Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Wild East

America and Russia have always resembled one another. Most importantly, the concept of manifest destiny isn't unique to America; Russians think of Siberia in much the same way as Americans think of the Wild West. The "frontier myth" is central to both national identities. In Andrei Konchalovsky's lengthy epic, Siberiade, we get the chance to examine the Russian version of an American cinema cliche up close.

Like the American film, Giant, Siberiade revolves around the quest to open up Siberia by drilling for oil. Beginning in tsarist Russia, the film tracks several generations of Russian frontiersmen (and their love interests) and ends with the discovery of oil in the modern era. It also interweaves this local story of a small and fragile outpost of civilization with that of the broader Russian-or rather Soviet-narrative of progress.

Near this tiny village one man spends his life in a seemingly Sisyphean struggle to carve out a road in the Siberian taiga. But his heroic struggle is a metaphor for the larger Soviet story of development. Throughout the film the director inserts historical footage, or classic black and white film footage that appears to be historical footage, to remind viewers that throughout each of the decades that the film covers, the Soviet Union represents the almost Hegelian ideal of progress, movement, technological innovation, hard work, heroism, and forward motion.

If this small group of Siberians eventually discovers the oil that transforms a wilderness into a "Sun City" of economic sophistication and industrial power, the nation as a whole was experiencing this same metamorphosis on a truly Titanic scale. As the film nears its climax, it's interesting to note that Party officials and bureaucrats (rather than the entrepreneurs and capitalists of American mythology) play a decisive role. Although it's an ordinary driller who heroically throws himself into a harm's way in an attempt to close down a burning oil well, it's a regional party boss who defends the project by asking his superior, perhaps a member of the Central Committee, to remember how, in World War II, the two men used to take "risks" in order to defeat the Germans. Thus, even in 1979, the era of stagnation, the Party's leadership is cinematically represented by intelligent, even daring, apparatchiks. Although Party leaders and politicians honor the workers who make things happen on the ground, it is they who should and do make the future happen in Siberia.

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