Monday, March 23, 2009

An Unpredictable Past and Future

24 March 2009
By Alexei Pankin

On Sunday, Rossia's "Vesti Nedeli" television program dedicated a segment to the film "Taras Bulba." This recent movie was based on Nikolai Gogol's novella of the same name, a classic work of 19th-century Russian literature with ethnic Ukrainian origins. The film's director, Vladimir Bortko, a Russian citizen with a Ukrainian surname, said in an interview, "Gogol's story is dedicated to the common history of the Russian people." But Bogdan Stupka, a Ukrainian who played the film's leading role, disagreed. "Gogol wrote about the history of the Ukrainian people," he said. "And the word 'Russian' in Ukrainian has a different meaning than in Russian."

Also on Sunday, Patriarch Kirill chimed in with his take on history. He proposed introducing a national holiday on June 12 commemorating the birthday of Alexander Nevsky, the 13th-century Grand Prince of Novgorod. According to the results of "The Name of Russia" 2008 Internet survey, Nevsky received the most votes as the figure who best symbolizes Russia.

During his lifetime, Nevsky was probably no more than a regional figure, but most modern Russians know of Nevsky from Sergei Eisenstein's famous film about him, which was made almost 70 years ago and is still shown periodically on television. The story behind the making of that Soviet-era film is truly bizarre. The film portrayed Nevsky's victory over the Teutons and was made on Stalin's order in 1938, just when the Soviet Union was trying to reach an agreement with Britain and France in their joint struggle against Hitler. Authorities banned the film after the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact with Germany in 1939. They then resumed screenings of the film after the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union in 1941 The Russian Orthodox Church reveres Nevsky for having resisted Catholic expansion and canonized him for the feat.

It is strange that on the same day an actor points out the subtleties of the Ukrainian translation of the original Russian text, while the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church lobbies for Nevsky -- a favorite of Stalin -- as a symbol for Russia because of his anti-Catholic achievements.

By another twist of fate, on that same day I was with a prominent historian who told me how historians from the Commonwealth of Independent States are attempting to formulate a common approach to the histories of the former Soviet republics. He said the historians, who all grew up and received their educations in the same country, the Soviet Union, gather with pleasure at conferences and freely admit to each other that the work they do often bears a closer resemblance to state-sponsored propaganda than true academic research.

All of the former Soviet republics, with their current borders, are new creations, products of the national policies of Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev. The historians in those countries are faced with the task of creating national mythologies.

My acquaintance told me that after admissions of this sort, the historians enjoy sitting around a banquet table together and raising a toast to the friendship of all peoples and against politics in general. For some reason, that made me wonder if Bortko and Stupka were the same: Having given their politically correct statements to the press, they probably went off to have a drink together.

During perestroika, Russians loved to repeat the joke that the Soviet Union is a country with an unpredictable past. Now the past has become even more unpredictable than ever.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.