Issue 64 (2019)

Dmitrii Suvorov: The First (Pervye, 2017)

reviewed by Tatiana Filimonova© 2019

Dmitrii Suvorov’s action-packed patriotic melodrama The First (Pervye) is, incidentally, the director’s first foray into the genre of historical drama. Majestic shots of the Russian North and Aleksei Shelygin’s pompous score dutifully play their part in creating a movie that unequivocally celebrates the heroes of Russia’s imperial expansion and its documentation. The film follows Semen Cheliuskin and Vasilii Pronchishchev, two members of The Great Northern Expedition—the second part of an exploratory enterprise that was conceived by Peter I but carried out after his death, between 1733 and 1743, under the leadership of Vitus Bering, a Danish cartographer and officer in the service of the Russian navy. Prompted by Peter’s desire to find the Northern Sea Route from Europe to Siberia, the expedition sought to map Siberia’s Arctic coast as well as establishing a Russian presence in North America.

pervyeThe film opens in 1724, when naval cadets—known in Russia by the contracted French term gardes-marines— Semen Cheliuskin and Vasilii Pronchishchev receive Peter I’s commendation for naval exercises but shortly thereafter fall out of favor with their superiors because of a mock duel, which they stage at the cadets’ graduation party trying to win over a charming maiden. Fast-forward to 1729, and the old friends meet on board the Yakutsk, docked in the port of the same name—Pronchishchev as captain, Cheliuskin as navigator. Their ship is due to explore Russia’s Far North by following the Lena river to the Arctic and reaching the Yenisei to the west, thus mapping Russia’s northernmost cape. Maria Ivanovna, the woman whose charm caused the friends to be banished from St. Petersburg in the first place, is also in the North, albeit engaged to be married to their superior.

As the old friends prepare for the expedition, plots are brewing among its less than trustworthy crew. The sailors continue plotting after their departure, only to be discovered by the ship’s doctor, who turns out to be Maria Ivanovna in disguise, having escaped her fiancée by secretly boarding the explorers’ vessel in drag. The sailors’ mischievous plans are escalating, as are the sexual tensions between Maria, Cheliuskin and Pronchishchev. The love triangle must wait, however.

pervyeMutinous sailors steer the ship off course and stage a violent takeover, in which they succeed by leveraging with Maria’s life. Shortly thereafter, however, aided by a disgruntled mutineer, the commanding crew takes control again, and, relieved, spend the night in a Yakut settlement on shore. Despite the local shaman’s admonishment, Maria remains on board the vessel, and her romance with both friends blossoms until the ship is caught in a violent storm. The crew struggles with more difficulties each day – drenched provisions, low temperatures, the captain’s broken leg and stubborn refusal to turn back, until one day the ship is firmly caught in ice and cannot move any further. With some of the crew escaping and some freezing to death, only a few remain. Pulled on a sled by a dozen dogs, the old Yakut sailor comes to the rescue from land, offering to take the crew back to shore. The ailing Pronchishchev won’t leave his ship but he urges Cheliuskin to reach the expedition’s goal and find Eurasia’s northernmost point, claiming it with a Russian imperial boundary marker. By this point, Maria has made her choice – she remains on board the Yakutsk to tend to dying Pronchishchev and, shortly before he expires, the ship’s priest marries the couple. Losing yet another mate along the way, Cheliuskin and his devout Yakut companion reach the cape on foot and victoriously set the marker of the Russian Empire’s boundaries in the north.

What could have been a tedious account of a grueling journey is transformed by screenwriters and director into a hodge-podge of genres with their distinctive markers, taking the film far from a documentary account of historical events. This movie has it all: a masquerade ball at Peter I’s assembly in Peterhof, friendly rivalry, true friendship, sexual tension, a Stevensonesque obsession with a treasure map by the ship’s sailors-turned-pirates, fights with the aforementioned pirates as well as with extreme elements, a disturbingly close escape from a rape, numerous portrayals of death, including one during a beluga hunt, shamanic dances and indigenous rituals, dog-pulled sled rides and encounters with wild predators, and, most of all, repeated statements of patriotic fervor in service to the Empire.

pervye With this rollercoaster of adventures and the director’s prior work in light entertainment, should we even attempt to look for historical accuracy and verisimilitude in The First? While, considering the genre, one might answer this question in the negative, I would argue that in this film, ample departures from historical truth are problematic for several reasons. Sponsored, in part, by Russia’s Ministry of Culture as well as the Russian Geographic Society, this wide release film capitalizes on the big names of Russian history and geography like Peter I and Vitus Bering, making them active participants in the film’s action, thereby laying claim to historical authenticity that may now be transfigured in the eyes of the viewers. The strategy of making Peter I and Bering himself central to the action is akin to Disney capitalizing on the Greek Gods to promote the story of Hercules (stating that Hera, not Alcmene, was his mother in their 1997 animated film), or making Pocahontas part of the Disney princess franchise. The viewers of The First are made to believe that Peter I personally singled out the two cadets, entrusting the fate of the Great Northern Expedition to them. Pronchishchev and Cheliuskin had been seeing through Peter I’s plan to map the Arctic throughout the whole film, prompted early on by his authoritative remark (“What I am not able to see through, you will”). Ironically, too, it is the Danish explorer Bering who says, before the start of the journey: “We are Russians, God is with us.” Toward the end, the ideological message becomes all the more obvious as the film transforms from a playful love story and pirate adventure into a deliberately patriotic narrative of imperial conquest and affirmation, sending the final message of awareness and appreciation of “people who are worth remembering […], real Russian heroes, perhaps even more heroic than the historic Cheliuskin and Pronchishchev” (Ivanov, 2018). If Russians are to remember and honor their heroes, should they not know their history too?

The First is a patriotic historical drama, but it presents Russia’s national narrative in a format that is thoroughly indebted to Western adventure fiction (e.g. Jules Verne’s The Adventures of Captain Hatterras (1864)) and cinema. The portrayal of mutinous sailors and their treasure hunt brings to mind Hollywood’s famed Pirates of the Caribbean. The First makes similar adjustments to history that Hollywood does when it needs to mythologize and wants to capitalize on a given historical event. Much like Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor(2001) the film manipulates history to craft its own, marketable story. Like Andrei Kravchuk’s Admiral (2008), which successfully followed the conventions of a Hollywood-produced historical action film, The First airbrushes history mythologizing the actors of Russian imperial expansion to the north in ways that transcend generic boundaries in favor of ideology.

pervyeHistorical claims aside, the credits unequivocally state the film’s reliance on a fictional account of the events – it narrates a part of the Great Northern Expedition as imagined by Vladimir Fedorov in his narrative poem-turned-play Sozvezdie Marii (Maria’s Constellation, first published in 1985; Anon. 2015). The First, however, seems to make even more adjustments to the play’s script. The events of almost a decade are compressed into a few months, skipping over the long winter that the crew spent in a Yakut settlement, and portraying Pronchishchev and Cheliuskin as patriotic zealots with no regard for their subordinates’ lives. In the film, Yakutsk’s attempt to reach the Arctic fails in the same summer when the ship leaves harbor, and all of the events unfold in less than a few months. In reality, however, the expedition that left Yakutsk in 1735 did not abandon its plan to circumnavigate the Arctic coast of Siberia until the fall of 1736, after Pronchishchev’s passing (Sokolov 1854: 92–97). Cheliuskin did in fact return with part of the crew on the salvaged ship. Additionally, Cheliuskin only reached the top of the cape lying between the deltas of the Lena and Yenisei rivers in May of 1742, and did so by land, not by sea. Moreover, in attempting to spice up the romance plot, the story of Pronchishchev’s lawful wife Tatiana (mistakenly identified by historians as Maria until late in the twentieth century), who indeed heroically became the first female explorer of the Arctic by joining her husband on the journey, becomes the frivolous flirtation of a young discontented noblewoman with two officers at once, divorcing the plot from the events of actual history yet again.

pervye From the narrative standpoint, Pervye, this action-packed romantic drama, might speak to an undemanding viewer who revels in battle- and storm-scenes, mutinous plots, and unsatisfying love stories, or whose national sense of imperial pride is nourished by portrayals of Yakut subjects loyal to their Russian vassals to the point of walking literally to the end of the earth with them in order to set an imperial border marker by the Arctic ocean. And even that satisfaction cannot be sustained throughout the whole film.

pervyeWhat could make Pervye enjoyable viewing is the stunning beauty of the wintry, desolate Russian North, albeit not the geographically accurate one—the film was shot largely in Karelia. With the exception of a few technical flops—such as persistent snowmobile tracks in several shots, and wooded shorelines cropping up in supposedly desolate seascapes—the cinematography is crisp and smooth. Panoramic shots of the patched, icy sea surface as well as the close-ups of crystal-clear water splashed onto the deck of the custom-built replica of the eighteenth-century dubel’-shliup by bearded sailors defy skepticism and awaken the unmistakable sensation of Wanderlust in the viewer.

Geographical space, however, is not devoid of ideology, and the stunning landscapes play their part in narrating the nation. The beauty of the Russian North, then, becomes the most convincing actor in delivering the message of national patriotism, diligently promoted by Suvorov in his historical drama.

Tatiana Filimonova
The College of Wooster

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Works Cited

Ivanov, Boris. 2018. “Retsenziia na fil’m ‘Pervye’.” 6 January.

Sokolov, A.P. 2015. Severnaia ekspeditsiia 1733-1743. Sankt Piterburkh, 1854. (pp.92-97).

Anon. 2015. “Sozvezdie Marii.” Russkoe geograficheskoe obshchestvo, 1 September.

The First, Russia, 2017
Color, 96 minutes
Original language: Russian
Director: Dmitrii Suvorov
Screenplay: Sergei Muratov, Vasilii Blednov, Anastasiia Istomina
DoP: Grigorii Rudakov, Sergei Kulishenko
Music: Aleksei Shelygin
Cast: Alina Lanina, Danila Iakushev, Evgenii Tkachuk, Sergei Rost, Aleksandr D’iachenko, Valerii Barinov, Sergei Tereshchenko, Nail’ Abdurakhmanov
Producers: Iurii Obukhov, Aleksei Riazantsev
Production: Karoprokat, Sakhafilm, with the support of the Ministry of Culture of Russian Federation, Fond Kino, Russian Geographic Society, Russian Military-Historical Society
Premiere: 7 July 2018

Dmitrii Suvorov: The First (Pervye, 2017)

reviewed by Tatiana Filimonova© 2019

Updated: 2019