Magazine article History Today

A Soldier's Tale from Khrushchev's USSR

Magazine article History Today

A Soldier's Tale from Khrushchev's USSR

Article excerpt

Born in the Ukraine in 1921, Grigori Chukhrai has a prominent place in Soviet cultural history by virtue of his position in the new wave of more open film-making that emerged after Stalin's death.

Chukhrai (left) first came to prominence in 1956 with his film The 41, which was an outspoken critique of the `hero-cults' of Stalinism; but perhaps his most prominent and controversial work was that produced three years later - The Ballad of A Soldier in which he drew on his own experiences as a young soldier in the Second World War - he was at the siege of Stalingrad.

Here he talks - in an article originally prepared for History Today's Russian counterpart, Rodina - about the background to the controversy and what it reveals about the tensions between individual creativity and toeing the party line and the pressures faced as the Soviet Union slowly emerged in the late 1950s from the shadow of Stalinism.

Both the fiftieth anniversary of the Great Patriotic War and the centenary of the cinema mean a lot to me, because I was a soldier during the war, and the films which I made were born of thoughts experienced during that time.

Drawing on the terrible stories of Stalinism, many people have formed a false image of the reasons why the Russians went to war. They think that our generation was driven into the army with sticks, or at least by fear. Nothing of the sort. Many different people ended up in the army at that time, even those who had suffered from Stalinism but understood that their place was in the war. I managed to portray some of this attitude in my films Ballad of a Soldier and Tryasina, but was not able to show as much as I would have liked, due to the political situation at the time.

I had always wanted to make a film about Stalingrad. I felt, somehow, that I had been preparing all my life to do it, but I was unsuccessful in getting funds and the army's help for the filming. Since the Arts Council of the USSR was politically controlled, the scenario of my film, Ballad of a Soldier, did not meet with a favourable reception.

I remember when Alexander Sergeyevich Fedorov, who was in charge of the production section of the Cinematography Council, summoned me for a cordial, comradely discussion. He told me, `You see, you have already made an important film, The Forty-First, but now you've turned to something ephemeral which doesn't deal with a real problem. Please understand, I wouldn't advise you to produce this film'. He did not want to discuss this with me in his office, however, and invited me to the canteen, bought me a coffee and tried, unofficially, to talk me out of the film. `You understand', he told me, `that there was Stalingrad, you took part in the battle for Stalingrad; and there was Auschwitz and the camps. But you are talking here about a soldier repairing the roof, Mum and Dad, and the girls and boys - that's a trifling theme'. However, I insisted and Fedorov gave in. `All right, he finally agreed,' I promise you that I won't defend your film, but neither will I say anything against it'.

During this period Nikolai Sergeyevich Khrushchev was in power - and in one speech he turned his attention to aesthetic questions. He talked about art; how it should reflect the contemporary relevance and beauty of Russia; and, if you went to your dacha in the country and saw spruce trees covered in hoarfrost, how beautiful it was. But he also complained that artists had not been portraying that sort of realism.

After that speech the question of Ballad of a Soldier came up at a large Party meeting in Moscow, where I was reproached for not dealing with the themes the Party asked us to concentrate on. The Arts Council did, however, allow me to make the film, but without much enthusiasm.

Early on opposition appeared in my film crew. At that time making films which contradicted official aesthetics was unacceptable and my scripts and film-takes, therefore, aroused the hostility of many people on the set, particularly the experienced ones. …

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