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What Does a Russian Soul Sing About?: Marina Goldovskaya's 'Three Songs About Motherland'

By Olga Surkova

In the 1960s, Marina Goldovskaya became one of the then-Soviet Union's pre-eminent cinematographers and documentary filmmakers. Everyone awaited the work of this seemingly fragile woman, who was filled with strong passion and determination, ready to walk through the proverbial fire to capture a unique cinematic glimpse of life's truths. She has since made dozens of films and mentored numerous young filmmakers, both in Russia and in the United States, where she has lived for the past dozen years.

At the 1989 International Documentary FilmFestival Amsterdam (IDFA), she received the special Jury Award for her film Solovki Power, a chronicle of one of the most terrible of Stalin's labor camps in the north of Russia. In 2000, she won the IDA Award--Honorable Mention for her film The Prince Is Back.

The 2008 IDFA featured Goldovskaya's new film, Three Songs About Motherland, the title of which must certainly evoke Dziga Vertov's poetic work, Three Songs About Lenin, which was posthumously dedicated to the leader of the Russian Revolution. Vertov believed that Lenin was venerated unanimously across the vast sprawl of the Soviet Union, but by the early 1930s, Stalin had rejected the work as contrary to his own "cult of personality."

Set firmly in the present, Goldovskaya's film is a three-part look at her native land, each of which showcases the filmmaker's understanding, or perhaps her emotions, about Russia's convoluted history, which is often difficult to grasp, from without and from within.

The first "song" is called "The City of Dreams," and is dedicated to those brave souls who built the Far East city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, as part of Stalin's industrialization directive. Located near Khabarovsk, Komsomolsk-on-Amur was created literally in the middle of nowhere, in a frozen land, both by those who bought into the heroic, albeit hollow, dream of the "new Soviet World," and by labor camp prisoners. Full of faith, those young men and women built a new society, a new city and a new airplane factory, where numerous bomber planes were subsequently constructed and used in World War II. Now, these once-hopeful dreamers look back on a life they recall as filled with meaning and purpose, rather than hardship. Even with the rise of the Stalinist repressions, as many of their numbers ended up in the labor camps, they recall "delicious" porridge. Even 1937, the horrible year that began the wave of purges, is remembered as "wonderful," as it brought the end of food ration cards and was marked by a plethora of rare-to-find items in the stores. One of the subjects of the film recalls the unjust execution of his 32-year old father, but still thinks that life was interesting and fruitful "back then." Another still somehow idolizes Stalin, citing Churchill's admiration for the man who created a "nuclear power" out of an agrarian state.


A subject of Marina Goldovskaya's Three Songs About Motherland.

Of course, the old timers are sorry for those innocents who suffered, but these builders of a new society still firmly believe that the goals justified the means, and the end result of the "city of Communist Dreams" was worth any personal troubles. And so, the passionate builders of Komsomolsk-on-Amur don't pay much attention to the deaths of some of the political prisoners that occurred during that process, thinking of it as "collateral damage." Those builders of a new Soviet life cling to their youthful enthusiasm, thinking of themselves as heroes who helped the USSR win a terrible world war. They toiled so very hard to build "their" country that they remain eternal Soviet patriots, proud of this historic past and disgusted and appalled by the "new Russia" and its "crookedness."

The second "song," "City of Tears," is dedicated to Moscow, Russia's historic and cosmopolitan capital city. In the present, as in the past, those who looked too hard at some of the city's ugly truths are eliminated, snuffed out without any retribution, as was the case with Anna Politkovskaya, the heroine of "City of Tears." Politkovskaya, a fearless journalist and human rights activist, was brutally murdered in her quest to bring to light the truths of the Chechen conflict-truths, which, sadly enough, as Putin has said, no longer interest anyone. History has a very selective memory, after all. And so, watching the video interviews with the honest, pleasant, noble Politkovskaya and her relatives, the viewer cringes, seeing the mortal danger that her activities have placed her in. But her soul, despite everything, yearned for the truth; as the poets said, "Truth was more important," and became the guiding light of Politkovskaya's life story, taking her beyond a failed marriage and a passionate love affair with a Norwegian.


The late journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

It seems that all the hopes and dreams of modern Russia are concentrated in the third "song," dedicated to Khanty-Mansijsk, one of the main centers of Siberia's budding oil industry, also in the Far East. Perhaps it is this city that holds within it the greatest hopes of a prosperous future to a wholly modern population. The ever-increasing birth rate might be the most obvious testament to this fact, a wholly Russian hope of a brighter tomorrow. The city's residents, some of them elderly descendents of past political prisoners held in labor camps nearby, are proud of their patriotism and their involvement in World War II, just as they are proud of their own children, who do not want to trade the "City of the Future" for any other.


Residents of Khanty-Mansijsk.

A strange loyalty to a variable, and yet uniquely Russian, patriotism unites the three disparate cities in Goldovskaya's triptych, each of which showcases a disparate social strata or historic period. The film keenly shows the filmmaker's wonder as Goldovskaya chronicles the stories of her people. The film is Goldovskaya's passionate attempt to try to define the Russian national character, which is very difficult to encapsulate, but remains pure and true. Indeed, a unique truth is at the heart of this national character, paid for over many years by a passionate people, in blood, sweat and tears. This timeless truth is as indelible, as illogical and sometimes as misplaced as the themes in Vertov's Three Songs About Lenin, which managed to glorify Lenin during a time when this hero of the revolution had already fallen by Stalin's wayside.

In concluding this reflection on Marina Goldovskaya's Three Songs About Motherland, it is especially important to highlight the keen and delicate psychological portraits of the film's different participants, all of whom are united by the similar emotions brought on by the wonderful songs of contemporary singer Élena Kamburova, which serve as a leitmotif that unites these three separate stories into one spiritual whole.

Olga Surkova graduated and received her PhD degree from the Moscow State Film School, founded by Sergey Eisenstein. Her thesis was on Ingmar Bergman. She has published four books on Andrey Tarkovsky, and she is currently writing a book on a notorious Russian film director Vadim Abdrashitov. Surkova lives and works in Amsterdam, Holland.

English Translation: Irina Ozernoy