Issue 50 (2015) : Special Feature KiKu-50

Andrei Proshkin: The Horde (Orda, 2012)

reviewed by Christine Engel © 2015

ordaAndrei Proshkin’s film The Horde is a valuable addition to KinoKultura’s group of outstanding Russian films of the post-Soviet era. This is due less to its intrinsic aesthetic qualities—in this respect the film is relatively conventional—but as an indicator of the contemporary trend towards mythologization in Russian film. The Horde is one of many films in which Russia figures as the actual protagonist and in which the themes of Russian exceptionalism and its global mission are evoked. The film’s screenplay was written by Iurii Arabov, the most widely known master of his craft today and a central proponent of this trend. Arabov’s world view, and The Horde in particular, are strongly influenced by the historiosophical-metaphysical cosmology of Daniil Andreev’s The Rose of the World (Roza Mira), which will be the main focus in this review, as this aspect of the film has not been explored in reviews and commentaries to date. The Horde is made all the more relevant by the setting of its narrative within the era of the Tatar-Mongol Yoke, a fact which inevitably places the film within the context of contemporary debates on the significance of this epoch and the role of present-day Russia as a part of Eurasia.

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The action takes place in the mid-14th century, at a time when the old Kievan Rus’ had fallen to the Mongol invasion, and the Russian territories had become vassals of the Golden Horde. In the Mongol capital of New Sarai (or Sarai-Berke), Taidula, the imperious mother of Khan Dzhanibek—who unconditionally supports his claims to power—is inexplicably struck blind. When the healers and shamans summoned to the capital prove unable to restore her sight, Aleksii, the Metropolitan of Moscow, is sent for. Should he fail to perform the required miracle, Moscow will burn. When Aleksii fails to perform the expected miracle and Taidula’s state remains unchanged, he is humiliated, stripped of his garments and ordered to return naked to Moscow on foot. However, Aleksii chooses to remain in Sarai, where he falls in with a group of enslaved Russians. Wishing to share in their inhuman sufferings, Aleksii works alongside the slaves tending a furnace under grueling conditions. And as if these tortures were not enough, Aleksii is then forced by the Khan to watch as one in three of the slaves are killed, while his offer to sacrifice his own life is rejected. Aleksii’s attempt to halt the slaughter of his companions by hurling himself into the flames is thwarted and he is thrown out into the street—naked, covered in burns, more dead than alive. Then suddenly everything changes: Aleksii is brought to the palace, where he is bathed and treated as a guest of honor, before being sent on his way to Moscow, equipped with everything that one might need on such a long journey. This unexpected turn of events is motivated by Taidula’s spectacular recovery—a miracle ascribed to the ministrations of Aleksii.

ordaAleksii, the Metropolitan of Moscow (1292?–1378), is known to have journeyed to Sarai in 1357. Likewise, the restoration of Taidula’s sight is mentioned in the classical Russian chronicles of this period and, following Aleksii’s canonization in 1428, figures in the hagiographic literature commonly available in pre-Revolutionary Russia. However, the film departs from historical narratives in its depiction of Aleksii as a martyr who takes it upon himself to share the sufferings of Jesus Christ and, like Jesus, descends into the depths of Hell. This is underscored by the film’s naturalistic depiction of Aleksii’s torture, frequently shot in a close-up, which takes up a quarter of the film’s duration. In accordance with the film’s internal logic, it is through these agonies that Aleksii—resurrected like Jesus—is able to transcend the physical and restore Taidula’s vision through the will of God as an intangible and purely spiritual force. This experience transforms Taidula, making her a discerning and perceptive woman as she registers the fast-approaching collapse of her empire, which has been built on pragmatism and conquest. Unmoved by the many palace intrigues and acts of fratricide and patricide to which she has been a witness, Taidula is haunted by moral qualms following this most recent murder. With the words “God does not want this,” she refuses to recognize the authority of her grandson Berdibek, who has just attended to the killing of his own father. Dressed in theatrical garb and with his face made up, the young, feminine man with the smooth, mask-like face remains in the circle of his androgynous friends while Taidula rides out into the steppe alone.

The film has attracted harsh reviews. Volga Tatars complained of the film’s depiction of Tataro-Mongols as “cruel, bloodthirsty, vicious, dumb and greedy” and argued that it represented a return to old stereotypes (Rudakov 2012; see also Bikmuchammetova 2011). These critics have not been swayed by the claims of producer Sergei Kravets, along with Arabov and Proshkin, that these figures are not intended to be understood as ‘real’ Tatars, but as a metaphorical representation of wickedness, a universal phenomenon that leads inevitably to moral bankruptcy (Golovko, Kravets 2012). The film has also evoked controversy elsewhere:

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 (Perrie 2013).

The film does indeed lean towards interpretations of history according to which Russian Orthodoxy triumphed over the barbaric Tataro-Mongols (see Zintsov 2012), and goes so far as to suggest that the baton of power was passed from the disintegrating Mongol Empire to the spiritually superior Russia. As Proshkin has noted, the following passage in the screenplay sets the tone of the film: “A city built of clay appeared, the like of which will never again be seen on Earth, and which perhaps never was” (Proshkin 2012). Read in the context of the film, this passage infers that while Moscow still stands, Sarai has been razed to the ground, vanishing without a trace. These overarching themes and the tropes of sacrifice and suffering which so sharply define the film, and refer not merely to Aleksii the person but to Russia as a whole, gain an additional, crucial dimension when they are interrogated in the light of the film’s intertext—The Rose of the World.

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The son of writer Leonid Andreev, Daniil Andreev (1906–1959) began writing The Rose of the World in 1950, during a decade of incarceration in prisons and prison camps (1947–1957), and completed the book in 1958, several months before his death. Andreev’s gnostic cosmology, which circulated in underground circles in Soviet Russia of the 1960s and has attracted a large readership since its publication in 1991, encompasses an entire universe of parallel worlds in which the struggle between the forces of Light and Darkness rage. The Earth is located at an interface within this universe, so that the victories and defeats of these forces have a direct impact on the development of entire cultures and individuals, a phenomenon which Andreev refers to as “metahistory.” With The Rose of the World Andreev joined the ranks of a long tradition in Russian philosophy that seeks to elaborate a holistic spiritual world view: “His legacy belongs to those historiosophical and cosmosophical movements of Russian thought which attempt to synthesize natural sciences, social utopias and religious inspirations in a kind of occult ‘superknowledge’ claiming the power of complete transformation of the world” (Epstein 1997: 1). It is difficult to overestimate the influence of Andreev’s work in contemporary Russian literature and culture, as readers of all persuasions are likely to draw inspiration from The Rose of the World: “Liberal Westernizers, who defend religious pluralism and Christian ecumenism, revere Andreev’s legacy as much as neo-paganists who draw upon the ‘Aryan’ roots of the Russian national spirit and declare Andreev to be the messenger of mythic ‘proto-Russianism’. The Rose of the World ‘sscope of influence stretches from elitist esotericism to stands on topical issues, and from the occult journal Urania which offers an astrological interpretation of Andreev’s ideas, to the journalistic articles in the collection The Square of Freedom, where his thought is used to explain the ‘metahistorical’ meaning of the August, 1991 pro-communist putsch” (Epstein 1997: 6). In interviews Arabov himself has repeatedly noted the book’s importance, and his use of concepts such as “satanohumankind” and “parallel worlds” reveal the impact of Andreev’s thinking on his own world view.

ordaAndreev anticipates the advent of the age of the Rose of the World, a kind of universal inter-religion that will resolve all the antagonisms and problems of our world, whether they are of a religious, gendered, ideological, economic, environmental or ethical nature. The dawning of this new epoch will be marked by the restoration of the “Eternal Feminine”—the wisdom of God and the soul of the universe—to its rightful place as a constituent of the Holy Trinity. Russia and the Orthodox faith will play a special role as a mediator as these events unfold and the Antichrist continues to pursue his evil course in his quest to thwart the restoration and to seize power over the universe. This conflict will come to a head before the Second Coming of Christ, when the Antichrist will bring down the universal theocracy of the Rose of the World. Usurping all things noble, the Antichrist will use the power of illusion to distort them so that it is no longer possible to distinguish between the work of the Devil and the work of God. The denizens of the underworlds—anti-humans and highly intelligent demonic creatures—will rise up and delight in the sufferings of humankind.

Andreev’s metahistory of Russia comprises almost half of this outline of events. It is here that the forces of Light—Iarosvet and his bride Navna—and Darkness—Velga and Gagtungr—are at work. Navna, the collective feminine soul of Russia, was kidnapped before her union with Iarosvet by the forces of Darkness and has been held captive since. As a result of this, Russia will be unable to complete its mission—the establishment of the Rose of the World—until Navna is liberated. Driven ever onwards by their imperial demon, the Tataro-Mongols, however, overran the nascent Russian metaculture and dealt her a serious setback.

Those scenes in the The Horde which are set in Moscow evoke the harmony of Kievan Rus’ of the 10th century, in which, Andreev claims, Russian culture could evolve without being subjected to external pressures, and Iarosvet and Navna first met in the Russian heaven. The relationship between the Grand Duke and the Metropolitan is accordingly characterized by mutual respect and spiritual affinity: rather than commanding, the Duke asks the Metropolitan to shoulder this heavy task. The Metropolitan, in turn, welcomes the Grand Duke in an amicable fashion and receives him unceremoniously at his home, while washing his feet in a wooden tub in the yard. The entire scene seeks to convey that life here is simple and homely, and that the Metropolitan knows nothing of luxury: hens cluck as they roam the yard, a wooden bowl holds some small, still green apples, and there is firewood stacked around the yard in preparation for winter. The common people are grounded in their faith and love the Metropolitan deeply. His farewell is attended by all—high and low—even those who are unable to make any practical contribution due, for example, to mentally disability. But within the film’s narrative there are indications that the Russian metaculture was not yet so well cemented. Both the lay brother Fed’ka, who accompanies Aleksii on his journey, and the Russian slaves are unable to grasp the deeper meaning of Aleksii’s willingness to endure his agonies and become uncertain of their faith.

Unlike in Moscow, the rulers in Sarai are the instruments of dark powers. There, debasement and sadism are the order of the day, and people are categorized according to their utility. Those Russian slaves who are unlikely to provide an adequate return on investment are beheaded on the spot at the bazaar. And even this act is conducted in accordance with the principle of utility, providing an opportunity for warriors to practice the art of decapitating an opponent with a single blow.

Arabov and Proshkin take particular note of the Tataro-Mongols’ pragmatic treatment of the various religious cults within their territories—an approach widely misinterpreted as a matter of tolerance. In their estrangement from the divine, the Tataro-Mongols are willing to treat each cult equally, if only it proves useful to their ends. But it is precisely because of this that they are unable to distinguish between a genuine miracle, understood as a sign from God, and a common magic trick. This theme is explored both in the futile attempts of the shamans to heal Taidula and in the remarkable scenes depicting the performances of the illusionist, to which film scholar Mikhail Iampol’skii has rightfully drawn our attention (Iampol’skii 2013): in the eyes of Khan Dzhanibek, who is enraptured by these performances, the illusionists’ tricks are nothing short of miracles. But when the intellectually superior Taidula exposes to her son the trickery behind the artist’s disappearance of an ornate ball of white feathers, Dzhanibek’s fury knows no bounds, and he tramples the artist to death. Likewise, Dzhanibek slices clean through the rope of a “wizard” who hopes to impress him with a performance of the Indian rope trick.

According to the film, true miracles are the work of God, not man. Aleksii, too, is well aware of this and stresses that it was not he who healed Taidula’s blindness. He understands that his role here is as a kind of mediator and that, according to Andreev, he must qualify for this by descending into depths and accepting the agonies that are heaped upon him. The cinematic representation of these miracles through sudden changes in the weather and similar phenomena is fairly conventional. While Aleksii is lying in the street close to death at the time Taidula is regaining her eyesight, the miracle is attended by a sudden gust of wind coming from nowhere and bringing with it torrential rains accompanied by thunder and lightning. Likewise, the loss of Taidula’s eyesight is also marked by an inexplicable occurrence: in the very moment that she condemns in passing a Russian prisoner to death, snow begins to fall from the blue summer sky. In addition to this, Taidula’s horse shies away from her, indirectly suggesting that animals and children have retained the sensory capacities which their elders, according to Arabov, have relinquished in their adoption of rational thinking (see Arabov 2008).

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The central thesis of Andreev’s book is the restoration of the “Eternal Feminine” as the original hypostasis of the Holy Trinity (see Epstein 1997: 18). Andreev believes that God is by nature hermaphroditic, wherein the union of the masculine and feminine hypostases creates a third entity: the first cause of the universe. This union in love is the central mystery of The Rose of the World, in which all antagonisms are overcome, especially those between the body and the mind, and which causes the Church the greatest doctrinal headaches: within this world view neither ascetic spirituality, in its quest to eliminate all forms of physical and sensual experience as the Devil’s work, nor so-called pagan tendencies, with their glorification of the carnal-physical side of existence, are able to gain the upper hand: “A synthesis of two Russian philosophical attitudes, materialism and sophiology, which I would call, for absence of a better term ‘materiosophy’, is one of the main purposes of Daniil Andreev’s work. ‘Materiosophy’ can be defined as the ‘removal of the antagonism between spiritual-ascetic and pagan tendencies and the development of a synthetic attitude towards nature in the consciousness of the multitudes of people’ (Andreev 2014: 10, 2, 180). When reunited, these two aspects of femininity, ascetic and pagan, spiritual and sexual, would strengthen the influence of femininity in mankind’s future. Certainly the feminine itself will not remain unchanged; it must embrace not only the purity of a virgin and the fertility of motherhood, but the sexual initiation of a mature woman” (Epstein 1997: 16). According to Andreev, the demons of Darkness work to ensure that this “union in love” is viewed in exclusively sexual terms so that in times when satanohumankind takes the helm, blasphemy, lust, shamelessness, and fornication rule the day.

The Horde is positioned within this precisely delineated imaginative context with Taidula as the powerful representative of demonic forces that seek to pervert the “Eternal Feminine” into its opposite. Ambitious and perspicacious, Taidula exhibits all those characteristics which connote masculinity in The Rose of the World: strength, daring, pride, courage, and cruelty. She accuses her son Dzhanibek of effeminacy and demands ever more conquests. Her relationship to Aleksii is that of an antagonist and a twin, and it is clear that a mystical connection of some kind exists between the two. Seen within this theoretical perspective, Aleksii combines in himself all of the desirable female elements, thus enabling him to wrest Taidula’s soul from the forces of Darkness and bring her into the light of God. The establishment of the equilibrium between these two figures is indicated by their departure from the Tataro-Mongol Empire—but while Aleksii rides into the daylight, Taidula sets off into the night.

ordaAs the embodiment of demonic power, Taidula also represents the figure by means of which the “Eternal Feminine” is interpreted in the film as the double function of mother and mistress in the spirit of the Anti-Christ. This is the key to understanding the incestuous connotation of the scene featuring Taidula and her son Dzhanibek: after having murdered his brother, Dzhanibek puts his mother on the throne which he claims to be the throne of the tsar of all tsars, opens her legs and says: “If you were not my mother, I would marry you”; to which she responds, while wrapping her legs around him: “I would never lie beneath you.”

With the introduction of Berdibek, Taidula’s grandson, the film addresses another aspect of gender relations in an age of satanohumankind. With his androgynous appearance, the young man almost seems to embody Andreev’s idealized union of the masculine and the feminine. But within Proshkin’s counter-world Berdibek represents an ideal perverted. Surrounding himself exclusively with young men, he undermines the symbolic fertility inherent to the notion of the “Eternal Feminine”. His theatrical attire, coupled with his use of make-up, blurs gender differences and evokes associations with the art of illusion. The grandson does not figure as an independent character throughout the entirety of the film. Instead, the camera seeks him out in the crowd as the spectator of various theatrical performances, beginning with the performance of the “Wizard” with the ball. Similarly, Berdibek’s ascension to power is staged within the context of a theatrical performance. The event, the performance of a round dance, is heavily charged with symbolism: the stooped, lascivious movements are performed by five semi-naked, muscular figures clad in pointed leather bras and wearing dark leather masks over their faces – an outfit that draws on the aesthetics of the contemporary BDSM scene. Iampol’skii has likened this scene to the Dance of the Oprichniks in Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible,where the exchange of gender roles marks the carnivalesque reversal of all hierarchies and social orders (Iampol’skii 2013).

This scene also offers an illustration of the concept of anti-culture to which Arabov, inspired by Andreev, subscribes: the rope linking the dancing men horizontally is by no means a metaphysical cultural bond between people with all its positive connotations, but a purely physical and sexual bond centered on subjugation and debasement. And when the rope rises from the ground in the scene depicting the Indian rope trick, it leads not to the establishment of a positive link to the powers of Light and the regions of divine culture, but nowhere: the rope hangs aloft in empty space, a hollow golden masking grinning from its upper end. As a sign of the demonic, the mask plays a crucial role at the conclusion of the film when Dzhanibek dons the leather mask of a musician, which is adorned with a trunk-like appendage, and suffocates. The extent of Berdibek’s involvement in his father’s death remains unclear, but his countenance and the diabolical expression of his smooth, mask-like face, which features in the film’s trailer and on the DVD case, speak volumes. The final scene of the film shows Berdibek in the nocturnal darkness of the palace courtyard, surrounded by the kneeing forms of his androgynous companions—all dressed and made up in an equally theatrical fashion—as they pay homage to him.

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Arabov and Proshkin have noted in successive interviews that the Tataro-Mongols in the film are in fact a metaphor for contemporary Russia. In relation to this it should first be noted that Arabov and Proshkin utilize the same arguments as other representatives of the conservative cultural revolution: they identify the blurring of traditional gender roles as the harbinger of a more general decline of the Russian nation. Secondly, it is evident that their criticism of contemporary Russia is based to a large extent on the writings of Andreev. As the self-appointed guardians of true values, they are convinced that the nation’s political elite are part of some diabolical deception. Arabov has repeatedly suggested in interviews that the ruling class commandeers these discourses and uses the very same arguments to disguise their true intentions. Instead, he argues, the elite are overseeing the privatization and exploitation of Russia, do not subscribe to the spiritual values of the nation and, adhering to a Cartesian world view, act on purely utilitarian and pragmatic principles and live in a state of ungodliness (see Arabov 2012). Read with Andreev, the parallels that he draws between the Tataro-Mongol period and the present day are to be found on the metahistorical level: both then and now the forces of Darkness have the upper hand and have severed the horizontal and vertical cultural connections of Russian culture, postponing the advent of Rose of the Worldonce again to some distant future.

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Works Cited

Andreev, Daniil. 2014. Roza Mira. Moscow, 1991.

Arabov, Iurii. 2008. “Kino i chudo,” interview with Andrei Kul’ba, Neskuchnyi sad, 27 August.

Arabov, Iurii 2012. Radio interview with Kseniia Larina, Ekho Moskvy, 15 July.

Epstein, Mikhail. 1997. “Daniil Andreev and the Russian Mysticism of Femininity,” in Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, ed., The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture, Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, pp. 325-355.

Golovko, Oksana and Sergei Kravets. 2012. “Orda. Fil’m ob otnosheniakh cheloveka i Boga,” Pravoslavie i mir, 20 September.

Iampol’skii, Мikhail. 2013. “Vlast’ kak illiuziia,” Seans 1 January.

Perrie, Maureen. 2013. “Andrei Proshkin: The Horde (Orda, 2012),” KinoKultura 39.

Rudakov, Vadim. 2012. “‘Orda’ vyderzhana v khudshikh traditsiiakh starykh sovetskikh fil’mov o tataro-mongolakh i kochevnikakh,” Islamskii portal 19 September.

Zintsov, Oleg. 2012. “Moskovskii kinofestival’: Kak my pobedili Ordu,” Vedomosti, 26 June.


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 Christine Engel © 2015

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