Mar 062009


We’re about 2/3 of the way through The Gray Wolves (Serye volki).

At first I wondered if I had remembered the events of 1964 wrongly. The conspirators were talking about replacing Nikita Khruschev in November, but I thought it had happened before that. I recall that it happened during the presidential campaign, and that it was a final nail in the coffin for Barry Goldwater, whom I was doing as much to support vocally as could be done by a high school junior in rural Minnesota. The media were doing as much as they could to use this coup de etat to finish off Goldwater by putting out the line that during times of uncertainty, nobody likes to throw out the established leader. (They maybe weren’t in the tank for Lyndon Johnson as much as they are now for Obama, but they were far from neutral, objective reporters.)

I don’t know all of the historical characters in the movie, so tonight I’ve been spending some time looking some of them up on Wikipedia.

For most of the movie I wondered where Kosygin was in all of this. That was a name I did know. The information we in the U.S. got when Khruschev was thrown out was that Breshnev and Kosygin were now in charge. Of course, Kosygin became less prominent and Brezhnev more as time went on, but I had assumed he was in on the conspiracy. He hasn’t been seen in the movie, but at least his name was finally mentioned about 2/3 of the way through.

Mikoyan was a name I recognized, but other than that I didn’t remember much about him. It appears that he’s with Nikita Sergeyevich at Pitsunda. Wikipedia gives me a clue as to what’s really happening with him — and what to expect from him in a scene towards the end.

One person I knew absolutely nothing about was the one portrayed in the above screen shot — Mikhail Andreevich Suslov. In the movie he seems to be a person who was brought into the conspiracy and who went along with it because he made a political calculation. But after reading that article I came away with a chilling portrait of an intelligent, intellectual cut-throat — the worst kind.

But this blog is supposed to be about more superficial things, so I should point out that I never would have recognized by myself that it was Rolan Bykov who was playing Khruschev. He’s playing a very credible Khruschev, at least for this outsider.

But the Leonid Brezhnev character seems so young — and so unsure of himself. The acting is good, but do Russians consider that to be a realistic portrayal?


And what is the deal with these Russian desks that have a smaller, plainer table for guests portruding from the front? I’ve never seen anything like that in the U.S. But I do see these on RTR Planeta, e.g. when somebody holds talks with Putin. Is it strictly a Russian thing, or is that kind of furniture used anywhere else?

Jul 252008

I haven’t found any good obituaries in U.S. newspapers for Nonna Mordukova, who died earlier this month. The one in the Washington Post pointed out that she appeared in some government propaganda films: “Throughout a career that spanned half a century, Ms. Mordyukova appeared in dozens of films, including some textbook examples of Soviet propaganda.”

Well, everyone knows that there were a lot of Soviet propaganda films. But what was surprising to me when I started watching Russian movies was the parts that were subversive of Soviet propaganda, including three roles I can think of that were played by Nonna Mordyukova. If the Post wanted to talk about the political aspects of her work, it should have made that point. These are in three films that are readily available to U.S. viewers via Netflix.

In Vokzal dlya Dvoikh she played the part of an “uncle” who gave an entertaining little lecture on the virtues of private property and free enterprise. I’ve never seen anything like that in a popular U.S. film. In Brilliantovaya Ruka she played the part of a meddlesome building superintendent — in a way that provided social commentary which I suspect was not comforting to all the authorities. And the biggest role was of course as the Commissar in Komissar — a film that was suppressed for 20 years and which even under glasnost was released with extreme reluctance, seeing the light of day only thanks to outside pressure. In an interview, the director Alexandr Askoldov pointed out that even today it is rarely seen in Russia. Nonna Mordukova was one of the actors who interceded on his behalf at the time when the film was suppressed, when Askoldev was facing the possibility of a fate worse than that of being kicked out of the Party and of being prohibited from directing more films (which is what did happen to him).

It’s not that Mordyukova was a political dissident. As far as I know she wasn’t anything of the kind. She even seems to have preferred that Askoldov give in to the censors on the parts of the film that he refused to edit out. (You can see this on the Komissar DVD that contains “extra” material.) But she played a role in conflicts that we would do well to know about.

Here is a page about Mordyukova that gives better information about her work:

Komissar is an interesting case. Most web pages that talk about her work mention her big role in Komissar. But I have found Russian sites that tell about her career without mentioning that film. Same for Rolan Bykov, who played the male lead (see clip below). There are Russian web sites that tell all about his work, except for their silence about that movie.

And now I’ve learned that Komissar is still censored, even at Netflix. The clip below includes several minutes that were not on the one we got from Netflix. I am suspicious of why they were removed, because it seems they are important in leading up to the famous Holocaust scene that got Askoldov in such big trouble. Maybe the producers didn’t want to touch the Turkey-Armenia genocide issue, which is mentioned in this clip. But there are also parts that seem important in developing the character played by Mordyukova — in which she explains some of her views on war service and the political aspects of the wars.

25-Jul Slight edits to remove awarkdness, I hope

Jan 212008

As a public service, I should make a database that categorizes Russian movies in useful and important ways:

Proto-bolshevik revolutionary — In pre-revolutionary Russia, there is the odd character who tinkers with explosives, befriends a youngster, is arrested and beaten by the police, and perhaps has some noble words about truth for the youngster to remember as he is hauled away.

  • The Childhood of Maxim Gorky
  • Siberiade
  • (One movie recently seen on RTR-Planeta that had three of them who conducted some caper on behalf of the motherland and were then hauled away to be executed by the ungrateful czarist government.)
  • Andrei Rublev — The setting is somewhere around 1400. In this case it’s Rolan Bykov as a dangerous jester rather than an explosive maker. He gets beat up by the police, like the others, but his words of wisdom are in his jokes.

Revolutionary man scorns woman — Beautiful young woman tries to seduce/charm a man who ignores her so as not to get distracted from his revolutionary mission.

  • In one movie I saw on RTR-Planeta, the guy politely ignored the advances of the young woman who somehow ended up in the camp of revolutionaries, but took interest when it turned out she was an excellent shot with a handgun.
  • In the RTR-Planeta movie with the three-musketeer types, one of the three resists the advances of a beautiful woman who undresses in his hideaway before realizing he is there, too. She wants to be kissed; his facial expression says no; he goes on to complete his mission.

Indoor chairs used outdoors

  • Moscow does not believe in tears
  • Unfinished piece for player piano
  • Vodka Lemon (not a Russian movie, but some Russian is spoken)

Nikita Mikhalkov in a tanktop – (He seems to favor horizontal stripes)

  • Railway Station for Two
  • Burnt by the Sun
  • Siberiade

Tonight as we were watching Siberiade , Mikhalkov appeared once again in that tanktop with horizontal stripes. That’s what motivated me to finally start compiling this list.

Dec 182007

We watched Komissar several months ago; now I’m watching (and re-watching) the interviews on the “Bonus Material” DVD from Netflix.

The most puzzling one was actress Nonna Mordukova being harshly critical of Aleksandr Askoldov for not making any more films.

This, after learning on that same DVD how the Soviet cultural authorities had not only banned Askoldov’s film, but destroyed it (except for the one copy that somehow got filed away), forbade him to make any more films, forbade him to assist in the making of any more, got him kicked out of the Communist Party, prosecuted him as a social parasite, and may have done worse to him if not for Mordukova and actor Rolan Bykov coming to his defense at his trial. (Well, that last part I learned from Wikipedia, not the DVD.) Under those conditions it would have been hard for him to make any more films, no?

Mordukova doesn’t say so, but the only way Askoldov could have avoided all these banishments would have been to compromise on the making of Komissar. He could have omitted the scene of the vision of the Holocaust, and then the film could have been released back in 1967. But he refused to do that.

We learn that Askoldov was a stubbornly principled man. In her long career Mordukova played some roles that make me wonder whether she, too, tested the limits of the censors. I’ve wondered if there are any stories about that. But she apparently made enough peace with the ruling regimes to have a long career as a popular actress, and to receive awards from the likes of Vladimir Putin. Was she resentful of Askoldov for doing the right thing in the face of opposition, like some of us who never served in the military might be resentful of those who put their life on the line for their country?

I’m not sure when her interview was made. That part is in black-and-white and in it she doesn’t look very old, so I presume it was not as recent as the others. It seems to be part of a program like I’ve often seen on RTR Planeta, where an actor or actress takes questions from the audience and where film clips are shown. Maybe it, too, was her way of making peace with the regime.

I still like her work and look forward to watching other films in which she appeared (if any of them ever make their way to Netflix). I can understand that not everybody is going to buck the system to the extent that Askoldov did. It’s too bad Mordukova had to be critical of Askoldov for it, though. Or, maybe she was just faking her criticism. It’s hard to understand what’s happening in an environment where people can’t be honest with each other.