Thursday, June 7, 2012

Hollywood and the Return of the Cold War

Recently Hollywood released three major movies which all have Russians as the “bad guys” and which focus on the Cold War as their context. Meryl Streep portrays Cold Warrior Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” Gary Oldman roots out a dangerous Soviet mole from the British intelligence service in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” and Tom Cruise works furiously to prevent a Cold War-style nuclear exchange between America and Russia in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.”

As Jason Apuzzo, Co-Editor of “Libertas Film Magazine,” notes in his article in The Huffington Post (January 13, 2012): “These films form part of a major Hollywood trend toward reawakening memories of the Cold War – an era that is suddenly returning with a vengeance on the big screen, with long-term implications for our popular culture.”

Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” tells the story of legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s running battle against the Communist Party’s infiltration of the United States and a whole series of Blu-rays are now available of films made in 2011, a watershed year in Hollywood for portraying the struggle between America and the Soviet Union – such as “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Apollo 18,” and “The Kennedys.”

Apuzzo asks the obvious question: What’s going on here? His response: “The simplest answer may be that the old Soviet Union is gradually replacing Nazi Germany, Imperial Rome and space aliens as Hollywood’s favorite antagonists.” He points out that Hollywood is hesitant to make films about today’s war on terror and memories of the Second World War have faded. This leaves strong-armed Russian leaders as the new safe, consensus villains.

This trend began in 2008, Apuzzo notes, with “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which featured Soviet Communists as the enemy. This sent a signal to the left-of-center filmmakers that depicting Communists as villains was okay now. Soon to follow was Angelina Jolie pursuing Soviet agents in “Salt,” Ed Harris and Colin Farrell escaping a brutal Soviet gulag in “The Way Back,” and Richard Gere and Martin Sheen hunting down a Russian mole in “The Double.” With more to follow!

While the Russians are not the only villains in American films – they are sometimes replaced by the Chinese or North Koreans, as in the remake of “Red Dawn” – the Cold War revival in film signals an important shift among Hollywood filmmakers. In previous decades, filmmakers often depicted the Cold War as a struggle between two paranoid nations who had distorted images of each other. Ronald Reagan was often portrayed in this way. American militarism was to blame for the conflict with the Soviets, as is clear in “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), and American paranoia was made light of in ‘The Russians Are Coming, the Russians are Coming” (1966).

Newer, younger filmmakers seem less ideologically driven, according to Apuzzo, and they see the Cold War as fertile ground for storytelling – particularly stories about the struggle for freedom. They are assuming that they can create film plots for younger people than will attract them in the same way World War Two films drew in the older generation.

Filmmakers see a link between the Communist governments of the last century and the new repressive regimes of today. President Putin, a former KGB officer, who is now in charge of Russia and authoritarian Communist regimes in China and North Korea make easy targets in a world were popular revolutions against dictators are happening in the Middle East and northern Africa.

The trend is now moving to TV as well. Apuzzo reports that both HBO and FX are developing competing series about Soviet spies in the United States and HBO has another series in development about Cold war spies in Berlin.

As we witnessed during the height of the Cold War, the media in Russia is a mirror-image of that in the United States. Anti-American propaganda is widespread in Russia today, but the difference is that Russian TV and movies are largely controlled and funded by the Kremlin, whereas Hollywood filmmakers are independent and are not controlled by the party in power in the White House.

The power of popular culture, especially images generated by the film industries in both countries, makes the task of building constructive relations between America and Russia even more challenging. People-to-people networking through organizations like the Russian-American Institute is as important now as it was during the difficult days of the Cold War.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

“Hoover’s Boys” in the USSR – The Forgotten Rescue

ARA Relief Truck
Ninety years ago, Russia experienced a famine that was one of the greatest human disasters in Europe since the Black Death of the mid-14th century. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Civil War, a terrible famine devastated Russia and for two years (1921-22) hunger and disease spread rapidly across the country from the major cities in the West to the Pacific Coast.

Most people, including Russians and Americans, have little knowledge of this famine and the American relief effort that was extended to Russia, despite the hostility that existed between the two countries after the Communist Party toppled the Romanov dynasty. It is a little known fact that Herbert Hoover, head of the American Relief Administration (ARA) at that time, managed an emergency food program that saved more lives than any person in history.

The Story Now Told 

Stanford University Professor Bertrand Patenaude did years of research to document this amazing feat by the American government coming right on the heels of the end of World War I. The author’s hero is Herbert Hoover, who is often criticized for his early Depression-era presidency. Hoover, a Stanford graduate who earned a degree in geology and later traveled the world as a mining engineer, was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson’s administration to help organize relief efforts for 7 million Belgians who were living under German occupation. Once the war ended, the United States was asked to feed millions of people in 21 war-torn countries and Hoover was invited to lead the newly created American Relief Administration.

In July 1921, Herbert Hoover received a plea for food aid from the Russian novelist, Maxim Gorky -- a plea sent to other Western nations as well -- and Hoover responded immediately with a promise of support. Hoover and his colleagues, however, were not prepared for what they discovered about the new Soviet Union. While the famine that began in 1921 resulted from the destruction from the First World War and the subsequent violence of the revolution and the civil war that followed, it was made worse when the Bolshevik leadership began a mass requisitioning of grain. As the rural areas were stripped of their grain, the death toll rapidly mounted and 100,000 people a week died. Soviet estimates from the 1920s claim that somewhere between 5-10 million people lost their lives in the famine.

The first American relief ships arrived in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in September 1921, and the relief workers were some of the first foreigners to witness the devastation caused by the 1917 revolution and the civil war that followed. They were shocked to find a badly fractured railway system, a mistrustful Bolshevik government that spied on American relief workers, and famine that was threatening the lives of up to 16 million people by the winter of 1921.

The “Hoover Boys” 

ARA Supply Caravan, 1922
When Hoover realized the extent of the crisis and heard widespread reports of cannibalism, he convinced the U.S. Congress to approve the purchase of $20 million worth of corn and wheat to feed starving Russians. Over 300 relief workers, called the “Hoover Boys,” arrived in the Soviet Union to assess the food needs and logistical challenges, and to build storehouses for the millions of bushels of corn and tons of seed which began to arrive in early 1922 and were shipped across the Russian heartland.

By August 1922, the ARA and its “Hoover Boys” were feeding nearly 11 million Russians a day in 19,000 food kitchens. The ARA also hired 120,000 Soviet citizens to help distribute the food. One survivor said: “People used to call that food ‘America,’ so we were handed out ‘America’ . . . My father used to say, ‘See, the Americans did the right thing, sent us help.’”

In July 1922, Maxim Gorky wrote Hoover to praise him for this remarkable relief effort. He wrote: “Your help will enter history as a unique, gigantic achievement, worthy of the greatest glory, which will long remain in the memory of millions of Russians who you have saved from death.” But that, of course, did not happen. Soviet leaders wanted to forget this tragic episode in their history and subsequently accused the Americans of sending spies into Russia to commit sabotage under the guise of kindness.

Professor Patenaude spent 14 years researching this forgotten piece of Russian-American history and his book, The Big Show in Bololand (which is what the “Hoover Boys” liked to call Bolshevik Russia), lays out this remarkable humanitarian effort, a relief mission largely unknown to the people of both countries.

* PBS has a 60-minute DVD entitled “The Great Famine” that tells the story of the ARA relief effort in Russia with graphic film footage.

** For a story of a related rescue mission to save hundreds of Russian children during this time, see my “Reflection on Russia” posted on January 26, 2012, and entitled “The Story of a Secret Rescue Mission.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Modern Russian Masterpiece: “The Master and Margarita”

Mikhail Bulgakov
One of the most popular books among Russians in the 1990s was Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, first published in late 1966 and early 1967 – 26 years after the author’s death. As I traveled to Russia and visited many university campuses during this period, I often asked Russian students: “What is your favorite book?”  I was astonished at how many times I heard, “Why, of course, The Master and Margarita!”   I know several Russian students who have read this book more than twenty times.  Can you imagine?  Do you know any American college student who has read any modern novel more than five times?  The affection for Bulgakov is deeply rooted.  One young Russian literature professor told me: The Master and Margarita is a perfect book.  You cannot subtract one word from this book.  You cannot add one word to this book. It is perfect!”

The Author: Bulgakov

First some background on Bulgakov.  Mikhail Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891, the son of a professor at the Kiev Theological Academy.  He was trained as a medical doctor, but abandoned his medical practice after two years in order to devote his life to writing.  He chose to remain in Russia after the revolution of 1917, accepting Bolshevik rule but not actively supporting the Communist regime.  Bulgakov was one of the first Russian writers to be censored by the Communist authorities.  By the mid-1920s, his novels and plays were banned, barred from both publication and theater performance.  Although he is one of Russia’s greatest writers of the 20th century, Bulgakov did not see a single line of his work published during  the last thirteen years of his life.

Despite the censorship and the humiliations that accompanied it, Bulgakov labored for twelve years on his greatest work, The Master and Margarita.  Although ill and often suffering from nervous exhaustion, he wrote ands rewrote this novel without any hope that it would be published – at least in his lifetime.  He died in 1940.  Twenty-six years later, Bulgakov’s crowning achievement was finally published in Moscow and it immediately became an international best-seller.  Now, more than thirty-six years after its publication, the book’s influence continues.  What is there about this book which has led to such lavish praise and such heated debates about its meaning?

The Storyline

The Master and Margarita is a complex novel which masterfully weaves together three different plots.  The first plot is about Satan’s visit to Moscow in the person of Professor Woland, a professor of black magic who, together with his accomplices, wreaks havoc on the capital city.  In the chapters which tell the story of Woland’s adventures in Moscow, Bulgakov cleverly ridicules life under Communist rule with its crass materialistic philosophy.  The second plot is the story of the confrontation between Pontius Pilate and Yeshus Ha-Notsri,  a figure resembling Jesus but with enough differences from the Gospel narratives to leave some doubt.  These four chapters, dispersed among the thirty-four, are worth the price of the book, in my judgment.  The third plot is indicated in the book’s title and concerns the relationship between a weak passive young man and his girlfriend.

A Brief Sampler

The first chapter opens with a meeting between the editor of an important Russian literary journal and a young poet who writes under the pen name of Homeless.  The two meet in a park to discuss a project in which the journal editor has commissioned the poet to write a long anti-religious poem denying the existence of Jesus.  After awhile, they are joined by a stranger (Satan in the person of Professor Woland) who rudely interrupts their conversation.

 “Forgive my importunity, but I understood that, in addition to all else, you  don’t believe in God either?” Woland asks in a hushed voice.

 “No, we do not believe in God.” Berlioz (the editor) replies.

 “You are atheists?” asks Professor Woland, throwing himself back against the  park bench.

 “Yes, we are atheists,” Berlioz responds.  “In our country atheism does not  surprise anyone.  Most of our population is intelligent and enlightened, and  has long since ceased to believe the fairy tales about God.”

 The conversation continues about proofs of God’s existence until Professor  Woland says: “But what troubles me is this: If there is no God, then, you  might ask, who governs the life of men and, generally, the entire situation  here on earth?”

 The young poet Homeless hastily responds: “Man himself governs it.”

 “Sorry,” the stranger responded mildly, “But in order to govern, it is, after all,  necessary to have a definite plan for at least a fairly decent period of time.   Allow me to ask you, then, how man can govern if he cannot plan for even so  ridiculously short a span as a thousand years or so, if, in fact, he cannot  guarantee his own next day?”
The first chapter concludes as Professor Woland leans over and whispers to Berlioz and Homeless, “And keep in mind that Jesus existed . . . There is no need for points of view. . .  He simply existed, that is all. . .  There is no need for proof, either.”

A Sign of Hope

I agree with Calvin College professor Edward Ericson’s judgment, despite some opposing views by other literary critics, that “The Master and Margarita is Mikhail Bulgakov’s spiritual – specifically Christian – testament.”  The bottom line is this: only fools believe that they live in a world without God.  Bulgakov creatively uses the reality of Satan to prove the existence of Jesus.  No wonder the Communist Party banned this book for so long!

I find much hope in the fact that this book was a favorite of Russian university students in the 1990s, but I am less sure about its popularity now.  It is in the richness of Russia’s literary heritage, with its deep Christian spirituality, that a moral foundation can be rediscovered upon which the New Russia can be built.  Western secularism is no answer.  An enlightened and revitalized Christian faith, separated from the power of the state, is the best hope for Russia’s future.

* Revised text: originally published in August 1994.