Alexander Sokurov: Stand up and be Counted!

Nikkolai Kudin
5 December 2008

- In a recent interview you said that you had very little left in common with the interests and themes of the Russian film community. How did this happen?

- I wouldn't like to set myself against my colleagues: there are very worthy people among them, and also people who I wouldn't shake hands with, as in any professional community. But I really have few points of contact with people from film circles, because we have very differing world views. I had a serious disagreement with my Petersburg colleagues when disputes began about the possibility of using Palace Square for film festivals. Almost everyone, with the exception of Vladimir Bortko, supported this idea - the Cinematographers' Union and a number of Petersburg festival organisers ... We had a very serious argument in the presence of Governor Valentina Matvienko, and then with her personally. Palace Square, the historic centre of the city, is sacred. Some things move from aesthetics into ethics and have nothing to do with politics. I believe that the issue of preserving the cultural and historical heart of the city falls into this category. I was stunned that for me, a person who is not a native of Petersburg, the city proved to be dearer than it was for people who were born here. Of course, situations like this do nothing to bring people closer together.

- Did the fact that you found almost no support in this environment inspire you to look for fellow-thinkers among opposition public and political movements?

- The political process in our country seems extremely primitive to me, and I have very little interest in any part of it.  In addition to this I think everyone - representatives of the democratic wing, supporters of the "firm hand", the vertical of power - behave unprofessionally. These days politics are for professionals. This was already true in Lenin's time, and the fact that it was not properly understood explains the failures of the State Dumas of the early 20th century, as well as the disappearance of many political parties in our times. Their leaders just weren't professional...

When people try to get me to support a particular political figure or organisation publicly, I am prepared to do so on one condition: I will support the person who puts humanitarian principles above the political. This is usually the end of the discussion, because these ideas are unacceptable to both politicians and the educated classes.

Politics is a double-edged too, and very dangerous, so it should not fall into casual hands; members of the Petersburg professional classes use it exclusively for their personal advantage - you only have to look at the Petersburg singers, actors etc. who are delighted to declare themselves friends of the powers that be. This doesn't mean that I am advocating a priori confrontation with the government. You have to look for acceptable forms of dialogue with those in power, if you want to take part in civil and cultural life, of course. Culture and power are not incompatible, if one's primary concern is the public good. 

- How do you assess the sensational television project "Name of Russia"?

- For the "Rossiya" television channel this campaign is entirely commercial and aimed at competition with other channels.  For those who take part in the programme it is a chance to receive win some money and gain popularity. If there is any propaganda content here, it comes down to a very clumsy and dangerous game with things that are extremely important.

- Still, for a long time Stalin was voted Russia's most popular historical figure. This has led to people saying that the public has succumbed once again to the "charm of the tyrant" - a phenomenon you demolished in your films "Moloch", "Taurus" and "The Sun"...

- I think that from these films it is clear that I do not consider these "characters" to be tyrants in the customary sense of the word. The choice was not made by the leaders, but by the public, and it is a mistake to look for culprits among the leaders. Times change and people continue to fall into the same traps, spreading new viruses -  Nazism, for example, will be with us for ever now.

Ideological images change with time anyway. Napoleon was once considered a monster, and now he is a great emperor, a thoroughly "decent" historical figure. I don't doubt that one day the same thing will happen with Stalin and Hitler. Public consciousness has been dehumanized and I despair that people can and do forgive and forget any atrocity.

- In that case, how useful is the idea of searching for a national leader?

- Politics does not tend to throw up humane leaders.  The only one I can think of is Gandhi, who emerged in response to the demands of the time.  We need just such politicians, but as yet I can't see any. 

- You made a film about Boris Yeltsin during a difficult time in his biography. Does the current state system seem to you to be a logical continuation of what was established under Yeltsin?

- Without a doubt.  I saw with my own eyes how decisions were made back then; now I can only guess. But I see that today, as under Yeltsin, a hard-hearted state is being created. At the moment we are going through a very difficult situation. We are universally hated, whether secretly or openly; I don't know when the order to attack will be given and which side will release the most ferocious dog. Russia has very few chances to change the way people regard her: we are at a very complex historical point  - the growing internal struggle, the total corruption of public life, the colossal national and social problems in the North Caucasus, and the approach of a practically inevitable war with Ukraine. We need to stop and look around, but for this we need time and I'm not sure that we've got it.   Some of the things that are going on are ruinous for Russia. But it's never too late to fight back. It would be interesting to ask the specialists to present a report on Russia's position, both strategic and historical: we are looking at a situation where the question is whether Russia can continue to exist or not.  But this report should not be secret.

- Do you share the concerns of people who see the extension of the presidential term as a return to totalitarianism?

- If the people who are in power think that in six years they can do more for Russia, then it's not a question of principle. What is alarming is that they are being given the possibility of changing the Constitution later on, without any public discussion. It's true the Georgian war demonstrated that constitutional norms can be sidestepped without directly changing the principal law of the country. To take a decision on troops entering a foreign territory, if I am not mistaken, the President should have called a meeting of the Federation Council.  They would have listened to his account of the state of affairs and then given him the appropriate powers. Even if there had been no time for this, it could have been done retroactively, but no one is even considering doing this. It's very alarming.

- Is there an antidote for this ruinous downward spiral?  Or is this impossible at the moment because our democratic public institutions simply don't work?

- It isn't just that they don't work. There aren't the people to make them work. For example,  I was invited to be consultant director at a Petersburg television channel by someone I respect.  Our attempts to replace people who work badly, or solve other professional issues, encounter no resistance from the management.  What we come up against is the difficulty of finding people in our enormous city who want to work professionally and responsibly. Millions of people have just lost their motivation. This is the main problem. It's pointless talking about how to make public institutions work until we've solved the human problem.  For example, not one of the St Petersburg city administrations has been able to tackle the city's conservation issues. Perhaps we should issue invitations for our key posts, including the governor - we could ask specialists from Germany, for example... If we have lost our creative energy, we need to bring people in from Europe. This is something that Peter the Great felt, so from the outset St. Petersburg was  a still-born child.   What I mean by this is that, instead of a city which Russian architects could have built themselves, we brought in heavy, multi-layered ideas from abroad. In the course of time the European creators of these ideas passed on. But the Russians who replaced them don't know what to do with Petersburg, as they had no part in planning it.

The current sufferings and disgrace of the modern "architectural" community in Russia isn't hard to understand. It's a generation that has no experience of creating.  They don't understand why Petersburg mustn't be destroyed, why there should no building round the Novodevichy Monastery, or why you must not build anything higher than the churches and the mosques. We had no architectural school and no school of management which knows how to use any methods other than force.

In Russia even economic theories are implemented through force. Yeltsin told me that he couldn't get any proposals on the new market economy out of the young economists. In the USSR Solzhenitsyn was banned, films were closed, Shostakovich was not performed, and many of us wrote "for the desk drawer".  People who were given a blank sheet of paper and the opportunity of developing brand new management models didn't think things through at all. They were simply not up to the job.

- Inviting a governor from abroad isn't like hiring a foreign football trainer. So many people are just hoping that common sense will prevail, that the looming financial crisis is going to sober people up...

- A crisis puts people through the wringer. It prevents them spreading their wings.  I'm not a politician or a sociologist, just an ordinary person, but I can't accept that a crisis has a sobering effect. What I see is that it hits many people hard, and affects their life plans. Some of them will almost certainly perish physically. In crises like these, ideas die and the future of sensitive and worthy people is ruined, because they're unable to compromise their moral principles.  It's the rational, tough and mean-spirited who survive.  Culture may be a victim of the crisis, if more rational people get the opportunity to "work" in this field or if corporate unions and some of the ‘film families' become more powerful.  A tsunami washes away the weak and the strong survive by grabbing hold of trees. But who are these strong people? Many of them survived by not reaching out their hands to the dying. Could it be said that Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff or Landau would have been among the strong in this situation, for example?

(This interview was first published by the St Petersburg weekly Delo)

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