On or around 1153, Her Royal Highness Anna, Princess Komnene, firstborn of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, completed The Alexiad, the first Western history book authored by a woman and the inaugural record of an imperialist cultural form pursued through the Romanovs and resuscitated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. A pious daughter of the Church and worthy claimant of the throne, Anna professes a providential direction of historical events, writing, “God was protecting Komnenos like some precious object for a greater destiny, wishing through him to revive the Roman power.” But hers was also an admittedly paranoid world of relentless Norman, Turkish, and other barbarian incursions together with popish intrigues, as well as pitiless in the terrible revenge exacted upon vanquished pretenders and usurpers, who could anticipate the diabolical ordeal of public blinding as punishment for political incorrection. The dynamic tension between these seemingly irreconcilable opposites provides the fulcrum for Eastern Byzantine, above all Russian political psychology.
Proceeding from word to image, the Mosfilm Cinema Concern is the official Russian movie studio, locating national motion-picture production during both the Soviet and Putinist eras. Beginning last September, this authoritarian art house—as if according to directive—systematically began to digitally remaster, to English subtitle, and to YouTube upload many of its acknowledged classics, such as the science-fiction milestone Stalker (1979), or the absorbing dramatic comedy Moscow Does not Believe in Tears (1979). But the main attraction of the collection are its World War II movies, now entered into Western public domain for the first time. Consultation of these officially sanctioned films provides valuable insights into both the long-standing incomprehension and the newfound enmity between the inhabitants of the Western democracies and the Russian Federation.
The most salient theme throughout is the world-historical heroism of the Russian people in reversing repeated attempts by mysterious foreign powers to invade and subjugate their Motherland, with the Napoleonic episode the main subject of Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace (1966–67), the greatest cinematic version of the Leo Tolstoy novel. The on-screen struggle against the Third Reich, however, opens with The Fall of Berlin (1950), a movie famous for the brilliance of its technicolor, for the astonishing likeness of its actors to their characters, for its rousing score by Dmitri Shostakovich, and for a Stalinist personality cult so invasive—the general secretary is seen to land in Berlin and receive the adulation of the troops the very day of Hitler’s death—that Nikita Khrushchev attacked the film specifically in his “secret speech” to the Communist Party of February 1956. Satisfactory cinematic treatment of the valor and glory of Russian resistance to the Nazis awaited Yuri Ozerov’s Liberation (1967–72), a five-volume epic that opens with the Battle of Kursk that began the reversal and concludes with the Battle of Berlin that sealed the fate of Nazi Germany. Together with his subsequent Battle for Moscow (1985), Ozerov furnishes the primary cinematic representation of the Great Patriotic War, in which recreations of panoramic epic sequences, of decisive smaller engagements, and of the wartime Allied conferences wherein Joseph Stalin is seen to preside and Vyacheslav Molotov to lurk depict as fully as motion picture can achieve an invasion that inflicted violent death upon twenty million Soviet people, and that threatened total destruction to the Soviet cities and towns. Ozerov’s dramatizations of the massive tank contests at the Kursk salient and the amphibious landings on the western bank of the Dnieper river are especially absorbing; and the glorious final victory of the Red Army on the battered steps of the German Reichstag, wherein the conquering hosts of history are seen to sing, dance, and otherwise rejoice, ranks among the most memorable and impressive scenes in the history of film. Ozerov sought to both balance out the absence of any Russian involvement in the action of the Western Allied The Longest Day (1962) as well as to suggest the less neurotic strategic posture of détente, with Gavriil Egiazarov’s Hot Snow (1972) and Bondarchuk’s They Fought for their Country (1975) pursuing many similar themes with reference to Stalingrad.
The Mosfilm oeuvre also emphasizes the psychology of total war, with Dostoyevsky and other late imperial novelists having been central to the initiation of the modern study of mental and emotional processes. Bondarchuk pursues The Fate of a Man (1959) as soldier, prisoner, and orphan of war, while Sergei Popov’s more recent On the Road to Berlin (2015) concentrates on the dangerous pedestrian journey of a line lieutenant due to be shot for cowardice and the private soldier originally tasked with safeguarding him. The inhumanity, bewilderment, and senselessness of war as seen through the eyes of a child meanwhile opens with Andrey Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962), but reaches its horrific climax in Come and See.
No motion picture can ever be expected to surpass the profound disturbance, execrable loathing, barbaric incident, and sheer terror of Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985), widely regarded as the most frightening movie ever made. Dark age Hollywood thrives on the gruesome, of course; but the infernal genius of Klimov consists primarily in the acute psychological effect he produces from every abhorrent scene of the tortured, dead, or dying. The plot is relatively straightforward. An adolescent boy, Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko), is enlisted in the roving partisan resistance within Nazi occupied Belarus. By chance spared from the subsequent extermination of his fellow villagers, he is thrust headlong into a diabolical cauldron of atrocity that culminates in the immolation of a local church with all its defenseless parishioners inside, though Flyora himself is ironically left alive as witness. The question of directorial abuse is pertinent, as Klimov reportedly subjected his adolescent actors to exploding ordnance and live ammunition in order to obtain the hysterical to catatonic close-ups for which the film is distinguished. Nonetheless, the content of Come and See should almost by itself furnish sufficient demonstration as to why the Russian people as a whole outwardly appear so consistently unmoved and unperturbed by the sterile pieties of Western liberalism.
Finally, the Mosfilms collectively designate fascism as the ultimate enemy of Soviet state, Russian people, and socialist Motherland. Marxism uniformly describes itself as a theory of productive process rather than of political justice or of state behavior, and consequently to the degree that it is compelled to acknowledge the state, it is in the author’s summation as the juridical personification of bourgeois property, thereby a useful though not necessary instrument of bourgeois domination. Fascism took shape in Europe after, and partially in reaction to the outlines of historical materialist doctrine. But the films apply the theory so as to construct fascism as the most rapacious form of imperialism, in turn according to Vladimir Lenin the climax of the consolidation of monopolist capital. Mikhail Romm’s documentary Triumph over Violence (1965) makes clear that the frequent historiographical assertion that Hitler ultimately owed his power to Farben, Krupp, and the other Rhineland industrial combinations is of Marxist origin, the theory naturally imputing the Nazi state to German Kapital. Consequently, the fascist violation of Russian territory is not understood as an abuse of authoritarian regime type, but rather as a reactionary onslaught by world capital to vanquish the proletarian revolution.
General reflection should include the following. First, the Mosfilm collection is heavily Russo-centric, with Azerbaijan, Turkmen, Uzbek, Tadjik, Kazakh, and Kirghiz soldiers never appearing in large numbers or as officers. Nor is there any recognition of distinctly Ukrainian geography, identity, or sovereignty; rather the German fascists are variously described as having crossed the Dnieper, overrun Sevastopol, occupied Kyiv, etc. Russia is thus unambiguously depicted as the hegemonic nationality within the Soviet Union. Second, there is a notable absence of representation of what in the West would be described as civil support for the civilizational war effort. Western Allied film consistently demonstrates the extent to which churches, newspapers, social clubs, artistic and intellectual communities, colleges and schools, and service organizations of all kinds helped maintain a posture of physical and spiritual readiness throughout the home front. Yet this crucial dimension of the struggle is almost completely absent from Russian or Soviet war film. Third, the role of the Western Allies is extremely minimized, limited almost to Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt at Tehran and Yalta offering qualified approval of Stalin’s plans; and there is no coverage at all of the American liberation of the Pacific.
Art therefore imitates life as storytellers draw inspiration from historical events, but then life imitates art as propagandists exploit half-realized mythos for their political purposes. Consequently, the Mosfilm war movies collection greatly enhances understanding of the political psychology of contemporary Russian external aggression, especially the otherwise almost inexplicable official framing of the Ukrainian invasion. The ultimate outcome may however lie in other than imperial or Supreme Soviet hands. The following critical reflections of the dearly beloved East Roman princess apply directly to her raging eventual successor in Moscow: “Unbroken success can sometimes lead a man who has never met with any reverse to commit an act of madness; if he is of cautious, sensible disposition, his error will promptly be followed by absolute remorse and alarm as he becomes aware in his heart of the fearfulness of God.”