I have a confession to make. I am almost exactly the same age as the wonderful Soviet movie We’ll Live Till Monday (Dozhivem do ponedel’nika, Stanislav Rostotsky, dir., 1968), which was filmed during the fiftieth anniversary year of the 1917 Russian Revolution. It is simply the best movie I have ever seen in any language about the value of and balance between formal education and sentimental education, about the conflicts between teachers and pupils, and misunderstandings among generations. It also has plenty to say, mostly between the lines but fairly boldly, about the Soviet Union in its middle age, the teaching of history, the fading revolutionary legacy, and importance of solidarity and “foolish” resistance. And it does all of it in a way that is not trivial or boring or predictable even for a second, and performed by wonderful ensemble cast of mostly teenage actors led by the beloved Vyacheslav Tikhonov and Irina Pechernikova. Pechernikova never became as famous for a number of reasons, but is as wildly charming here as Audrey Hepburn during the same period. So do yourself a favor and treat yourself to one hundred minutes of heartfelt cinematic magic with lots of real, not made-up, lessons to teach audiences. In Russian, with English subtitles.
At the film’s bleakest moment, Vyacheslav Tikhonov’s character, a middle-aged bachelor history teacher and Second World War veteran who still lives with his mother, sings and plays the following song, “Oriole.”
The song’s lyrics are based on three stanzas (the first, third, and fifth) of a poem by the OBERIU poet Nikolai Zabolotsky, “In This Grove of Birch Trees.” Zabolotsky wrote the poem in 1946, the same year he returned to Moscow after eight years of imprisonment and exile in Siberia as a victim of the Stalinist Great Terror.
The full poem, which is considerably bleaker than the already gut-wrenching song lyrics suggest, reads as follows.
Nikolai Zabolotsky In This Grove of Birch Trees
In this grove of birch trees so white,
Far from woe and misery,
Where the pink morning light
Where, like a transparent rush,
Leaves shower down from tall limbs,
Sing to me, oriole, a song of anguish,
The song of my life.
Gliding over the forest glade
And eyeing people from a height,
You have selected a wooden,
So that, in morning’s bloom,
After visiting the dwellings of men,
You can greet my morn
With your chaste and humble matins.
But, after all, in life we are soldiers,
And at the limits of what the mind can stand,
Atoms quake and shudder,
Tossing up houses like a white whirlwind.
Like maddened windmills,
Warriors wave their wings around.
But where are you, forest hermit, oriole?
Why have you gone silent, my friend?
Ringed round by blasts,
Over abysses you fly,
Over the river, where the reeds turn black,
Over the ruins of death you glide.
A silent rover,
You guide me into the fray,
And the lethal cloud unfolds
Above you as you make your way.
Beyond the great rivers,
The sun shall rise, and in morning’s gloom,
My eyelids singed,
I shall fall dead to the ground.
Cawing like rabid ravens,
All trembling, the guns shall fall silent.
And then your voice shall sing
Inside my shattered heart.
And over the grove of birches,
Over my birch grove,
Where, an avalanche of pink,
The leaves shower from tall boughs,
Where, touched by a droplet divine,
Cold grows a bit of blossom,
The morning of solemn victory shall dawn
For centuries to come.
You can find the original Russian text poem here or here, among other places. Petersburg critic, poet, and translator Valery Shubinsky has written an excellent critique of the poem, “The Last Battle,” which I hope to translate and publish under separate cover, when I find the time.
Afterword to the Pamphlet of 1942 A film by Stanislav Dorochenkov, 2012 28’46” Featuring Maxim Egorov, O.A. Belobrova, Lydia Smirnova Camera: Boris Belay Editing: Claire Beuneux Directed by Stanislav Dorochenkov Re:voir Films Paris
In 2010’s stifling heat in St. Petersburg, the regime and the mafia orchestrate the destruction of the city’s heritage for the sake of the nouveaux riche’s luxury. The attempt to remember helps me. I present a little known text by someone who defended this city, Dmitry Likhachev. Several times, he saved it alone by opposing the collective decisions of the Communist Party, thus rebutting an old Russian saying that I would translate roughly as “One man cannot fight an army.”
I see the phrase “Death will more likely be afraid of us than we of it,” engraved on one of the three stelae at the Piskaryov Memorial Cemetery, placed over the endless mass graves where the millions who died during the Siege of Leningrad lie.
With my Éclair camera, I walk the city during the White Nights to rediscover themagnificent light of transparent twilight that transforms Petersburg into “the most fantastic city in the world.” The texts of the Russian chronicles (The Hypatian Chronicle, The Laurentian Chronicle, and The Lay of Igor’s Campaign) appear before me, following a broadcast inspired by Likhachev. I become aware of the ancient words, the most accurate account of the disaster of human forgetfulness.
Panelists: Agnieszka Holland (Director), Askold Kurov (Director), Mike Downey (Producer), Dmitry Dinze (Lawyer of Oleg Sentsov), Natalya Kaplan (Cousin of Oleg Sentsov), Sylvia Schreiber (Translator)
Thanks to Alexei Markov for the heads-up
Berlin Film Review: ‘The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov’
Owen Gleiberman Variety
February 11, 2017
A documentary about the Ukranian filmmaker imprisoned for his support of Crimean independence is a scrappy testament to the true nature of the Vladimir Putin regime.
It has to rank as one of Donald Trump’s most shocking statements — which is really saying something. Asked by the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly how he could respect Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom O’Reilly characterized as a “killer,” Trump replied, “There are a lot of killers. Boy, you think our country’s so innocent?” Over the last year, Trump has presented himself as a racist, a bully, a manhandler of women, a mocker of the disabled, and a loony-tunes conspiracy theorist. But whoever thought he’d come off sounding like the second coming of Noam Chomsky? The notion that the United States government routinely engages in “killer” behavior commensurate with that of what Russia does is, of course, a left-wing idea. (Just ask Oliver Stone, another Putin apologist who should know better.) But Trump put a new spin on it: Whatever the motivation (his desire to tilt the axis of global power against China? Burying those rumored water-sports videos?), he was so intent to claim that his new BFF Vladimir is, you know…not so bad that he was willing to hijack 50 years of radical academic moral relativism by reducing it to a Trump sound bite.
All of which makes me wish that Trump would sit down and watch “The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov,” a documentary that just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s a peek into how the Russian state actually operates, and though it raises more questions than it answers, it leaves you with a shuddering chill. The central figure, Oleg Sentsov, is a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker known for his 2011 movie “Gamer.” In Russia, it made him a directorial star, but during the 2014 Crimean crisis he became part of the AutoMaidan movement, devoted to keeping Ukraine — and, specifically, Crimea — independent of Russia. He delivered food and supplies to Ukrainian servicemen, but on May 11, 2014, he was arrested and charged with organizing a terrorist cell, plotting terrorist attacks, and trafficking in illegal arms. He was held indefinitely and is now serving a 34-year prison sentence in Siberia. (The movie ends with clips of that Siberian prison. Have you ever seen Siberia? It looks like … Siberia.)
We’re shown footage of Sentsov in TV interviews during his moment of indie-film fame and then, a few years later, speaking from behind bars in the courtroom (yes, there’s a jail cell in court). Tall and husky, with dark cropped hair, popping eyes, and a grin of goofy optimism, he’s the father of two teenagers, and if you were looking for someone to play him in a movie, it might be Bradley Cooper; he has that kind of rubbery resilience. A number of noted directors — Wim Wenders, Agnieszka Holland — show up to testify to his status as a filmmaker.
In “The Trial,” Sentsov embraces his role as a political prisoner, yet the movie reveals what the stakes are: When he talks to his daughter on the phone, we see the price paid by any dissident — not just the personal agony of incarceration, but the ripped bonds of family. Sentsov was subjected to torture in prison, all to produce a confession to activities that never happened. (He didn’t confess.) The reason “The Trial” is a valuable document, even though it’s not an especially good movie, goes right back to Putin. It was Sentsov’s status as an art-house celebrity that made him a target in Russia. The regime arrested many “terrorists,” but he was held up as an example to the elite, intellectual class. The message was: If we can do this to him, we can do it you. The real terrorism came from the government, a way of driving fear into those who might speak out.
Russia swims in a daily ice bath of fake news (and real-news clampdown), which is why documentaries have been some of the only vehicles for revealing Vladimir Putin’s thug tactics. Ten years ago, the barely seen film “Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File” was the first inquiry to amass serious data suggesting that what Bill O’Reilly said about Putin is true. In “The Trial,” we see extended clips of Putin addressing the Sentsov case (a member of the Russian Parliament bows and scrapes before Putin so nervously it’s like seeing an outtake from “The Godfather, Part II”), but Putin, in public, is no glowering fascist. He comes off as impeccably civilized and almost geekishly seductive. He makes you want to be his friend. That, of course, is his version of smoke and mirrors.
Directed and shot by Askold Kurov, a Russian filmmaker as brave as his subject, “The Trial” is a thrown-together movie that doesn’t have much of an arc. It’s 75 minutes long, and to be brutally honest, I would have been just as happy watching Sentsov’s story compressed into a “60 Minutes” segment. Yet whatever its flaws, a movie like this one is necessary. It speaks the truth about the Russian regime — the truth that’s buried by Putin, and now buried by our own president, who only dreams that he could do the same thing to his enemies. More than ever, global film culture needs every documentary that lets you stare into the face of oppression with eyes wide open.
Berlin Film Review: ‘The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov’
Reviewed at Cinemaxx (Berlin Film Festival), February 10, 2017. Running time: 75 min.
A Ceská televise, Prag production in cooperation with the Polish Film Institute.
Producers: Max Tuula, Maria Gavrilova, Dariusz Jablonski, Izabela Wójcik, Violetta Kaminska.
Director: Askold Kurov. Oren Moverman. Camera (color, widescreen): Kurov. Editor: Michal Leszczylowski.
Oleg Sentsov, Vladimir Putin, Agnieszka Holland, Wim Wenders.
It’s embarrassing to brag about what a good day I’ve been having when I’m supposed to be all bummed out about the Fascist Pig-Elect’s taking the oath to become the plain old Fascist Pig in the Poke, but it’s true.
I don’t quite get it, but things have been going my way all day.
For example, I lucked out while shopping this afternoon at our neighborhood Auchan hypermarket. They were having a sale on $10,000 packs of hundred dollar bills: 67 rubles 39 kopecks a pop!
I guess Auchan knows something the rest of us don’t know about what’s going to happen to the mighty US dollar when the Fascist Pig in the Poke starts implementing his “economic policies.”
So Auchan decided to unload the wads of US cash they had lying round the store while they were still worth something, even if it was only 67.39 rubles.
Good on them, as the Aussies say.
By sheer coincidence, when my true love came home from work he presented me with a new, totally recyclable wallet, made from a synthetic material called Tyvek. It weighs next to nothing, but now I’ll have somewhere to keep my nearly worthless $10,000 safe.
And it’s embossed with images of Imperial stormtroopers!
If you’ve seen the terrific new Star Wars movie, Rogue One, the best Star Wars movie in 39 years, you’ll know it’s a very timely tale about what happens when ordinary people resist an emergent fascist government: they all get killed.
Sergey Khakhayev Has Died Cogita.ru
December 5, 2016
Sergey Khakhayev, co-chair of St. Petersburg Memorial, died today, December 5, 2016. His funeral will take place on Friday, December 9.
Petersburg Memorial regretfully announces that Sergey Dmitryevich Khakhayev, co-chair of its board of directors, has passed away. Sergey Dmitryevich was admitted to Alexandrovsky Hospital with a massive stroke on November 13, 2016. This morning, we received word of his death. He never came out of the coma caused by the stroke. Sergey Dmitryevich was seventy-nine years old.
Sergey Khakhayev was born in Leningrad on September 24, 1938. He graduated from the city’s Technological Institute in 1960 with a degree in chemical engineering, and worked at the Krylov Shipbuilding Research Institute (Krylov State Research Center). Khakhayev was a leader of the Union of Communards, an underground Marxist group (aka the Kolokol Group, the Kolokol Magazine Group, and the Kolokolchiki) and co-authored the group’s program, “From a Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy to a Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” with Valery Ronkin. On November 26, 1965, Leningrad City Court sentenced Khakhayev to seven years in a labor camp and three years in exile. He served his sentence in Dubravlag and his exile in Ust-Abakan. Released in 1975, he was involved in the Soviet civil rights movement. Khakhayev served as co-chair of Petersburg Memorial, as well as on the Petersburg Human Rights Council and the Commission for the Restoration of Rights of Rehabilitated Victims of Political Repression in St. Petersburg and Leningrad Region.
Kolokolchiki, 1965-2015 (in Russian, with English subtitles)
The film’s co-director, Yevgenia Kulakova, wrote the following today:
“Sergey Dmitryevch Khakhayev died today. It is hard to believe he is no longer with us, because he was always in Memorial, and it seemed like he would be there forever. I cannot recall him ever missing a single event, rally, meeting or telephone call. I recently wrote about how, a couple of years ago, I went to the site of Timur Kacharava’s murder on November 13, quite late in evening. No one was left there except Sergey Dmitryevich. He stood there and stood there and would not leave. I was really struck by this. This year, Sergey Dmitryevich did not go to Bukvoyed bookstore [where Kacharava was stabbed to death by neo-Nazis in 2005]. When we got there, we learned from Irina [Flige] that he was in hospital.
“Sergey Dmitryevich was one of the Kolokolchiki. Getting to know them and working with them last year was an important event in my life. Here I’d like to quote part of our interview with Sergey Dmitryevich:
‘The fact is that when a person is still young, he has a thirst for justice. With age, the thirst goes away, but it exists in youth, at any rate, amongst a significant part of the populace. Some people could not care less from the get-go: nothing interests them except a half liter of vodka. But many people want justice, and they react badly to any setbacks and try to fight for justice, locally and more generally. Communist ideas are perennial ideas in this sense. Because this is the fundamental principle: the desire to make the world more just. When push comes to shove you use what comes to hand. Marx was what came to hand in our case.’
“The Kolokolchiki were born in 1962, when Sergey Khakhayev and Valery Ronkin, Communist Youth League members, public order volunteers, and Technology Institute graduates, wrote the pamphlet ‘From a Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy to a Dictatorship of the Proletariat.’ The pamphlet opened as follows: ‘The first thing that strikes a person entering adult life in socialist society is the enormous amount of lies and hypocrisy that have permeated our reality.’ This was followed by leaflets handed out among volunteers traveling to work in the Virgin Lands Campaign, at a rally of camping enthusiasts, and at Leningrad University. Then there were two issues of the magazine Kolokol. The third issue was never published: the manuscript was arrested along with the Kolokolchiki. Khakhayev and Ronkin got the worst of it: seven years in labor camps and three years in exile. Sergey Dmitryevich served his sentence in Mordovia, and his exile in Ust-Abakan in Krasnoyarsk Territory. He was joined in exile by Valeria Chikatuyeva, who had been released earlier. They were married, got a dog, and lived for three years in a tiny eleven-meter-square house. They and the dog moved to Luga, which was located beyond the 101st kilometer restriction zone around Leningrad. I could probably tick off on my fingers the number of times I met with them when the two of them were not together. They were always together. It was in Luga that Khakhayev and Ronkin wrote their last joint article, ‘Socialism’s Past and Future.’ Then came perestroika, and Memorial, with which Khakhayev was involved until his final days.
I see the Kolokolchiki as exemplars of camaraderie, friendship, love, and a zest for life. The way they talk about one another in interviews, the way they call each other on Skype from thousands of kilometers away, the way they miss and talk about their comrades who have already passed away. It is hardest for them right now. Hang in there, my dear friends.”
Translated by the Russian Reader. All photos courtesy of Cogita.ru
My memories of kindergarten are fairly fuzzy by now, but I do seem to recall we did a lot of sharing. This, I think, explains why the dark satanic mill known as Facebook has become so indispensable and popular in our modern world. Like kindergarten, it’s all about sharing.
For instance, this morning I was feeling fairly glum about the ongoing slaughter in Aleppo, the apparently total indifference my Russian friends (and “friends”) feel about the role their armed forces have been playing in this massacre, and my inability to do anything about any of this, much less changing anyone’s mind.
Apparently, Facebook even has algorithms for detecting when you’re feeling blue, and like a cheery kindergarten minder in such circumstances, it gets you involved in some fun sharing to buck you up.
This was what Facebook decided to share with woebegone me this morning.
“At Venice Film Festival, Sokurov Says European and Muslim Aesthetics Incompatible,” reads the headline on Newsru.com, an alarmist Russophone news website based in Israel.
When I clicked on it, the item turned out to be old news, an article, dated September 8, 2015, quoting controversial statements made at last year’s Venice Film Festival by the Petersburg auteur Alexander Sokurov, who was in Venice to debut his latest indisputable masterpiece, Francofonia.
Presenting his film Francofonia at the Venice Film Festival, Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov said the European and Muslim aesthetics were incompatible. Calling for an end to “the endless and pointless incursions,” to immigration by an alien culture, Sokurov thus polemicized with the chair of the festival jury, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, who earlier had suggested solving Europe’s rampant immigration crisis by organizing entry for the immigrants. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra reported on Francofonia and Sokurov’s statements.
Presenting what the newspaper called “a brilliant allegorical tale about the Old Continent through its museum symbol, the Louvre,” Sokurov said, “History teaches us nothing. Prudence and compassion are alien to history.”
“Europe, which has attained supreme achievements in art and philosophy, keeps making one mistake after another,” said the Russian maître, as quoted by InoPressa.
“What is happening, these endless and pointless incursions [or, invasions], seem like an indescribable nightmare, a humanitarian catastrophe in the face of which ordinary people are powerless, and politicians do nothing. And no one thinks to protect our culture, which will cease to exist quite soon,” the filmmaker continued.
The Italian periodical described the action of the film as follows: a ship that must bring European culture to a safe haven sails into a storm. If it sinks, its precious cargo will be irrevocably lost to all Europeans.
“Europe finds itself on The Raft of the Medusa, as in the famous painting by Théodore Géricault, exhibited in the Louvre. Just like the frightening boats, crowded with desperate people making their way to our shores.”
The article here refers to the numerous cases of the illegal delivery [sic] by sea (sometimes ending in tremendous loss of life) of thousands of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.
During the presentation of his film, Sokurov called for “a stop to these migrations.”
“To really help these people, it is necessary to intervene in the countries from which they are escaping and try to solve the problems there. Instead, we pile them up together here, where they have no prospects, and try and impose our TV lifestyle on them,” he argued.
“The outcome will be catastrophic for both parties,” the filmmaker warned.
Sokurov was certain that “our aesthetic and the Muslim aesthetic are incompatible.”
“With all due respect, we must maintain a distance and protect our culture from the iconoclastic fury that is destroying it,” said the filmmaker.
He reminded the audience of the total destruction of unique landmarks in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria, by militants from the terrorist group Islamic State, which is banned in the Russian Federation.
Recently, the extremists blew up three tombs of local patricians in the captured city. Earlier, they demolished the Temple of Baalshamin (2nd century BC) and the Temple of Bel, consecrated to the supreme Semitic deity [sic].
“Even the Nazis would have not dared to do what has happened in Palmyra,” said Sokurov.
I have quoted at length the day brightener Facebook chose for me, because it amply demonstrates a sad but irrefutable fact. Islamophobia is a perfectly common attitude and a perfectly respectable political “stance” in Russia, adopted and bruited loudly and publicly by well-read, highly educated members of the “liberal” Russian intelligentsia, as evinced here by one of their darlings, Alexander Sokurov.
This, in turn, explains the near-total silence of “liberal” and even “leftist” Russians on the destruction of Aleppo.
Let me put it as crudely as possible. Despite the court judgement handed down on popular blogger Anton Nosik the other day, a really large number of educated “white” Russians think Muslims are subhumans whom, if push comes to shove or your “civilizational project” has got bogged down and you cannot think of anything better to do, can be slaughtered with impunity and without blinking. In fact, it is better for one’s digestion, state of mind, and personal pursuit of high culture (per Sokurov) to put a mental wall between yourself and whatever is happening to the Muslims in your midst, or to the Muslim Crimean Tatars in Crimea, or to the Muslims in Grozny (back in the first years of Putin’s perpetual reign), or to the Muslims in Aleppo.
If you think I am exaggerating, I invite you to come to the Motherland and have heart-to-heart chats with a sampling of members of the so-called intelligentsia. In some cases (but not, happily, all cases) you will come away thinking you’ve just spent time with Trump supporters, UKIP cacklers, BNP bruisers or clowns from the KKK.
But the funny thing about Facebook is that it is not the only satanic mill on the oppressively vast World Wide Web. Nowadays, you can also ask something called Google whatever question your wicked heart can conceive—for example, how many Muslims are there in Russia?
Where did all those Russian Muslims come from? Did they immigrate to the Motherland from Syria and other majority Muslim countries?
No, despite the recent heavy influx of migrant workers from the Muslim Central Asian republics (once also part of Russia, in its guise as the Soviet Union), which has even more recently been waning due to the bad economy, among other factors, most of Russia’s Muslims were born and bred in the Russian Federation. Thus, to the outside world, they are “Russians,” if not to many of their fellow Russian citizens, who probably cannot get their heavily bookish heads around such funny facts as Moscow’s being the largest Muslim city in Europe.
You would think that, with so many Russian Muslims and post-Soviet Muslims sharing (there is our keyword again!) your cities, towns, and villages with you, you would not want to go out of your way to antagonize Muslims for no reason at all.
(Not because they are touchier than your average bear, but just because no one in this world enjoys being kicked around for years on end just because they’re different.)
But that is what the Russian government has been doing in Syria, and that is what significant numbers of Russia’s best and brightest have been doing for a long time now, if only rhetorically, if only at the Venice Film Festival, on Facebook or in their kitchens.
The consequences, both now and in the future, could not be more miserable, especially for the alleged “European” culture that only Russian intelligenty and European neo-Nazis seem to get so exercised about.
Thanks, Facebook, for cheering me up! I knew I could count on you. TRR