Americans are immersed in a culture that is steeped with war dramas. If there is not a real war to depict, it is common to create a drama from a “what if?” style of fantasy. In that regard, American cinema is well-supplied with movies about Russia, the Soviet Union, the Cold War and possible alternate histories.
Do these titles look familiar?
- The Hunt for Red October
- Bridge of Spies
- Thirteen Days
- Rocky IV
- Crimson Tide
- The Day After
- Red Dawn (1984)
- Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
A similar sense exists in the American literary scene, with books like Red Storm Rising, 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, Cardinal of the Kremlin, Invader, Alas Babylon, On the Beach, Lord of the Flies, and many, many others. All of these books, some of them not American, but still Western, infuse the Western culture with one main basic idea:
Communism is an enemy ideology. Russia is / was the world’s largest and most powerful Communist nation. Therefore, Russia is an enemy of the West, and regardless of any different developments in history, Russia is not to be trusted.
Taken in this context, Russiagate and its associated controversies and sanctions are not anything new for the United States, because Russia has “never been trustworthy” and so this is “how we deal with these untrustworthy people.”
The news rhetoric has been almost 100% unanimous on this point, and American political figures appear to be either lost in the belief that this is true, or afraid to give any rebuttal or correction to it. All except Senator Rand Paul and President Donald Trump at this point.
But what about in Russia? Do the Russian people feel the same way about the Americans? Was there such a framework for literature and cinema in the Russian culture both in the Soviet times and since? This is a point whose answer is somewhat elusive to many Westerners, because one of the primary characteristics of Russian life is that the people read and speak Russian. Russian is a language that is difficult to “fit in” to anything commonly understood among Westerners. The letters are different, and the language often sounds to Americans like the Russian is speaking backwards. We can identify the language by its sound but, aside from words like “Da” and “Nyet” (Да, нет), most Americans have no idea what is going on when a Russian speaks.
However, some experience in Russia and discussions and pseudo-interviews on this topic reveal some surprising facts:
- During the Cold War, Russians did not consider the Americans or the West to be a threat. Indeed, the response from Russian people who are now about fifty years old is pretty consistent. Russian citizenry did not consider the threat of nuclear war with the West.
- Russian movie and literary themes rarely concerned themselves with Communism. From the period of the 1960’s until the end of the Cold War at least, this was true. Communism was an established fact of life, but it was not common to find real communist ideologues. The image of “Party Orthodoxy” that was portrayed in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was a rare occurrence. Party membership advanced economic opportunity, so it was a calculated move for many in the Soviet Union or its satellite countries to be loyal Party Members. But that is usually about as far as things went.
- Russian movies almost never focused on the ideology of Communism. Some classic movies in Russia during some of the most stressful moments during the Cold War were movies like “The Irony of Fate / Enjoy Your Bath! (Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром!)“, a romantic comedy poking fun at the rigidly planned cities under Communism; “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Москва слезам не верит)“, a 1981 Academy-Award winner in the Foreign Film category, which was a profoundly deep life-story drama film. Other movies included moral comedies, such as “Sweet Woman (Сладкая женщина)” that delivered a funny and tragic message about the error of materialism. These movies and others evoked almost no references to the Communist style of government in place. In fact, the stories in all these movies take place at “ground level” – in the area of exploring personal and funny themes. IMDB’s website carries this list of the fifty best Soviet Era films. Of this group, only one film is about the October 1917 Revolution, “October: Ten Days that Shook the World”, and only one other film “The Sacrifice” made in 1986 by Andrei Tarnovsky as an expatriate from the Soviet Union, refers to World War III. Most movies on this list are dramas, comedies, a little bit of science fiction and war movies about WWII / The Great Patriotic War and World War I.
- After the Cold War, Russian people got more interested in America and the West, but generally they preferred their own country, and still do to this day. A commonly held view in America includes the story of the Russian Bride who comes to America to escape the horrible conditions in her own country. This is simply not the case. While it is true that life in many small villages in Russia is in often quite primitive conditions, this is not always so. Further life in the large cities, where most Russian people live, is quite modern. It is not as uniformly luxurious as the expanse of the US, but it is far from desperate. Life in Moscow, Samara, St Petersburg, Irkutsk, Saratov, Sochi – all these and other places have most or all the creature comforts of the West, at lower prices and one is not required to leave the country to have a good life. However, it is also true that many Russians are quite curious about the West, and they come and many of them stay. But the fable of the greedy Russian woman who marries to use men for their money is mostly the result of a few bad actors.
This can be examined in two significant ways, though there are certainly other points of view. One would be to maintain that the reason there were no movies made about Communism was because the Communist government forbade it. This is a point of view that is popularly held in the West, and was especially expressed during the height of the Cold War during the 1970’s.
Another point of view is to note that the Soviet Union after the 1950’s was in a modification stage anyway. The glory of the Revolution was old and faded away, and most people were concerned with living daily lives. The victory of Communism was not as important as dinner for the family.
The causes for the differences between Russian and American viewpoints are debatable without end. But the result is very interesting as it bears on current times. In the majority, Russian people fear and despise war. They do not have any desire to invade other nations, though they support their military actions, and they have no desire for war with the West. President Vladimir Putin has maintained this point of view publicly on countless occasions.
The Russian social mindset is collective. Not just “collective” like in “collective farms” under Communism, but rather a principle known as:
Sobornost (Russian: Собо́рность, IPA: [sɐˈbornəstʲ] “Spiritual community of many jointly living people”) is a term coined by the early Slavophiles, Ivan Kireyevsky and Aleksey Khomyakov, to underline the need for co-operation between people, at the expense of individualism, on the basis that the opposing groups focus on what is common between them.
The character in people that sobornost develops is that Russian people pretty much love Russia. They are interested in the welfare of the country, and they know the country’s success is their success. It is not very common to think of one’s own life as completely independent of the needs of others for Russians. This certainly developed through 1,000 years of Orthodox Christianity, which embraces the same view.
It also makes it less important for there to be an “enemy” to fight.
The combination of rugged individualism and great prosperity in the United States may be two factors that create the need for an enemy to exist so that we have something to oppose and defeat. This is a topic worthy of further exploration in the future.
The Russian people’s reaction to the actions of the West, particularly the United States and England in recent years, has been a mixture of frustration and sadness. But it is also infused with faith, especially among the Orthodox Christians of the country. They know that when the Church is despised, the nation fails. They know this from experience, and they also know that as long as Russia remains true to the Church and its Lord, nothing will defeat it.
The frustration over the West is akin to the feelings a parent might have as they watch their teenaged son or daughter destroy themselves with drug-use and riotous living. They cannot stop it, but it is very sad to watch. More to come…