Despite the deep hostility of present-day Russian film-makers to the concept of socialism, a considerable number of films about the Soviet past have been made in Russia during the past decade. For the most part, the directors of these films have sought to outdo one another in depicting the agonies of Soviet history. But while the horrors have been shown in abundance, there has been little effort in post-Soviet cinematography to present a genuine critique of Stalinism. The aggressive and usually undiscriminating abuse hurled at the record of the Soviet period has served variously to strengthen social nihilism and cynicism, and to reinforce a wave of neo-Stalinist sentiment.
One result has been that both Russian audiences and the film-makers themselves have tended to grow weary of the national cinema, of its themes and preoccupations. This sentiment was already becoming entrenched when a new film by the well-known director Nikita Mikhalkov was released. Entitled Burnt by the Sun (Utomlennye Solntsem), the film met with an enthusiastic reception not only in Russia but also in the West, eventually receiving an Oscar. Among those who began talking about the film were large numbers of ‘simple’ viewers. Untypically for post-Soviet cinema, which in the cases where it has not been crudely propagandistic has usually focused on private and personal concerns, Burnt by the Sun uses the medium of film to pose social questions and explore social relationships.
In many ways, therefore, Mikhalkov’s film has presented a challenge to the main trends in post-Soviet Russian cinema. With film-making in this country dominated by the genre of ‘democratic realism’, advancing its mass of sombre themes and damning judgements, our cinema audiences have been left without heroes. And here at last in Burnt by the Sun is an indubitable hero, even if he is a Bolshevik divisional commander. Moreover, the divisional commander is a hero not simply because he is the main character in the film, and has a past as a hero of the revolution. More important is the fact that he wins a moral duel, if not with the times in which he is currently living—though this question is posed as well—then at least with the character who acts as his antithesis.
At the same time, the film’s subject is not new as a vehicle for dealing with the theme of Stalinism. The time is the summer of 1936, and the setting is the country dacha of the Soviet divisional commander, Kotov. Living with Kotov are his family, and also various elderly relatives of his wife. The latter represent a sort of Chekhovian ‘dacha intelligentsia’; they
But if there is a hero, there must also be the hero’s antithesis. By chance as first it seems, an old friend of these members of the intelligentsia arrives in the house. This friend is Mitya. We discover that in his youth, before the divisional commander appeared on the scene, Mitya lived with this family and was friendly with young Marusya, who later became the commander’s wife. Mitya was a talented youth for whom great hopes were held. The revolution and then the civil war decided his fate. First he went to fight with the White Army, and then after its defeat tried to carry on with his life in emigration. But later, after returning to his homeland, he became an agent of the nkvd. Now, many years later, he returns to this house not so much for the purpose of arresting the divisional commander as to settle accounts with him. The dénouement proceeds in the course of a single day, but we have the feeling that a whole epoch is passing before us on the screen.
Nevertheless, the main attraction of this film does not lie in the presence of a hero or in the addressing of the theme of Stalinism. More important is the fact that Mikhalkov openly poses questions which since the perestroika years have split our society into counterposed groups. Furthermore, Mikhalkov gives his own answers to these questions, overturning many of the clichés which have come to characterize the Russian cinema in the epoch of post-Soviet ‘democracy’.
The first such question is that of the relationship between the popular masses, the intelligentsia and the authorities. In the film this relationship is presented as follows: the son of the people is the divisional commander, who ‘never studied in the universities’, but who nevertheless ‘went through the whole course’ in the school of life. There is also a member of the intelligentsia, Mitya. The authorities are present as well; symbolically they are represented by Stalin and, in practice, by inconspicuous people in plain clothes.