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Review: Disgraced Monuments

Posted by Pat on June 29, 2014 in Uncategorized |

titmThe battle of the monuments rages in Moscow. A year-old statue of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, was blown up last spring. In July, explosives at the base of the massive new memorial to Tsar Peter the Great were deactivated before they could send the monument into the Moscow River. History has not been kind, either to Russians or the French. (Not a bad idea, according to many Muscovites, for esthetic if not political reasons.) A Romanov Dynasty monument in a Moscow cemetery was also attacked in July. Neocommunist grouplets have taken responsibility for these actions, in two of the cases in reaction to all the talk, including hints from the Yeltsin government, about taking Lenin’s corpse out of the Mausoleum and giving it a normal “Christian burial.” Mainline Communists have called such a thought “blasphemous.” The campaign over Lenin’s body promises to be the mother of all battles of the monuments.

A perfect introduction to these passionate issues, with intelligent commentary about how Russians remember and unremember their past, is Disgraced Monuments, a documentary film produced in 1991-1993, when widespread anticommunist iconoclasm destroyed or removed, among others, fifty of the sixty Lenin memorials in Moscow. As the film shows, there were ample precedents in the other direction. Under the Soviets, when public art – when all art – had a political purpose, monuments of the Old Regime were pulled down or altered in favor of memorializing Red heroes. An obelisk at the Kremlin wall, for example, once listed the names of the Romanov Tsars; in 1918 they were replaced with names of revolutionary thinkers, from Campanella to Plekhanov. The biggest, most notorious case of official vandalism came when Stalin decided to blow up Moscow’s imposing Christ the Savior church in 1931 and replace it with a skyscraper Palace of Soviets topped with a gigantic statue of Lenin. The church was blown up – the film includes old footage of the event – although construction problems prevented the skyscraper from going up.

But history’s cunning cycles are now at work again. To the delight of the Orthodox Church and its believers, and thanks to the efforts of Moscow’s energetic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, Christ the Savior has now been reconstructed and finished in time to celebrate the capital’s 850th anniversary. (With uncanny cinematic insight, Eisenstein captured the spirit of such ups and downs in his October [Ten Days That Shook The World] when he has a revolutionary crowd tearing apart the statue of Tsar Alexander III; then, in a later sequence, he ran the film backwards to reconstruct the statue and mark a reversal in the revolution.)

In Disgraced Monuments, there are effective montages of old clips showing the unveiling of countless memorials to Lenin, and of statues of Stalin, who, as someone says, had a “Medusa complex” – he liked turning figures into stone. These sequences are complemented with contemporary scenes of statue-bashing, or of workshops where rows and rows of busts and statuettes gather dust, or of fallen idols lying in the grass of a “Temporary Museum of Totalitarian Art” in a Moscow park.

Intercut among such images are interviews with curators, critics, and sculptors who decry these post-Soviet festivals of destruction or consignments to the rubbish heap. They are disturbed, not necessarily out of political nostalgia for the old regime and its heroes. Sculptors who specialized in Lenin no longer have government commissions, and now have to bid for work in a competitive free market. Naturally, they are upset. And no sculptors, their politics aside, can be happy to see their work wrecked.

But there is a deeper criticism, voiced by several figures in the film. How, they ask, is this populist rage against old memorials different from what the Soviets used to do? A healthy national consciousness calls for an honest confrontation with its past, not its obliteration. There is a wonderful episode in the film, drawing on footage shot at the time, of pulling down the monument of Dzerzhinsky, first head of the Cheka, antecedent of the KGB, opposite the fearsome Lubyanka. Crowds gathered round the monument in August 1991, desecrating it in an atmosphere of carnival. The freewheeling spirit of 1968 had finally come to the Soviet Union at its deathbed. The critic Viktor Misiano, who was there, rues what followed: the anticommunist Moscow municipal authorities had the monument dismantled. “So removing Dzerzhinsky,” he comments, “was a key moment which marked the end of the ‘performance’ and the start of the new ideology when the mechanism of history began to work again.” (On the pedestal where Dzerzhinsky stood now lies a stone from the Gulag “as a memorial to the millions of victims of the totalitarian regime.”)

This anti-ideological, postmodern political critique by Misiano and others has its merits. The crowd, says Misiano, “would have been content to paint [Dzerzhinsky] blue with polka dots…or just putting a Fool’s cap on his head or giving him a false nose.” Yet from the angle of an ordinary Muscovite – one, say, who had the Gulag or worse in his family biography – wouldn’t that have been trivializing the monstrosities of the Soviet regime and one of its notorious representatives? There is no entirely satisfactory answer – Leave the monuments where they are? Disgrace them with graffiti? Tear them down? Cart them off to a museum? I’m inclined to at least summarize the issue as Yeltsin recently did in calling for a referendum on what to do with Lenin’s body. “On the one hand,” he said of Lenin, “we know that he brought Russia many woes, but on the other hand, this is our history and we can’t hide from it.”

Facing up to history is a refreshing sentiment, especially coming from official Moscow. There is a lot to look back at and ponder; the historian’s ‘primary sources,’ the literal and figurative monuments, still exist in abundance. Cinema is a special kind of monument of the Communist past, a treasure of intact material for understanding popular culture in the Soviet bloc and the state-directed attempts (failures?) to manipulate it. We don’t often think of musicals in this regard, but, as the cleverly titled and archly narrated documentary, East Side Story, shows, they played an important part in the film histories of the U.S.S.R. and its fraternal regimes in Eastern Europe. Some forty musicals were produced in Eastern Europe over four decades, and were rarely seen in the West, if at all. Judging from the many clips assembled here, they ranged from the campy agitprop (“We sing the song of the coal press”) to the slightly more sophisticated fare of beach and rock musicals with Doris Day lookalikes and glamorous dance ensembles.

Soviet musicals are really another story; they were not, as the film implies, unknown in the West, especially in the 1930s, when audiences everywhere were treated to such endearing pictures of Soviet life as in Volga, Volga (1938; Stalin’s favorite film), even as the Great Terror tormented the nation. As the fine Russian critic, Maya Turovskaya, points out in one of her many appearances in the documentary, people needed untruths to survive; escapist entertainment was a balm for the wounds of Stalinism.

The excerpts from Eastern European musicals shown here, mainly from East Germany, are often charming enough, though I doubt anyone could sit through the entire films now, save in the interests of research or, for those who saw them originally, for nostalgic reasons. (The East German Hot Summer of 1968 featuring Frank Schobel, “the Elvis of the East,” was “like a cult film for us kids,” comments someone today.) The travails of filmmakers and official ideologists to bring out appealing musicals that upheld socialist values are well represented in surveying the work of East Germany’s DEFA studios.

Dana Ranga, the director and narrator of East Side Story, tells us that East Germany was “least likely” to host musical film fare, not because the public didn’t care for it – far from it; before the Wall went up in 1962, East Germans flocked to Western musicals screened in West Berlin – but because of the hard-line outlook of the leadership. Musicals were a prime example of an unwanted invasion of American pop influences, and “the most flagrant offspring of the capitalist pleasure industry.” (East Side Story could have done without several staged scenes of grim-faced female commissars mouthing official directives; we get the point without them.)

East German filmmakers, like their earlier Soviet counterparts Grigory Alexandrov and Ivan Pyriev, were asked to entertain, but were boxed in by the imperatives of “education” – read, propaganda. They came up with often resourceful ways out of the dilemma, with results well received by the public. In My Wife Wants to Sing (1958), the musical numbers embroidered the acceptable theme of women’s liberation under socialism. No matter that the film was initially attacked for its “Amerikanismus”: it went on to become one of the biggest hits of the Eastern Bloc, including in the U.S.S.R. Alexandrov had done the same kind of thing in The Shining Path (1940), when he cast his wife, the ever idolized singer Lyubov Orlova, as a heroic Stakhanovite textile worker. DEFA’s Midnight Review (1962) neatly engaged the entertainment-education problem by making that issue the subject of the film. Directors, writers, and musicians are shown sweating the problem tunefully:

It’s enough to make you tear your hair out It’s easier to wait 10 years for a car It’s simpler to go ice-skating in the desert Than to make a socialist musical!

“Too hot, too hot to handle,” they chant, but all is well at the finale. Not very different, change a venue and a ‘problem’ or two, from what a triumphant Donald O’Connor or Mickey Rooney and Peggy Ryan used to accomplish in the old days of the classic Hollywood musicals. And the East Germans did it with painfully little of the Hollywood technology. A few excerpts from musicals from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia round out the documentary, with the Czech Woman on the Rails (1965) offering the raciest scene of the lot.

Horn and Ranga deserve credit not only for retrieving these musicals, but also for crafting East Side Story from them into an entertaining film in itself. I look forward to their sequel – a documentary on socialist science fiction.

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