Russian Portrayal in Film

Last semester a friend of mine in my dorm, having heard that I planned to be a Russian major, recommended a movie to me that he thought I would find enjoyable. The movie’s name was Eastern Promises and I decided to go and check it out. Upon watching the movie I noticed two things in particular; one, the Russian in the movie was absolutely atrocious, and two, this movie continued the stereotype that all Russians are gangsters and alcoholics. Having seen this I decided to continue to watch some more American made movies in order to see how Russians are usually portrayed and how this portrayal has changed since the Cold War.

One iconic movie that I viewed was the original Red Dawn, made in 1984 during the Cold War. This movie was about the Soviets invading the US and followed a gang of teenagers who attempted to repel the Russians from their town. Throughout the movie the Soviets are portrayed as this huge evil force that needs to be destroyed. This goes along with the Cold War theme of “better dead than Red” however it still perpetuates the stereotype of Russians being negative.

Moving into the modern era of film, I chose to review The Avengers. While the Russian theme in this movie is not quite as obvious, I think it still resonates through its viewers. One of the characters know as the Black Widow, was originally a Russian agent who defected to the United States. A master assassin, she is displayed as showing little empathy and a low moral standard, even saying at one point “regimes fall every day, I tend not to weep over that…I’m Russian”.

While these are only three examples of many, I think they definitely show what the American definition of a “typical” Russian is generally perceive to be. I think that this media and film coverage of Russians has helped to create a lack of knowledge about Russian culture and people which will continue to cause negative relations between the US and Russians. As with all other cultures, American media needs to be careful in how it portrays the Russian people as it has a huge effect on peoples opinions of other culutres.

Nicholas and Alexandra

When I came home for spring break, my mom welcomed me with a good dinner, homemade brownies, and a copy of the 1971 Oscar-winning film Nicholas and Alexandra. Based on Robert K. Massie’s book of the same name, this film chronicles the story of the last Tsar and his family from the birth of their son Alexi until their execution in 1918. My mom said the book and the movie were among her favorites when she was a kid, and she has an interest in Russian history that she has been satisfying by living vicariously through me over the course of the semester.

We watched the film together later during my break, and I was struck by how the filmmakers managed to provoke sympathy for both the royal family and the peasants, revolutionaries, and soldiers who wanted to see their downfall. Though there were scenes revolving around the Russian masses and their hardships, the film did focus (as the name suggests) on the dynamics within the royal family and their closest advisors and friends. In our study of the last days of the dynasty, the tsar seemed to be an inefficient and irritating institution that did nothing to advance social progress. This view was confirmed in the film – Nicholas was clearly a lousy military commander, and generally unfit for the responsibility that fell to him. However, the film represented a human component of the tsar that I think is easy to overlook in a sweeping view of Russian history. Nicholas came into power based solely on his birth, and did not seem to relish or enjoy his responsibilities. One could place blame on the institution of the dynasty and the passage of power from generation to generation rather than Nicholas’s innate shortcomings. Looking at reviews from when the film was first released, it seems that viewers were disappointed that the film focused on the people with, as Roger Ebert put it, the “least interesting perspective” on the revolution. While the film did touch upon revolutionary activity, and that activity would have made a fascinating film in itself, I think that the choice to tell the story of the royal family reminds viewers (both those seeking entertainment and history) that the royal family has a human component that shouldn’t be overlooked.

I’d recommend this film to anyone with a few hours to kill and a desire to see the Romanovs brought to life. If you need further enticing, there’s also a scene with an opium-smoking Rasputin and a cross-dressing orchestra member, but that’s another story for another day.

the myth of the big, happy Soviet family

As Claire said, I’ve fallen behind on blogging and will be playing some catch-up into the weekend. In today’s lecture on the soviet penal system, I was thinking about how the relationship between the state and the citizenry has an effect on the relationships between citizens. In the case of the penal system, the state instilled fear in its citizens with the constant threat of unexpected (and often, unwarranted) imprisonment and punishment. The resulting lack of trust between the citizens led to a widespread atomization, not the “big happy family” mentality that one would see in works of socialist realist art (or in films such as Circus). During the lecture, I thought at first that this seemed counter-intuitive to communist ideology: in a communist state, isn’t cooperation between the citizens an issue of utmost importance, one that helps the state function as a whole? Why would the state implement policies that would turn citizens against one another?

I think the answer to this question is yes, cooperation and solidarity between citizens is a crucial component of a functioning communist state. However, that is not to say that it was a crucial component of Stalin’s incarnation of a communist state. In Soviet Russia, power came not from the people, but from the decision and policy makers who were able to control them. The citizens had no autonomy or opportunities for expression within the regime, and the hegemony of the leaders was the issue of utmost importance. Soviet Russia isn’t the only historical example of communist and utopian experimentation gone awry – another example that was manifesting at roughly the same time was communist China. However, whereas the Chinese system was fraught with inefficiencies that resulted in disasters such as the 1954 famine that killed millions, Soviet policies seem to me to be more deliberate, brutal, and calculated in their intent to control their population. As the semester goes on, I’ll be interested to see how the Soviets came to terms with their history and the tragedies of the Stalin period.

Gulag Theatre

After our joint class today, I found myself reflecting on the notion of “re-education.” As a theatre major, I find it extremely that a large portion of the “academic” (for lack of a better word) structure in the camps was theatrical. For example, the prisoners would put on plays that they themselves wrote, always of course within the constraints of soviet political ideology.

In my own life experiences, theatre has been a means by which I access my education but not necessarily what I would consider to be my education in full form. I would imagine that these plays were opportunities for enormous emotional and psychological relief from the grueling lifestyle in these camps. However, it also appears to me that allowing (forcing?) prisoners to act out plays is ultimately the purest form of mental and political influence. Not only are you in prison for rejecting ideals, but you must now immerse yourself as completely in these political notions as possible. In short, you become the very thing you have been imprisoned for fighting against. I associate theatre with open mindedness and human progress, but I doubt that I would feel the same way if I learned about the deeper details concerning “Gulag theatre.”

“You are in jail for rejecting our ideals. Therefore, you have to understand them well enough to write about them, then organize them, then become them publicly.”



Darton and Kivelson

Since I had misread the assignment for a couple weeks ago, I’d thought I’d re-publish my old thoughts. “Darnton does a wonderful job of getting into the mindset of these apprentices and attempting to create reasoning for their actions. By building and explaining the mindset of the worker in eighteenth-century France, Darnton is able to relate their actions to actions that the reader currently partakes in such as Marti Gras and the craziness that currently occurs. By adding an explanation as to the cruelty towards animals, Darnton is not able to justify the actions rather, he is able to explain their reasoning. One thing I did not feel Darnton did well was his use of organization within the chapter. As a reader, I did not see where he was going and it felt like he jumped around a little bit, albeit with transitions. With his choice of the introduction, it felt as if the chapter was going to be on cats and their “role” in eighteenth-century France.”

As for Kivelson, she does a good job with setting up her research methodology and thesis in a way the reader can understand what she is adding to the subject, so that those who wish to add on her to her work, know what was already tapped into. The comparison to other cultures is nice because it adds context to her work, which we as historians should always try and do. This helps connect our material to the reader so that they come away with a better understanding of the subject we are trying to convey. Finally, her use of quotes and literary style make this quite a readable piece. Unlike some historians, Kievelson does an excellent job of writing to “entertain” and inform the reader.

Cat Massacre and Witchcraft

Both the “The Great Cat Massacre” and “Through the Prism of Witchcraft” deal with the issue of witchcraft during the seventeenth and eighteenth century and the underlying causes, problems, and social issues within the societies where accusations were common. These articles both work to disprove the commonly held beliefs that witchcraft accusations were primarily made against women and that the massacre of cats in France was solely due to a revolt against the social hierarchy.

The article “Through the Prism of Witchcraft” by Valerie Kivelson describes the variety of reasons behind the rise in witchcraft accusations, as well as working to prove approaches towards witchcraft were not uniform throughout all the affected countries. Kivelson frames the variety of experiences in witchcraft through 17th century Muscovy, which at the time had been experiencing a gradual enserfment of it’s population due to the Ulozehnie of 1649 and a rise in the power of both the State and Church. Kivelson acknowledges while socially marginalized people were accused and executed for witchcraft, social marginalization alone can not be considered to be the sole reason. At this time the Orthodox Church was increasing it’s power and was also striving to eliminate paganism as its competition, while the state introduced laws banning any sort of witchcraft with a punishment of a fine, corporal punishment, or execution. Both of these organizations were looking to consolidate and increase their power over the population, and would attempt to legitimize their judicial systems through the prosecution of witchcraft. Finally accusations made against possible “witches” were not solely motivated by social marginalization, but also by local conflicts and personal grudges.

On a similar theme of witchcraft “The Great Cat Massacre” by Robert Darnton works to place cat-killing in it’s cultural and historical context through examining the 18th century autobiography of a printer journeyman named Nicolas Contat. In his autobiography Contat describes the killing of cats as a revolt against his master and mistress but also as a larger form of revolt against the bourgeoisie class. The journeymen kill the mistress’ cat, “la grise”, symbolically assaulting her and implicating her as a witch. Darnton details the connection of cats with their owner’s power, and the subsequent loss in power or health if the cat was maimed or killed. Cats were also believed to be a manifestation of the devil, and through maiming or killing the cat, both the Devil and the witch who took care of the cat were hurt. The massacre of the cats was also intended to challenge the authority of the master and the bourgeoisie class as a whole. At this time in France the journeyman’s occupation was undermined by both cheaper labor and the consolidation of small shops into larger organizations. Therefore Darnton concludes that while this revolt may have been partially in response to personal issues with the master and mistress, as well as the social hierarchy, it was also due to increasing economic pressures and the declining specialization of their trade.  Finally Darnton places cat massacres within a larger context in that they were not French events, and had occurred throughout the European continent in places such as Germany where cat massacres were known as Katzenmusik.

Cat massacres and witch trials: reading between the lines

After reading Darton’s “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Severin”and Kilvelson’s “Through the Prism of Witchcraft: Gender and Social Change in Seventeenth-Century Muscovy,” I was struck by the common thread between the two: that the phenomena they examine are not taken at face value, but are rather viewed as expressions of social angst.

For the journeymen of the Parisian print shop discussed by Darnton, this angst was directed at their master and his wife. The deterioration of the apprenticeship model mean that their job security and chance at upward mobility were being undermined, both by the shrinking number of higher positions and the influx of cheap laborers, or alloues. Cats, it seems, were merely the easy and culturally appropriate targets of their anger.Thus ritual and revolt were fused in the cat massacre. It’s an event infused with symbolism as well as one that, Darnton hints, might have foreshadowed the French Revolution in some ways.

Similarly,  the witchcraft trials in Russia that occurred about a century before also reveal a sort of social unrest. Kivelson shows how both the allegations and the forced confessions of the accusers and the accused reveal their respective motivations. Of the relatively few women accused of witchcraft, it seems that more than one attempted sorcery in order to influence masters or in-laws. The accusers’ reasons are even more indicative: men cried witchcraft when they found their masculinity and authority threatened, whereas women did so to (temporarily) gain more attention and power.

Both pieces clearly show that we shouldn’t regard odd and seemingly irrational events of the past as just weird things that past cultures did. Indeed, through careful investigation and thoughtfulness, historians are able to decipher the symbolism of these events and therefore uncover the logic of past peoples.

Witch Hunt and the Great Cat Massacre

The first article, Throough the Prism of Witchcraft: Gender and Social Change in Seventeenth Centry Muscovy takes the witch hunts and compares them to the witch hunts that happen in the Western world and throughout Europe. Valerie A. Kivelson writes about gender in the witch hunts, and how in Russian society, only thirty two percent of the accused were women. In Western Europe and America, this statistic increased to be eightly percent. A thought is made that ‘are women more likely to be accused because they have marginal positions in society?’. Along with this goes the story of creation, that women are much more easily tempted by the devil becase of their desire for lust. Another idea that is brought up is of the healers throughout the towns. It seemed that an overwhelming number of those accused were some type of spiritutal healer or related to one; as though whoever was doing the accusing, was specifically targeting the healers in the community. 

The Cat Massacre article is related to the first article because of the idea of witch hunting. Torturing cats by ripping off their fur, burning them in bags by the dozen, or chasing a flaming cat down the street seems really intese. It was a common tradition of amusement to torture animals, specifically cats. One example given discusses how one cat was shaved to the skin and then dressed to look like a priest. The cat was then hung in public. In society today, there is a legend that goes along with seeing a black cat — black cats are viewed as unlucky– with superstion all around them. It is stated in the article that ” First and foremosttt, cats suggested witchcraft. To cross one at night in virtually any corner of France was to risk running into the devil or one of his agents or a witch aborad on an evil errand” (92). This idea was accompanied with the idea of Carnival, where the youth were allowed to test boundries and be wild. Many acted out by torturing cats, as described above. The idea of witch craft throughout the world, was spreading quickly. Many thought the only way to get rid of witchcraft was through the extermination of anyone thought to be a wizard or a witch.

Russian Orthodox Activists Protest Evolution Theory

I’ve gotten a little behind on blogging (sorry Qualls!) but not for lack of interest. If anything, this course is getting increasingly interesting for me, I’m going to be pretty upset when its over and done with… typical nerd problems.

For my first “catch up” blog posting, I wanted to talk about the article that was sent out last week about Russian Orthodox activists and their protest at a museum. The article, written by Gabriela Baczynska, talks about how religious activists associated with the Russian Orthodox Church put up banners and leaflets that were against the evolution theory at a museum named for Charles Darwin. The author noted that the movement, while peaceful, was surprising in how bold it was.

However, I wonder how much of an actual movement this protest represents. Yes, this was a grand gesture of the church’s negative opinion regarding secular traditions, but is this the sentiment of a majority of Russian Orthodox Christians within Russia? Or is this merely a small faction of the faith creating a publicity stunt? Through further research, I found a quote from an interview of Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin about the protest. Chaplin refused to condem the activists, saying that “…it was a little more agressive than it needed to be.” Granted, the original article also states that “About two-thirds of Russians consider themselves Russian Orthodox and the church has gained influece since the 1991 collapes of the Soviet Union…”

What can one draw from the vague phrase “gained influence”? What does that actually entail? And with the statistic of two-thirds calling themselves Russian Orthodox, does that mean every person included in the study is as devout as those who staged this protest? How does one measure devoutness in religion? It isn’t a black and white study, there are too many gray areas to consider when discussing religion.

That’s why I don’t put too much faith in statistics such as these, because there are so many aspects of studies not factored in; it is too general of a topic. All these are questions that I hope to answer with my research paper on Russian Orthodoxy in the Soviet Union. Reading articles such as this make me want to pursue the topic further, and try and gain some answers. One fact can definitely be drawn from this event however; that conditions between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government are far from ideal, and tension between the two groups is fairly noticeable.


Justifying Types of Government

In Stalin’s post-war speech, we saw how he used Soviet success in WWII to prove the superiority of the Soviet system. He argues that, despite the initial assertions of foreign governments and journalists, the Soviet Union is stronger and vastly superior to capitalist nations. It is hardly surprising that Stalin would use the opportunity of Soviet success and sacrifice in the battlefield to reassert the legitimacy of the Soviet government.

In my recent readings for my American Foreign Policy class, I noted that the U.S. also used its success in WWII to justify its own way of running the state. Both in the years leading up to and during WWII, FDR faced pressure from those both within and outside of his administration to take more authoritative control of the country. During the War, however, he rejected the notion that centrally controlled economies were more efficient than laissez-faire economies, which had been a popular belief during the Depression. Instead, he was careful to avoid excessive economic centralization. When Pendleton Herring was put in charge of writing the administrative history of the War, he concluded that the avoidance of any sense of autocratic rule might have made coordinating actions and policies more difficult, it nonetheless led to more than satisfactory results.

When Stalin gave his speech, it seems doubtful it was intended to convince foreign powers that Communism was more effective.  The speech was more intended to simply bolster the spirits of the Soviet people.