Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
This great film about the Russian Civil War contains one of the most terrifying scenes in the history of Soviet cinema. A small group of young Jewish children enact a pogrom. They scarcely know what they’re playing at, but their terror and enthusiasm carry total conviction.
The make-believe pogrom seems an unlikely consequence of the Russian Revolution, whose centenary is marked this year. After all, 1917 promised liberation and equality. But The Commissar, filmed during the revolution’s half-century, reminds us of the multiple futures that 1917 opened up.
It introduces us to a commissar, Klavdia, who has fought until she can go no further: she is heavily pregnant. With the Reds newly installed in a captured town, Klavdia is billeted with a Jewish family. Yefim is a blacksmith; he and his wife Maria live with her mother and their several children. Klavdia takes one of their two rooms. Naturally enough, they resent her. Yet when they find out about her condition, they come to protect her and to cherish her son when he is born.
Near the end of the film, the Whites are back: they are about to capture the town. Yefim, the pragmatist, and Klavdia, who believes totally in the revolution, debate the revolution’s future. Yefim imagines wryly that victorious Reds would have brought trams to the town. This is one possible revolutionary future. But there is another.
‘I tell you, when a new power comes,’ says Yefim to Klavdia, ‘first it says that everything will be fine, then it says that things have got worse, then it says we’ve got to find those who are guilty. And who’s guilty in this life?’ Yefim unwittingly draws a line between 1917 and Stalin’s Terror.
The multiple futures of 1917 that The Commissar presents were unacceptable to the Soviet censors in 1967. The film never saw the light of day, and the director, Alexander Askoldov, lost his career in cinema. The censors said that the film portrayed the Bolshevik Revolution as ‘a force that opposes the very essence of human existence, a phenomenon that destroys personal ties by causing alienation, despair, and uncertainty about the future.’ Thus did one possible future that was encoded into 1917 — the optimism of the Khrushchev era — give way to another, the uneasy compromises and caution that partly defined Brezhnev’s developed socialism.
But much more remarkable than the banning of the film was the fact that it was made at all: that a major Soviet studio and famous actors were prepared to take a chance on such an entirely subversive tale. They can only have thought that 1917 was about, yet again, to deliver yet another different future. The best reason to watch The Commissar is for its own sake, but if you watch it this year, think of how 1917 makes for an awkward centenary.