Monday, November 26, 2007

How Russian Hearts Are Heaving

"Moscow, 1947" gives an interesting glimpse of a Soviet culture that was probably already dead before its creators finished the animatic. Ostensibly celebrating the 800th anniversary of the city's founding, it is instead a propaganda film highlighting the city's recapture from Polish leadership in the Polish-Muscovite wars of the early 17th century and its withstanding Napoleon's siege of 1814. Then the video cuts off. I'd seen it years before on a bootleg VHS, but I can't remember if it went on to pay tribute to the WWII defense of Moscow, but even if it doesn't, the subtext of the rest of it clearly celebrates the recent WWII vitory.

You have to remember that prior to WWII, the internal structure of the Soviet Union was in turmoil. The Great Purge of 1937-1938 not only destroyed (probably) millions of lives, but also families, Soviet technological research and defense. Many able generals were sent to camps because, their devotion to bolshevism aside, their families had aristocratic lines pre-dating the regime.

The principle for which they were banished was Stalin's version of communism, which had become one-statist and self-interested. International communist struggles could go hang themselves so long as Russia survived. While initially this self-interest led to the necessary Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the foolhardy belief that it would spare Russia from war, it ultimately came to save Russia. Humiliated by literally millions of men encircled by (and surrendering to) German forces, Stalin was forced to re-build his military hierarchy on the fly. Old generals and colonels were rescued from the camps, told all was forgiven and asked to save the Motherland. Stalin's vision of "Communism in One Country" (i.e. "Russia First," for lack of a better term) immediately transformed into basic bourgeois patriotism. WWII was recast as "The Great Patriotic War." This film represents the last gasp of this liberalization of thought.

The video opens with soaring invocations of the city's name: MOSCOW! Quotes from Pushkin overlay images of patriotic medals, as animated WWII-era bombers fly out from behind them, taking flight over the Motherland. Bombers swoop and open their bay doors, dropping out thousands of love letters written to the city. But evidence of the erosion of the all-for-Russia spirit accompanying WWII can be seen in the video itself.

It's tough to argue that part of the motivation for Stalin's purges wasn't racial. There's a classic element in the Russian psyche, going back to Pushkin and Tolstoy at least, where almond-shaped eyes and yellow skin and the chaos of the east represents a kind of menace that, while not maliciously racist, nonetheless "others" easternness. But during the Great Patriotic War, much of that got set aside. Commissars — Russian political officers — even propagandized for racial diversity within units. E.g. "this commander is Tartar, and his adjutant is Russian, and these officers are Georgian, and this one's a Pole."

Yet, by 4:29 in the video, we already have the narrator invoking the "Tartar's yoke!" in talking about the periodic rule of parts of Russia by the mongol hordes. Worse, by 4:40 you have a kind of Punch and Judy Minstrel Show, with the white Russian puppet beating the crap out of the "BLACK FOREIGNER" Tartar. Already, that need to band together that WWII brought seems to be spooling apart.

Probably what's most interesting though is how by 1947 all this "Russia Only" Stalinism was being overcome by the ambition to push the Iron Curtain out to the fullest boundaries of Eastern Europe. While it might be all well and good to return to a racist mentality about Eastern peoples, Communism In One Country wasn't a doctrine that could bear up to scrutiny when more and more countries were coming under Soviet hegemony. By 1947, the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Hungary were communist client states.

The Great Patriotic War attitude that this film celebrates was already over and done with probably by the time any average citizen saw it. Truman had already promulgated his Truman Doctrine, fighting to contain communism on every front. American and Soviet proxies faced off in Greece. The next year, Berlin would be cordoned off Czechoslovakia absorbed into the Iron Curtain. Already the message was transitioning to the harmony and prosperity of many nations, sharing in communism, outside the boundaries of any one state. And the propaganda for that would have to be very delicate indeed, because it sounded like the multinational war for communism that all the Trotskyists had been militating for in 1937 and 1938, before they were shot and shipped east to starve to death or die of exposure.

In the end, this film is interesting because of the rarity of what it has to say. Years later, watching it is like looking at a miraculously clear shapshot taken from a moving train: unless you time it just right — just blink — that tiny era of postwar Russian nationalism and brotherhood is gone. I wish I could say the same for the print quality though. Nighttime and forest scenes are almost totally dark. A bear and an owl are virtually invisible against a dark background. I get the sense this was improperly stored in an archive for four decades. I'd be really excited to see a cleaned-up copy, if one is out there.


L-Scott said...


You forgot about Poland.

Seriously though, one point you forgot to make comes around 5:30 in the video. The narrator starts going on about how "Polish Knights" (NOT the really popular sneaker from the late 80s) "usurped our people." Then they don't show any gore, but I'm pretty sure the crowd is hacking the shit out of Polish people.

George F.K. said...

That would be another Partition of Poland, only on a person-by-person basis.