06 April 2020

Venerable Platonida of Syria, Deaconess and Abbess of Nisibis

Saint Platonida of Nisibis

Today, alongside the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Methodius, we commemorate a Syrian anchoress who reposed in the early fourth century, Saint Platonida of Nisibis. A brief hagiography was transcribed by Saint Dmitri of Rostov in the seventeenth century, and this is still used in the OCA and the Russian prologues for the sixth of April.

Saint Platonida [also Platōnis, Gk. Πλατωνὶς] was a deaconess in Mesopotamia. The deaconess was a specifically-ordained office in the ancient church, specifically for women who would observe the order in the Church and assist bishops during the baptism of female catechumens. The deaconess was expected to be literate and to know the Liturgy. She would be tasked with instructing women and girls in the teachings of the Church, preparing them to answer the questions of the officiating priest at their baptism, and after baptism to continue instructing them in the ways of the Church. In the ancient church – and in some modern Orthodox churches as well – the nave was separated by sex, and the deaconess would preside over the female (north) half of the Church, greet female parishioners at the door, be present at women’s confessions, visit female parishioners when they were sick or dying, and so forth. In the ancient church, canon law prescribed that only women over forty – and then, women of celibate life, usually virgins or virtuous widows – would be considered for the office of deaconess*.

Saint Platonida served in this office for some years, and then desiring a life closer to Christ in holy solitude, withdrew into the deserts near Nisibis, modern-day Nusaybin on the Turkish-Syrian border. She established a community of holy virgins there, over which she presided as abbess. She led by holy example as much as by a monastic rule. However, the rule she set out for her sisters was particularly strict. Nuns would eat only once per day. The rest of their time they would spend in prayer or in studies of the writings of the Church Fathers, or in work: particularly needlework.

However, on Fridays, in remembrance of the suffering and death of Christ on the Cross, all the nuns’ work would stop and no classes would be held in the convent. The whole day would be devoted to prayer and to silent meditation on divine things. Sisters were expected to stay in the oratory the whole day on Friday, from morning to night, and while they were not praying they would listen to readings and commentaries on the Holy Scriptures.

Though her rule was strict and exacting, Saint Platonida was gentle with her sisters and did not ask them to do anything she was unwilling to do herself. She taught her nuns primarily by example, striving every day to please God with a blameless life of love and generosity. On the sixth of April in the year 308, Saint Platonida departed this life in peace in the company of her sisters, to join in the feast of the Heavenly Bridegroom. Holy deaconess and abbess Platonida, tutor of the Syrian nation, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Note: The question of ‘deaconesses’ in the Church is unfortunately a fraught one in the modern setting. Some of the confusions over this issue are deliberate and politically-motivated. Some Orthodox churches, like the Russian Church and the Church of Japan, still ordain deaconesses in their traditional apostolic rôle as leaders of classes in the catechumenate for girls and women who inquire about the Faith, and as officiants at the baptism and chrismation of female catechumens. Monasteries for nuns also employ deaconesses in an officiating capacity.

However, the office of deaconess has been unduly politicised by feminists, where its introduction is meant to serve as a rhetorical ‘wedge’ to speed the acceptance and ordination of female priests. Simply put: this is never how the office was understood in the ancient Church in which Saint Platonida served, and it is not how the office is understood now in the churches that have retained it. There are no Orthodox priestesses, استغفر الله, in Russia, in Japan or in Alexandria. Orthodox believers indeed should be aware of, and vigilant against, such bad-faith arguments holding forth the historical presence of deaconesses as an argument for ordination of women to the priesthood.

Unfortunately, there has been a politicisation as well in the opposite direction. This takes the form of reactionary, mostly-American clergy claiming that the office of deaconess never existed, or that it was not an ordained office, or that it did not belong to the apostolic age and is therefore less-valid. Against the first charge, the mere existence of saints like Phœbe and Platonida ought to be witness enough to its sheer falsity. Against the second, the confusion stems from a fundamentally-Western clericalist understanding of ‘ordination’ as a kind of liminal wall between those appointed to pastoral ministry and the common laity: in the Orthodox Church, even the laity are tonsured and ordained at baptism or chrismation! And yes, the office of deaconess was an ordained office. And against the third objection, it is merely necessary to note that the artificial separation of the ‘apostolic age’ from all subsequent mediæval developments – including deaconesses – is the delusional præoccupation of evangelical Protestants and takfiri-Salafi Islâmists, and is utterly alien to the historical witness of Orthodoxy.

04 April 2020

New blog: Silk and Chai

Dear readers,

For over ten years The Heavy Anglo Orthodox has been essentially my online journal (that is the whole purpose of a blog, is it not?) on pretty much every subject that catches my fancy. On this blog, originally meant to be a Peace Corps journal for my time in Kazakhstan which turned out to be all-too-brief, I’ve explored religious philosophy, theology (in particular Anglican and Orthodox theology), heavy metal music, Cooper family genealogy, American politics with an emphasis on communitarianism, global politics, poetry, anthropological and cultural studies of the indigenous peoples of North Asia, Star Trek, Chinese opera, the cinema of Kazakhstan, and a number of other things.

To tell the truth, there’s quite a bit of clutter here, not all of which falls very well under the title The Heavy Anglo Orthodox. In any event, this blog has been drifting in a more ‘devotional’ direction anyway over the past year and a half, with a particular emphasis on the hagiographies of Orthodox saints. Quite honestly, it feels like that’s how it should be. A blog with Orthodox in the name should probably have a more religious focus in any event.

As a result, I am offboarding my gæopolitical commentary – including matters having to do with Russia, China, Iran and the Arab world – to a new blog, Silk and Chai. Silk and Chai can be considered a spiritual successor to my old now-defunct Chinese-language Weibo blog, The Tocharian Rider. It’s subtitled ‘Left-Eurasianist political meditations’, which is accurate but not entirely precise. Anything to do with axiomodern politics, food sovereignty, rural reconstruction, the world system, socialism, analysis and criticism of imperialism and so forth – from now on is to be found at Silk and Chai.

This is from now on, though, I hasten to add. The entirety of the content that is currently on The Heavy Anglo Orthodox will stay here. I’m really bad at archival maintenance, as can be seen by all the broken picture links in old blog posts from way back when. It’s best to leave things where they stand, though Silk and Chai articles will be expected to link back here a lot. I also may end up creating a parallel blog for my cultural commentary; we shall see soon.

So please, gentle readers, if you’ve appreciated any of the political commentary I’ve done over the years, please have a look at Silk and Chai, give the Facebook page a ‘like’, follow me on Twitter and so forth.

02 April 2020

Ovsyanki: one last fire on the river

Miron (Yuri Tsurilo) and Aist (Igor Sergeev) in Ovsyanki

I recently watched the 2010 film Ovsyanki (literally, ‘The Buntings’, but rendered with the inept English title as Silent Souls) written and based on a novella by Denis Osokin, and directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko. I’ve got some very strong, but decidedly mixed feelings about this film. It purports to be a depiction of the dying culture of the Finnic Merya people of the Volga basin in central Russia, as seen through the eyes of two natives of Kostroma Oblast: a grieving widower Miron, the director of a paper mill who wants to give his dead wife a ‘traditional’ Merya riverside cremation; and his employee Aist, a middle-aged bachelor and poet who also had a connexion with the departed woman.

I have some mixed feelings about the concept, for starters. The Merya people were a real, historical tribe, which spoke a Finnic tongue closely related to the still-living Mari language. They are attested in a sixth-century source, Jordanes’ Getica, as one of the peoples alongside the neighbouring Mordvins who were conquered and subject to the rule of the Gothic king Ermanaric [or Aírmenareiks 𐌰𐌹𐍂𐌼𐌰𐌽𐌰𐍂𐌴𐌹𐌺𐍃]:
23. 116. Soon Geberich, king of the Goths, departed from human affairs and Ermanaric, noblest of the Amali, succeeded to the throne. He subdued many warlike peoples of the north and made them obey his laws, and some of our ancestors have justly compared him to Alexander the Great. Among the tribes he conquered were the Golthescytha, Thiudos, Inaunxis, Vasinabroncæ, Merens, Mordens, Imniscaris, Rogas, Tadzans, Athaul, Navego, Bubegenæ and Coldæ.
Conveniently for Osokin and Fedorchenko, these people were assimilated entirely and successfully into the Russian populace – a fact acknowledged ruefully by Aist in the film – and apart from a handful of toponyms very little actually remains of the Merya language or culture. The river-funeral and wedding rites described in the film seem to be, at best, very recent Romanticist attempts at neopagan reconstruction – if they are not, in fact, whole-cloth sexual wish-fulfilment fantasies on the part of Osokin and Fedorchenko. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are unworthy of consideration, but it does mean that we must treat the narrator as, to a certain degree, unreliable. The film becomes not so much genuine ethnography as the expression of a certain form of post-Soviet cultural insecurity and longing. It is quite believable that people who live in Volga towns with Finnic names attempt to reconstruct a meaningful local, historically-rooted identity for themselves: there is, in fact, a local attempt to revive the Merya language the way Aist is seen to be doing in the film.

This much having been said, Ovsyanki is a deeply-touching and remarkably well-made film. Technically both a road movie and a buddy movie as well as a retrospective romance between Miron and his wife Tanya, Ovsyanki seems to imbue these almost-misleading genre labels with a defying sense of middle-aged male pathos. Fedorchenko is a fan of long static takes, slow pans and a range of focus which provide the film a strong slice-of-life sense, and he uses these to convincingly convey a number of strong emotional effects: grief and humour and sensuality. The score of the film is understated and sombre; and the colours largely cool and muted – the bright yellows and oranges are reserved for Aist’s flashback memories of his childhood life, before his mother died and his father fell into depression.

The story itself is fairly simple, but it runs deep and is made to carry a great deal of thematic weight. Miron (Yuri Tsurilo) asks Aist (Igor Sergeev) to assist him in cremating Tanya (Yuliya Aug), which he wants to be as quiet and as private an affair as possible. Aist takes along the two buntings he bought, afraid that if he leaves them alone for days that they will starve to death. Miron processes his grief by telling Aist the intimate details of his marriage with Tanya, a kind of wake observance which Aist calls ‘smoking’. They bathe and decorate Tanya’s body, wrap it in a blanket and bundle it into the back of Miron’s car, and set off for Gorbatov on the Oka River, which is the preferred site for riverside cremations. As they proceed, Miron reminisces about Tanya, and Aist recalls his father the poet (Viktor Suhorukov), and how the death of his mother affected him. They get to Gorbatov and perform the rite, but Miron gets lost on the way home to Neya and the film takes a very different turn for the two men, who, as Aist tells us early on in the film, are fated not to make it home.

As with Shaman (and, indeed, with many films made by ethnic minority peoples under the Soviets – like Baksy, Shal and even Baikonur), a key theme here is the juxtaposition and clash of a primordial and protean antiquity with industrial modernity. The key difference here, is that the films made by these existing cultures tend to portray their own antiquities as having a firm reality: the life of the aul, the fight for survival on the taiga, the abiding love of Nazira for Gagarin. Industrial technology is portrayed as something aberrant, something less than real, or somehow contingent in its ability to solve problems.

Ovsyanki differs markedly from this, in that it portrays a dying or dead culture which dreams of resurrection. It seems noteworthy that the film presents us with a close relationship between the vital life of the culture – expressed as marriage and fertility rituals – and the funerary rites surrounding death. Tanya’s dead body is adorned like a new bride’s before she is carried out of the house. Miron tells Aist he took delight in bathing his wife in vodka while she was alive; and Miron and Aist do the same thing to her, dead, on the pyre as they prepare to cremate her.

There is a definite insecurity to Aist’s (and his father’s) poetic whims, and one which seems doomed to be swept away by the river of time. In Ovsyanki, it is modern, industrial society which is real, and the Meryan ethnofuturist dream which seems to belong to the ephemera – or else to some eschatological state of completion outside of history. Aist even says this explicitly toward the end of the film. Aist’s father writes his Romantic Merya poems on a Soviet typewriter – his most beloved possession, which also gets a river burial. Tanya is cremated with a toy rubber hedgehog bracelet around her wrist, bought at a magazin. The lumber for the pyre consists of axe-handles, bought in bulk at a hardware store. The holy places of the Merya are dominated by steel bridges, industrial parks, concrete lots. Natural scenery is present in this movie – and lots of it – but it is always out of the centre of focus, cut through or else otherwise dependent on the industrialisation which seems to be the dominant force. Even so, water is given a particular prominence and power in the film, and the Volga and the Oka rivers which are so important to the film’s Merya spirituality seem to have the last say – or at least, the main characters hope that they do. The paganism of the film is poignant in its deliberate state of incompletion and uncertainty, but at the same time profoundly pessimistic with regards to its own historical place.

I enjoyed Ovsyanki, despite its toying on the very ragged edge, without quite managing to fall into, the trap of pretentiousness. The more so since the rites that Osokin and Fedorchenko ascribe to the Merya people appear to be fictitious. Certainly it’s an art-house film, and it knows which audience it’s meant for. But it’s concise and meaningful, and it actually earns its keep as far as storytelling goes: everything that Aist sets up for us in the narration, manages some sort of payoff in the action and imagery in the film. Even the two buntings which Aist brings with him, and which are always on the seat of Miron’s car throughout the movie – and which serve as symbols of spirituality and feminine genius in several different ways – have a significant rôle to play in the film’s conclusion. I found it to be a profound and moving film, and it’s certainly worth watching once.

Dersu Uzala: Man is small before the face of nature

Vladimir Arsen’ev (Yuri Solomin) and Dersu Uzala (Maksim Munzuk) in Dersu Uzala

I am unfortunately not as well-versed in the filmography of Kurosawa Akira 黑澤明 as I ought to be. The ones which I recall seeing, and all of which I have thoroughly enjoyed, have been Rashômôn, Ikiru and Yume. I’ve only just finished watching Dersu Uzala now, and it is truly one of the most sublime and visually-stunning movies I’ve yet seen. It’s also one which I really should have watched a long time ago when doing this series on North and Central Asian films, because it really places a film like Shaman in context.

Dersu Uzala was a Mosfilm production, but Kurosawa demanded – and was given – full creative control over the screenplay and the direction. That is indisputably for the best. The artistry of the movie is spectacularly lush, a bold and sumptuous 70-millimetre canvas of riotous hues and dazzling lights and darks: the greens, yellows and reds of the forest palette; the masterful use of light and shadow to convey size and distance; the atmospheric effects of sunlight, moonlight, snow, steam and smoke. This movie is, in a word, iconic. The cinematographic ‘language’ Kurosawa uses in Dersu Uzala should be instantly and intimately familiar to Star Wars fans. George Lucas clearly had been watching the sun and moon shot as his inspiration for the Tatooine horizon in Star Wars; the frozen lake sequence as his inspiration for Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back; and the forest scenes in the second half of the film as his inspiration for Endor in Return of the Jedi.

Yet – for all the compliments Lucas paid this film’s imaginative depth in his own work – this is no space opera, but a very much this-worldly ballad of survival in which a small band of men is pitted against the gorgeous ferocity of the Far East Russian taiga and everything it can throw at them: blizzards, raging rapids, traps, bandits and tiger attacks. Humanity manages to weather the spirits of nature, on account of the reverent decency, wisdom and gentleness of one human being in particular.

The screenplay of Dersu Uzala is actually based on the real-life memoirs of Captain Vladimir Klavdievich Arsen’ev, a surveyor and explorer who worked first for the Tsarist government in Russia, and later for the socialist Far Eastern Republic. In 1902 while surveying the lakes of the Ussuri region, he met and came to depend on the eponymous local guide. Dersu Uzala is a trapper and hunter who belongs to the Hezhen [also Hezhe 赫哲, Nanai Нанай or Gol’dy Гольды] people, a tribe closely associated with the Evenkil, the Manchu and the Udegei, with whom they share a common body of lore and traditional shamanic religious customs (though nowadays the Evenki are mostly Orthodox, the Manchu Chinese folk religionists, and the Hezhen and Udegei Vajrayâna Buddhists).

Warning: spoilers below.

Despite an awkward and ambiguous first meeting, Vladimir Arsen’ev (Yuri Solomin) comes to like and admire Dersu (Maksim Munzuk), who has a deep reverence for the forest, and regards all animals and all forces within the woods and hills of the taiga as ‘people’ deserving of the same respect. In addition to being (of course) a deadly sharpshooter, Dersu has unparalleled tracking skills and powers of observation, and is often able to deduce from minute details including touch and smell what transpired in a given place several days back. When Dersu leads Arsen’ev and the military contingent accompanying him to a cabin, and furthermore described the old Chinese traveller who had been there some days before, Arsen’ev begins to trust the trapper to greater degrees.

Dersu Uzala assists in Arsen’ev’s survey mission, and saves Arsen’ev’s life on multiple occasions. He and Dersu get separated from the military unit and lost on a frozen lake just as a blizzard begins to blow up; to escape freezing to death, Dersu and Arsen’ev cut down and bundle the long dead stalks of grass on the lakeshore, and after Arsen’ev collapses from cold and exhaustion Dersu is able to construct a makeshift shelter with it, using the captain’s surveying tripod as a tent frame. Arsen’ev’s men are able to find them once the blizzard passes. Continuing their survey, Dersu assists them in other ways: when their food is running low and they’re at risk of starving, he helps them find an Udegei urireng which has made a catch of fish. While they’re in the shirangju Arsen’ev extends an invitation to Dersu to join him in the city, but Dersu refuses, and says he must leave their company the following day. Arsen’ev, sombre but grateful for Dersu’s help, offers him food and money, and Dersu replies that he can hunt his own food and trap sable furs for money. Instead Dersu reluctantly asks for cartridges, and these Arsen’ev’s men gladly give him. Dersu parts ways with Arsen’ev’s company when they reach the KVŽD.

Five years later, Arsen’ev is mapping the topography of Ussuri. Arsen’ev misses his old friend and hopes to meet him again, and indeed, when one of his soldiers reports that an old Hezhen trapper is asking for Arsen’ev by name, he jumps up and goes to greet him – not even taking his gun despite the young soldier’s precautions. Dersu gladly joins Arsen’ev’s party again as a guide. Once more they rely on his help, as when they need to ford a river by a raft and one of Arsen’ev’s men loses a pole in the river, setting the raft adrift. Dersu pushes Arsen’ev off the raft and tells him to swim ashore. And then it falls to Arsen’ev’s men to save Dersu, who clings to a log in the river to save himself from the rapids beyond, which are vicious enough to destroy the raft.

Dersu spends the rest of the autumn in Ussuri with Arsen’ev’s expedition, and Arsen’ev recollects it warmly, saying that his fondest memories of Dersu are from that autumn. But autumns in Siberia are short. Arsen’ev’s party happens across a part of Ussuri which is frequented by tigers, but also by predators of a more mundane sort: honghuzi 红胡子, or ex-Boxer rebels who have taken to banditry in the border country. The honghuzi make their living by trapping, but Dersu is appalled at their methods, saying that they kill more than they need. They also prey on local Chinese people, stealing the women and leaving the men bound up in mosquito-infested waters to die. Arsen’ev and Dersu free the living animals from the traps, rescue the imprisoned men, and assist the local Chinese baojia 保甲 militia – led by a certain Zhang Bao (Súımónkul Chokmarov) – in hunting down the honghuzi. Later they come across a tiger who has been following them. In order to save Arsen’ev, Dersu shoots the tiger, wounding it. Chagrined, Dersu drops his rifle, and explains to Arsen’ev that the tiger will run until it dies, and then the lord of the forest Kanga (similar to Ilmun Han in the Tale of the Nišan Shamaness) will send another tiger to kill him for this bad deed.

Dersu sinks into an ill mood after that, lashing out at the other members of the party and alienating them. He also begins to lose his eyesight – and for a rifle-hunter like Dersu, that is an irreparable loss. His fears of the tiger’s vengeance also begin to grow, and Dersu takes up Arsen’ev on his offer of hospitality. Arsen’ev allows Dersu to move in with his wife Anna (Svetlana Danilchenko) and his young son Vova (Dmitri Korshakov) in Khabarov, and they all welcome him warmly – in particular Vova, who hero-worships Dersu. However, Dersu faces difficulty in adapting to city life. He cannot understand why people sell water and firewood when they should be able to go out and get it for free. He cannot understand why people aren’t allowed to shoot guns inside the city. And he becomes listless being caged up in a ‘box’ and longs to sleep outside. After he is arrested for trying to chop down a tree in the city park, he asks Arsen’ev if he can return to the hills, since he knows he can’t live in the city. Before he leaves, Arsen’ev gives Dersu a rifle – the latest model, so that he can’t miss even with his poor eyesight.

At the end of the film, Arsen’ev gets a telegram saying that a dead Hezhen has been found with his name-card on him, and the investigator is requesting a positive identification from him. Arsen’ev goes to where they found the body, and on seeing him confirms that it is Dersu. The investigator is surprised on hearing that he is a hunter, saying he found no gun near the body. When Arsen’ev tells him he’d given Dersu a new rifle, the policeman speculates that he might have been killed for it. The policeman orders his assistants to bury Dersu, and Arsen’ev stands his walking stick up at the head of his grave.

End spoilers.

Dersu Uzala seems to be something of an inspirational touchstone, not only for Star Wars here in the West but also for the whole genre of Siberia-based survival films. One can see deliberate echoes of both Kurosawa’s cinematographic and thematic preferences in the Ermek Tursynov films Kelin and Shal, for example. Given Rustam Mosafir’s self-avowed admiration for Kurosawa and for genre film in general, it’s little surprise that there should be deliberate echoes of Dersu Uzala in Begletsy: both the colour palette of the forest scenes, and the character of the Evenki hunter who helps the runaways and muses on the strange and contradictory lusts of the white man for gold and for otherworldly bliss. And, of course, in Shaman we see the same tensions between a hostile but beautiful and bewitching Siberian taiga, and the city life to which the main character cannot return.

In a sense, then, Dersu Uzala can be seen to belong firmly in the tradition of the Ostern: the transposition of the American Wild West onto the Eastern frontiers of Russian and Soviet expansion into North and Central Asia. But despite the sumptuous settings and Kurosawa’s obvious affection for his Siberian wildscapes, this is not a film about primordial antiquity versus modern encroachment, nor – despite Dersu’s frequent disparagements of the greed and wastefulness of poachers or certain of the city folk – is it necessarily an œcologically-minded film, though those elements are present as well.

The struggle for survival is the story structure which allows Kurosawa to dwell on the purely human elements that struggle exposes. It really is a film about the friendship between these two men. And it is about the genuine sweetness, generosity, hospitality and reverence of Dersu Uzala himself. Dersu may be considered a continuation of Kurosawa’s bushidô-influence ideal type, particularly with his sharpshooting skill and his intimate knowledge of and respect for nature. But his temperament is very far from martial. Although his entire family was killed by a smallpox outbreak, ostensibly caused by the encroachment of the Cossacks, there is nothing in him that suggests any sort of desire for revenge. (Yes, even we box-dwelling types can learn a thing or two from Dersu in our day and age.) Instead, his character is marked by humility, generosity even for people he might never see, selfless compassion for those in danger. There is much more of the Eastern Orthodox solitary hermit about him than the daimyô.

To conclude: Dersu Uzala is powerful, profound and sublime. Though it’s considered a minor work in Kurosawa’s opus, not necessarily having the drama of Rashômôn or the dynamic action of The Seven Samurai, there’s still plenty here to hold one’s interest. It truly is worth watching for the masterful camerawork and the obvious affection for the land that Kurosawa was moved to use wide-gauge high-resolution film to contain. I can’t possibly recommend it highly enough.

01 April 2020

Holy Martyr Abraham of the Volga Bulghars

Saint Abraham of Bolgar

Today, the calends of April, is the feast-day in the Holy Orthodox Church of another Turkic martyr for the Christian faith, Saint Abraham, a Volga Bulghar (that is to say, the ancestors of today’s Tatars and Bashkirs) merchant who was convicted of apostasy of Islâm and executed for his faith in the year 1229. His relics were primarily venerated in Vladimir, where they were translated on the fourth of March the following year.

Abraham [or Avraamii, or ’Ibrâhîm] was from the state of Idel Bolgar, the polity of the Volga Bulghars. He lived, in fact, in the city of Bolgar, which had been the main capital of the Volga Bulghars from the eighth to the tenth centuries – though by Abraham’s time, most of the administrative functions of the Bulghar khans had been transferred to the settlement of Bilyar. At first, Abraham was a devout and sincere Muslim of the Hanafî school, noble-minded and generous-hearted. He inherited great wealth from his parents; his father was also a wealthy merchant. It is said of him in his hagiography that even before his conversion:
Although having many possessions, he gave to poor beggars [money], the hungry food, the thirsty drink, the naked clothing; he visited the sick, and met all sorts of needs among the needy.
Although mercantile pursuits are not particularly compatible with the spiritual life (or indeed, with morality in general), and pecuniary securities seem more to stifle the longings of the spirit than to satisfy them, they do not seem to be a barrier to one who sees and seeks beyond the temptations of worldly riches. This Abraham seems to have been one example, and the more of his own wealth he gave away, the more the Lord multiplied his treasure in heaven. Abraham also studied the Scriptures on his own, and grew dissatisfied with the faith in which he had been raised. Curious about other faiths, and having been in contact with merchants from the petty duchies of Rus’ bordering Idel Bolgar – that is to say, the Principalities of Vladimir-Suzdal and Murom – he gradually came to be convinced of the truths of Christianity. He asked his friends among the Rus’ merchants to bring him to a priest to be baptised.

Once he took baptism, Saint Abraham, who was taken with a fiery passion for his newfound faith, for the purposes of asceticism began to wear heavy iron bands around his wrists. Unlike, for example, Saint ’Abu al-Tiflîsi, our Bulghar saint went through no period of secrecy as a confessor of Christ, but instead began to profess his belief openly among his people. He redoubled his gifts to the poor, needy and sick; and he began to preach Christianity openly in the great bazâr in the middle of the town of Bolgar. His fellow-tribesmen were amused with him at first, and some of them went to the bazâr to debate with him on the merits of Islâm.

At length, they grew bewildered and frustrated with him: how could such a man, they wondered, blessed with every lawful benefit in the world by the grace of God, turn his back on the faith of his youth and the faith of his people? They brought his family to exhort him and plead with him to renounce Christ, but he would not. When this failed they began to threaten him, and then to beat him – and this they did so harshly that not a single part of Saint Abraham’s body that they did not wound or bruise. They delivered him up to a magistrate in Bolgar, and before him too, Abraham boldly confessed the risen Christ. The magistrate lost no time in convicting Saint Abraham of apostasy, and sentencing him to death. Then his countrymen took him outside the city to a spot on the bank of the Volga on the first of April, and had him quartered and then beheaded with the sword. Thus the martyr received his heavenly crown.

The same merchants of Rus’ from Vladimir and Murom who had brought him to be baptised, had also witnessed his execution, and were granted leave to take the severed body of Saint Abraham. They did this and they laid him in an Orthodox cemetery nearby. At once the tomb of the holy Bulghar martyr began to show signs of divine favour, and he began to be venerated locally as a saint. Not even a year later, on the ninth of March, it so happened that emissaries from the Principality of Vladimir-Suzdal made a successful bid to have the relics of Saint Abraham translated from his tomb in Bolgar to Vladimir.

When the saint arrived in Vladimir, Saint Yuri II Vsevolodovich, the third son of Vsevolod III ‘the Big Nest’ and the prince of Vladimir, came out with his wife Agata and his son Vsevolod, along with Bishop Mitrofan and all the assembled clergy, to meet the relics. These relics were interred in the Princess Monastery of the Holy Assumption in Vladimir, with great ceremony and celebration. It is said in the akathist to his memory, that his relics gave off a sweet fragrance when they were borne up. It is a testament to the universality of the faith, and its precedence over national, cultural and political forces, that a Bulghar – who at the time on account of the border violence between the Bulghars and the Rus’ was counted a bitter enemy among all but the Rus’ merchants – could be met with hospitality and love and reverence by everyone in Vladimir from the prince to the peasantry.

From his reliquary in the Princess Monastery, the Lord granted that the prayers and intercessions of Saint Abraham would work many wondrous healings. The Bulghar martyr showed a particular affection and care for children and infants down the centuries. Parents would bring to him infants who were born feeble, or young children who were sick or even on the brink of death, and the children would leave his relics living, healthy and happy. He was also known to restore the sight of those afflicted by blindness, and the iron fetters that he wore were able to heal those suffering from mental illnesses, when they put them on. He is held in particular reverence by the majority-Orthodox Chuvash people as well as the minority of Bashkirs and Tatars who confess Christ – all of whom claim descent from the Bulghars of the Volga.

The veneration of Saint Abraham was largely a local affair to Vladimir for the first few centuries after his martyrdom. Only starting in the latter half of the 1600s did Saint Abraham’s cultus take on a broader national importance. In 1711 his relics were transferred from a small outer chapel to the main altar at the Church of the Assumption in the Princess Monastery; in 1785 a large procession was held in his honour; and in 1807 his old reliquary was replaced by a much grander one, wrought from silver. The relics of Saint Abraham were taken from the monastery by the Bolsheviks in 1923 and placed in a museum, and then decommissioned from museum storage in the 1950s; the Church has as yet not been successful in locating and recovering them. A particle of his relics is still kept in the altar at the restored Princess Monastery, and pilgrims still visit there to ask for his intercessions.

In addition, at the place of his execution – similar to many of the Welsh martyrs – there sprang up a holy well of clean water, at which a chapel was built in later centuries by the Orthodox people of Tatarstan. This chapel and well can be found on the Volga’s south bank, northwest of the city proper. This well is visited and held in reverence by both Muslims and Christians, in significant part because a Muslim was the first person to be healed there by the water from the spring, and in part because the Hanafîs were willing to show courtesy and honour to a brave and virtuous man despite their religious differences. The chapel was later destroyed, and the well boarded up, by the Bolsheviks. In 1993, the chapel was rebuilt, and once the boarding and other detritus were cleared away, the well source was found to be unpolluted. Today it continues to be a place of pilgrimage for both Orthodox Christians and Hanafî Muslims. Holy martyr Abraham, bold confessor of Christ and patient sufferer on the Volga banks, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!
Apolytikion for Saint Abraham, Tone 4:

Днесь, благовернии людие, сошедшеся,
восхвалим добляго сего мученика и страдальца Авраамия,
сей бо, укрепляемь силою Божиею,
душу свою положи за Христа,
много пострадав от зловерных болгар.
Сего ради от Господа венец прият
и ныне предстоит Ему
и молится о граде сем
и о всех нас, чтущих память его.


Today the people of good faith gather
To praise this worthy martyr and sufferer Abraham,
This man, strengthened by the power of God,
Entrusted his soul to Christ,
And suffered much at the hands of wicked Bulghars.
Thus for the sake of the Lord he accepted the martyr’s crown,
And now stands before Him
And prays for this city
And for all of us who honour his memory.

Chapel of Saint Abraham on the Volga

30 March 2020

Amangeldy: Batyr and Kóterilis through a Soviet lens

Amankeldi İmanov (Elýbaı Ámirzaqov) and Balym (Shara Jıenqulova) in Amangeldy

Before, I made the claim that the Sergei Eisenstein film Ivan Groznyi (Part I) was the ‘birth of Kazakhstani cinema’. I still hold to that claim, in the sense that the logistical framework which was necessary to produce Eisenstein’s film at the tail end of the Second World War laid the material foundations for all of Kazakhstani cinema to come. Ivan Groznyi was not, however, the first feature film to come out under the Kazakhfilm label. That honour belongs instead to Moisei Levin’s and Vsevolod Ivanov’s black-and-white 1938 war drama and biopic Amangeldy, which treats the life and military career of the Kazakh national liberation fighter and peasant revolutionary Amankeldi Úderbaıuly İmanov, particularly his rôles in the Kóterilis of 1916 and the Sovietisation of Kazakhstan from 1917 on.

Amangeldy is an intriguing and multifaceted piece of Soviet cinema, in that it valorises and romanticises a particular image of the Kazakh people, and promotes them as a ‘progressive’ historical force. Though Paksoy would rebuke the later Soviet repression and censorship of the native Turkic dastanic epic literature, Amangeldy stands as a witness that the early Soviets were in fact not entirely averse to the epic. Moreover, Amangeldy can be seen as a prototype in Kazakh filmmaking, in that it lays down a template for the portrayal of the dastanic batyr on screen. Not only this, but it also demarcates the tradition of adopting the batyr for a political cause. It may thus be considered a spiritual progenitor of historical war films like Kóshpendiler, Mongol and Jaýjúrek myń bala.

It seems as though Amangeldy is also a progenitor of the Ostern and the forms of the revisionist Western that would later come out of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. The Kazakhs are shown as one of the indigenous peoples of Central Asia, and the main opponents of Amankeldi are the regimented, industrialised and mechanised White Army. The filmmakers clearly set out to draw a comparison and contrast to the general genre treatment of the American Indian in the Western film. Amankeldi is shown to be honest, righteous and noble (and, of course, on the side of the Bolsheviki); whereas the Tsarists are cruel and opportunistic, using their superior firepower to bombard an aul full of women and children while the men are away. Amangeldy præfigures the revisionist Western in its sympathetic treatment of an indigenous uprising against a ‘civilised’ government.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

A new governor is appointed by the Tsar for the Kazakh people, and announces a new conscription policy. A poor local named Amankeldi (Elýbaı Ámirzaqov) objects to conscription and is arrested by the gendarmes, over the voluble objections of his wife Balym (Shara Jıenqulova). While on the cart being transported to Siberia, he is joined by a political prisoner named Egor (Fedor Fedorovskii). Egor sympathises with the plight of the Kazakhs under the new levy, and informs Amankeldi that the Russian peasants and workers are facing similar oppression and exploitation, and dying at the front. Balym helps to organise an ambush which deals with Amankeldi’s prison wagon and releases both prisoners… and in so doing shows that she can handle a rifle as well as sew or dance.

Amankeldi returns to the capital, leading a significant crowd of poor Kazakhs and Kyrǵyz, where he confronts the local Kazakh han Jafar (Qanabek Baıseıitov) and the Tsarist official who are serving the conscription notice. Upon noticing Amankeldi among them, they back away. He tears the notice away from the clerk, and a fight breaks out. Amankeldi finds himself the leader of a full-fledged revolt against the Tsarist government, and taking to their horses they begin leading raids on the cattle of the handar who still support the Tsar. These men consult the governor, who issues a warrant for Amankeldi’s arrest and calls up the Russian Army as the Kazakh partizans arm themselves.

It becomes clear that the Kazakhs are woefully – literally – outgunned. The smithy can turn out shamshir sabres of high quality, but the rifles they produce burst at the stock when Amankeldi tries to fire one. When the Russian army arrives, the first thing they do is to attack the aul where Amankeldi’s wife is, along with the Kazakh women and children. They are interrupted and forced to wage a pitched battle when the Kazakh riders begin charging their line. The Kazakhs fight with sabres, spears, some rifles and mobile cannons made from hollow logs and fired from the backs of camels. Amankeldi comes to rely not only on Balym – who is present alongside him at nearly every engagement – but also on his lieutenants Beket (Seráli Qojamqulov) and Serik (Rahmetolda Sálmenov).

The Kazakhs under Amankeldi ally themselves with Russian working-class sympathisers and manage to triumph in battle against the armies of the Russian Army and of the other handar, and they force them to sign an agreement ensuring Kazakh self-rule. However, there is a dissension within the Kazakh movement. Some of them are unhappy with Amankeldi’s willingness to work with the Russians, and the nationalists in the movement, led by the treacherous Qarataı (Qapan Badyrov) begin plotting against him. They surround Amankeldi’s house, and he mounts a one-man stand against them with his rifle, sending Balym up through the roof and away for help. They capture him, however, and bind him. Balym stages a rescue and they ride off, with Amankeldi taking the rear against their pursuers to protect his men. Egor arrives with a Red Army contingent, but too late to help Amankeldi, who is mortally wounded by a gunshot from his fellow Kazakhs. He dies in Balym’s arms.

End spoilers.

I know that I really shouldn’t be shocked by the deftness with which some of these old black-and-white movies could be put together, particularly not after watching Eisenstein, but I confess that these older pics continue to impress me that way. In general, the acting is stentorian, full of pomp and bombast, as I suppose is all too well suited for an early Soviet flick about a revolutionary leader. (I can also see where Kuno Becker got his direction from in Kóshpendiler!) Elýbaı Ámirzaqov mounts a lively, if somewhat ham-fisted, performance in the title rôle – interesting to watch after seeing him as Bayan’s kindly old grandpa in Tuǵan jer! The hamminess leads to some instances of unintentional comedy, including the scene where Amankeldi shoots a gloating Qarataı with the pistol in his pocket, despite being hogtied.

The score is just what one might expect from an adventure or war movie from the thirties. Also, the backgrounds – though they are quite pretty – are static such that they are obviously painted: clearly the film was not shot on location. There’s quite a significant deal of ethnographic local-colour framing, including a game of kók bóri and a party where Shara Jıenqulova gets to show off her dance moves. These scenes feel slightly artificial: as though they are a demonstration of Kazakhness for a largely Russian audience. In short, I can see why it has something of a mixed reputation in modern Kazakhstan. In the words of reviewer Peter Rolberg:
Its title role, performed by [Elýbaı Ámirzaqov] with physical agility, self-confidence and dignity, must be regarded as a genuine achievement of national culture, whereas the film as a whole… was filmed in Chapaev-like fashion at Lenfilm Studio and is more a hybrid than authentically Kazakh.
Amangeldy præfigures the Kazakhstani dastan film in several important ways, though. There a batyr, a righteous martial hero, at the centre of the story, with a significant love interest who is intimately involved in the batyr’s struggle. (In an interesting twist from Kóshpendiler and Jaýjúrek myń bala, though, here it’s the woman who repeatedly comes to the rescue of her captured man.) There is also an attempt to overlay the dignity and honour of the nation as a whole upon the batyr’s noble, selfless and courageous deeds. This makes the tale of the batyr, and the mythmaking surrounding that tale, the locus of ideological formation. The singer, or jyraý, of the dastan occupies the same place as Homer does among the Greeks, and bears a similar degree of mytho-political power and power over the collective emotional life of the nation. This is one reason why Plato showed such distrust of the poets in the Republic, and also one reason why Abaı disclaimed for himself any desire to become a poet.

It is also one reason why the dastan became such a fraught form of oral tradition – here converted into a cinematic tradition – in the Soviet Union. The Soviets understood the dastan to be a powerful propaganda tool, but also an art form which could potentially be politically-subversive. In attempting to set up the historical Amankeldi İmanov as a heroic batyr through cinema, they were in essence legitimising as ‘true Kazakhs’ those who held to the Soviet party line. One sees quite clearly the ‘us-them’ distinction being drawn in Amangeldy, that would be reflected and echoed in later films like Kóshpendiler and Jaýjúrek myń bala. Amankeldi is the true Kazakh: noble, honest, self-sacrificing, hospitable – and in addition, an expert rider, a tenacious fighter and a winning lover. Against him are set the foils of Jafar and Qarataı. Jafar, a physical coward, sticks to working among the Tsarist officials. He wears fine silken robes and speaks insinuatingly in Russian. Qarataı is shown as fully-Westernised, wearing military uniforms and suits with ties, sporting a trimmed moustache. These are Kazakhs who have forgotten the steppe traditions and their true national feeling: quite the damning indictment for the Kazakh nationalism of the Alash movement!

Amangeldy, the first feature of the new Kazakhfilm Studio, is therefore a critically-important film for understanding later Kazakhstani cinema, despite its having been shot in Moscow. In many respects it is a template for later Kazakh and Russian directors, from big-budget heavyweights like Aqan Sataev and Sergei Bodrov, Sr to indie auteurs and purveyors of anti-hero stories, like Dárejan Ómirbaev.

Shaman: A taiga duet for the violin and Jew’s harp

Dmitri (Igor Gotesman) and his horse in Shaman

I confess, I was a bit gun-shy of joint French productions set in northern or central Asia, after the unfortunately-pretentious Ulzhan. The 1996 French-Russian film Shaman, though, proved to be far more watchable and engaging. The film is centred around two escaped prisoners from a gulag in Siberia, and the efforts of the fish-out-of-water Dmitri to survive in a hostile environment.

The relationships between the violinist Dmitri (Igor Gotesman) and the Sakha, or Yakut, prisoner Anatoli (Spartak Fedotov), and later between Dmitri and his horse, undergird the whole of the film. As with Ulzhan, there is a journey underway with a destination at the end in mind, that never gets reached. Also as with Ulzhan, there is a mystical-spiritual element to this journey that is consonant with shamanism and which also incorporates some arthouse filmic conceits. Unlike Ulzhan, however, there are real stakes built up for the characters, and the beliefs and worldview of the Sakha are made to carry some real weight. Dmitri actually manages to be likeable in spite of his early ineptitude – in part because we can see early on that he cares about and respects Anatoli.

Warning: spoilers below.

Dmitri, a violinist from Moscow, mounts an escape from a labour camp in Siberia after discovering a prayer tree decked with flags and a herd of wild Yakut horses. He tells his fellow-prisoner Anatoli about what he discovers, and Anatoli helps him to smuggle his violin out of the camp, and rope and tame one of the horses. Anatoli advises Dmitri to take off his prisoner tag and hang it from the tree if he wants to make it far. The two of them ride off but are shot at by the camp guards, and Anatoli is hit in the back. The wound proves deadly. The Sakha believes that his fate is because of the anger of the spirits, who are punishing him for greed in taking an extra horse from the herd. The disbelieving Dmitri asks him how he knows, and Anatoli replies that he is a shaman. His dying wish is for Dmitri to place the amulets he brought out from the camp around his body.

Dmitri’s subsequent attempts to survive in the taiga range from the serious to the comical as he has to outwit and outrun cold, hunger, wolves, and his pursuers in the Red Army and Soviet police (who have helicopters and jeeps). He makes some early mistakes that nearly cost him his life and freedom – like lighting a fire in the open, or letting his horse run free before it trusts him. Everything in the taiga has a spirit. And the spirits of the taiga – so Anatoli warns Dmitri – do not come running with a baby bottle in hand. Dmitri is forced to sharpen his wits and his survival skills.

Dmitri manages to survive, however, it seems in part as a result of the intervention of the spirits. Along the way, Dmitri runs across a cast of supporting characters who are as unpredictable as the taiga itself. In some cases, the circumstances in which he meets them are so surreal that we are led to wonder if these are truly people or visions of spirits sent to help or hinder him. He meets a part-time poacher who works on a reindeer-herding kolkhoz. He meets Anatoli’s kindly but dying mother. He meets a trapper and his son who want to turn him in to the Soviet government for the reward money. And – my personal favourite – he meets a motorbicycling, leather jacket-sporting, aviator goggles-rocking, ambiguously-mad ‘Cossack to the Tsar’ who calls Dmitri ‘muzhik’ and helps him rescue his loyal Yakut horse, which he deeply admires but advises Dmitri to have shod lest it get a limp. In a rowdy Siberian bar he also meets a Buryat blacksmith to shoe his horse – who is the spitting image of his friend Anatoli. And on board one of the ice-bound lake ships he meets a pigeon-breeder who clearly doesn’t have it all together.

He eventually makes his way to Irkutsk, where he sells his horse to a travelling Roma whose daughters admire it. We see that in Irkutsk he can’t really ‘make it’ after having spent so long in the taiga. He seems shell-shocked among crowds and on streets, and he doesn’t even have the capacity to drink vodka after so long. He instinctively flees from the police on the streets, who don’t recognise him or care that he’s there. He finally avails himself of a public shower and hits on a nurse, who takes him out for dinner and a dance. He can’t decide what he wants off the menu, just saying ‘I want to eat.’ And of course it seems he’s forgotten how to properly use a knife and fork. This rather amuses his date. The nurse takes him back to her apartment in Irkutsk and asks him to stay. Dmitri opens his violin case briefly, but then puts it away. He then takes out Anatoli’s Jew’s harp and begins playing it as the sun rises over the lake. In the last scene we see Dmitri riding his horse out of Irkutsk as a train goes by the opposite way, and a Roma boy is shown playing Dmitri’s violin.

End spoilers.

The score of Shaman, though sparse, is integrally important to this film, and much of it consists of violin playing in harmony with the Jew’s harp – representing the coöperation of the spirit of Anatoli with Dmitri, and sometimes the inner conflict in Dmitri as he tries to make his way back to Moscow through the taiga. As is to be expected, the cinematography is broad and sweeping, and deliberately dwarfs the vulnerable Dmitri and his horse against the frigid landscape, which ultimately conquers him. That includes dense evergreen forests, fathomless snowdrifts, and vast frozen lakes (including the great Baikal) stretching out every way toward the horizon in which are caught boats ranging from canoes to great modern shipping tankers, rusting uselessly in the ice. The subtext is clear: modern technology is not necessarily of avail against the elements. Not a particularly Soviet sentiment!

The film delights in shocking us out of complacency, and it does this often by contrasting the vast, bleak winterscapes of Siberia with the intrusions of modern Soviet technology. The Sakha kolkhoz features yurts with radio antennæ. The Russian village which might as well have been a seventeenth-century Cossack colony is governed from a prefab police station with a Soviet flag. And then all of a sudden we see Dmitri riding his horse in front of an industrial shipping-yard in Irkutsk. The juxtaposition is jarring and it suddenly seems like we are in a different movie: we are made to feel the same disorientation and ‘unreality’ of this urban landscape that Dmitri does as he wanders into town.

The acting ability of Igor Gotesman is exemplary here – and he can do it well without having to speak. His long, drawn face and piercing blue eyes manage to convey excellently the vulnerable ingenuousness of his early escape, and also the experience of the weather-beaten survivor toward the end. He is an excellent counterpart to the normally-jovial Spartak Fedotov, who can become convincingly commanding at the drop of a pin – their unlikely friendship is rendered believable by their shared struggle. Their friendship bolsters the thematic tension in the film between mistrust of strangers (sometimes genuinely justified) and the need for mutual assistance in the face of the harsh environment. Another thematic consideration, consonant with the shamanic relationship with the wilderness in such a marginal biome, is the thin and often permeable distinction between sanity and madness. Very often it’s the ‘mad’ ones who prove to be most benign and helpful – like the pigeon-breeder living on the ship, or the Cossack biker who helps Dmitri rescue his horse.

I’ve made several comparisons of this film to Ulzhan up front, which I feel probably isn’t fair. Shaman is a far superior film, one which is quite a bit more subdued and ‘realistic’, but actually manages to plumb deeper into its material than the quixotic meandering treasure-hunt which is left unresolved in the other film. Perhaps a better comparison would be to the Kazakhstani prison-break-and-survival film Begletsy, though Shaman is more of a buddy flick than a romance, and the questions posed and answered by the film are quite different. Shaman gets off to a glacially slow start, but it convincingly builds up the sympathy and dramatic tension one would expect from a survival film of this kind.