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Oleksandr Dovzhenko, pro et contra
Yevhen SVERSTYUK, a prominent figure in Ukrainian culture of today and
a former political prisoner, presents his assessment of Oleksandr Dovzhenko.
There is a cinema theatre in Berlin that shows films of the past and of the present which are considered to be the best ones ever made. The film Arsenal, directed by the Ukrainian director Oleksandr Dovzhenko, and released in 1929, opens the season of shows at this Berlin theatre whose name also happens to be Arsenal.
Back in 1929, the Ukrainian intelligentsia condemned the film as an apology for the Bolsheviks. Now, more than seventy years later, the reaction to it is quite different… But Stalin liked and approved the film. Dovzhenko’s next film, Zemlya (Earth) was shown in Moscow to a restricted audience — and was banned from being shown publicly. Stalin’s reaction to this film was highly negative, and the Pravda newspaper, the communist party’s mouthpiece, duly subjected Dovzhenko and his film to a severe criticism. When the film was shown in the west it was hailed as an outstanding work of cinematic art.
Stalin was the chief censor of Dovzhenko’s films and screenplays. On January 31 1944 when the war was still raging, Dovzhenko was brought to the Kremlin at night. At the sitting of the Politburo (the principal policy-making committee of the soviet communist party completely subservient to Stalin at that time — tr.) Stalin read from the condemnation he himself composed: “Comrade Dovzhenko wrote a screenplay, Ukrayina v ohni (Ukraine in Flames). In this screenplay, Leninism is, to put it mildly, revised, as well as the policy of our party in the principal, key issues. Dovzhenko’s screenplay which contains fundamental mistakes of the anti-Leninist character, is an open attack on the party’s policies…”
This harsh invective was hurled at Dovzhenko not for a published work but for a manuscript that was given by the author personally to Stalin for assessment and approval. Stalin’s assessment was correct — Stalin saw in Dovzhenko a dangerous dissident who, in his naivete of a genius, thought that truth would be accepted and upheld by everybody.
“The father of all nations” pardoned the offending director in a manner of the Oriental despot — he did not have Dovzhenko’s head cut off but “buried [him] alive,” to use Dovzhenko’s own words. Dovzhenko could not stay and work in Moscow with Stalin’s curse put on him.
Ukrayina v ohni does reflect the illusions Dovzhenko must have had during the war, sharing this illusion with millions of soldiers at the front who hoped that after the war the regime would change because the people would have won the right to a decent life with their blood.
In private conversations Dovzhenko also expressed thoughts which could easily be interpreted as “anti-Soviet” and reports on him kept coming to the soviet secret police. The file on him was a big one indeed; among other things, it contained information about his service as an officer in Symon Petlyura’s troops, his arrest, his having been sentenced to death and his having been saved by the intercession of Vasyl Blakytny (Ukrainian statesman and author) who enjoyed Lenin’s confidence at that time.
Dovzhenko was an ardent Ukrainian nationalist and remained a nationalist all his life. But at the same time, he was influenced by the socialist ideas of the time he lived in, he shared with many people communist illusions about “the bright communist future of the humankind.” He was an idealist and he had to have a lofty goal to believe in, to be a devotee of an ideal.
Dovzhenko was a man of a clear mind and of an exceptionally handsome appearance. The soviet regime that treated people as “human material for achieving certain ends” would never allow Dovzhenko to express his talent in his own way. Dovzhenko was a romantic who wanted “to change the world.” It so happened that in the country where he lived it was the Bolsheviks who proclaimed themselves to be “the vanguard of humanity” with “a mission to change the world for the better” and Dovzhenko was forced, alongside with many other “advanced masters of the epoch of socialism”, to create art which would be in compliance with “the requirements of the state.” He tried to fill the abstractions of communism with his positive and human emotions. He found himself in the same situation as so many of Ukrainian artists, poets and writers were in — Pavlo Tychyna, Maksym Rylsky, Mykola Kulish, Volodymyr Sosyura, to name just a few. All of them rejected the Bolshevik terror, and since terror was the essence of Bolshevism, they rejected it too. Had they opposed the regime openly, they would have been mercilessly crushed — and they chose life. It is known that any great talent has a heightened instinct of self-preservation and never dying hope of self-realization. Each of these talented people defended themselves the way they could.
Dovzhenko was a film director and actor and he chose an active position — to be in front rather than behind, and he had to convincingly play the public role he chose. He did play it so well that he was applauded, not only berated.
“My goal is to bring joy to the people whom you lead. So why should I be afraid of you?” None of his fellow cinematographers and authors who found themselves under particularly close scrutiny of the repressive state had as much self-irony and sincere confessional openness in making fun of the officialdom and apparatchiks as Dovzhenko did when he was writing his diaries under the naive cover of protestations of loyalty.
Dovzhenko’s diaries bear witness to great love and suffering, to torment and self-castigation. Reading them makes your heart ache. Dovzhenko wrote of the most disturbing issues of our times.
At the same time, we should remember that Dovzhenko’s diaries have not yet been studied properly, have not been analyzed in the context of the time he lived in. But the very fact of their publication in 1965, and of the publication of his novel Zacharovana Desna (The Enchanted Desna River) created a different cultural climate, widened the range of free thought, and raised the level of courage in putting forward for public discussion pivotal issues concerning the destinies of the people of Ukraine and of the world in general.
Dovzhenko can be called “the first Ukrainian dissident” who stimulated the activities of the dissident movement of the intellectuals of the nineteen-sixties in Ukraine and Russia by his books which were published and sold in great numbers.
The soviet authorities were leery of Dovzhenko during his life and after his death (he died in 1956). On the one hand, he had an image of a faithful servant of the regime with Stalin, Lenin and other prizes heaped on him, some of them posthumously. On the other hand, it was he who wrote: “There’s a hundred commissars…all of them short-necked, fat and looking like two peas in a pod. Ill-bread and frumpish. They eat a lot and often…” This entry in his diary dates from 1942. These people, “these little gray people” who “gradually and methodically were trying to convince me that I’m in the wrong”, later, posthumously, heaped praise upon Dovzhenko, calling him “the Soviet film director of great genius,” “cinematic master of all times and peoples,” “the bard of socialism.”
They, these people, claimed that Dovzhenko was their supporter using as their argument Dovzhenko’s texts which they themselves censored and mutilated. They knew only too well how to shorten or simplify texts by skewing the content in a manner that would present the author in the light they wanted. They never mentioned that Dovzhenko was not even a member of the soviet communist party. They never mentioned that once the head of the dreaded KGB Beria accused Dovzhenko of lack of enthusiasm in glorifying the great Stalin (“How come you failed to spare even a few feet of film for our leader?” Beria said). The great drama of Dovzhenko’s life who was forbidden to live in Ukraine in his later years, was camouflaged so well that for so many people Dovzhenko was and is seen as part of a myth in which he figures as “a caroler of the soviet epoch.”
There is still very little written about Dovzhenko’s worldview which was fundamentally national, or about Dovzhenko as an artiste who followed in the footsteps of Gogol and Shevchenko, about his art having the superficial features forcefully imposed on it but nonetheless possessing qualities that elevate it the status of high art.
In fact, Dovzhenko’s fame in the world is based on the way his art was and is viewed by the great masters of cinema, on his approach to the form and on the means he used to achieve this form. In Ukraine, the attitude to him continues to be based for the most part not on the formal categories but on the ideological content which indeed was neither attractive no original.
Dovzhenko put beauty above everything else. He was “the poet of Beauty which is followed by Truth.” It is on the formal artistic means Dovzhenko employed that we should base our arguments, not on the content that was picked up by those “hundred commissars” as an argument for recognizing Dovzhenko as one of their own.
His opposition to the soviet system was deeply inherent in his nature as is evidenced by his rejection of forced “revolutionary transformations” on the purely aesthetic level. Dovzhenko cannot accept the lack of culture, of taste, of aesthetic ideals in the “hundred commissars”; the way they talk, the way they express their thoughts, the way they behave, the way they dress, the way they look is repulsive to him. Gradually, Dovzhenko came to the conclusion that all of these things were a result of the soviets’ rejection of God and acceptance of ethic nihilism.
“I began praying to God. I did not pray for thirty seven years, I almost never thought of Him. I rejected Him. I was a god myself, a god-man. And now I’ve realized, still only to a minute extent, the enormity of my delusion… And I began to think how awful and horrible and miserable it is in the world without Him — like it is now, for example.”
It was written in 1946.
Dovzhenko links the loss of ideals of Beauty and of Good with the loss of God.
Once you lose these, there is nothing more to lose.
And “the caroler of the epoch of socialism” begins to sing a psalm together with Gogol and Shevchenko.