The self-consciousness of society as a subject not only different from others but also opposing the outside world is a very ancient phenomenon. And, of course, it was pictured in literature long before the Lumière brothers. But knowing the situation with the literacy rate of the population of the Russian Empire, the leader of the Bolsheviks Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) absolutely correctly considered that “cinema, for us, is the most important of the arts.” While in exile, Ulyanov had every opportunity to assess the potential of cinema by the effectiveness of its influence on the audience. It is obvious that after their victory, the Communists made it the main propaganda tool until the advent of television. It is noteworthy that the Bolsheviks were demonstratively breaking with Tsarist Russia and even furiously destroyed everything that reminded of it nevertheless inherited from it both the carefully concealed painful complex of provincialism and the way of overcoming it by opposing the Western world with their incomprehensible and unattainable ideological essence. All that can be seen in the films shot over the decades of the existence of Soviet cinema. Of course, in the context of a tough political and ideological confrontation with the capitalist countries the object of the propaganda influence was not an external viewer, that is, a foreigner, but the own population of the Soviets. It was they who, after watching, had to find or even more firmly establish the state that Vladimir Mayakovsky had minted in Broadway: “The Soviet have their own pride: we look down on the bourgeois.”
I believe that it was rather intuitively than prudently that the leaders of communist cinema came to two patterns in creating the image of a foreigner. The first one is completely predictable, obvious and universal. This is the “Enemy”. Here the red directors did not say well-known truths. The image of a stranger as an irrational villain and a priori enemy is almost archetypal and, being characteristic of any traditional culture, provides the widest scope for speculation. Commiwood’s only contribution to this topic was an additional shade in the gloomy palette of the image generated by the circumstances of the civil war. For a Soviet citizen, the Enemy is not only a foreigner, but also an “old-regime” compatriot who has joined the strangers, an emigrant traitor, carrying death and torment with a brutal horde of invaders, or a hidden spy and saboteur. This trend does not disappear almost until the very end of the USSR. The number of such films is huge and they appeared quite early. For example, The Crime of the Shirvan Princess shot by Ivan Perestiani in 1926 already has all the necessary signs of a bred breed. The princess represents white-emigrant circles in France, working with the foreign bourgeoisie to obtain the deadly gas that is planned to burn Soviet oil fields. Perhaps the idea was prompted to Perestiani by Alexei Tolstoy who had started to publish the science fiction novel The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (The Garin Death Ray) in 1925. In this novel the Russian engineer suggested that the American chemical magnate Rolling, who was in Paris, destroy the plants of German rivals with his quasi laser, while other Russian emigrants hatched plans for the same “chemical struggle against the Bolsheviks.”
The concentration of the atmosphere of fear reached its peak by 1937, when Stalin made a report at the Plenum of the Central Committee. I will cite only one his thesis: “It must be borne in mind that the remnants of the broken classes in the USSR are not alone. They have direct support from our enemies outside the USSR.” The apotheosis of embodying this concept of the “double enemy” is the film by Vladimir Legoshin The Duel (1944) where there is a real, full-fledged, classic German spy Weininger-Petronescu, but his sabotage group is staffed with emigrants, and the resident is a pretty old woman Amalia Carlson whose father owned an estate in Ukraine. A worthy successor to this line was the Stalin Prize-winning film The Court of Honor shot at the Mosfilm studio by Abram Room in 1948 and watched by more than 15 million Soviet viewers. In this film, biochemists Losev and Dobrotvorsky made a scientific discovery that can effectively kill the pain. While on a scientific trip to the United States and being committed cosmopolitans, they shared the results of the study with their American counterparts who, of course, turned out to be spies. What expected the main characters upon their returning is clear from the title of the film.
It should also be borne in mind that after the Second World War any opponent of the USSR, even a former partner in the anti-Hitler coalition, was identified with the Nazis or was somehow connected with them. In this sense, the cult Soviet spy tetralogy with Georgiy Zhzhonov in the title role is characteristic. In the first film The Secret Agent’s Blunder (1968), the main character Mikhail Tulyev is the son of a Russian emigrant who is a count, and he is also a spy who is being penetrated into the USSR according to an old legend prepared by the Hitler’s Abwehr. The purpose of the drop is quite proper – the collection of data on Soviet nuclear facilities. But already in Resident Return (1982) we see that behind the intelligence of Germany there is a much more inveterate enemy represented by an American adviser with a curious name Robert Stevenson who is in charge of Operation Map. This “Map” famously covers all the trump cards of the creators of the James Bond series. The CIA does not trifle – the operation plan provides for the laying of capsules with monstrous poison strength near large Soviet reservoirs. These capsules got to be activated via a satellite signal. It is noteworthy that in the second film adaptation (created for television) of the aforementioned Tolstoy’s novel Failure of Engineer Garin (1973), a line of Nazis who want to get a “wunderwaffe” at their disposal also appears.
I must say that in the post-war cinema the image of the Germans as “Enemy” is largely blurred, depersonalized. Personally, I have only one explanation for this. The number of victims among the Soviet population was so high that the mass consciousness simply could not personify the blame for such a catastrophe. Hitler in Soviet productions is rather ridiculous and miserable than scary. Moreover, the casting in the most popular television series of Tatyana Lioznova Seventeen Moments of Spring (1973) about a Soviet intelligence officer who was penetrated into the highest echelons of power in Nazi Germany, was carried out in the way that actors who were very popular and loved by the Soviet viewers were approved for the role of the main Nazi villains. This gave an unexpected effect. Instead of aversion to the Third Reich bonzes, Soviet citizens felt sympathy for them. It sometimes came to the oddities. Oleg Tabakov who played the role of the chief of foreign intelligence of the security service Walter Schellenberg, received a letter from Germany in which the niece of the SS-Brigadeführer thanked the actor for showing the “uncle Walter” correctly, that is, as a kind and gentle person.
On the other hand, the image of a German in Soviet cinema is often mystically ritualized, which is best presented in the brilliant piece of propaganda of Sergei Eisenstein Alexander Nevsky (1938). Grotesque, tournament (inappropriate for monastic knights) plumes on the helmets of the Teutons, anticipating the creepy headband of the Supreme Nazgûl from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), gloomy pseudo-Catholic masses of Prokofiev, scenes of the ritual burning of babies (although Moscow declared itself The Third Rome, but Rome it is, it was supposed to point with an accusing finger at the yet other puns indulging in the sin of the infanticide) all this created a gloomy, Gothic aura that left its mark on subsequent films about the German “Enemy”. Or about the “germanized” “Enemy”, as mentioned above.
The quintessence of the image of this “germanized” Enemy was presented to the viewer by director Evgeny Shestobitov who shot the film Tale about the Boy-Kibalchish in 1964. Here, all the countries of the capitalist camp are reduced to the image of a single “Bourgeoisie” but the attributes of this bourgeoisie are strikingly reminiscent of the German Reich with their black Iron Crosses and horned helmets. There are also mandatory signs of this cinema breed, a foreign spy saboteur and the traitor Boy-Plohish (the bad boy) hooked by him. But the film is interesting not at all with these conspicuous “birthmarks.” The purpose of all the intrigues of the bourgeois is not a common conquest of territories and resources. No, they are interested in an existential mystery, the secret that exists in the Soviet state. The secret that is known even to children, but who will never tell it to strangers.
And now we are moving on to the other Soviet cinematic template of an alien, the “Initiated” one. This template was set by the very first Soviet film about the arrival of a foreigner in the USSR in order to comprehend its true essence, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks by Lev Kuleshov (1924). According to the story, John West is the chairman of the American Society of Young Christians. He comes to Moscow accompanied by cowboy-servant Jeddy to see for himself the horrors of Bolshevism published in the Western media. The naive American comes to the attention of a gang of swindlers consisting, as the reader has already guessed, of the “wreckage of the old regime”, who are staging a show for the gullible foreigner. One of the ranks of the Moscow police rescues Mr. West from the clutches of the criminal, showing the foreigner the true Bolsheviks – pulled into a sword belt, marching in discipline in columns. Then Mr. West goes home with a wish to hang a portrait of Lenin in his office.
Actually, there are two “Initiated” persons in the film, Mr. West and Jeddy himself, but in the process of initiation they play two different roles, which Commiwood will regularly reproduce in future films. I call them the “Alchemist” and the “Savage”. The “Alchemist” is an educated person, well-read but, despite his education, he is not able to understand the great secret that the whole bourgeoisie was vainly hunting for in the Boy-Kibalchish. Verily, as Fyodor Tyutchev wrote, “You cannot grasp Russia with your mind…”. As for the “Savage”, he was intended to show Soviet viewers (80 percent of them were illiterate not so long ago) how deep the world of the West was mired in barbarism. And the “cowboy” Jeddy kept his end up. He fired his handgun on a Moscow street, caught a cab driver with a lasso and tied him to a lighting column, and also rode a horse on the roofs of cars. It is noteworthy that the initial introduction of the “Savage” Jeddy to the Bolshevik civilization occurs according to ancient Sumerian canons – by the agency of a woman (even though she is not a harlot).
“You are beautiful, Enkidu, you are become like a god.
Why do you gallop around the wilderness with the wild beasts?
Come, let me bring you into Uruk-Haven,
to the Holy Temple, the residence of Anu and Ishtar,
the place of Gilgamesh, who is wise to perfection…”
In Soviet reality, Anu’s residence was quite successfully replaced with a police department with Gilgamesh in a well-sitting leather jacket who also rescues the “Alchemist” West to show Soviet facades and parades. A parade is a must, because a holiday is a part of any serious initiation. As well as tests of strength and dexterity (passed by Jeddy) and enduring deliberate bullying (passed by Mr. West).
A huge number of Soviet films about foreigners subsequently passed through this Procrustean bed of the scheme recorded by Kuleshov. For example, Grigori Alexandrov’s Circus (1936) that was a film of an exceeding box-office success. It demonstrates the initial transformation of a western low-ranking “Savage” – a circus performer who was a white woman with a black child, behind whom loom western barbarians who conduct the vile Lynch court. Having received her portion of humiliation, the neophyte takes communion of spiritual sacraments inaccessible to the “bourgeois”, finds happiness and enjoys a parade of athletes of both gender drawn into white.
The first highest permission to penetrate the bastions of ceremonial facades ridiculed as early as the 19th century by Astolphe de Custine was received by a cinematic foreigner in the film of Georgiy Daneliya Autumn Marathon (1979). The typical “Alchemist” Bill Hansen wears symbolic big glasses like John West. Sitting in the kitchen of a Soviet family he tries in vain to comprehend the unfathomable and throws a holey semantic network on objects of Soviet existence. A special piquancy of the situation is added by the fact that hackneyed initiation is carried out by a professional psychopomp who is a Russian translator and a professional linguist. But despite all the ritual communions leading up to a drunk tank, Mr. West No. 2 does not comprehend Russian Communist Zen, unlike his predecessor, and sadly makes a symbolic run in a vicious circle.
Male foreigners generally find this insight difficult. Apparently, philosopher Berdyaev was right when speaking of the “eternal baba” in the Russian soul. Yet, it was not for nothing that in the joint Soviet-Italian comedy Unbelievable Adventures of Italians in Russia (1973) where there is a full role set. The emigrant’s granddaughter who is under romantic care of just another police Gilgamesh, the unlucky to the extreme “Alchemist”, the doctor and the whole gang of “Savages”, luck to gain not material but true, spiritual treasure falls to the lot of the initiated maiden. Apparently, it is by pure chance that her name is Olga, from the Scandinavian Helga which means “holy.”
The characters of Mark Zakharov’s super popular Formula of Love (1984) also could not elude Kuleshov’s modus operandi. Here the “Alchemist”, Count Cagliostro who is almost literally corresponding to the line of roles, is forced to flee from the chase after a fraudulent voyage to St. Petersburg in the company of his charming servants “Savages”, but gets stuck near Smolensk in the estate of provincial Russian landowners. Having witnessed the miracle of the birth of true love, which shamed all alchemical formulas, the Count still experiences enlightenment. Instead of hasty escape from arrest, the “Alchemist” meets an innocent girl. Ritually asking her name he receives the answer “Praskovya” (the Russian version of the Greek Paraskeva, “the day of preparation, eve, Friday,” that is, the day before holiday), after which he acquires a sacred understanding and remains to pose in a group portrait together with the deep Russian society that successfully initiated him.
Have the patterns of perception of foreigners changed fundamentally with the collapse of the USSR? In the early 90s, the observer could have such illusion. The image of “Enemy” has faded somewhat, and even the titles of films very transparently hint at a thaw in the relationship. Our American Borya (1992), Bride from Paris (1992), American Grandfather (1993), Groom from Miami (1994), Italian Contract (1993), Train to Brooklyn (1994), American Daughter (1995), and many others. However, it would be a great mistake to accept the desire of the masses to fall into dreams of a possible secured life abroad as expressed in the most concentrated form in American Boy, the hit of that time by musical group Kombinaciya, for a real rejection of confrontational patterns.
Russian ouroboros very quickly curled into a ring when it started to miss the taste of his tail. So, in The Brest Fortress (Fortress of War) (2010), producer Igor Ugolnikov quite traditionally defined the image of the German “Enemy”, “We show the Germans without completely personalizing them… they are a gray mass that came to kill us sophisticatedly…” The templates triumphantly returned. Moreover, they have acquired a completely grotesque appearance. So, in the film of Karen Shakhnazarov White Tiger (2012) that was nominated by Russia for the Oscar, the image of the German “Enemy” is not just depersonalized (though Hitler was given a tribune for the thoughtful monologue in the final, the “Enemy” is not him again) but finally removed from the real to the realm of fantasy. It turns out that the Soviet soldiers were destroyed not by specific figures of the Third Reich, and not by strong men in the form of a Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS, but by a magical white tank. Apparently, its iron plating was made of the fantasy armor of those Teutonic knights that fell through the naphthalene “ice” in Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky.
As for the secret that the whole bourgeoisie had been hunting for so long and in vain, some metamorphoses also took place around it in Russian cinema. Now the owners of this sacred ark do not meet, with a condescending smile, pilgrims from the West to initiate a true essence in the world. No, from now on they themselves messianically carry this truth into the abyss of bourgeois debauchery and lack of spirituality. And this, perhaps, is the only difference between Russian cinema and Soviet cinema. The messianism of Trotskyism, with its “world revolution”, was very quickly stifled by pragmatist Stalin, who had dispersed the Comintern and built the Bolshevik state according to classical imperial canons. Moreover, the Red Empire strove for integrity like the Tokugawa shogunate so we do not see any proselytism in Soviet cinema. The cinematic stay of a Soviet citizen abroad is almost always determined by official necessity. That could either be a sailor (pilot) or a scientist sent to an international congress. They do not convert anyone to their faith, on the contrary, it is they who are actively tempted by the bourgeois, which they must overcome with the firmness of St. Anthony.
But everything changes with the fall of the Iron Curtain. For example, in the comedy phantasmagoria of Yuri Mamin Window to Paris (1993), music teacher Nikolai Chizhov finds himself in Paris as a result of a fantastic event. He tries to get a job through an acquaintance-emigrant. He receives invitation to play Mozart’s compositions without pants at a meeting of naturists. It turns out (as the Russian viewers get confidentially informed) that Mozart is of no interest to anyone “here” (that is, in the “rotten” West) if played in pants. That is why the indignant protagonist returns home to deep spirituality. For this purpose he even has to hijack a plane.
But, of course, the film Brother 2 by Alexei Balabanov (2000) became the absolute manifesto of such messianism. The protagonist named Danila Bagrov promises his friend to solve the problem of his twin brother, the NHL hockey player, whom American businessman Richard Mennis is robbing through a cunningly drafted contract. To restore justice, Danila flies to the United States, grabs a gun, seriously injures an illegal merchant, then kills the pimp of a Russian prostitute and his guards, then enters the Metro club owned by Mennis, kills all guards and cleans the director’s safe. Having reached Mannis’s office, Bagrov kills the guards on the floor and Mannis’s partner, after which he demands the hockey player’s money. In the process of the dialogue, the very sacred secret sounds that the fairly shredding bourgeoisie could not protect themselves from, “Tell me, American, what is power? Is it really money? You have a lot of money, and what? I think that the power comes from being right. Whoever is right is more powerful.” After that, the enlightener who carried out the bloody initiation gets on the plane together with the prostitute but this time they do not hijack it but only order vodka. Apparently, they need it to perform a ritual cleansing before returning to holy Russia.
As you can see, the stereotyped perception of a foreigner was not destroyed after the collapse of the USSR. It secures age-old patterns through the virtual cinematic expansion of heroes outside national borders. How effectively does the image of a stranger work with the consciousness of Russians? Let me conclude the words of one of the most beloved actors of the Soviet and Russian audience, People’s Artist of the RSFSR Leonid Kuravlyov. In a 2016 interview, he called the existence of Russia to be “saving the world.” He also expressed the opinion that Western countries seek to destroy it, and such concepts as “kindness” and “soul” are unknown to foreigners. The end.