Thursday, August 25, 2011

Stalin's Wife

Zhena Stalina is an ambitious four-part television series that attempts to convey the agonizing position Nadezhda Allilueva found herself in when she married Josef Stalin.  The writers took their cue from a 2004 documentary by Slava Tsukerman, drawing on even more archival material to piece together a very intimate account of this marriage.  The series does lack emotional intensity, which Jamie Miller notes in his review for Kinokultura, with Duta Skhirtladze giving a rather subdued performance as Stalin.  But, then this film is principally about Nadezhda, and Olga Budina turns in a powerful performance as Stalin's wife.

I don't know that much about Allilueva, so I can't say how accurate the telling is.  It appears to be more an emotional "truth" that the director is aiming for in justifying the fateful decision she would ultimately make.  We see her provide understanding and love for Stalin's son from a previous marriage, shown in this film clip, and try to guard their two children from his tyrannical outbursts, only to feel the full weight of his anger.  One senses the same love-hate relationship one finds in most abusive marriages but with far more profound consequences, as Nadezhda has her broader family to think about in the wake of her husband's reign of terror. 

The filmmakers decide to treat Stalin's terror on the periphery, with pointed references rather than any attempt to explain his actions.  Instead, the series focuses on Nadezhda's reactions to the growing list of crimes against humanity her husband is perpetrating, and her attempts to reconcile this with the image she stills holds of "Soso" as the idealistic revolutionary she first met in 1917.  As a result, this film becomes very domestic and probably won't appeal to viewers looking for pithy insights into Stalin's character.  It is Olga Budina's strong performance that holds the viewer.

Budina had previously played Aglaya Yepachina in the television series, The Idiot

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Portraits of an Artist as a Young Man

I've really been enjoying Speak, Memory, a fascinating collection of Vladimir Nabokov's remembrances of his youth (1899-1919) in Imperial Russia.  As he notes in his penultimate chapter, it is the first arc of the spiral that made up his life, in which he delves into the some of the formative moments that shaped him.  One can find echoes of Lolita in his "first love" for Collette on a French seashore, where his family vacationed one summer.  And, his first real love for Tamara which ended when his family had to flee Petersburg for Crimea, as the Bolshevik revolution thrust the country into turmoil, and eventually set sail for Greece with Tamara's letters left to drift like butterflies as no forward address was left.  There is even a pause for silence in the death of Tolstoy, which Nabokov notes in his parents one morning.

Brian Boyd wrote the introduction to this Everyman's Library edition, 1999, and here he is on the Centennial of Nabokov's birth that year.  Boyd notes that Nabokov was startling accurate in his accounts, having written and rewritten pieces for magazines before finally publishing the final edition of his autobiography in 1966.

Nabokov briefly touches on the second arc of his life, a "voluntary exile" in Europe, which included Germany, France and England.  He notes the sickly green passports which were issued by the League of Nations to Russian emigres, who no longer found themselves citizens of the Soviet Union.  He writes about his three years at Cambridge trying to set his classmates straight on Bolshevism, eventually to give up and turn to poetry.  He also tells of his time in Paris among the Russian emigres, including a wonderful sketch of Ivan Bunin one night at a restaurant to which Bunin had invited him.

A sixteenth chapter has been added, in which Nabokov writes an amusing appraisal of his autobiography from the point of view of a third person critic.  Nabokov chose not to include it in his earlier edition of the book.

Monday, August 8, 2011


Vladimir Mashkov was featured recently on a segment of "Stop Frame," a Russian film and actor review program on TV 1000.  His film career goes back to the late 1980s, but  my introduction was Thief, where he plays a conniving father looking for the easy score in Stalinist Russia.  He has since become one of my favorite Russian actors. He was excellent as Rogozhin in the Russian television mini-series The Idiot.  He is currently working on a French-Russian production of Rasputin, in which he will play Tsar Nicholas II, with Gerard Depardieu as Rasputin.

Nice to see a full transfer of Thief available on Youtube with English subtitles.  Mashkov has done quite a number of films over the years, including the popular Oligarch, which included an international cast.  I guess you could call it a Russian Scarface.  He seems to play dubious characters for the most part.

Vysotsky in New York

Here's a wonderful interview with Vysotsky and Dan Rather for 60 Minutes in 1976.  It was an "unauthorized" visit, as Vysotsky had only been granted a visa to France to spend time with his wife, Marina Vladi.  The two then flew to Montreal, Canada, and onto New York, where he met up with Brodsky and other expatriated Soviet dissidents.  But, as Vysotsky states in this interview, he didn't consider himself a dissident, and had no intention of seeking asylum.  He soon returned to the Soviet Union.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed

We found ourselves watching part of this television series from the late 1970s, which featured Vladimir Vysotsky and Natalya Fateyeva among many others.  It was one of Vysotsky's last films before his tragic death.  He was in very good form as a tough-minded homicide detective following a complicated trail of leads to a vicious gang known as "Black Cat" in 1930s Moscow.  Along the way, he and his young idealistic partner come across Fateyeva on a riverboat restaurant.

It was a very popular five-part series, which you can see in its entirety with English subs on youtube, or order a copy through amazon.  It was distributed as The Age of Mercy, which was the title of the novel by Arkadiy Vayner and Georgiy Vayner, outside the Soviet Union.  So good to see Vystotsky in fine form.  One doesn't have any sense of his own private demons.  Unfortunately, the book is not so easily available.