Issue 69 (2020)

Vladimir Khotinenko: The Lenin Factor (Lenin. Neizbezhnost’, 2019)

reviewed by Laura Todd © 2020

lenin factor“No-one knows the real truth.” This quotation from Anton Chekhov’s novella “The Duel” (Duel’, 1891) opens Vladimir Khotinenko’s film, The Lenin Factor. Indeed, Khotinenko’s film does focus on Vladimir Lenin and Aleksandr Parvus in a kind of duel, or a struggle, throughout the film, ending only with the death of Lenin (and the death of Parvus on discovering this, as if by outliving Lenin, he can finally succumb to an early death himself). The film’s plot circles around a micro-history of this one, rather small it turns out, clash on the vast battlefield of the Russian Revolution. It focuses on the moments directly preceding the February Revolution, when Lenin has just arrived in Zurich, and on his desperate search for a means to make his way back to Russia to lead the long-awaited revolution of the proletariat. There is not open violence between the two, but rather the duel emerges as a struggle for influence and power, not only in Russia, but also on the European stage as a whole.

The Lenin Factor is the last in a triptych by Khotinenko addressing the events of the Russian Revolution; it is preceded by the television series Demon of the Revolution (Demon revoliutsii, 2017, released on the channel Rossiia) and The Parvus Memorandum (Memorandum Parvusa, 2018, released on Rossiia-Kul’tura). In the build-up to and wake of 2017, Khotinenko’s works are not unusual. The centenary of the Russian Revolution resulted in a veritable, and rather mind-boggling, explosion of works—literary, cinematic, academic (and those in between)—regarding the truth about the Russian Revolution. Of course, the truth is subjective. The “real truth,” as Chekhov puts it, is intentionally not explored in The Lenin Factor, somewhat on purpose as we’ll see, and thus it can be seen as falling in with the style of other productions recently released about the Russian Revolution and the Romanovs —semi-fictional, semi-factual, and sometimes sensationalized, for good viewing. 

On this list surely has to be two of the most controversial, in my view, in Russia and without, thanks to globally accessible streaming platforms: Trotsky (Trotskii, 2017, which debuted on Russia’s Channel One before appearing internationally on Netflix); and The Last Czars (2019, a Netflix production). Both of these fall into the classic genre of perhaps an inordinate focus on the strange habits and sexual proclivities of famous historical Russians, with The Last Czars being particularly annoying for its combination of solid academic research with lavish, and salacious, docudrama. Trotsky, meanwhile, was something else entirely, focusing perhaps too strongly in places on Trotsky’s propensity for black leather and white suits; it begins with a bizarre, and disturbingly abusive, sex scene between Trotsky and the poet-Revolutionary Larisa Reisner on his famous train. The fascination with the Revolution and the Romanovs has continued since then, with multiple productions released on a variety of streaming platforms, and with Catherine the Great being a recent favorite. The latter is unsurprising. She combines so many of the dramatic aspects of Russian history in which people are interested.

By comparison to these particular examples, The Lenin Factor is almost, and rather fortunately I think, prudish in its exploration of Lenin’s life in the months immediately before he arrives at the Finland Station. Inessa Armand, by the way, is there, but she is not so much of a love rival for the tightly laced Nadezhda Krupskaia. The closest we get to a cat-fight between the two is a disagreement on whether Lenin should tuck in the ear-flaps on his hat or not—he chooses to tuck them in as per Armand’s suggestion, giving him the distinctive flat-top hat that appears in images of the revolutionary anti-hero. There is one controversial moment regarding love nonetheless—a scene of Lenin and Krupskaia being married in a traditional Orthodox Christian ceremony, so at odds with his political beliefs.

lenin factorActor Evgenii Mironov’s Lenin is uncontroversial—principled, human, and cultured. He leans, poses, and ponders in the same way Lenin does in his countless monuments across Russia. In a moment of high emotion and unable to see the outcome of his desire to return to Russia to lead the Revolution, he stands up in Zurich’s Dadaist “Cabaret Voltaire” and recites part of Fedor Tiutchev’s poem, “The Sea and the Cliff” (“More i utes1848). The poem itself harks back to the use of Chekhov’s quotation, in which the protagonist of “The Duel,” Ivan Andreevich Laevskii, repeats the phrase whilst looking out onto the dark and turbulent sea at the end of the novella. Tiutchev’s sea is equally tempestuous, as is Lenin himself in this moment of the film. Lenin stops his recitation of the poem halfway through, ending poignantly on the second stanza, which speaks of the cliff, as old as the Creation, hailed as “our Titan” [nash velikan]. The juxtaposition between the un-moving face of the cliff, an age-old Titan, and Lenin, a Titan of the modern era, as unmoved by the troublesome tides as the cliff in Tiutchev’s poem, is clear. Lenin is positioned as a velikan of the twentieth century. He cannot be aided by schemers like Parvus, nor stopped by the efforts of military counter-intelligence back in Russia. His passage to Russia and his role in the nation’s history is positioned as inevitable as the tides of the sea. 

It is in this poetic performance and reference that we can also see a connection to the Russian title of the film. Ultimately, the Russian title contains more significance and weight than the rather weak English version. The concept that Lenin is a neizbezhnost’ (inevitability, or even destiny) for Russia is the central theme of the film. The Russian title of the film itself comes from a loaded discussion between Lenin and Parvus, as they try to work out who is more dangerous to whom. Lenin asks why Parvus has chosen to support him over his friend Trotsky. Parvus responds that he has concluded: “You are an inevitability for Russia” [“Vy – neizbezhnost’ dlia Rossii”]. Thus, we circle back to the Russian title—Lenin is presented as actually something greater and more important than a mere “factor” in history. Russian history is incomprehensible without him.

No-one really expects a historical film to be an exact replication of history and Khotinenko has no qualms about providing his own dramatic version of Lenin’s struggles: “[The film] is not an exact replication of history, there are none of the great events, which took place at the beginning of the twentieth century in Russia, Germany and Switzerland” (Mazurova, 2019). The film focuses instead on a microcosm of the Revolutionary universe, hopping back and forth through time and geographical location. The latter point is rather confusing, as we see the Tsarist military counterintelligence trying to blot out the fledgling revolution by attacking the roots still in Russia, before going back to Lenin and Parvus in Switzerland. The necessity of these forays into Russia in the chaos of world war are not entirely necessary from a spectator’s perspective. However, this parallel timeline allows Khotinenko to reference historical events happening in Russia whilst Lenin is stuck in Switzerland, providing connections between the two. It also makes the dry debates of the duel more interesting. The murder of Rasputin, the attempts to bring revolutionaries under control, and the arrival of the February Revolution with its dastardly left-wing democrats are all depicted. We are even offered a brief, mystical interlude into the abdication of Nicholas II on his own train, where the dethroned Tsar ponders on the fate of his beloved son as his abdication declaration floats ominously on the hot air currents from his heaters.

lenin factorThese scenes in Russia actually have another purpose. They provide Khotinenko with an opportunity to connect The Lenin Factor to his previous works on the theme of and build-up to Revolution. It is essentially rather impossible to gain full understanding of what Khotinenko is trying to achieve in The Lenin Factor without having watched the previous instalments, and even some of his other works on similar themes. In fact, there is clearly some padding-out of a rather bland storyline throughout the film—the inclusion of Lenin’s sporting friendship with Tristan Tzara and their interactions at the Cabaret Voltaire is one such example. The film is continuously interwoven with scenes, characters, and events set in motion in The Parvus Memorandum and Demon of the Revolution, as well as those from another of Khotinenko’s series, The Death of an Empire (Gibel’ imperii, 2005, Channel One), which is set in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution. All of the series deal with the issue of shady German involvement in the Russian Revolution, which give a conspiracist undertone to these works.

It is clear that the The Lenin Factor is intended to be somewhat standalone, but nonetheless the role of some of the characters—in particular, Prince Vasilii Turkestanov (Aleksandr Baluev), the head of the imperial military counterintelligence, and Aleksei Mezentsev (Maksim Matveev), one of Turkestanov’s officers—is unclear without having watched the previous series. Alongside this, the opening scene of the The Lenin Factor is in fact a shorter version of the opening episode of The Parvus Memorandum, a series that is supposedly based on the real Mezentsev’s memoirs. In this series, we see that shortly after Parvus discovers Lenin’s death, he is confronted in his mansion by an armed Mezentsev—a scene that is not featured in the film. It is alluded to at the end of The Lenin Factor, as a drunk and unstable Parvus feels his heart attack coming on and ponders aloud to someone off-camera on how he has managed to outlive both the Tsar and Lenin. Mezentsev does not appear, however, and it is not clear whether Parvus is just speaking to phantoms in his head—you never have to know this scene had previously taken place. The Lenin Factor thus becomes an envisaged pinnacle where all these threads are woven together into the final moment that is the most important factor—Lenin’s success in reaching St. Petersburg to finally take control of the revolution. Whether the film is a pinnacle or an anti-climax is open to interpretation and has been discussed vociferously on Russian film review websites.

While we expect a bit of deviation from history to create a more enticing viewing experience, some moments of historical deviation can be considered more significant than others. The film’s character Prince Vasilii Turkestanov was indeed a real historical figure who worked for the Tsar’s military counterintelligence. In The Lenin Factor, he is murdered after the February Revolution, on the street, by one of his former underlings, in a fashion presumably common in the uprising of workers over their bosses. However, the real Prince Turkestanov actually survived the Revolution and the early years of the Soviet Union; he was executed in 1937 during the Great Terror. Considering Stalin’s complicated reception in contemporary Russia, it would be easier to kill him off in a fictional way, rather than allowing this historical fact to stand. Yet the close of the film does tell viewers: “Out of the 32 passengers on the sealed train, 11 were shot or died in camps.” By whom they were shot and imprisoned is not elucidated. Historical facts can be offered or withheld on film, but the acknowledgement of dark deeds is there for posterity.

lenin factorWhen questioned as to why The Lenin Factor is a film, rather than a television series like the previous productions, Khotinenko is effusive on the magical experience allowed by film (Моskva 24, 2019). In this interview, he alludes to the Lumière Brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896), considered by some to be the first motion picture, which was so powerful that the audience reportedly ran away, thinking the train arriving on the screen was real. The television series and the films by Khotinenko under discussion here contain a notable emphasis on the significant role of the moving image and the cinema in the early twentieth century. Cinemas in Khotinenko’s works are places for chance encounters, secret deals, espionage, and assassinations. The opening scenes of the Parvus-Lenin duel depict Parvus watching newsreel footage of the German front of World War I in a Berlin cinema called “Moviemento.” He connects the double entendre of the cinema’s name with the coming Revolution: “in the small room of ‘Movement/Moviemento,’ the fate of the Russian revolution has been decided.” Movement can refer to multiple things in this quotation—the movements of the German military on the screen, the movement forward of the Russian Revolution, or the movement of the camera and its ability to capture all.

Parvus himself is particularly obsessed with the possibilities and magic of the film projector. Throughout the film, he watches newsreel footage corresponding to the different temporal periods he is remembering and on which the film is focusing. At the moment of his death, Parvus is watching a speech by his obsession, and nemesis by the end, Lenin. The film is thus structured around Parvus’ acts of remembering, and the ways cinema can augment and influence the memories of people. There can be two functions of the role of cinema, but particularly of newsreels, on Khotinenko’s screen. Parvus, excluded from the grand events of the twentieth century by Lenin, can feel part of them by watching them unfold on the screen. Or, they can emphasize that, contrary to the epigraph of the film and Khotinenko’s statements on the film, the moving image through newsreels offers some examples of the “real truth” that Chekhov says no-one can know. The events of the Russian Revolution did happen and, at the time, they were caught on camera in a way many previous revolutions and wars could not be. Cinema itself was intimately connected to the same Revolution. Meanwhile, the fictional, mystical world that Khotinenko’s film portrays is subtly linked to real, historical events through these newsreels. Perhaps we are encouraged to believe that Khotinenko’s film could be the real truth after all…

Laura Todd,
University of Nottingham

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Works Cited

Moskva 24, ‘“Pravda 24”: Vladimir Khotinenko – o fil’me “Lenin. Neizbezhnost’.”’

Mazurova, Svetlana. 2019. “Vladimir Khotinenko rasskazal v Sochi, kak sozdaval fil’m pro Lenina.” Rossiiskaia Gazeta, 26 November. l

The Lenin Factor, Russia, 2019
Color, 108 minutes
Director: Vladimir Khotinenko
Script: Nadezhda Vorob'eva, Kirill Zhurenkov
DoP: Denis Alarcón Ramírez
Production Design: Sergei Ivanov
Sound: Rostislav Alimov
Cast: Paulina Andreeva, Fedor Bondarchuk, Dar’ia Ekamasova, Viktoriia Isakova, Iurii Maslak, Maksim Matveev, Evgenii Mironov
Producers: Sergei Mel’kumov, Anton Zlatopol’skii, Aleksandr Rodianskii, Vladimir Khotinenko, Dmitrii Litvinov, Vera Malysheva
Production: Non-Stop Production

Vladimir Khotinenko: The Lenin Factor (Lenin. Neizbezhnost’, 2019)

reviewed by Laura Todd © 2020

Updated: 2020