Marina Goldovskaia: Anatoly Rybakov - The Russian Story (Anatolii Rybakov: Posleslovie, 2006)

reviewed by Erin Alpert and Alexander Prokhorov© 2006


Uncomfortable Memories

Marina Goldovskaia needs no introduction: she has directed more than thirty documentaries, more than a hundred television programs, and has written six books. Her new documentary, Anatoly Rybakov: The Russian Story, links the post-Soviet present with the tumultuous Soviet past and gives viewers a chance to enjoy a classical cinema verité documentary style, presented in the filmmaker’s favorite genre—a portrait of a contemporary. For her new film, she has chosen a Russian writer who became famous for his civic stance during the late Soviet period. Rybakov was among the few authors in the Soviet Union who dared to write about the Holocaust during the anti-Semitic campaign in the Eastern bloc, which followed the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. His novel Children of the Arbat was written during the Thaw and was shelved twice (in 1966 and 1978). The novel’s publication finally in 1988 became one of the major cultural events of Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Goldovskaia identifies herself with her protagonist and creates not only a portrait but also a self-portrait. She is present in the film as the protagonist’s main interlocutor and even makes a cameo appearance as she films her own reflection in the window. Like Rybakov’s, Goldovskaia’s career is punctuated by groundbreaking events and acts of non-conformism. In the 1960s, Goldovskaia was among the first Soviet documentary filmmakers who chose to work for television, instead of joining the more established and traditional Central Studio of Documentary Films. These technological and aesthetic points of departure perhaps explain her interest in American Direct Cinema, such as Drew and Associates (Richard Leacock, Don Pennebaker, David and Albert Maysles),[1] and her later friendship with Leacock (Goldovskaia 64-5). She was among the first members of the new creative unit “Screen” founded in 1968 specifically to make films for television. In the 1960s she was one of the first Soviet filmmakers to use portable 16mm cameras, like Arriflex and Eclair, that changed the aesthetics of Soviet documentary cinema. In the 1980s, her documentaries The Peasant from Archangelsk (Arkhangel'skii muzhik, 1986) and Solovki Power (Solovetskaia vlast', 1988) renewed Soviets’ interest in documentary film as a form of social commentary and opposition to the undemocratic political system.

Two main parts of Anatoly Rybakov are titled after the writer’s major novels, Children of the Arbat and Heavy Sand, and explore the continuing relevance of these works for contemporary Russia. In contrast to Germany and its former allies, which went through an effective de-Nazification campaign, the Soviet Union experienced two aborted attempts to re-evaluate its totalitarian past and to dismantle Stalinist ideology and institutions: the Thaw and perestroika. However, as the filmmaker claims, in the Soviet Union the efforts of de-Stalinization and broader de-Sovietization were only half-hearted and never completed. The myth of the great Stalinist Empire and the heroic myth of the Great Patriotic War still obscure from Russians’ communal memory the uncomfortable narratives about Stalinist purges, the Holocaust, and Soviet-era anti-Semitism. Goldovskaia’s film cuts from footage of Stalin-era parades to present-day rallies in Moscow by fascists and nationalists, suggesting that the unfinished de-Sovietization breeds a new type of totalitarian mentality.

The section about Rybakov’s Heavy Sand explores Soviet-style Holocaust denial. The communal myth of Soviet martyrdom and victory in World War II is used to replace memories of the Holocaust. Goldovskaia links this Soviet experience of purposeful and state-endorsed manipulation of the historical past with the revival of anti-Semitism in present-day Russia. Anatoly Rybakov is, indeed, “the Russian story,” since it explains graphically how Russia’s way of dealing with its totalitarian past is different from the Western treatment of a similar social disease. The filmmaker’s message is clearly articulated by her observational cinema style: the agenda of de-Sovietization, including the acknowledgment of the Holocaust, has to become part of Russians’ collective memory before the country can exorcise its totalitarian demons.

Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell note that “for Drew, Direct Cinema gripped audiences through what came to be called its crisis structure. Most Drew-unit films center on a high-stakes situation to be resolved in a few days or hours. The film arouses the viewer’s emotion by showing conflict, suspense, and a decisive outcome” (484-5; emphasis in the original). Many of Goldovskaia’s films depict Russian life as a crisis situation that has been demanding urgent action for almost a century. This action, however, is constantly delayed and justice has not been served. The filmmaker portrays her contemporaries as living under the duress of this eternal crisis. Among these characters-survivors are a peasant from the Archangelsk region trying to revive his farm after years of Soviet social engineering (The Peasant from Arkhangelsk), survivors of Stalinist GULag (Solovki Power), and Prince Meshchersky coming back to his destroyed estate after the end of the Soviet Union (The Prince is Back, 1999). Rybakov, the protagonist of Goldovskaia’s most recent film, fits the same paradigm as he tries to come to terms with his 20th century experience. The crisis structure exists on the threshold between the present and the past, and urges viewers to rethink their own communal past.

Both Rybakov and the filmmaker are members of Russian intelligentsia—intellectuals with a mission to carry the truth that is still, according to Rybakov, hidden from the majority of his compatriots. The film consists of a series of interviews with the writer: Rybakov tells his story passionately, speaking directly to the camera, while Goldovskaia assists her protagonist in delivering the truth to her compatriots. A Western viewer might find Rybakov’s style of delivery exceedingly passionate and overbearing. The collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to have ended the Evil Empire for the West, even though the transition to “democracy” has been less than smooth. For Goldovskaia and Rybakov, however, the dismantling of the totalitarian mindset is a work in progress. The writer and the filmmaker are afraid, and for a good reason, that history might repeat itself if people forget their past.

If such a wake up call is indeed the film’s goal, it would be interesting to know how this film will be distributed. Russian multiplexes show primarily Hollywood (and, more recently, domestic) blockbusters, while Russian television channels are dominated by mini-series and soap operas. Anatoly Rybakov will most likely get a warm reception among academics, repertory theaters, and film festival-going audiences. Whether it will ever exercise a powerful influence on the historical memories of average Russian viewers remains to be seen.

Erin Alpert and Alexander Prokhorov
College of William and Mary


1] Goldovskaia writes that in the 1960s she mastered the style of “observational cinema,” a style that in North America came to be known as Direct Cinema (64). This version of cinema verité emerged out of media and technological advances of the 1950s, specifically the rise of television, and the use of lighter, more mobile cameras and 16mm film stock. In the United States, Direct Cinema style is associated with the work of Robert Drew. His film Primary (1960), about the John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey campaigns in Wisconsin for the Democratic presidential nomination, defined this new style of documentary cinema. The filmmaker formed Drew Associates and directed films that, along with Primary, became classics of Direct Cinema―Yanki, No! (1960), The Chair (1963), and others. Drew Associates made several its films for the ABC network. For a more thorough and up-to-date discussion of Direct Cinema and Robert Drew’s work, see Sharon Zuber’s recent Ph.D. dissertation.


Works Cited

Goldovskaia, Marina. Zhenshchina s kinoapparatom. Moskva: Materik, 2002.
Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell. Film History: An Introduction. NY: McGraw Hill, 2003.
Zuber, Sharon. “Re-Shaping Documentary Expectations: New Journalism and Direct Cinema.” Diss. College of William and Mary, 2004.

Anatoly Rybakov: The Russian Story, Russia 2006
Color, 52 minutes
Director: Marina Goldovskaia
Screenplay: Marina Goldovskaia
Cinematography: Marina Goldovskaia
Producer: Oleg Moguchev and Marina Goldovskaia
Production: SM Film with support of the Russian Ministry of Culture

Marina Goldovskaia: Anatoly Rybakov - The Russian Story (Anatolii Rybakov: Posleslovie, 2006)

reviewed by Erin Alpert and Alexander Prokhorov© 2006

Updated: 05 Oct 06