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Russian Ark, The Winter Olympics, and The Ukrainian Crisis of 2014
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-04-28 12:09:20
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The Marquis de Custine visits the Hermitage in St. Petersburg

Recently a friend of mine kindly sent me the DVD of a celebrated Russian movie by Alexander Sokurov which appeared in 2002 but I had never viewed: Russian Ark. Serendipitously, it arrived while the current events in the Ukraine are still unfolding, while  their historical and cultural background is being analyzed and discussed in the pages of Ovi magazine. When the movie arrived I was in fact in the midst of preparing an article on anti-Semitism in Russia and the Ukraine which has subsequently appeared. The film was quie a treat from my friend; in its stunning visual beauty it had the effect of stimulating in my mind some further reflections on Russian civilization vis a vis Western Civilization which I’d like to share with the Ovi readership.

This breathtaking film was shot entirely in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and  is a unique journey through Russian history and culture spanning some 300 years. It is the very first entirely unedited, single take, full length feature film. A contemporary Russian filmmaker magically finds himself in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. He meets a cynical French diplomat from the nineteenth century, the Marquis de Custine, and the two men become accomplices in an extraordinary, time-travelling journey through Russia's turbulent past. Together they encounter life at the Imperial Palace as it was through different ages from Catherine the Great's backstage love affairs to the last Tsar's ball in 1913 in the Winter Palace.


Arriving at the Tsar’s last Grand Ball in 1913 (from the movie Russian Ark)

The film combines state of the art digital technology, strong storytelling, lavish production values and a highly personal mise-en-scene. Sokurov's vision - featuring more than 2000 actors and extras - was realized entirely 'in camera'. After months of careful planning and choreographed rehearsals, the entire film was shot by Tilman Büttner in a single day, in one recording, in a single uninterrupted steadicam sequence. The ultimate 'directors cut', there is no editing as the film unfolds in pure real time.


The Tsar’s family having lunch at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg

It pushes the boundaries of filmmaking, being the first ever uncompressed High Definition movie, recorded onto a portable hard-disk system, rather than 35mm or tape. The Hermitage is the Russian Ark, affectionately guarding art and history until the world sees better days.


Dancing at the Tsar’s last Grand Ball in 1913

The making of Russian Ark is a story of records and firsts - the first entirely unedited, single screen, single take, full-length feature film; the longest-ever steadicam sequence, the first ever uncompressed HD Movie, recorded onto a portable hard disk system, rather than 35mm or tape.


More Dancing at the Tsar’s Grand Ball in 1913

But it is the making of a film with a director who is not at all interested in "firsts" and "records" and who has no special fascination for inventing anything technologically "new". Instead Alexander Sokurov is a director who is concerned with the simple principal elements of cinema: sound, image, time.

"I am sick of editing", Sokurov said once, "let's not be afraid of time". His idea for a one-shot digital film moving in real time through the rooms and halls of the Hermitage seemed wonderfully simple and even easy. Digital video, one shooting day, no editing! A producer's dream. Of course Russian Ark was a tour de force. It took years of developing an idea that most people could not comprehend or believed impossible to carry out; months of rehearsals and preparation culminating in a single take of an entire feature film on a single shooting day.


One of Putin’s grand entrances at the Kremlin: Echoes of Peter the Great or Stalin?

Yet, when it was over, it was simple, after all. Sokurov had a vision, which poured out and came together in a single moment. It was all in his head and ninety minutes later, it was all on film. A film that really was cut in the camera. A film that mirrors the flowing of time accurately. Like life, Sokurov seems to be implying that it is impossible to divide time.

The above as aptly recounted by various film critics is about the technique and the form which of course is always significant in an artistic masterpiece. But what about the content? As Marshall McLullan and Vico have well taught us, sometimes the form is the content, and vice-versa. The two can be converted. This is undoubtedly the case for this stunning film. As I watched it I could not help but go back to what some scholars and writers have said about Russian civilization vis a vis Western Civilization and then fast forward to what transpired recently at the Winter Olympics of 2014  followed by the annexation of Crimea only a few days later, and the ongoing crisis in East Ukraine.

It seems to me that had less attention been paid to the security concerns and more attention dedicated to the subtle message conveyed by the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, what was about to follow in Crimea could have been easily predicted. Those extravagant presentations, just like the film Russian Ark, were rooted in Russian history and its unique interpretation via Russian writers such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, as well as cultural anthropologists such as Nikolai Danilevsky (see his Russia and Europe, 1869), Oswald Spengler (see his The Decline of the West, 1918), Arnold Toynbee (see his A Study of History, 1934), with whose ideas Putin is undoubtedly familiar.


Disguised Russian soldiers invading Crimea a few days after the Winter Olympics

Both Spengler and Danilevsky make a point of Russia’s national resistance to assimilatory acculturation and the possibility of a distinctive civilization still in the future. Toynbee sees Russia as essentially a non-Western culture. At this point one may ask how does Putin see Russian culture? Contrary to what the Marquis de Custine proffers in the above examined film, he would be the last one to concede some imitation and derivation in Russian culture; hence his strange statement at Nuremburg that the fall of the Soviet Empire was the greatest political tragedy of the 20th century. He obviously believes it and seems to be busy now reconstituting such a vast Empire. There seems to be a notion in the Russian mind-set that bigger is always better. No wonder the former Soviet nations in Eastern Europe, some of them NATO member are rather nervous lately.  

Be that as it may, both Spengler and Danilevsky assert that Russia remained largely untouched by the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance (the Mongol invasions were partly responsible for it), cultural phenomena which affected all the European countries did not touch Russia. The only civilizing influence on Russia was that of the Orthodox Church beginning with Russia’s conversion to Christianity in the 10th century. This is apparent in the writings of Dostoyevsky while those of Tolstoy present us with a sort of schizophrenia: an author who is half Western and half Russian: he speaks like Christ but thinks like Marx.

The paradox in all this, as presented by the Marquis, at the very inception of the film, is that Peter the Great founds St. Petersburg in 1703 and the subsequent Hermitage museum as nothing less than a slavish imitation of 18th century French Enlightenment Napoleonic culture. The aristocracy of that city (then the capital of Russia) speak more French than Russian among themselves. The architecture too has a heavy French influence. Hence the exclamation of the Marquis as to why everything in the Hermitage smacks of  imitation, which of course reveals a pronounced French bias toward the Enlightenment.

Of course the answer to that comment of the Marquis is the Russian revolution of 1917 which is uniquely Russian even though the Marxian socialist ideology is originally a Western product substantially modified by Lenin and Stalin to fit their authoritarian Machiavellian notions of good government. The film actually ends with the last grand ball given by the Tzar in 1913 at the Winter Palace just before the Revolution exploded on the scene. The exit of the aristocrats at the end of the movie is allegorical of their forced exit from Russia with the advent of Lenin and the Soviet empire, basically the decapitation of the intelligentsia of the country. History tells us what Stalin did with the hordes of peasants, so beloved by Tolstoy the aristocrat, when he found them useless for the industrialization and modernization of the Soviet Empire.


Vladimir Putin: on the footsteps of the Mongol Invasions?

The above brings us to the connection with the Winter Olympics. What we saw at the opening ceremonies what the apotheosis of Russian culture as a pure uncontaminated culture: novel writing, ballet, poetry, theater, music, while the 70 plus years of Russian communism were simply and innocuously branded as “a social experiment” gone wrong. The implication is easily deducible: the second time around we’ll get it right, for we have a superior pure civilization worth defending and spreading around while Western civilization is in decline under the weight of its own corruption. This mind-set is of course also an imitation of good old fashioned Western cultural imperialism, whether Putin is aware of it or not.


Opening Ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia

The most bizarre cultural event in all this is that of the closing Winter Olympics ceremonies where we witness a cute Disney-like Russian bear with a benign smile on its face saying farewell to the international community assembled for the games almost to say: come again any time, ye all. We know now what was in the mind of that cute bear; we saw it only a few days after the Olympics: nothing less than the annexation of Crimea and perhaps the other former colonies of Eastern Europe under the Soviet empire; surely worthy of a Machiavelli!  


A cute Russian Bear appearing at the Closing Ceremonies for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia

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