NIKITA MIKHALKOV–RUSSIA’S ANSWER TO RONALD REAGAN?
By Aleksandr Buzgalin and Ludmilla Bulavka
When the Russian actor and director Nikita Mikhalkov announced his intention to run for president of Russia in 2000, no one was particularly surprised: People have been talking about Mikhalkov’s political ambitions for six years now. What was surprising was the timing of the announcement, the circumstances in which it was made, and the figure who first supported this well-known “Russophile and ‘patriot.'” CIS secretary Boris Berezovsky–the richest and most popular Jew in Russia–was the first to support Mikhalkov publicly. Something of a paradox, to say the least.
It is not easy for Russians to write about this situation: Mikhalkov is a popular director but at the same time a reactionary and dangerous political figure. However, an analysis is an analysis, so we shall try to observe the rules of the genre.
1. THE OSCAR-WINNING RUSSOPHILE
Mikhalkov is a popular hero. The women who adore him deserve to be written about separately–ideally in verse. He has been a hero since Soviet times, and is probably the only one who is popular both with the democratic intelligentsia and with “simple Russians” nostalgic for the USSR. What is more, his movies and acting ability show real talent which is recognized by everyone–critics and audiences alike–in a display of unanimity rare in this day and age. He is admired both in Russia and the West. Even politicians recognize his talent–some with delight, others with real malice.
Mikhalkov’s development as a director, for all its apparent contradictions (he has filmed everything from Chekhovian psychological human dramas to thrillers, from musical tragedies to political novels), has in fact been fairly consistent in its meanderings. He films the heartfelt truth and does so without recourse to superfluous postmodern cleverness. What is more, he often films the truth which Mikhalkov the politician cannot say (or perhaps does not want to say). Mikhalkov the artist says it loud and clear.
This is particularly important for this essay. By virtue of his profound talent–we might even say his profoundly “Russian” talent, which is something akin to Esenin’s–Mikhalkov the artist tells the truth about us and our country, or perhaps “used to tell” the truth–we shall return to this. And here his partiality helps show us the truth. The partiality of Mikhalkov the politician is different. It is artificial and strained, which is why he tells lies. As the artist he is not afraid of concoction, exaggeration and absurdity, but he is plainly seen to be right. As the politician he tries to be scrupulously precise and ends up being ambiguous and untrue…
Foreign readers may need some commentary here. The easiest way to do this is to take the famous movie “Burnt by the Sun,” which won an Oscar and is the most political of Mikhalkov’s recent works. This is particularly appropriate because the movie is well known to western audiences and concerns perhaps the most painful theme of our past and present–Stalinism. The basis of the movie is a confrontation between a red general and a member of the Chekhovian intelligentsia in the late 1930s–at the height of Stalin’s repression. Clearly, viewers–particularly those from the democratic intellectual elite in the West and in Russia, to which Mikhalkov himself belongs–expect an epic about the nobility of the downtrodden intelligentsia and the base cruelty of the communist generals. But Mikhalkov the artist cannot (“could not?”) lie: The hero, played by Mikhalkov himself, is the honest, moral and utterly charming red general, whereas the intellectual–the ex-cadet and ex-emigre Mitya–is wonderfully portrayed as a typical representative of the international clique of liberal intellectuals, and turns out to be none other than a totally amoral paid agent of the NKVD. Moreover, Mikhalkov the red general gets the better of Mitya in their duel for the woman–triumphing as a Man, and in their duel for the child–triumphing as a Father…
But let us turn to Mikhalkov the politician.
2. THE CYNIC WITH THE TENDER SOUL OF AN ARTIST?
Mikhalkov the politician has been evolving since childhood. From birth he was the darling of the intellectual nomenklatura, or of the nomenklatura’s intellectuals, which in this case amounts to almost the same thing–his father was a famous laureate of every prize going in the USSR, and was treated with affection by every leader from Stalin onwards. As a son and brother, Nikita Sergeevich Mikhalkov embodied a logical continuation of his family’s work. Yet there was something different about him. “His own man among strangers, a stranger among his own” (this was the title of one of his better known movies), Mikhalkov was less of a nomenklatura Soviet director and more of a liberal patrician, with a great deal of joie de vivre and a bit of the political rebel in him.
As a politician he at first followed this line, making friends in 1992 with the then vice-president, the semi-dissident Aleksandr Rutskoi, another charmer, full of joie de vivre and a Man with a capital M. They were clearly united by their moderate political rebelliousness (until September 1993 Rutskoi was a leader, albeit it in opposition), their grand elegance, their joie de vivre. There was also something more important. There was an ambiguity, a political and ideological fuzziness in their stance with its tough core which did not fit into any western political categories: enlightened great power patriotism with an inclination toward a cultured but authoritarian all-powerful leader.
We may add to this active business interests, and the desire and ability to make money. Recently Mikhalkov put on a big Christmas show called “Russian Standard”, where Russia’s entire artistic beau monde were basically there to advertise the vodka of the same name. What we end up with is a natural and sincere striving toward a constitutional monarchy as a political form of great power capitalism. This is an attempt to translate Mikhalkov’s ideas and aspirations into the vernacular.
All this would amount to a naive search for enlightened stability on the part of the intellectual dilettante, were in not for a number of important “buts.” Unlike Mikhalkov the artist, Mikhalkov the politician is more cynical than sincere. In the cinema he has been consistent, at least up to now. In politics he has no qualms about abandoning his friends, though formally he does not betray them. Whether his friends deserve any other sort of treatment is another matter. This is what happened to Rutskoi. This is also what happened to Chernomyrdin: Mikhalkov supported his election campaign, but immediately afterward declined to prolong their political collaboration. Let us not forget that after the upheaval of October 1993, Mikhalkov lost no time in rebranding his image from that of a moderate oppositionist to that of an immoderate Yeltsin-ite, going to all lengths to eulogize the president during the 1996 election campaign. Now that Yeltsin’s latest serious illness has made it clear–at least to Mikhalkov–that it is time to place new bets, our hero has decided to back… himself.
Mikhalkov the politician is also a pragmatist; there can be no faulting his judgment in backing himself. Not because Mikhalkov the candidate is likely to win the presidential election (quite the reverse), but because Mikhalkov the businessman is likely to profit. In the West election campaigns may be an expensive business, but in Russia, if you use your head and follow the rules, a great deal of money is there for the making.
Yet Mikhalkov is not motivated purely by cynicism. In fact, the three Mikhalkovs we are discussing here are one person. And this person is first and foremost an artist, at least up to now. And as such, while not forgetting his two other incarnations, he is sincerely looking for something which would: (1) save HIS Russia, (2) achieve HIS grand and at the same time intellectual taste for enlightened power, (3) assist HIS business, and (4) assuage his martyr’s conscience about the people–for who among Russia’s patrician intellectuals did not think above all about saving the people and the Great Power?
Thus, other than the monarch’s crown–accompanied by a constitution, naturally–Mikhalkov the politician has not managed to find anything which would enable him to reconcile his nomenklatura background, his patrician soul and his entrepreneur’s head for business.
Furthermore, he has already tried the crown on for size…
3. THE 21ST CENTURY MONARCHIST
Mikhalkov’s new movie, “The Barber of Siberia,” aspires to the Oscars and other international industry awards, and has already begun its triumphant procession around Russia, though no one has actually seen it yet. The publicity surrounding the movie would be the envy of “Titanic”–Russia’s entire federal budget could not run to the sums involved. The movie combines everything in the best traditions of post-modernism: a singer critical of the spirit of the west and market civilization, the enemy of the elite and the aristocracy (the Figaro character here), and the “Tsar-Father” Aleksandr III, again shown in the best light and played by–you’ve guessed it–Nikita Mikhalkov.
It is difficult to write about a movie which no one has seen. It is possible that it will show talent and that Mikhalkov the artist will give Mikhalkov the politician a merciless thrashing. It is possible, but not very likely. Why? Because this time Mikhalkov has chosen for his hero one of Russia’s most grim dictators. In their hearts and minds, our fellow citizens associate Aleksandr III, then as now, with oppressiveness and stagnation, cosmetic reform and moral degradation. In some ways the period was similar to the Brezhnev stagnation, the time which the “average” Russian now looks back on with nostalgia, the time which was the most terrible for Russia because it led not only to deep crisis, but also turned most of us into philistines with atrophied social muscles, a flock of sheep led unresistingly to the slaughter in 1991.
If you want to understand the Russia of the 1870s and 1880s–and indeed of the 1970s and 1980s–then read Saltykov-Shchedrin, who has been translated into many languages. There is no better description than that of this great Russian satirist. Reading him, you will find a world where democracy is in the throes of death, philistinism reigns supreme, culture is dying out (or only developing in spite of, rather than thanks to, the situation) and the nomenklatura is being reformed.
Why has such a talented man as Mikhalkov chosen this period as his ideal, whether consciously or unwittingly?
The answer is that Russians today dream about the stagnation period. A good and strong Tsar (for the people) but also an enlightened Tsar (for the intellectuals). A Tsar who would take control, defend me, and, most important, not leave me to fend for myself in the difficult task which History has set every Russian–how to deal with mafia capitalism and crisis. And they also dream about a constitutional monarchy, where there is a certain amount of freedom (liberal intellectuals can play at elections), and where the guarantor of stability and continuity is not just one person but a whole aristocratic class. Moreover, this idea of a “new” aristocracy as a hereditary elite would probably suit New Russians because, as has already been written, the formation of cliquish corporate capitalism is almost complete, and the upper echelons of these cliques dream of evolving from chance associates into a hereditary aristocracy. This is the key to why the greatest enemy of all Russia’s anti-Semites, Boris Berezovsky, decided to support Mikhalkov–pretty much the greatest “great power” advocate.
So Mikhalkov the pragmatist is right to back this particular horse in his political games. But the fact that he is right here is inconsequential. He is offensively wrong–for Mikhalkov the artist–in the larger scheme of things, because in the real Russia an aristocratic “constitutional monarchy” (in fact, a cliquish corporate-authoritarian presidential system) will be seen to be nothing other than a legalized countrywide thieves’ den. Cliquish corporate capitalism in Russia can only be (unless we break its neck) an inefficient and reactionary mixture of the worst characteristics of Soviet stagnation and Colombian lawlessness. Why? Somebody has already written an article on this theme: “Russia–Capitalism’s Jurassic Park.”
Can Mikhalkov the people’s artist really not see and understand this? Or does Mikhalkov the presidential candidate not want to understand it? Or is it not in Mikhalkov the businessman’s best interests to understand it?
Aleksandr Buzgalin is a Doctor of Economics and a professor at Moscow State University. He is a leader of Russia’s Democratic Socialist Movement.
Ludmilla Bulavka is the chief scientific officer at the Institute of Employment Issues of the Russian Academy of Sciences.