Perennial Dilemmas of Ukraine's Struggle for Freedom: Oleksandr Dovzhenko's "Arsenal"

October 2, 2017
Shevchuk Calendar

Shevchuk CalendarKicking off HURI's series "Ukraine in the Flames of the 1917 Revolution" onWednesday, October 18, Yuri Shevchuk will lead a discussion of Oleksandr Dovzhenko's Arsenal following a free screening of the film. Shevchuk is a lecturer in the Department of Slavic Languages at Columbia University, as well as the founder and director the University's Ukrainian Film Club

To give us some insight about the importance of Dovzhenko and Arsenal, particularly in the context of commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, Shevchuk answered a few questions. All are welcome to attend the event.

HURI: Why is film a valuable lens through which to examine historical topics, such as revolution? And why did you choose Arsenal?

Shevchuk: There are many reasons that explain the great importance of film as a lens to examine history. Even though film is conspicuously absent from Benedict Anderson’s list of tools used for an initially disparate collectivity to begin viewing itself as a nation, it is my opinion that we should recognize the important role cinema played in forming modern identities both collective and individual.

In the case of Ukraine and the Soviet Union, filmmaking was actively used not so much to reflect as above all to write and re-write history, to create heroes and villains, who more often than not had a very tenuous relationship to reality. Generations of Soviet citizens grew up under the powerful formative influence of film and internalized the ideas, attitudes, stereotypes, values, assessments and even the specific language it propounded. While we are marking the 100th anniversary of the Ukrainian struggle for independence, Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s Arsenal offers us a unique opportunity to appreciate this identity- and myth-generating function of cinema.

The film was made at the time (November, 1929) when Soviet totalitarianism had not yet come into full force and an artist was still in a position to engage with narratives that would later simply vanish from the Soviet screen or become taboos. One such tabooed narrative is the Ukrainian nation as the subject and not merely object of history. Dovzhenko first articulated this view in his previous historiosophical and highly controversial picture, Zvenyhora (1928). It was nothing short of revolutionary to represent the events around the pro-Russian counter-revolutionary uprising at the Kyiv Arsenal plant as a manifestation of exactly the political agency exercised by Ukrainians against Ukrainians that would be taken away by Soviet censorship in a matter of years.

In the context of the current events in Ukraine, and particularly the ongoing Russian military aggression and hybrid warfare, Arsenal becomes almost painfully topical and pertinent as it addresses head-on the perennial dilemmas of the Ukrainian struggle for freedom, including issues that are yet again hotly debated now: What is the relationship between social and national interests? How should one define one’s enemy – in cultural, linguistic, religious, social or any other terms? Is every Russian an enemy of Ukraine? What makes a Ukrainian a Ukrainian? What should the Ukrainian national identity be? These are only some of the issues that Dovzhenko makes us confront in Arsenal. A hundred years after the first Russian-Ukrainian War, Ukrainians still are faced with them and in a way that is no less dramatic in the context of yet another Russian attempt to destroy and re-conquer Ukraine.

Dovzhenko Oleksander 1950sHURI: Who was Dovzhenko and what is his legacy in film and in Soviet studies? What did his Ukrainian nationality mean to him? Has perception of him and his work changed over time?

Shevchuk: Dovzhenko is hands down the most influential filmmaker in the history of Ukraine. By many accounts, even today he invariably figures among the ten to twenty greatest film directors of all time and all nations. He has been written about in Ukraine, Russia and the West more than any other Ukrainian filmmaker and yet we are only in the initial stages of appreciating his wide-ranging impact not only on film, but in a larger sense of what it means to be a modern nation with a past, its place in the contemporary world and a vision of the future. Dovzhenko’s film are the primary source of the Ukrainian poetic cinema of the 1960s, exemplified by such directors as Sarkis Parajaniants (Sergei Pardzhanov), Yuri Illienko, Leonid Osyka, Ivan Mykolaychuk, and the films made as recently as in the 2000s by Oles Sanin.

Dovzhenko is impossible to understand without and outside his Ukrainian nationalism (or call it patriotism). Yet his art appeals to all humankind because through his love of his people and homeland, he speaks to universal values and eternal conundrums of human condition such as love and death, individual and collective, nation and class, self-sacrifice in the name of a great cause, humanity and nature. His Ukrainianness makes these generally sounding universals touchingly intimate, specific, and capable of engaging everybody, irrespective of their nationality, culture, and language. Some of his images are truly enduring, like the famous apples under the sun-lit rain or the wise, old man peaceably transitioning from life to eternity without a hint of fear on his face. As a true genius, Dovzhenko remains acutely pertinent to how we see ourselves and how we relate to nature.

His films often demonstrate a dramatic tension between his love of country and his instinct of survival that drove his desire to stay within the prescribed tenets of the Bolshevik ideology of class struggle and the dominance of the social over the national. Remember Vladimir Lenin’s famous “Proletariat has no homeland.” Dovzhenko did have a homeland he loved and he had a major problem hiding it. In fact, he did not even try to hide his love for Ukraine. Arsenal amply exemplifies the tension between his nationalism and the communist ideology he was expected to propagate. For example, in Arsenal he depicts the historic scene of the celebration of Ukraine’s independence on St. Sophia Square in Kyiv in highly ambivalent terms. We see a mass jubilation bordering on euphoric hysteria – Kyivans flood the space between St. Sophia and St. Michael’s Cathedrals: clergy, common people, students, soldiers, leaders of the Ukrainian government the Central Rada. But the protagonist of the film, Tymish views the whole thing in a distinctly ironic cue. As if to foreground his reservations, a college student climbs the equestrian monument to the hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, traditionally considered the father of Ukrainian statehood, and before waving his hand in exhilaration, blows his nose and wipes it against the hetman’s horse’s mane.

Dovzhenko’s perception has indeed changed over time, as we learn facts of his life that have been unknown for reasons of official censorship, Dovzhenko’s and his wife Yuliya Sontseva's self-censorship, and others. His personal archives were finally unsealed as late as 2012. During the Soviet period, facts of his early participation in the Ukrainian national revolution and fight against the Russian Bolsheviks were silenced and the influence of his Ukrainian identity and nationalism on his films was not discussed in earnest by scholars. This is but one important aspect of Dovzhenko’s perception that the world is beginning to engage with. There are others.

HURI: How about interpretation of the film at the time it was produced versus in more recent times: Has its perceived meaning and message changed with historical perspective?

Shevchuk: Dovzhenko’s previous film Zvenyhora was a very challenging viewing experience as it did not follow the rules of traditional realistic narrative or the demands of communist ideology and propaganda. The contemporary viewer found it difficult to follow its complex structure loaded with rich, often overwhelming imagery, historical and cultural allusions, and temporal discontinuities. In that sense Arsenal is much easier, simpler, and more streamlined--at first glance, that is.

With its politically orthodox interpretation of the “Bolshevik Revolution” in Ukraine, Arsenal established Dovzhenko’s credentials as an ideologically reliable filmmaker, favored, if only temporarily, by the Kremlin. On its theatrical release, the film had either a favorable, mixed, or even critical reception depending on who you asked. For example, the Odesa regional Communist Party Committee, in its praise of the film, claimed that audiences at special closed screenings responded to it with enthusiasm. Joseph Stalin himself allegedly liked Arsenal, calling it “a real revolutionary romantic film.” The majority of Ukrainian and Russian critics also liked and hailed it as an achievement of Ukrainian filmmaking and a realistic portrayal of the revolution. Detractors were mostly Ukrainian intellectuals and men of letters who criticized Dovzhenko for his “insensitive” treatment of Ukrainian nationalist sentiments, inaccuracies in the portrayal of historical events, and a “retreat from the Ukrainian national theme.”

As Dovzhenko himself later recalled, many Ukrainian intellectuals misunderstood his intentions and denounced the film as a crude satire of the Ukrainian nationalism, a hyperbole of the revolution, a brutal and vulgar treatment of the country’s still very painful wound. Dovzhenko clearly exaggerated the severity of the nationalist criticism of the film trying to present himself as a loyal soldier of the party, while seeking its membership in 1939. Arsenal was not a box-office hit. In the industrial city of Dnipropetrovsk its attendance was so poor that it had to be replaced in the middle of the week by a foreign-produced “movie with a plot and intrigue to it.”

arsenalHURI: What do people need to know as background (historical and otherwise) before watching the film? Are there any symbols or metaphors we should watch for?

Shevchuk: Arsenal was meant to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the so-called October Revolution (1917), which for Ukraine meant a war of colonial re-conquest by Moscow. In addition to Dovzhenko, other great film directors participated in the ideological campaign of glorifying the new Bolshevik order: Sergei Eizenstein with October, and Vsevolod Pudovkin with The End of St. Petersburg and Storm over Asia.

There is a tradition among film historians to regard Arsenal as the middle part of Dovzhenko’s cinematographic triptych, with Zvenyhora (1928) and Earth (1930) as its bookends. This seems to be a useful approach if only because some of the topics and even characters that we encounter in Zvenyhora migrate and get further developed in Arsenal. One of the central topics is whether the Ukrainians are a historical people, in Marxist sense of the word, whether they are capable of their own historical subjectivity. Dovzhenko gives an unequivocally affirmative answer to that question, outlining in Zvenyhora a trajectory of Ukrainian statehood’s thousand-year history that culminates in the project of the socialist construction, and with a notable absence of Russia and Russians in it.

Another big topic Dovzhenko handles is the relationship between the causes of national and social liberation. Is nationalism antithetic to social progress and can social progress go hand in hand with national liberation and national revival? Are the two necessarily mutually exclusive? How should modern Ukrainians treat their cultural heritage? What are the traits that make a Ukrainian Ukrainian – an embroidered shirt, a particular shape of moustache, veneration of the national poet Taras Shevchenko? All these issues, vocalized by Dovzhenko in Arsenal, were hotly debated at the time and many have not been resolved conclusively even today. 

As to the symbols and metaphors to watch for, one that immediately leaps to mind and that caused quite a controversy at the time is the scene with the portrait of the Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko, symbol of the Ukrainian cause itself. For generations both Ukrainian nationalists and communists have claimed exclusive ownership of and the right to the correct interpretation of his legacy. In one scene, a Ukrainian nationalist in an act of Shevchenko’s elevation to the level of a religious icon (or, according to Dovzhenko, an act of idolatry) lights a candle in front of the poet’s image on the wall. Suddenly the picture comes to life and Shevchenko blows out the candle as if to say that he does not want to be treated as an icon. Dovzhenko seems to reject the idea of canonizing Shevchenko and advocates treating him not as a dogma but a living thinker, whose ideas remain vibrant and pertinent. There is a larger message here that Ukrainian identity is not about its outward, formal attributes, but its modern deeper meaning.

There is another fascinating scene loaded with Christian symbolism. A revolutionary fighter dies and his brothers-in-arms hurry to take his body for burial in his home village which the deceased had not seen since the outbreak of WWI. The camera cuts to the scene of his mother over a freshly dug grave pit. Dovzhenko was confronted by critics over the lack of realism in such a sequel – why is the soldier’s mother depicted standing next to the gaping grave when she cannot possibly know about her son’s death. Dovzhenko responded, as only he could, “Every mother all her life stands over the open grave of her son.” As the leading Dovzhenko scholar Serhii Trymbach notes, here “[t]he epic truth gets its psychological substantiation by the perennial mother’s fear for the life of her children.” One cannot resist a parallel between the grimly apprehensive mother in Dovzhenko’s Arsenal, and Michalangelo’s Pieta, depicting the twenty-something Virgin who holds the dead body of her 33-year-old son, Jesus.

HURI: Can you tell us a little about the creation of the film – i.e, how did film production work under the early Soviet regime? Did all films have to be created in Russian (Russian intertitles, in this case)? If not, why is this in Russian and not Ukrainian?

Shevchuk: Dovzhenko started to work on Arsenal in the second half of June 1928. He first planned to deal with the uprising of the pro-Bolshevik workers of the Arsenal plant in Kyiv and then the social and political conflicts in Ukraine during the liberation struggle of 1917-1918. The film was initially supposed to end in the scene of the triumphant entry of the Red Army into the Ukrainian capital in February 1918. Dovzhenko was thus following the pattern set by Sergei Eisenstein in his revolutionary epic Battleship Potemkin (1925), wherein the revolution of 1905 rippled outward from the mutinous ship. In Dovzhenko’s case, the revolution originates from the rebellious plant. However when he started shooting, Dovzhenko reversed his initial intention and first presented a larger socio-political background of the events – World War I, the nationalist revolution, class and national liberation struggle. Thereafter he focuses on the dramatic clash between the pro-Bolshevik Ukrainian workers of the Arsenal plant and the troops of the nationalist government the Central Rada.

At the time of Arsenal’s creation, Ukrainian filmmakers still enjoyed a modicum of autonomy from Moscow, if not from their Ukrainian communist authorities. The silent film was originally made with Ukrainian intertitles and its copies meant for theatrical release outside Ukraine were supplied with Russian language ones. Today the extant copies of the film are only with Russian intertitles. This is due to the fact that the Ukrainian print of the film was lost during the Nazi occupation of Kyiv in 1941-1943. The print used for the DVD collection “Oleksander Dovzhenko. The Cinematographic Legacy” was the one that survived in the Russian film archive Gosfilmofond in Belye Stolby, near Moscow. This is also true of other Dovzhenko films. His next and most celebrated film, Earth (1930), was also originally made with Ukrainian intertitles. His first talking film, Ivan (1932), likewise “spoke” Ukrainian despite growing pressure on the part of the regime to make it in Russian.

Arsenal2HURI: What was the State’s goal for this film (or similar films) in the 1920s? Did it succeed or fail, and was the result due to the message, the style, or both?

Shevchuk: The goal of the film was to celebrate and glorify the Bolshevik occupation of Ukraine and the destruction of independent Ukrainian statehood, to present it as the will of the Ukrainian proletariat and as a historical inevitability. Outwardly the film fulfilled this goal, but at closer inspection, its message often undermined the legitimacy of the “revolutionary conquest” of Ukraine, by among all else posing the question of whether the Bolshevik victory was worth the horrific and enormous suffering it caused to the people. As George Lieber aptly notes in his influential biography of Dovzhenko (Aleksander Dovzhenko. A Life in Soviet Film, British Film Institute, 2002), “If the film enthusiastically endorsed the Bolshevik point of view, its subtext questioned the morality of Bolshevik revolutionary brutality.”

Presenting in one scene a Ukrainian nationalist as spineless and paralyzed and his Bolshevik adversary as cold-bloodedly ruthless, Dovzhenko is disturbingly prescient of the Kremlin's genocidal brutality of the Holodomor, which would be visited on Ukraine two years after Arsenal’s release.