In the Shadow of Totalitarianism: Askol'dov's Vision of Soviet Society in Commissar

Elena Monastireva-Ansdell, Oberlin College

In his 1967 film Commissar, Askol'dov utilizes the frame-work of the historical-Revolutionary film set in the Civil War period to search for the roots of totalitarianism in Soviet society and to comprehend the lasting effect of totalitarian structures upon the Thaw generation, an issue particularly relevant for the last years of Thaw which witnessed a reversal to authoritarianism. Stalin's administrative-command methods and his drive for militarization of Soviet economy created a semi-militarized society that knew to follow the orders from above and give priority to the interests of the state. Stalinist historical-Revolutionary films of the 1930s helped to found and legitimize, through mediation of the Civil War imagery, an ideal image of Soviet society as a disciplined and often militarized entity, that recognizes and obeys authority. Askol'dov, like the directors of the Stalinist historical-Revolutionary films, looks back to the 1920s in his discussion of highly contemporary issues. Unlike them, he does not use the Civil War material to legitimize authority, but searches for the origins of authoritarianism in the founding years of the Soviet state. The violent means through which the Soviet power was established in the Civil War years, according to Askol'dov, defined the nature of Soviet society for years to come. Askol'dov's Commissar, Klavdija Vavilova, is an agent, as well as a product of the war's militaristic hierarchy. When she is removed from the world ruled by military laws and ideological considerations, Klavdija does not know how to function in a normal life. The commissar's situation in the film becomes a reflection of the position of Soviet society as whole, the society that entered the liberal atmosphere of the cultural and political Thaw after decades of totalitarian rule.

Askol'dov depicts his heroine's journey of spiritual liberation in a normal life in a number of scenes, each bringing Klavdija closer to the emotional and spiritual climax she experiences at the end of the film. Askol'dov uses the poetic potential of montage cinematography ingeniously, and manages to create visual expressions of such intangible notions as motherhood, compassion, love, and spirituality, that Klavdija discovers during the period of her stay with her Jewish host-family, and which clash with such concrete and threatening images of war and totalitarianism as heavy metal weaponry and stone walls. But while Askol'dov presents his heroine with a humane alternative to her militarized world, he is very skeptical about a possibility of her complete and final liberation from the oppressive powers that rule that world. The film, reflecting the concerns of the shestidesjatniki about the fate of the Thaw's liberal reforms in the later 1960s, does not envision a future for a humanitarian ideal in the system that became too rooted in totalitarian methods and too severed from spirituality and humanity.

In a close analysis of just one scene from Commissar (Klavdija's walk to the old synagogue after the birth of her child), I will demonstrate Askol'dov's vision of Soviet society as it bids farewell to the brief spell of liberalism in the second half of the 1960s.