Dmitri Shostakovitch, Julian Barnes and The Noise of Time

Dmitri Shostakovitch, Julian Barnes and The Noise of Time

If those newspapers and politicians that last week denounced judges as ‘enemies of the people’ ever proceed to brand certain composers or artists with the same obloquy, then we’ll know that we are indeed entering a very dark place.

This thought occurred to me after reading Julian Barnes’ novella, The Noise of Time, a fictional biography of Dmitri Shostakovich which enters into the mind of the composer whose opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was denounced in a 1936 newspaper article approved by Stalin as ‘muddle instead of music’. ‘The people expect good songs, but also good instrumental works, and good operas,’ ranted the (very) senior Party official who wrote the piece, before concluding with a sinister threat: ‘The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, ‘formalist’ attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.’ Continue reading “Dmitri Shostakovitch, Julian Barnes and The Noise of Time”

Life and Fate: ‘If what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer’

<em>Life and Fate</em>: ‘If what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer’

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.
– Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman

It is difficult to know where to begin when responding to Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, such is the sweeping, panoramic vision contained within its covers. What I can say at the outset is that Life and Fate has to be the first place to go in order to understand the horrors of the 20th century. Here is a novel which ranges from the Stalinist purges and the Ukraine Famine during collectivisation in the 1930s to the siege of Stalingrad in 1942-3 and the lost souls of the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag; a novel whose characters debate good and evil, totalitarianism and individual freedom, and in which the author dares to take the reader beyond the sealed doors of the gas chamber. Written by a journalist who was witness to many of the events which form the backdrop to his characters’ lives, Life and Fate is utterly essential. Continue reading Life and Fate: ‘If what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer’”

Leningrad and the Orchestra That Defied Hitler: BBC at its best

<em>Leningrad and the Orchestra That Defied Hitler</em>: BBC at its best

Thanks to historian Amanda Vickery and Radio 3 presenter Tom Service for an outstanding documentary on BBC 2 last night in which they told the story of the siege of Leningrad and the symphony that Dmitri Shostakovich began to compose while working as a fireman during the German blockade and bombardment. Completed after his evacuation and dedicated to the besieged city, a group of starving musicians who could barely carry their instruments assembled to perform the Seventh Symphony there on 9 August 1942. It’s one of the great stories of human endurance and of the power of music as a symbol of resistance and humanity. The film truly did it justice. Continue reading Leningrad and the Orchestra That Defied Hitler: BBC at its best”

Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck

Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck

This summer I’ve read two short, critically-acclaimed novels by Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation, and The End of Days, winner of the Independent foreign fiction prize. I have to say that both books left me a little cold. Continue reading “Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck”

The Master and Margarita: sympathy for the devil

The Master and Margarita: sympathy for the devil
Max Rubin as Woland
Max Rubin as Woland in The Master and Margarita

I arrived at the Unity Theatre last night to find it, as always thronged and buzzing.  It was a packed house for Lodestar Theatre’s ambitious adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s sprawling novel The Master and Margarita.  The audience was largely composed of drama students from LIPA- and there was a reason for that as I’ll explain later.

I’ve still got the Fontana paperback edition of The Master and Margarita that I bought while I was a student in 1968, shortly after the novel had been published for the first time, nearly three decades after Bulgakov wrote it.  The book remained unread – I don’t think its fantastical character appealed to me then – and I still haven’t read it.  So I can’t say how faithful Max Rubin’s adaptation is – though I quick internet survey suggests that he has done a pretty good job of compressing a 400-page novel, crammed with a bewildering array of characters and scenes that switch between Soviet Moscow in the 1930s and Judea at the time of Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ.

The play begins faithfully enough, as we see the opening words of the novel brought to life on the stage:

At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch’s Ponds. One of them, approximately forty years old, dressed in a grey summer suit, was short, dark-haired, plump, bald, and carried his respectable fedora hat in his hand. His neatly shaven face was adorned with black horn-rimmed glasses of a supernatural size. The other, a broad-shouldered young man with tousled reddish hair, his checkered cap cocked back on his head, was wearing a cowboy shirt, wrinkled white trousers and black sneakers.

The first was none other than Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, editor of a fat literary journal and chairman of the board of one of the major Moscow literary associations, called Massolit for short, and his young companion was the poet Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyrev, who wrote under the pseudonym of Homeless.

It quickly becomes evident that Mikhail Bulgakov’s darkly satirical novel has been transformed into a great piece of theatre. An stark, expressionist stage set in white magically metamorphoses before our eyes due to some brilliant visual projections by digital artist Adam York Gregory and video mapper Gray Hughes.  The acting is energetic, placing the emphasis on the absurdist and comical elements of Bulgakov’s tale, and I was surprised, when the curtain call came at the end, to discover that the play’s many characters had been portrayed by just eight actors.

Max Rubin was not only responsible for the adaptation, but also plays Professor Woland (aka Satan), the character who, despite the novel’s title, is really the leading character. Rubin worked on a first draft of the adaptation last year with students at LIPA, and Satan’s demonic sidekick, a gun-toting feline monster cat, is played very well by Hannah Gover from LIPA.

Bulgakov’s wild, imaginative novel was written between 1928 and 1940 but not published anywhere until 1967. A memorable line in The Master and Margarita is: ‘manuscripts don’t burn’. In fact, Bulgakov burned an early draft of the novel, and there was no way that such a critical text could be published until the thaw of the 1960s.

Like the novel, the play portrays a visit by the Devil (in the form of Woland) to Moscow, and is considered by some critics to be one of the best novels satirising Stalinist bureaucracy and state-sponsored atheism and a culture of greed and corruption. Woland and his two sidekicks wreak havoc on the Soviet literary elite, including the writers’ official union, the Moscow Association of Writers. Into an already fantastical story, Bulgakov weaves events in the final days of Christ. In the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate, the trial of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus the Nazarene) is taking place, and Bulgakov portrays Pilate’s recognition of Yeshua’s spiritual message, and his reluctant but resigned submission to Yeshua’s execution.

Not having read the novel, I’m not sure how faithful this stage adaptation was to the anti-Stalinist critique of the book.  It seemed to me that any sense of Soviet Moscow in the 1930s was pretty far removed from the scenes on stage, well-acted and comical as they were.  Indeed, overhearing the comments of the young drama students as we left the theatre, I had a distinct sense that any relevance to the Soviet past had completely passed them by.

Master Lodestar
Woland and his tow sidekicks in the Lodestar production

The play opens with a direct confrontation between the unbelieving head of the literary bureaucracy, Berlioz, and Woland in the form of an urbane foreign gentleman who defends belief and quickly reveals his powers when he prophesies that Berlioz will shortly be decapitated, which he is – in accident involving spilled cooking oil and a tram.

This fulfilment of a prophecy is witnessed by a young and enthusiastic poet who writes under the pseudonym Bezdomny  (‘Homeless’). He makes a futile attempt to chase and capture Woland and his accomplices to warn of their evil, but ends up in a lunatic asylum. Here, he meets The Master, an embittered author, whose historical novel about Pontius Pilate and Christ has been rejected by the authorities, leading him to despairingly burn his manuscript and turn his back on the world and his devoted lover, Margarita.

One of the problems with the play (and I don’t know if this stems from the book) is that these two characters never seem very central.  For quite some time in the first half I was wondering to myself, ‘Why is this called The Master and Margarita?’  We aren’t introduced to the pair until late in the first half, and their story doesn’t seem particularly interesting.  Apparently, Bulgakov’s novel is greatly influenced by the Faust legend (indeed it opens with an epigraph from Goethe’s Faust), yet there’s no sense of great tragedy as the couple trade their souls for eternal life.  Indeed there seems to be no all-consuming passion in their relationship.

Those criticisms aside, this was a great piece of theatre, with some good acting and imaginative staging.  As we left, the company played us out with the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil, the lyric written by Mick Jagger shortly after The Master and Margarita had appeared in English translation in 1967. In last year’s documentary Crossfire Hurricane, Jagger stated that Bulgakov’s novel was the inspiration: it had been given to him by Marianne Faithfull.

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul and faith
And I was round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

I stuck around Saint Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain …

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
Cause I’m in need of some restraint
So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste


See also

Pussy Riot: punks with antecedents

Pussy Riot: punks with antecedents

On The Guardian website today Carol Rumens has chosen as her poem of the week Punk Prayer by the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, three of whose members have just been sentenced to two years in a prison colony for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’.  Rumens has worked up her own version of the lyric which the three women performed in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour five months ago.

Rumens accepts that the performance was mildly shocking, but, she says, ‘loud, rude, up-yours protest is what punk is all about’. She treats the lyrics seriously – ‘they have something significant to say, which the careless translations slopping around the internet tend to obscure’ – and reminds readers that ‘the absurdity and dishonesty of the judgment … recall Joseph Brodsky’s trial, and also the fate of Irina Ratushinskaya, viciously punished, in part, for poems expressing her Christian beliefs’.

Rumens concludes:

How horrible to find that, post-perestroika, rampant capitalism and artistic repression are somehow able to cohabit. Pussy Riot have explained that their protest was not primarily against religion but against the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for Putin. The lyrics they wrote for Punk Prayer bear out the truth of this claim.

Here is Carol Rumens’ version of Punk Prayer – but do read her gloss on the words, too:

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish him, we pray thee!

Congregations genuflect,
Black robes brag gilt epaulettes,
Freedom’s phantom’s gone to heaven,
Gay Pride’s chained and in detention.
KGB’s chief saint descends
To guide the punks to prison vans.
Don’t upset His Saintship, ladies,
Stick to making love and babies.
Crap, crap, this godliness crap!
Crap, crap, this holiness crap!

Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Be a feminist, we pray thee,
Be a feminist, we pray thee.

Bless our festering bastard-boss.
Let black cars parade the Cross.
The Missionary’s in class for cash.
Meet him there, and pay his stash.
Patriarch Gundy believes in Putin.
Better believe in God, you vermin!
Fight for rights, forget the rite –
Join our protest, Holy Virgin.

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, we pray thee, banish him!

Irina Ratushinskaya was arrested on 17 September 1982 for anti-Soviet agitation. In April 1983, she was convicted of  ‘agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime’, sentenced to seven years in a labour camp followed by five years of internal exile.  She was released on 9 October 1986, on the eve of the summit in Reykjavík, Iceland between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

While in prison, Irina continued to write poetry. While her previous works had invariably been concerned with themes of love, Christian theology and artistic creativity (not politics as her accusers insisted), the poems written in prison, were charged with questions of human rights, freedom, and the beauty of life.  They were written on soap until memorised and then washed away.

Give me a nickname, prison, 
this first April 
evening of sadness 
shared with you. 
This hour for your songs 
of evil and goodness, 
confessions of love, 
salty jokes. 
They’ve taken my friends, 
ripped the cross from its chain, 
torn clothes, 
and then with boots 
struck at my breastbone 
torturing the remains 
of hope. 
My name is filed 
in profile, full-face – 
a numbered dossier. 
In custody – 
nothing is mine! 
Just as you have 
no one, nothing! 
On the window’s grating 
here’s all of me – christen me, 
give me a name, prison, 
send off to the transport 
not a boy, but a zek, 
so I’ll be welcomed 
with endearments by Kolyma, 
place of outcasts, executions 
in this twentieth century. 
– 5 October 1983

I will live and survive

I will live and survive and be asked: 
How they slammed my head against a trestle, 
How I had to freeze at nights, 
How my hair started to turn grey… 
But I’ll smile.  And will crack some joke 
And brush away the encroaching shadow. 
And I will render homage to the dry September 
That became my second birth. 
And I’ll be asked: ‘Doesn’t’ it hurt you to remember?’ 
Not being deceived by my outward flippancy. 
But the former names will detonate my memory – 
Magnificent as old cannon. 
And I will tell of the best people in all the earth, 
The most tender, but also the most invincible, 
How they waited for letters from their loved ones. 
And I’ll be asked: what helped us to live 
When there was neither letters nor any news – only walls, 
And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies, 
And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal. 
And I will tell of the first beauty 
I saw in captivity. 
A frost-covered window! No spyholes, nor walls, 
And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies, 
And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal. 
And I will tell of the first beauty 
I saw in captivity. 
A frost-covered window! No spy holes, nor walls, 
Nor cell-bars, nor the long endured pain – 
Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass, 
A cast pattern- none more beautiful could be dreamt! 
The more clearly you looked the more powerfully blossomed 
Those brigand forest, campfire and birds! 
And how many times there was bitter cold weather 
And how many windows sparkled after that one – 
But never was it repeated, 
That heavily upheaval of rainbow ice! 
And anyway, what good would it be to me now, 
And what would be the pretext fro the festival? 
Such a gift can only be received once, 
And perhaps, it is only needed once.

In 1963, Joseph Brodsky’s poetry was denounced by a Leningrad newspaper as ‘pornographic and anti-Soviet’. He was interrogated, twice put in a mental institution and then arrested. Aged 23, Brodsky was charged with social parasitism by the Soviet authorities in a trial in 1964. His accusers called him ‘a pseudo-poet in velveteen trousers’ who had failed to fulfill his ‘constitutional duty to work honestly for the good of the motherland’.

At his the trial, this exchange took place btween Brodsky and the judge:

Judge: And what is your profession, in general?
Brodsky: I am a poet and a literary translator.
Judge: Who recognizes you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of humankind?

Brodsky was sentenced to five years hard labour and served 18 months on a farm in the Arctic Archangelsk region, three hundred and fifty miles from Leningrad. His sentence was commuted in 1965 after protests by prominent Soviet and foreign cultural figures, including Vladimir Yevtushenkov, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Jean-Paul Sartre as well as Anna Akhmatova.  Brodsky became a cause celebre in the West also when a secret transcription of trial minutes was smuggled out of the country, making him a symbol of artistic resistance in a totalitarian society, much like his mentor Akhmatova.

May 24, 1980 is a poem written on the occasion of Brodsky’s 40th birthday; this is his own translation:

I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages,
carved my term and nickname on bunks and rafters,
lived by the sea, flashed aces in an oasis,
dined with the-devil-knows-whom, in tails, on truffles.
From the height of a glacier I beheld half a world, the earthly
width. Twice have drowned, thrice let knives rake my nitty-gritty.
Quit the country the bore and nursed me.
Those who forgot me would make a city.
I have waded the steppes that saw yelling Huns in saddles,
worn the clothes nowadays back in fashion in every quarter,
planted rye, tarred the roofs of pigsties and stables,
guzzled everything save dry water.
I’ve admitted the sentries’ third eye into my wet and foul
dreams. Munched the bread of exile; it’s stale and warty.
Granted my lungs all sounds except the howl;
switched to a whisper. Now I am forty.
What should I say about my life? That it’s long and abhors transparence.
Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit.
Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx,
only gratitude will be gushing from it.

Brodsky’s link to Anna Akhmatova takes us back to the era of Stalinist repression. Akhmatova’s poetry was condemned and censored by Stalinist authorities for its personal and religious elements.  She chose to remain in Russia, acting as witness to the atrocities around her. Her perennial themes include meditations on time and memory, and the difficulties of living and writing in the shadow of Stalinism.  She was a close friend of fellow poet Osip Mandelstam, who was sentenced to imprisonment in one of the labour camps of the Gulag where he would die.

Akhmatova narrowly escaped arrest, though her son Lev was imprisoned on numerous occasions by the Stalinist regime, accused of counter-revolutionary activity. In her poem Requiem, written between 1935 and 1940, she describes waiting in line for hours outside a prison in Leningrad for news of her son. This is the opening of Requiem:

Not under foreign skies
Nor under foreign wings protected –
I shared all this with my own people
There, where misfortune had abandoned us.


During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’.
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe
this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.


Mountains fall before this grief,
A mighty river stops its flow,
But prison doors stay firmly bolted
Shutting off the convict burrows
And an anguish close to death.
Fresh winds softly blow for someone,
Gentle sunsets warm them through; we don’t know this,
We are everywhere the same, listening
To the scrape and turn of hateful keys
And the heavy tread of marching soldiers.
Waking early, as if for early mass,
Walking through the capital run wild, gone to seed,
We’d meet – the dead, lifeless; the sun,
Lower every day; the Neva, mistier:
But hope still sings forever in the distance.
The verdict. Immediately a flood of tears,
Followed by a total isolation,
As if a beating heart is painfully ripped out, or,
Thumped, she lies there brutally laid out,
But she still manages to walk, hesitantly, alone.
Where are you, my unwilling friends,
Captives of my two satanic years?
What miracle do you see in a Siberian blizzard?
What shimmering mirage around the circle of the moon?
I send each one of you my salutation, and farewell.

Pussy Riot may seem a long way from Akhmatova and Mandelstam, but as Carole Cadwallader wrote in yesterday’s Observer:

Don’t underestimate their bravery. The members of Pussy Riot whom I met, who put their balaclavas and colourful dresses in their bags when they go out to work or university, “like Batman”, were aware that bad things happen to people who dare to stand out in Putin’s Russia. Journalists die. Opposition politicians are beaten up. It’s no coincidence that Tolokonnikova, Alekhina, Samutsevich – Nadia, Masha and Katia – laughed and joked as they were sentenced on Friday. The trial was a joke.

They’re now going to pay the price. Russian women’s prisons are even harsher than the male ones. The women have been depicted on state television as evil satanists and their lawyers fear for their safety. It’s unlikely they’ll stay in Moscow; like Khodorkovsky, they’ll probably be shipped off to a far-off prison in Siberia away from family and friends, from their young children. It’s not a joke. It’s a brutal, nasty place, Putin’s Russia. And because of Pussy Riot, we all now know that now.

1989: The Baltic Way

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Baltic Way, a peaceful political protest on 23 August 1989 in which two million people joined hands to form a human chain nearly 400 miles long across the three Baltic republics of the Soviet Union to mark the 50th anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 which handed the Baltic states to the Soviet Union and destroyed their independence.  The chain connected the three Baltic capitals – Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn – and perhaps a quarter of the entire Baltic population joined it.

The Baltic Way was part of the larger struggle known as the ‘Singing Revolution’, a group of protests between 1987 and 1990, which helped regain independence for the Baltic states in August 1991. It got its name because, during many of the peaceful protests that took place during those years, protestors would gather in town squares to sing national songs that had been banned during Soviet rule.

In December 1989, the Congress of People’s Deputies accepted and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the report of a commission condemning the secret protocols of the 1939 Pact. In February 1990, the first free democratic elections to the Supreme Soviets took place in all three Baltic states and pro-independence candidates won majorities. On March 11, 1990, within six months of the Baltic Way, Lithuania became the first Soviet state to declare independence. The independence of all three Baltic states was recognized by most western countries by the end of 1991.

Footage of the human chain was this year inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, a list of 193 moments of global significance.

1989: When hope replaced repression

Hungary began dismantling its frontier barriers to Austria on May 2, 1989. This allowed East German citizens an unexpected escape route; the Iron Curtain had suffered its first tear. This picture shows numerous East German Trabants and Wartburgs parked on a Budapest street. East German refugees had driven to Hungary in these cars but abandoned them when they fled to the West.

This is the opening of an excellent article by Neal Ascherson in today’s special issue of the Observer Review, celebrating the events of 1989:

Twenty years ago, a landscape began to tremble. At first, nobody noticed anything special. In January 1989, business was much as usual in the Soviet half of Europe. Strikes in Poland, harassment of East German dissidents, a Czech playwright called Vaclav Havel arrested yet again after a small demonstration. The west had more important stories to think about. George Bush Sr was being inaugurated as president of the United States, and Salman Rushdie was in hiding after the Iranian fatwa. In Moscow, that wonderful Mikhail Gorbachev was pushing ahead with his perestroika and glasnost.

Then the trembling increased. The mountains around the cold war horizon began to wobble and fall over. Polish communism went first. Next, Hungary’s rulers published an abdication plan. In August, the Baltic republics of the Soviet Union began to demand independence. In November, Erich Honecker of East Germany was overthrown, and on 9 November the Berlin Wall was breached.

Next day, a palace coup in Bulgaria brought down Todor Zhivkov, the party leader. On 28 November, the Czechoslovak communist regime surrendered to the people. In December, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania was chased from office and shot. And just three days before the end of the year, on 29 December 1989, Vaclav Havel became president of the Czechoslovak Republic.

Links: Observer features

Katyn by Andrzej Wajda

I’ve been to see Andrzej Wajda’s magnificent, harrowing film, Katyn, the first dramatic account of the Katyn massacre of 1940, in which more than fourteen thousand Polish POWs, were murdered by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. The massacre itself is not seen until the very end of the film.  Before then Wajda has focussed attention on the way that both the Nazis and the Soviets used Katyn as propaganda. First, the Germans dug up the corpses in the forest and condemned the Bolshevik terror; later, when the war turned, the Red Army laid blame for the atrocity on the Nazis.

This the morass from which, after unbearable slaughter and inexplicable madness, Europe has extricated itself.

This extract from the review in the Independent highlights the deep personal meaning of Katyn for Wajda:

Katyn feels like a film that Wajda had to make. Having turned 83 in March, the director (Ashes and Diamonds is his best-known work here) has lived with his own anguish about the event for almost 70 years. He has said that Katyn, the history, is about two things, the crime and the lie: his dilemma was deciding which one the film should address. If the crime, it was about his father, one of the officers murdered in the forest; if the lie, it was about his mother, whom he watched wither and fade once she realised her husband was not coming home. In the end, of course, it is about both. The poignancy of it is the lie, which the Poles had to live with until as late as 1990, when the USSR finally admitted that the massacre was ordered by Stalin and carried out by the NKVD. In this regard Wajda’s film might come to represent for Poland the national poem of loss that The Lives of Others represents for the former GDR.

It’s appropriate to quote a Polish review of the film:

This work, the most important in the director’s career, is saturated with one emotion – pain, a pain that permeates the viewer. After Katyn, one can only be silent. Andrzej Wajda believes that now, after Katyn, other films will be made about this crime. I’ve allowed myself to disagree. Wajda’s film opens up and closes the issue of Katyn in Polish cinematography. Following the shocking last sequence of the film, nothing can be added.

(…) It’s no accident that the characters in the film have no family names, although we assume that the the character of the General is Mieczyslaw Smorawinski. The other characters in Katyn, Cavalry Captain Andrzej, Lieutenant (later Major) Jerzy, Lieutenant Pilot, are archetypes of Polish officers. They are husbands, sons, fathers.

This is Wajda speaking about the film:

Katyn is a special film in my long career as a director. I never thought I would live to see the fall of the USSR, or that free Poland would provide me with the opportunity to portray on the screen the crime and lies of Katyn.

While Stalin’s crime deprived my father of life, my mother was touched by the lies and the hoping in vain for the return of her husband.

The creation of the screenplay about Katyn took several years. The long, arduous process of looking through huge quantities of individual recollections, diaries, and other mementos confirmed my determination to base this first film about Katyn on the facts these materials related. And this is how the film’s opening scene on the bridge, as well as the one featuring Soviet soldiers defacing the Polish flag, came to be.

Most of the incidents depicted on the screen actually happened and were reported by eye-witnesses. While it is true that the details of the Katyn crime are now known, I couldn’t omit, in this first film about the event, the image of death; death that met twenty thousand Polish officers. They were murdered, one at a time, a fact that was recorded in their personal files. This is evidence that the Soviet Union failed to recognize or respect any international standards, not even with regard to prisoners of war.

All the men who died did so as members of the Polish intelligentsia, and this paved the way for Stalin’s subjugation of Poland. A parallel theme to the Katyn crime is the Katyn lie and the official Soviet line that the Germans had committed the deed in 1941 after invading Soviet territory during the war. This lie had its greatest impact on the wives, mothers, and daughters of the murdered officers. For it was these women, in their struggle to discover the truth, who experienced the greatest repression from the new government following 1945.

This is why, for years, Katyn has been an open, festering wound in the history of Poland that begged for a Polish film to address this topic.

Mention must also be made of the powerful score by Krzysztof Penderecki (consisting of excellently chosen phrases from whole works, including his Third Symphony, Second Cello Concerto, Polish Requiem (final credits), and, in the massacre sequence itself, his 1974 masterpiece ‘The Awakening of Jacob’, a cacophony of rasping strings and brass suggesting something tumultuous and terrifying,previously utilized in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

The film reminded me that last December BBC 2 broadcast an excellent series, World War 2: Behind Closed Doors, which examined the wartime relationship between the ‘Big Three’, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. One episode of the series dealt with the secret history of the Soviet attempt to cover up the mass murders at Katyn.

5 March 1940

This document contains the decision to liquidate the Polish officers and other state officials. Stalin’s signature of authorization is at the top.

This document, addressed to Stalin, was written by Lavrentiy Beria, People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs of the USSR, and requests authorization to kill 14,700 prisoners-of-war and 11,000 other prisoners.

Signatures of authorization from members of the Politburo appear on the left side of the first page of this document. They include Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov, and Mikoyan. In the notes on the margin the names appear of C(omrade) Kalinin and C(omrade) Kaganovich.

This is from an article by a researcher for the series,  Sally Chick, on the BBC website:

One of the central themes of the series ‘World War Two: Behind Closed Doors’ is the Katyn Massacre, which not only demonstrates Stalin’s cruelty, but also the balance of power in his relationship with Churchill and Roosevelt.

Soviet guilt for the murder of over 20,000 members of the Polish elite in 1940 was only admitted for the first time by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, and it wasn’t until 1992 that the document proving Stalin’s complicity in the crime was made public – over half a century after the crime was committed.

While proof of Soviet guilt for the murders at Katyn has been known for 16 years, we have been able to show how those murders took place through drama reconstruction in a way that has never been done before. Russian prosecutors conducted an investigation in the early 1990s, and we gained access to an interview with a man who helped to arrange the killings personally.

He described the executioner wearing a ‘brown leather apron’ and ‘brown leather gloves with cuffs over the elbows’, and told of how ‘they covered the doors to the shooting cells that led to the corridor so the sounds of the shootings couldn’t be heard’.

Such testimony gives a unique insight into the methods used to carry out the massacre and brings into focus the true cruelty of the crime.

Katyn: trailer

Katyn: opening sequence on the bridge

Katyn makes the point in its very first minutes: it’s 17 September 1939, the scene a bridge somewhere in Poland; two lines of refugees meet in the middle, one fleeing the Nazis who invaded on the first day of the month, the other fleeing the Soviets who are invading from the east.

Katyn: the final massacre sequence


Heavy Water: a film for Chernobyl

It’s the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster,and I’ve been watching Heavy Water: a film for Chernobyl. This is a film directed by David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky based on Mario Petrucci’s award-winning book-length poem, Heavy Water: a poem for Chernobyl. It tells the story of the people who dealt with the disaster at ground-level: the fire-fighters, soldiers, ‘liquidators’, and their families.

There are no facts given and there is no narration. Instead, the film uses Petrucci’s poetry to tell the story against a backdrop of haunting images from the modern Exclusion Zone and from archive communist newsreels.

I still believed I could save him. Milk, soup, kisses. As if
he could digest the touch of my lips, feel my making of broth

in his dissolving heart-chambers. When his breath shut,
when he began to cool — then — I called for family. It was

almost a miracle, the Doctors said. Four times the fatal dose
and he nearly turned round.

The poetry – read in the film by David Bickerstaff, Francine Brody, Juliet Stevenson, David Threlfall and Samuel West – is itself derived from eyewitness accounts. Near the end of the film, the narrator reads a long list of radioactive substances that were released into the environment, with the length of time each remains active in the environment. In the Soviet Union, Pripyat was once considered to be the town of the future, and effective use is made of old news footage to provide an insight into that era of optimism about the technology.

We worked naked. The old way.
A shovelful – sometimes a handful
at a time. Every mineshaft pisses itself.
But this – this one stank. Something
wrong in the water. And that heat.
As if there was more Earth above you
than below. We came out fainting
like girls. Our black wouldn’t wash.
We knew this was no ordinary ore.
That each grain we dug was worth a life.
We lived for morning. How it gave
delicate colour to the walls of our tunnel.
They filled it with mercury-water –
it thrashed at the sides as Holy Water
in some vein of hell. Liquid air
they said. Or this Reactor will sink
like Atlantis. And now there are those
who will not stand near us. To them
I say – How will you bury us? And so
we are all agreed. All we brothers –
from Kiev. Moscow. Dnepropetrovsk.
We vow to bury one another. This
is impossible they tell us. It cannot
be done. It can. We are miners.
We know how to dig.
– Mario Petrucci, ‘Miners (Chernobyl, 1986)’

On April 26th, 1986, reactor four at Chernobyl nuclear power station explodes, sending an enormous radioactive cloud over Northern Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus. The danger is kept a secret from the rest of the world and the nearby population who go about their business as usual. May Day celebrations begin, children play and the residents of Pripyat marvel at the spectacular fire raging at the reactor. After three days, an area the size of England becomes contaminated with radioactive dust, creating a ‘zone’ of poisoned land.

Chernobyl was the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history. It resulted in a severe release of radioactivity into the environment following a massive explosion. The plume drifted over extensive parts of the western Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Northern Europe, and eastern North America, with light nuclear rain falling as far as Ireland. Large areas in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia were badly contaminated, resulting in the evacuation and resettlement of over 336,000 people. The 2005 report prepared by the Chernobyl Forum, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization (WHO), attributed 56 direct deaths (47 accident workers, and nine children with thyroid cancer), and estimated that there may be 4,000 extra cancer deaths among the estimated 600,000 most highly exposed people.

The photo is by David McMillan, who began taking photos in the exclusion zone in 1994.