The Russian Idea

[Русская идея]

film still

Russia–United Kingdom, 1995, 51 min., video, b/w and color
English voice-over narration
Director: Sergei Sel'ianov
Script: Oleg Kovalov
Original music: Vladimir Radchenkov
With Aleksei Petrenko (narrator)
Studios: STW, TriTe, SKIP-Film, Roskino. Commissioned by the British Film Institute
Producers: Leonid Vereshchagin, Valerii Ruzin, Colin MacCabe, Bob Last

The Russian Idea is a documentary film commissioned by the British Film Institute as part of a large-scale commemoration of the Century of Cinema. As such, it was to represent the distinctive achievements of Russo-Soviet cinema, one of the most influential traditions in world cinema history. The film devotes almost all of its attention to the great names of the early 20th century (Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, and Boris Barnet among others) and their landmark films (most significantly Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible and Bezhin Meadow). These are the films and filmmakers that represent above all the contribution of Soviet cinema to the history of the art. However, Sergei Sel'ianov and scriptwriter Oleg Kovalov do not address any of those aspects of early Soviet film about which we read in traditional histories. Neither montage technique nor the revolutionary pathos of the avant-garde are mentioned even in passing.

In seven steps, Sel'ianov and Kovalov trace the evolution and elaboration of a single idea—the Russian idea. The term is familiar to any student of Russian culture: the Russian idea is the belief in Russia's destiny to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth. Taking its strength from the historical situation of Moscow as the last bulwark of Orthodox Christianity after the fall of Constantinople, the Russian idea survived over the centuries to give shape to Russian philosophy, arts, and literature. It is a notion that has stood in opposition to the Russian state, which in this context is seen as an earth-bound, oppressive, and irredeemable structure. Despite the significance of the Russian idea in other realms of Russian culture, the assertion that this essentially religious idea gave shape to Soviet avant-garde cinema is a bold one.

The crucial link between cinema and the Russian idea is the work of the religious philosopher Nikolai Berdiaev. Berdiaev has given the best-known characterization of the messianic character of the Russian nation's sense of its self. Its eschatological impulse led to the maximalism characteristic of many pivotal and explosive events in Russian history. The confrontation of the Russian idea with the Russian state led to the utopian gesture of the Russian Revolution. In this way, Communism becomes the manifestation of the Russian idea: the Kingdom of God brought forth on Russian soil. Thus, cinema manifests the Russian idea in concert with the new Soviet state. The old is shown is awash in misery, the new is shown as a dream, and the victory of the new over the old is obtained at the cost of self-sacrifice. The union of Christianity and state-sponsored atheism achieves perfection. In their telling of this narrative, Sel'ianov and Kovalov do not dwell on the irony that the most perfect imaging of this union, Eisenstein's Bezhin Meadow, was destroyed before it was ever finished.

Certainly, the film must be seen in its own historical context. On the surface, The Russian Idea tells the story of the perversion of an art, of its participation in and celebration of the destruction of the country. However, as an intervention in the ongoing debate on Russia's identity in the post-Soviet era, the film in its own way attempts to be more than just cinema. Sel'ianov has remarked that in the 1990s, Russian life became larger than Russian cinema, a fundamentally new situation for the country. He claims that cinema will have only a circumscribed role to play in post-communist Russia, a role closer to that played by cinema in the West. In illustrating how an overriding idea gave shape and sense to early Russian cinema, the film is a powerful gesture in the nation's continuing desire for Russian ideas.

Sergei Sel'ianov

Sergei Sel'ianov photo

Sergei Sel'ianov was born in the town of Olonets in Karelia. From 1975 to 1978 he studied in the Tula Politechnical Institute, where he headed the amateur film studio "Sad." In 1980 he graduated from the film-script department at VGIK in the master class of Nikolai Figurovskii. In the same year Sel'ianov made his first feature film (A Saint's Day). This underground production, on which Sel'ianov corroborated with Nikolai Makarov, was released only in 1988. In 1989 Sel'ianov completed the master class for script writers and directors under the tutelage of Rolan Bykov. In 1992 he established the production company STW in partnership with Aleksei Balabanov and Vasilii Grigor'ev. After directing three films in the first half of the 1990s, Sel'ianov devoted himself fully to his work as a producer. Among his productions are some of the most successful Russian films of the last decade: Aleksandr Rogozhkin's Operation "Happy New Year" (1996), Peculiarities of National Hunting (1998), and Checkpoint (1998), Aleksei Balabanov's Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000), Maksim Pezhemskii's Don't Cry, Mommy (1998), and Sergei Bodrov's Sisters (2001).

Producer

2004 The American (Dir. Aleksei Balabanov; in production)
Don't Cry, Mommy-2 (Dir. Maksim Pezhemskii; in production)
The Great Cripple (Dir. Evgenii Iufit; in production)
Old Man Khottabych (Dir. Petr Tochilin; in production)
The Schiz: Fifty-Fifty (Dir. Gul'shad Omarova; in production)
Winter Heat (Dir. Stefan Vouiet)
2003 The Giant (Dir. Aleksandr Kott)
Little Longnose (Dir. Il'ia Maksimov; animation)
2002 All the Vertovs (Dir. Vladimir Napevnyi; documentary)
The Bear's Kiss (Dir. Sergei Bodrov Sr.)
The Cuckoo (Dir. Aleksandr Rogozhkin)
Dreams of Alpheoni (Dir. Vladimir Napevnyi; documentary)
Dziga and His Brothers (Dir. Evgenii Tsymbal; documentary)
Killed by Lightning (Dir. Evgenii Iufit)
Kostroma (Dir. Valerii Surikov)
The River (Dir. Aleksei Balabanov)
The Tale of Fedot the Archer (Dir. Sergei Ovcharov)
Tycoon (Dir. Pavel Lungine)
War (Dir. Aleksei Balabanov)
2001 April (Dir. Konstantin Murzenko)
Sisters (Dir. Sergei Bodrov)
Two Drivers (Dir. Aleksandr Kott)
2000 B-2 (Dir. Igor' Kalenov; documentary)
Brother 2 (Dir. Aleksei Balabanov)
How Brother 2 Was Filmed (Vladimir Nepevnyi; documentary)
Scarecrow (Dir. Aleksandr Kott; short)
1999 Adventures in the Emerald City (Dir. Aleksandr Makarov; animation series)
Best Before… (Dir. Petr Tochilin)
1998 Checkpoint (Dir. Aleksandr Rogozhkin)
Of Freaks and Men (Dir. Aleksei Balabanov)
Peculiarities of National Fishing (Dir. Aleksandr Rogozhkin)
Sergei Eisenstein. Mexican Fantasy (Dir.Oleg Kovalov; documentary)
Silver Heads (Dir. Evgenii Iufit)
1997 Brother (Dir. Aleksei Balabanov)
Don't Cry, Mommy (Dir. Maksim Pezhemskii)
1996 Operation "Happy New Year" (Dir. Aleksandr Rogozhkin)
Sergei Eisenstein. Autobiography (Dir. Oleg Kovalov; documentary)
1995 Not Yet a Time for Sorrow (Dir. Sergei Sel'ianov)
Trofim (Dir. Aleksandr Balabanov; short)
1994 The Castle (Dir. Aleksandr Balabanov)
1993 Battement (Dir. Marina Drozdova)
Sketches on the Civil War (Dir. Petr Soldatenkov; documentary)

Director

1995 Not Yet a Time for Sorrow
The Russian Idea
1990 Day of the Spirit
1988 A Saint's Day

Screenwriter

1995 Trofim (Dir. Aleksandr Balabanov; short)
Not Yet a Time for Sorrow (Dir. Sergei Sel'ianov)
1990 Day of the Spirit (Dir. Sergei Sel'ianov)
2004: Prophets and Gains Debut Films at Pittsburgh Filmmakers STW [СТВ] Film Company Pygmalion Productions NTV-Profit Film Company

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