< The Russian American

Transcript

Friday, July 27, 2007

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Russia's film industry has returned the favor of American depictions of Russians with its own portrayals of - us. That sprightly vintage piano was from the VHS soundtrack of the Russian classic silent film, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks. Directed in 1924 by Lev Kuleshov, it's an affectionate depiction of the trials and tribulations of a red-blooded Yankee in the socialist paradise.
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
So it's a kind of burlesque comedy Western style, presenting silly but sympathetic American who finally understands that life in Soviet Russia is not so horrible as he imagined it would be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Kirill Razlogov is the director of the Russian Institute for Cultural Research and a scholar of Soviet and Russian cinema. He says that, like Russian portrayals in American films, in Russian cinema depictions of Americans underwent similar mutations.

For instance, he says, in the early years of Communism, Russia had no grudge against the States. After all, both countries had wide-open spaces and, under Lenin, Russians even tested the water of free enterprise - briefly.
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
In fact, American cinema was very popular in Russia in the '20s, and there was this period of new economic policy where there was no specific reason to hate Americans, in a way, because Russians felt nearer to Americans than to Europeans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Russians felt a certain kinship? What was that based on, do you think?
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
I think it was based on an absence of this hierarchy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You're talking about class differences.
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
Yes, class differences, and that all people are equal, all people want to live better, and the country is working to do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Was there also a sort of cultural character, I mean, a certain less polished, more pioneering quality or something like that, or -
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
Less civilized, of course. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
I sort of meant that.
[LAUGHTER]
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
It's true. It's true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And maybe that was partly a source of that kinship, do you think?
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
Yes, of course. The '20s and the '30s still went on the idea that there was this overall proletarian solidarity. For example, there have been adaptations of Jack London novels, and in these adaptations, of course, the idea of proletarian Americans - the good ones - and rich Americans - the bad ones - were very clearly drawn.

And, of course, there was a film like The Circus, with this American lady played by Liubov' Orlova, with his black child. It was kind of comedy/melodrama, and the Soviet Russia receives this American lady with a black child just pushed from the United States. That's the typical film of the '30s, by the way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Which shows tremendous racial prejudice.
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
Yes, demonstrates racial prejudice in America and the absence of racial prejudice in Russia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So then, moving on to the '40s?
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
The '40s was a period when both countries fought the Germans. So there have been films which presented sympathetic Americans, people who fought the same war.

The film that was the final blow to this image [LAUGHS] was a film called Encounter on Elba, which was the encounter between Russians and Americans at the end of the Second World War.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
In this topsy-turvy account of history, an American conspires with Germans against the Russians.
[FILM CLIP]:
[RUSSIAN]
INTERPRETER FOR ACTOR:
Can I count on the German Social Democrats to create a special Eastern bureau?
ACTOR:
Absolutely.
[RUSSIAN]
INTERPRETER FOR ACTOR:
That will prevent the labor parties from merging and undermine their trust in Communists?
[RUSSIAN]
INTERPRETER FOR ACTOR:
I understand.
[END OF CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You say it was the final nail in the coffin of the "good American?"
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
[LAUGHS] Because it appeared almost at the same time that the speech by Churchill and the beginning of the Cold War.
WINSTON CHURCHILL:
Ladies and gentlemen, this is no time for generalities, and I will venture to be precise. From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And so, that was the late '40s. When was the next milestone?
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
Oh, the next milestone for Russian film history was the mid-'50s, where Khrushchev came to power. The period was fighting about the image of Stalin, and it gave more freedom to the intelligentsia, to people making films.

There was still no permission to show personal relations between Russians and Americans, except in being a spy or something like that. So the Hollywood dream story about the CIA agent loving the KGB agent was, for the moment, impossible. [LAUGHS]
[LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] And so, we had the period of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Was there a more realistic, less realistic notion of Americans during that period?
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
As far as Yeltsin's period is concerned, the image of America moved from a political aspect to a criminal aspect. That means American mafia was the main character, and relations between American Mafia and Russian mafia, American police force and Russian police force, which was the official policy supported by the state. That means that we have to get back to the idea of cooperation.

And then the coming back to a nationalist point of view, the good Russians combating the bad Americans in the United States, like Brother 2. In Brother 1, the good guy kills every villain in St. Petersburg and goes to Moscow. In Brother 2, he goes to Moscow, then he moves to New York to kill the same villains.
[CLIP]:
[RUSSIAN]
MAN [INTERPRETING]:
Listen, what does it mean in English, how are you?
WOMAN [INTERPRETING]:
It means how are you, how are you doing?
MAN [INTERPRETING]:
And they're interested in how I'm doing?
WOMAN [INTERPRETING]:
No, they're not interested.
MAN [INTERPRETING]:
So why do they ask?
WOMAN [INTERPRETING]:
For no reason. Everything here is for no reason, except for money.
[END OF CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Looking overall at the Soviet and Russian film history, it's far less stereotypical in its treatment of Americans than the American film industry has been in its treatment of Russians over the years. Is that your impression, too?
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
There have been some stereotypical characters, but there was this undercurrent of sympathy to Americans which prevailed. There was never an image of, let's say, bad American because American; It was always an image of bad American because rich or bad American because mafioso. Let's say senator was bad and government was bad.

But there were always the good Americans, the repressed Americans who were our counterpart of the Russian proletarian.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
As my technical director ran through his head all the images of Russians he'd had, some of them were sympathetic. Some came from this cartoon show, Rocky and Bullwinkle, characters like Boris and Natasha. Then there was Ninotchka.
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Then there was The Russians are Coming, with Alan Arkin. And I just wonder when Russians encounter these different images, do they enjoy these films? Are you able to do that, or are the reactions personal?
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
Oh, the official reactions are bad. It was almost impossible to make an image of Russians which was conformed to the official image of Russians during the Soviet period, of course, so no films with images of Russians were ever shown.

And they were considered absolutely forbidden.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
It was worse than a porno movie.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Thank you so much.
KIRILL RAZLOGOV:
Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Kirill Razlogov is the director of the Russian Institute for Cultural Research and a scholar of Soviet and Russian cinema.
[MUSIC/UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Philips and Nazanin Rafsanjani, and edited by me. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Andrya Ambro and Madeleine Elish. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.

Katya Rogers is our senior producer [she just had a baby!] and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
[MUSIC TAG]