Alexander Sokurov on “Victory Day”

Alexander Sokurov Plants a Tree Outside Echo Petersburg Studios with Members of the Green Wave Movement (9 May 2008)

Natalia Kostitsina: And what worries you nowadays?
Alexander Sokurov: There are so many things that I don’t even want to talk about them because I don’t know where to begin and where to finish.
NK: Begin from the beginning.
AS: To begin with [I’m worried by] the very low cultural level of the population—social culture, personal culture. A very low level…The politicization of life, which at times leaves me at a loss. The “party-mindedness” of life and the tendency towards this “partyzation,” if you can call it that: [the tendency] to make all of life the concern of the party worries me in the extreme. The participation of the intelligentsia in the life of the party sometimes leaves me dumbstruck. The enormous number of unresolved problems—the administration of the cities, the regions. Here I’d like to repeat myself. Two months ago, for example, I appealed to the administration of the Vasilievsky Island district concerning one everyday problem that wasn’t mine. And not only did I not get the chance to meet with the head of the district—my request for a meeting was turned down. My request to make an appointment with him was turned down. And the letter I wrote to the district head has gone unanswered for two months. But we helped somehow; in one way or another we solved this problem. However, I understand what the reaction is to ordinary people if this is how they react to me. That is, here we’re faced with the hardheartedness of the state, the hardheartedness of the state machine, the administrative apparatus, the administration of the country—I mean on the local level—this, of course, is a heavy burden in Russia at the moment. I hope that the new president will try to do something with this…By the way, I talked about this with Putin and with Yeltsin, about the fact that a hardhearted state is being created. I talked about this in the presence of our governor, about these problems, about the fact that there is no connection between the people and the administration, between the people and the bureaucratic apparatus, the whole system—not with the police, not with local administrations, not with the housing authorities. That is, the individual is absolutely powerless in dealing with these problems. But there is no reaction.
NK: Alexander Nikolaevich, I recall that your first film was The Lonely Voice of Man, which was based on the stories of Andrei Platonov. That film was dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky, who perhaps was one of the few filmmakers who defended your right to make the kind of cinema you wanted to. Do you nowadays have the sense that this lonely voice of man is yours?
AS: Well, I have a hard time in the cinematic world nowadays. And it becomes harder for me with every passing year. I no longer have any connections with the Russian cinematic milieu. I practically have no interests or stances in common with them—neither in terms of social questions or professional questions. The films that I make are in general not shown.
NK: That is, [we’re seeing] a return to the eighties, when your films were “shelved” for a long time, and it was only thanks to perestroika that we were able to see them.
AS: Yes…I don’t want to blame anyone. There is one other factor: the public itself quite often turns its back on the efforts of people like me. You can give people the chance to see your films by getting them into the repertoire of movie houses, but no one comes to see these films anymore. You know what I mean?
NK: Yes.
AS: That is why we’re not far from the time when we won’t be needed. I mentioned this when I received a state prize from Putin. I told him that it worried me that there were very few such people, that I was afraid that they were becoming fewer and fewer. Then the president told me that I was wrong, that this tendency wouldn’t grow, that he hoped the state would support people like me. In general, however, the situation isn’t very encouraging. But I believe you have to work despite everything. You have to do everything you can. In different realms: documentary cinema, feature films, theatrical practice. You have to do everything you can for the public, for your society, for your countrymen….For example, yesterday I met with students at the history department of the university.
NK: Your first education is as a historian.
AS: Yes, my first degree is a historian. And I should say that I saw an auditorium packed with lovely faces. These are my real countrymen. It’s these countrymen that I’d like to see in my life all the time. When I’m at the Philharmonic I’m enraptured and amazed by these striking Leningrad faces. These aren’t Petersburg faces, of course—these are Leningrad faces. I’ve been seeing many of these faces for many years. Nowadays they come to the Philharmonic with their children, or maybe their grandchildren. And this is my city, my people. My people, the people to whom I belong, the people I’m part of. My people and my countrymen aren’t those people who hit the streets in the tens of thousands during holidays, when you can’t find a single sober person. You’re surrounded by tens of thousands of people and you won’t find a single sober young person among them. This tendency makes me extremely concerned.
NK: Alexander Nikolaevich, you were always an inconvenient person. I get the sense that nowadays you’re becoming a very inconvenient person for the authorities.
AS: Well, maybe I’ll be faced with the question of my having to leave the city. Maybe it will come that because…
NK: Oh, God forbid.
AS: Why not? There are many artists in the city, a large film studio, a lot of theaters. Therefore it makes no difference if there’s one person less, but it’s simply becoming hard for me here. I have this very anxious feeling. Maybe I should leave.
NK: Then maybe you shouldn’t sign [certain open letters]. You’re an artist. Maybe you shouldn’t sign those letters where you wail about what’s happening in the city’s historic center.
AS: No, do you understand what the matter is? I sign those letters not because I’m fighting against a particular bureaucrat, against the governor or the government. I believe that I live in a republican country. Russia is a republic. We have a constitution. And aside from other responsibilities that every citizen bears, there are moral responsibilities, civic responsibilities. Yuri Shevchuk [lead singer of the Petersburg rock band DDT] would just like to sing rather than feel some kind of external threat because he’s begun to voice his dissent. Do you think that I experience great joy because a serious conflict with the governor has arisen? From the fact that there are concrete actions against me because I signed this letter? But it surprises me, for example, that the governor’s name isn’t in the letter, it’s not mentioned once. The letter addresses a serious tendency that everyone sees. This a serious letter, a letter that is absolutely well thought-out in the legal sense; it is signed by many architects with definite positions, and these demands have to be met because they all have to do with the culture and history of the city—and that’s it. This letter doesn’t express the position of a particular party. There is no political tendency in this letter. The letter contains a demand to return to the law. If such letters appear, this means that here, in Petersburg, we have a crisis situation. We make an appeal with the understanding that here we’re not being heard or understood. Or rather, we completely don’t understand the actions of those people who, like us, are citizens of this city. Moreover, as far as I know, many of those who signed the letter aren’t native Leningraders, just as I’m not a native. I’m also an outsider here. I’ve lived here for only twenty years. And for some reason the status, the solidity, and the amazing uniqueness of this city are closer to me than to people who were born here. That is why I believe I have to sign such letters. My stance is the same as that of [the actor Oleg] Basilashvili, who says that if he’s given letters to sign in defense of the city, he’ll sign them.
NK: It’s 1:35. Our guest is the filmmaker Alexander Nikolaevich Sokurov. There’s one more question I’d like to ask before taking calls from our listeners. Could it happen that—there’s this horrible notion of being forbidden to practice one’s profession—in our country, suddenly, one fine day, you’ll be forbidden to practice your profession?
AS: It could happen. But it seems to me that for the time being, at very least, in our Russian national state practice nothing is irreversible—for a variety of reasons anything could happen. But I don’t think it will have this general character. It might take the form of actions against particular people. […] At very least, people who work in culture are quite vulnerable. Each of us feels this dependence and this vulnerability. And many of us have nothing but our professions. Many of us—or some of us—live only for this. I have in mind not only the economic aspect, but also the spiritual and personal aspect. This will be a serious test. Because the current sociopolitical situation is much more complicated than it was in the Soviet Union. It’s much more complicated.

Alexander Sokurov, “On Victory Day” (excerpt from a live interview on Echo Saint Petersburg, 9 May 2008)

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