About fifteen years ago, the Soviet Union – its flag, its revolution, its endless crimes against human individuality – had just recently faded into our collective past. In its stead we embraced an open Russia because we felt, and rightly so, that the worst years were long gone and that all the perpetrators of these misdeeds were deceased. What good then to speak of the unspeakable and name the unnamable? Russia in particular (some day, we may see the same occur with other large communist states who shall remain anonymous) was in need of a rewrite. World history had been so distorted by the alleged class struggle and ensuing bedlam that many old heroes had to be demolished, and the real purveyors of truth and justice, to use a classically Soviet term, rehabilitated. Apart from the millions massacred or led helplessly into massacre by the Soviet government, the greatest toll of the revolution was the irreparable damage inflicted upon its literature. In the first ten years of its existence (1917–1927) New Russia, or whatever it called itself, had assembled the greatest collection of contemporary first-rate poets and writers in one country since Ancient Greece: Bunin, Blok, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Gumilyov, Mayakovski, Bely, Khodasevich, Esenin, Olesha, and Ilf and Petrov (among many other lesser lights), as well as the crown jewel of the land that abandoned him, Nabokov. From this superior stratum, only Bunin, Olesha, Akhmatova, Pasternak, and Nabokov would live past 1945, with Olesha, Pasternak, and Akhmatova (all of whom were not allowed to flee the country) laboring under critical and societal repression. Russian literature, which in the late eighteenth century was still mostly composed of epigoni and imitations of European models, had risen to the apex of cultural traditions only to be decimated and destroyed by a government that prized, in no small irony, the uniformly mediocre tastes of bourgeois society. Yes, this is certainly a topic for much debate, and the core of the controversy surrounding this early post−Soviet film.
Our protagonist may or may not be Dmitri (Oleg Menshikov), first seen in Paris talking impatiently to an uncle of his who seems, like many émigrés, to be more proficient in French than Russian. The year is 1936 and the handsome thirtysomething Dmitri, a polyglot and trained pianist, will be returning to his homeland on business. What that business entails is not elucidated in detail until the film’s end, but knowledge of the happenings of that year and the next might provide a clue. His destination is a peaceful hamlet in the Russian countryside which happens to house the great General Kotov (Nikita Mikhalkov, also the writer and director). I say “great” because Kotov is completely convinced of his greatness and everyone else appears to agree with him. As a display of his power, he halts an entire battalion instructed to do something dreadful to a crop field. There is also the lovely if overly picaresque scene in which Kotov, accompanied by his much younger wife Maria (Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė), seven-year-old daughter, and other familiars, treks down to a local river to swim and sunbathe (they also rehearse, with melodramatic gusto, a gas attack). Father and daughter slip away from the madding crowd on a small boat, and the great general finds this an opportune time to talk about the greatness of socialism and the future generations of this great nation, and so forth, all under the blazing sun. This sun, we understand, is a powerful symbol of the omnipotent state which has made Kotov a demigod and cast Dmitri out to do, well, whatever he seems to be doing over there in Paris. So when Dmitri comes back, he and Kotov look hard at one another because each of them knows the crimes on the other’s conscience. There will be at least one more crime to count by the end of it all, at which point Dmitri will cease his disingenuous laughter and Kotov will no longer thump people on the back and wish them well.
The real problem with this film, say its many detractors, is that it was made by Mikhalkov. As an actor whose family survived all the purges and whose grandfather composed the somber Soviet anthem, his attempt at political correctness comes about sixty years too late. In an interview in Moscow several years ago, Mikhalkov (who, shall we say, is not lacking in confidence) defended his preeminence by saying that his family was “like the river Volga, flowing past all the powers that be over all the centuries” – a lovely sentiment, but one that will doubtless seal his reputation for later critics. We wonder whether a more humble approach to the subject matter, whose sequel is actually due out later this year, might have quelled the roar of indignation that attacked him when he won both the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and the Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes. Yet the film itself is beautiful. The haunting chiaroscuro of the old house full of secret corners and engravings and the lushness of the countryside cannot be denied. All this wonder and lightness is tempered, however, by the inevitable results of hubris as well as by revenge, revenge that was a long time coming. But I fear that all of this, whether it be of generals or of artists, is ancient history.