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Russian contemporary culture and the White Generals August 30, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

I very much liked this piece by Perry Anderson which was linked to during the week (and many thanks to the person who did so). A lot to reflect on – not least his views on the Ukraine conflict and perceptions of same more broadly. But culturally and politically, what of this?

What the impact of this revival of the Church has been on the culture at large is another question, but it is clearly not marginal. The author of the best-selling title of 2012 was the Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, an intimate of Putin, and producer of a popular television documentary chronicling the decline of Byzantium under the corrosive moral influences of the West. His Everyday Saints—‘simple, luminous tales of ordinary Christians’—sold over a million copies in a year. Not everyone was spellbound: to the indignation of its admirers, it did not quite win the country’s Booker Prize. But within the intelligentsia itself, in one—usually, though not invariably, somewhat higher—register or another, religion is in vogue. Russian cinema offers some of the most striking examples of the cross-breeding of retro-nationalism with neo-pietism in the service of the regime. At the box-office end of the market, blending commercial spectacle and middle-brow pretension, is Nikita Mikhalkov, the country’s Steven Spielberg. Once a caryatid of the Soviet cultural establishment, after the fall of the ussr he swiftly announced his conversion to Christianity; secured official funding for his patriotic blockbuster The Barber of Siberia, in which he himself plays an imposing Alexander iii; moved on to maudlin narratives of White Generals of the Civil War era; and in 2005 produced a fawning film-portrait of Putin in honour of his 55th birthday, depicting him as a latter-day—but by no means everyday—political saint. [34]
At the more austere end of the spectrum, where few concessions are made to popular taste or understanding, the cinema of Alexander Sokurov—widely regarded as Russia’s greatest director—mingles necrophilia and mysticism with homages to political correctness of the day. After reverent icons of Yeltsin and eldrich bestiaries of Hitler and Lenin came a glowing portrait of Hirohito as a quiet embodiment of imperial dignity emerging from his palace to the fatherly respect of MacArthur (Sokurov has explained that Japan, after all, had to expand into China). There followed a celebrity tour of the Tsarist past, hinting that if European culture was to be saved, it would be in the Noah’s ark of the Motherland, topped off with a sentimental apologia for the war in Chechnya, Alexandra, starring former diva Galina Vishnevskaya—‘Tsarina’ for the director—as a grandmother telling a Chechen lad to ‘ask God for intelligence’, instead of muttering about independence. This chauvinist parable won Sokurov an audience with Putin, and lavish state backing for his next venture, a phantasmagoric version of Goethe’s Faust. [35]
The better younger directors are less given to this kind of accommodation to power. But even an auteur of such independence as Andrei Zvyagintsev, no friend of the regime, has felt it necessary to avow the Christian faith behind his breakthrough, The Return, and garb his recent attack on official corruption of church and state alike, Leviathan, from a biblical wardrobe as a modern tale of Job. Lower down, there are few depths contemporary Russian cinema has not plumbed. Leading hits include The Island—tale of a repentant monk, who after committing lethal treason at German order during the war, has become so holy that nature itself departs from its laws in his presence; The Admiral, depicting the White supremo Kolchak in a ne plus ultra of schmaltz as a tender lover executed by the Bolsheviks, his corpse sinking cruciform into the Siberian ice; and The Miracle, scripted by Sokurov’s screen-writer Yuri Arabov, the ‘true story’ of a young girl who casts away her mother’s icons except for Saint Nicholas, whom she takes to a louche party—and there, as she dances clutching it, is frozen motionless for her impiety, until months later Khrushchev arrives and gives the grudging go-ahead for an exorcism to liberate her, murmuring as he flies back to Moscow, ‘A miracle—such beauty: as if an angel has flown’. The cultural sump of this sort of Russian cinema makes even the worst films of the Soviet era look presentable.

I’m not well up on how the White’s are regarded in Russia since the fall of the Soviets, but to judge from this there’s a sort of wholesale reevaluation of them, even if only in what appears to be a nostalgic/emotional way. Most of us here of whatever persuasion on the left (and personally in that conflict I still have a sneaking regard for Makhno, for all his faults) would tend to view the White’s as reactionary, at best.

Has anyone any knowledge of this trend in Russian culture?


1. eamonncork - August 30, 2015

I always like reading Anderson, for style more than content perhaps a lot of the time, but he is a terrific essayist. However, I think that’s a pretty reductive reading of the Sokurov films, not least because Sokurov is so elliptical that, good and all as he is, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out what he’s going on about never mind where he stands politically.


Gewerkschaftler - August 31, 2015

That was my response specifically to Anderson’s perception of Sukarov – it’s not the Sukarov I experienced – but perhaps I should go back and watch the films. Which is anyhow a good thing because every time I watch, for instance, his Faust, I see a completely different film.

The Hirohito film is far from being a hagiography of the Emperor.


2. Chris Ford - August 30, 2015

The White’s of the Civil War and the older Black Hundred’s a kind of Russian Empire equivelent of the Ulster Loyalists – are very highly regarded officially and by the powerfull Russian ultra nationalist movement. In Donbas the White Guards tradition is present in forces which intervened to create the Donetsk Peoples Republic and Luhansk Peoples Republic.



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