What Does a Russian Soul Sing About?: Marina Goldovskaya's 'Three Songs About Motherland'
In the 1960s, Marina
Goldovskaya became one of the then-Soviet Union's
pre-eminent cinematographers and documentary filmmakers. Everyone awaited the
work of this seemingly fragile woman, who was filled with strong passion and
determination, ready to walk through the proverbial fire to capture a unique
cinematic glimpse of life's truths. She has since made dozens of films and
mentored numerous young filmmakers, both in Russia
and in the United States,
where she has lived for the past dozen years.
At the 1989 International
Documentary FilmFestival Amsterdam (IDFA), she received the special Jury Award
for her film Solovki Power, a
chronicle of one of the most terrible of Stalin's labor camps in the north of Russia. In 2000,
she won the IDA Award--Honorable Mention for her film The Prince Is Back.
The 2008 IDFA featured
Goldovskaya's new film, Three Songs About
Motherland, the title of which must certainly evoke Dziga Vertov's poetic
work, Three Songs About Lenin, which
was posthumously dedicated to the leader of the Russian Revolution. Vertov
believed that Lenin was venerated unanimously across the vast sprawl of the Soviet Union, but by the early 1930s, Stalin had rejected
the work as contrary to his own "cult of personality."
Set firmly in the
present, Goldovskaya's film is a three-part look at her native land, each of
which showcases the filmmaker's understanding, or perhaps her emotions, about
Russia's convoluted history, which is often difficult to grasp, from without
and from within.
The first "song" is called "The City of
Dreams," and is dedicated to those brave souls who built the Far East city of
Komsomolsk-on-Amur, as part of Stalin's industrialization directive. Located
near Khabarovsk, Komsomolsk-on-Amur was created literally in the middle of
nowhere, in a frozen land, both by those who bought into the heroic, albeit hollow,
dream of the "new Soviet World," and
by labor camp prisoners. Full of faith, those young men
and women built a new society, a new city and a new airplane factory, where
numerous bomber planes were subsequently constructed and used in World War II.
Now, these once-hopeful dreamers look back on a life they recall as filled with
meaning and purpose, rather than hardship. Even with the rise of the Stalinist
repressions, as many of their numbers ended up in the labor camps, they recall
"delicious" porridge. Even 1937, the horrible year that began the wave of
purges, is remembered as "wonderful," as it brought the end of food ration cards and
was marked by a plethora of rare-to-find items in the stores. One of the subjects of the film recalls
the unjust execution of his 32-year old father, but still thinks that life was interesting and
fruitful "back then." Another still somehow idolizes Stalin, citing Churchill's admiration for the
man who created a "nuclear power" out of an agrarian state.
Songs About Motherland.
Of course, the old timers are sorry for those
innocents who suffered, but these builders of a new society still firmly
believe that the goals justified the means, and the end result of the "city of Communist
Dreams" was worth any personal troubles. And so, the passionate builders of Komsomolsk-on-Amur
don't pay much attention to the deaths of some of the political prisoners that
occurred during that process, thinking of it as "collateral damage." Those
builders of a new Soviet life cling to their youthful enthusiasm, thinking of themselves
as heroes who helped the USSR
win a terrible world war. They toiled so very hard to build "their" country that
they remain eternal Soviet patriots, proud of this historic past and disgusted
and appalled by the "new Russia"
and its "crookedness."
The second "song," "City
of Tears," is dedicated to Moscow, Russia's
historic and cosmopolitan capital city. In the present, as in the past, those
who looked too hard at some of the city's ugly truths are eliminated, snuffed
out without any retribution, as was the case with Anna Politkovskaya, the
heroine of "City of Tears."
Politkovskaya, a fearless journalist and human rights activist, was brutally
murdered in her quest to bring to light the truths of the Chechen conflict-truths,
which, sadly enough, as Putin has said, no longer interest anyone. History has
a very selective memory, after all. And so, watching the video interviews with
the honest, pleasant, noble Politkovskaya and her relatives, the viewer
cringes, seeing the mortal danger that her activities have placed her in. But
her soul, despite everything, yearned for the truth; as the poets said, "Truth
was more important," and became the guiding light of Politkovskaya's life
story, taking her beyond a failed marriage and a passionate love affair with a
It seems that all the
hopes and dreams of modern Russia
are concentrated in the third "song," dedicated to Khanty-Mansijsk,
one of the main centers of Siberia's budding oil industry, also in the Far East. Perhaps it is this city that holds within it
the greatest hopes of a prosperous future to a wholly modern population. The
ever-increasing birth rate might be the most obvious testament to this fact, a
wholly Russian hope of a brighter tomorrow. The city's residents, some of them
elderly descendents of past political prisoners held in labor camps nearby, are
proud of their patriotism and their involvement in World War II, just as they
are proud of their own children, who do not want to trade the "City of the
Future" for any other.
A strange loyalty to a
variable, and yet uniquely Russian, patriotism unites the three disparate
cities in Goldovskaya's triptych, each of which showcases a disparate social
strata or historic period. The film keenly shows the filmmaker's wonder as
Goldovskaya chronicles the stories of her people. The film is Goldovskaya's
passionate attempt to try to define the Russian national character, which is
very difficult to encapsulate, but remains pure and true. Indeed, a unique
truth is at the heart of this national character, paid for over many years by a
passionate people, in blood, sweat and tears. This timeless truth is as
indelible, as illogical and sometimes as misplaced as the themes in Vertov's Three Songs About Lenin, which managed
to glorify Lenin during a time when this hero of the revolution had already
fallen by Stalin's wayside.
In concluding this reflection on Marina
Goldovskaya's Three Songs About
Motherland, it is especially important to highlight the keen and delicate
psychological portraits of the film's different participants, all of whom are
united by the similar emotions brought on by the wonderful songs of contemporary singer Élena Kamburova, which serve as a
leitmotif that unites these three separate stories into one spiritual whole.
Surkova graduated and received her PhD degree from the Moscow State Film School,
founded by Sergey Eisenstein. Her thesis was on Ingmar Bergman. She has published
four books on Andrey Tarkovsky, and she is currently writing a book on a
notorious Russian film director Vadim Abdrashitov. Surkova lives and works in Amsterdam,