Issue 69 (2020)

Andrei Kravchuk: Union of Salvation (Soiuz spaseniia, 2019)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov © 2020

soyuz spaseniiaUnion of Salvation is the third historical epic directed by Andrei Kravchuk and produced by Konstantin Ernst and Anatolii Maksimov. The other two are Admiral (2008), about the Russian Civil War, and Viking (2016), about Russian prince Vladimir finding true faith in Crimea. In the survey circulated by Viktor Matizen, Russian film critics named Kravchuk’s Union of Salvation the worst picture of the year 2019 (Sobchak 2020). What is the secret of this dubious distinction? Set historically before Admiral and after Viking, the new Channel One blockbuster retells the story of the December 1825 uprisings in St. Petersburg and in the South of the Empire. As we know from history books, aristocratic revolutionaries dreamed of abolishing serfdom and establishing constitutional rule in Russia. After the uprisings failed, Nicholas the First’s rule became one of the most repressive periods of Russia’s history. Despite the ideological reification of the Decembrists by Soviet historians, Soviet cinema dedicated relatively little attention to the aristocratic revolutionaries. Among the three most memorable films—Decembrists (Dekabristy, dir. Aleksandr Ivanovskii 1926), The Union of the Great Cause (S.V.D., dir. Grigorii Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg 1927), and Vladimir Motyl’s The Captivating Star of Happiness (Zvezda plenitel’nogo schast’ia, 1975)—only the last one is still remembered by the older generation of cinema viewers. The film became a cult event upon its release because it visualized the desired self-image of the liberal intelligentsia—free thinkers challenging autocracy and opposed to the repressive regime. Notably, reviewers of Kravchuk’s Union constantly compared the 2019 picture with Motyl’s famous film.

soyuz spaseniiaUnion offers a fresh reading of the pivotal event inspired, as Konstantin Ernst intimates, by the Report of the Investigative Commission created on the order of emperor Nicholas the First (Donesenie 1826). This primary source conjures up ideological invectives about the revolutionaries--namely that they were self-serving liars and criminals who nearly destroyed the country. Kravchuk’s story begins in France and in French. Emperor Napoleon visits a boarding school in Paris and discovers that the best student in the school is actually the son of the Russian envoy to France—Sergei Murav’ev-Apostol. Napoleon tests little Sergei about the nature of freedom and is impressed by Sergei’s answers. The emperor notes that he wished he had a son like this. The source of the pandemic of liberalism that destroyed France and will soon threaten the very existence of Russia is established. Russia, according to the film, is equated to the emperor and his family. As long as the emperor survives, Russia is safe. In the diegetic world of the film, apart from the emperor, top bureaucracy and a bunch of rebels, read opposition leaders, there is no other Russia to speak of.

soyuz spaseniiaAfter we are introduced to rebel number one, Murav’ev-Apostol, the film cuts to the Russian officers celebrating victory over Napoleon in Paris and drinking with the tsar. The idyllic military brotherhood, however, is short lived. The officers bring back destructive French ideas about limiting the tsar’s power and, possibly, even assassinating the imperial family. To hit the nail on the head, the words about the assassination are visualized for us without a warning that this is just wishful thinking: we get a long and bloody scene of regicide before it is revealed to be just a plan.

And, of course, location is everything. This bloody scene is enacted in the south of the Russian Empire, in Ukraine to be more precise. The intertitle tells the viewers that the secret society conspiring to overthrow the monarchy splits into the Northern and Southern societies. From this moment on, the two will be shown in a parallel fashion and clearly juxtaposed to each other. The southern society, set in Ukraine, as the film explains, is more bloodthirsty, destructive, and murderous. Murav’ev-Apostol is a key co-conspirator there. Not surprisingly, the regicide fantasy is set in this unruly south.

soyuz spaseniiaWith the destructive potential of the coup being affirmed, the film is on track to answer the single question: when and where will the insurgents with their destructive ideas about freedom be stopped? The film is clear on its ideological geography. The tsar is in the north, and it is eventually up to him to end the bloodshed and prevent the Civil War. Because of his benevolence, Nicholas—the positive character played by the tallest actor in the film[1]—hesitates to unleash the power of his artillery on the opposition leaders and the soldiers duped by them. But when the emperor does so eventually, it is worth the wait. We get treated to many “striking long shots, which showcase the film’s big budget” (Dolin 2019). These shots are CGI-enhanced, displaying perfectly аrranged military formations, stunning uniform designs, and spectacular deaths in a style familiar from computer gaming.

The makers of the film even pay homage to the famed “battle on the ice” as Sergei Eisenstein visualized the battle on Lake Peipus in 1938. When Nicholas pushes the rebels from  Senate Square, the soldiers retreat to the Neva ice to reach the fortress across the river. The filmmakers use this occasion to evoke Alexander Nevskii in order to present Nicholas as a humane autocrat. He orders his artillerists to spare the people and shoot only at the ice, so as to prevent soldiers from reaching the fortress. Of course, the soldiers drown anyway because the logic of the violent spectacle outweighs any humane considerations but confirms the betrayal on the part of the revolutionaries who set the soldiers on the path of destruction.

soyuz spaseniiaIn Ukraine, meanwhile, things do not progress as well as in the North. Murav’ev-Apostol and his co-conspirators murder the commanding officer of the Chernigov Regiment and lead the unit to St. Petersburg. On their way they sow chaos and destruction. Inebriated by their dreams of freedom, many of them soon get drunk literally, burn a tavern, and lie to their soldiers about the purpose of their mission. The entire mutiny is depicted as purposeless debauchery led by the egomaniac Murav’ev-Apostol and a bunch of pretenders and criminals. Numerous commentators noticed not so subtle parallels between the film’s version of the uprisings and the recent democratic revolutions in the former Soviet republics and opposition movements in Russia itself (Sobchak 2020; Dolin 2019; Ponomareva 2019). The film ends with the execution of the five leaders of the rebels. When the first attempt at hanging fails and three of the five fall to the ground, we get an unexpected and unique insight into Murav’ev-Apostol’s subjective vision. He recollects Alexander the First and the future tsar Nicholas drinking champagne that Murav’ev-Apostol brought and toasting the victorious troops in 1814 Paris. As the vision is happening right before the character’s death, the film seems to suggest that the rebels regret their choices and longingly recollect, at least in Murav’ev-Apostol’s case, their utopian male community, which the French ideas corrupted.

The moral victory of the autocrat is not the only pleasure that the producers offer their viewers. The film is teeming with good-looking male actors of various ages, from the older generation of male stars—such as Aleksandr Domogarov, Vitalii Kishchenko, Igor Petrenko—to the younger Maksim Matveev, Leonid Bichevin, Ivan Iankovskii, Anton Shagin and Ivan Kolesnikov. In his interview to Maksim Galkin, Matveev confessed that he never felt so excited to be surrounded by so many handsome men (Galkin 2020). In contrast, female characters are very hard to come by. The only notable and quite fictional character is Murav’ev-Apostol’s fiancée —Anna Belskaia. Dolin notes that this role was created specifically for Konstantin Ernst’s wife Sof’ia (Zaika). While there is nothing wrong with focusing on the Decembrists, and not their female partners, it is telling that the film omits the stories of the Decembrists’ wives—the women who exercised their agency and chose to follow their husbands, despite their families’ and the authorities’ resistance to let them do so. In this respect, the radical gender imbalance of the Union is quite striking, especially in comparison with Motyl’s 1975 film.

soyuz spaseniiaPerhaps, Ernst, Maksimov, and Kravchuk take their ideological cues from the patriarch of the Russian historical blockbuster Nikita Mikhalkov whose films overflow with males who value their homosocial ties above everything else. Or as Nancy Condee points out when discussing Mikhalkov’s cinema, the military brotherhood is “a key producer of collective subjectivity” (Condee 2009, 91). This might explain the dying vision of Murav’ev-Apostol, for whom the only alternative to the ignominious death is the camaraderie with his former comrades in arms, including the royal males.

What if we cut female characters from the film entirely? Nothing will change in the narrative coherence of this picture. In fact, while the ideology of this film is razor sharp—if you rebel, you will end up hanging from the gallows—its narrative structure is quite loose. Intertitles connect scenes in the fashion that might have been inspired by Louis Bunuel’s Andalusian Dog: “Five years later.” Instead of relying on visual storytelling, long intertitles with voiceover explain historical context, which, we assume, motivates characters’ actions. Dolin writes: “it is as though the director admits honestly that he is incapable of explaining certain things via the language of cinema.” Moreover, characters are introduced via stylized subtitles, which list their name and military rank. These titles are very useful indeed because otherwise it is quite impossible to tell one handsome uniformed male character from another.

The debates around the film, which started right after its release and perhaps were orchestrated as part of this film’s promotional campaign, focused on the matters of historical accuracy and authenticity. I would argue, however, that judging a historical film on the grounds of accuracy is not unlike judging a screen adaptation by its fidelity to the literary source. In the case of Motyl’s film, Natan Eidel’man famously noted that there were many inaccuracies, but the overall artistic effect was quite strong in conveying the spirit of the time and the characters. What Eidel'man tells us from his present, December 1975, is that Motyl made something that stroke a chord with his contemporaries, Eidel’man calls the famous romance about the Decembrists by Isaak Shvarts and Bulat Okudzhava nashenskii (our song) (1975, 5). This colloquial nashenskii pronounced by a professional historian evokes the emotional relevance of the historical reference to the present. Perhaps relevance for the present is the key concern for a good historical film. How and why do the filmmakers evoke a particular historical moment? Matizen gives an insightful answer to this question in his conversation with Sobchak. He notes that the film erases key context about the political goals of the revolutionaries and depicts them as nothing more than narcissistic brats spoiled by their good fortune and Western education. I would argue that rather than reinserting a new interpretation of the past, Union contributes to communal amnesia by replacing a complex picture of a pivotal moment in history with computer-enhanced images of militarism and the glorious empire. Moreover, the film literally threatens any opposition to the government with violence. Not surprisingly, Vladimir Medinskii, the former Minister of Culture and currently Presidential Aide, saw great educational potential in the film and suggested that every school in Russia show it to its students.

 


Notes

1] Before Ivan Kolesnikov played the tsar, he excelled playing the forward of the USSR national basketball team who defeated the Americans at the 1972 Munich Olympics in Going Vertical (Dvizhenie vverkh,dir. Anton Megerdichev 2017).

Alexander Prokhorov
College of William & Mary

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Works Cited

Condee, Nancy. 2009. The Imperial Trace: Recent Russia Cinema. Oxford UP.

Dolin, Anton. 2019. “‘Soiuz spaseniia’--monarchicheskii blokbaster o vosstanii dekabristov, kotoryi osuzhdaet i ne zhaleet buntuiushchikh intelligentov.” Meduza 24 (December).

Donesenie sledstvennoi komissii (dlia izyskanii o zloumyshlennykh obshchestvakh Ego Imperatorskomu Velichestvu). St Petersburg 1826; also in Vosstanie dekabristov, Moscow 1980.

Eidel’man, Natan. 1975. “Chuvstvo istorii”. Sovetskii ekran 24: 5.

Galkin, Maksim. 2020. Segodnia vecherom. “Soiuz spaseniia.” 2 January.

Ponomareva, Alia. 2019 “Ideologicheski podloe kino”. Spory of fil’me “Soiuz spaseniia.” Radio Svoboda 27 December.

Sobchak, Kseniia. 2020. “Ostorozhno Sobchak: 10 shagov ot imperatora Putina” 14 January.


Union of Salvation, Russia, 2019
Color, 136 minutes
Director: Andrei Kravchuk
Scriptwriters: Oleg Malovichko, Nikita Vysotskii
DoP: Igor Griniakin
Production Design: Sergei Agin
Costume Design: Ekaterina Shapkaits
Music: Dmitrii Emel’ianov
Cast: Leonid Bichevin, Aleksandr Domogarov, Sof’ia Zaika, Ivan Iankovskii, Vitalii Kishchenko, Ivan Kolesnikov, Sergei Koltakov, Maksim Matveev, Igor Petrenko, Pavel Priluchnyi, Anton Shagin
Producers: Konstantin Ernst, Anatolii Maksimov, Michael Schlicht
Production: Direktsiia kino, Channel One

Andrei Kravchuk: Union of Salvation (Soiuz spaseniia, 2019)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov © 2020

Updated: 2020