By August Hagemann
On Wednesday, April 12, 2017, Miami University’s Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies screened the fourth and final film in its series on the Russian Revolution in contemporary Russian cinema, Angels of Revolution (Angely Revolyutsii), directed by Aleksey Fedorchenko. This film tells the story of a group of avant-garde Soviet artists sent to the remote Khanty tribe in Siberia as part of a Soviet government push to create a homogenous revolutionary culture throughout the country. Elements of the avant-garde are present in the film itself, with flashbacks and non-linear storytelling featuring heavily into how Fedorchenko chooses to tell the story and convey his message.
And a powerful message it is – especially for a film aimed at art-house audiences. Fedorchenko takes some artistic liberty regarding the beginning of the Khanty revolt against the Soviet government, linking it to the attempts these artists made to change Khanty culture rather than to forced collectivization as was actually the case. But in doing so, he is able to cast a piercing negative light on an idea that was prevalent during the Russian Revolutionary period, the idea that avant-garde art could somehow elevate the human spirit and achieve the utopia envisioned by the Bolsheviks. The artists sent to “enlighten” the Khanty with their work instead sparked a rebellion and were killed, which in turn resulted in Soviet military forces being sent to the Khanty, all but wiping them out completely. Fedorchenko foreshadows this final message early on in the film with the character of Ivan, an artist who refuses to accompany the others to the Khanty. Ivan says he is a composer now, and does not want to hold a gun anymore. When he is told he wouldn’t have to hold a gun, that he can focus on bringing his music to the Khanty, he dismisses the claim entirely, and begins discussing a project he’s worked on recently. Ivan is aware of the fact that Soviet art and utopia is never accepted willingly, and that if he volunteers to bring avant-garde art to the Khanty, he must inevitably bring them guns as well.
The results of this violence eventually visited upon the Khanty by the Soviet government are made clear in the final scenes of the movie. After depicting the military elimination of Khanty culture, the film concludes with a shot of an old woman, who is revealed to have been the first Khanty baby born in a Soviet hospital, singing a popular song about Soviet utopia and the virtues of a Soviet citizen. Though the attempts to change Khanty culture through art made through the duration of the entire movie ended in death for those who tried, the seven minutes of violence at the very end of the film were enough to establish Soviet culture as the dominant culture in the region.
By juxtaposing such force and such artistic idealism, Fedorchenko is able to comment on a central phenomenon of the Russian Revolution. Though the Bolsheviks spoke at length of how the proletarians of the world could come together, overthrow their oppressors, and build a better world, the reality was that government mandates often proved ineffectual. The Cheka and the Red Army found themselves working to achieve Bolshevik aims far more often than the workers and peasants of Russia did. Avant-garde artists are an especially apt group for depicting this reality – they dreamed of using their new-style art to raise public consciousness above the level of the past, to something greater. But it never caught on. The thriving Russian avant-garde movement of the early 1920’s was a shadow of its former self by the 1930’s, as it had proved far less able than force to achieve Bolshevik aims. In Angels of Revolution, Aleksey Fedorchenko captures this tragic inability of the avant-garde to rise to its own level, and the tragic violence that took its place.
August Hagemann is a first year at Miami majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.