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"Of all the arts, for us cinema is the most important," Soviet leader Lenin once said, reflecting his view of the propaganda value of that new medium. Now  it's 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia's popular film and television industry is beginning to flourish again, thanks in part to a leader, Vladimir Putin, who apparently shares Lenin's view. "This is a story of revival, of success, but success with a bitter twist. This is the story of Russia's Reel Resurrection," Don Murray reports.
Like the Soviet Union itself, the film and television industry was in near-collapse in the early post-Soviet era. However, there was freedom of the press. Under Putin, the industry is doing well but "Russia has fallen back into authoritarianism," says Russian journalist Masha Gessen.
That is the twist.
According to Gessen, "we had an imperfect but basically free media in the 90s and at this point we have no widely accessible, independent media of any sort in this country."
Two of the main personalities in this documentary, leading names from the Russian film and television industry, have seen their careers go in opposite directions under Putin. And they interpret that quote from Lenin differently.
"Movies are still the most important of the arts," says actor and director Stanislav Govorukhin. They should instill in young people, "“the meaning of honour and self-esteem," he says.
Viktor Shenderovich is also a well-known director and performer, and also agrees with Lenin but adds, "it's not movies in themselves that are most important, but the ideological hammer which has been used to brainwash people."
He became one of the leaders of Democratic Party of Russia. As well, he became an MP and pushed through a bill to support the film industry by making it tax exempt. In the 2000 presidential elections, he was one of Putin’s opponents. According to Laura Belin (see Links below), "Govorukhin did not even urge viewers to vote for him, but spent most of his time attacking Putin and other rivals." He left parliament in 2004 and went back to making films.
In 2005, these two Russian stars, with their opposite outlooks and experiences, ran against each in a Russian parliamentary by-election. Govorukhin was now supported by Putin, recruited by him. Shenderovich was ignored by the vast Russian state media, which Putin controlled. Govorukhin won. When interviewed by Don Murray, he had this to say about his opponent:
"I feel only contempt for people like Shenderovich. I couldn’t care less about him, either as an artist or as a citizen … the entire country knows me, while Shenderovich is supported by a small group of traitors within the 'intelligentsia' from which the enemies of Russia have always been recruited.”
And Shenderovich says this about his opponent:
"At one time, he called Putin a national disaster. But just a few years later, he himself joined that national disaster. Mr. Govorukhin easily integrates into any power structure."
Murray observes that, "Govorukhin and his allies wield their words like truncheons. Words like 'enemy of the country' and 'traitor' have a terrifying resonance. These were the words that condemned intellectuals to death under Stalin. And if words aren’t enough, there are bullets. The murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October was a contract killing and it was a message: dissent will be punished. The louder the dissent, the harsher the punishment.”
Politkovskaya was the 14th journalist murdered since Putin became president at the end of 1999. "Not one of their killers has been convicted. No one knows who ordered the deaths, no one accuses Russia’s security services directly. But all understand that those who kill opponents of the Kremlin do so with impunity," says Murray.
One of the successes of modern Russian media is the made-for-TV series. Three of the biggest hits have been based on classics of Soviet literature. One is based on Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and another on The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov.
A third made-for television series hit, based on Vladimir Dudintsev’s Not By Bread Alone, was directed by Govorukhin. He said he, "wanted to shoot a film about a country that no longer exists, and about people who will never exist again."
It’s ironic that these three novels were written by critics of the Stalinist regime. For Russia’s new leaders, the message is, perhaps, see how much better life is now.
Don Murray's World - Don Murray reports from abroad
INDEPTH: RUSSIA - A profile - CBC News Online | Feb. 28, 2005
Stanislav Govorukhin: A Filmmaker Moves Out Of The Duma By Laura Belin, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
Stanislav Govorukhin - Official Site (in Russian)
Stanislav Govorukhin - Wikipedia
Victor Shenderovich - Official Site (in Russian)
Victor Shenderovich - Wikipedia