Reviews

George O. Liber, Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film. London: British Film Institute, 2002. 320 pp. Illustrations, Index, Cloth  $58.00.

 

George O. Liber is the author of Soviet Nationality Policy, Urban Growth, and Identity Change in the Ukrainian SSR (1992). Issues outlined in this title are also crucial for his latest monograph that presents a personal and creative biography of Alexander Dovzhenko (1894-1956) in the context of socio-political and cultural history of Ukraine, Russia and the Soviet Union. Lieber’s scholarly objective is stated in the Introduction as an attempt “to investigate the shifting boundaries between Dovzhenko’s public and private worlds.” (7)

            The book is comprised of an Introduction and eleven chapters that discuss different periods and aspects of Dovzhenko’s life and creative endeavors. The Introduction provides commentary on the formidable task of uncovering the truth about private and public worlds of Ukraine’s biggest film-maker. Facts about Dovzhenko have long remained overshadowed by myths, not the least among those were the artist’s own statements. Even his intimate writings are marred by political correctness while lacking in sincerity. The detrimental imprint of the Soviet state and ensuing self-censorship thwarted Dovzhenko’s creative dreams, distorted his scripts, and prevented realization of his projects. While striving to preserve his life during Stalin’s purges, Dovzhenko developed considerable political agility, which made his physical survival possible. Yet the latter came at great cost for his art.

            To uncover the true, unknown Dovzhenko Lieber employs a wealth of documents ranging from Dovzhenko’s diaries, letters, and notes to his NKVD dossiers and testimonies of his Soviet spies. The scholar skillfully makes use of these documents in his discussions of Dovzhenko’s cultural and political surroundings, his motivations and creative urges, his doubts and fears. The importance of the role of Ukrainian culture in shaping the artist’s creative vision is continuously emphasized and kept in focus throughout. It is formulated in the Introduction and is part of a series of discussions concerning the role of the dichotomy between Russian and Ukrainian worlds in Dovzhenko’s life. These include Russia’s suppression and censorship of Ukrainian culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; role and place of Russian and Ukrainian languages in the artist’s education and subsequent self-expression; and his service to a Russocentiric and Russifying empire (first Russian then Soviet).

            The first chapter accounts for Dovzhenko’s formative years. It offers a detailed discussion of geographical and socio-cultural factors important for understanding of Dovzhenko’s native environment. Overview of Dovzhenko’s family circumstances and socio-political situation in pre-revolutionary Ukraine lays a background for the discussion of Alexander’s education. Lieber concludes by providing Dovzhenko’s psychological profile. According to Lieber, “Dovzhenko’s political inconsistency paralleled his uncertainty regarding his Ukrainian identity.” (22)

            Chapter 2, entitled “Revolution and Civil War,” addresses an important omission in Dovzhenko’s biographical sources of the time period between 1917 and 1919. It traces Dovzhenko’s political affiliations throughout these years, starting with his allegiance to Ukrainian nationalism. It comments on his disappointment with Revolution and non-affiliation with pro-Bolshevik groups. The next chapter deals with another scarcely documented period in Dovzhenko’s life spanning 1919-1923. Lieber reviews the official version of Dovzhenko’s activities during this time including his frequent relocations, his changing occupations, his appointment as a Soviet ambassador (1922), years spent abroad, and his banishment from the ranks of the Communist Party. Lieber constantly questions the official version of the events and their significance, countering the official mythology of Dovzhenko’s life by the painstakingly recovered and well-documented “real story.” He also provides commentary on Dovzhenko’s artistic influences and his first artistic career, that of a caricaturist.

            Chapter 4, “First Frames,” discusses the most important career move of Dovzhenko’s life when the thirty-three year old artist turned to film-making. By the end of 1924 he had finished his first script and in 1926 he was already directing his films. Lieber’s overview of the Soviet film industry in the twenties is brief, yet it does provide a comprehensive background of the contemporary film-making milieu. Lieber comments on Dovzhenko’s first encounters with the art and medium of film and his apprenticeship at Odessa studio. Then he discusses his first two films, “Vasia the Reformer” (1926) and “Love’s Berry” (1926) as well as the third film, “The Diplomatic Pouch” (1927), which became Dovzhenko’s first cinematic success.

            Chapter 5, titled “Abundant Harvest,” deals with Dovzhenko’s three most famous films, which also became internationally acclaimed classics of cinematography. The cornerstone of Ukrainian national cinema “Zvenigora” (1927); controversial representation of revolutionary strife in Ukraine in “Arsenal” (1928); and celebration of nature, life and new political order in Dovzhenko’s masterpiece “Earth” (1930) demonstrate Dovzhenko’s genius at its best. However, reception of these films by Soviet Russian and Ukrainian critics was not uniformly marked by praise. In fact, these films tarnished Dovzhenko’s reputation as a Soviet citizen and artist, showing his Ukrainian nationalist bias and far from straightforward adherence to the state sponsored method of social realism. His continuous attempts to clear his name and fit in the confines of Soviet political correctness as well as his creative compromises are discussed in the following chapters.

            Dovzhenko’s first creative compromise, his film “Ivan” (1932), is discussed in chapter 6, which is revealingly called “Stalin’s Client.” Yet this attempt to clear his name redeeming himself after “Earth” was ultimately unsuccessful. His first sound film not only used the Ukrainian language, it also did not completely adhere to the standards of social realism. “Ivan” is discussed vis-ŕ-vis the exemplar of the social realistic hero movie “Chapaev” (1934). Lieber effectively demonstrates how Dovzhenko’s struggle for his life during the time of Stalinist terror went was paralleled with the artist’s thwarting of his creative vision. The more he feared, the more socialist realism took hold of his creative process. Dovzhenko desperately needed a politically successful film, yet the price for political success was the artistic value. This issue is discussed in application to both “Ivan” and Dovzhenko’s next film “Aerograd” (1935).

            The creative history of Dovzhenko’s next “make-up” film “Shchors” (1939) and problems accompanying its shooting are explored in Chapter 7. Lieber calls Dovzhenko’s own accounts of filming of Shchors “hagiographic” (154) and engages into uncovering the real story. He provides extensive commentary on the historical Shchors who was a highly controversial figure; elucidates censorship issues, including Stalin’s personal involvement; and discusses difficulties at play while filming of this work. In “Shchors” Dovzhenko produced another Soviet military saint, who joined the pantheon occupied by Vasiliev’s “Chapaev” and Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” (1938).

            Chapter 8, “Dovzhenko’s War,” provides discussion of the events of 1941-1945. Dovzhenko’s activities during these years include journalism, writing autobiographical works and diaries, public speaking, and filming documentaries. Fueled by the officially sponsored revival of non-Russian identities, his nationalism soared. However, at the end of the war, it clashed yet again with the party’s ideology, resulting in the artist’s frustration, anxiety, and vetoed works.

            Chapter 9, “Internal Exile,” continues to discuss how Dovzhenko’s creativity was thwarted during and after war period. Censorship, antagonistic attitude of the Soviet authorities and ban on returning to Ukraine brought about depression, an aggravated heart condition, and general creative paralysis. Dovzhenko’s self-perception was that of a martyr for truth (213). At that time, he was channeling his creativity into prose-writing.

            Chapter 10, “Cold War Politics,” discusses Dovzhenko’s declined productivity and artistry reflected in his last cinematic projects. His documentary “Native Land” was devoted to the hardships of the Armenian people, providing a needed outlet for expressing longing for his own motherland. While filming his last feature, “Michurin” (1948), Dovzhenko once again found himself between a rock and a hard place within his artistry and the constraints of social realism. His unfinished “Goodbye, America” was restored and finished only in 1996.

            The last chapter of the monograph, “The Thaw,” covers the political and cultural situation after Stalin’s death in 1953. It provides commentary on Dovzhenko’s last creative projects, the screenplays “The Enchanted Desna,” “A Poem about an Inland Sea,” and “A Flight to Mars.” It also relates about Dovzhenko’s persistent attempts to return to Ukraine. The official ban on his return was never lifted. The artist was buried at the Novodevichy Monastery in Moscow. Lieber interprets this act as enforcement of Dovzhenko’s exile even after his death. (257)

            In his monograph, Lieber produced a revealing picture of an artistic genius thwarted and national identity suppressed by the Soviet system. His commentary on the political aspects of Dovzhenko’s creative pursuits is enlightening. His discussion of censorship and Russocentric bias of the Soviet State shows how the so-called communist internationalism in actuality amounted to aggressive Russification. This well-researched and well-written study offers a wealth of information and makes an inspired reading for all those interested in Soviet, Ukrainian and Russian history, sociology, culture, and film. It will be greatly appreciated by both scholarly community and general reader.

 

 
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