Monday, November 14, 2011

The Soviet Pursuit of Happiness

"Fortune forever refuses my company."

"Who gave you permission to die all alone? Who gave you the right to an improvised death?"

"If the moujik dies, who will feed Russia?"

Having recently watched Chris Marker's excellent documentary about Alexander Medvedkin, The Last Bolshevik, I was eager to see Medvedkin's 1934 silent masterpiece, Happiness. The quirky film is filled with folklore allusions, slapstick comedy, visual jokes, and satirical depictions of every level of Ukrainian society. In this rural comedy, we see half-naked nuns, watermelon projectiles, a polka dot horse, a woman attached to a tilling harness, a runaway tractor, and dueling holy persons.

According to Marker's film, Happiness was deeply controversial with leading Bolsheviks. It's not difficult to see why: while Medvedkin's Happiness isn't overtly critical of collectivization, the surreal film treats peasants as the subject rather than the object of history. while satirizing almost every aspect of Soviet village life, the hero of Happiness, Khymr, dreams anti-socialist dreams that revolve around food, kingly privileges, and private ownership in an era of mass starvation. While not a kulak or counter-revolutionary, Khymer wasn't originally drawn to the kolkhoz, as prosperous as this kolkhoz turns out to be. Rather, Khymer wants what all peasants want: independence.

Like millions of other peasants who resisted collectivization, we suspect that the impoverished but absurdly stubborn Khymer might risk his own life rather than embrace a Soviet-style version of happiness. At any rate, the transition from Tsarism to Communism did not magically transmogrify Khymer's hardships. Nor did they alter the existential facts of Khymer's life struggle. Khymer, the Ukrainian peasant, confronts his myriad enemies--police, clergymen, bureaucrats, thieves, and soldiers--alone.

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