May 142008

Yesterday I started reading the 1990 edition of Robert Conquest’s, “The Great Terror.” I had long known about Conquest’s work, but had never read any before.

In a way I’m glad I waited until after I watched a lot of Russian movies. Not that Russian movies give an accurate portrayal of life in the Soviet Union any more than American movies give an accurate portrayal of life in our country. But they give me a picture of how the authorities wanted the Revolution to be seen, and (more importantly) of what sort of portrayal the population needed to see in order to be part of it. And now more than ever before, I see all the players as real people.

One thing that’s surprising to me is how much dissent there was in high places in the Communist Party in the late 20s and early 30s. I had known about Mensheviks, and I had known about people like Trotsky, but not about this. Chapter 1, which follows a long chapter of Introduction, tells us, referring to one of the opposition groups that were led by people who had been Stalin’s followers:

They seem to have circulated a memoir criticizing the regime for economic adventurism, stifling the initiative of the workers, and bullying treatment of the people by the Party. Lominadze had referred to the “lordly feudal attitude to the needs of the peasants.”

There is a lot more like that.

In the Introduction there is a good section summarizing the crackdown on the people. It points out that the starvation of perhaps 10 million people, mostly in the Ukraine, was not an accidental byproduct of Moscow-centered economic policies, but a deliberate attempt to show the people who was boss.

There seems little doubt that the main issue was simply crushing the peasantry, and the Ukranians, at any cost. On ehigh official told a Ukrainian who later defected that the 1933 harvest “was a test of our strength and their endurance. It took a famine to show them who is master here. It has cost millions of lives, but the collective farm system is here to stay. We have won the war.”

It was an important learning experience not only for the peasantry, but for the police and Party officials. It prepared them for what was to follow.

May 112008

Tonight we watched the rest of Irony of Fate, the Sequel. It was better than we had expected — not bad for a sequel. It was fun to see all the actors again, 30 years older than in the original. Andrei Myagkov and Yuri Yaklovev have aged nicely. Barbara Brylska looks great, but surely has had some top-notch help from plastic surgeons to look that good in her mid 60s. It would have been nice to see Liya Akhedzhakova, too. She is the only character, other than the two mothers, who I found missing in the sequel.

The original from 1975, besides being a goofy comedy and a love story, was a satire on the uniformity of the Brezhnev era. This one is in part a satire on the cell phone culture.

If there is any doubt that this is a post-Soviet movie, the militsia (police) are portrayed as sleepy, good-natured drunks (it’s New Year’s Eve, after all) who are easily deceived and bribed. I wonder how long Putin will allow that before movies have to go back to portraying them as in the Soviet days.

The younger generation of actors did fine work, I thought. Sergei Bezrukov as Irakliy was great. I’d like to see what other kinds of characters he can play. I was rooting for a reformed Irakliy who learns to get his priorities straight would to get the girl in the end (and kiss her without interruptions from that cell phone attached to his head) but it was not to be. Konstantin Khabensky, who plays Zhenya’s son, does fine as a drunken Russian, but drunken Russians are a dime a dozen in movies. Liza Boyarskaya as Nadya, Jr. doesn’t have a lot to do besides look pretty — compared to what Barbara Brylska did in the original — but she showed some signs of being a capable actress anyway.

Apr 192008

Last night we started watching The Hound of the Baskervilles on YouTube. This is a Russian movie from 1981. Vasily Livanov is said to do the best Sherlock Holmes on film, ever. I have not watched much Sherlock Holmes on film, maybe none at all before this, so can’t vouch for that. But he portrays a lively intelligence rather a stodgy intelligence. Very good so far.

Vitaliy Solomin plays Watson. I’ve already seen him in Siberiade. And Nikita Mikhalkov, as always, plays Nikita Mikhalkov. He’s supposed to be playing Sir Henry Baskerville. I don’t know the Baskervilles story at all, so can’t say if it’s an appropriate match or not.

Mar 212008

I knew I had seen that guy who plays the NKVD chief before. He appeared tonight while I was watching Part 4 of Master i Margarita. The NKVD is finally involved — trying to figure out this Professor Woland character (who is Satan) — Who is he, really, and how did he get to Moscow? The NKVD guy gives orders to arrest anyone on the slightest suspicion.

Finally I remembered. It’s the same person who played Lavrentiy Beria in “Balthazar’s Feasts, or Night with Stalin.” Well, I guess he has found a role. His name is Valentin Gaft.

I have mentioned before how movies from the Soviet era always portray the police as virtuous and almost omniscient. It’s difficult to have much of a plot when one party already knows everything and can do no wrong. How do you make a movie under those conditions? Answer: You do slapstick where an innocent person has to get involved with the crooks as an informer in order to obtain the final unknown detail — as in Brilliantovaya Ruka (Diamond Arm) or Gentlemen of Fortune. There can be some entertainment value in that — I understand that those two movies were very popular in Russia.

Master i Margarita is of course a post-Soviet movie. And in this one, the almost-omniscient characters are Satan and their sidekick, who know how to use their knowledge to destroy people.

Omniscience in the wrong hands is not a good thing.

Mar 202008

I’ve been watching Master i Margarita on Youtube. It’s a long series, and it will take me a while to get through it. It’s set in 1930s Moscow and 30AD Jerusalem. While watching Professor Woland, the Satan character, it took me a while to realize I had seen this actor before. He is Oleg Basilashvili, who played one of the lead roles in one of my favorite Russian movies, Vokzal dlya Dvoikh (Railway Station for Two).

He’s twenty years or so older in Master i Margarita, so that’s one reason I didn’t recognize him. But another is that he has a much greater range of acting ability than I had realized from watching that first movie.

I’m still reading Gulag, too. Anne Applebaum gives a lot of examples of how prison camp could completely transform a person, often in ways that weren’t very nice. Vokzal dlya Dvoikh had a way of showing it, too. At the beginning of the movie, Basilashvili’s character is a fussy eater, not willing to eat the mediocre food put out for customers at the railway station restaurant. That’s what gets him into trouble and then romance. Well, more trouble. He was already in trouble because of a car accident, and was going to have to spend three years in prison for it. He was a concert pianist, and now is going to be a prison flunky. After a couple years in prison, he has a completely different approach to food. His instinctive reaction on seeing any that’s unattended is to make sure nobody is watching and then furtively slip some into his pockets. He doesn’t have the emaciated look that a real prisoner in that state would have — I suppose it would be asking a lot of an actor to do that — but one can’t miss the point.

Mar 182008

Anne Applebaum talks about the gulag criminals’ slang, saying it was “so distinct from ordinary Russian that it almost qualifies as a separate language.”

I wonder if an echo of that jargon is in the movie Dzhentlmeny udachi (Gentlemen of Fortune, 1971). Applebaum’s book emphasises the 30s, 40s, and early 50s. The gulags were definitely gentler by 1971. But I wonder how much of that movie had gulag connotations for Russian viewers.

In Gentlemen of Fortune, the main character (played by Yevgeny Leonov) is a kindhearted kindergarten teacher who is recruited to impersonate a murderous criminal to whom he bears a physical resemblance. It’s so he can help the police find out where the stolen gold was hidden.

It’s a comedy, and it can be seen on YouTube, with English subtitles. Although he impersonates the tough guy complete with tattoos and scars, he can’t help but try to teach his criminal gang some good manners and getting them to straighten up their lives.

Like at one point in the movie (segment 4 of 9) he breaks up a fight and then tells the guys they shouldn’t use jargon. Is he referring to this same kind of talk that Anne Applebaum is referring to? I don’t know enough Russian to recognize it myself.

But there are other gulag references. At one point in one of the later segments, he has the gang playing word games on New Year’s Eve. One of them says Vorkuta, and he asks why Vorkuta. He had served a term there. Even before reading Applebaum’s book, I recognized Vorkuta as the far-north site of one of the nastier gulags.

As I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve come to realize that there are quite a few gulag references in the Russian movies I’ve watched. One of them I’ll save for later, but there is a scene in another comedy, Brilliantovaya Ruka (The Diamond Arm) in which the bad guys are at a restaurant table, and a passing stranger at the table with them says they ought to come visit him in Siberia. He meant it innocently, but they almost shudder at the idea, as criminals would have good reason to do.

Mar 072008

Shortly after watching the 9th segment of Kalinovski Square last night, and learning for the first time about Alaksandar Kazulin and how he had received a 5.5 year sentence for his dissenting activities in Belarus, I read in the WSJ that he has been released along with a number of other dissidents. Luke Allnutt, editor in chief of Radio Free Europe, explains how President Lukashenko desperately needs friends now, and how we would do well to engage him. It would be a tricky business, because he’s trying to play Russia vs the west. But this may be an opportunity to do what little we can to promote political and economic freedom in what has been one of the most repressive regimes in Europe.

This would be a good issue to ask our presidential candidates about, and see if they’re able to give more substantive answers than, “I will assemble my experts, and we’ll figure out what’s the best thing to do.” President Bush was criticized for being too unilateral, too inconsiderate of European opinion. Well, here is a chance for his wannabe successors to show how they would be different.

And here is a link to that 9th segment of Kalinovski Square. I had watched most of the others multiple times already and somehow skipped this one. It’s a very important one, and does a nice job of showing how Kazulin used a run for the presidency of his country to raise an important domestic issue. The person running the camera may have had an inside scoop on what he was going to do.

Feb 072008

Ha. I wouldn’t have guessed that on my own. Yury Yakovlev, who plays Bi in “Kin-Dza-Dza” is the same person who played Ippolit in Ryazanov’s “The Irony of Fate.” I had immediately recognized Yevgeny Leonov, the actor who plays Uef, as the same guy who had played the old retired military officer who rescues our hero in Mimino. But I hadn’t recognized his sidekick at all. Goes to show he has a bit of range to his talents. Contrast that to someone like Nikita Mikhalkov, who plays the same character no matter what movie he’s in.

I had earlier commented on how I couldn’t tell what had made the movie difficult to get past the Soviet censors. Well, duh, I should have known because I’ve talked about this several times. Usually in Soviet movies, the law enforcement and legal authorities are portrayed as wise, kindly, omniscient characters (e.g. in Brilliantovaya Ruka, Mimino) unless, of course, they are pre-revolutionary characters (e.g. in Siberiade). In Kin-Dza-Dza, nobody on planet Pluk is a nice guy. They are all back-stabbing, manipulative, selfish, ordinary people that are your everyday companions and colleagues. But the ecilops (police) are especially easy to dislike — smarmy characters like some bullies we all knew in school.

Maybe the trick was to get the censors to think of these as pre-revolutionary characters. (It’s just a guess, though.)

Feb 032008

I wasn’t sure what in the movie Kin-dza-dza would have made it a difficult one to get past the Soviet censors. Maybe this scene near the end would have been seen as subversive. It certainly would be subversive of a lot of what we’re getting from the most fascist elements (i.e. the leading elements) in our own political parties now.

Our protagonists are trying to get back to earth, but don’t want to abandon to a terrible fate the two characters from Pluk who’ve been with them for most of the movie. The sensitive, compassionate head honcho on planet Alpha tells our heros not to worry about those two: “To continue their lives in the form of plants would be a blessing for them.”


And by this time our protagonist cares about more than just taking advantage of the situation for his own ends. He asks, “Can we send for them and ask them what would be a blessing for them and what not?”


How about that? It’s a pro-choice message.

Here’s the YouTube segment these scenes are taken from. It’s the 13th of 14 parts.

Feb 022008


Here’s a movie that goes Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris one better. Solaris itself was somewhat of a reaction against Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001 featured gleaming high-tech on a massive scale. In Solaris, the space vehicle is somewhat run down and the protagonist goes around in a soiled shirt.

But that’s nothing compared to Kin-dza-dza, which came out in Russia in 1986. Two of the interplanetary space travelers are pictured above. (It’s a photo of the VHS cover. I cobbed it from Wikipedia.)


And here is their spacecraft. (Photo cobbed from the same source as the above one.) It’s a creaky rattle-trap rustbucket, but it does work.

This movie isn’t on Netflix. There is no official English-language subtitled version. But it’s on YouTube, with subtitles, in 14 parts. I happened upon it last night. I haven’t nearly finished watching.

I’m not a big science fiction fan, but small doses like this are great. It’s had me laughing. Wikipedia says it’s somewhat of an allegory of Soviet society, but somehow made it past the censors anyway. I don’t know about that — maybe it applies to tourist behavior and social relationships in general. Whatever it is, it’s fun to watch.

Here, for my convenience and that of anyone else who cares, are links to all 14 of the segments. It can be somewhat of a nuisance to find them in order using YouTube’s search.

  1. Part 1 (1 of 7)
  2. Part 1 (2 of 7)
  3. Part 1 (3 of 7)
  4. Part 1 (4 of 7)
  5. Part 1 (5 of 7)
  6. Part 1 (6 of 7)
  7. Part 1 (7 of 7)
  8. Part 2 (1 of 7)
  9. Part 2 (2 of 7)
  10. Part 2 (3 of 7)
  11. Part 2 (4 of 7)
  12. Part 2 (5 of 7)
  13. Part 2 (6 of 7)
  14. Part 2 (7 of 7)