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EXCERPT OF GLASNOST CHAPTER
Meanwhile, glasnost in the arts was progressing. One of these writers was fortunate to spend a few weeks with a prolific writer and filmmaker, Igor Kokarev, perhaps one of the best film analysts, who wrote a definitive study of U.S. films in America. A very cultural and entrepreneurial man, Igor introduced me to his family. His father-in-law was a member of the Central Committee, a famous Soviet composer representing the cultural elite with others in that body. In visits to Russia, organized by Igor in 1990, he was extremely helpful with introducing me to the glasnost cultural wave in painting and the arts but above all films. The cultural dimension was indispensable – something I witnessed before the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia.
Throughout the month of October, 1989, and again in January 1990, with the help of Igor, this slim, bespectacled and prematurely white-haired man, and his artful young blonde assistant, Julia Korsunskaya, I reviewed dozens of glasnost films and books for a Miami Beach, Moscow film festival. Moreover, Julia was instrumental introducing me to the treasures of Zagorsk. A typical Russian intellectual he always appeared at meetings with his tall, beautiful, English speaking assistant, Julia Korsunskaja. Igor explained that the material we were reviewing had been taken from the censors by Yakovlev and his foremen of perestroika crew. Much later he told me, that, “In those years there was more Russian interest in the forbidden articles of Brezhnev´s era than in pornography.”
Thanks to Gorbachev’s forbearance and the help of Yakovlev and other enlightened advisors, the Soviet public, after six decades, finally got to read Yevgeni Zamyatin’s My [We] in their native language, and to learn about the struggle of its hero, D-503, against the baldheaded benefactor. The novel represented a discrete warning against Bolshevism that was not lost on the reader. Glasnost-hungry readers could eventually ponder the destiny of Russian intellectuals like Doctor Yuri Zhivago throughout the civil war, immortalized by Nobel Prize winning author, Boris Pasternak. They could also admire the erotic prose of Lolita, by Russian exiled writer Vladimir Nabokov, and glory in the works of condemned Russian poets like Anna Akhmatova. Her “Poem Without Hero,” had caused her expulsion by Stalin from the Soviet Writers Union in 1946.
In literature and film, the themes of the various works being produced were having a tremendous impact on the Soviet masses in the large cities as well as in the republics. Among the most powerful novels in circulation was Anatoly Rybakov’s 1967 Deti Arbata [Children of Arbat], whose powerful expose of the Stalinist system also implied that Stalin had ordered the assassination of his Politburo colleague, Sergei Kirov, then still unproven.
Like other controversial anti-Stalinist novels and films, it had actually been produced two decades earlier but denied public exposure. As Kokarev explained, this was because it´s well known author was what might be called brutally frank about the purpose of his book. “I want to drive a stake through his [Stalin’s] heart, so that he can never rise again. I want to help kill once and for all the system he created!” .
As Chernyaev’ pointed out, Yegor Ligachev, still then the number two man of the Communist Party, stood behind some of the most crucial decisions to hinder the cultural renaissance taking place in Russia, But when Gorbachev spoke at the June 1987 Politburo meeting dealing with glasnost, he was still as ambivalent as ever. He not only failed to unmask totalitarianism, but stood up to defend it! His then impeccably loyal assistant, Chernyaev, faithfully recorded the very different policy he promulgated, while discussing the criterion for Soviet publication of controversial art and literature:
There can be only one criterion; everything that strengthened socialism [in the
Soviet parlance, Leninism] will be given due attention and consideration. But when someone’s trying to slip us capitalism, bourgeois ideology instead of socialism – that’s a different matter. That won’t be permitted.
Film Commissar: “Smacking of Anti-Semitism”
Igor introduced me to this particular movie as we were selecting movies for a May 1990 Moscow film festival scheduled to be performed in Miami Beach and organized by Igor and this author together with Andrei Kortunov, head of a department at Moscow´s Institute of the U.S.A and Canada.
Watching the film he whispered in my ear about the fight for the movie, Komissar and the tremendous changes in the USSR. The film, directed by Aleksander Askol´dov, had been banned for two decades. “I won’t permit it,” declared Ligachev after he watched it. Thereafter, Askol’dov himself was hounded, expelled from the Party, Left without a job and falsely told that all copies of the movie had been destroyed.
Perhaps it did not help Askol’dov that the original idea of the movie, came from a beautiful short story written by the prominent Jewish, Ukrainian writer, Vassil Grossman. The film dealt with a Red cavalry pregnant commissar during the Feb.-March, 1929 Russo-Polish war, who rooms with a Jewish family. Her dilemma becomes the need to choose between staying with them and caring for her new born baby or going off alone with her Red Army comrades. The only apparent “unholy” crime of the protagonist is her discovering the gentle side of Jewish village life. Yet, Ligachev fought the release of this jewel of Russian cinematography fang and claw.
During the early stages of Gorbachev´s perestroika, a group of influential Soviet writers had written to him, requesting the release of the outstanding film. Chernyaev was sympathetic. “I suspected that writer was hounded because he was Jewish,” he told Gorbachev. Yet while Gorbachev himself was “positive,” he did not get involved, and even Yakovlev, maintained he couldn’t overturn the decision of the Moscow City Party Committee or the Party Control Commission.
By the spring of 1988, however, the film was re-discovered by the Filmmakers Union of the Professional l Club of the Moscow Film Festival [PROC], and listed for a free screening. Once again, the permission had to be obtained, and the Filmmakers Union´s famous film director, Elem Kulikov, went to the Politburo to obtain it. Meanwhile, the screening hall became packed with media, international guests and Muscovites all waiting to hear if they could see the film and in a growing fury. When Yakovlev learned that the screening had been announced and the audience gathered he quickly gave his permission. At the press conference after the screening, Askol´dov spoke “and the hundreds of people sitting around on the floor burst into tears.”
Komissar was also a smash hit at the Miami film festival.
Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze produced Repentance in his native republic, perhaps the most renowned anti-Stalinist film. I told Kokarev, “This movie is a must,” when we saw it together. So it was. Grotesque and powerful, Repentance concerned a tyrant named Varlam, a Stalin-like, provincial mayor, who promises to build a paradise on earth for his people, but who ruthlessly destroys many innocent lives. When Varlam’s son defends the mayor’s cruel policies to his own son, the boy shoots himself in despair.
If there was one film whose theme expressed the quintessence of the Soviet renewal, it was this one. This film in particular, evoked similar books and films from the Prague Spring era in the late 1960’s. Unsurprisingly, Ligachev also opposed sending” Repentance to the Cannes Film Festival. Yet his very efforts to immobilize his country’s cultural renaissance created an intellectual backlash. Chernyaev, Yakovlev and other enlightened members of Gorbachev’s leadership rallied to help Abuladze and other progressive Soviet artists, at first discretely, and then overtly. Thereafter, despite Ligachev’s objections, Repentance went to Cannes and won an award.
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