Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 4, 2012

The 900 Days

Filed under: Film,Russia — louisproyect @ 9:01 pm

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.

Harrison Salisbury

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:

If You Want to Commemorate the Murder of an Anti-Fascist in Petersburg, Police Will Treat You Like Scum

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.

20 Comments »

  1. Would that be “Herman” Melville? (send me a quarter and I’ll continue to edit for you)

    Comment by uh...clem — December 4, 2012 @ 9:24 pm

  2. Would you settle for 10 percent of my profits?

    Comment by louisproyect — December 4, 2012 @ 9:28 pm

  3. A nice overview of the available films on the Siege of Leningrad from different sources. I remember watching the PBS one when it came out. I think it was generally accurate.

    The “White Tiger” one seems straight up science-fiction and nothing more than that. However, a rarity, the Nazi mystery tank is not fought with the venerable T-34s produced in massive numbers but the rarer “Joseph Stalin” heavy tank or “IS” or “IS-2″, which I’ve never seen on film anywhere. They must of scrounged every scrap yard in Russia to find them!

    Louis, I think you might miss the point on the strategic discussion in Siege of Leningrad documentary. The piece you excerpted shows a very accurate description of the competing Germany Army plans for their overall conquest, and destruction of the USSR. In fact far from noting that they could never defeat and occupy Leningrad, it was neither the machinery not holding up or the persistence of the brave defenders of the city against their attacks but the lack of a coherent, overall strategy that would of focused all the German army (thus replacing that machinery and overwhelming the defenders) on more modest, and timely, objectives. Instead of one unified attack, the Germans were divided in goals: Leningrad, Moscow and the Odessa/Stalingrad thrust, all at the same time. At least this is what is implied in the documentary take-out you presented.

    David

    Comment by David Walters — December 4, 2012 @ 10:28 pm

  4. David, you should watch the whole thing.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 4, 2012 @ 10:50 pm

  5. Wikipedia as quoted here asserts that Stalin opposed Nikolai Voznesensky of Leningrad because Stalin feared a threat to central rule out of Leningrad. Sorry, there is more to it than that by far.

    Nikolai Voznesensky was a top economic planning official of the entire Soviet government, not merely a Leningrad official. Stalin’s Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR is directed against views advocated by Voznesensky.

    You might agree with one side or the other about economic planning, but the Wikipedia statement hides the whole ideological struggle from the reader.

    Comment by Sovietophile — December 4, 2012 @ 11:17 pm

  6. Great article,very informative about a subject I know little about. Thanks.

    Comment by frankcavestaniFrank — December 5, 2012 @ 1:03 am

  7. I think this commentary is well intentioned but it and some of the sources it quotes put too much of the onus on the Soviet Government and not on the Nazis aggressors, although surely the Stalin regime’s course during the Stalin-Hitler Pact and the purge of the military were factors that in general terms contributed to the Soviets’ rout early in the war. Beyond that, second guessing the conduct of the war like armchair civil war buffs or reenactors is quite easy from our comfortable circumstances today, but not that useful.

    Horrible things happen when people are put under a siege like that. War is ugly and this was the biggest war in human history. Starving people sometimes go nuts and eat human flesh. Just saw a documentary about the Donner Party last night that dealt with that issue. It’s not a pretty picture. Nonetheless, it is to the credit of the the Soviet people and their fortitude and heroism that they held out as long as they did while conducting themselves in as dignified a manner overall as they did under the circumstances and then triumphed. Moreover, the aid provided by the Soviet government in Moscow and the Allies by sea and over land after Lake Lagoda froze over materially aided that in a powerful way.

    And yes, Stone’s point is well taken although he expressed it inartfully in a way that set him up for these political attacks. My mother gave me a copy of his book on the hidden history of the US which is excellent.

    Comment by Tom Cod — December 5, 2012 @ 7:59 am

  8. And not let’s not forget the huge deprivations, horrors, including cannabalism, that occurred during the Russian Civil War under Lenin and Trotsky. I’m sure there were plenty of people with no particular political ax to grind and with huge stret cred for having gone through that, that had a very jaundiced view of the Soviet Government as a result. Obviously the Whites and their imperialist backers played a big role in all that, something these folks would probably concede, but wouldn’t want to keep hearing what they would consider time worn excuses based on it, to say nothing of communist idolatry. Reality and the idealized version of history are usually entirely different. Witness the flap over the movie Lincoln.

    Comment by Tom Cod — December 5, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

  9. I often wondered that if Lenin & Trotsky lived into their 80’s and Stalin never came to power there would have been no pact with Hitler who wouldn’t, therefore, have chanced an attack on the Soviets. that is, Hitler must’ve sensed the blundering incompetence of Stalin’s Oriental Despotism. On the other hand my old dad used to argue the only reason Hitler dared attack a land that covered some 8 time zones was that in light of the World Depression he needed to stop the Soviets’ 5 year plans lest they unleashed productive forces that overwhelmed all of Europe. Sure, Hitler needed oil but if he sent all of those Eastern Front forces into the Africa Corp instead surely Libya would have been a much softer target, which is why the idea his real goal was to crush the planned economy of the world’s first workers’ state.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 5, 2012 @ 11:59 pm

  10. If only I had been a red diaper baby, Karl. I might not feel like a lumbering bumbling little brown skinned communist caged on all sides by my imperial master.

    Comment by Pandora — December 6, 2012 @ 1:31 am

  11. The Russians haven’t forgotten what happened to them.

    And the Chinese haven’t forgotten about World War 2, either.

    Comment by purple — December 6, 2012 @ 5:45 am

  12. “On the other hand my old dad used to argue the only reason Hitler dared attack a land that covered some 8 time zones was that in light of the World Depression he needed to stop the Soviets’ 5 year plans lest they unleashed productive forces that overwhelmed all of Europe.”

    Hitler was keen on planning too you know.

    Comment by Harsanyi_Janos — December 8, 2012 @ 1:08 am

  13. Janos speaks Bullshit. Hitler was a lousy planner. Never mind the historical facts of starving ill-prepared troops for the Russian winter, just look at what shortages Rommel had to deal with in the Africa Corp!

    As a kid in the 70’s I played this fantastic unique board game called “Stalingrad” with my dad. It was like a combination of classic chess mixed with the board games “Risk” and “Monopoly” but set in the years 1940-1945. The board was a map of Eurasia & N. Africa. Each month from 1940 on up the Allied & Axis armies were allocated reinforcement troops, provisions, etc. No matter which side I took my dad always won (just like Chess & Risk & Monopoly) because he was a unique genius when it came to combat strategy.

    So I usually took the side of the underdogs at Stalingrad. It was freakin’ miserable and the game seemed so unfair I’d always complain it was a stupid BS game & threaten to quit. He’d say, hang in there son & have some patience & fortitude. Sure enough if I could withstand his relentless blitzkriegs my forces grew exponentially the last 2 years and I could almost beat him. Bottom line is if Hitler was as smart as my poor old commie dad we might be speaking German today.

    So I’d take the German Axis side the next week — certain that I’d be able to take the advantages of the early years & overwhelm those bewildered Rooskies but try as I might the old man always snookered me in the end, no matter which side I chose.

    So the fact that in the real world a paranoid schizo sociopath dunce like Stalin managed to overwhelm Hitler proves unequivocally that Hitler was a terrible shithead of a planner in particular, never mind a terrible shithead in general.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 8, 2012 @ 1:59 am

  14. [# 10. If only I had been a red diaper baby, Karl. I might not feel like a lumbering bumbling little brown skinned communist caged on all sides by my imperial master.]

    Hey Pando. I’m not sure if you’re trying to ridicule red diaper babies or brown people or commies or just me but if you have any doubts that every revolution that tried to implement a workers’ state wasn’t immediately “caged on all sides by [an] imperial master” then you haven’t been paying close attention to history because the fact is the so-called “Cold War” — which guys like Orwell attributed to the year 1948 (thus his novel “1984”) — actually started in 1918 to crush the Bolshevik Revolution and never let up an iota until degenerate reactionary goons like Yeltsin took power and resurrected the Czarist flag over the Kremlin.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 8, 2012 @ 2:13 am

  15. Hitler identified Slavic eastern Europe early on as a natural target because he thought (as did some other trends in German thinking) that the Slavs were just an inferior subhuman species which would fall over easily once the Aryan master race began to assert itself. These ideas were formulated before the USSR had begun to industrialize and appear in Mein Kampf in the 1920s. Hitler’s Table Talk in the early months of Barbarossa shows that he still had not grasped that the USSR was now heavily capable of fighting a modern war. The first glimmer of sense starts to appear in Hitler’s speeches around October 1941, but even then he managed to convince himself again that the USSR would fall over soon. It wasn’t until Stalingrad that Hitler’s comprehension decisively shifted.

    That was why the exhumations at Katyn Forest only suddenly occurred after Stalingrad. From the first day of Barbarossa there were rumors floating around which could have been deliberately tracked down and led to the exhumations at Katyn by August 1, 1941, at the latest. This would have created a big problem for Roosevelt if Hitler had presented the war from the onset as a war for freedom the way US imperialism typically likes to posture in places like Libya or Iraq. Lend-Lease would have been harder to explain to Polish-American voters if this had been done. Hitler never bothered to do this because he was certain that colonizing Poland, Russia and much of the rest of eastern Europe would be an easy task and so there was no need to pretend to be a friend of the Slavs.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — December 9, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

  16. Right, but re: post #12 — when the 1000 Year Reich couldn’t last a decade there’s no evidence that Hitler was a good planner.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 9, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

  17. Karl I wasn’t ridiculing anybody. I was being earnest. It’s only within the last two years that I’ve considered myself a communist, this after I bumped by complete dumb luck into a Bolshevik online by the name of Scott Cooper who encouraged me to read some Lenin. Several small events in the last couple weeks, among them finishing reading What is to be Done? and watching all of Richard Wolff’s Introduction to Marxian Economics both of which destroyed my patience for the middle class, have caused the fire of revolution to burn that much more brighter in me. I hope someday to be worthy of the adjective “revolutionary.”

    I wish I’d been a red diaper baby. What little political consciousness I have now I’ve had to earn all on my own which is no easy feat since I’m not a very dedicated student and I’ve no one to discuss all this revolutionary literature I’ve exposed myself to. And this change in my political consciousness is all the more important to me because I live in one of America’s many colonies: Puerto Rico. Hence the brown skin.

    I meant no disrespect Karl. In fact one of the reasons I return to this blog again and again is in the hopes of reading another of your posts. Of which there aren’t enough.

    Comment by Pandora — December 10, 2012 @ 5:14 am

  18. Fair enough Pandora. My apologies for the confusion. Impatience with middle class sensibilities is typically indicative of a healthy political orientation so welcome to the fold.

    Now it’s time to get your mind blown with a classic read from another leader of the Russian Revolution that exposes the material foundations of middle class morality which is even more pernicious to a revolutionary movement:

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/morals/morals.htm

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 10, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

  19. Thank you Karl. I’ll make sure to give that a read since the only other writing from Trotsky I’ve read is that piece about the use of terror. It’ll be “fun” juggling that and volume 1 of Capital.

    Comment by Pandora — December 10, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

  20. [...] 5. White Tiger – A new Russian film about WWII with a Nazi ghost tank being challenged by a Red Army ghost crew. A return to the good old days of Russian cinema, a combination of a Spaghetti Western and Melville. (reviewed at  http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/the-900-days/) [...]

    Pingback by Best films of 2012 « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 12, 2013 @ 2:45 pm


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