by Alexander Gershkovich
The more an artist is worried by the problem of how his picture will be perceived by the public, what the critics will say, how the “authorities” will look on it, the greater the danger that the artist will deviate from the truth, and from his original conception, and the further he will be from the search for truth in art and from the sensitive questions of his time. And, as a result, the less will be the social impact of his film.
And vice versa. If an artist is guided by his inner convictions, by the interests of art itself—if, in the process of creation, he does not look back and worry about taking risks, does not deviate from his principles, does not think about what sort of impression he is making—everything within him will be in harmony, the moment of enlightenment or inspiration will come, and with it success.
Before his departure for the West, in the workers’ auditorium of a Moscow factory, where the screening and discussion of Mirror was held, Andrei Tarkovsky was asked angrily: “For whom did you make this film?” The director answered sharply: “For myself. And for my friends.”1 The audience was indignant. People thought that they had caught the artist red-handed. It did not occur to them that the courageous director had revealed the secret of how real art is created and had hinted at how it should be viewed.
The utilitarian approach to art has a long tradition in Russia. According to it, art is only a secondary means in the struggle of ideas, especially in a country which lacks democratic freedoms.
The heightened social function of Russian art, which can be explained completely by historical circumstances, often deprives the artist of his immediate goal—the service of art itself. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov spoke out against utilitarianism in their time,2 but their efforts were in vain. Under Soviet conditions, the official function of art has grown to unhealthy dimensions, and has taken the form of an official canon. One does not have to go very far for examples. At the most recent Congress of the Union of Writers of the RSFSR in December 1985, the Union’s permanent secretary, the poet Sergei Mikhalkov, even entitled his summary report “The task of the Party is the task of literature”, as though literature and art did not have their own tasks and concerns separate from those of the single political party in the country.3 Just as in earlier times, the thought that art is only an illustration of political schemes and slogans is hammered into the social consciousness. Under these conditions, it is incomparably more difficult for an honest Soviet artist to struggle through to the truth than it is for the Western artist to do so, even though the West has its own set of problems.
The two films that I propose to analyze and compare, Evgenii Yevtushenko’s Kindergarten and Rolan Bykov’s Scarecrow, give us ample material for this sort of reflection. They were made by artists of the same generation; at the same time; at the same studio; appeared on the screen practically simultaneously, in 1984; strictly speaking, they elaborate on the same theme: difficult childhoods. Both films aroused wide public responses. None the less they differ sharply, in some crucial senses even contradicting one another.
One cannot blame everything here on the “censor”. After all, both films were made in identical ideological conditions, within the bounds of the same system. Why, then, is it that in the case of Scarecrow even Bykov’s opponents could not deny the truth of his portrayal of life, while in Yevtushenko’s Kindergarten half-truths, sublimated, ennobled and prettified lies wink knowingly at us from the screen throughout the entire narrative?
Yevtushenko himself has called his film “my Amarcord“, referring to Fellini’s famous film.4 The Italian director had attempted to look at his own childhood through the eyes of a child, one for whom many of life’s correlations were incomprehensible, especially in the sphere of politics. Nowhere does the author impose on his boy hero general conclusions, observations or impressions which would be unnatural to his age. Fellini’s film is transparent, naively wise, understated, and free of all didacticism.
In Yevtushenko’s film the world is viewed by a boy named Zhenia, one who bears a remarkable resemblance to today’s ideologized smoothed-over-by-life Yevtushenko. The hero of the film is in a sense an unnatural combination of grandson and grandfather. He behaves like a grandson, but thinks, observes and generalizes like a true grandfather. The subject of the film is simple; it can be encountered repeatedly in the works of the talented poet in other, purer forms (for instance, in the narrative poem Winter Station). In the difficult year of 1941 the boy Zhenia is evacuated, together with his violin, to his grandmother’s home in a remote Siberian village. His adventures and observations on the way are the subject-matter of the film. There are beautiful poetic sequences: the send-off of the soldiers from the village to the front, a village wedding, a Russina bathhouse. But this is also seen through the eyes of the adult author, rather than through those of the young hero. The naked Russian beauty running from the bathhouse into the snow is scrutinized minutely by the camera with the eyes of an experienced appraiser.
Yevtushenko’s film is made in accordance with a typical Soviet canon: at the end of the picture his hero, as good and soft as clay, turns into a conscientious patriot and goes off to the front to the music of a gypsy tambourine. The film’s beginning is also quite absurd. Through Red Square march ranks of Soviet soldiers, carrying aquariums with fish in them in place of submachine- guns. The soldiers are singing the song ”Do the Russians Want War?”, which pertains to an entirely different time. Before our eyes politics is substituted for art, and a second objective of the film is created: a game with the official dogma. The point here is not simply in the total politicization of Soviet life. It is, rather, that in these conditions the particular material called art stops recreating itself and engenders the hybrids of pseudo-art. The author wanted to please both the audience and the authorities, to create a certain second reality that would have reconciled truth with falsehood, official dogma with the sense of the beautiful that lives in the consciousness of people. Art will not tolerate this duality, and we do not believe that the boy Zhenia is marching across Red Square with a herd of well-fed cattle in the autumn of 1941, for to drive cattle through an enormous city is madness. We do not believe that he is so stupid as to release pet fish into the ice- cold Moscow river, do not believe that in the crowded station his attention would be drawn to the figure of an elderly Jew reading the Talmud, do not believe in the abundance of the wartime Siberian market, in the romantic portrayal of the den of thieves, in the bearhunt by women, nor in many other things, including the film’s completely false apotheosis: “Do the Russians Want War?”
In the context that interests us here, Soviet films can be divided conditionally into those that are made with cautious glances backward (at the audience, at the critics, at the ideological demands of the day), and films without that backward glance. The latter are in the evident minority and have appeared only in the post-Stalin period, probably beginning with S. Romm’s Ordinary Fascism andM. Kutsiev’sMm Twenty, a film that was denounced by Khrushchev.
Rolan Bykov’s Scarecrow belongs to the rare number of the latter type. The film is totally unique in the history of the Soviet cinema. It is impossible to find a grain of falsehood in a single sequence, not because the director has cleverly camouflaged or hidden it, but because it is simply absent. An artist does not deal in conscience, either wholesale or retail. He stubbornly holds out for the right to create by his own laws. And achieves it. From this point of view one seeminly transitional episode has great significance. After the terrible occurrence that shocks the school, the children are returning to class. By the entrance they are greeted by the woman principal, who is shown in a particularly foreshortened close-up. She dispenses sugary smiles and, like a parrot, repeats the words “Good morning, good morning”. The gap between what we have witnessed and this official display, personified by the wax-like lifeless figure, is shocking and becomes a symbol of ambiguity. The film authorities demanded that this episode be cut, and delayed release of the film, but the director held his own and prevailed.
Bykov’s film is modest in its expressive resources, in some ways even timid. The action remains within the boundaries of the old Russian town, with its deserted church, cobblestone road, dilapidated houses, and ravines. It is a film about a 12- or 13-year- old girl, who was the only one in town that could not and did not want to lie. Because of this, she is burned at the stake by her peers like a little Joan of Arc. Of course she was not burned physically—after all, we are living on the threshold of the twenty-first century—but she was burned in effigy. That they burned her only symbolically does not change anything. Boys and girls in red Pioneer kerchiefs, brought up on falsehood, burned Truth at the stake for the sole reason that it was not the way they wanted to see it!
They are led by a little girl with piercing eyes. The children call her “Iron Button”. She is a born leader, having mastered early the demogaguery of adults: “The collective is always right!” she proclaims.
Bykov’s film, to a considerable extent, is a victory of the director over himself, over the disintegrating idea of the social hero. He stubbornly searched for an appropriate protagonist. When he was introduced to the 11-year-old Kristina Orbakaite, he turned her down decisively, putting three thick minuses next to her name. He was searching for an open, pretty, naive being, similar to the charming little girl with the neatly pressed Pioneer tie who had recently travelled to the United States and had won the hearts of many Americans with her easy sociability and by the fact that nothing in America surprised her except McDonald’s. On television she had given spirited advice to Americans about how they should fight for peace. Kristina, on the other hand, was awkward, reserved, uncommunicative. The director was looking for a soft, pliable, unformed character. Kristina had stubbornness, inner strength. She did not want to change herself, did not want to experiment to the tune of someone else’s promptings. Summing up his quest for the character, Bykov wrote:
I searched at length for a little girl with naive eyes, but they happened to be a rare commodity and came in two varieties: one was naivete tending toward underdevelopment, the other was five minutes of conversation with “naive eyes” and you would realize that you have been twisted ten times around her finger without a peep from you. I was stunned! Naivete has become only a disease or a pretence. … I made what was practically a psychological discovery: in our time purity and naivete possess different “facial characteristics”.5
At that point the director remembered the three minuses he had given to Kristina. One might say that Bykov did not find Kristina but, rather, reached her through much suffering. It did not even have anything to do with talent, although without a doubt she was talented; it had to do with the fact that he discovered a new type of protagonist, one with a new guiding principle—hidden courage and open goodness. The conflict which she would have to act out demanded inner strength and moral wholeness. One does not often meet with these qualities in today’s world, and even less so in societies where “the collective is always right”. Kristina Orbakaite taught many people a lesson.
The ending of the film is very important. Outwardly it would seem that it was made according to the Soviet canon: Truth triumphs, evil is punished. The children and their teacher acknowledge the small feat of Lena Bessol’steva, who was incapable of lying, and accept her back into their midst. But the “happy ending” is illusory. Under the hand of Bykov it acquires a special dramatic tension. The girl leaves her home town. The truth for which she had suffered forces her to break with her surroundings. Nothing unites them any more: “I was on the bonfire,” says the film’s heroine, explaining her isolation from the other teenagers.
In the closing scene the camera shows us the cheerless shore of a Russian river, the deck of an old vessel, and Lena with her grandfather, played with striking warmth by the wonderful Russian actor Iurii Nikulin, a famous clown in the Soviet circus. They sadly leave their native places. They leave victorious and at the same time defeated—after all, everything in the town where their lives as well as the lives of their ancestors had passed stays the same.
And once again, as in the beginning of the film, the military band of boys with crew-cuts in stem uniforms begins to play. The band is conducted by a plain man with sad eyes. His part is played by the author of the picture.
What was the public response to the appearance on the Soviet screen of these two films? Yevtushenko’s showy work passed without leaving a mark, in the manner of the usual falsification. The critics (Iu. Nagibin, R. Iurenev) rightly judged it a creative failure of the poet-director.6 Bykov’s modest film, on the contrary, aroused a veritable social storm, the likes of which Soviet cinema had not seen in a long time. Popular opinion was divided. Cinema fans—of whom there are millions in the Soviet Union—split into two opposing camps. The arguments were really not about the film itself, but about the attitude toward truth in art.
Out of thousands of letters which the director Rolan Bykov received after the appearance of Scarecrow, forty-nine, as he himself admitted, took him to task not because he “lied”, but because he had shown the truth. I quote:
Mosfilm. To Roland Bykov. You are not capable of making a film; you would do better not even to try. For Scarecrow you should be put behind bars. . . . What are you teaching children? How is it possible in our time, under our Soviet government, to show juvenile delinquents unpunished and after that to keep wearing the Pioneers red scarf as if nothing had happened? And what do you and your conductor’s baton have to do with anything? From T. T. Bykova of Stavropol.
Another letter came from ten residents of Odessa, who gave no return address:
We saw the film Scarecrow. First of all, we got a headache, and secondly, who was it that made this film? Do we know who? How could it have been released? If, God forbid, it should end up overseas they will say, “There you see a Soviet school, what they teach and where the teachers are. Just think, they drove a little girl to the point that she decided to jump into a bonfire.” So remove that film from the screen and don’t release any more like it.7
In Soviet art of recent times it is customary to blame all of the sins of the artist on the censor. But the strange thing is that Yevtushenko and Bykov have worked in identical conditions, in the same historical period, and virtually on the same theme. Both these two artists differ in talent and world-view, and therefore the final products and their impact are different. Their films were reviewed by the same agencies, and the demands they had to meet were seemingly identical—why, then, is it that hypocrisy and lies emerge from the hands of some, while disturbing truths are produced by the others?
Obviously, it is not a matter of external circumstances alone; rather, of the inner world of the artists, of their capability to free themselves from self-censorship. Elem Klimov, the head of the Filmmakers Union at the dawning of the era of glasnost, formulated the new artists’ credo: “It is time to be brave!”8
1. For more detail, see “Proshchan’e s zonoi”, Novoe Russkoe Slovo, 13 November 1984, p. 5.
2. M. Dostoevskii spoke against the utilitarianism of the “dealers in art” in the argument with the followers of Chernyshevskii’s aesthetic in his Diary of a Writer (1873).
3. For more detail, see Alexander Gershkovich, “S’ezd ofitsial’nykh pisatelei”, Novoe Russkoe Slovo, 25 January 1986, p. 5, also “Dve literatury v odnoi strane”, Russkaia MysV (Paris), 18 April 1986, p. 6.
4. See the interesting article by Nancy P. Condee and Vladimir Padunov, “Children at war”, Framework, 30-1 (1986). 1 must state, however, that 1 cannot agree with the thesis of one of the authors of this article, Vladimir Padunov, that the heroine of the film Scarecrow, by taking on the guilt of others, also commits a false action. It is precisely this conscious action by Lena Bessol’ntseva for the sake of truth which in my opinion transforms her into a tragic figure.
5. Rolan Bykov, “Do i posle Chuchelo”, lunost’, 9 (1985), p. 91.
6. See, for example, the article by R. Iurenev, “Neudacha”, Sovetskii ekran, 19(1984), pp. 8-9.
7. I quote from Bykov, “Do i posle Chuchelo”, pp. 86 ff.
8. “Kino ne mozhet zhdat’ “, Pravda, 9 August 1986.
The Red screen : politics, society, art in Soviet cinema, edited by Anna Lawton. New York : Routledge, 1992.