1917 Revolution Centenary – 4 cultural artefacts of Soviet Russia which spit in the face of Stalin

Conor Fay

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A ghoul – Photo Credit: Antonio Campoy (Flickr)

Possibility, for Russia,  was unchained in 1917 when Lenin and the Bolshevik Party tossed out the Tsar and replaced him with a Constituent Assembly. Universal suffrage, collective utopia, an end to the bourgeoisie and imperialism; these were to be the fruits of the Revolution.

Let’s eliminate the bias then and listen to these four enlightened minds. Solzhenitsyn, Eisenstein, Shostakovich and Tarkovsky; all of them Russian, all lived under Stalin.

And what do you know? They weren’t his biggest fans.

Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago sitting triumphantly atop a crumpled Bolshevik cap- Photo Credit Con Fay

1- The Gulag Archipelago -Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

2017 marks a double anniversary, 100 years of Revolution and 50 years of the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn’s bilious kick against the Stalin’s prison system; a prison system matched in barbarity by the Nazi death camps alone and matched in scale by none.  8 years were taken from Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag, 8 years which consolidated the immovable notion at the spine of his book, the Soviet state was nothing more than a troika hitched to evil run amok, and he must derail it.

He appeals only to the logic and humanity of the reader, all over beliefs, ideals, institutions are bunk; they failed him and his millions of comrades wrongly imprisoned by the Party organs of Stalin’s Russia.

Solzhenitsyn after a few years in the Gulag- Photo Credit Sharon Mollerus (Flickr)

Between the 31 point list of torture methods used on prisoners, the callous nonchalance of Party officials, the tooth numbing cold of Siberia and the infinity of the prison walls there is a bubbling well of hope. Indeed the most powerful and soul shaking moments of the Gulag Archipelago are those of the tenderness which he and his brothers-in-chains shared betwixt the beatings and hurts.

That humanity of Solzhenitsyn, fuelled by his genius grasp of logic prevails. He outlives the prison and the state, Beria, Yezhov and Stalin— all the crooks who meticulously crafted the system which for eight years beat him to a pulp.

He outlives them, and he destroys them. Solzhenitsyn was exiled after publishing the book, but the damage was done. In pounding prose that constantly brims with imagination he exposed the horrors of the USSR which were locked deep in the Party vaults. Behold now the carcass of Soviet Russia, protruding from the nape is a crude blade, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s blade.

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2- Ivan the Terrible dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein has a filmography littered with masterpieces, almost to the point where the term ‘masterpiece’ becomes a reundancy. Almost.

Ivan the Terrible is THE masterpiece, the king of kings.

In terms of craft and sophistication, Ivan the Terrible hits all the boxes that Alexander Nevsky did, that Battleship Potemkin did. The montages are meticulously designed, the character of Ivan is as subtle as they come and the entertainment value is off the charts.

Few films from the 30s and 40s excite a modern viewer. Eisenstein must be suspended in time because his depiction of Ivan’s descent into madness at the death of his wife is absolutely fascinating, a disturbing mix of the poignant and the bizarre.

But what separates this flick? It’s balls.

Ivan the Terrible so viciously mugs off Josef Stalin at every opportunity. Ivan’s character mimics all the worst traits of that rotten dictator, Stalin. Chiefly, his attitude towards evil.

Ivan did build St. Basil’s, his saving grace- Photo Credit Jorge Láscar (Flickr)

Eisenstein’s Ivan and in effect, Stalin opted for the narrow path of evil but they justify it to themselves by deciding that a true hero will engage in atrocity for his country.

Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler thought the same thing. A beautiful thing about Eisenstein’s attack on Stalin was that it went unnoticed. Stalin actually called Eisenstein in and they had a chat about the film. Stalin was too dense to see that Ivan the Terrible was a direct attack on Stalin.

The subtleties were lost on him. Lucky you, Eisenstein.

Dmitri Shostakovich- Photo Credit Royal Opera House Covent Garden (Flickr)

3- Symphony no. 7 “Leningrad” by Dmitri Shostakovich

It was written in solidarity for the Russian defenders of Leningrad during World War II, a lumbering beast of a symphony that would help drive the Nazis back to Berlin. That role which Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony played in Leningrad’s defence is of course exaggerated.

All the same, listening to the Allegreto you can’t help but picture the emaciated Russians with battered bodies, casting Nazi blood against the dirty snow. It’s a rousing, violent piece of music.

Yet, now that the horrors of the Soviet regime under Josef Stalin are well-established, along with the composer’s difficult relationship with Papa Joe, you begin to see that it was not just the Nazi’s who Shostakovich was aiming at.

No, it was Bolshevism itself and the whole conception of Soviet Russia. Listen there to the famous march in the first movement, it starts at 06:30 in the Soundcloud link just above; it is the roots of Marxism. A beautiful, simple melody repeats over and over and then resolves smoothly. With each repetition it grows stronger, and that resolve is all the more satisfying.

Before long, you’re hooked and by then you can’t escape the perversion. A lurking wail distorts this once melody, the resolve offers no solitude, you are knowingly dragged into pandemonium.

It plays out just like the Revolution….

These Bolsheviks have lofty notions, I can get behind these men…

Lenin speaks harsh truths of the bastard bourgeoisie, the class must be destroyed and we are the ones to do it..

Revolution! Rally now, comrades..

Yes these men must die, but they are a tumour on the Fatherland..

Stalin is the man chosen by the Party, we must trust the Party and therefore we must trust Stalin, but I too have my doubts comrade…

My crude depiction there of a Bolshevik who passed through the Revolution probably ended up with a bullet through the back of his head, maybe his family did too at the very least they got ten years in the Gulag.

Imagine his sorrow, his epiphany that at the root of Revolution was vility.

Now listen again to that first movement of the 7th Symphony, it’s almost like a picture book.

4. The Mirror dir. Andrei Tarkovsky

Director Andrei Tarkovsky was always going to have a more nuanced view of the Soviet years than most. Tarkovsky is one of scores of artists whose express aim is originality, and one of so few who manage to consistently deliver.

His 1975 film, The Mirror is the most avant-garde bit of business on this here list. That might scare some of you off, I’d tend to run to the hills if I heard it but luckily enough I gave it a watch. Every scene is fascinating. The most articulate of articulators would have a hard time identifying one singular ‘point’ to the film but it’s a mistake to watch The Mirror in that mindset.

Pick an angle, any angle and keep it in mind while watching. The odds are that the film can provide  at least some insight or commentary on the angle. Considering the nature of this article, I chose the Revolution.

And a fruitful angle it turned out to be. What I gathered from the Tarkovsky film had to do with authority and its witness, us. Directly from the outset we are fed scenes in which authority over the individual is almost magically consolidated.

It is dark magic, a lot darker than a bloody horcrux. Tarkovsky develops these scenes remarkably, in one of them we see a young man with a painful stutter, an older woman manipulates him and begins to literally control his movements. He succumbs, she promises him his voice, but all he manages to say is exactly what she tells him too.

This rather heartbreaking piece of film sees a desperate individual fooled by false gains, the prize for the young man’s subordination is legible speech, but he has no control over what is said, his new overseer gains authority. She owns him.

Beautiful display, rotten history- Photo Credit Amy Thibodeau (Flickr)

The parallels with the Revolution are uncanny. With guile, cunning and just enough forward momentum our pal Stalin managed to hex the Russian people. They fell for his wiles, the apparent benefits were a smokescreen and blinded by it the iron shackles were wrapped around their arms, and the whips began to crack at their back.

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Conor Fay