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Kalatozov’s “I Am Cuba” and the Search for Leninist Faith

April 28, 2010

Soviet filmmakers Mikhail Kalatozov and Sergei Urusevsky were just beginning their artistic careers when the Stalinist command system eradicated the chaotic cultural spontaneity of the Soviet 1920s. Under the evolving principles of Socialist Realism, the avant-garde habits of formalist exuberance and participatory creative revolutionism  were replaced by the signal virtue of “party-mindedness”—a mental state best measured by one’s fraught adherence to a shifting Party line. The heroic period of Soviet art had come to an end, but it left a phantom trail of aesthetic and spiritual inspiration that decades later would help shape the great works of post-Stalin cinema.

In their 1964 film, I Am Cuba, Kalatozov and Urusevsky implicitly hold the lost spirit of the Soviet 1920s up to the mirror of late 1950s Cuba. They look longingly upon the idealism of the Cuban revolutionaries and the shimmering surfaces of the erstwhile bourgeois city and ask: Can we believe like revolutionaries, produce like capitalists, and share like socialists? Can the Soviet Union deliver on the Russian Revolution’s promises of purpose, justice, and plenty? Cuba, alas, offers inspiration without answers, and the filmmakers—like their 1920s predecessors—wander beyond ideology into a sort of phenomenology of seeing. Revolutionary outcomes remain a mystery, but revolutionary art endures as a palliative pleasure and an emissary of hope.

Kalatozov and Urusevsky understood well that socialist modernization belonged to the category of faith. The technical fetishes of the 1920s, the militant atheism, the loudly proclaimed search for “scientific” solutions in everything from economics to poetry, were all part and parcel of a young faith, a search for ecstatic self-transcendence; the manifestos of 1920s artistic groups read like shamanistic incantations: there is a worshipful primitivism underpinning the future-worship of young post-revolutionary leftists. Dziga Vertov’s Kino Eye group called for “the emancipation of the camera, which is reduced to a state of pitiable slavery, of subordination to the imperfections and thes hortsightedness of the human eye,” and went on to declare their allegiance to “the camera as a kino-eye, more perfect than the human eye.” (Michaelson, 1984, pp. 13-14)

This spiritualization of Leninism had deep roots.  For many Russians, the Communist promise of an eventual utopia beyond labor and the tyranny of rational time was a renewal of a complex of ancient, unsinkable millennial hopes sometimes summed up as “The Russian Idea.” During the 19th century, Russia’s great intellectual debate was between those who advocated a Western path of development—the Westernizers—and those who believed that Russia had its own path, based on the Orthodox ideal of conjunctive togetherness and the values of the peasant commune —the Slavophiles (Riazanovsky, 1965). In Weberian terms, the Westernizers believed in a rational-legal basis of socio-political legitimacy, while the Slavophiles preferred a mix of traditional and charismatic legitimacy (Hanson, 1997).

The genius of Soviet Marxism-Leninism lay in its ability, as an atheist ideology, to somehow co-opt the idealism of both rational-legal Westernizers and charismatic-religious Slavophiles and create a new faith that promised to redeem Russia.  Communism was a supra-national ideology of modernization, but its appeal lay in its connection with national myth: the new ideology would allow Russia to fulfill its prophesied role as the “Third Rome”, the leader of the world, at once exceptional and exemplary, and to create an entirely just, secularly holy society. Within the early Communist movement there was even a group of writers and thinkers who called themselves the God Builders and wanted to make the ideology’s implicit religious parallels explicit. Lenin was not amused, though he did make one of the leading God-Builders, Anatoly Lunacharsky, his first Commissar of Enlightenment.

The Stalin era replaced the unifying ideal with the unifying leader, and replaced enthusiastic quasi-religious participation in the process of Communist modernization with compulsory, quasi-religious obedience to the word of the master. The nostalgic connection with the ancient Russian dream of sobornost’–an organic, cooperative togetherness in which individual expression and community goals are mutually supportive—was severed. The Stalin synthesis made it clear that the path to progress necessitated the effacement of self. Stalinist modernization was new without offering renewal. While convincing arguments have been made that Stalin’s program was the logical next step in the unfolding and realization of the logic of Marxism-Leninism, the culture of high Stalinism, from the mid-1930 until his death in 1953, could not be more distant from the chaotic cultural energy of the  Soviet 1920s.

And it was precisely this energy, more than even the most hopeful interpretation of Lenin’s voluminous written record, for which the post-Stalin intelligentsia—the communicators—was nostalgic. It would be their job to return the energy of Leninist modernization theory to their own countrymen—to make of their country an inspirational beacon for countries around the world. By the end of the 1950s, Russians were prepared to revisit the Revolution and reinvigorate their revolutionary idealism. The Cuban Revolution offered a perfect transnational metaphor. As Genis and Vail (1996, p. 59) write, “The Cuban Revolution became a metaphor not only for the October Revolution, but for its contemporary reincarnation—the liberal, Thaw revolution of the 1960s.”

Greg Blake Miller

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