Every once in a while at classically educated, we take a few minutes to think about stuff. It generally isn’t our first choice of activities, but we can be bludgeoned into it. One such episode happened when viewing one of Eisenstein’s classic films from the 1001 movies list: Ivan the Terrible.
The film itself is a two-part, four-hour monster, but it passes reasonably quickly despite that. It has war, murder, betrayal, intrigue and all the good things that a movie needs in order to be a good piece of entertainment (talk about living in interesting times), and the Ivan the Terrible character reminded us a LOT of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow. It is a historical film packed with a heck of a lot of actual history. And history, if you happen to be viewing five hundred years later as opposed to being in the middle of it, is quite diverting.
So the movie went past quickly, with a “highly recommended” verdict on the side. You’d be hard-pressed to find CE giving Eisenstein that kind of a rating normally as his masterpieces, Battleship Potemkin and October, though innovative and respected are terrible as entertainment – propaganda films generally are. But this one deserves the descriptor “eminently watchable”.
However, it’s what’s behind the film that makes one think.
To me, Eisenstein’s life epitomizes life of Soviet citizens. Being essentially himself, he was constantly in and out of favor as the political fads changes in the party. His films were critical successes until they were criticized because they weren’t popular enough (a crime that, in the communist paradise, could entail an appointment with a firing squad). The first part of Ivan the terrible won him a Stalin Prize, the second was suppressed until after Stalin’s death and garnered its creator a severe reprimand.
He was allowed to go on tour in the west for a brief period – but then had to face the distrust of his peers.
Ah, the Soviet Union… We miss it.
Anyone who remembers the 20th century will be well aware that, back then, the Soviets were no joke. They were a big, influential power that effectively dominated a good chunk of Asia and Africa, as well as Eastern Europe. They had a big army, lots of very destructive atomic bombs and an utter lack of a sense of humor. So it might seem that the world is much better off without it.
But after the fear-ridden years of the cold war, Communist Russia has not aged well. Casual observers looking back are already beginning to scratch their heads and ask themselves: did anyone take these clowns seriously?
Yes, we did, but there’s plenty of reason for the wonder, and we have to admit that, had they not been so well-armed, we would have appreciated just how entertaining the Soviets were:
1) Minor points in doctrine, impenetrable to most outsiders, could get you turned from a hero of the Soviet Union into a traitor to the Soviet Union before you could blink. Most people would look at communism and say “simple enough, no one owns anything, but everything belongs to everyone” possibly adding “let me know how that works out for you”, but not the Soviets. They regularly killed each other over invisible shades of gray. Killing Trotsky with a hammer in Mexico has to be counted among the more entertaining episodes of the 20th century. That combo of brutality and style has to be admired.
2) They were insistent that everyone was happier there in the west, and that the walls they had to build to keep their population in were actually there because the leaders knew better than the people and were doing them a favor. Also, shooting people attempting to flee was a favor: death was clearly a happier place than capitalism. Like Cuba today pretending to be a socialist paradise, that took chutzpah, and one cannot help but admire them.
3) They had established a monarchy but barefacedly told the world that the proletariat weren’t just politburo serfs. I can only imagine the kind of laughter that echoed in the halls of the Kremlin when they heard that some western activists wanted to align themselves with communism to gain “freedom” for the masses. Hats off to them for the sheer barefaced humor. The best practical jokes are always the ones where you wonder whether they might actually be serious.
The truth is that no major government in the world today would dare do the things that the Soviets did in the name of “human rights” and of “equality”. Yes, there are some clown states like Venezuela or North Korea (although I think the North Koreans have long since given up any pretense of Marxism), but no one who gets taken seriously on a worldwide level. The Chinese seem to have found an excellent balance between communism and capitalism in a difficult situation, and Western countries generally seem to vote socialist for a few years before realizing that losing even more personal freedoms and having your economy destroyed isn’t worth the supposed benefits in increased equality that are eternally just around the corner.
Today, you’ll only find that kind of lip service to obscure utopian principles in niche cultural areas.
But back then, the USSR waved its missiles around and acted like what it was doing was perfectly normal. Since, by all accounts, the leaders of the country were reasonably stable hardened politicians, one must conclude that they were laughing at the rest of the world the whole time (well, except for Stalin. Anyone with a mustache like that has to have been batshlt insane).
And if you didn’t like it? They’d boycott your Olympics*!
Yeah, we miss them.