KinoKultura: Issue 27 (2010)
The new specter haunting post-communist Eurasia is the past. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it the collapse of Marxist historical narratives, the past has become as unpredictable as the future. Throughout the former Second World, discussions about the past—and particularly the communist past—dominate political and cultural discussions.
In Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev invoked the past and getting past it in his famous 1997 speech entitled “Kazakhstan 2030.” He emphasized that his new state had emerged out of an empire’s collapse and that it had “parted with our former political and economic system [...] that had dominated our lives for seventy years.” Nazarbayev also invoked the deeper past as the key for a better future, declaring that his Eurasianist trade vision followed “our forefathers, who used this important strategic factor to their advantage--all along the legendary Silk Route they set up a broad channel of trade between European and Asian countries.” Nazarbayev concluded that Kazakhstan had difficulties in transitioning, but “one should make note of the fact that many of our weak points are of temporary and transitory nature because they result from the Soviet legacy and hardships from the arduous transition period.” Change could come primarily through embracing the future, but also would come as time passed, for “our mentality is shaped up by several generations of people who were brought up in the spirit of Communist principles.” (Nazarbayev 1997b). Moving forward, Nazarbayev declared, involved acknowledging the ghosts of the past, blaming any present problems on their continued appearances, and getting on with building a new nation with new histories.
Nazarbayev’s government has spent millions on producing a narrative about the Kazakh past. Part of this quest for a new national myth involved the Kazakh state’s funding of blockbusters. The Nomad (Kochevnik, directed by Sergei V. Bodrov, Ivan Passer, and Talgat Temenov, 2005), a film set in eighteenth-century Kazakh lands, received $40m from Nazarbayev’s government. The funding included a campaign that marketed the film’s official slogan as a new national myth: “Every warrior, every people, every love must have its fatherland (kazhdyi voin, kazhdyi narod, kazhdaia liubov’ dolzhny imet’ svoe otechestvo).” The film, which attempted to be “a genuinely patriotic film and strengthen national consciousness within Kazakhstan” (Abikeeva) in many ways acted as a foundation myth for the new nation. For Nazarbayev, all of Kazakhstan’s pasts helped to bring about an independent state. Silk Road traders, who lived on present-day Kazakh lands, sowed the foundations for a tolerant state while even Kazakh soldiers, who fought in the Great Patriotic War, as the President declared in 2008, “played a direct part in building an independent Kazakhstan” (Nazarbayev 2008).
Contemporary Kazakh filmmakers operate within this new nation-building project. Nazarbayev’s quest to find new national narratives have thus far focused on the historic role of Islam in the region, the Turkic-ness of Kazakhstan, the state’s nomadic legacy, and a passionate attachment to the land (see Sarsembayev 330). At the same time, Nazarbayev has called for a civic vision of national belonging, one where all Kazakh citizens could lay claim to a shared past and therefore a shared future. In his Kazakhstan 2030 program, Nazarbayev imagined a nation that “would be inhabited by representatives of numerous nationalities sure of equal opportunities enjoyed by all the nations but deeming themselves to be citizens of Kazakhstan, first and foremost” (quoted in ibid, 332).
In their historical films, young Kazakh directors have challenged some of the state’s visions of a new Kazakh-ness. At the same time, their films reflect a shared desire to explore the past as a means of building a new nation. Two recent films serve as useful windows into this process of cinematic nation-building, a process where state ideas are simultaneously fleshed out and contested. One, A Gift to Stalin (Podarok Stalinu, 2008) is about 1949 and the impact of Stalinism in Kazakhstan. The second, The Racketeer (Reketir, 2007), is a film about the end of communism and beginning of a new era in Kazakhstan. Despite their different historical subjects, they can fruitfully be compared by examining what each says about the past and its role in shaping the present. Both films attempt to make the past History by dealing with some of its ghosts. Each film interprets the ways that the past have impacted Kazakhs and the ways in which the Soviet system shaped Kazakh history. Finally, both directors are “young Kazakhs” and see their films as part of a new direction in Kazakh cinema, one that uses the past as a means of making it past and of appealing to a new audience that also is from their generation.
Stalin and the Racketeers
May 31 is a memorial day in Kazakhstan dedicated to the victims of political repressions. Among the sites of memory associated with this day, the village of Malinovka is one of the most poignant. It was here that thousands of “wives of the traitors to the motherland” settled in order to be near their deported husbands, many of whom lived in the nearby Akmolinsk camp. On 31 May 2007 at a ceremony honoring these victims, Nazarbayev stated that “despite all the difficulties of these severe times, the Kazakh nation warmly welcomed all those unfortunate people. Because of that hospitality many people managed to survive and oppose the bloody totalitarian machine” (Nazarbayev 2007).
Rustem Abdrashev’s Gift to Stalin appeared a year after this speech. Made on a $2m budget, it is a story set on the Kazakh steppes in 1949 and historicizes the forced deportations of enemy nationalities under Stalin. The film takes place at the time of Stalin’s 70th birthday celebrations and therefore explores the apotheosis of the Stalin cult. Abdrashev has stated that “this is the first film to deal with this issue” and is therefore “our generation’s perspective on history, on the past” (quoted in Miller).
The protagonist, Kasym, an old Kazakh railway man (played by Nurzhuman Ikhtymbaev), one day rescues a young Jewish boy. The boy, whom Kasym names Sabyr after adopting him, was deported along with his grandfather after his parents had been arrested. The grandfather dies on the train ride to Kazakhstan and the boy is originally mistaken for dead. When Kasym and his comrade load him onto a cart, they realize the boy is alive. Kasym takes him to his village, a true representation of the Soviet friendship of peoples. They are a mix of locals and other victims of Stalinist repression, particularly Vera, the wife of a traitor, and Dombrovskii, a Polish doctor. Sabyr also hangs around with a gang of young boys, all orphans and therefore also victims of repression. The tension in the film is created by a local Kazakh militiaman, Balgabai, who abuses his power to rape Vera and a young Kazakh girl. When Vera decides to marry Dombrovskii, a drunken Balgabai breaks up the celebration, fights with Dombrovskii, and runs away after his pistol goes off, killing the Pole. Later Balgabai is shot in a revenge killing. We never see the shooter, who could be any one of the people abused by him. After the shooting, Kasym packs Sabyr away to safety. Interludes with Sabyr living in Jerusalem appear throughout the film, so we know that he survives. The rest of the villagers are not so lucky, for the Soviet authorities test their first nuclear bomb nearby at Semipalatinsk, killing everyone as they are taking part in ongoing celebrations for the leader’s birthday. The film ends with the words: “In the period from 1930 to 1949 more than 1.2 million people were deported to Kazakhstan, including Armenians, Balkars, Belorussians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Jews, Ingush, Karachays, Koreans, Crimean Tatars, Kurds, Germans, Poles, Russians, Turks, Ukrainians, and Chechens.” Abdrashev’s cinematic history, in short, provided a visual narrative that memorialized the deportations that Nazarbayev has also commemorated.
The President has also attempted to narrate the meanings of the Soviet experiment in its entirety. In a 1997 address entitled “Historic Memory, National Accord and Democratic Reforms,” Nazarbayev first evaluated the “lessons of totalitarianism” and concluded that “all national issues were sacrificed to the political system.” Nazarbayev then warned about the lingering effects of what he termed “the socialist syndrome,” a psychological disease of sorts created because of the chaos after 1992 and one where its sufferers tend to hold onto Soviet ways of thinking and “to idealize the past” (Nazarbayev 1997a). While this nostalgia may be psychologically understandable as a coping mechanism, Nazarbayev warned that Kazakhs need to come to grips with the socialist syndrome so that “our recent past will not be perceived by a part of our population solely as rose-colored.”
Akhan Sataev’s film The Racketeer is an attempt to make good on Nazarbayev’s admonishments. Made for $800,000, it is the story of the transition from Soviet to post-Soviet Kazakhstan told through the biography of Sayan, born in 1970 in Alma-Ata. Narrated by Sayan, we learn that his parents are “regular folks, they didn’t spoil me, just tried to give me a regular Soviet education.” When he was twelve, his dad took him to boxing lessons in order to “learn how to defend himself.” He became a city champ. When he failed his university exams he went into the army, served for two years, and was accepted into the university just as the August 1991 coup attempt occurred in Moscow. When the Union collapsed, Sayan’s dad lost his job and his mom started selling their things on streets. “Hard times began,” he states, “but I never stopped boxing.” At a 1993 fight he “was noticed” and offered a “worthy life.” He joins Ruslan, a new gangster in the new Almaty. “Money was flowing, we were having a good time in those years” he explains, particularly after “Ruslan and Company” (as he refers to his business) partner with Zhan, a new Kazakh businessman. “Time was passing,” Sayan narrates, “Life was changing to something better.” When Ruslan is killed in 2004, Sayan realizes that he has to make a decision for the first time by himself. He suspects Zhan, who has acquired a new business partner and has squeezed out Ruslan. Sayan and the remnants of the gang kidnap Zhan but spare him, deciding to focus instead on the new rival. As he steps out of his SUV near his apartment, Sayan is stabbed several times and dies. Sayan-narrator states: “that’s it. That’s my life. Nothing special. If I had a chance to live it again, would I choose another path? I don’t know. Anyway, it was too late to change anything.” Sayan has suffered from the socialist syndrome and paid for it.
Both films, in their own way, represent recent attempts to understand the past and how history has shaped present-day Kazakhstan. At the end of Gift to Stalin, Sabyr visits the barren landscape where he once lived with Kasym, Vera, and Dombrovskii. He has survived where they did not. The Racketeer obviously deals with the recent past, from 1970-2004 but even more specifically on how the collapse of communism affected Kazakhstan and shaped its contemporary landscape. Both films, in other words, deliberately create a dialogue between history and film, and film on history.
Nomadic Pasts and Blockbuster History
Robert Rosenstone argues that film “can render an important past, do a kind of history that is complex enough so that we must learn how to read it” (2). Film can relate to and even do something we call History (with a capital H). What Rosenstone means is that an historical film, just like an historical monograph, can move beyond Dragnet history (just the facts ma’am) and provide meaningful interpretations of the past. In this sense an historical film doesn’t differ that much from a monograph—both reflect the present in which they appear but both also have something to say about the past. The difference is in the mode of presentation—one textual, one visual, and we should not blame the latter for not being the former. As Rosenstone argues, film recreates the past onscreen, but this recreated past should not necessarily been seen as fictional. Instead, the visual nature of film allows us to glimpse the past, to follow the lives of people within it, to engage with contemporary discourses about the past, and even to meditate upon, interrogate, or analyze the past. History films become a way for history to be conceptualized on film precisely because their recreated pasts make us think about History through metaphoric and symbolic terms, not literal. History films, Rosenstone concludes, can provide historical understanding, or “coming to grips with the issues from the past that trouble and challenge us in the present” (162).
Both Gift to Stalin and Racketeer mediate upon, interrogate, and analyze the past. In performing these tasks, both directly engage with the cinematic histories other Kazakh directors have filmed in the last decade, most famously (or infamously), The Nomad. As Gulnara Abikeeva aptly characterized Nomad:
The film was created as a myth, as a fairy tale, as a legend; it bears practically no relation to the historical genre. Admittedly, the action unfolds during the war between the Kazakh people and the Djungars, and there are recognizable historical figures, but it is just a heroic fairy tale about a batyr, who was born to protect his people and defend his land. Therefore, all of the dramatic developments in the film are exclusively mythological.
The film received $40m from the Kazakh state, made $2.4m in Russia (a fairly good return in 2005), but the exact amount made at the box office is still hushed up in Kazakhstan. Still, its wide advertising and state support indicated that the film was meant as an exercise in nation-building, not historical understanding.
In this sense so too are Gift to Stalin and Racketeer, though both deliberately shun the state-driven approach and offer more subtle meanings out of the traces the past has left. Gift to Stalin contains a host of symbolic ideas about Kazakh nationhood: the family, hospitality, music, the dombra, a localized and liberal Islam, landscape shots of the steppe, and even nomadism after Vera calls Kasym and Sabyr “nomads” (see Rouland and Michaels). In part, the film illustrates the vision of modern Kazakh nationhood held by Nazarbayev, who declared at the 60th anniversary Victory Day celebrations that “a hospitable Kazakhstan became the native land for hundreds of thousands of migrants from territories conquered by enemy, and for nations forced to move to Kazakhstan” (Nazarbayev 2005).
At the same time, the story is not mythic in the way Abikeeva characterized Nomad. We see Kazakhs working with the Soviet government. Characters practice Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Judaism. As Jamie Miller has concluded, 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” (Miller). Abdrashev’s historical reconstruction includes Kazakhs that exploit fellow Kazakhs and non-Kazakhs alike, while the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional village all become “Kazakh” through their tolerance, hospitality, and music.
Racketeer, while explaining Sayan’s rise and intoxication with the gangster lifestyle, does not entirely romanticize his story. Instead, Sataev has Sayan narrate a matter-of-fact account of how Kazakhstan went from Soviet to post-Soviet, from late socialism to the present. The director has stated that the film is an historical one: his collaborators “tried to write history very truthful, describing the manner of speech and movements of the time.” His interviewer expressed surprise that he described the film as historical and he responded: “We were astonished when we found that contemporary cars cannot be shown on screen, along with the jeans and clothes that people now wear, not to mention the new buildings in Almaty. We encountered enormous problems. It proved that the 80s and 90s were long ago” (quoted in Vlasenko).
Two of Sayan’s encounters reinforce the notion that this is an historical film and offer parallel histories from Sayan’s of what might have been: in one scene he meets up with old school friends who have returned from abroad (including America) where they have studied; his friends are all happy, wealthy, and well employed—Sayan realizes “we had nothing to talk about.” He also encounters one of his former “brothers,” Aman, who spent 10 years in jail for the murder of a rival. Aman has found Islam in prison and adopted a different attitude on life. In both encounters, Sayan (and the spectator) sees a different historical path that he could have taken and with it, other paths Kazakhs took after 1991. As Joe Crescente has concluded, “Racketeer stands in direct contrast to the recent cinematic imaginings of Central Asia undertaken by Sergei Bodrov Sr., whose recent films Mongol (2007) and The Nomad present a Central Asian past wrought with conflict and territorial disputes” (Crescente). Crescente argues that Racketeer differs because it explores a present wrought with conflict. In many ways, though, the film is best seen as an historical one that challenges the mythic version of the past offered to audiences in The Nomad. The Racketeer, by contrast, interrogates the recent past as a way of coming to grips with how the transition continues to shape the present.
The film also explores how the Soviet system gave rise to a system of modern clan politics. The shortage economy produced under socialism changed the traditional nature of Kazakh clans. “Clan-related behaviors were broadly criminalized and removed from the public sphere,” Edward Schatz has argued, “but kin networks nonetheless flourished privately in the shortage economy” (Schatz xxv). When the system collapsed, these private networks survived and shaped the political and economic transition. Schatz concludes that the clan identity “is the enduring legacy of state socialism and the imprint it left upon clan politics is evident in post-Soviet Kazakhstan” (Schatz xxii). The Racketeer narrates this change and the survival of the Soviet clan structure: Sayan joins a “family” of “brothers” that controls access to goods. The ways in which Kazakhs circumvented the Soviet system, in other words, became the basis for criminal activities after the system collapsed.
In short, both films engage meaningfully with the past and use cinematic techniques to make it History. Both essentially provide explanations for how contemporary Kazakhstan came into being historically, whether it was from the long-term impact of deportations, disruptions, and violence or from how the last Soviet generation created a new post-Soviet nation. Both also eschew the blockbuster history patriotism of Nomad. Instead, Kazakhs are implicated in Soviet oppression just as they carve out autonomous space. Kazakhs are equally responsible for the post-Soviet chaos and turn to violence. Neither film, in other words, serves as a national advertisement for a mythic history in the fashion that Nomad did.
Gifts of History
In his first-ever speech before the United Nations, delivered on 5 October 1992, Nazarbayev referred to several wanted and unwanted gifts the Soviet system bestowed on Kazakhstan. One concerned the role Russia has had and will continue to have in the region, for, as Nazarbayev put it, “the long-standing complexity of relations between East and West cannot be dissipated with the breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” Another concerned an unwanted gift left by the breakup of the empire, namely, “the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, which was built on Kazakh land against the will of our people.” “The total power of the nuclear warheads that were set off here - in the atmosphere, on the ground and underground,” the President stated, “brought suffering to more than half a million people; it is hundreds of times as large as the power of the devices that brought tragedy to Hiroshima and Nagasaki” (Nazarbayev 1992). What Nazarbayev alluded to—and a theme he would return to again and again in the years ahead—was the gift of empire.
Bruce Grant’s recent work on the Caucasus explores this concept between Russia and the peoples of the Caucasus. The Russian and Soviet empires promised religious salvation, economic advancement, and cultural enlightenment to the peoples of the Caucasus. As Grant recounts, this giving was reciprocal if not symmetrical, for “gifts very much create fields of social relations, languages of reciprocity, and expectations of time ahead to be shared” (Grant xii).
Both films explore the asymmetrical effects of the empire’s gifts, particularly Abdrashev’s, which explicitly engages with what the Soviet Union gave Kazakhstan and what Kazakhs took away from these gifts. The Russian Empire and Soviet Empire gave Kazakhstan, the film posits, the Russian language, the railroad, and technologies such as the radio and loudspeaker. The Soviet Empire also gave special settlers, brutality, and Comrade Stalin’s birthday celebration. Abdrashev contrasts these gifts with the beauty of the steppe and Kazakh concepts of nationhood such as music and hospitality. The wedding scene has “real gifts” being offered from Kasym and the orphans to Dombrovskii and Vera. Obviously the gift of empire from Russia to Kazakhstan in this sense has not been one Kazakhs wanted, but were forced to take and to open. Sabyr reads about the contest for the “best gift” given by a Soviet child to Stalin and decides to give his lamb to the local militiaman in hopes that Stalin will release Sabyr’s parents. This gift to Stalin proves to be a sacrifice—Sabyr gives up a sacrificial lamb for nothing (Miller). Instead, Stalin gives back the nuclear bomb that destroys the village.
At the same time, Stalin’s gifts to the Kazakh people have interesting, unintended consequences. The deportations and arrests have produced a true friendship of peoples on the Kazakh steppe. Vera, Dombrovskii, Kasym, Sabyr, and the gang of orphans become a family and can communicate through shared language and shared sacrifice to the Soviet state. Kasym received Sabyr from these exchanges and gives the boy life at the end. He sends him away before the explosion and gives him a picture of his parents, the address of his relatives in Moscow, and his grandfather’s prayer book. Throughout the film we see how the forced settlement has also produced a tolerant religious community—Islam, Judaism, and Orthodoxy all are practiced on the steppe. In the end, Sabyr acknowledges that the gifts of life and sacrifice have mattered, for he concludes that he has been “given the only happy, invaluable life by fate.” In a real sense, then one of the ways Gift to Stalin offers meaningful commentary on the past is through the way gift-giving gets explored on screen. The Soviet state gives and takes, but its citizens give and take too.
The Racketeer also implicitly engages with gift-giving. In a sense, this is a story of how the last Soviet generation—Sayan’s “happy childhood” formed around “a typical Soviet education”—received the gift of Soviet rule and in turn created a new Kazakhstan. Sayan’s story suggests that he did not take the right gift offered at collapse, instead using his skills as a boxer to become a gangster. Sayan continuously states that the only thing he ever received from the Soviet system was his ability to use his fists. His father and mother are unprepared for the change because they had received jobs and other skills—Sayan is more prepared, but the costs are high. Aman, his former brother in arms, suggests another path when the two talk at Ruslan’s funeral. He tells Sayan that death comes for everyone and makes everyone equal. Sayan asks him, “Do you feel sorry for those 10 years [lost in prison]?” Aman answers: “No. I found something in exchange. In this life you shouldn’t lose yourself in the first place. […] One day I realized that it just had to end. […] An old man in prison taught me to take life as it is and just to endure.” In this sense, the alternative paths to Sayan’s also involve gift-giving and taking. Sayan has chosen the wrong one; Aman has taken the gift of religion offered by communism’s collapse. As Sataev explained, the film is about the fact that “it is necessary to pay for everything in life, and when a man creates bad matters, this cannot continue for long. He too has to pay” (Vlasenko).
Gift to Stalin and The Racketeer provide us with an interesting window into the emergence of what some critics have called the “new new Kazakh cinema” (Knox-Voina). In the case of these two films, the connections to this emerging wave of Young Kazakh cinema can be explained through biography. Rustem Abdrashev has stated that “this is the first film to deal with this issue” and is therefore “our generation’s perspective on history, on the past.” For him and for those who worked on the film, Gift to Stalin is aimed at the last generation raised under socialism and the first raised afterwards. It is a way to use the past to illustrate how Stalin’s gifts helped produce a multi-ethnic, tolerant, land of multiple faiths.
Abdrashev was born in 1970 in Alma-Ata and made commercials and music videos in the 1990s before his first feature in 2004. He credits his biography—and with it the collective biography of his generation—for his interest in 1949. “I have simply recovered from the starry sickness of childhood,” he stated to an interviewer from Vechernii Almaty. “When I was little,” Abdrashev explained, “I appeared before Kunaev and Brezhnev. I was selected as the face of the young pioneers of Kazakhstan to read verses about the Party and the Komsomol before them. I still have photographs of me with our leaders. Naturally, I considered myself a lucky boy. But, as they say, a starry disease, like smallpox, is easier to survive in childhood. Because it is very possible to die of smallpox as an adult” (Iskakova). Abdrashev, in other words, uses his past as a way to diagnose the present and present-day concerns with historical understanding. Because he has the proper distance from the Stalin era but can still relate to the “starry disease of childhood” created through Soviet leader cults, he can offer meaningful messages on screen to his generation.
Sataev believes that it is his closeness to recent history that makes him able to perform the same role. Born in 1971 in Karaganda, he got his start making commercials in the 1990s. He has explicitly stated that his film is aimed at 30-35 year olds and aims to tell their history, their transitions from Soviet to post-Soviet life. Sataev sees the history he relates on screen as therapy for his generation, who lived through the events on screen, and as a medicine against nostalgia for the Soviet era and gangster lifestyles that many younger spectators might feel (Vlasenko). As one reviewer noted after seeing its Almaty premiere, the audience “saw it not as an artistic representation, but our real life” (Shimyrbaeva). Sataev is also adamant that adopting Russian and Western genres—the film has been seen as Kazakhstan’s version of Brigade or Bimmer—can produce a new type of commercial cinema in Kazakhstan. In this regard he explicitly criticizes Nomad as “an expensive national advertisement.” Racketeer, by contrast (and by extension, Gift to Stalin) uses more meaningful pasts to create more meaningful audience friendly films.
The results, however, have been mixed. A Gift to Stalin earned only $63,000 at the box office; The Racketeer made $1.2m. The latter did not receive state funding and succeeded largely through its advertising campaign that included a trailer which appeared in a music video for the group Metis. The song also appeared in the film and helped to generate audience interest (Vlasenko).
It is through the biographical component that we can perhaps draw a larger conclusion about the state of Young Kazakh cinema and the approaches to the past within it. Young Kazakh directors today use techniques often borrowed from their experiences directing music videos or commercials. They share with the Kazakh New Wave of the 1980s similar historical experiences and similar views on the ways that cinema can make History. Both Abdrashev and Sataev have taken their cues from the Kazakh government’s attempt to find meaning in the present from the past. Unlike the government attempts to acknowledge the specters of the past and blame present-day problems on the presence of Soviet spirits, however, Abdrashev, Sataev, and other young directors are evaluating the past by exorcising its ghosts.
Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (OH)
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Stephen M. Norris © 2010
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