A Soviet “New Wave&rdquo ?
The prodigious achievements of 19th-century Russian literature were all made in the shadow of the Czarist censor—and were freighted with incomparably greater meaning precisely because press censorship made fictional stories the only vehicle for expressing certain social and political ideas. We are now being told that, in the shadow of the Soviet censor, Russia has recently been producing nothing less than a Soviet “New Wave” in the cinema, the most conspicuous examples of which to have reached our shores are Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, which won the latest U.S. Academy Award for the best foreign-language movie of the year (over works by François Truffaut and Akira Kurosawa), and Oblomov, a screen version of the celebrated Russian novel by Ivan Goncharov, a film that has received more serious attention here than any Russian film in a long time.
In the Soviet canon, of course, the state, at any given moment, is perfect, and, since in accordance with Communist doctrine the party penetrates and controls all other institutions in society, all these other institutions must be perfect as well. Faced with the inflexible requirement of presenting the state and its integral economic and social systems as unflawed perfection, the author of a modern Soviet film or novel dealing with contemporary life has little left open to him but to exhort the individual to live up to all this perfection he sees spread out about him. Only someone who has seen dozens upon dozens of conventional, “serious” Soviet movies, or read dozens of their literary counterparts, can know the bottomless, dismal depths to which such grim, hypocritical strictures can reduce artistic talent. Soviet cultural authorities have been concerned for decades with the obvious difficulty their system has in producing quality works of fiction, and the most prevalent theory has been that it is an unfortunate byproduct of achieving a “classless” society, which eliminates fundamental antagonisms—their system, in a sense, being perhaps too perfect. I have heard less of this theory in recent years, and, perhaps accidentally, not a word of it since the start of the troubles in Poland.
Some exceptions to the Soviet rule, however, are notable. A handful of survivors of the artistically liberal days of the 20′s were allowed to continue, the most conspicuous example being Sergei Eisenstein, who made two unquestioned masterpieces, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, even under High Stalinism (although the release of Part II of Ivan was delayed fifteen years until after Stalin’s death). A minor but curious exception has been the regionalist cinema allowed to develop in Stalin’s native Georgia, almost as if it were beyond the territorial frontiers of the Soviet Union. This cinema is droll, ironic, personal, non-didactic, something like early Milos Forman and very early Fellini. The only explanation I can offer for its existence is that Great Russians are for some mysterious reason entertained by culturally autonomous Georgians, whom they tend to view as a nation of scalawags and black marketeers. Proud monuments to Stalin were allowed to remain standing in Georgia while de-Stalinization was at its height. “We call them ‘blacks,’” a Soviet official once told me cheerfully in Leningrad.
But the most significant exception to the depressing level of most Soviet cinema has been Russian screen adaptations of the “classics.” The Russians have done magnificent productions of Othello, Hamlet, King Lear, Don Quixote, and of course their own classics, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov (The Lady With the Dog, The Grasshopper, Uncle Vanya), Andreyev, Gorky. Oblomov is not only the most recent, but also one of the most interesting of these screen adaptations—in my view the most remarkable film to have come out of Russia in some years.
The Soviet attitude toward adapting an acknowledged masterpiece of literature offers an ironic contrast to Hollywood, where the received wisdom is that a great novel or play not only offers no guarantee of translating into a great movie, but almost constitutes a liability, hanging like an albatross around the neck of the poor film-maker. At Mosfilm and Len-film the perception could not be more different. On the one hand the director has for material modern, state-inspired drivel, on the other a classic, safety, security. Those who do not know the Soviet Union often do not realize the almost Victorian respect that the regime—its barbarities notwithstanding—pays to genteel culture. A Soviet censor will rewrite history, but he will not rewrite Tolstoy. It is a Soviet idiosyncracy.
Except for the above categories (old-timers, Georgians, and adaptations of the classics), Soviet films to merit any serious attention at all have been as scarce as Kohinoor-size diamonds, freak works that somehow slipped through the net. I will mention only one, Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, which, made in 1964, played to immense critical acclaim in France in the late 60′s but has not been released commercially in the United States. Set in Bukovina, an isolated Carpathian mountain region split between northern Rumania and the Soviet Ukraine, the film is informed with a deep poetic vision and has something of the mood of 17th-century Scottish border ballads. Using to stunning effect what may be the most evocative folk costumes, architecture, and music in all the Balkans, Ancestors is a tale of “dark and bloody ground,” brooding, fatalistic, with a feeling of inescapable destiny not unlike that of Greek tragedy. A more un-Soviet film would be hard to find. Its author, Sergei Paradjanov, is widely considered in the West to be the greatest film-maker produced by the Soviet Union since the death of Sergei Eisenstein.
Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors had been made in the Ukrainian part of Bukovina, in a Ukrainian mountain dialect called Hutzul. Paradjanov operated out of Kiev. His son went to a Ukrainian school. And when he refused to dub another Ukrainian film into Russian, he found himself arrested on charges of being a Ukrainian nationalist. The situation was not without its oddity in that this defender of Ukrainian culture and language, although he spoke Ukrainian (and of course Russian), was not Ukrainian at all but had been born and brought up in Tbilisi (Tiflis) in Soviet Georgia. And further to complicate matters, although he spoke perfect Georgian, he was of Armenian descent, spoke Armenian also, and appeared to consider himself an Armenian, talking of the “greatness and strength there is in the ancient Armenian nation.” All his new film projects dealt with Armenia. Released by the authorities in Kiev, Paradjanov made in 1969, for Armenfilm, The Color of Pomegranates, an untitled print of which was shown at the most recent New York Film Festival. An expressionistic portrayal of the life of the 18th-century Armenian poet, Sayat Nova, hypnotic and magical in both its palette and imagery, the film was released in the Soviet Union in 1972.
Upon Paradjanov’s return to Kiev, he was arrested again on charges of trafficking in objets d’art. When this count was dismissed, he says the authorities “trumped up a charge of homosexuality against me. They said I raped a member of the party and perverted an old lady of eighty with a pornographic pen.” In January 1974, he was sentenced to five years in the Gulag—“which will be enough to exterminate you,” he was told. He survived, however, and in 1978, just as his sentence was about to be extended for another five years, he was released, thanks to the relentless campaigning of Lili Brik (Mayakovsky’s celebrated mistress, then over ninety) and to help from the dean of French Communist intellectuals, Louis Aragon (Lili Brik’s brother-in-law), who interceded directly with Leonid Brezhnev. Paradjanov has since had film projects approved by Armenfilm, only to be vetoed by political authorities. A year ago a Western member of the Armenian diaspora tracked Paradjanov down in his native Tbilisi and found him living in a small room in a house with no water. As with Solzhenitsyn, life in the Gulag seemed to have had a strangely exhilarating effect on Paradjanov. He called it “the most important time of my life so far,” adding, “all the great films are as nothing compared to prison camp life.” His mind was bursting with ideas for films; he wrote, he drew, but was denied all work of even the humblest sort. At the time of the interview, he survived by gradually selling off all his possessions, his mother’s silver, the paintings on the walls, carpets, pieces of embroidery. Soon all would be gone, he said, and he planned to beg in the streets.
This, I repeat, is the man widely thought to be the greatest Soviet film-maker.
What then of this Soviet “New Wave”?
Oblomov is perhaps the most famous character in all Russian fiction, more famous in Russia than Huckleberry Finn in America or even Hamlet in the English-speaking world. In Russia Oblomov is a household name, a word, a noun. It has entered the Russian language, fathered a historic concept, “Oblomovism,” popularly understood as extreme lassitude and torpor. Russian mothers to this day warn lazy children not to be Oblomovs. For over a century, Russian leaders—including Lenin—have entreated their people to cast off the spell of Oblomovism.
It is an odd fate for Oblomov’s creator, Ivan Goncharov, a lifelong Russian man of letters and civil servant of the Czarist regime. He was to all appearances patriotic, serving as secretary to a Russian admiral during the Crimean war, and, far from having trouble with the Czar’s censors, at one period of his career he actually served as a censor. He later edited an official state newspaper, and his last post before retirement was member of the Russian empire’s press board. Despite his long government service, he was what the Russians called at the time a “Westernizer,” had much in common with Turgenev (whom he accused of plagiarizing his works), and agreed with many of the goals of even the radicals. He favored the abolition of serfdom and the improvement and spread of education, opposed oppression and restrictions on progress. Where he and the radicals parted company Goncharov saw with clarity: “I never passed through a stage of youthful enthusiasm for a utopia animated by the socialist spirit of ideal equality, fraternity, and so forth which stirred other young minds. I had no faith in materialism nor in the conclusions which it pleased people to draw from it as to the apparently beautiful future of mankind.” (In our own age, when it is the arcadian Left which so bitterly opposes materialism and the “consumer society,” it requires a mental effort to recall that in Goncharov’s Russia the state, enveloped in the mysticism of the Eastern Church, was the preeminent custodian of otherworldly and spiritual values, and it was the revolutionaries who were the materialists.) In another novel, The Precipice, Goncharov condemned Nihilism.
So, in the midst of 19th-century Russia, so often torn between mad, Slavophile mystics on the Right and mad, utopian revolutionaries on the Left, we have Goncharov, a reformer, a moderate, a skeptic. To have called forth from the Russian people a fictional character of service to both Lenin and the Czar would suggest, at the very least, a certain detachment of spirit. Goncharov began Oblomov in 1849, left it, strangely, for almost a decade, and published it in 1859. It was immediately hailed as a masterpiece.
The novel opens with Oblomov, a member of the lesser Russian nobility, reclining on a sofa in his comfortable St. Petersburg apartment. In the film version we hear, voice over, some of the novel’s celebrated opening lines: “Lying down was not for Ilya Ilyitch either a necessity as it is for a sick or a sleepy man, or an occasional need as it is for a person who is tired, or a pleasure as it is for a sluggard: it was his natural state.” All day long friends pop by, trying to interest him in the outside world, tempting him to get up and out of the house, to go to interesting places and do exciting things, but, possessed of a kind of terminal indolence, Oblomov is not up to it. He prefers to dream idly of the guileless life of his childhood on his parents’ estate (from which he still derives a handsome income). In those halcyon days
the good people conceived of life as a state of perfect repose and idleness. . . . They had never heard of life being hard, of men being overwhelmed with anxious worries, rushing about from place to place, or devoting themselves to continuous, never-ending labor. . . . They endured work as a punishment laid upon our forefathers, but could not love it and avoided it whenever they could, believing it was possible and right to do so. . . . The way to live had been settled once and for all and taught to them by their parents, who had accepted the teaching ready-made from their grandparents and these in turn from their great-grandparents, with the injunction of keeping it whole and undefiled like Vesta’s fire.
But serious trouble has come to Oblomov. His lease has expired and he must move. He has plenty of time and money to move, of course, but the trouble! The bustle! The to-ing and fro-ing! He can’t bear it. His grumpy manservant, Zahar, has the misfortune to remark, “Well, other people move, why can’t we?” This leads to the emotional climax of the first section of the novel, as of the film. Oblomov is in a rage. “‘Other people!’” he cries:
“Other people” are godforsaken wretches, rough uncultured creatures who live in some attic in dirt and poverty! They can sleep quite comfortably on a mat somewhere in a yard! All that is nothing to them. They guzzle herrings and potatoes. Poverty drives them from pillar to post and they keep on the run all day. They might be ready enough to move to new lodging, I dare say. . . . What are “other people”? They are people who clean their own boots, dress themselves, and though they sometimes look like gentlemen, it’s mere pretense, they have never even had a servant. If they have no one to send on an errand they run themselves! They think nothing of stirring the wood in the stove or of dusting. . . .
“Lots of Germans are like that,” Zahar remarks gloomily. Oblomov snaps back:
Exactly! And I? Do you imagine I am like that? . . . Comparing me to “other people”! Why, do I rush about or work? Do I look thin and wretched? Do I go short on things? I should hope I have someone to wait on me and do things for me. Thank heaven I’ve never in my life put on my stockings myself! And to whom am I saying this? Haven’t you waited on me since I was a child? You have seen that I have been brought up tenderly, have never suffered from cold or hunger or poverty, have never earned my living or done any work. So how could you bring yourself to compare me with other people? . . . Bring me some kvass. . . .
“And here I work and worry night and day,” Oblomov goes on in the injured voice of a man who is not rightly appreciated:
Sometimes I lie awake at night with a burning head and sinking heart, turning from side to side, thinking how I can arrange things for the best. And for whom? Why, for my peasants, and that means you too. I dare say when you see me pull the blanket over my head you think I lie there like a log and sleep. But no, I don’t sleep! I keep thinking hard what I can do so that my peasants should not suffer any privations, or envy others, or complain against me to the Lord God on the Day of Judgment, but should pray for me and remember the good I have done them. Oh, ungrateful men!
Zahar begins to sob and Oblomov is moved also. As he admonishes Zahar, Oblomov becomes deeply convinced, for the moment, of the benefits he has conferred on his peasants and utters his last reproaches in a shaking voice with tears in his eyes.
“Well, now go in peace,” Oblomov says conciliatingly:
Wait, give me some more kvass! My throat is quite parched. You might have thought of it yourself—you must have noticed your master was hoarse. This is what you have brought me to. . . . This is how you watch over your master’s peace of mind. You have thoroughly upset me and made it impossible for me to think of anything new and useful. And who will be the worse for it? Why, yourselves. I have devoted my whole life to my peasants. It’s for your sake I have retired from the service and sit within four walls. . . . Well, I forgive you. There, it is striking three! Only two hours left before dinner. There’s no time to do anything in two hours, and there’s a lot to be done. . . . I think I’ll lie down for a bit; I’m quite worn out. Pull down the curtains and shut me in properly so that I am not disturbed. I may sleep for an hour. Wake me at half-past four. . . .
By the arrival of Stolz, Oblomov’s dearest childhood friend, determined to drag Oblomov out into the world, we are, incredibly, one-third of the way into the novel (rather less into the film) and Oblomov is still lying about in his dressing gown.
Stolz, the son of a German Lutheran father (much is made of this), is everything Oblomov is not. He is handsome, physically strong, highly intelligent, industrious. He does not daydream. He does not brood. He is dynamic, active, self-reliant. He keeps close watch over his emotions, avoiding those that might lead him into imprudence. His attack on life is awesome in its energy. There are few modern societies in which one would not imagine Stolz successful, and his success in St. Petersburg is spectacular. He has risen in the civil service, gone into business, become rich. He is the darling of St. Petersburg. Stolz does not have much of the old Russian “soul,” but what of that? As clearly as Oblomov is the symbol of the old Russia, doomed to disappearance, Stolz is the man of the future. “Lo,” writes Goncharov, “soon will come many Stolzs . . . with Russian names!”
Most of the action of the novel, and the film, is the result of Stolz’s resolute efforts to drag his childhood friend into the outside, modern world of bright social life, business, beautiful women. All ends in failure. Oblomov’s languor is, indeed, terminal.
It is hard for a Westerner to read Oblomov’s dialogue, like the passages I quoted above, as anything but pure parody. The great British comic actor Spike Milligan played Oblomov on the London stage several years ago as a straight comedy. In fact, Milligan found his urge to embellish the absurdities of the character so irrepressible that the management felt obliged to change the billing to: “Spike Milligan in Son of Oblomov.”
But the Russian view is different. It has been said of Goncharov that he set out to write a tract, but that it got away from him. His Oblomov is too appealing. To the Russian mind, at least, there is something seductive about Oblomov. He is a total parasite, of course, and has no useful social function. But he is lovable. He has the innocence of a child. Stolz himself says that there is “gold” in him, that his soul has “the clarity of crystal.” Indeed, if Russians had not felt affection for Oblomov it is not likely he would have maintained such a hold over their imagination for over a century. Never experiencing the religious and social upheavals that formed the Western mind, never knowing puritanism (either Protestant or Catholic), plunged directly from a mystical feudal society into the modern world, Russians, acknowledging obviously that one could no longer live like Oblomov, seemed still to think that it would be nice if one could. When Stolz draws Oblomov into St. Petersburg’s mercantile life, Oblomov can’t see the point of it all. If a man is rich already, what is the point of working so hard merely to become twice as rich? There is a feeling that Oblomov is “too good for this world.” Even the Bolsheviks, thundering against Oblomov, almost forgot that he was a parasite and exploiter of other men’s labor and fulminated mostly against his quietism. It was not out of such men that one built a Soviet state.
Somewhat astonishingly, Nikita Mikhalkov, director and co-screenwriter of this new film, has taken Oblomov’s side in the great struggle for the soul of Russia. “The Oblomovism problem has been replaced in the world by another problem,” he has said in an interview. “Our problem today is excessive pragmatism, opportunism, careerism.” His film seems to tell us that Soviet society, in its harsh driving, has lost something gentle, generous, humane. Oblomov as hero? Stolz as villain? This is probably about as far in criticism as a Soviet artist is allowed to go.
Mikhalkov’s film is extremely beautiful. When Stolz brings Oblomov out into St. Petersburg society, the sleigh rides on the white snow past the capital’s turquoise-and-white rococo palaces are breathtaking. One sees nothing of the squalor of the old regime. A gracious country home of the gentry is shown in the quiet light of dawn in a scene of limpid lyricism, with the servants scurrying out with buckets for water amid the birch trees. We catch glimpses of serene interiors through doorways, of peaceful family gatherings in spacious rooms. Oblomov (Oleg Tabakov) lolls about in meadows, listening to the sounds of birds and insects. Stolz (Yury Bogatyrev) goes dashing from a Russian steam bath straight out into the Russian snow (it is winter again), throwing snow all over his naked body to show Oblomov the virtues of the vigorous life. Somehow Oblomov gets up the energy to fall in love with the delightful Olga (Elena Solovey), who, almost miraculously, returns his love. During her most emotional scene (“No, no! You don’t really love me! You just want to see me cry!”) she walks agitatedly down a lane on her estate at night, certain that Oblomov is one step behind her, imploring her to make up their spat. Suddenly she turns, and she is alone. She has been talking to herself. Oblomov’s timidity and inertia have overcome him. All this tension! All this stress! This love business is far too strenuous.
But the film does everything to make Oblomov sympathetic. It begins—as the novel does not—with a touching evocation of Oblomov’s happy childhood with a wonderful child actor playing the six-year-old Oblomov. At the movie’s end Oblomov himself is dead. But he has had a son in a way requiring the least exertion possible, by his housekeeper, and Stolz has adopted him and is bringing him up. We see Stolz, older, settled, no longer the golden youth of St. Petersburg, much of the enthusiasm and the joy of life gone out of him now. A visit by the housekeeper-mother is announced to the little Oblomov (played by the same quite entrancing child actor), and in the film’s last, long, sustained shot he goes skipping off across a field to embrace her. “Mummy! Mummy! Mummy!” Thus: vessels of innocence and purity do we come upon earth. This is what the Stolzs have taken away from Russia, and perhaps from all of us. So says Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oblomov.
Mikhalkov has made at least one other excellent movie, A Slave of Love, about a crew making a tatty silent film by that name behind the White lines in the Crimea (Russia’s Riviera) during the Bolshevik Revolution. Starring the same Elena Solovey who plays Olga in Oblomov, the movie has a last reel straight out of Mosfilm’s agitprop department, but earlier parts portray with great charm and affection the fly-by-night bunch of kitsch-mongers and Russian snake-oil salesmen making the silent film.
Mikhalkov is thirty-five, personable, clearly very talented. He represents no fewer then four generations of membership in the Russian and Soviet artistic elite, his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all being famous artists, one a poet, the two others painters. His older brother (Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky) is also a successful film director. Mikhalkov sees all the foreign films he wants at the Moscow Film Institute (John Ford, Ingmar Bergman, Milos Forman, Bob Fosse). He has visited the United States five times in four years. (I met him in New York, and his brother in Los Angeles.) He is a friend of Francis Ford Coppola. I would assume that Mikhalkov realizes he is a highly privileged Russian, and very fortunate, except that he makes remarks like, “The problem isn’t getting the studio to let me make what I want to make. The problem is how to keep those who can’t make movies from making them and poisoning the public taste. . . . People without talent don’t have the right to make films.”
Defenders of oppressed artists will notice not the faintest (admitted) awareness here of the problems of such as Mikhalkov’s great colleague Sergei Paradjanov. Interestingly, Mikhalkov, in the same interview in which he condemned contemporary Russia for opportunism and “careerism,” went on to say in the same critical tone, “People are still kind and thoughtful, but precisely as much as is convenient for them.” This is a statement with which I would not want to quarrel. And Sergei Paradjanov has become extremely inconvenient.
One of the Soviet film directors Nikita Mikhalkov might well want to prevent from “poisoning public taste,” if he had the power, is Vladimir Menshov, director of the Academy Award-winning Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, another example of the alleged Soviet “New Wave”—a rather heterogeneous group, as it turns out.
Most Westerners interested in these matters are familiar with the doctrine of Socialist Realism, the official aesthetic creed of the Soviet Union fixed by Stalin, Zhdanov, and Maxim Gorky in 1932 and still in force, if in an attenuated form. But in recent decades there has grown up in Russia an artistic school, almost unknown in the West, that I can only call Socialist Escapism. In its cinema form, works of this sort, although paying lip-service here and there to Soviet pieties, are little more than soap operas. Produced for a society of scarcity, they are reminiscent in many ways of Hollywood films of the 30′s, and take blatant liberties with realities of life in the Soviet Union. Western viewers uninformed on Soviet affairs are ill-equipped to see where reality leaves off and the dreaming begins, and are likely to take these films as much more realistic than they are even intended to be. (A newsmagazine reviewer who found the mode of Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears to be “patient realism” wrote: “Somehow one did not think of the Soviet Union as being full of women wearing smart suits. . . .” Let me assure him, it is not.) What the films are intended to be, clearly, is the Shopgirl’s Dream, and at their worst they are the movie equivalent of the unrestricted sale of vodka in state stores. Everything else might be in short supply, but never vodka. Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears is a moderate example of the genre. Soviet officials in Los Angeles made no attempt to conceal their absolute astonishment that it should have won an Academy Award.
The film is divided into two parts, the first of which takes place in 1958. Three girls from collective farms (they call themselves “yokels”) are living at a dormitory for single working girls in Moscow. They are all manual workers. One (Katerina) is a machine operator at a textile mill; another (Lyudmila) works on an assembly line in a state bakery; a third (Tanya) is a construction worker. In varying degrees they are all embarrassed by their peasant backgrounds and admiring and envious of real Muscovites, particularly, of course, those with good jobs. Needless to say, the obsessive subject of discussion among the girls is “finding a good man,” or, not to put too fine a point on it, “marrying rich.” Lyudmila, the most aggressive, won’t go places where they will meet “only yokels like us” and conducts elaborate subterfuges when receiving telephone calls at the dormitory to create the impression that she is living in a private Moscow residence. Her list of desirable matches will give you a rough picture of the Soviet elite, at least as viewed by a factory hand just in from a collective farm: diplomats, actors, artists, poets, scientists, engineers, TV men, doctors, fashion designers, star athletes (so much for the classless Soviet society).
It should be pointed out that the picture gets under way with a spectacular example of socialist daydreaming. In the USSR people do not hop about changing jobs and places of residence to suit their fancy. Government authorization is required. To this day agricultural workers have great difficulty leaving a collective farm for a city—above all Moscow—and until 1956, shortly before the picture begins, such movements, along with most other changes of location or employment, were strictly forbidden. Amenities in the Soviet countryside even today are such that, I have the impression, half the agricultural population of Russia would move to Moscow immediately if it could. So if our farm girls have reached Moscow as early as 1958 they are already the envy of most of the women in the Soviet Union.
We see the girls applying eye shadow and mascara, whereas in 1958 even lipstick was not available in Russia. (Which is to say, Nikita Mikhalkov’s mother could no doubt buy all the cosmetics she wanted at special, restricted stores, but they were not to be had on the open market.) The girls’ attempts to leap the gap of economic and social class and find “Mr. Right” are equally fanciful.
Tanya, the least ambitious, settles for a fellow construction worker and is Truly Happy, but oddly enough we don’t spend much time with her. Mostly we follow the careers of Lyudmila and Katerina who, by dint of mighty efforts, manage to have love affairs with men “above their station.” Katerina becomes pregnant, but when her boyfriend, a TV cameraman, finds out she is only a factory hand, with no family, connections, or apartment, he abandons her (his mother brings the scornful news). Katerina has her illegitimate baby and Part I ends in the sort of tears that Moscow seems to believe in after all, at least as a prelude to the final triumph of virtue.
God sees the truth, but waits until Part II to deliver the prizes. It is now some twenty years later. Tanya is still Truly Happy, a proletarian heroine, but, curiously, is still not thought interesting enough to spend much time with. Somewhat unfairly, it would seem, the director apportions screen time strictly according to how high each girl has risen in life. Lyudmila has gotten out of the bakery, and married a star hockey player. But there has been something too pushy about her sort of amibiton, I think all would agree, and so she is punished by having her husband turn into an alcoholic. She is divorced, but has risen to a white-collar job in the “service sector,” which is still better than the bakery.
But it is Katerina who has shown pure, selfless, Soviet ambition. Devoted only to her work, the welfare of her child and fellow workers, and the high goals of the Soviet state (“But line four is idlel”), she has risen to become director of the entire textile factory, and strides about in a three-piece, Dress for Success-type executive-lady suit. She is a bit lonely, of course, with all this selfless devotion to work and to others, but fate soon sends her the man she has waited for so long. Gosha is one of the film’s most gemlike examples of having it both ways, managing to be at the same time an Ideal Worker (in that he works with his hands) and yet better than a worker (in that he dresses smartly and hangs out with a ritzy crowd from the Science Institute, one of whom says, “I owe 75 percent of my Ph.D. thesis to Gosha’s hands.”) The last line in the movie is Katerina saying soulfully, “I’ve searched for you so long.”
So if you did not think the Russians could make Three Coins in the Fountain or How to Marry a Millionaire (both over a quarter of a century old, incidentally), you were wrong. They can do even worse. They can take the eternal ingredients of this sort of moth-eaten, shopgirl-oriented, dream-factory movie and add hypocrisies which are uniquely their own.
This, then, exposed before Western eyes, is Socialist Escapism. Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears has won an Academy Award, generally highly favorable U.S. notices (“memorably winning and true” . . . “lovely” . . . “endearing” . . . “one of the best films I’ve seen”), leaving me with the unprovable suspicion that there is a tendency in the U.S. film-making and reviewing communities wishfully predisposed, given half a chance, to like something Russian. (It is very hard for me to imagine a comparable reception for the same film made in Spain, say, or even France.) On the way out of the packed showing of the movie at the recent Los Angeles FILMEX, where it was very enthusiastically received, some women were saying joyfully, “I never realized the Russians were so much like us!” Another comment frequently heard was, “So warm! The Russians are so warm!”
It made one feel very coldhearted indeed to remember Sergei Paradjanov, who might now be begging in the streets of Tbilisi.
As far as can be ascertained in the West, there is no reliable evidence that Paradjanov is a homosexual. But when it was proposed to Amnesty International that Paradjanov be named “prisoner of the year,” he was rejected on the grounds that he was not a ‘“political prisoner” but had been convicted on a criminal charge.
Regarding social class in the Soviet Union a personal anecdote is perhaps appropriate. In the mid-60′s, at a dance hall at the Gorky Park of Culture and Rest in Moscow, I danced with a Russian girl, a factory hand. The experience was a trifle awkward, the girl seeming so intimidated as to be almost cowed. I reported my impression to a friend, a member of the Soviet elite, who had observed the scene. Attributing to me various splendors I had difficulty in recognizing (worldliness, sophistication, magnificent apparel), he found the girl’s behavior understandable and normal. When I told him that such attributes as he saw in me did not earn me much in the way of deference among the working classes of America, his answer was both terse and somber: “This is Russia.”