In his November 25th hatchet job on Oliver Stone in the NY Times Sunday Magazine, Andrew Goldman had this to say:
Stone often comes to understand, too late, the consequences of his words. In Spain, he talked openly about the furor that ensued when, in 2010, a British journalist asked him why people were so fixated on memorializing the Holocaust, considering, as he told her, that “Hitler did far more damage to the Russians” than he did to the Jews and that the Russians lost “25, 30 million” in the war. It was, Stone claimed, because of what he called “the Jewish domination of the media” and Israel’s “powerful lobby in Washington.”
Goldman went on to mention Stone’s apology for the comment but dropped the more interesting question of how little interest there is in the West about the cost of WWII to the Russian people. While the Jews certainly lost more lives on a percentage basis than the Russians, Operation Barbarossa—the name Hitler gave to the invasion of the USSR–certainly did have a genocidal character, especially for the citizens of Leningrad.
In early October my comrade Thomas Campbell, who works with the Chto Delat collective in Russia, dropped me a line about a documentary titled “900 Days” that was directed by Jessica Gorter, a friend of his. She sent me the film about a month ago and I finally got around to watching it. What follows are some thoughts on the documentary and other relevant material.
I have had a keen interest in the siege of Leningrad ever since reading Harrison Salisbury’s “900 Days: the Siege of Leningrad” about a decade ago. Salisbury, who was The New York Times’ Moscow bureau chief from 1949-1954 and died in 1993, was not the typical Timesman. Wikipedia reports:
Salisbury was among the earliest mainstream journalists to oppose the Vietnam War after reporting from North Vietnam in 1966. He took much heat from the Johnson Administration and the political Right, but his previous standards of objectivity helped to sway journalistic opinion against the war. He is interviewed in the anti-Vietnam War documentary film In the Year of the Pig. He was the first American journalist to report on the Vietnam War from North Vietnam after having been invited there by the North Vietnamese government in late 1966. His report was the first that genuinely questioned the American air war.
Although his book is a painful read, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is not just a catalog of the horrors of living in conditions that were as dire in some ways as Auschwitz; it is also a story of heroism and even a commitment to socialist ideals that persisted despite Stalinist misrule. While Google Books is no substitute for reading the entire book, it is worth checking out to get a feel for his reporting. This excerpt refers to cannibalism, an act of desperation for a starving people who in many cases no longer had dogs, cats, or rats to eat—they had long since been devoured.
In the Haymarket people walked through the crowd as though in a dream. They were pale as ghosts and thin as shadows. Only here and there passed a man or woman with a face, full, rosy and somehow soft yet leathery. A shudder ran through the crowd. For these, it was said, were the cannibals. Dmitri Moklavsky met a man like that on the staircase of his apartment. The man had been to his mother’s flat, where he traded four glasses of flour and a pound of gelatin powder for some clothing. The man had a pink face and splendid, widely spaced blue eyes. Moldavsky thought he would never forget the sight. Instinctively, he wanted to kill this man with the tender cheeks and the too, too bright eyes. He knew what he was. Cannibals. Who were they? How many were they? It is not a subject which the survivors of Leningrad like to discuss. There were no cannibals, a professor recalls. Or rather, there were cannibals, but it only happened when people went crazy. There was a case of which he had heard, for instance, the case of a mother, crazed for food, She lost her mind, went completely mad, killed her daughter and butchered the body. She ground up the flesh and made meat patties. But this was not typical. It was a kind of insane aberration which might happen anywhere at any time in fact, the professor recalled reading of a similar case before the war.
Jessica Gorter’s film is a powerful exercise in oral history with interviews of a number of men and women in their 80s and above who lived through these terrible days. And what is more, they have little use for the ceremonial misuse of the 900 days that has become part of Russia’s new nationalistic baggage. They are ashamed of the degraded deeds they were forced to carry out (cooking and eating a beloved family pet) and angry at the officialdom that was party responsible for their misery. For example, we learn that the main food storage site was not adequately protected from Nazi bombs, a mistake all too characteristic of a Soviet Union that was ill-prepared to defend against the blitzkrieg.
This is not to say that everyone shares this outlook. During a reunion meeting of Leningrad siege survivors, about half the participants retain fond memories of Stalin and are anxious to protect his reputation against his detractors.
One of the outrages the survivors had to endure occurred long after the siege had been lifted. Referring to “The Leningrad Affair”, Wikipedia provides some interesting details on a city Stalin long suspected as a rival of Moscow and home to his arch-enemy Leon Trotsky:
During the siege of Leningrad, the city leaders were practically autonomous from Moscow and still managed to build an impenetrable defense that saved the city during the 900-days-long siege and won the battle on their own, while Stalin and his Kremlin cabinet did not control Leningrad. Survivors of the siege became national heroes, and leaders of Leningrad again gained much clout in the Soviet Federal government in Moscow. Now Stalin needed to restore his dictatorial control.
In January 1949 Pyotr Popkov, Aleksei Kuznetsov and Nikolai Voznesensky organized a Leningrad Trade Fair to boost the post-war economy and support the survivors of the Siege of Leningrad with goods and services from other regions of the Soviet Union. The Fair was attacked by official Soviet propaganda, and was falsely portrayed as a scheme to use the federal budget from Moscow for business development in Leningrad, although the budget and economics of such a trade fair were normal and legitimate and approved by State Planning Commission and the government of the USSR. Other accusations included that Kuznetsov, Popkov and others tried to re-establish Leningrad’s historic and political importance as a former capital of Russia, thus competing with Moscow-centered communist government.
Six leading officials of Leningrad, including the Mayor, were executed by a firing squad while another 200 served prison terms between 10 to 25 years.
For an informative albeit odd perspective, one might have a look at the “Siege of Leningrad” that was part of the Battlefield series on PBS in the mid-90s. With almost no interest in the suffering of the Russians, it is a review of the tactics used by the Nazi armies that disconcertingly insists on referring to the ingenuity and bravery of the Northern Sector Army that surrounded Leningrad. As it turns out, the siege was dictated by Nazi weakness rather than strength. Hitler simply lacked the means to attack the city head-on as was the case with Stalingrad. To some extent this was a function of the loss of machinery that succumbed to dust during the long march from eastern Germany to the heart of the USSR. The documentary is worth watching even if it is frequently off-putting.
In trying to cover as many different bases as possible, I also had a look at the 2009 Russian narrative film “Attack on Leningrad” that can be seen on Netflix streaming. With a mostly Russian cast directed by Aleksandr Buravsky that includes a couple of Hollywood regulars Mira Sorvino and Gabriel Byrne as Western war correspondents, it is a sincere but altogether misconceived work. It depicts some of the horrors that Salisbury’s book and Gorter’s documentary detailed but is mostly about Sorvino’s character’s attempt to define herself in relationship to the Soviet Union. As the daughter of a top White Army officer who went into exile, she is both the target of impersonal Nazi weaponry and Stalinist secret police attempts to bring her “to justice”. In more capable hands, the film might have come to life. Unfortunately, Buravsky is fairly incompetent if well-meaning. I would only recommend the film to hardy souls willing to put up with a lot of nonsense in the course of experiencing a film that represents the working out of a terrible trauma to the Russian psyche.
But if you are interested in the real goods, there is no substitute for Jessica Gorter’s documentary that is available from Icarus Films but only at the considerable price of $398. (http://icarusfilms.com/new2012/900.html) Let’s hope that the film makes its way to PBS, Netflix, or general theatrical distribution. It deserves the widest viewing.
While not specifically dealing with Leningrad, I had a chance to see “White Tiger”, the film that is Russia’s Official Entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Academy Awards.
Based on the novel “Tankman”, it is a “patriotic” film of the sort that the Putin regime would endorse, one that goes hand-in-hand with ritualistic parades commemorating the 900 days. It is focused on a Russian tank crewman who miraculously survived a direct hit by the “White Tiger”, a Nazi tank that seems to be resistant to all Soviet shelling. After it has destroyed dozens of Soviet tanks, the ghost-like tank disappears into the mist. To destroy the “White Tiger”, the Soviet brass calls upon the mysterious survivor and a crew willing to die in a battle against the Nazi invader. The film can best be described as a mixture of traditional “socialist realism” and Moby Dick. To give you an idea of its bloodlines, the opening credits state that is a joint production of Mosfilm and a top Russian bank. Welcome to the New Russia.
An interview with Cinema Without Borders‘s Bijan Tehrani should give you some idea about director Karen Shakhnazarov’s goals.
BT: As a film critic, I had been wanting to see war scenes in the same quality we had in Mikhail Kalatozov [director of "The Cranes are Flying], which you achieve while bringing a fresh mind. Were you influenced by the Russian cinema of that time?
KS: I myself have very great appreciation for the old Soviet war films; that was the tradition in which I was brought up and I wanted to link it with today’s new approach and new possibilities. Time passes but World War II remains the most important event. But at the same time, my sense is that a new approach is required today.
BT: You mentioned that this film is based on your admiration of Moby Dick. I can recognize this in the film. But there was also this sense of magical story-telling such as you can find in the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example believing the tanks have a soul and talk to the main character. Was this done intentionally in the film?
KS: Yes, it was done intentionally. It was my purpose to make the tanks look like a creature with a soul. If I succeeded, I am happy.
I would say that the director did succeed as well. Look for this film if and when it opens at your local art theater in 2013.
“White Tiger” ends with a conversation among characters from the Red Army musing about the disappearance of the White Tiger. One of them says that as long as there is a fascist threat, there is always the danger that the White Tiger reappearing. (My feeling is that there is an element of Stephen King as well as Herman Melville in the film.)
Despite the willingness of Vladimir Putin to appropriate symbols of Russia’s storied anti-fascist past, there are signs that this is mere lip-service as Thomas Campbell reminded me in a recent email:
Saint Petersburg anti-fascists marked the seventh anniversary of the death of their comrade Timur Kacharava. After the sanctioned action was over, police demanded that the friends of the deceased man remove all the flowers laid at the site of Timur’s death.
The friends refused, so the police got a homeless man to do it.
Just a little taste of a life in a city where, once upon a time, over a million people perished during a Nazi siege.
Timur Kacharava was stabbed to death by neo-Nazis in broad daylight in downtown Petersburg on November 13, 2005. The murder took place just a stone’s throw away from an obelisk erected to mark the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two.