Academic journal article Shofar

Jews in Soviet Cinema: The Film Commissar by Aleksandr Askol'dov

Academic journal article Shofar

Jews in Soviet Cinema: The Film Commissar by Aleksandr Askol'dov

Article excerpt


The article analyzes the film Commissar (1967) by screenwriter and director Aleksandr Askol'dov. This is a unique film on a Jewish theme for the Soviet screen, which discusses Russian-Jewish relations during the civil war. Although it shows these relations in a completely benevolent light, and a Jewish family helps a pregnant Russian Commissar Klavdiia Vavilova, the movie was banned for over twenty years. Askol'dov demonstrated his personal courage in producing a Jewish themed movie in the hostile atmosphere of state antisemitism in the Soviet Union. However, we should admit that his knowledge about Jews and Jewish life was rather limited. As a devout Orthodox Christian, Askol'dov used many Christian symbols in showing Jewish life, and he depicted the Jewish characters in the movie using stereotypes from Russian literature and culture. The movie acquired a second life during Perestroika, when films that had been shelved for many years were released for the public. In spite of its limited comprehension of Jewish life, the film received recognition due to its humanistic message, the strong performances of the popular Soviet actors, and the artistic camerawork.

The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.

-Jeremiah 31:29

Screening of the film Commissar (1967) by screenwriter and director Aleksandr Askol'dov was forbidden in the Soviet Union for over twenty years. The main reason for the film's ban was its Jewish theme. Commissar depicts Russian-Jewish relations during the civil war. The film generated great controversy on its first screening. Simultaneously antisemites considered the film Jewish and Jews considered it antisemitic; Russians thought it was anti-Russian; and the Soviet authorities complained that the film misrepresented the Bolsheviks during the civil war. Several scholarly articles have been published about Commissar, but they all focus on its plot and the image of the main character, Commissar Klavdiia Vavilova, giving significantly less attention to the Jewish images in the film.1 I hope to fill this gap and to describe the history of the film's creation, which is no less interesting and dramatic than the film itself. I will show how Askol'dov succeeded in simultaneously dissatisfying so many different audiences and why they did not accept the film.

The article also shows the efforts of the liberal Soviet intelligentsia of the 1960s (the so-called shestidesiatniki) to rethink the Soviet past, including interethnic relations in the Soviet Union, and to at least somewhat rectify the horrible injustice toward Jews by returning Jewish themes to the arts and literature. The shestidesiatniki believed that overcoming the injustice toward Jews, both state and popular antisemitism, was the way to create a more tolerant and more liberal Soviet society. They shared a romantic and naïve belief in the possibility of creating a more humane socialist society. One of them was Askol'dov, whose personal history will help us better understand his film Commissar.

eCho oF the Civil war

During the anticosmopolitan campaign in the Soviet Union in 1946-1953 all Jewish national life was forbidden, the remaining Jewish national and cultural institutions were closed and many Jewish public figures and intellectuals were arrested and executed.2 However, the political climate became milder during Khrushchev's Thaw. The most rabid expressions of antisemitism, such as the late Stalinist "Doctors' Plot," were denounced by the government. But state antisemitism persisted in a more covert form until Gorbachev's Perestroika. Jews remained subject to many forms of discrimination and were not accepted into prestigious universities and highranking positions. Jewish national life was suppressed: there were no Jewish schools or organizations in the USSR. The attitude toward Jews was as to a fifth column, as covert Zionists and potential traitors of the socialist Motherland. …

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