BURNT BY THE SUN – A NEW LOOK AT THE STALIN PURGES
F. Kreisel 07.05.1995 web.mit.edu
There is a new Russian film playing now in the US, and it is a must see!
This 1995 feature film took a number of prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, and deservedly so. Nikita Mikhalkov both directed and starred in it in the role of Sergei Kotov, a Red Army officer, hero of the Civil War and a pillar of the Soviet regime. What starts as a languorous and idyllic story describes one day in the life of a privileged family in the new Soviet Russia on a lazy Sunday in the summer of 1936, just weeks before the first of the infamous Moscow Trials broke on a stunned world. The sense of imminent danger is palpable throughout this gripping film.
Realism of this film is developed on various levels. Firstly, Mikhalkov uses vivid summer colors and a typical rural location to bring the viewer into the midst of a July countryside somewhere near Moscow. Secondly, there is the skilled use of choice actors: tender and talented portrayal of Kotov's six-year-old girl by Mikhalkov's own daughter, the sensuous elegance of the beautiful Ingeborga Dapkunayte as Kotov's wife, the nervous energy of Oleg Menshikov as the intruding antagonist, and so on. Thirdly, there is the masterful counterposition of quick action and peaceful periods of weekend rest. Finally, there is the shocking reality of the Purges themselves, totally unprecedented in world history.
From mid-1936 until 1939 Stalin wiped out the vast majority of the top echelons of the Soviet regime: most of the top commanders of the Red Army, the majority of the leaders of the Bolshevik Party during its heroic period of struggle for power, the leading engineers, designers and scientists, outstanding writers, artists, film and theater directors, and so on. Stalin's assistants in this counterrevolutionary terror directed against the organizers of Bolshevik victory, and the builders of the Soviet state were in many cases individuals who resisted the October Revolution in 1917 or who stayed on the sidelines. Stalin's chief prosecutor at the Trials was Andrei Vyshinsky, a former Menshevik leader. Among the chief torturers of the NKVD was Lavrenty Beria, known to all the Caucasian revolutionaries as a tzarist agent provocateur; two of the chief stage managers of the show trials were Henrik Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov, unknown during the Revolution and the Civil War, but promoted by Stalin in the fight against Trotsky and the Left Opposition.
Mikhalkov reaches towards an understanding of the reactionary aims of Stalinist purges. His protagonist Kotov begins to see the class basis for this genocide of the true revolutionaries at the hands of the power-hungry bureaucrats and the former White Guards. However, the director's power of penetration is limited by the confusion and disorientation still prevailing in Russia. We hope that this film marks a new step in the search for the truth about the history of the Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky, and the Stalinist counterrevolution which followed.
Postscript: September 28, 1995
... Since writing the movie review I learned the following facts about this director. Nikita Mikhalkov is the son of a well known children's poet Sergei Mikhalkov, the balladeer of Soviet militia and a stalwart censor of the Soviet Writers Union. The elder Mikhalkov pilloried freethinkers, dissidents and talented writers in general during the terrible Stalin Purges. He condemned fellow writers and poets to the GPU firing squads. The younger Mikhalkov to this day defends his father's cruel and cowardly conformism.
To his credit, Nikita Mikhalkov has made a number of excellent realistic movies, for example, Slave of Love, Oblomov. Those movies as well as Burnt by the Sun have earned him respect and authority. Today he uses this authority for reactionary ends. Nikita Mikhalkov has thrown himself into chauvinist and slavophile politics. He glorifies the mystique of the provincial unspoiled peasant Russia as opposed to the polluted cosmopolitan cities and industrial towns. He has turned to the Orthodox Church, that most venal and conformist instrument of autocratic control, whether tzarist or Stalinist. Mikhalkov is running for the Duma on Chernomyrdin's ticket, opportunistically combining nationalist rhetoric with an appetite for ready cash and government connections. His latest political campaign centers on the glorification of the last Tzar and his family. Mikhalkov is organizing a triumphal reburial of the remnants of the late Romanovs and in their canonization. This involves a thorough rewriting of history, as anyone familiar with the character and the policies of Nicholas II will know.
To conclude: Burnt by the Sun was a truthful film but its director is a liar.