I’ve had this dreadful summer chest cold over the last week or so; it’s taking forever to go away. I have tried to go about business as usual, but it persists, so on Monday I just laid in bed all day determined to vanquish it with as much liquids, honey, throat lozenges, and rest as possible. I was too miserable to read, so television was the only option. I turned on my reliable Turner Classic Movies only to find that forgettable 1930s caper movies were the order of the day, and so surfed around on Netflix for a bit and chose one of their new offerings called The Last Czars, and once it was on, streaming and streaming, I found that I could not look away, simply because it was so awful. I was aghast; I remain aghast. If this is where history dramatizations are going, it’s over for us a civilization. Let me just start with one illustration of the series’ sloppiness: a screenshot supposedly representing “Moscow in 1905” with Lenin’s Mausoleum (which assumed its present form around 1930) clearly visible! Everything is fluid, right; Russian Empire, Soviet Union, what’s the difference?
I’m certainly not the first to point this error out: the series has received scathing reviews both in the West and in Russia (this particularly essay is great). And I’m also no Russian history expert, but even I noticed all sorts of little “discrepancies” and much chronological confusion: without sufficient context, the Russo-Japanese War seems to morph right into the First World War. But these are not the primary sins of The Last Czars (why “czars” and not “tsars”; and why plural?): its most glaring fault is its format, a weird, even bizarre, hybrid of talking-head commentary and very intimate drama. One minute we’re hearing that the Nicholas and Alexandra had a rare royal loving relationship and the next minute we’re seeing them rolling around on the bed and the floor with very little left to our imaginations. These transitions are far from seamless: when it first happened I thought (in my cold-medicine-induced haze) that I had somehow changed the channel. There’s nothing particularly new about the docudrama, but the contrast between the drama and the commentary is heightened to an unwatchable degree by the intense focus on the personal in the scripted scenes of The Last Czars, so that both parts of the production do not add up to something whole or greater, but something far less. It is neither feast nor fowl.
It’s all so personal and so sexual: perish the thought that an idea, a consideration, or even a well-articulated sentiment existed in the realm of the Romanovs. Even before the inevitable arrival of Rasputin there is gratuitous sex and once he is in the picture there is of course more, much more. No doubt the producers of The Last Czars have rationalized the inclusion of so much sex as a way to uncover their subjects’ humanity but instead they have robbed them of their dignity, particularly the Tsar and Tsarina, and their daughter Maria, often described as innocently flirtatious but ready to go all the way with a Bolshevik guard in the series’ last episode. Obviously there’s nothing fresh or new about the focus on Rasputin or the continuous thread of the Anastasia impostor, which serves no purpose that I could see. The sole redeeming features I could find in this soulless series are the contemporary film clips and anti-Rasputin ephemera (though I have since learned that the latter date from after the mad monk’s death in 1916) but even they add to the confusion of the presentation. After watching as much of The Last Czars as I could take, I felt worse, both for myself and for the Romanovs, who died very early on this very day one hundred and one years ago.
The last photograph of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, where they were executed in the early hours of July 17, 1918.
I’m thinking about Russia this week for two reasons. In a year of big historical anniversaries, we have now arrived at the centenary of the Russian Revolution–which I must say is not getting much play here, or even in Russia apparently! Regardless of how it turned out in the end, this was an extremely consequential event, almost right up there with Luther’s revolutionary Reformation, which has received some serious commemoration across the globe. It is always interesting to me what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. I’m also thinking about Russia now, because of an event this week sponsored by the Pickering House featuring Ambassador Emeritus Thomas R. Pickering, former US Ambassador to the United Nations (under President George H.W. Bush) and Russia (under President Clinton). The title of Ambassador Pickering’s Thursday night talk is Russia and the United States: Marriage, Separation, Divorce? , which sounds very timely indeed. I have to admit that I’m thinking about Russia for a third, much more materialistic reason too: I recently came upon a trove of porcelain propaganda plates from the first decade of the Soviet Union, and I’m obsessed with both the images and the idea of these “vessels”. The idea is so contradictory: porcelain and propaganda? Porcelain is for the elite, propaganda for the masses: why should these two things ever come together? Apparently there is a utilitarian reason: in the years after the Revolution and Civil War, shortages were great and opportunities for projection were few, but when the new government took over the famous Imperial Porcelain Factory it found a ready supply of blank porcelain plates. Russian artists were mobilized to adorn these “canvases” with revolutionary symbols and slogans, a dramatic departure from the Factory’s previous designs: hammers and sickles rather than gilded flowers. The designs are all so striking: some are symbolic, some folkloric, some futuristic, all vivid. Here are a few examples from the Hermitage, which is opening an exhibition next month titled The Voice of the Time. Soviet Porcelain: Art and Propaganda.
“Red Man” with “All Power to the Soviets” banner, Mikhail Adamovich and Maria Kirillova, 1921; “Red Genius” with the slogan “We will Emblazon the World with the Third International”, Alisa Golenkina, 1920.
“The Star”, Mikhail Adamovich, 1921; “Large Star with Sheaf “, Nina Zander, Sergey Chekhonin and L.Vychegzhanin, 1921; “Who Does Not Work, Neither Will He Eat”, Maria Lebedeva, 1920.
“Stir” Cup & Saucer, Alexandra Shchekotikhina-Pototskaya, 1920; “A Hammer, Sickle, and Gear Wheel” Cup & Saucer, Victor Rilde, 1921-22.
Despite all the unsettling things about the Sochi Olympics (“urban renewal”, intolerance, dead dogs, slushy snow), I’ve been trying to watch the events pretty consistently–especially skiing and speed skating, which I really enjoy. In general, I prefer the Winter Olympics to the Summer (watching swimming is boring), but there are several things that are really bothering me about these particular games. Actually the first thing is more general than specific: NBC’s coverage, which always annoys me–and they have broadcast the Olympics for as long as I can remember. In prime time, there are far too many commercials, personal stories, and muttering commentators, and not enough consistent coverage of single events–except, of course, figure skating and ice dancing, which I’m not convinced is even a sport (if we have ice dancing in the Winter Olympics shouldn’t we have other types of dancing in the Summer games?) And by the time I tune in, I know much of what has already happened anyway–this strikes me as an odd way to broadcast a global event in this internet age. The second thing that troubles me about Sochi is its subtropical climate: I still don’t understand why (besides Putin’s will) we are having the Winter games in a city with an average winter temperature of 52 degrees. The mild temperatures and fog seem to have affected the events and the athletes in myriad ways, and obviously Russia has many more winter-appropriate locations.
But what troubles me most of all about these games is the increasing dissonance between the activities in Sochi and what is happening to the north–in the same general Black Sea region–in Ukraine. The juxtaposition between the ringing cattle bells in Sochi and blood in the streets of Kiev is striking, all the more so because of the relative physical proximity and recent historical context. I had been planning to feature some mid-century Winter Olympics posters here, but instead I’m going for posters issued by Intourist, the official Soviet travel agency, which beckoned tourists to Ukraine and its surrounding regions just a few years after (or even during?) the dreadful Soviet-induced Ukrainian Famine (Holodomor) of 1932-33, which caused the death of over 6 million people (the estimates of mortality vary widely according to source). Such striking, cheerful graphic images: dissonance indeed.
Soviet Intourist posters from the 1930s from Radio Free Europe; the “See USSR” exhibit at the Gallery of Russian Arts and Design, London; and the Boston Public Library.