Friday, July 1, 2016

Russian Serfs Film

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) - 'I'm preparing to make a film praising serfdom as 'the wisdom of the nation'. After all, what is serfdom? Serfdom was patriotism secured on paper. A person was tied down to his mother earth, not only by a
feeling of duty but also on paper, in documents. Serfdom is the wisdom of the people. It is 400 years of our history. And now when people suggest we should erase 400 years of our history I say to them, "Brothers, do you think our ancestors were idiots. I am very happy that Putin is now reviving our historical memory ".... Who uttered those very words?

              No, it was not Nicholas the First, a Russian reactionary from the black hundreds. It certainly was not the Cossacks as their origins are rooted in fleeing from serfdom.... They certainly would resent any insinuating allegations that they were 'unpatriotic' for fleeing from their masters... No , the words were declared by a latter day film
director Nikita Mikhalkov. Those sentiments were also expressed by President Putin in past interviews. Mikhalkov also went on to staunchly defend the existing system of propeeska, a system where the stamp in a person's passport determines his place of residence, right to employment, as well as access to medical care or education.

              This is a system which prevents the mobility of a Russian moving from one town to visit another. So if someone visits and stays in another town he must register with the local police and attain a special residence permit.


               The famous actor and film-director Nikita Mikhalkov is one of Russia's most prominent stars. He won Oscars for films such as 'Burnt by the Sun,' 1994, and more recently, 'Sunstroke, 2014'. Mikhalkov has made some great films and can create unforgettable movingly poignant scenes. He has also gone on record as appealing to the state to take bolder action to alleviate the plight of the homeless. Although the following statements might suggest he is an apologist for repression it would be wide of the gap to portray him as some sort of  monster or even crass philistine.

               However, his films are lavishly funded by the Russian state, at a time when patriotic films such as 'Stalingrad' and  'Legend Number 17 ' are in vogue. In recent years, Mikhalkov's  films have become more and more explicitly 'political', in the sense the script writers insert very
explicit political views which sound more like Mikhalkov than, say Bunin.

               Films such as 'Sunstroke', present a pre-revolutionary Russia as almost an Idyllic paradise without any famines or injustice. The film 'Sunstroke' is not really about Bunin's work but a story about the plight of captured
white Russian officers who are tricked and massacred by their phony Red Guard captors. There is nothing wrong with the plot and the film has many merits but why drag Bunin's name into all this? By the way, Ivan Bunin, unlike Mikhalkov, did not idealise Russia before the revolution. On the contrary, his work 'The Village', shows how humiliating and debased life was under serfdom. Bunin detested the Bolsheviks but he did not idealise or call for the return of serfdom!


               Of course, Russians are far from being the only people to imagine that somewhere, in the past, there was a golden age. In England, you had the notion of 'Merrie England', where the Village landlord was a benevolent
master who treated his peasants to feasts, and everyone of the village green would dance around a maypole. People imagined that at that time the village had a real warm community where everyone gathered to help someone in trouble. Some writers even idealise England as a golden age until the outbreak  of the First world war. In Scotland, many Scottish writers who imagined that Scotland had such a golden past in the Highlands were dubbed 'The Kailyard school'. (Kailyard means cabbage plot).

               However, most honest historians readily acknowledge that pre-war Russia was far from perfect. Historian such as Orlando Figes find Serfdom brutally repressive where female serfs were frequently whipped, or worse, beaten to death. Even many of the Russian folk songs which were collected indicate how the peasants lamented, rather than looked forward to their marriage. Of course, it would be inaccurate to state the landlords had unlimited rights over serfs... Strong Russian customs and even the church, could intervene to protect a Russian serf from being abused.

               However, the outbreak of great famines, pograms against Jews, and the massacre of peaceful demonstrators on 'Bloody Sunday 1905, indicates how repressive Russia really was before the revolution.

               If Mikhalkov is arguing that Russia became more repressive than the tsarist regime, then many historians would agree with him.

               Both famines and the victims of repression shot up to unprecedented levels, making reactionary tsars such as Nicholas the First look soft-hearted! But two wrongs don't make a right. One does not cancel or absolve the other.

               At this moment in time, doing objective research into Russian history is not the best time. People want to hear the great and glorious deeds concerning the Great Patriotic War and not the darker side. For instance following  the Battle of Moscow, there arose the legend of 28 Panfilov heroes who died heroically fighting for Moscow. I used to pass a mural of them every day on my way to some students. Monuments to those 28 heroes were put up everywhere around Russia. The only problem was that the 28 people who died did not all die. One of them even returned from a prison of war camp to find his name inscribed on a memorial. Another soldier became a village policeman under the   Germans and was arrested for collaboration. Those facts can be found if you take the trouble to consult Russian archives! When a journalist from Kormersant was told of such findings from an historian, the journalist stated: "I prefer to cling to the legend than believe the facts". So people believe what they want to hear.

               There is both amnesia and bad hearing.

                Not all Russians agree with Mikhalkov's view of history or admire his films. In fact, concerning his films, I obtained polarised reactions. Russians tend to actually adore or hate him. One student of an advertising film, Mikhail, told me: "I think all his films are pretentious". But another student
Vladimir Barabash told me: "The Barber of Siberia was a great film. I really thought the shots were beautiful. "A banker told me: "The dialogue of the film Cidatel, is so idiotic and some of the scenes are, well, just silly".

                 "I think the film, 'Twelve', was a very clever and thoughtful film. It provokes people into thinking about what is real justice", a young girl told me. The best thing to do is just ignore film critics and watch the films yourself!

                 Whereas most people will accept that Mikhalkov is a great film director and actor, they can be amazed about his views on history. Not all film-directors are apparently acute historians.

                 When Veronika Mitroshina, a 37-year-old mathematican was asked about propeeska she told me: "I hate this system. It is as if comes from the middle ages. It is a form of serfdom. It prevents people from the right to freely move around". That someone could actually defend this system amazes not only foreigners but Russians themselves.

                 The hard of hearing have not been tested thoroughly.

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