Vladimir Khotinenko, 1612: A Chronicle of the Time of Troubles
(1612: Khroniki smutnovo vremeni, 2007)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2008

Promoted with a 300-style poster and a media campaign that branded it “patriotic cinema,” Vladimir Khotinenko's 2007 film 1612 blurred the lines between present-day uses of the past and the political uses of cinema. Set during the Time of Troubles, 1612 is more about the 1990s than the 17th century and more about contemporary political concerns than adhering to historical accuracy.

The events that ultimately established the Romanov dynasty certainly have provided fertile grounds for artistic exploration. Between 1598 and 1613 the Muscovite state experienced political instability, a famine that killed nearly one-third of the population, a powerful uprising from within, a pretender to the throne who became Tsar Dmitrii, an invasion by the Polish and Swedish states that resulted in the occupation of Moscow and the near-complete collapse of the state, and finally a resistance that first threw the Polish occupiers out and then elected a new dynasty for the realm. And that's just the highlights. Given all that happened in this short time, it makes sense that afterwards, these events became known as the Time of Troubles, or smutnoe vremia.

The Time of Troubles have captured the attention of political figures, priests, artists, and producers of folklore ever since. The events of 1612, the climactic point of the Time of Troubles when the Poles occupied Moscow and the legendary forces raised by Dmitrii Pozharskii and Kuzma Minin expelled them, provided rich story lines for writers and historians. This era appeals precisely because it is so difficult to explain and yet so decisive to the history of Russia. For Romanov propagandists, the Time was a clear indication that God frowned on weak dynasties and illegitimate rulers like Boris Godunov, who seized the throne in 1598 and who ruled during the 1601-03 famine. After Napoleon's invasion of 1812, 1612 became the subject for a renewed retrofitting where, in the words of Nikolai Karamzin, Godunov was a 17th-century Napoleon who suffered from “an immoderate, illicit thirst for power (Pipes, 113)” and the true heroes of Russia were the patriotic butcher and prince from Nizhnii Novgorod, Minin and Pozharskii, or even mythic serfs like Ivan Susanin, who allegedly saved Mikhail Romanov and sacrificed himself for the future tsar. As Karamzin had it, “their [Minin and Pozharskii] faith, their love of native customs, and hatred of alien rule engendered a general glorious uprising of the people” (Pipes, 117). During the Soviet era, the official story about the Time was made to fit with the Marxist viewpoint of history, where all the violence could be explained as an early form of class warfare and where Glinka's 1836 patriotic opera “A Life for the Tsar” was renamed “Ivan Susanin” in order to stress the little man and not the oppressive autocracy (accordingly, the chorus “Glory, glory, to our Russian tsar” became “Glory, glory to our Russian land”).

These dominant narratives did not go unchallenged when they appeared. The popularity of the false Dmitrii lingered in Russian folklore, the social unrest and civil wars that dominated the Time of Troubles bubbled up again and again, poets like Pushkin and Lermontov challenged Karamzin's views, and opera goers in the Soviet Union didn't soon forget that “Ivan Susanin” was a dressed-up version of the tsarist-era staging. In other words, the Time of Troubles and its part in Russian historical memories represented something of a memory overload, the meanings of which were constantly present and constantly contested. Perhaps the only thing that can be said definitively about the multitude of popular prints, songs, oral stories, novels, plays, poems, paintings, operas, and statues about 1612 (again only a few means that memory was expressed) is that the only things missing from them are ghosts of Spanish swordsmen, Gandolf-like wizards, and unicorns.

Thank goodness then for Vladimir Khotinenko, whose film 1612: A Chronicle of the Time of Troubles fills in these blank spots. His retrofitting of 1612 has unicorns, a Tolkien-esque starets , and the ghost of a Spanish swordsman. Appearing as the cinematic component to the new invented tradition that is National Unity Day (Den' narodnogo edinstvo) celebrated on 4 November 2005 for the first time and commemorating the day in 1612 when Pozharskii's forces expelled the Poles from Moscow, Khotinenko's film acted as the centerpiece for a new narrative about the Time of Troubles for Putin-era Russia. The appearance of a movie about 1612, given the short history of its memory sketched above, is not much of a surprise. Nor is it surprising that the film was directed by Khotinenko, who has become a vocal Putin patriot, and produced by Nikita Mikhalkov, the quintessential contemporary cinematic patriot. Marketed as a new Russian patriotic blockbuster or a Russian historical fantasy, 1612 is very much a Putin-era film, for it uses Russian historical memories and historical events it purportedly follows by not adhering to any sort of historical accuracy—violence is favored over chronology, Moscow is never occupied, Pozharskii appears only briefly, and a love story involving a slave and Boris Godunov's daughter dominates. It is James Cameron history with a Russian flavor.

The plot itself involves a slave named Andrei (Petr Kislev) who once lived in Godunov's domains and who witnessed the murder of the tsar's wife and son by a Polish hetman (Mikhail Zhebrovskii) working for False Dmitrii. Andrei survives, but becomes a slave who enters Russia again in 1612 along with the Polish army led by the very same hetman. He manages to win his freedom and accompanies a Spanish swordsman for hire, Alvar, into his homeland. Andrei's real quest, however, is to consummate his desire for Godunov's daughter, Ksenia (Violetta Davydovskaia), who is now the Polish general's lover and intended wife. The real Ksenia Godunova, it is worth mentioning, first was forced by False Dmitrii to serve as his concubine and then became a nun at the Trinity St. Sergius Lavra during the events that the film covers. She was famous for her needlework, which still hangs at the monastery today. Of course, sewing nuns do not really make historical blockbuster love stories, so in Khoteninko's history, Ksenia is torn between two men, two countries, and two faiths. When Alvar dies in a skirmish against Russian partisans, Andrei assumes his identity with the help of Kostia (Artur Smol'ianinov), a Russified Tatar who has served the swordsman. Alvar's ghost visits Andrei every now and again to help him through tight spots (how to wield a sword, speak Spanish, and dance like a Spaniard), which works—“the Spaniard” becomes an accepted part of the invading army who tries to woo Ksenia away from her Polish oppressor.

Andrei's desire, as the film reveals, stems from his glimpse of a naked Ksenia while he was still a young boy. Caught and whipped for his impudence, Ksenia took pity on the brash boy and gave him a wooden unicorn horn. Whenever Andrei finds himself in a tight spot—it is the Time of Troubles so tight spots abound, particularly when you are disguised as a Spaniard and invading your homeland with the Polish army—he rubs the horn and viewers are treated to a unicorn appearing onscreen. Eventually, and predictably, Andrei, Kostia, and Ksenia manage to escape the clutches of the evil Polish hetman and help the Russians defend a nearby town from the Poles. A slave turned hero doesn't work very well in 1612, so Russian clergymen and boyars put their heads together, invent a genealogy for Andrei that includes a number of famous Russians and foreigners, and voilà, he becomes Mikhail Romanov, the new tsar of Russia. Ksenia, however, cannot become Tsarina Romanova because she has slept with the enemy and become a Catholic, but she does get the parting prize of becoming a bride for Christ. Forsaking her native religion for a Western one, the film posits, is the worst sin imaginable because it is a national one.

Where, it may be asked, is there room for Gandolf? 1612 includes a subplot that implicates the Vatican in the Time and Troubles, for it involves an Italian monk sent to Russia by the Pope in order to learn about the barbarians as a means to convert them. While in Russia the monk becomes taken with the mystical nature of the land and its people, a view that Khotinenko drives home through the presence of a starets (Valerii Zolotukhin) who has decided to stay up in a tree praying until the foreigners have left the country. The Italian is so impressed he gives up his mission to become a wandering holy fool, eventually returning to Rome muttering something along the lines that Russia is a riddle wrapped in an enigma. When the starets gets down from the tree, at the exact time Andrei becomes Mikhail Romanov, the unicorn greets him. The ghost of Alvar appearing at this point probably would have been over the top.

Bankrolled by the oligarch Viktor Vekselberg (who also bankrolls the new Foundation for the Support of Patriotic Cinema), the film fits with its financier's cultural activities, which include buying and returning Fabergé eggs and Orthodox bells to Russia. Here it is history being returned, or perhaps patriotic fantasy packaged as the past and marketed to Russia's youth. Promoted by Khotinenko as an attempt for the audience to feel pride and a contemporary link with what happened 400 years ago, 1612 is best read as the latest narrative in the long history of retrofitting these events, one where the 1990s are a new Time of Troubles, where another illegitimate Boris held power, and where a weak state allowed a love for foreign goods to dominate the nation. “I ... consider the 17th century an extremely important period in our history, without which you simply cannot understand Russia,” Khotinenko declared in Izvestiia, “And now those times are really relevant. I am talking about the period after Perestroika. We lived in a Time of Troubles. Its duration even coincided with the one in the 17th century.” The director was equally clear about the lessons provided from the Time: “the absence of lawful authority” caused the problems (Ramm). What Russia needed after perestroika and Yeltsin, in others words, was a Putin. As for the state bankrolling the film, Khotinenko opined to his Time Out interviewer that artists as wide-ranging as Andrei Rublev and Antonio Gaudi did work for governments, “and I see nothing bad in this.” The varnishing of history onscreen also did not bother Khotinenko, for, as he claimed, “historical reality does not exist” when talking about the Time of Troubles (“Vladimir Khotinenko vypolnil gosudarstvennyi zakaz”).

The more interesting aspect of this use of the past is that the film flopped at the box office, not only earning the usual critical scorn for all Putin-era blockbusters, but also earning only $5.75m of its $12m budget back. As one online viewer noted, “honestly, when I went to the cinema I hoped to see a contemporary historical-patriotic film, something like an adaptation of the novel Russians in 1612 . Instead I got an amusing, colorful fairy tale. And it is nothing more.”[1] It seems that certain retrofittings and returns of history work better than others and that in contemporary chronicles of the Time of Troubles unicorns, ghosts, and Gandolf are best left out.

Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (OH)

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1] The response was posted on the kinopoisk.ru forum.

Works Cited

“Vladimir Khotinenko vypolnil gosudarstvennyi zakaz,” (Interv'iu s Vladimirom Khotinenko) Time Out Moscow 5-11 Nov. 2007

Pipes, Richard. Karamzin's Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia: A Translation and Analysis . Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Ramm, Vita. “Kinorezhisser Vladimir Khotinenko: ‘Ia ne poluchal goszakza snimat' pro to, kak liakhov gnali iz Kremlia'.” Izvestiia 30 October 2007.

1612 , Russia, 2007
Color, 143 minutes
Director : Vladimir Khotinenko
Screenplay: Arif Aliev
Cinematography : Il'ia Demin
Art Direction : Konstantin Mel'nikov
Music : Aleksei Rybnikov
Cast : Petr Kislov, Artur Smol'ianinov, Mikhail Zhebrovskii, Violetta Davydovskaia, Aleksandr Baluev, Marat Basharov, Mikhail Porechenkov, Valerii Zolotukhin, Daniil Spivakovskii
Producers : Nikita Mikhalkov, Leonid Vereshchagin
Production : Studio TriTe, RENOVA-MEDIA, Studio “Zolotoi Orel”

Vladimir Khotinenko, 1612: A Chronicle of the Time of Troubles
(1612: Khroniki smutnovo vremeni, 2007)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2008

Updated: 23 Sep 08