11 June 2019

Holy Hieromartyr Eskil of Tuna

Saint Eskil of Tuna

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate yet another Old English missionary saint to the North: Saint Eskil of Tuna – that is, the modern town of Eskilstuna which was renamed in his honour. He lived in the late eleventh century, and is notable among the English saints in that he was martyred by the heathen after the Great Schism, and yet is still recognised as a Western saint by the Holy Orthodox Church.

We have very few, and late, sources available for the life of this saint – the best and most realistic of these was written down by the Roman Catholic Bishop Brynjólfr Alfgautarson, the monastic and episcopal student of Thomas Aquinas, in the 1300s. Eskil [OE Oscytel, ON Áskill, NE Haskell] was of English extraction and upbringing, and spent most of his adult years in Södermanland where, at the behest of Saint Sigefrið of Växjö, he worked as a missionary bishop. He was allowed to preach there by Ingi Steinkelsson ‘the Elder’, who was king at that time and who was baptised during Saint Eskil’s tenure as bishop.

Ingi was ousted from his kingship by the Swedes after he refused to offer blót to the heathen gods at the moot in Uppsala, as was customary for the king to do. In his stead, the men of Sweden set up Ingi’s brother-in-law Sveinn as their king – thereafter named Blót-Sveinn because he made an oath to honour the heathen gods with blood. He kept his word and held the blót to the Æsir at Strängnäs, sacrificing many fee and sheep, sprinkling the gathered Swedes with their blood, and eating himself of the sacrificial flesh. When Eskil first got wind of this gathering, he made the thirty-kilometre walk eastward to Strängnäs himself and interrupted the sacrifice, telling the heathen there to repent of their idolatry and return to Christ.

Blót-Sveinn did not take kindly to this imposition by the bishop of Tuna, and neither did the gathered heathen at Strängnäs. Howling with rage, the throng began to take up stones and hurl them at the bishop, smiting him to the earth. In the icons and holy images of the hieromartyr, one beholds him holding three white stones in token of the manner of his holy death and witness for his Lord and God Jesus Christ. Some of his Swedish friends went thither to Strängnäs to fetch his body, and had him brought home in great honour and buried in the kirk at Tuna.

As for Blót-Sveinn, he was soon to reap the cost of his usurpation. For after three years in exile in Västergötland, Ingi Steinkelsson rode back into his homeland with a small band of retainers. In the early dawn glimmer, Ingi’s men found the house where Steinn and his followers were yet asleep, ringed it about and set fire to the timbers. Sveinn’s men trapped inside were burned alive – among them one Þjáfi, who was one of Sveinn’s jarlar. As for Sveinn himself, the Hervarar saga and the Orkneyinga saga differ on whether he himself was burned alive in the house, or whether he was slain on his way out, trying to flee from the flames. Inge ruled for a number of years more, and Christianity gained a better foothold in Sweden thereafter.

The date on which Saint Eskil was stoned to death has been traditionally recorded as the eleventh of June, his original feast-day which is remembered both by the Orthodox Church and by the Roman Catholic Diocæse of Strängnäs. However, in the broader Catholic Church, his feast day was moved to the following day, the twelfth of June, so as not to interfere with the commemoration of Holy Apostles Bartholomew and Barnabas on the same day. The sixth of October is celebrated as the date of the translation of his relics in Eskilstuna.

Holy bishop and martyr Eskil, witness for our Lord Jesus Christ among the northern heathen, pray unto Him for us that our souls may be saved!

10 June 2019

Holy Hierarch Iþamar of Rochester

Rochester Cathedral and Priory

Today in the Orthodox Church, we celebrate a relatively obscure saint, the first native Englishman to be consecrated as a bishop in the British Isles: Iþamar of Rochester. Saint Bede mentions Iþamar twice in his History of the English Church and People. In the History Iþamar is cited as the successor of Bishop Saint Paulinus of York and Rochester, consecrated by Archbishop Saint Honorius of Canterbury. Two passages in the History allude to him:
In [Paulinus’s] place Archbishop Honorius consecrated Iþamar, a man of Kent, who was as worthy and learned as his predecessors.
After a vacancy of eighteen months, Deusdedit, a South Saxon, was elected to the archepiscopal see and so became the sixth Archbishop. He was consecrated by Iþamar, Bishop of Rochester, on the twenty-sixth of March (655), and ruled the see until his death nine years, four months and two days later. And on the death of Iþamar, Deusdedit himself consecrated Damian, a West Saxon, in his place.
Those two snippets from Holy Bede are pretty much all we know about Bishop Iþamar for sure, other than that, as a monk, he (rather unusually) took for his patron an Old Testament figure – Ithamar the youngest son of Aaron the High Priest and the ancestor of Eli, the caretaker of the Prophet Samuel.

Saint Iþamar’s cult was fairly dormant from Bede’s time all the way until the 1100’s, during the first English Civil War, or ‘the Anarchy’, between King Stephen and his cousin Empress Maud, when a compilation of nineteen miracles ascribed to Saint Iþamar appeared as part of the textual tradition of the Priory at Rochester and Rochester Cathedral with which the Priory was associated, to generate a local cultus. The author of this compilation notes with admirable sincerity that ‘nothing was handed down to us from his lifetime’, leaving the reader to wonder exactly what prompted this compilation to begin with. Later historians have speculated that it was part of an advertising campaign on the part of the monks at Rochester to attract pilgrims to their church.

Saint Iþamar, in these posthumous accounts of his miracles, showed particular compassion upon the rural poor. One farmer who had lost all but two of his oxen to plague brought his prayer to the church at Rochester and was answered with a wonder: when he returned home he saw his sick animals restored to health, and his dead ones to life. Another miracle recounts a young girl, deaf-mute from birth, whose hearing and speech were given to her by the saint on the day of his commemoration. Saint Iþamar seems to have preferred to bestow the graces of healing upon God’s poor – those who were ‘poor of things’ but ‘rich of faith’.

Saint Iþamar also seemed to have a penchant for healing the blind and those with afflictions of the eyes, along with those suffering from fevers and insomnia, head complaints, deafness, and ‘women endangered by labour pains’. He cared for families as well, curing both a woman and her husband who were afflicted by chronic illness. Given the time at which the Miracles were compiled as well, many of Saint Iþamar’s miracles have a political dimension – or rather, one which was critical of the conditions of the English Anarchy then prevailing. He swayed the heart of Queen Matilda – King Stephen’s wife – to release a man who was then in Empress Maud’s service.

It was apparently not so uncommon in the British Isles for a saint who had been for several centuries neglected, to be rediscovered and venerated again during times of political turmoil or poor ecclesiastical leadership. But it must be remembered that the Norman priests and bishops who ruled the English Church after 1066 had a penchant for quashing just such local saintly cults, particularly those surrounding Old English saints (who were seen to be politically subversive). In this sense the revival of the cultus of Saint Iþamar is particularly remarkable. Holy bishop Iþamar, first-chosen among the English flock as shepherd, we beseech you pray to Christ our God to save our souls!

08 June 2019

Kavkazskii plennik: Bodrov at his sublime best

Sasha (Oleg Menshikov) and Vanya (Sergei Bodrov, Jr) in Kavkazskii plennik

I first watched this film in 2009 when I was taking Russian language classes at Rhode Island College. It was, in fact, the second Sergei Bodrov film I ever watched, after the beautiful yet hammy Kóshpendiler. I also watched the bootstrap-budget crime-thriller Brat in the same class, though despite the two films featuring the same actor – the late Sergei Bodrov, Jr (memory æternal) – I did not really connect the two when I first watched them. Bodrov is actually a fairly important name in my cinematic education, and I will come to explain why in a future blog post. But the 1996 Russian-Kazakhstani film Kavkazskii plennik features Bodrov at his most cynical and yet his most wistful: a blunt, unromantic and unsentimental look at the Chechen War and its human costs on both sides. Despite being based on a short story by Count Lev Tolstoi, it’s not, rightly speaking, a pacifist film, just as Slaughterhouse-Five is not quite a pacifist novel. Yet Bodrov and Giller strike at the very same sort of anti-war message as Kurt Vonnegut did, undercutting the same self-serving mythos of war and pointing to its absurdities.

The Billy Pilgrim of this tale is Private Ivan, or Vanya, Zhilin (Sergei Bodrov, Jr). Vanya is green as hell and doesn’t even know how to hold a gun properly, much less shoot one at a Chechen. But when his platoon is ambushed in the mountain by Chechen guerrillas, he is one of two ‘lucky’ enough to be captured alive – the other being his initially-abusive and nihilistic commanding officer Lieutenant Aleksandr ‘Sasha’ Kostylin (Oleg Menshikov). The two of them soon learn that they are being held by a local notable named Abdul-Murad (Jemal Sikharulidze) whose son is in the custody of the Russian barracks in town, and for whom he is willing to trade the two Russians. Abdul-Murad issues an ultimatum: if his son is not released within ten days, he will kill the prisoners. Unfortunately for Sasha and Vanya, the Russian military firmly believes that the Chechens never take prisoners, and also that the Chechens will double-cross any deal they make. This impasse provides much of the drama for the film. All of the characters are caught up in a cycle of violence and revenge that is beyond the control of any one of them.

Part of Bodrov’s genius is bringing the Chechens to life in the film, both as a completely alien culture and as completely relatable individuals. Though there is not a language barrier, since most Chechens speak Russian, there is a palpable and instantaneous mistrust between the captives and their captors. Most of the men, women, boys and girls we see Sasha and Vanya interacting with, have good reason to hate the Russians, who have killed off members of their families.

And yet we can’t help but sympathise first with the prisoners themselves. Vanya is a true innocent of war, a raw recruit who doesn’t want to kill anybody (and, as we learn, isn’t really even capable of it). Despite the cultural gap between them, Vanya and Abdul-Murad’s teenage daughter Dina (Suzanna Mekhralieva) take a rather hopeless liking to each other. And Sasha – even though he’s initially hard to like, a psychotic trigger-finger and a seasoned veteran perfectly capable of killing, who boasts about how he’s going to come back, burn the village, kill the men and take the women – has a soft side to him. With his acerb wit he hits it off with Abdul-Murad’s mute (tongue cut out by Russians in Siberia) son-in-law Hassan (Aleksandr Bureev). And we soon learn that, despite his boasting, he has a tearjerker backstory that makes it unlikely that anyone will come to ransom him alive. In one scene he starts drunkenly singing Proshchanie slavyanki with Vanya, and breaks down in tears at the end: our first hint that he feels his situation is more hopeless than he has let on.

What is particularly intriguing about this film is that it makes no attempt to sanitise or romanticise either side. ‘Proshchanie slavyanki’ (or Louis Armstrong) aside, there is very little glorious heroism in being a soldier. There is a scene where Zhirin is facing off a muscular Chechen veteran in a boxing match, where he manages to avoid the fight by yelling at his opponent somewhat impotently. The Chechen throws up his hands with a laugh and dismisses him without a fight. It’s an absurd, lightly comic moment, but it’s also a highly Vonnegut-esque anti-climax. There is also no looking at the Chechens through the rose-tinted spectacles of modern-day politically-correct Islamophilia: this is a society where preadolescent brides are given and taken and where honour killings are spoken of with casual acceptance, but where Muslim strictures against alcohol are rather ignored. But the end result is that all of the involved parties are simply human. The Merchant of Venice comes to mind:
Hath not a [Muslim] hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
But Bodrov is telling us that that recognition may not be enough in the face of a conflict that has become intractable. After the initial prisoner exchange attempt fails, with both parties negotiating in bad faith, the prisoners are forced to write home to their families. Vanya’s mother (Valentina Fedotova) comes to Chechnya to attempt to ransom her son from Abdul-Murad herself, but she meets with little better success. There is another rather dryly-comedic scene where she beats the Russian military commander with her handbag over his unwillingness to hand over Abdul-Murad’s son in exchange for hers. When she meets with Abdul-Murad himself, she and Abdul-Murad voice the central concern of the film when she says: ‘I know your son’s a teacher; I’m a teacher as well,’ and he answers her: ‘That doesn’t matter now. We’re enemies.’ Despite all efforts between the individual Chechens and the individual Russians – Vanya and Dina; Sasha and Hassan; Vanya’s mother and Abdul-Murad – at finding common ground and understanding each other, the logic of war already seems to stifle them.

There’s even a Chekhov’s gun subplot which buttresses the absurdity of the logic of war. One of the soldiers from the Russian barracks goes into town for two bottles of vodka, trades in his pistol, and tells the shopkeeper to ‘keep the change’. Later a Chechen militant lies his way past the guards into the town (as seems to be a common practice) and, seemingly knowing where to go, goes straight to the shopkeeper and buys the Russian pistol off of him for a thick wad of cash. Then he goes to the barracks and shoots one of the soldiers in order to stage a prison break. It doesn’t end well for anyone.

One common criticism I heard of this movie after I watched it the first time was that it’s too slow-paced, too static and that not a lot of action happens between the prisoners’ capture and their ill-fated escape attempt. I can see where that impression comes from, but I don’t think it’s entirely true. The tension does derive from the impasse over the prisoner exchange, but the two sides are constantly in manœuvre to get one up on the other. And the uneasy hostage situation gives us the space to understand each of the characters and how they will react. Lieutenant Sasha in particular is caught in a classic tragœdy: with no one back home to ransom him, he has nothing to lose, and the result as it plays out is heartbreaking in its predictability.

Another thing: Kavkazskii plennik was shot on location in Dagestan – another region of Russia which has had ‘separatist’ and ‘militant’ problems historically – and the gorgeous scenery and the unfamiliar mountain village-scape (complete with donkeys and sheep and other livestock) provides a very plausible backdrop for the hostage situation that is the centrepiece of the film. There is also something of an irony in the fact that this film, which is a brilliant, sensitive and profound work of art, was a joint Russian-Kazakhstani venture – two nations also divided by religion and culture and have a somewhat-troubled history together, but which were in this case clearly able to find common ground. Bodrov has grown, since Kavkazskii plennik, as a filmmaker into exploring some of this common ground, though it’s taken a bit of trial and error to do. As we’ve seen with Shıza (which Bodrov co-wrote with Guka Omarova), he’s not averse to pairing Russians and Muslim inorodtsy together, or even showcasing the similarities between the two cultures under very different modern forms of social stress.

Still, Kavkazskii plennik features Sergei Bodrov at his sublime best: intelligent, sensitive, able to spin a yarn well without insulting his audience with tawdry sentimentality or specious simplification. Though Bodrov is no stranger to making straight-up action-blockbuster war films (one of which in particular I will touch on a bit later), he set out in this case to make an anti-Hollywood, anti-war film – one which subverts both Russian and American expectations of the genre – and he succeeded in a way that would make Vonnegut (or Tolstoi, for that matter) proud.

07 June 2019

Holy Hierarch Willibald the Pilgrim of Eichstätt

Saint Willibald of Eichstätt

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate Saint Willibald, the venerable Benedictine and bishop of Eichstätt who wrote the Life of our great and beloved Western Church Father Saint Boniface, who was also his maternal uncle. He is also the first known hajji – the first successful pilgrim to the Holy Land – of the English folk.

Willibald was born around 703 in Southampton, the son of Richard of Wessex and his devoted wife Winna, a descendant of Cerdic and the sister of Saint Boniface. He had two siblings who also became saints: a younger sister Wealdburg of Heidenheim, and an elder brother Wynnebald of Heidenheim. As is described in the hagiography of Saint Richard, when he was only three years old, Willibald came down with a deathly illness – a spasm of the limbs and lungs that no natural means could cure. His despairing parents wrapped him in a blanket, and took the toddler Willibald out of the house in the dead of night, laying him at the foot of a rood which lay at a crossroads. Richard and Winna earnestly prayed to God for their son’s life, promising to make him a monk if his life were spared. By God’s grace Willibald did recover, and true to their word, Richard and Winna entrusted their son two years afterward as an oblate to Ecgbald, the abbot at Waltham.

Willibald was a most self-effacing, earnest and diligent student in that monastery, and his thoughts and heart were all bent upon God – still he did not become a monk, but rather Ecgbald allowed him time and space to think on his decision. At last in 721, his father embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome to visit the tombs of the Apostles, and to the Holy Land: and both of his sons, the elder Wynnebald and the younger Willibald, went with him. They set forth across the English Channel and went across France, visiting a number of holy sites along the way. Richard, however, fell ill en route, and was brought to Lucca where he succumbed to his illness and reposed. Richard of Wessex is still venerated as a saint in the Basilica di San Frediano in Italy. It was left to his sons to complete their pilgrimage.

Both sons successfully came to Rome, where they each at last took monastic vows and entered the Benedictine Order. In Rome they stayed and lived in holiness for two years further, and after that the elder brother Wynnebald was obliged to return to England. The younger, Willibald, took a couple of companions and set forth from Rome to the Levant – the blessed places in which our Lord had walked, preached, taught and healed. Willibald and his companions for the most part were fed on a sailor’s diet of hard bread and water, and to this they added the ascetic discipline of sleeping on the bare ground when they made land. They sailed first to Cyprus, and then to Syria. At Homs, Saint Willibald was taken by the Muslim soldiery as a spy, and was locked in fetters and cast into a donjon for several months. At last his Muslim captors began to admire the sweetness of his temperament and the equanimity with which he bore his treatment, and soon they were convinced of the truth of his tale. They spoke a word in the ear of the Khalif, and from him procured Saint Willibald’s release.

With due gratitude Willibald resumed his pilgrimage. He and his companions decided upon a route that followed Our Lord’s earthly course of life, and therefore began his sojourn in an-Nâsira where, as the Anglican rector Rev’d Alban Butler put it: ‘our saint passed there some days with his companions in the continual contemplation of the infinite mercies of God in the great mystery of the incarnation; and the sight of the place in which it was wrought drew from his eyes streams of devout tears during all the time of his stay in that town.

From there he fared to Bayt Lahm and then into Ægypt, following the way by which the infant Christ fled from Herod and meditating upon our young Lord’s sufferings as a stranger there. Returning to Bayt Lahm, he ventured from there to Qana, to Kafr Nâhûm and to al-Quds. He spent a great deal of time in al-Quds meditating upon the wonders and teachings of our Lord in that city prior to His Crucifixion, in memory of which he went to Golgotha, and in memory of Whose Ascension he stayed at Jabal al-Zaytûn. Saint Willibald spent much time among the Palestinian monasteries and lavras and eremitical cells, the better to admire, study and imitate the holy ways of life he saw the Orthodox holy men following. Again in the words of Rev’d Butler: ‘ The tender and lively sentiments of devotion with which his fervent contemplation on the holy mysteries of our redemption inspired him at the sight of all those sacred places, filled his devout soul with heavenly consolations, and made on it strong and lasting impressions.

He had sojourned seven years in the Holy Land; as he was preparing to leave from ‘Akkâ, however, his weak childhood constitution made itself felt as he again fell ill – though through patience and prayer and the grace of God he was able to recover. However, Saint Willibald and his companions arrived safe in Italy at their journey’s end in 728.

Willibald took up residence at the Abbazia di Montecassino (the very same abbey founded by Saint Benedict of Nursia), where he followed the way of life that he had observed and tried to imitate in Palestine; the abbey benefitted greatly from his hard work and humble example. The monks of Montecassino appointed him sacristan first; then dean with responsibility over ten monks; and afterwards the trusted position of abbey porter, in which office he spent eight years. In 738, Saint Boniface made his third journey to Rome to see Pope Gregory III. Upon learning that his nephew was living as a monk in Rome, he asked Gregory III to send Willibald with him to assist in his missionary efforts among the Germans. Pope Gregory III sent for Willibald and was instantly impressed with the monk, taking particular delight in hearing of his travels and his life in Rome. (Gregory himself was a Syrian by origin.) At the end of their interview, Gregory acquainted Willibald with his uncle’s request for his help in converting the German folk. Willibald wanted to tarry to inform his abbot of his mission, but Pope Gregory assured him that his word alone would suffice, and sent Willibald off with his blessing to join his uncle.

At this point, Saint Boniface was in Thüringen, and it was there that Willibald joined him. He assisted his uncle in converting (or re-converting) the populace, correcting heresies among the people, and bringing monastic communities into Germany from England and Italy. Saint Boniface’s efforts met with great success, which his nephew assuredly helped to bring about. In 746, in Salzburg, Saint Boniface made his nephew bishop of Eichstätt, somewhat against his will. However, his patience, meekness, humility and charity all made him a good match for the office. In Heidenheim, the new bishop established a double Benedictine house, over which he placed as abbot his elder brother Wynnebald. He was in particular an advocate of the Benedictine Rule as he had experienced it at Montecassino – but was also a mild, caring and fatherly archpastor to the laymen of his flock. He wandered the last forty-five years of his life, not on pilgrimage for himself, but to care for the image of Christ among the Germans under his care. He paid great attention to even the least of these, and paid little attention his own comfort, for he kept the fasts and prayer cycles of the church with great regularity and intensity. Even so, he lived to the great old age of eighty-seven. He reposed in the Lord in Eichstätt in 790.

He was buried in Eichstätt, and his tomb was the site of a number of wondrous healings. He was venerated locally almost at once as a saint, and this was recognised officially by Rome in 938. The cathedral at Eichstätt was completed in 1269, and Willibald’s relics were translated by Bishop Hildebrand into a reliquary urn in the cathedral.

Holy Hierarch Willibald, faithful monk and pilgrim and gentle archpastor of the German people, we beseech you pray to Christ our God to save our souls!

06 June 2019

Pervyi eshelon: Soviet young love set to Shostakovich

Aleksei Uzarov (Oleg Efremov) and Anya Zalogina (Izol’da Izvitskaya) in Pervyi eshelon

One of the older pieces of Kazakhstani cinema I have in my collection right now is Mikhail Kalotozov’s and Nikolai Pogodin’s 1956 film Pervyi eshelon (Первый эшелон, The First Echelon), which is a sweet and innocent story of young love set on the vast Kazakh steppes during the Virgin Lands Campaign. The film is noteworthy in one other particular respect: the soundtrack was done by famous Russian composer Dmitrii Dmitrievich Shostakovich, and features his Second Waltz, Op. 99.

Central to the story is the unrequited love of Anya Zalogina (Izol’da Izvitskaya), a tractor driver, for her local Komsomol secretary, Aleksei Uzarov (Oleg Efremov) – who are sent to the same sovkhoz in northern Kazakhstan as part of the aforementioned Virgin Lands Campaign. There is also a personality conflict between the zealous and enthusiastic Uzarov and his vodka-loving and markedly less-enthusiastic childhood friend, Evgenii Monetkin (Eduard Bredun), a John Henry-style competition between tractor drivers Anya and Troyan (Vyacheslav Voronin), and various natural barriers to be overcome – including a runaway prairie fire. Also explored are some of the generational issues between the Komsomol youth and their elders in the Party – particularly the director (Vsevolod Sanaev) – and the differences in outlook between the Kazakh and Russian ‘old-timers’ and the recently-arrived volunteers.

The central love story is unfortunately fairly ‘thin’, with most of the drama coming from Uzarov being a bit clueless and dense about Anya’s feelings for him (as, indeed, some of the female characters inform him to his face). As for Anya herself, she is something of a testament to Soviet attitudes toward womanhood, and I’m fairly certain the directors put some effort into making her so. Although she gets a fair amount of screen time in bright blouses and skirts with her hair done up to show off her classic features, she’s even more attractive when she’s shown in her baggy worksuit, her face smudged with engine grease – practically to the point where we start to wonder what the hell is wrong with Uzarov that he doesn’t notice her. Indeed, all of the young women in this film seem to have a certain ‘girl-power’ bent. They come out to the Virgin Lands to work alongside the boys – which, as in Anya’s case, they do with aplomb – but are sent to the kitchen (of which several of them duly complain). That doesn’t prevent the girls from duly pairing off with their preferred beaus. One particularly enthusiastic young couple manages to marry and even apply successfully for the first unit of communal housing built on the new Berezovskaya sovkhoz.

The various strands of the movie’s storyline all unfortunately share this same weakness, in that they don’t really thread together very well into a coherent whole. At the same time, each of them provides something of interest on its own. We get to see the various aspects of sovkhoz life, the rivalries between cohorts from different cities – with Aleksei having some differences in particular with the tight-knit workers from Rostov. We get to see some interesting shades in the farm director’s interactions with the ‘old timers’ like the grizzled Taras Shugailo (Sergei Romodanov) and Kazakh cadres on one hand, and the exuberant and hormonal new brigade youths on the other, but these get a bit glossed-over. The conflict between Uzarov and Monetkin – who are also from the same town and who have an almost foster-brother relationship – has some particularly intriguing psychological undertones (think Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus, Svyatopolk and Yaroslav). From the beginning when the two young men start a play-fight in the brigade dorm over Aleksei playing music a bit too loudly for Anya’s liking, their relationship takes an interesting turn as Aleksei is saddled with more responsibilities, and a jealous Evgenii begins to take to drink and shirk those he has. This makes it unfortunate that this rivalry too is resolved a bit too perfunctorily by the end of the film.

There are, of course, a lot of red flags and slogan banners in this film, which is perhaps appropriate enough for a Soviet production meant to propagandise the Virgin Lands Campaign. But on the whole, the propaganda seems to take a back seat to the various character sketches and subplots of the story. (Or perhaps it was simply that I was expecting the propaganda aspects to be even more ‘on the nose’, given my experience with Chinese cinema from the same period.) The scene toward the end with the prairie fire on the edge of Berezovskaya, though, is, from a technical and effects perspective, wonderfully done – with the workers digging trenches to control the burn and the tractors ploughing straight into the flames. The prairie fire almost seems like a boundary-pushing action-movie sequence, a good decade or two ahead of its time.

Speaking of which, it’s unfortunately fairly easy for us modern movie-goers to be a bit spoiled into thinking that production values were something pretty much invented in the eighties. But the cinematography here is excellent, whether the scene is locomotives barrelling down the tracks to a lively air, or horse riders traversing the snowbound steppe, or tractors turning up the black earth beneath a vast expanse of grassland. There are a number of admirable low-angle shots which aim to highlight the forward-looking heroism of the young protagonists. Kazakhstani cinema, even in its Soviet incarnations, very rarely seems able to avoid gazing with a longing romanticism out into its own naturally-stunning backyard (with Otyrardiń kúıreýi being a possible and partial exception) – and the results are usually spectacular. One wishes, though, in this particular case, that better attention had been paid to lighting effects, particularly indoors. Some scenes feature distinctly different lighting even between adjacent shots on the same set, lending some inadvertent comedy. At other times, the actors’ faces are frustratingly obscured by a poor lighting choice.

The score of Pervyi echelon is almost ridiculously exquisite, coming very close to a case of gilding the lily. Indeed, it was one of the primary draws of the film from the start, with Shostakovich getting top billing. Shostakovich favours the audience not only with lively allegro waltzes and folk songs (placed into the minds and the mouths of the young volunteers), but also with some moving dramatic arrangements throughout the film, including the haunting duet ‘The Tender Maiden’.

In the end, Pervyi echelon is a sweet, charming period piece and romance with a remarkably fine neoclassical score. It’s particularly good if you don’t mind the plot being slightly scattershot and ‘lightweight’. My biggest gripe, I guess – and it’s not a large one – is that there’s unfortunately not a lot about the film that’s ‘Kazakh’ despite having a distinctively-Kazakhstani backdrop and a handful of Kazakh faces particularly among the ‘old timers’. Indeed, Kazakh-ness is utterly subsumed ideologically within the building of a bright and shiny new collective future – which is completely in line with the Soviet ideology of the time. The Virgin Lands Campaign was not a long-term success, but it did leave us with this commendable feature.

05 June 2019

Ya ne vernus’: toward a Kazakhstani Lake Kitëzh

Anya (Polina Pushkaruk) and Kris (Vika Lobacheva) in Ya ne vernus’

The next film on my docket of Kazakh movies was actually a joint venture between Estonian, Finnish, Belorussian, Russian and Kazakhstani studios: the 2014 drama Ya ne vernus’ (Я не вернусь, I Won’t Come Back) directed by Ilmar Raag. The film itself is somewhat hard to classify: there are elements in it of both Thelma & Louise and Bridge to Terabithia, odd as that combination may sound. It’s all three of a road movie, a buddy movie and a bildungsroman, and very much so of each – but it somehow goes far deeper than and far beyond all of its genre expectations. It’s rich and emotionally complex, and despite the great vastness of the journey of its characters from northwestern Russia all the way into southeastern Kazakhstan – much of it taking place in and around dense and snowbound Russian forests – it’s a remarkably intimate portrait of a troubled friendship between two very damaged yet beautiful female protagonists.

The film’s main character, Anya (Polina Pushkaruk) seems to be set for success, despite growing up in an orphanage. She distances herself from her friends and from her boyfriend Dima (Sergei Yatsenyuk). She earns a gold medal for her academic performance at the orphanage, but at what should be a proud moment of her life she seems to be far from smiling and on the verge of tears. She leaves the orphanage without saying goodbye to anyone. Several years later, we see Anya a university post-doc, giving lectures on Byron. She’s having an affair with the married professor (Andrei Astrahantsev), who does not and seemingly cannot treat her as an equal. After Dima, now a drug dealer wanted by the police, comes back into her life and inadvertently implicates her in his crimes, she has to flee the police and hide herself in another orphanage. There she meets another girl, a diminutive, bullied fourteen-year-old with a big imagination named Kristina (Viktoriya Lobacheva), who dreams of escaping her orphanage and going back to her babushka in Kazakhstan, evidenced only by a worn folded photo with an address on the back. When the police come looking for her anyway, the two of them set off together for Shamalǵan (now Úshqońyr) in search of Kris’s babushka, whom Anya is not certain even exists.

The film’s production is very polished, very modern – which is what one should expect when production companies from five different countries, two of which are state-run, have their hands in its creation. The preferred palette consists of deep gritty primary colours, generating an intense feeling of realism despite there being a rather ‘unreal’, almost mythic quality to the story it tells. One can easily see how it might otherwise have become a pastiche of melodramatic films in these genres. But Raag seems to have a peculiar talent for drawing incredible emotional power off of small gestures, small encounters, simple words and phrases. The relationship between the older Anya and the younger Kristina is rendered real and heartfelt by just such interactions between the two.

The early characterisation of Anya comes off as a little bit caricatured. Indeed, her rapid ascent from orphanage prodigy to assistant professor with a shining career in academia seems more than a bit implausible, in a Horatio Alger kind of way – though given the way her relationship with the professor plays out, it’s possible that Raag was deliberately subverting this theme. And the equally-sudden turns by which she falls under police suspicion, escapes, and disguises her way into another orphanage seem a bit convenient and contrived. But once Anya meets Kristina, the film seems to find its feet rather easily, and just lets the two characters play off each other. Both of them have a keenly-felt and painful need to be intimate with each other, yet each of them has difficulty articulating that need to the other. As a result, they end up fighting with each other more often than not.

Kristina’s attachment to Anya at the beginning of their journey is healthy, straightforward, sincere and believable. Anya provides Kristina with an elder-sororal figure, even something like a foster mother; and even if Anya fulfils that rôle reluctantly for much of the film, nonetheless Kristina finds what she’s looking for in Anya – as, for instance, when she saves Kris from being casually kidnapped by an older man at a roadside filling station, who claims to have a brother in Kazakhstan.

But the younger girl’s impact on Anya seems a little harder to pin down. On the one hand, Anya is deeply drawn to something in Kris’s mythopœic sense of life, her clear flights of imagination – even if she herself is too jaded at first to see in them anything other than the fictional delusions of a frightened and self-defensive early teen. When Kris speaks of her ‘wings’, which were given her by God but taken from her by her teachers, Anya clearly comprehends her as speaking to a deeper truth – one she can relate to. On the other hand, for most of the film Anya is never quite able to extricate herself from the lopsided relationship she has with the married professor. Anya’s inner conflict sometimes leads her to be unjustifiably cruel toward Kris. For example, when Andrei calls Anya back on her cellphone and asks her to come back to him, Anya deliberately takes Kris into a graveyard at night – frightening her out of her wits – and tries to abandon her there.

But her growing attachment to Kris nonetheless gives her something of a salvific arc. All the way through the film, the faded-pencilled Shamalǵan address on the back of Kris’s photo which serves as their destination seems to be something of a mirage, a Lake Kitëzh. In Kris’s retelling, babushka’s house in Kazakhstan takes on a kind of otherworldly significance. And yet Raag manages to give us, his audience, the sense that this mirage is the only thing capable of saving Anya from the tenuous and unhappy balancing-act that was her previous adult life; and this is the case even and particularly when the story takes a heartbreaking twist. Though this is not a particularly ‘religious’ movie, Ya ne vernus’ notably turns on a leap of faith.

Despite the breadth and vastness of the film’s sets and scenery, Ya ne vernus’ fixates strongly on the relationship between the two girls. This isn’t a bad thing in the slightest, but sometimes it happens to the exclusion of other intriguing possibilities. Though one of the people they met on the road clearly had evil designs on Kris, for the rest of the film the minor characters appear in strongly supportive rôles. And despite us seeing things largely through Anya’s eyes, one sometimes wishes to see and learn more of them: the drivers who pick them up, the Kazakh train passengers who nurse Anya back to health when she falls ill, or the magazin owner who catches Anya stealing sweets for Kris from her store – but who nonetheless refuses her money and gives her the sweets for free. Ya ne vernus’ is never an explicitly-feminist film, but the most touching moments portrayed herein are always those of camaraderie and support by an older woman for a younger one.

Though some of the movie’s plot twists and premises, particularly early on, can be a bit bewildering, the sisterly relationship between the two main characters that is the heart and soul of this movie is utterly earnest, and that makes this a really tough movie to dislike. There are a couple of elements to the story (like the drug bust and the occasional foul language) that might keep me from recommending it to too-young audiences, but Ya ne vernus’ really is a family film at heart: one that takes an understated but no less deep dive, through this bittersweet and intimate character sketch, into what constitutes love and faith and home. Speaking strictly for myself, this is probably one of my favourite Kazakh films to have watched so far.

Post-colonial, non-aligned Orthodoxy

From left to right: HH Abp Chrysostomos II of Cyprus; HH Patriarch John X of Antioch;
HH Patriarch Theodoros II of Alexandria; and HH Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem

I failed to comment on this story when it first surfaced a month and a half ago, but I really should have done and am doing so now. His Holiness Chrysostomos II, Archbishop of Cyprus; His Holiness John X, Patriarch of Antioch; His Holiness Theodoros II, Patriarch of Alexandria; and His Holiness Theophilos III, Patriarch of Jerusalem met on 18 April in Cyprus to discuss various ecclesiological issues – first among which was the Ukraine question. In the overall miasma of inter-Orthodox news surrounding the Moscow-Constantinople schism and the attendant ecclesiological and political issues it’s dusted up, this news item might seem like ‘small potatoes’ and somewhat outdated now. It’s not.
On 18th April 2019, at the invitation of His Beatitude Archbishop Chrysostomos II of New Justiniana and All Cyprus, Their Beatitudes Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria and All Africa, Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East, and Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem visited Cyprus.

Discussed at the meeting were problems of inter-Orthodox relations, as well as the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

At the results of the meeting, a joint communiqué was issued, noting that Their Beatitudes the Primates of the Orthodox Churches discussed various problems “that arose after granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.” “His Beatitude Chrysostomos, Archbishop of Cyprus, briefed them [the three Primates] on his personal initiative of mediation. After listening to His Beatitude, the Primates of the three Churches gave their support for his initiative to carry it for the good of the unity of the Orthodox Church in Christ Jesus. In this regard, Their Holiness and Beatitude called upon all people concerned to work, on the one hand, to achieve Eucharistic unity, which constitutes the fullness of the Church in Christ Jesus, and on the other hand, to protect the faithful, their churches and their monasteries against all forms of transgressions and all acts of violence coming from any side, whatever the causes and motives are,” the communiqué states, in particular.

The Primates of the four Orthodox Churches also expressed “their sadness at the indifference of various countries and centers of power regarding the fate” of the Archbishops of Aleppo, Paul Yazigi of the Church of Antioch and Youhanna Ibrahim of the Syrian Jacobite Church, who were abducted six years ago, on 22nd April 2013.

During a private meeting, Patriarch John X of Antioch and Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem “discussed in a spirit of sincerity, brotherhood and love, and exchanged views on the issue related to both Churches. They expressed their sincere determination and good intention to overcome these problems in the nearest future, in order for both Churches to reach the sought Eucharistic communion.”
As Dcn Methodius Steve Hayes at Khanya astutely noted before, there seems to be a gæopolitical split within Orthodoxy presently. We have heard from the Œcumenical Patriarch, who speaks for the America-centric ‘First World Church’. And we have heard from Patriarch Kirill, who seems to speak for the post-Soviet ‘Second World Church’. But with regard to the rest of the Orthodox world, which includes three of the historical five offices of the Pentarchy and the fastest-growing segment of the Orthodox Church globally, there seems to be a very different consensus emerging that is not easily digestible to New Rome and Third Rome imperial mythologies, nor to simplistic dichotomies of Slav versus Greek. Again I will note: Third World means Third World. It does not mean appropriating Third World language to rationalise a Second World nation’s desires to join the First.

Dcn Steve kindly provided some much-needed hints as to the nature of this emerging Third World consensus within the Orthodox Church. The Third World churches are concerned with avoiding a schism, with recapitulating the traditional ecclesiology of the Church, and (not least) with preserving civil order outside and among competing superpowers. There is very little patience among the other Churches with the political machinations of the Russian state, but if push comes to shove they will side with the established canonical Church bodies over the newer politically-motivated ones: just as Jamâl ‘Abd an-Nâsr and Salâma Mûsâ reluctantly sided with the Soviets more of the time than they sided with the West.

Let us consider. The four primates of Orthodox local churches who met in Cyprus represent, respectively, Cyprus (former British colony; partly occupied by Turkey), Syria (former French colony; partly occupied by Dâ‘iš and al-Qâ‘ida), Ægypt (former British colony) and Palestine (former British colony; occupied by Israel). The current discussion takes place within the context of a new Cold War between the United States and Russia; and the substance of the discussion has to do with the very relevant question of ecclesiastical independence from meddling by great power politics. Note how the statement put out by the four primates emphasises canonicity, Eucharistic unity, impartial defence of the powerless against attacks (including the situation in Syria and the near-forgotten plights of Mar Gregorios Yûhannâ Ibrâhîm and Met Paul Yâzigî!) and strategies of third-party mediation – not in a naïve Pollyanna way, but as a strategy to avoid coöptation by great power politics.

One further note: the histories of all of these countries – Cyprus and Ægypt particularly – are deeply intertwined with the Non-Aligned Movement; and in Cyprus particularly the rôle of the Orthodox Church in articulating and promoting Non-Aligned goals under the government of Archbishop Makarios III was not insignificant. Note how it is the Archbishop of Cyprus who seems to be taking a leading rôle even now! This is a valuable aspect of our recent historical witness as a Church that tends to be sidelined in discussions which centre the political witness of the Church on either Moscow or Constantinople. These are interesting times indeed, and the three Patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria seem to be carrying forward a true Gospel light and the spirit of Christ in a time darkened by the fog of cold war. May God protect them and grant them many years!