Issue 24 (2009)

Andrei Kravchuk: The Admiral (Admiral, 2008)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2009

admiralAndrei Kravchuk, who made the charming, intimate The Italian (Italianets, 2005), was not an obvious choice to direct an ambitious romantic melodrama about Admiral Aleksandr Vasil’evich Kolchak (1874-1920), Russian World War I hero and self-styled Supreme Commander of Siberia during the Russian Civil War. Kravchuk’s success can be seen in the box office figures—over $33 million in Russia alone—and in the spirited debate the film aroused. Liberal Russian critics and historians have taken umbrage at this full-scale rehabilitation of one of the White Army’s most controversial commanders, while conservative critics have praised its message of honor, patriotism, and religious devotion, and the triumph of love over all catastrophes.

The Admiral is an exceedingly well-made historical epic in the tradition of Dr. Zhivago, another film to glamorize resistance to the Bolsheviks. It is beautifully filmed in painterly tableaux alternating with first-rate action sequences. No expense was spared on this gorgeous production; at a reported cost of $20 million, it is among the most expensive Russian films to date. It foregrounds the doomed romance of Kolchak and Anna Timireva (the wife of his friend and subordinate) and privileges drama over historical objectivity. The brouhaha over The Admiral raises the question: to what extent is the maker of historical films bound by the same rules of fairness and objectivity as the historian?

It is not that the film is factually inaccurate. Indeed, Kravchuk and his scriptwriters Zoia Kudria and Vladimir Valutskii have researched the last four years of Kolchak’s life (1916-20) with care.[1] He was a gentleman in private life, honest, upright, disciplined. He was a believer who insisted upon regular prayer to bolster the morale of his troops. (God is on our side.) He was a naval hero during the Great War, a man to whom patriotic Russians could point with pride. Despite his unprepossessing physical appearance, he had the kind of personal magnetism that attracted beautiful women and willing followers to his side.

admiralMany small details are right as well. On 9 June 1917, Kolchak did throw his precious Sword of Honor overboard rather than turn it over to sailors from the Sevastopol soviet. Kolchak and Anna Timireva apparently waited for years (to March 1918) before consummating their relationship, which remained at the formal (vy) level despite their love. According to Bolshevik accounts, he died bravely before being thrown to his watery grave in the Ushakovka River (it is, however, impossible to believe that the Bolsheviks cut a cross in the ice for him!). But most historians would argue that Kravchuk left out what is most important: Kolchak’s destructive temper, his anti-Semitism, his habit of surrounding himself with unscrupulous opportunists, his poor ability as a land commander, his condoning of mass atrocities committed in his name, his fondness for conspiracy, his antipathy toward democracy, his growing love of his power as “Supreme Commander.”

Kravchuk’s Kolchak, unlike the historical figure, approaches sainthood (if one can forgive his stealing Sergei Timirev’s wife) and remains very much a man of the nineteenth century, clinging to old values as turmoil rages around him.  He is collected under fire, personally courageous, and not above manning the guns himself as his sailors fall right and left. He is rigorously correct with Anna Timireva; although they exchange passionate letters and significant glances (which they did from 1915 on), he feels guilty about his wife Sof’ia and their young son and tries to end the relationship with Anna on several occasions.  He regards his faith as a source of strength, not of weakness, and wears it on his sleeve. (There is much praying and crossing in the film, and the Our Lady of Kazan icon occupies a prominent position on his desk.) This is in contrast to the Bolsheviks, of course (mainly portrayed as a howling, disheveled mob), but also to Sergei Timirev, who runs from execution (rather than facing death stoically, like a “man,”) and hides in his house in a panic, oblivious to the need to protect his wife.

admiralThe reasons for the Whites’ losing the Civil War are obscure in this film. In Siberia, it is strongly implied that Kolchak is successful as a military and political leader, with the prime minister, the extreme rightist General Viktor Pepeliaev, always in the background, instead of by his side.  The fighting between Reds and Whites is intense, but we do not much care because the masses of White soldiers (unlike a few officers) have not been individualized.  Until the very end, the Reds are seen running from Kolchak’s forces, for example after the Reds have accidentally shot a White nurse leading a charge in the heat of battle. Even so, the Red officers are not particularly demonized as “enemy”; although denied the trial he had hoped for, Kolchak is treated respectfully by them up to the moment of his execution.

The villain of the piece is the French General P.T.C.M. Janin, titular commander of the Czech Legion, who gave his word to Kolchak that the French would guarantee his security. But the Bolsheviks show how easy it is to make a Frenchman back down from his word of honor when they promise Janin hisown safe passage, along with the Czech Legion, in exchange for Kolchak.  The version of events shown here is accurate; Janin did indeed sell out Kolchak for his own safety.

admiralWhat attracted Kravchuk to this story? Was it the politics of its problematic hero (as Kravchuk’s critics have charged) or was it the inherent drama of the storied romance of a doomed hero and the woman who would love him beyond death? There is no question that even with his manifest flaws Kolchak is a much more attractive White commander than a Wrangel or a Denikin, and the intensity of the love between Kolchak and Timireva was well known at the time and admired. The fact that the story was set at the end of the empire doubtless provided another selling point, the nostalgia for a world of grace and beauty that was irretrievably lost when the Bolsheviks came to power. (There is no sign of the decay and crippling poverty of Russia; Nicholas II is portrayed as a reasonable father figure who wisely promotes Kolchak and gives him command of the Black Sea Fleet.)

admiralAnna Timireva herself brings added value to the story.  Faithless though she is to her husband, we can understand that she never would have given herself to an ordinary man; she is “wedded” to Kolchak from the moment they meet in 1916. (Actually they first met in 1911; according to her 1985 memoirs the attraction was immediate.) Kravchuk portrays her as a forthright woman who hates the hypocrisy of her situation. She is also as devoted to her country as she is to her man.  When she decides to leave her husband after learning Kolchak is in Siberia, and arrives in Omsk (in fact they reunited in Harbin), she immediately begins working as a nurse with the Red Cross and does not seek out Kolchak. (Their paths happen to cross later.) The fact that the real woman was arrested and spent many years (1920-22, 1936-48) in Soviet prisons brings added sympathy for this tragic figure. (Once she is with Kolchak, however, she quickly adapts to his relatively privileged lifestyle, forgetting the privation around her and apparently abandoning nursing.)

All this is not meant to deny the political implications of the film, but rather to acknowledge the dramatic imperatives of genre filmmaking. Kravchuk could, of course, have complicated Kolchak, drawing him not as a paper saint, but as a contradictory figure who personified those difficult times.  Showing his flawed character, failed policies, casual attitude toward brutality against civilians (his fellow Russians, after all) would arguably have made for a more interesting film, but an exceedingly melancholy one, without conclusions, which would have destined it for the festival circuit, rather than blockbuster status. By whitewashing Kolchak and ignoring the ugly and uncomfortable truths of the historical record, Kravchuk has wittingly or not made “Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality,” (the watchwords of Nicholas I’s reign) seem very appealing to present-day viewers.

Denise J. Youngblood
University of Vermont

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1]For my refresher course on Kolchak, I turned to N.G.O. Pereira, White Siberia: The Politics of Civil War, Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press 1996; and to Jonathan D. Smele, Civil War in Siberia: The Anti-Bolshevik Government of Admiral Kolchak, 1918-1920, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

The Admiral, Russia, 2008
Color, 124 min.
Director: Andrei Kravchuk
Screenplay: Zoia Kudria, Vladimir Valutskii
Cinematography: Igor’ Griniakin, Aleksei Rodionov
Editor: Tom Rolfe
Design: Sergei Musin
Sound: Kirill Bodrov
Music: Gleb Matveichuk
Cast: Konstantin Khabenskii, Elizaveta Boiarskaia, Sergei Bezrukov, Vladislav Vetrov, Anna Kovalchuk, Mikhail Smirnov, Richard Bohringer, Aleksandr Kliuvkin
Producers: Dzhanik Faiziev, Anatolii Maksimov, Dmitrii Iurkov
Production: Film Direction, Dago Productions, Channel One, with the support of the State Agency for Culture and Cinema

Andrei Kravchuk: The Admiral (Admiral, 2008)

reviewed by Denise J. Youngblood © 2009

Updated: 31 Mar 09