to organise a White counter-revolutionary army and there follows a great oath-swearing ceremony might be the centrepiece for the film. Kolchak, with red, white and blue Russian flags behind him and a priest in those baroque Orthodox robes beside him, and snow falling from the sky, addresses the troops. It doesn’t matter what he says, really – it’s the standard historical biopic speech. What matters is the imagery. Priests and ikons crawl all over every inch of this movie. It glamorises and romanticises the utterly decadent, bankrupt, oppressive, good-for-nothing Tsarist regime through militarism, hierarchy, Russian national identity and religion. The scene of Kolchak’s speech in the snow most powerfully projects all these elements.
My knowledge of Russian cinema is limited but I have heard that last year saw a remake of a civil war film from the other side of the trenches, Chapaev, about a poor peasant who became a revolutionary and a Red commander. The legacy of the Revolution is still disputed. I was in Irkutsk, Kolchak’s capital, and remember seeing a massive statue of Lenin in the town square and the newer, equally massive, statue of Kolchak out by a famous monastery. There’s increasingly widespread talk of tearing down Russia’s many Lenin statues.
Of course, Admiral is no more and no less false and misleading than many Hollywood films. Any of the criticisms I’ve made above apply to the ridiculous depiction of the US military, CIA, FBI and police in most American films. Zero Dark Thirty, most recently, lied that it was evidence obtained by torture that led to the catching of Osama Bin Laden – with its directors and reviewers all the while stressing its gritty realism! The beginning and end of Saving Private Ryan, all that flag-waving stuff. Jesus. As I’ve mentioned before, Admiral’s ballroom scenes reminded me of the utterly sterile glamour of Top Gun. Though Top Gun, which seemed to say that skill, arrogance, machismo and hierarchy are the only things that matter in life, is undoubtedly worse than Admiral.
Films cost a lot of money and usually therefore reflect the world-view of the powerful. From the tradition of that great revolution it seems that militarism and chauvinism are the only aspects being widely promoted by the powerful (the great “Russian spirit” that apparently beat Hitler), along with a rehabilitation of the “heroes” of the White Armies; the horde of the rich, the nobles and the Black Hundreds.