Issue 39 (2013)
Andrei Proshkin: The Horde (Orda, 2012)
reviewed by Maureen Perrie © 2013
Andrei Proshkin’s film has provoked much controversy in Russia. Funded to the tune of $12m by the publishing house Orthodox Encyclopedia (Pravoslavnaia Entsiklopediia), whose head, Sergei Kravets, is the film’s general producer, it is loosely based on an episode in the life of a historical figure, Metropolitan Aleksii of Kiev and All Rus’, who reportedly cured the blindness of Taidula, the mother of Khan Dzhanibek of the Golden Horde, in 1357.
The film has been criticized by Tatars in the Russian Federation for depicting their ancestors as crude and bloodthirsty savages; by Russian nationalists for presenting 14th-century Moscow as a primitive settlement; by Orthodox believers for suggesting that Aleksii was something less than the heroic miracle-worker of medieval hagiography; and by scholars of all ideological persuasions for its distortions of historical fact. Not all of these criticisms are justified.
The film opens with a scene in the reception-chamber of the khan’s palace in Sarai, where Khan Tinibek (Andrei Panin) confronts two envoys from the Pope in Avignon who have come to entreat him to spare their city. During the feasting, Tinibek is strangled by his brother Dzhanibek (Innokentii Dakaiarov), and their mother Taidula (Roza Khairullina) blesses Dzhanibek’s accession as the new khan.
Soon after this, we see a convoy of Russian prisoners arrive in Sarai. Taidula watches and approves the public beheading of those who are deemed too costly to feed, but she is then suddenly struck down by blindness. Dzhanibek summons a series of exotic oriental sorcerers, including a shaman, to restore her sight. All fail to do so, and are driven mercilessly away.
The next scene is set in Russia. Two Tatar envoys arrive in the small village that turns out to be Moscow, in search of the famous magician (koldun) Aleksii (Maksim Sukhanov), who is to come to Sarai to cure Taidula; if he fails, Moscow will be burned to the ground. The grand prince, Ivan the Fair (Vitalii Khaev), persuades the reluctant Metropolitan to undertake the task, and Aleksii sets off, accompanied only by the two Tatars and his young servant Fed’ka (Aleksandr Iatsenko).
In Sarai, the Metropolitan attempts to cure Taidula, at first with prayers, incense, and holy water, and then with earth and spittle, in imitation of Christ’s healing of the man who was blind from birth (John 9). But his methods are just as unsuccessful as those of the eastern magicians. The khan strips him of his robes and drives him away, appointing one of the Tatars to be his minder, to keep him alive until he sees Moscow burn with his own eyes.
Aleksii staggers out into the steppe, apparently heading for Moscow, but when he sees a convoy of Russian prisoners being marched to Sarai he turns round and follows them back to the city. Here he joins the army of slaves toiling in the underground furnaces. The khan, puzzled by Aleksii’s behavior, orders that one in every three Russian slaves should be killed in front of him. In despair, the Metropolitan offers to substitute himself for the victims; when his offer is refused, he tries to burn himself to death. Finally an apocalyptic thunderstorm leaves him lying mud-smeared and unconscious in the street.
At this point he is rescued by the khan and his entourage, taken to the palace and treated with honor and respect: Taidula has recovered her sight, and Aleksii is credited with the miracle, although he protests that he “did nothing.” He and Fed’ka set off for Moscow, the Metropolitan with a patent (iarlyk) granting tax-exemptions to the Church, Fed’ka with the fox-fur coat and hat he has coveted as a reward ever since departing from Moscow on the mission.
In the final episode we return to the khan’s court, where Dzhanibek is celebrating his mother’s recovery by watching a display by masked dancers. Dzhanibek suddenly collapses, evidently poisoned by his son Berdibek (Moge Oorzhak, the exotically androgynous poster-boy of the film’s publicity campaign), who immediately proclaims himself to be the new khan. Taidula, however, refuses to give him her blessing. “God does not want it,” she declares, before riding off alone into the steppe night. A voice-over tells us that Berdibek ruled for only two years, before he too was killed in the interminable power-struggles in the Horde, which led to its break-up and replacement by a unified Russia.
On the question of the film’s authenticity, the director and his colleagues have engaged in a degree of obfuscation. Proshkin claims that he carried out a huge amount of research, but at a press-conference he also stated that his reconstruction of Sarai is an imaginary, fantastical city—thereby, no doubt, seeking to divert accusations of historical inaccuracy (“Moskovskii Mezhdunarodnyi Kinofestival’ nabiraet oboroty”). The Tatars conform to the worst type of negative racial and ethnic stereotyping—but Sergei Kravets, the general producer, has tried to deflect criticism by arguing that they are not meant to be “real” Tatars, but rather a metaphorical representation of Godlessness, a universal phenomenon that inevitably leads to moral bankruptcy (“Orda: fil’m ob otnosheniiakh cheloveka i Boga”). To this end, the Tatars are depicted as primarily pagan, whereas in reality the Horde had converted to Islam in the early 14th century, in the reign of Taidula’s husband, Khan Uzbek. Although the Russian chronicles date Aleksii’s mission to Sarai to 1357, Proshkin states on the film’s official website that he has not specified this date in the film, in order to provide a more generalized impression of the Horde in the 14th century (“Sozdateli. Andrei Proshkin”). The reigns of the three khans depicted—all of whom are historical figures—are telescoped chronologically: in the film Tinibek, Dzhanibek and Berdibek succeed one another within a matter of months, whereas in fact Dzhanibek ruled from 1342 to 1357. Although some Russian chronicles describe Dzhanibek as a “good khan,” he is presented in the film as an Oriental despot—moon-faced and credulous, possessed of a low cunning, but cruel and sadistic. His relationship with Taidula is shown as somewhat unhealthy (“If you were not my mother, I would marry you,” he exclaims after she blesses his accession). It may be, of course, that this fratricidal khan is depicted as unusually devoted to his mother primarily in order to provide a motivation for his evidently intense desire to obtain a cure for her blindness, which is the main driver of the plot.
Although the film may be innocent of any charges of anti-Tatarism, it is unashamedly guilty of anti-Eurasianism. There is no suggestion of the symbiotic relationship that Eurasianists perceive between the steppe nomads and the Russians: the Horde and the Muscovites are presented as two entirely distinct cultures, in a relationship of bitter conflict. One would not guess, from Proshkin’s film, that the Russian princes regularly visited the Horde to bargain for their privileges; nor that there had been an Orthodox bishopric in Sarai since 1261.
The film’s challenge to Eurasianism may also be detected in the curious sub-plot about the Papal envoys, stranded destitute in Sarai because their “gifts” (i.e. bribes) for the khan had been stolen from them en route. Where Eurasianists often depict the Tatars as Russia’s shield against aggressive Roman Catholicism, Proshkin’s Catholics too are shown as potential victims of the Horde. They identify Aleksii as a fellow-Christian and (in one of the few positive acts of charity and compassion in the film) provide him with food and clothing after his humiliating expulsion from the court. Aleksii later donates his spare horses to the envoys, when he makes his triumphant departure from Sarai, so that they too will be able to return home.
As for the Russian characters in the film, they are in no way idealized. Prince Ivan the Fair is willing to sacrifice Aleksii in what he clearly regards as a vain attempt to cure Taidula and save Moscow. Fed’ka is a good-hearted simple youth who believes that Aleksii will perform the miracle, and who is deeply angry and disillusioned when it fails. Aleksii himself is depicted as an extraordinarily passive figure. He does not believe that he can perform a miracle to order, and when Prince Ivan reminds him that he had once averted plague from Moscow by power of prayer, the Metropolitan demurs, asserting that it had been no more than a coincidence. Nevertheless, he agrees to go to the Horde, where his attempt to cure Taidula seems fairly half-hearted. From the moment he returns to Sarai with the prisoners, and willingly shares their fate, his redemption through self-sacrifice begins, but the passivity of a Christ-like “passion-sufferer” (strastoterpets) is difficult to portray in any realistic or sympathetic way. Certainly this rather wishy-washy Metropolitan bears little resemblance to the historical Aleksii, evidently a skilful statesman and diplomat, who made numerous visits to Constantinople and Sarai to promote the interests of his Church. His healing of Taidula in 1357 is described as a miracle in the Russian chronicles and in various versions of Aleksii’s “Life,” with no indication of the initial apparent failure of the attempted cure. A simple plot on the lines of “he came, he cured, he went home again” would of course have been somewhat lacking in drama and suspense; Sergei Kravets claims that the insertion of the fictional plotline of Aleksii’s suffering in captivity was influenced by another, later episode in his life, when he went to Kiev in 1358-60 to counter the claims of a rival Metropolitan, Roman, patronized by Prince Ol’gerd of Lithuania, and was imprisoned and allegedly tortured there (“Orda: fil’m ob otnosheniiakh cheloveka i Boga”).
In fact the main theme of the film is a meditation on the nature of the miraculous, or more broadly of divine intervention in human affairs, which is, of course, the main message of Christianity. The distinction between the magical and the miraculous is signaled at an early stage, when Dzhanibek’s court is entertained by a Chinese conjurer. The simple-minded khan interprets the conjurer’s apparent ability to make a ball disappear as magic, and when Taidula reveals that the trick is simply one of sleight of hand, where the conjurer has hidden the ball under his cloak, Dzhanibek is so angry and disillusioned that he tramples the performer to death. The khan’s superstitious conflation of conjuring, magic and miracles recurs at the end of the film, when Dzhanibek applauds the performance of a version of the Indian rope-trick as a miracle. Conversely, Dzhanibek considers that Aleksii’s reputation as a wonder-worker means that he is a magician of the same type as the shaman and the Indian and Chinese sorcerers whom he first employs to heal Taidula.
The episode of Taidula’s blindness and its apparently miraculous cure, as it is presented in the film, is open to more than one explanation. A skeptic might claim that this was a case of temporary blindness, of a physiological or psychosomatic kind, that first appeared and then disappeared in an arbitrary manner. An alternative interpretation is that the blindness was divine punishment for Taidula’s approval of Dzhanibek’s murder of Tinibek, and of the execution of the Russian prisoners; and that its cure resulted from her remorse for her callousness (although we see evidence of this apparent remorse, in the form of her refusal to bless Berdibek’s accession, only after her cure, so that the remorse might be the result of the cure, rather than vice versa…).
The miracle itself is also open to more than one interpretation. Aleksii’s reaction (“I did nothing”) is ambiguous—perhaps it was God who cured Taidula; perhaps she recovered of her own accord. Did the Metropolitan’s attempt to cure the Tatar queen fail because of his spiritual pride in attempting to perform a miracle in imitation of Christ? Or did it succeed, but with an unexpected time-lag? Finally—and this is the interpretation that the structure of the film suggests as the most likely to reflect the director’s intention—was the cure effected as a result of Aleksii’s suffering and self-sacrifice in his voluntary enslavement? If the latter explanation is correct, then this is a genuinely Christian message, but one which is conveyed without any overt evangelical preaching. Rather, the film is multi-layered and complex, raising more questions than it answers. Unfortunately, however—from the point of view of Proshkin’s Orthodox sponsors, at least—just as the Devil has the best tunes, so do the Godless Tatars have the best imagery: the most striking and memorable episodes in the film are the often highly stylized scenes of decadence at the khan’s court.
University of Birmingham
|Comment on this article on Facebook|
“Moskovskii Mezhdunarodnyi Kinofestival’ nabiraet oboroty”. 23 June 2012.
“Orda: fil’m ob otnosheniiakh cheloveka i Boga,” Pravoslavie i mir, 20 Sept. 2012
“Sozdateli. Andrei Proshkin,” Orda. Fil’m Andreia Proshkina.
The Horde, Russia, 2012
Color, 127 minutes
Director: Andrei Proshkin
Screenplay: Iurii Arabov
Director of Photography: Iurii Raiskii
Composer: Aleksei Aigi
Production Design: Sergei Fevralev
Cast: Maksim Sukhanov, Roza Khairullina, Andrei Panin, Innokentii Dakaiarov, Moge Oorzhak, Aleksandr Iatsenko, Vitalii Khaev
Producers: Sergei Kravets, Natal’ia Gostiushina
Production: Pravoslavnaia Entsiklopediia
Andrei Proshkin: The Horde (Orda, 2012)
reviewed by Maureen Perrie © 2013