Saturday, June 22, 2019

Back in the USSR

I've spent most of the past week immersed in historical television dramas on Soviet themes. Despite their grim subjects, I can't deny the deep nostalgia for Russia that these shows evoked. They reminded me of our universal human capacities for kindness and cruelty, humor and cynicism, acceptance and resistance ... and the specific ways I experienced these capacities in Russia and other places in the former Soviet Union, ever since my first visit in the fall of 1975.



The first program I devoured over these last few days was HBO/Sky's miniseries Chernobyl. I thought that for an American to create a program on the USSR's most serious nuclear accident was nervy -- just imagine all the political and cultural distortions that could result. But I remembered the U.S. television coverage at the time (sample: CBS Evening News) ... surely a carefully constructed drama would be better than those speculative TV news summaries that filled the information vacuum of the time?

I was aware that the HBO/Sky series was getting good marks from a lot of critics, even Russian critics. In Novaya Gazeta, one columnist essentially said "This is the film we should have made." As I weighed the many specific criticisms made by both western and Russian commentators, I appreciated the accompanying five-part podcast in which host Peter Sagal talks with series creator Craig Mazin about his creative choices, and the deviations from the historical record that critics often refer to.

The "voice" of the Sagal/Mazin podcast is typically American -- mostly upbeat, offhand, slangy, sometimes verging on glib. But one thing comes through this conversation constantly: in the series itself, Mazin and his co-workers were determined to show respect to the men and women who risked (and sometimes gave) their lives to save their fellow citizens and potentially a whole continent. They demonstrated that respect by choosing to focus on individuals and stories that exemplified human decency and generosity and the finest aspects of patriotism -- all of which combined to contain the worst possible outcomes of the disaster. Even self-serving bureaucrats occasionally displayed flashes of humanity; the series avoided presenting us with total villains. However, the overwhelming desire of the ruling system to protect itself at all costs, deny problems, and avoid humiliation, was presented with brutal realism -- and (despite some oversimplifications and dramatic exaggerations) rightly so.

"Our goal is the happiness of all humanity."
There were imperfections in the series and podcast accompaniment that aren't explained by the choices imposed by compression and dramatic continuity. For example, in episode four, one of the squads sent out to catch and eliminate abandoned pets is eating and chatting outside a cultural center. A squad member points out a banner attached to the building: "Our goal is the happiness of all humanity." The irony isn't lost on the squad, but even so I wasn't happy that Sagal and Mazin mocked the sentiment. Maybe it's my own exaggerated idealism, but those slogans (however compromised by official corruption and everyday coping mechanisms) reflected real pride among Soviet people. Today those old banners and slogans evoke nostalgia among many Russians who look about in vain for similar ideals in our own time.

Other critics have pointed out historical inaccuracies -- the reactors' deficiencies were not that secret; the authorities were generally no longer threatening executions; the courtroom scenes were practically fictional; the apartment buildings had modern windows, and so on. You can find these complaints for yourself. They don't diminish the main point for me: the enormous wave of heroism among ordinary human beings in the face of a catastrophe that they cannot even understand.

Finally: apart from the riveting plot, a very rewarding aspect of the TV series for me was the attention to visual detail, to the texture of daily life in the mid-1980's USSR. The hospitals I've seen in Russia still look like those in Chernobyl. Same with the older apartment buildings, and with such details as clocks, telephones, stoves, radios, wallpaper, stairwells, and so on. Chernobyl isn't a one-stop substitute for deeper research and reading, but it is a very worthwhile attempt to dramatize history with care and respect for its human dimensions.



The second program was one I'm returning to after almost a dozen years since I first saw it. Here's how I described Shtrafbat after my first binge-watching exposure to the series: (Thanksgiving 2007) ...
I just gave eleven hours of my free time to a fascinating Russian television miniseries, Shtrafbat ("Penal Battalion") on DVD. In WWII Russia, penal battalions were the most expendable of soldiers, made up of criminals and "enemies of the people" who were offered this service as a way to get out of the GULags and redeem themselves by blood from the crimes they'd allegedly committed. The series has some battle scenes, but it's far more devoted to the human relationships among the characters--between regular Red Army and the shtrafniki, between the criminals and the politicals, between the Red Army's military officers and the political officers, between atheists and believers, between wounded soldiers and nurses, and occasionally between Russians and Germans.

Source: IMDB  
In these eleven episodes, there were so many memorable characters and moments of drama. And complete frankness about the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) and its horrible methods. The battalion commander Tverdokhlebov mentions to his assistant that, when they go into action, the NKVD will station troops behind them to shoot anyone who turns back, even if they're wounded. (It happened.) And the assistant, Glymov, smiles and says, "Ah, how our Soviet leaders so lovingly look after their citizens." Later, after their beloved commander has been arrested by the NKVD on trumped-up charges, the soldiers are standing in formation and the NKVD colonel introduces them to the new commander. One of the soldiers asks, "And what about Tverdokhlebov?" In the confrontation that ensues, the colonel says, "You are enemies of the people. Nothing! Useless!" Glymov waves at the ragged penal battalion troops behind him and says, "These boys still have a bit of usefulness left in them. As for you, your loss wouldn't make a bit of difference."

This could have been a concept ready-made for exploitative violence and sensational gore, or for mindless patriotism and militarism. Instead, the series believably brings to life an almost-forgotten dimension of Russia's wartime experience. At one point, Glymov says that the secret of his survival to that point was not courage, but rather sheer cunning. Nevertheless, we see genuine kindness in his character. I can't help wondering whether, in similar circumstances, I would have been able to preserve as much humanity.
At the time I first saw this series, I wasn't aware of some of the controversy it raised. Some of the controversy I'm inclined to minimize -- for example, I totally disagree with the charge that the series exaggerates the role of penal battalions in the USSR's victory over Germany, or demeans the victory itself. There are no such implications, although in the context of today's victory cult, Shtrafbat's distinctly anti-Stalinist tone might be out of fashion. In fact, (spoiler alert), the last penal-battalion attack on the Germans is merely intended as a diversionary nuisance, although these soldiers don't know it.
Yuri Stepanov in role of Glymov the thief, about to volunteer.
Headquarters.
Alexei Serebryakov (comm-batt Tverdokhlebov), Stepanov.
Screenshots made from episodes at Советское кино

More serious criticisms involve the actual composition of the USSR's penal forces, most of which apparently consisted of active soldiers condemned to this form of service as punishment for military infractions, as with Tverdokhlebov in this series, who escaped from German capture. They rarely consisted of GULAG conscripts, either criminal or political, and their officers were likewise drawn from officer ranks rather than from the soldiers being so punished.

One critic pointed out the unlikelihood of a priest serving in a penal company (although another source vouched for one such actual case).

Whether or not these criticisms were 100% justified, we know from both combat literature and GULAG literature that the characters who come to life in Shtrafbat are realistic, both in their range of opinions and their mixed motives for service. Many of the supporting characters are of necessity two-dimensional; even the main characters sometimes slip into well-worn stereotypes, but the ensemble acting is truly inspired. Furthermore, the debates between the politicals and the criminals -- debates that reflect tensions going back to the Civil War and collectivization -- have an immediacy that reminds us of the constant interplay between authoritarian government and a long-suffering but wily population determined to survive.

Father Mikhail, the priest (played by Dmitri Nazarov) who first appears in episode seven presented a bit of a challenge. When Germans unexpectedly attack the battalions in a small village that our heroes have been ordered to clear, he is in the church's bell tower, ringing the bell to warn of the approaching Germans. As German snipers force him off the tower, he seizes a gun and joins the defense, and subsequently throws his lot in with the soldiers. Eleven years ago I thought this character threatened to bring an element of mixed absurdity and sentimentality into a drama built on painstaking realism. The priest seems to be custom-built to fulfill a stereotypical role as a bigger-than-life warrior-confessor, source of pithy observations and sonorous blessings. In the climactic battle, spraying the enemy with machine-gun bullets, he roars "Find your graves, you damn thieves! ... Forgive me, Lord."

This time through, I put more weight on the fascinating dialogues between the priest and various soldiers (many utterly skeptical). Right away they challenge him on the propriety of a priest killing. He agrees that it's problematic: "Even sins committed by necessity must be cleansed. I won't be able to take communion for three years.... I'd miss ten years if it's the Lord's will." The priest's presence in the ranks also becomes a political problem, and contributes to the arrest and torture of battalion commander Tverdokhlebov.

I'm not in a position to argue that such figures and incidents never arose in real life. And the drama, after all, still ground on to its bloody conclusion.

The reason I began watching this series all over again was that I stumbled across the fact that the whole series is available through Amazon, with decent subtitles (although the English-language descriptions of the series and its episodes on the Amazon site are hopelessly bad). I had no subtitles to help me back in 2007, so a lot of the rapid-fire slang in soldiers' dialogues went right past me. Now, once again I can enjoy the friendship between battalion commander Tverdokhlebov (played by Alexei Serebryakov) and his company commander Glymov (Yuri Stepanov) as they figure out how to fulfill the impossible demands on their pitiful band of shtrafniki by the general, Lykov (Alexei Zharkov). We see both the respect and the exasperation within the relationship between Lykov and Tverdokhlebov, complicated by the close watch on them both on the part of the NKVD officer, Kharchenko (played by Roman Madyanov), assigned to Lykov's headquarters to ensure strict political compliance. Excellent actors, every one of them.

If you have some Russian [this was originally written for an English-speaking audience] and would like to try watching the series without subtitles and without Amazon, all eleven episodes are here. Whichever source you choose, be prepared to meet some unforgettable characters.



This article is cross-posted from my personal blog Can You Believe?



The latest from Playing for Change: "Walking Blues."

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Status of this blog

by Larisa Mishkina
Since Judy and I are back in the USA and not planning to return to Elektrostal on a full-time basis, I won't be updating this blog regularly. I will keep it here as an archive (and a reminder to myself of all the joy of working with our dear students and colleagues).

I'll also stay active on facebook and vk.com. Questions about English usage are always welcome. Also be sure to let me know if you're planning to visit the USA!

Many of the images embedded on these pages were hosted by photobucket. I am in the process of transferring these images to another server. If you see a page with broken image or media links, and you'd like me to fix that page, just let me know. (johan@canyoubelieve.me).