Nikita Mikhalkov and Anton Denikin
Whether rightly or wrongly, some opinions receive more sympathy than others. As is true with other matters, this observation pertains to the English language mass media coverage of the former Soviet Union. Russian actor, producer and director Nikita Mikhalkov's sympathetic views of Vladimir Putin, Serbia and Russia's pre-1917 past, do not serve to boost his popularity, among folks leaning towards English language mass media sentiment.
For clarity sake, Mikhalkov's thoughts on Russia's pre-1917 past are not a call for Russia to go back to an absolute monarchy, with no elections or parliament. Were that the case, he would not be in support of Putin. For whatever its political imperfections and similarities to prior periods in Russian history, post-Soviet Russia is not governed in a manner replicating the Russian Empire or Soviet Union. Mikhalkov seems to be a reasonable proponent of the view that pre-1917 Russia had positive aspects, which have been downplayed in some circles. By default, this opinion does not deny Russia's shortcomings within that period.
As head of the Cinematographer's Union in Russia, Mikhalkov has been accused of carrying on in a manner which hinders themes running contrary to his own sympathies. This matter seems to partly involve a clash of egos. Were Mikhalkov a neoconservative or neoliberal thinking principal at odds with patriotically inclined Russian artists, the spin might be different. In short, it is politically correct to bash Mikhalkov in a way that some others are not. Comparatively speaking, one can find fault at a number of English language mass media venues that slant against his sympathies. At these outlets, there are instances when people get their wings clipped for challenging the existing status quo. This situation nurtures an understanding of how greater conformity is the more secure route for maintaining and/or improving on a person's status - a condition which exists elsewhere. With this not so outstanding observation in mind, the special emphasis being applied against Mikhalkov appears to be disproportionate.
Bringing these points into play are not broadly irrelevant "whataboutery" talking points. Rather, they are annoyingly inconvenient in some circles. If Russia is not at the same standard of openness as the West, then how accurate is it to hold the former to higher standards - in a way that covers up the lack of openness with the latter?
For all the talk about a "neo-Soviet Russia," Mikhalkov's award winning movie "Burnt by the Sun" (which takes a critical look at the Stalin era) has not fallen into disfavor. The Russian movie industry at large does not appear to be at the level of the Red scare era in the United States, which Hollywood experienced during a period of the Cold War. (On a related note, I share the conventional view that Joseph McCarthy was not wrong in being concerned about a security threat to the United States - but misguided in his methods - which among other things, included ethically flawed smear campaign tactics.) Some avid followers of Russian cinema have unequivocally stressed to me the diverse range of topics and views from that movie industry. Mikhalkov is not a "Dear Leader" type of figure.
His patriotic views and the complete status of post-Soviet Russian cinema are not extreme with some other situations outside of Russia. During World War II, Hollywood cranked out overly pro-Soviet films, which conformed with the American-Soviet alliance at that time. Two such movies "Mission to Moscow" and "The North Star," were released in 1943. When the Cold War came around, an addendum was added to "The North Star" movie. This addition negatively noted the Soviet presence in a number of countries, as World War II ended. The Reagan presidency has been portrayed as encompassing a period of increased American patriotism. In the United States, films with a patriotic touch like "Rambo" and "Missing in Action," (both of these films having a sequel) were released during this period.
Post-Soviet Russia is undergoing a transformation of greater freedoms (albeit with some bumps in the road, in an ongoing process). After decades of negative Soviet spin on the Russian Civil War period Whites, it is not unreasonable to find sympathetic portrayals of these Russian opponents of the Reds, in films like "Admiral" and Mikhalkov's series "Russian Choice," which includes "Russians Without Russia," about the Whites.
Mikhalkov's documentary on the Whites brings to mind a recent comment made by former Ukrainian diplomat Yuri Shcherbak. In an interview, he said that contemporary Russia is a "Denikinist state," interested in acquiring Ukraine. Shcherbak's broad characterization downplays several pertinent variables, which I sense he is not happy about.
For openers, Russian Civil War era White General Anton Denikin's views of Russia and Ukraine were premised on the reality of his time period. (I highly recommend Dimitry V. Lehovich's book "White Against Red: The Life and Times of General Anton Denikin," W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1974). The 19th century Russo-Ukrainian literary figure Nikolai Gogol felt an affiliation with Russia like many others in Ukraine of his time. (This year, Russia and Ukraine are formally honoring the 200th anniversary of Gogol's birthday). A good portion of the Russian Civil War was fought on the territory of Ukraine. Many of the Whites were indigenous to that land. This point was also true with many of the Reds. There were also Ukrainian supporters of the Cossack noble Pavlo Skoropadsky. Whatever their differences, these groups all supported some kind of togetherness between Russia and Ukraine.
Another Russian Civil War figure, Symon Petliura, supported an independent Ukrainian state. Petliura's political objective involved forging an alliance with Poland and his willingness to cede Galicia to Poland, in exchange for becoming a Polish supported surrogate leader of a Ukrainian state. (Situated in western Ukraine, Galicia has become known for being the most nationalistic region in Ukraine.)
The development of a separate Ukrainian identity reached a high point with the worldwide recognition of Ukrainian independence, as the Soviet Union dissolved. Since then, several polls indicate that many Ukrainian citizens favor close relations with Russia. This past May, one public opinion survey found that Putin would convincingly win the Ukrainian presidency against all of the leading Ukrainian politicians. The same study has findings showing that Ukrainians are fonder of Russia than vice versa and that Ukrainians are more gung ho than Russians on the idea of closer Russo-Ukrainian ties. (Graham Stack's June 22 Russia Profile article "Would the Real Ukraine Please Stand Up?," breaks down this Ukrainian survey. On June 5, the same study was noted at the online Eastern and Central European Forum at the Guardian Unlimited.)
Some recent articles about Mikhalkov and the just completed Moscow Film Festival serve as examples on the kind of preferred slant which has been in existence. Matviy Hanapolsky's June 26 Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) article "The Moscow Film Festival -- A Celebration of Obedience" and Alexander Arkhangelsky's June 4 Russia Profile (RP) piece "Know Thy Rulers," are noticeably partisan against Mikhalkov.
Arkhangelsky describes a power struggle within the Russian cinema establishment, in which a victorious Mikhalkov is unnecessarily hostile towards those individuals he has defeated. In reading this piece, one can not help but wonder if there is more to this story, running in Mikhalkov's favor?
Hanapolsky's article references an anonymous example of an artist being asked by a Russian government official to produce a film with a certain content added (a negative portrayal of the American government) in exchange for a government grant. The presentation is given of an overbearing government influencing content. In comparison, English language mass media at large (include RFE/RL and RP) have been lacking in noting the slant within their own structures, which have restricted some perfectly valid insight. One of numerous examples is the instance of an editor privately saying that his/her news organization runs critical opinion of Russia's emblem, unlike commentary in support of it. From this media comes the select criticism of others. Like Hanapolsky, I reserve the right to not be specific.
Hanapolsky works for Ekho Moskvy (a Moscow based radio station known for favoring views running counter to Mikhalkov) and is a regular contributor to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. The cited RFE/RL article of his was specifically written for that RFE/RL section. Regarding Ukrainian media, has Hanapolsky stated any critical commentary about the anti-Russian/Ukrainian nationalist The Day Weekly Digest and/or the political slant of the Kyiv Post?
In his article, Hanapolsky suggestively finds fault with the recently completed Moscow Film Festival's positive acknowledgement of Georgian cinema. He sees this as a propagandistic attempt at highlighting a Russian liking of Georgians, as opposed to the Georgian government. Would Hanapolsky prefer either a complete Russian disdain of Georgians, or non-acknowledgment of them?
Drifting away from Mikhalkov's pre-1917 sympathies and Shcherbak's utilized "Denikinist state" term for present day Russia is Alyona Dushka's July 1 RP article "The Russian Miracle," on the Moscow Film Festival. She mentions "Soviet" in relation to the way that event honored Georgian cinema. The ties between Russia and other former Soviet republics go back to a period longer than the Soviet era. These relationships with Russia vary among the non-Russian/former Russian Empire/former Soviet lands.
Overall, Russians and Georgians are not antagonistic towards each other as some other groups in countries that have been in conflict with each other. In this sense, the Moscow Film Festival was not out of touch with the mood in Russia. By the way, a June 11 RFE/RL piece "What Georgians Really Think About Russia," cites a survey finding Russians to be the least objectionable of foreigners for Georgians to marry. The same report notes a considerable Georgian opposition to the Russians government. (These poll results give support to the view that Russia might have been better off to not decide on recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.)
Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic.