May 01, 1998

Revisiting Stalin

LLooking at today’s Russian cinema – and art in general – it is hard to believe that 45 years have passed since Stalin’s death. He could have died yesterday, or at any rate, five years ago. Maybe it is the uncertainty of today’s Russia that makes art shy away from the present. In any case, the number of contemporary works seeking either to condemn Stalinism or seek refuge in the spiritual values of those times (sometimes both) grows year by year. In the late 1980s, there was The Cold Summer of 1953. In the early 1990s, there was Balthasar’s Feast. In 1993, there was Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. This year, there was another Oscar nominee – The Thief.

In The Thief, director Pavel Chukhrai (son of acclaimed Soviet war-movie director Grigory Chukhrai, see RL February 1997) tries to explain the psychology of Russia’s present generation of leaders by examining the bleak scenery of their childhoods in the years immediately following the Second World War. Chukhrai neither romanticizes the past nor overtly condemns it. But he is obviously fascinated by it.

The events of the story are simple. In 1952, six-year old Sanka (Misha Filippchuk) and his mother Katya (Yekaterina Rednikova) meet Tolyan (Vladimir Mashkov), a handsome stranger in uniform, while travelling across Russia by train. After seducing Katya, Tolyan (a macho nickname for Anatoly) “adopts” the two of them, and the group becomes a strange kind of family. They move to a provincial town and rent a room in a communal apartment, gaining trust through Tolyan’s fake military uniform, for, at that time, any man in uniform was seen as a hero. Tolyan befriends the apartment residents, invites them to the circus, then robs the apartment and flees. This scenario is repeated several times in different provincial towns until “the thief” is finally arrested – ironically not for stealing but for assaulting an officer – and sent off to prison camp.

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