Propaganda or just good business?

Dmitri Travin
16 June 2009

Vladimir Bortko is one of Russia's most famous film directors.  His film "Taras Bulba" went on general release in April 2009. It was more of a political event than a cultural one. For it reflects the current mind set and its problems very clearly: the elite aspiring to become part of Western culture, while at the same time assuring Russians of its Russianness.

The film attracted a great deal of attention for several reasons. Firstly, it was timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Nikolai Gogol, one of Russia's greatest writers, whose work is studied by every schoolchild in the country. Recently, events such as the anniversary of a major writer have become an occasion for a large-scale propaganda campaign. In Petersburg, for example, Gogol now looks down at passers-by from dozens of advertising posters on streets in the city centre.

Secondly, "Taras Bulba" is a special story:  it's very patriotic, which is not particularly typical of Gogol's work. At the centre of the tale are the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who were free and independent of the Tsar.  They lived in what is now part of Ukraine and fought with Poland in the 15th-17th centuries (Gogol does not indicate the exact time of the events he describes). The story tells how Andrii, the son of the main character, Colonel Taras Bulba, betrays the Cossacks because of his love for a Polish woman. Taras kills his son with his own hands, demonstrating that loyalty to the nation is more important than any personal feelings of love. He himself eventually suffers a painful death at the hands of the Poles.

Thirdly, Vladimir Bortko became famous during the late 1980s, when he made the excellent film based on the story "The Heart of a Dog" by Mikhail Bulgakov.  Bulgakov was a major Russian (Soviet) writer of the first half of the 20th century, whose works were not popular with the Soviet authorities. "The Heart of a Dog" had a clear anti-Soviet message, poking fun at the values on which the Soviet state was founded.   When "Taras Bulba" was released, many people were interested to see how Bortko, the critic of Soviet morals, would position himself now as a supporter of the state and a patriot.

Predictably, "Taras Bulba" provoked bitter disputes.  Russian filmgoers were divided into two groups: those who fully appreciated the filmmakers' patriotism, and those who had some serious questions for Mr. Bortko.

Firstly, why did the director and screenwriter feel it necessary to rewrite Gogol? He is a classic of Russian literature, and not just some hack writing scripts for contemporary films.

Secondly, how does the work of Vladimir Bortko as the director of the famous "Heart of a Dog" fit in with the work of Vladimir Bortko the director of "Taras Bulba"?

Taras Bulba 2

Andrii, son of Colonel Taras Bulba, betrays the Cossacks for love of a Polish woman.

Let us try to answer these questions.

In Gogol's text the conflict between the Cossacks and the Poles arises because the Cossacks live by raiding their neighbours and are fed up with sitting around and doing nothing.   They are spoiling for a battle with the Turkish Sultan.  Their entire way of life is a series of battles and the capture of trophies. Cossacks are at war so often that they rarely live to old age or die a natural death.

In Gogol's story the Koshevoy (leader elected by the Cossacks) refuses to start a war, saying that he has signed a peace treaty with the Sultan. The Cossacks then decide to have an election to replace the peace-loving Koshevoy, but at this moment refugees from the west bring them news of outrages inflicted by Poles and Jews on the defenceless Cossacks. The infuriated Cossacks immediately start a Jewish pogrom and take up arms against the Poles, rather than the Sultan.

Typically, Gogol gives no evidence of the crimes committed by the Poles and Jews. According to the logic of his story, the Cossacks are so eager to fight that any excuse is enough for them, even an unreliable rumour: if they can't fight the Sultan, then they'll fight the Poles. However Bortko introduces a scene into the film in which refugees show Taras the corpse of his wife, who has been killed by the Poles. Thus the war started by the Cossacks is not just the result of inner aggression, but righteous revenge.

The filmmakers have added an element that was not in the original text, but they have also omitted something very relevant. Gogol describes the brutality of the Cossacks thus:  "The infants were beaten, women had their breasts cut off and those allowed to go free had the skin flayed off from the feet to the knees". In another passage (towards the end of the story) Cossacks even burn girls at the altars of Christian churches.  They pick up infants on their spears and throw them into the flames from the burning women.

In Mr. Bortko's film the Cossacks are also no angels, but their patriotism takes the form of inflicting punishment on their enemies in honest battle, whereas the Poles (a scene that is indeed in the original text) burn Taras alive and, before executing his eldest son Ostap, they break his arms and legs.

Changing screenplays in this way is no surprise in Russia today, as making a film is an expensive process.  State backing is vital and also gives filmmakers greater opportunities. "Taras Bulba" is currently being advertised extensively on state Russian television, which is undoubtedly helping the film to do well at the box office. Furthermore, we should note that in recent years Mr. Bortko has made two mini-series for television based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel "The Idiot", and Mikhail Bulgakov's novel "The Master and Margarita". Screening these mini-series increases the director's popularity enormously, and ensures that viewers will be eager to see his latest film at the cinema.

Gogol trod a very different path when he was writing in the 19th century. He was not set any propaganda objectives by the state. He was able to reflect historical reality honestly and became a great Russian writer because he wrote what was in his heart, without serving any political ends.

So what does this mean? Are contemporary Russian filmmakers simply working to an ideological commission from the state? I don't think so. Things are probably more complicated, which explains the difference between the Bortko of "The Heart of a Dog" and the Bortko of "Taras Bulba". Whatever we feel about the moral and ethical aspects of his work, from a purely cinematic viewpoint it is always highly professional. Audiences are interested and the films do well at the box office. But to do well at the box office, it's not Gogol, Bulgakov, eternal human values or even one's own political beliefs that are important. What matters is what people are feeling and what they want to see at any given point in time.

At the end of the 1980s a film like "The Heart of a Dog" couldn't fail.  It was at the time of perestroika, the intelligentsia was riding high and the class values promoted by Kremlin propaganda were being rejected.  Bortko's was successful.

But today's propaganda teaches audiences that Russia is surrounded on all sides by perfidious enemies. In recent years we have been told that these enemies are Poland, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, the UK, and, of course, the USA. So filmgoers now need a quite different product from what they were offered 20 years ago. Vladimir Putin once described democrats as begging for scraps in foreign offices (in the sense of scrounging for grants and other forms of support). In this way Taras' treatment of his son Andrii acquires a contemporary meaning: in Putin's terms Andrii is begging for scraps from the Poles to win the love of a beautiful woman, and with it (one assumes) money and a high-ranking position.

Taras Bulba film 3

The priority in Mr. Bortko's big films is commercial success. Objectively his work may be serving Kremlin propaganda purposes at present, but actually propaganda has done more for him than he has for it. It has prepared an audience, who will certainly go and see a patriotic film like "Taras Bulba".

Paradoxically, Bortko's patriotic film is in essence absolutely American and absolutely Hollywood. It has all the ingredients to make it a box office hit. Anything complex has been ruthlessly taken out. Bright colours, lavish costumes, attractive actors, beautiful melodies, enchanting landscapes and exciting battle scenes - Bortko has all this in abundance. He omits Gogol's lengthy reflections, not easily digestible for modern viewers who have been brought up on clips. The scenes of battle and torture and not too gory. Perhaps this is the main reason why Bortko does not show "cut-off breasts" and "flayed skin". If he had shown real torture and other things that are in Gogol, half the audience would have been scared stiff and run away before the end of the film.

I should like to note in passing that the American style is very common in Russia today. Our spin doctors even create political anti-Americanism using American political experience. For example, a typical rally in support of Putin and his policies has nothing at all in common with gloomy Soviet rallies, which no one went to unless they had to. Political events today are organized as entertainment to attract young people.

In this context there is one more important thing about the film.  "Taras Bulba" is fundamentally different from Soviet patriotic films, in which enemies were often caricatured - the demonic German Fuehrer, the stupid enemies of the working class and the puny crusader knights of the Livonian Order, who were struck down in their dozens by Russian warriors. Today Russian viewers are not fooled by these cheap tricks. The Poles in Bortko's film are handsome and noble. The film bears all the hallmarks of an expensive, prestigious product that one does not regret having paid to see. It is fully up to Hollywood standards.

While I was watching "Taras Bulba", I kept being reminded of the American film "The Patriot", with Mel Gibson in the lead role. Like Taras, he kills masses of enemies in revenge for the evil deeds they have committed. He gives his young children weapons too. The American patriot kills the English, the Russian patriot kills Poles. The point is not to turn the audience against foreigners. Britain is now a close friend of the USA, as we know. But if the viewers have the money and want patriotism, the filmmakers are perfectly happy to play this up.   As they say, don't take it personally - it's just business.


Other openDemocracy Russia articles on Russian film:

Kinoeye: Russia's reviving film industry, by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, http://www.opendemocracy.net/globalization-Film/russian_film_3726.jsp

Dissenting blockbusters, by Mumin Shakirov, http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/dissenting-blockbusters

The ‘vertical of power' grabs Russian cinema, by Danil Dondurey: http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/the-vertical-of-power-grabs-russian-cinema

Russian anti-Nazi film v Kremlin bulldogs, by Mumin Shakirov: http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/russian-anti-nazi-film-v-kremlin-bulldogs

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