‘The Union of Salvation is a crime against our contemporaries’ historical consciousness’

Historian Nikita Sokolov about “big lie” in the new film about Decembrists

‘The Union of Salvation is a crime against our contemporaries’ historical consciousness’
Photo: gaidarfund.ru

The film The Union of Salvation by Andrey Kravchuk about Decembrists is being screened in January in Russian cinemas. Anatoly Maksimov and Konstantin Ernst shot the film. Debates about the accurate interpretation of historical truth haven’t ceased since the film was released. Some said that the authors are slandering leaders of the Decembrist Revolt, others are drawing a parallel between this and events of the contemporary history of Russia — Bolotnaya Square protests. Famous Russian historian Nikita Sokolov gave his assessment of the film in an interview with Realnoe Vremya.

“The Decembrists are an important cultural constant in Russia”

Mr Sokolov, why has the film The Union of Salvation caused such a great outcry?

I think that many things played a role here. Firstly, films about the Decembrists haven’t been shot for long, it has already been over 40 years since the release of The Captivating Star of Happiness. Secondly, the Decembrists are an important cultural constant in Russia in general, not only in the liberation movement but also in the mythology of Russian society in general. It is like Karamzin at the turn of the 18-19th centuries who created and introduced an image of an individual, not a functionary, not a servant but a person who deserved to be listened to and did it by his example. The Decembrists created an image of a person living in history with their behaviour. After the Decembrists, an educated and cultured Russian person lives not only in the street but daily in history, and all his actions correspond to it and matter. This is why the attempt at changing the image of Decembrists, of course, is rising big debates.

Many historians say that the authors of the film distort facts. Do you agree with it? What facts do they distort?

There is direct overexposure, moreover, it is very offending because it isn’t clear why they needed it. The Semyonovsky story was shown, the indignation of the 1st Semyonovsky Independent Rifle Regiment in 1820 about new Colonel Schwartz’s oppression. The soldiers are shown like some Potyomkin-style sailors of 1905, a completely bestial mass of rioters. The Semyonovsky Regiment had nothing similar to it. It is an elite regiment in which officers had already been educating soldiers for many years before this, where physical punishment was lifted. It was completely different people. And there wasn’t any pogrom in the Semyonovsky Regiment in 1820, there was a riot because the emperor’s company lined up for inspection and refused to disperse unless non-statutory inspections that Colonel Schwartz chaired were cancelled and he was excluded from the regiment. It is completely unclear why the film needed to distort this fact.

Was the Semyonovsky episode important in the Decembrists’ story?

Yes, because the Semyonovsky soldiers’ performance showed that there was no need to train the people, wait for a popular revolution, but it was possible to stage a coupe with deliberately trained troops. And European events supported the Decembrists’ ideas of this kind when educated officers staged a constitutional coup according to the same scenario, first in Spain, a bit later in the Kingdom of Naples. And then the Union of Prosperity was dissolved, it was only a talking shop, that’s to say, it dealt with the secular public opinion only, and the preparation of soldiers and officers for a military revolution began. In other words, it is a milestone in the history of Decembrism. But in the way it is shown in the film, it serves nothing and is completely false. But not false points but important omissions are the biggest lie.

What omissions?

A spectator who graduated from school a long time ago and forgot everything won’t understand in general why these people rioted and sent in troops to the square. We are just shown that the Russian troops entered Paris, hurray, let’s drink champagne. But what’s happening in the Russian Empire, what a lack of improvement and well-being is there? There is no money, the industry is in decline after the war, technologically we were behind in everything — in financial, managerial, educational and military technologies. New Peter’s reforms were needed. But everything stumbled over serfdom. It is impossible to significantly reform the army, tax service, judiciary system if serfdom isn’t abolished. While nobody dares to do this job, it is a deadlock. We aren’t said anything about it even briefly. Only young men sit, drink champagne and then suddenly rebel. Why?

Generally speaking, how fair is it to call the Decembrist Revolt young people’s story?

Older people also created constitutional projects. At the beginning of Alexander’s reign, Alexander Vorontsov, Catherine’s grandee, prepared the constitutional project, he was older than 60 years. The emperor’s young friends refused this project because, according to their beliefs, it was too radical: the constitution, parliament, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, the abolition of serfdom. Young people didn’t dare to do what the old man offered. So the film has a lie when it is said that young blood boils. It isn’t because of hormones. Those who were smart enough understood that Russia was on a powder keg and a new Pugachyov rebellion could happen.

“The absence of the Decembrists’ real women diminishes the image of Decembrists and makes them funny outcasts”

It is also strange that the Decembrists’ wives aren’t shown in the film…

The absence of the Decembrists’ real women diminishes the image of Decembrists and makes them funny outcasts, which doesn’t comply with reality. Moreover, an invented character appears out of nothing, Muravyov-Apostol’s bride. The lady is very nice, but she can’t play because she doesn’t have a dramatic intrigue linked with this affair. I suspect that it was done deliberately to diminish the image of Decembrists because as soon as you show the real women who surrounded the Decembrists not only in Siberia but before the revolt… As soon as you show Maria Muravyova, née Rayevskaya, who spoke three languages at 16 years, knew how to keep the ball rolling with Pushkin (their whole family accompanied Pushkin during his trip to the south, and he was completely charmed by her as an interlocutor)… As soon as you show the kind of women who were in this circle, the image of reckless empty boozer will immediately collapse.

This film is often linked with the protests in Russia in the last years. Critic Anton Dolin wrote that it was a propaganda of violation against those who are for freedom, “an approval of state terror policy against dissenters”. Do you saw such a parallel?

I am not ready to judge it because the film has such a confused scenario, everything is contradictory, one can’t understand where one runs, who these people who rush across Senate Square are, why this revolt fails. It is impossible to understand anything.

“Kondraty Ryleyev, journalist”. It is rubbish for the early 19th century. There weren’t any journalists”

Back to omissions, which key participants of the revolt were eliminated from the list of actors in the film? Who couldn’t have been eliminated?

The Senate revolt failed in the film allegedly because of Sergey Trubetskoy who was a bad commander in Senate Square. But Sergey Trubetskoy didn’t come to the square and didn’t command any troops for one reason: his plan for the revolt failed in the morning before the troops appeared when Alexander Yakubovich refused to do the mission the plan envisaged for him and seize the Winter Palace.

The planning of the revolt was shown in the film in a very derogatory way, how the coup plotters meet in the staircase in Ryleyev’s house and decide everything within five minutes. But everything happened differently. The details of the movement were discussed, several plans were created, including very detailed plans where Trubetskoy and Yakubovich were to play a decisive role. And Yakubovich’s refusal ruined this plan, while Trubetskoy as a military didn’t want to participate in the operation without a plan. All this complication wasn’t shown at all. Who is Pyotr Kakhovsky? Why does this civilian appear in the square and shoots? Kakhovsky’s amazing, dramatic and very illustrative story for people of that time is omitted. And there are a lot of details that diminish the Decembrists. An experienced person will recognise who is who. But even an experienced person won’t recognise Nikolay Mordvinov in the film because Mordvinov was an admiral, a high-ranking grandee and he didn’t run frantically and didn’t fawn.

But short caption texts, the credits are given.

They are too short, just a short characteristic, their profession. For instance, “Kondraty Ryleyev, journalist”. It is rubbish for the early 19th century. There weren’t any journalists. Ryleyev, if you want to translate to modern terms, is a top manager of the biggest Russian corporation. He ruled Russian America, Alaska and adjacent territories. How can he be called a journalist? Why do you lower his rank? He is a big organiser. The coup plotters have gathered in his home for many years. The headquarters of the future revolt operates in his home. What do you want to say when you call him a journalist? Is he an upstart and does he occupy the post he doesn’t deserve? The actor who plays Ryleyev had a very strange manner. He plays a nervous bad guy, rather Dostoyevsky’s hero than a person from the 20s.

Tynyanov’s novel The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar starts with the words that people of the 20th with their jumping gait stopped existing in the very cold square in December 1825. Time suddenly stopped... Surprisingly mute people immediately appeared in the square. Such people died. It was different people. And it is a piece of sad bad luck or crime against our contemporaries’ historical consciousness.

What motives did the Decembrists’ wives have? Why did they decide to give up everything and follow their husbands to Siberia?

It is a collision that is very important for that era. When wives, brides or simple acquaintances of the Decembrists decide to go with them to stay together, there is a collision between one’s truth and the state order. The state says to them: “You are obliged to stop any communication, otherwise, you will be divested of all rights, children won’t have rights”. But there are obligations of a specific person, which are above the state truth. And this image of an individual who is loyal to his Christian truth is crucial.

“In the Soviet era, many historians created a myth in their works that Decembrism was a damaged type of revolution.”

What do you think about the film The Captivating Star of Happiness?

It isn’t a historical film. And the film didn’t pretend to become historically true. Except for dramatic turns of the plot, it is a tale. Why is it remembered with warmth now? Including I do so. Because the message was completely different there. The message was that an individual was always right, not the monstrous state. And genius Smoktunovsky who personifies this state ultimately gives up… The Siberian governor’s scene is genius, it has nothing to do with reality. But this artistic image is much closer to the case, though the details have a lot of fantasy.

Are there any other worthy films about Decembrists?

I think there haven’t been feature films for the wide public besides The Captivating Star of Happiness. There have been a lot of popular science films, but there are all meddling and have gone unnoticed.

What about books?

First of all, I would recommend reading Yakov Gordin’s book Reformers’ Riot, which has been printed since 1985, the latest — in 2015 — has been significantly complemented. Oksana Kiyanskaya’s monographs about Pestel, the riot of the Chernigovsky Regiment and a recent generalising book about Decembrists in Wonderful People’s Life are designed for a more trained reader who can read books critically. Sergey Erlikh’s amazing book The War of Myths has recently been released about the essence of the problem, about different myths about Decembrists are already clashing nowadays.

How has memory about Decembrists changed?

Nicholas I’s government was the first peacemaker, which was printed by the Report of Commission of Inquiry made up by Dmitry Bludov where tasks, goals and tactics of Decembrists are falsified to turn them into murderers of the tsar for selfish motives. The second myth was created by Alexander Herzen in the 40th in the 19th century who depicted the Decembrists as knights without fear and reproach, perfect people, angels in flesh. It is also a wrong construction. Nevertheless, Nikolayev’s myth about the murder of the tsar, conspiracy and lucrative motives can be questioned and was presented to the public attention.

When the legal reformist wing strengthened and there was a debate about which road to choose — reforms or revolution — from the 80s of the 19th century, the liberal wing of the Russian society in the person of such writers as Alexander Pypin and Vasily Semyovsky created a myth about liberal and reformist Decembrists who, in fact, didn’t need any revolution but did want liberal reforms.

Then in the Soviet era, many historians created a myth in their works that Decembrists were a damaged type of revolution because noble revolutionism couldn’t be real. Hence the constant indications that the Decembrists weren’t consecutive. But the Decembrists weren’t consecutive from a perspective of the Marxist teaching. It is a refusal of historicism. If you understand the Decembrists’ way of thinking like the one they had in the 19th century but don’t try to add Marxist ideas of the 20th centuries there, you won’t see any inconsecutiveness there.

“A correct, good historical film is the one that shows this otherness, allows a modern person to understand our difference from people of that era”

How are Decembrists seen in society now?

It didn’t seem to many people who have watched the film The Union of Salvation that there is an attempt at belittling the Decembrists deliberately. But I have an impression that there is an attempt anyway. People who want to make reforms and people who require a radical coup fight in the film. But Nicholas didn’t make any reforms. And everybody understood this. His outlook and taste were different. He wasn’t going to reform anything. And this is why there is an illusion in the film that Nicholas I was getting ready to reform the country but changed his mind looking at the Decembrists, they turned him away from reforms, it is pure nonsense, he wasn’t going to reform anything from the beginning. And those who didn’t want him to reign and hoped that Konstantin would come in perfectly knew it. The pro-Konstantin party was very big, everybody knew that Konstantin was a more reasonable and military, political activist, while Nikolay was a typical veteran, an advocate of Arakcheyev, and nothing would happen under him.

What principles do you think creators of a historical film should go by?

It is a big problem and matter of director and actors’ tact. There must be a principle of historicism, an understanding that these people thought and acted differently than we do. If it seems to you that they stick to modern-day motives, goals and interests, think again, read literature and understand what you don’t understand. A correct, good historical film is the one that shows this otherness, allows a modern person to understand our difference from people of that era, what has happened in history since then, why modern humankind is different from that era and what was needed to be done for it. Why is it important to know? It provides a person with an additional pillar and a coordinate system. People acted and they changed the world. And the world changes as a result of our actions, and not the other way round. And act in a desirable direction, and you will change the world, don’t sit on the duvet, act. It is what, in my opinion, a good historical film must say. It is mainly a matter of art, tact.

What historical films where this difference in time was shown can you recommend? Maybe Downton Abbey?

Yes, probably. The situation in Russia is bad here, abroad it is better, there is a big school, a lot of experience. An amazing film The King's Speech was shot some seven years ago. It clearly shows why the 1940s were different from the modern day, that motives, the circumstances, balance of power were different. People used to wear tailcoats differently and moved differently. And it is very important to show this movement because it is meaningful. Nobody, no man selling pastry in Moscow streets in the 18th century fussed as much as the public of Moscow metro does.

Is it bad? Do you like the modern era? Or have modern people become petty and they can’t have lofty motives the Decembrists had?

We choose a circle of interests in which we act, what we consider important. Find a better circle, and it will turn out it has other people with other mores, another language. Gasan Guseinov has recently disturbed the anthill having said that the language our federal TV channels used is a cloak language. Indeed, it is a terrible language. But it doesn’t mean the Russian language has died. Go beyond this television, and you will see that there are a lot of people who perfectly think and clearly express these thoughts in Russian.

Interviewed by Natalia Antropova. Photo: kinopoisk.ru