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(en) Eastern Europe, Makhno’s army hits the Russian screen - “The Nine Lives of Nestor Makhno”

Date Fri, 16 Nov 2007 18:48:11 +0200


The film “The Nine Lives of Nestor Makhno” is probably the longest biography of an anarchist ever put on the screen – it is 12 parts long. It was filmed in Ukraine about two years ago, but for some reason was only broadcast on Russian state-owned Channel 1 last summer. ----- Sometimes a dream come true can be quite the opposite of what one has dreamt about. Last summer a TV film series about Makhno and the makhnovshchina [the popular libertarian peasant movement in Ukraine, which took place during the Russian revolution of 1917-1921 and resisted the royalist White Guards, Ukrainian nationalists and Bolsheviks] came to Russian TV screens. The producers of the film – and the TV promo ads most of all – promised that it would be “the first truthful film about Makhno”, which would finally pay a tribute to a man, who was much lied about in the USSR, but was never quite forgotten by the people.

The film – “The Nine Lives of Nestor Makhno” – is probably the longest biography of an anarchist ever put on the screen – it is 12 parts long. It was filmed in Ukraine about two years ago, but for some reason was only broadcast on Russian state-owned Channel 1 last summer. Even before that, though, it appeared on pirated DVDs and hit market stalls. Shortly before the TV release and publication of the “authorized” DVD version, a two-volume film script was also published.

When finally on air last July, the film managed to capture the attention of a large TV audience. This was only partly due to heavy advertising and mostly due to the fact that it was indeed the first feature film ever dedicated to Makhno (although he was present as a “bad guy” on the margins of some Soviet films). Russian television is not short of TV series – in fact it is one long nauseating TV series nowadays – but not all of them get similar audience attention or are so talked about. The quality of soap operas is seldom very good, as you can imagine, but in this case the viewers became very interested in the history itself.

To quote one very positive, but not at all uncommon, review: “In this TV series the anarchist idea, as it is felt and understood by Makhno, is the purest and most ethical of the ideas which were driving the people in those stormy days”. You will never guess what newspaper this review was published in. It was in fact Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), the newspaper of the Russian Ministry of Defense!

Several months after the screening, you can still see Internet discussions about the film – not only in the media and blogs, but also on anarchist and leftist websites. Quite often the judgments of the film are not even linked to political views of this or that person – among those who like it are both anarchists and their bitter opponents. Judgments vary from total sympathy and acceptance of the film to very critical and negative reviews.

What is sad and misleading, though, is that the film often has little to do with any real understanding of the trends in the Russian revolution and the civil war, not to mention Makhno and the anarchists portrayed there. Sometimes even the anarchists fall prey to the “quite sympathetic” portrait of Makhno in the film, refusing to see how this creates yet more myths and misconceptions about this anarchist hero.

In my humble opinion, “The Nine Lives of Nestor Makhno” is a rather poor-quality TV series, similar to many others now on screen. Serial production is carried out under the strict dictates of the budget – you have to film cheaply and fast (and this is also one of the reasons why filming was done in Ukraine, since it is cheaper to produce films there). Nevertheless, the lion’s share of the budget is still spent on advertising and promotion. Another result of the budget limitations is that the historical reconstruction – from the costumes to the unnatural-looking battle scenes or armored cars – is rather unconvincing. This would be not so disastrous, if the story was told right, but in fact the authors of the film scripts managed to put together all the true and all the false stories about Makhno together. Probably the only big lie about Makhno that is absent in the film is that he and the Makhnovists were anti-Semitic.

I would say that most of the acting in the film is rather poor and the filmmakers failed to be consistent – while the anarchists, Bolsheviks or Ukrainian nationalists are portrayed with a “comic” air, the Russian nobility, White guards or tsarist political police look more “serious” (and Jews are portrayed as a mixture of comic figures and tragic sufferers in the turmoil of the civil war). In short, name a political stereotype, some of which date back to ideological Soviet cinema, and you will surely find it in the film – mixed with something new, but still present.

Nevertheless, I quite often had the sensation that the film was actually an unacknowledged revolutionary epic. In fact, though the film makers often show Makhno and his insurgents as funny, they are never seen as bad guys. They may not be wise enough to understand “big politics”, but at least they are not wicked murderers and pogromists. It would be wrong to say that the film producers aimed to give a historically correct, balanced and unbiased view of the makhnovshchina. First and foremost, it is a show and the audience should be entertained.

Historical characters are mostly caricatures in the film. Makhno, played by actor Pavel Derevyanko (sometimes the acting is not bad, but quite often it is substandard), is a mixture of a kind-hearted young man and a not-so-intellectual revolutionary, the flesh and blood of the people. He may not be bright enough to talk the talk of intellectuals, but he does understand the people and is able to communicate with them effectively and lead the popular struggle against all kinds of oppressors. He is a down-to-earth, no-bullshit man, but he is also full of peasant wit and wisdom. The way this is actually put on screen may be different from the “historical” Makhno. But wasn’t he in essence all of the above? He is sometimes shown in the film as a psychotic type, a heavy drinker or a revolutionary desperado, but still he is “the good guy”.

The long list of historical figures in the film are also quite far from their prototypes. Arshinov, the famous participant and historian of the makhnovshchina, a professional revolutionary who actually knew how to rob banks and shoot cops, was turned into a funny, completely out of this world intellectual, the type they used to show in Soviet films as an impractical anarchist dreamer. For some reason Vsevolod Volin is completely absent from the film. Kropotkin appears for a short time in the film, but as a complete lunatic, obsessed with his books and not even able to notice Makhno’s presence. Lenin, whom Makhno met in Moscow, is rather boring and still presents the voice of practical political “wisdom” as opposed to both Makhno’s revolutionary romanticism and peasant “narrowness”. While Trotsky is rightfully pictured as a wicked and bitter opponent of the makhnovshchina, there is way too much of a cartoon devil about him, rather than the practical dictator that he really was.

Makhno’s field commanders are also to large extent inventions of the film makers – the different psychological types they needed to entertain the viewer, very loosely based on their prototypes. And all in all, it is the acting that plays a big role in whether the character is shown sympathetically or not. For example, Leva Zadov, head of Makhno’s “political police” and a very contradictory figure, is quite a nice guy in the film and a decent anarchist. The head of Makhno’s army staff, Victor Belash, is also a sympathetic revolutionary worker type, but the authors of the film changed his name to Chernysh for some reason, probably in order to link him to the black flag of anarchy (“cherny” means black in Russian, while “bely” is white).

Historical events also do not look quite real in the film. While the general outline of the makhnovshchina is quite correct, some major topics are misrepresented in the film. The authors are hardly sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, but still the latter are portrayed as the bearers of some practical wisdom of government (and yet, aren’t they at the same time the evil instigators of a bloody revolution and civil war, as modern-day Russian propaganda tells us?). The troublesome unions between Bolsheviks and Makhnovists against the Whites are still seen by the film makers in a Bolshevik light. Some major events are omitted, such the battle of Peregonovka, which was a major blow to the Whites and an event that to some extent decided the outcome of the civil war in Russia, while other events – like the murder of Makhno’s first wife and child by the anarchists in an attempt to keep Makhno involved in politics – are a pure invention by the film makers to make it a thriller!

The lack of a decent history consultant is sometimes very evident in the film. The prisons of the tsarist regime and their inmates look more like they are set in present-day Russia. Makhno sometimes makes quite strange xenophobic remarks about the Americans, Chinese or Estonians – an evident attempt by the film makers to connect him to some present-day politics, which sounds ridiculous. One of Makhno’s field commanders even sings a couple of lines from a 1980’s Russian punk song, “Black Flag”, instead of a lost historical anarchist song of the same name!

Much of the discussions on the film are centered around what anarchy stands for. But unfortunately for the viewers, it is impossible to understand anything. There are several occasions in the film when anarchists try to explain themselves, but basically this turns into pointless dialogues of the kind they used to have in Soviet films: “What do you propose? You propose nothing! You basically say that everything should be abolished!” The anarchists in the film are either not gifted speakers, unable to say what they mean, or they make rather childish, trite explanations. In the end, it is absolutely unclear why the down-to-earth peasants kept supporting Makhno and the anarchists in spite of the severe repression and executions that were inflicted on them by the Bolsheviks, Whites and Ukrainian nationalists.

No doubt, one will see in this film whatever one’s political sympathies allow (but some Russian anarchists tend to take the TV Makhno at face value!). While being a critical viewer of the film, at some points I couldn’t help feeling that in spite of all of its faults the film is a tribute to the tragic history of the makhnovshchina and the failed Russian revolution. This of course, is due to the fact that the history of the makhnovshchina is in itself a very tragic saga and any at least mildly sympathetic transcription of it onto the screen can’t but move you. Then again, do we need a TV picture to remember fallen comrades?

All in all, the “historical truthfulness” of the film is in doubt, although it is the main catchphrase used to promote “The Nine Lives”. But in spite of this, the film generated real popular interest in Makhno. His own memoirs, Arshinov’s classic “History of the Makhnovist Movement”, popular books on Makhno or even some occasional historical studies have all been published in Russia in recent years, but a major series aired on prime time TV has no doubt fostered popular interest in him to a much greater extent. And if a person moved by the film comes across at least one of more or less decent books, this may be a good start to getting to know the popular enfant terrible of the Russian revolution. It’s just that one should understand that in no way should a TV series be treated as a proper history book.


Mikhail Tsovma
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