Issue 24 (2009)

Rustem Abdrashev: A Gift to Stalin (Podarok Stalinu, 2008)

reviewed by Jamie Miller © 2009

gifttostalinA Gift to Stalin is Kazakh director Rustem Abdrashev’s third major film and deals with the deportations from their homelands of nationalities suspected of disloyalty that occurred in the western parts of the USSR to Siberia and Central Asia in the 1940s. Commenting on his new film, the director recently stated: “This is the first film to deal with this issue... this is our generation's perspective on history, on the past”. Abdrashev focuses on the deportations of 1949, when Soviet scientists were also testing nuclear weapons in north-eastern Kazakhstan. Abdrashev is right to point out that these stories, particularly the consequences of nuclear testing for the Kazakh people, are relatively untold. This provided both the director and the scriptwriter, Pavel Finn, with fertile material.

gifttostalinA Gift to Stalin begins in modern-day Jerusalem, the home of Sabyr (as he is named after deportation), a man who is reflecting on his traumatic childhood. The film tells of the arrest of Sabyr and his family in Moscow in 1949. The boy and his grandfather are deported to Kazakhstan and Sabyr is forever separated from his mother and father. On the train the grandfather dies and, when they arrive at a small Kazakh village, the boy is lumbered on to a cart with several other dead deportees on the assumption that he too has not survived the journey. However, Kasym, a local railway worker, saves the boy and plays the role of a surrogate grandfather figure, bringing him to live in the small village along with local Kazakhs and other victims of Soviet deportation. These include Vera, a Russian “wife of a traitor” and a Polish doctor by the name of Dombrovskii who also play their role in looking after Sabyr. Although the ethnically diverse village is remarkably harmonious, it is terrorized by a local Kazakh policeman, Balgabai, who willingly fulfils the demands of the Soviet military staff. He also abuses his power by repeatedly raping the helpless Vera and a local Kazakh girl. The film reaches its climax after Vera and Dombrovskii get married. In a drunken rage, Balgabai kills Dombrovskii and is himself shortly afterwards shot dead by an unknown gunman. The murder is pinned on a group of local delinquent boys. Kasym decides that he must send Sabyr away (which suggests that he may have been responsible for the revenge killing) along with a photograph of his parents, the address of his relatives and his grandfather’s prayer book.

gifttostalinThe relationship between Kasym, played by Nurzhuman Ikhtimbaev, and the boy lies at the center of the film. Sabyr observes Kasym’s simple, honest, rural way of life, his kindness and respect for others. When Sabyr sees Kasym praying the boy is curious about the Muslim faith and asks him: “Who is your God?” Kasym responds: “he is the same for everyone.” Here the filmmaker seeks not so much to set communism and religious faith against each other, rather, he tries to contrast a ruthless Soviet instrumentalism where people are treated with contempt and as objects of abuse and manipulation, with the “God” of mutual respect, care and love that we witness among the people of the village.

gifttostalinOnly later in the film do we learn the significance of its title. Sabyr reads in a newspaper that school children of the Soviet Union are preparing gifts for Stalin’s forthcoming anniversary and that “the best gift can be given to him personally by the winner.” Sabyr’s gift to Stalin is his pet lamb that he gives to a Soviet major to pass on to the General Secretary in the hope that, in return, he will be reunited with his parents, rather than meet the leader. This is intended to act as a parallel to the ‘sacrificial lamb’ ritual that features in several religions where a lamb is offered to God as a sacrifice to obtain a valued favor. In the end, of course, the only “gift” that Stalin can offer the Kazakh people, in addition to the thousands of displaced people, is the Soviet Union’s first nuclear bomb test and its numerous successors which had a devastating effect on the health of thousands of people living in the area. In the film we are shown the blast which destroys everything in its wake, including all the inhabitants of the village. Having sent Sabyr away, Kasym has thus saved his life for a second time.

gifttostalinIkhtimbayev endows the role of Kasym with a quiet dignity in the face of Soviet brutality. Although the young actor, Dalen Shintemirov, does well to fulfill a demanding role, he and the other characters have a flat, uninvolving quality. This is not only a shortcoming of acting skills, but it is also due to Pavel Finn’s script. The script tends to lean too heavily on its thematic foundations and fails to explore the characters in any depth. Moreover, the structure of the narrative has a directionless feel and the excessive, rapid jumping between Jerusalem and Kazakhstan has a rather arbitrary quality. Consequently, the film only rarely succeeds in conveying the profound sense of loss and dislocation that these people must have felt. 

gifttostalinThe cinematography in the film is one of its strengths. The camerawork includes arresting shots of the Kazakh steppes and manages to convey a rural idyll. This is effectively contrasted with shots of Soviet scientific and military staff in gas masks (preparing for the forthcoming nuclear bomb test) and in militarized cars, trains and motorbikes that look alien to the Kazakh environment and are contrasted to the natural, local way of life. The contrast between invasive Soviet machines and Kazakh country life is heightened by the ubiquitous presence of Soviet radio broadcasts with information about Stalin and the Soviet national anthem resonating over loudspeakers. The filmmakers recreation of the nuclear bomb explosion is also a significant achievement on what must have been a limited budget. The mushroom cloud and its after effects are convincing in their impact and mark the logical conclusion to the film. Some of these images are musically accompanied by flute and keyboard music, as well as some dombra tunes. Although the music helps to create a somber and melancholic mood, it does get a bit repetitive and is sometimes used at the wrong moments.

The film opened the Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea in October 2008, yet reviews have been mixed. One reviewer has compared the relationship between the two main protagonists to Guiseppe Tornatore’s classic Cinema Paradiso (1988) (Halligan). Although not in the same league as that film, Rustem Abdrashev has made a decent effort at telling a story that needed to be told.

Jamie Miller
University of Toronto

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum

Works Cited

“Kazakh drama opens glittering Pusan International Film Festival,” in Breitbart

Halligan, Fionualla, “The Gift To Stalin”, Screen Daily 2 October 2008.


A Gift to Stalin, Israel, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia, 2008
Colour, 97 minutes
Director: Rustem Abdrashev
Scriptwriter: Pavel Finn
Cinematography: Khasan Kidiraliev
Production Design: Aleksandr Rorokin
Music: Kuat Shildebaev
Main Cast: Nurzhuman Ikhtimbaev, Dalen Shintemirov, Ekaterina Rednikova,
Bakhtiar Khozha
Producer: Boris Cherdabaev
Production: Aldongar Productions

Rustem Abdrashev: A Gift to Stalin (Podarok Stalinu, 2008)

reviewed by Jamie Miller © 2009

Updated: 31 Mar 09