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Vasiliy Stalin (Son of the People’s Father or The Son of the Leader of the People) Syn Ottsa Narodov (2013)

There never was a Vasiliy Stalin.”

Vasiliy Stalin (Son of the People’s Father or The Son of the Leader of the People) Syn Ottsa Narodov is a riveting and ultimately compassionate look at the life of Stalin’s troubled son, Vasiliy. This 2013 12-episode biopic, made for Russian television, covers the years of Vasiliy’s childhood, his first marriage to Galina, WWII, his second marriage to the daughter of Marshal Timoshenko, Stalin’s death and concludes in the 1960s. With each episode running approximately 55 minutes, this excellent, immersive biopic with a memorable musical score, takes its time detailing the life of Vasiliy, and even at a couple of points takes a few digressions and follows another story thread. At one point, for example, the plot follows Vasiliy’s sister, Svetlana’s romance with a journalist sent to Stalingrad. These digressions do not detract from the main storyline, but instead flesh out the complicated nuances of Soviet life under Stalin.

We see red-headed Vasiliy growing up in a remote home under the care of Sergei Efimov. Vasiliy is a bold, courageous boy who longs to fly, and so as a youth he trains as a pilot and rapidly rises in the Soviet Air Forces. Vasiliy presents many problems for his superiors who quake at the idea of disciplining this exuberant young man, but it’s through Vasiliy’s stellar military career that we see that while being the son of Stalin brings fast tracked rank (he made General in his 20s), Stalin is loathe to place Vasiliy in any danger as he would make a high-profile POW. In one scene, Stalin struggles with the German propaganda generated about POW Yakov, Stalin’s son from his first marriage.

Vasiliy StalinIt’s during the flight training and WWII  scenes that Vasiliy really seems to hit his peak. He’s a great leader of men, and this is defined through a couple of scenes involving fellow pilots. In one scene, a trainee steals Vasiliy’s watch, and while the other pilots want to see the thief punished, Vasiliy’s judgement shows compassion, generosity, and wisdom. In another scene, Vasiliy goes unpunished by his fearful commanders who are terrified to punish the son of Stalin, but Vasiliy insists on joining his peers in lock-up. In yet another WWII scene, we see a dear friend of Vasiliy’s make an enemy of the wrong man and after a petty incident, the friend (Alexey Vertkov) is arbitrarily carted off to the convict brigade where the convicts/pilots fly damaged planes. Vasiliy throws caution aside and challenges authority and yet this is an instance in which his name cannot save his friend. Through this episode we see the chilling randomness of Stalin’s punishments–even of those who make a major contribution to the war effort. Repeatedly, we see Stalin pick up his phone to relay orders to Beria, and Beria (sexual predator and Chief of NKVD) always seems to already have the intel on everyone in the entire country.

The WWII scenes include some fantastic dogfights, and there’s no doubt that Vasiliy Stalin was a Soviet hero, and yet at the same time we see his marriage falling apart and his drinking escalating which hint at the idea that Vasiliy may not fare well in peacetime. In fact as we follow Vasiliy into his 30s, he loses that youthful enthusiasm and instead seems weary and yet still keen to find an active role in post WWII Soviet society. Whoever did the make-up for the film did a great job of aging Vasiliy.

While the film depicts Vasiliy’s three major relationships with women: Galina, the daughter of Marshal Timoshenko, and Kapitalina, an athlete, there are generous hints that Vasiliy was a womanizer. At one point his minders cannot find him, and when the question arises regarding whether or not he has a mistress, one minder answers that there are addresses of women all over Moscow. It’s through his relationships with women that Vasily is cruel and at his worst, while he is at his best in his relationships with men.

The film argues that Vasiliy was seen as a threat by both Beria (a very creepy performance) and Khrushchev (portrayed as an indecisive, insecure idiot), and the film explores Vasiliy’s years in prison and ends with him sent into exile. Vasiliy was ultimately his father’s son, and since Khrushchev was busy repudiating Stalin’s rule, his Cult of Personality and secret murders, it was probably inevitable that Vasiliy would be silenced.

Vasiliy and Svetlana were the product of Stalin’s second marriage to Nadezhda Alliluyeva. While official sources state that Nadezhada died of peritonitis, she was reportedly found dead of a gunshot wound following a public fight with Stalin. The film shows a brief flashback moment seen through Vasiliy’s memory with the gun laying on the ground next to Nadezhda’s left hand, and we may draw our own conclusions regarding the controversy of Nadezhda’s death. There are a couple of other controversial moments in Vasiliy’s life: an aviation accident is mentioned briefly and then the plane disaster involving the USSR ice hockey team is presented in an entirely different manner than the Wikipedia version of events. Similarly the film hints that Stalin’s death may not have been from natural causes, but this comes only from a doubt expressed by Vasiliy, and again, we are left to speculate about the truth for ourselves.

Vasiliy is ultimately a tragic figure whose connection to Stalin was a double-edged sword. While being Stalin’s son gave untold privilege and status,Vasiliy paid dearly for the connection after his father’s death, and the film makes it quite clear that being the son of Stalin was a role that bore tremendous baggage. In his youth, Vasiliy just had to mention his famous surname in order to reverse consequences, and one of the film’s two great ironies is that in the last decade of his life, Vasiliy Stalin became, to all purposes, an unknown man of no importance. The second great irony underscored by the film is the way Vasiliy leaves his children to be brought up by minders–a repetition of his own tragic history.

Russian actor Gela Meskhi as Vasiliy hammers out a terrific, sensitive performance as a troubled man haunted by his own demons. While the rest of the country was able to move on with the new post Stalin paradigm, Vasiliy could not– as to deny his name and his relationship with his father was too big a price to pay. Highly recommended for fans of Russian cinema. And Russian film fans, keep your eyes open for Gela Meskhi; this is a talent to watch.

Directed by Sergei Shcherbin

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Katyn (2007)

katynThe Polish film Katyn (aka Post Mortem, Opowiesc Katynska) begins appropriately in 1939 with two sets of Poles passing and fleeing in opposite directions. One group is fleeing from the Nazis and the other group is fleeing from the Red Army. Fleeing from one army sends the Poles slap bang into the other option–it’s the devil or the deep blue sea, and as I watched this scene I asked myself which side I would run to (or from)? If I were Jewish, I’d run to the Red Army, but what if I were a Polish Army officer? Which side would be the most likely to respect POWs?

Katyn from director Andrzej Wajda explores the horrendous true story of what happened to over 20,000 Polish Officers and civilians at the hands of the Red Army. The film tells the story mainly through the eyes of Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) who travels on bicycle with her young daughter, towards the Polish border and the onslaught of the Red Army. All the soldiers have been released but the officers are rounded up and held in make-shift camps. Here she has a very brief reunion with her husband, Polish Army officer Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski). She begs him to flee with her but Andrzej refuses. Instead he and his friend, Lt. Jerzy (Andrzej Chyra) are shipped out together to yet another camp.

The film follows Anna’s struggles to return across the Polish border and the years that follow. While Anna and many other Polish officer wives believe their husbands are still alive, news begins to trickle out that mass graves have been discovered in the Katyn forest.

Some scenes depict the Polish officers in the Soviet controlled camps waiting to be ‘shipped out’, and the plot follows both the Nazi and the Soviet propaganda surrounding the story as both sides blame each other for the slaughter and the bodies are dug up multiple times for evidence. The timeline of the mass murders becomes the crucial element–with the Soviets insisting that the officers were slaughtered when the area was under Nazi occupation and the Nazis insisting that the Poles were murdered by the Red Army in 1940.

At first the Nazis in occupied Poland pressured widows to sign statements incriminating the Soviets but when the Soviets reoccupy Poland they show propaganda films blaming the atrocity on the Nazis. And the world, already aware of the Nazi death camps accepted the news that even more atrocities had been committed by the Nazis.

The film’s narrative wavers about 2/3 of the way into the film as the characters we have followed are dropped and new characters are introduced and summarily squashed by the Bolshies as it becomes perfectly clear that under the Soviet-controlled regime, the families of Katyn victims had to endure a yoke of silence or bear the consequences…. Focusing on Poland, the film doesn’t explore the Allied involvement in the cover-up. Winston Churchill, for example, publicly blamed the Nazis but privately knew the Bolshies were responsible, and American reports were suppressed and destroyed. The film also does not include the fact that officers were not the only victims–policeman and boy scouts were also rounded up and exterminated. Those points aside, the enactments of the systematic murder of thousands of officers is accurately portrayed, and the result is a moving film in which the Polish people are show in the crossfire of two pathological, murderous powers. The overwhelming feeling is great sorrow for the victims and amazement that anyone survived this mess. The director was 14 years old at the time of the Katyn slaughter and his own father, Jakub Wajda was one of the murdered.

At the time of Katyn, the world was not yet aware of Stalin’s monstrous policies. I should add here that Katyn was Beria’s idea but it was an idea that certainly fit into Stalin’s Soviet model. According to author Orlando Figes in his book The Whisperers:

“Extraordinary even by the standards of the Stalinist regime, the Great terror was not a routine wave of mass arrests, such as those that swept across the country throughout Stalin’s reign, but a calculated policy of mass murder. No longer satisfied with imprisoning his real or imagined ‘political enemies’, Stalin now ordered the police to take people out of the prisons and labour camps and murder them. In the two years 1937 and 1938, according to incomplete statistics, a staggering total of at least 681,692 people, and probably far more, were shot for ‘crimes against the state’ (91 per cent of all death sentences for political crimes between 1921 and 1940, if NKVD figures are to be believed).”

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The Cold Summer of 1953 (1987)

 

“I’m not duty bound to anyone.”

It’s the Soviet Union in 1953. Stalin is dead, and Beria declares an amnesty for all the jailed criminals. In a remote Siberian village, a policeman arrives with the news of the amnesty, and he’s looking for 6 newly-released inmates. Immediately upon their release, these criminals committed an armed robbery and are now wanted men once more.

cold-summerThe tiny, impoverished Siberian village is set on a river’s edge. Most of the inhabitants are elderly men and there’s also a mute woman and her buxom daughter. Two exiled political prisoners–Nikolai (Anatoli Papanov) and Sergei (Valeri Priyomykhov)–are in the village to complete their sentences for committing obscure crimes against the state. The older man, Nikolai–also known as Spade, is integrated into the village, and as he willingly joins in the work, he’s become accepted. Sergei–now know as Chaff–refuses to contribute, and the villagers are tired of feeding a man who refuses to work. Both Spade and Chaff have years left ahead in their sentences, and as political prisoners they are not included in the amnesty.

The 6 brutal criminals invade the village and hold the villagers hostage. This event becomes a moment of truth for both Chaff and Spade–should they escape and save their own skins–or do they assist the villagers?

On one level, The Cold Summer of 1953 from director Aleksandr Proshkin is a marvelous, tense action story. But on another deeper level, the film is an allegory for Soviet politics. The violent criminals represent the state–invading, imprisoning and murdering. The people (the villagers in this case) passively accept orders–even those that include the death of another human being. And the only men to resist the newly arrived criminal regime are–of course–the two political prisoners. Some of the film’s first scenes show the village government worker ensconced in his hut surrounded by photos of Stalin and various Soviet dignitaries. He can’t believe that Beria–who briefly seized power is now “an enemy of the people”–but he accepts a regime change with obsequious fear and with the knowledge that he must get it right or face implied violence if he questions the political changes. To him, and to the rest of the bureaucrats in the village, a regime change–albeit even that exacted by criminals–is little different from the distant, cruel dictates of an insane state. Amazingly, The Cold Summer of 1953 was made before the fall of the Soviet Union. This film is recommended for anyone interested in Soviet cinema or politics. The DVD is in Russian with an extraordinary number of options for subtitles–a short interview with the director is included.

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The Inner Circle (1991)

“There are spies and subversives everywhere.”

If Stalin turned to you and tried to elicit confidences with the statement: “Don’t worry, we are all friends here” you would have good reason to be worried, and that’s exactly the situation Ivan Sanshin (Tom Hulce) confronts in the film The Inner Circle.

When the film begins, Ivan is a lowly projectionist for the KGB club. On his wedding night, he’s scooped by up KGB officials and swept off to the Kremlin. Since one of his neighbours has just been arrested for being an “enemy of the state” Ivan isn’t particularly optimistic about the outcome. But as fate would have it, Ivan is destined to become Stalin’s projectionist, and over the years he scurries off to the Kremlin at all hours of the night to indulge Stalin’s love of Western film.

The Inner Circle is a clever film, and it establishes a great deal early in the plot development. Ivan isn’t a noble character; he’s just someone who wants to get by, so when his neighbours are dragged off and disappear into the void, he doesn’t ask questions. Neither does he worry when he profits from their arrest and is allowed to move into their slightly larger apartment. At his job at the Kremlin, Ivan sees first hand the different standards for those who rule Russia and those who suffer from those rules. For example, one of the reasons Ivan’s neighbours are considered enemies of the state is because they possess materials written in a foreign language. Yet Stalin and his various ministers enjoy banned Western films on a nightly basis. The film very cleverly allows the viewer to draw conclusions about the hypocrisy of the leaders who indulge in activities that the minions of the state would be shipped off to labour camps or executed for. But Ivan, unfortunately doesn’t make the connections. He continues to worship Stalin and Beria–alternately overwhelmed and terrified when they glance at him.

Ivan’s wife, Anastasia (Lolita Davidovich) however, doesn’t quite accept things as blindly as her husband. She’s not portrayed as a subversive or a dissident, but when Anatasia questions the fate of the neighbour’s little girl, she jeopardizes herself and Ivan.

The film includes some wonderful imagery. The Sanshins, for example, live on Slaughterhouse Street–named aptly for the slaughterhouse that stands at the end of the road. From their basement apartment, they see hundreds of cows ambling to their imminent deaths. These sequences are accompanied by Ivan’s narration about Stalin’s purges, and the journey of the cows, is of course, symbolic of the massive slaughter of Russians during Stalin’s reign of power. Just as Ivan watches the cows amble by, he is a spectator to the actions of the Kremlin.

The fake Russian accents are tedious, but the acting was excellent. The film does a marvelous job of conveying the effectiveness of fear as a controlling device. There’s one scene when a KGB agent warns Ivan that there are spies everywhere, and there’s a sort of irony to this as, of course, the spies are your neighbours, your friends, your workmates, and fear has simply made this so. Fear–not foreign espionage–has infiltrated Stalinist society at every level. Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, The Inner Circle is Ivan’s tale, and this true story presents a chilling portrait of a horrific era.

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