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.

Beloe solntse pustyni: a deserving cult-classic Ostern

Rahimov (Musa Dudaev) and Suhov (Anatolii Kuznetsov) in Beloe solntse pustyni
Ваше благородие, госпожа Разлука,
Все мы с ней не встретимся, вот какая штука.
Письмецо в конверте погоди не рви,
Не везет мне в смерти – повезет в любви!
I had forgotten just how much I love this film – the first Soviet film I ever watched as a callow youth of twenty-two. That’s to my chagrin. Still, I can and will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first release of Vladimir Motyl’s directorial masterpiece in 1970. It is traditional for Soviet and Russian cosmonauts to watch Beloe solntse pustyni (White Sun of the Desert) before launch, as a good-luck charm. That has something of an ironic echo in my own case, since I first watched this movie in preparation for my ill-fated but quite formative trip to Kazakhstan in 2009. Now, over ten years later, of course I can look back on that whole episode with a smiling eye – and I can watch Beloe solntse pustyni with a bit more appreciation and grounding in the Western (and Ostern) genre’s conventions. With all due thanks, of course, to Rich Hall.

Beloe solntse pustyni takes place in the deserts of Central Asia, and follows one adventure in the life of a Red Army veteran of the Caspian Regiment ‘Ferdinand August Bebel’, Fyodor Ivanovich Suhov (Anatolii Kuznetsov) as he attempts to make his way home to his wife Katerina Matveevna (Galina Luchai) from his posting in Turkestan. On the way back he meets and rescues a man buried up to his neck in the desert – Said (Spartak Mishulin), a sharpshooter on a quest for vengeance against his father’s killer. In the next city he finds a Red Army detachment led by Rahimov (Musa Dudaev) as they’ve taken charge of nine women who were the wives of a certain cruel and vengeful Basmachi rebel captain named Abdulla (Kahi Kavsadze). Rahimov manages to convince Suhov to take the young women into his charge while he gets reinforcements, and he commandeers a local museum to shelter the women and fend off Abdulla until Rahimov returns. Suhov, and his young helper Petruha (Nikolai Godovikov) are left to their own devices, appealing – at first unsuccessfully – to the local customs officer, Pavel Vereshchagin (Pavel Luspekaev).

There’s a great deal to appreciate about this iconic film, justly considered a cult classic and beloved by generations of Russians. The premise of the film, to begin with, is Homeric in tenor: Suhov, the veteran of a great expedition to the East, finds himself wandering back home with small hope of return, yet vividly remembering and cherishing the memory of the Penelope to his Odysseus, his wife Katerina – to whom he composes mental letters, which serve as narration in the film. And on his travels he faces trials and temptations both, all of which seem to offer contemporary parallels to the monsters and beauties which grace the Odyssey. When I watched this film many years ago I lavished praises on the character of Said, whose laconic charisma and sang-froid is even now quite compelling to me. But despite his continuing ‘coolness’ as the hired gun who never misses, I’ve found that the other characters in the film, particularly Petruha and Vereshchagin, have taken on intriguing dimensions and meaning in light of a classical reference which I had little conception of on my first watch.

If there is a Greek chorus to observe Suhov’s feats, actually, it’s a silent one – but no less eloquent for all that. The four aqsaqaldar, literally white-bearded old men, who sit by the wall on the Caspian seaside hardly say a single word the entire time, but they are there watching, often with patient bemusement, all the outlandish and violent events unfold in front of them. As seems appropriate in a film like this, there is a deliberate contraposition of the bleak desert with its vast dunes and rugged stone architecture with the idyllic, green and red flower-covered meadows of Suhov’s home with his beloved Katerina standing patiently among them, only glimpsed in flashbacks or daydreams. (Suhov spends a lot of his time on screen reclining or napping on the sand, often to comic effect.) The colour schemes are entirely different, and they offer us tantalising hints into Suhov’s inner psychology and motivations.

As seems to be a commonplace in Westerns, the weapons are reflections of the characters of the people who wield them. Suhov wields a Nagant revolver, while Abdulla wields a Mauser C96 – the weapons of ‘gentleman’ cavalry officers. The ill-fated Petruha wields a rifle with a bayonet attached, which never manages to fire except on accident. The Basmachi bandits all wield carbines. Vereshchagin either fights with his bare fists or hurls sticks of dynamite – both a testament to his temper and a foreshadowing of his tragicomic demise. Said, the survivor, successfully improvises with whatever is closest to hand, whether it’s stealing an enemy’s gun or throwing a knife.

The relationships between men and women are another filmic motif: Suhov’s devotion to his wife notwithstanding, his suddenly being placed in charge of Abdulla’s harem, together with a green youngster who clearly has no experience with women, places a significant temptation on him, as we are made to see through his daydreams. The fundamentally decent Suhov represents a familial ethic which is new and Soviet as far as his charges are concerned: one woman for one husband, and one husband’s affections for one wife. Suhov gains the attentions – or at least curiosity – of one of Abdulla’s burqa-wearing wives, the fifteen-year-old Gúlchataı (Tatyana Fedotova), whom Petruhov also admires despite not ever being able to see her face. Gúlchataı struggles to understand the benefits of Christian-slash-Soviet monogamy, seeing the lot of a single wife in charge of an entire household’s chores as drudgery – but it also seems she’s the most receptive to the idea. This motif of a progressive versus an Islâmic-patriarchal understanding of sexuality does not actually shy away from subtly ribbing the Soviet position. Suhov posts big red propaganda posters around the museum reading – in Russian – things like ‘Women are human beings too!’ But at the same time, Suhov does occasionally entertain the fantasy of keeping a harem, with Katerina as the chief wife and supervisor…

And then there is the relationship between Vereshchagin and his own wife Nastasya (Raisa Kurkina): the old customs officer is torn between a certain degree of domestic security, bought at the cost of compromises with Abdulla’s gang at the behest of his wife, and his formerly glorious and daring military past – which is symbolised in the film by a kind of sæcular iconostasis on one wall of the customs-house, with paintings and lithographs, maps and old photographs – these of himself with his much-younger wife in his military attire and medals. There are hints and flashes of the old fire in Vereshchagin, and these are brought out mainly by his meeting with young Petruhov, to whom Vereshchagin takes an instant liking. It is strongly implied by the film that Petruhov reminds Vereshchagin of his own deceased son, whose military grave is far-off and unattended. Vereshchagin is also the one who strums and sings the folk song Ваше благородие, госпожа Разлука quoted above, and which forms something of a theme for the film. It reflects also something of Vereshchagin’s predicament, being estranged from his old home, being unlucky in death but lucky in love with a devoted (but somewhat smothering and overprotective) wife.

The overall tone of the film is light, however – even comic. It is brisk-paced, well-choreographed with regard to the gunfights and standoffs, and has the benefit of never taking itself too seriously, allowing for its saturnine humour and its immortal one-liners: ‘The East is a delicate matter,’ for instance; ‘His grenades are the wrong type!’; and ‘Save at least one bullet, Abdulla, to shoot yourself!’ The main locations for filming were Dagestan (on the other side of the Caspian) and Turkmenistan for a few of the desert scenes. Luga, south of Saint Petersburg, was chosen for the pastoral location for shooting Suhov’s daydreams and flashbacks with Katerina. The palette for the film is notably warm, even gaudy, when compared with other films of the time. This is counterbalanced by a certain staid realism in the cinematography: lots of slow pans and flat, static takes, allowing the audience to have the same sort of ironic detachment from the action that the aqsaqaldar have, sitting outside in the sun.

If it weren’t already obvious, I consider Beloe solntse pustyni to be fully deserving of its status among the classics of Soviet film, full stop. Not for nothing was it added to the register of culturally significant films in Russia in 1998! It can easily bear the comparison to any Western of its time. It’s shot against starkly beautiful Caspian desertscapes. Its characters are all entirely and understandably human – even the homicidally jealous villain. It hits just the right notes of comedy and melancholia, action and emotion to solidify its place in cinema, and its classical literary moorings take it just that extra step beyond into the category of high art. This one’s absolutely a keeper.

29 March 2020

Holy Hieromartyr Markos of Arethousa, Holy Deaconmartyr Kyrillos of Heliopolis and all those with them

Saint Markos of Arethousa
القديس مرقس الرستني

The twenty-ninth of March, in the Holy Orthodox Church, is the feast day of Saint Markos of Arethousa in Syria, who was one of the fourth-century martyrs who suffered under the sanguinary persecutions of Julian the Apostate. He himself showed considerable bravery in the face of persecution, laying down his life so that his parishioners would be spared torment and death. His nobility in the face of torment so affected and moved his persecutors that many of them returned to the Christian faith.

Saint Markos [Gk. Μάρκος, L. Marcus, Ar. Marqus مرقس] was born sometime in the late third century, probably sometime before the year 270. He was already an elderly man by the time he became the bishop of Arethousa, which is today ar-Rastan in Homs Governorate in Syria. Many bishops in his time were involved in the disputes over the substance of Christ, and in controversies with the Arians. Saint Markos was, at least in this dispute, a peace-loving man and one unwilling to enter the lists in intellectual disputations. Like Saint Meletios, Bishop Markos had little taste for such disputes. He was present at Sirmium when the so-called First Creed of Sirmium was draughted, signalling to some that he was of the party in the Church that sought a ‘homoiousian’ compromise with the Arians.

However, his zeal for the Faith was not to be underestimated by such peaceable overtures. Saint Markos must have repudiated the disastrous Third Council of Sirmium and thus rejected any compromise with the Arians in the end. He also undertook a great conversion of the people of Arethousa from paganism to Christianity. He preached in the public squares, and throngs of people came to hear him speak. He also supported – or indeed may have led himself – a party that destroyed a pagan temple in Arethousa and built an Orthodox Christian church in its place.

When Julian the Apostate entered Syria to mount his bloodthirsty war against Persia, the pagans at Arethousa saw their chance to take revenge upon the hierarch who had destroyed their temple. They sought him out, and he hid himself at first, thinking perhaps to avoid a confrontation which might leave many Arethousans dead. But when he saw that the pagans were torturing and killing Christian laypeople in order to get to him, Saint Markos gave himself up and placed himself in the pagans’ hands, on the condition that they would leave the Christian flock alone.

The pagans, having no regard for Saint Markos’s advanced years, stripped him naked, dragged him through the streets, tore out his hair, and beat him mercilessly. Taunting and jeering at him, they flung him into the sewer. When they pulled him out, they invited the children to prod him with their iron styluses and cut him with their knives. They then demanded that Saint Markos deliver to them the money needed to rebuild the pagan temple, but he refused to give them anything. And so they used vices and falaka torture on the elderly bishop’s feet, and cut off his ears with linen cords. At last they smeared honey upon the martyr’s body and hung him in a basket in the sun at midday, allowing the bees and wasps and hornets to sting him.

The pagans began to ask for less and less money toward rebuilding their temple, but Saint Markos would not relent to giving them one single coin. In this way, he actually earned their grudging admiration and respect, and even sympathy. At length the people of Arethousa convinced the pagans to lower the basket and let Saint Markos go free, and many of his former tormentors actually came again to listen to him speak. Many of them repented and turned to Christ, and were again allowed into the Church. Saint Markos was praised by both Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Blessed Theodoret of Kyrrhos. Holy hieromartyr Markos, steadfast confessor of Christ before the rage of the pagans, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Other saints that suffered under Julian the Apostate, whom we commemorate today, are Saint Kyrillos the Deacon of Ba‘albak and those who suffered with him. Like Saint Markos, Saint Kyrillos had preached Christ for a long time in what is now Lebanon, and he had destroyed several temples to the pagan gods, including those at Heliopolis. The pagans also seized him when Julian arrived in Syria, and they disembowelled him and ate his liver. The people who committed this atrocity upon Saint Kyrillos were at once afflicted with blindness and boils. (Still, I am sure that Julian’s imperial propagandists referred to these people as moderate rebels.) During the persecutions in Ba‘albak there was a concomitant slaughter of Christians by pagans in Gaza and in ‘Asqalân, in which many were killed. Holy deaconmartyr Kyrillos and all of those with you, pray unto Christ our God for us sinners!
Apolytikion for Saint Markos of Arethousa in Syria, Tone 3:

In preparation for the contest, you anointed an assembly of martyrs
and bolstered them by your steadfastness, O glorious Markos.
You finished your course together with them
and all of you were found worthy of the joy of heaven.
Righteous father, entreat Christ our God to grant us His great mercy.
Apolytikion for Saint Kyrillos of Heliopolis, Tone 3:

In preparation for the contest, O glorious Kyrillos,
You anointed an assembly of martyrs
And strengthened them by your steadfastness.
You finished your course with them.
And you were all found worthy of the joys of heaven.
O righteous Father,
Pray to Christ our God to grant us his great mercy!

28 March 2020

Jordanes: critic of phyletism?

Goths at the Battle of Hadrianople

One of the books I have been reading recently is De origine actibusque Getarum, a unique and precious document dating from the reign of Justinian of the Eastern Roman Empire. It is unique and precious because it is the only surviving document by a barbarian – in this case, an Eastern Teutonic Goth – about the history of his own people. Jordanes of Alania [Gk. Ιορδάνης ο Αλανός, Goth. Ïaurdaneis 𐌹𐌰𐌿𐍂𐌳𐌰𐌽𐌴𐌹𐍃] was a military secretary or notarius who was living in Byzantium at the end of the Gothic Wars. His grandfather Paria had been such a secretary to the Alan tribal leader Candac, and Jordanes had apparently continued that tradition as secretary to the Ostrogothic lord Gunthigis Baza. He had taken up residence in Constantinople and had been writing a history of Rome at the time when he was supposedly requested by a friend, Castalius, to similarly write a history of his own people. He wrote it in 551 AD, and it was apparently a politically-sensitive document, given that it was a narration of the history of a people with whom Constantinople was at war.

Jordanes has long been considered something of a second-rate hack author, a barely-literate barbarian better suited to the sword than the pen, who was completely dependent for his De origine on the now-lost history of the Goths written by Cassiodorus. A great deal of critique has been made of Jordanes’ Latin grammar, of his mistaken identification of the Thracian Getæ with the Goths, and of his ‘plagiarism’ of Cassiodorus. For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the chief interest in Jordanes was from Germanicists and mediævalists who used Jordanes as a source on the identity and history of the ‘barbarian kingdoms’ from which the Germans claimed descent. Even in this discourse he was considered the intellectual and academic inferior of Tacitus. Thankfully some of this reputation has been revisited, as at least some of the negativity surrounding Jordanes has been owing to the general anti-Byzantine bias of Western academia. James O’Donnell of Georgetown and Brian Swain of Kennesaw State have done some interesting work recovering Jordanes as a political voice and literary critic in his own right, with Swain in particular noting Jordanes’ evident literary interest in the Æneid and his awareness of the contemporary controversy over Origenism.

O’Donnell and Swain make a good point, though both of them voice cautions about attempts to ascribe too narrow a political view to the author. The De origine actibusque Getarum is an inescapably political document, having been written from Constantinople, in Latin, by a Goth, about the Gothic people, during a time when Goths were not the most popular subject in Eastern Rome. Obviously Jordanes had to take a bit of care when writing it, which is why he adds his exculpatory encomiums to Justinian at the end of his narration and his disavowals of adding to or subtracting from the corpus of his subject matter in the postscript.

But his history, for all that it has been criticised (particularly in Romania) for his ‘errors’ of historical fact, has a particular and significant narrative value. Jordanes – though he has other philosophical, political and theological commitments which must be heeded – attempts to in some degree defend the honour of his people through this historical treatment. In fact, he appropriates Virgil, Plato and the commentaries on Origen to argue against both the false universality of Hellenism and the phyletist – to anachronistically deploy an analogy thirteen hundred years in the offing – understanding of the places of Greekness and Romanity in the classical world.

If there is any one firm political commitment that stands out in the Getica, it is the commitment to Orthodox Christianity. Jordanes speaks of Saint Cyprian of Carthage as ‘our own bishop and venerable martyr in Christ’, for example, and issues condemnations of Arianism. This is noteworthy in that it places Jordanes firmly in a minority position vis-à-vis his own people, most of whom were Arians following Wulfila. Jordanes is occasionally given to snark at the expense of historical figures, but he saves his bitterest polemic for Emperor Valens, whom he blames for leading the Gothic people astray from becoming true Christians:
138. When the Emperor Valens heard of this at Antioch, he made ready an army at once and set out for the country of Thrace. Here a grievous battle took place and the Goths prevailed. The Emperor himself was wounded and fled to a farm near Hadrianople. The Goths, not knowing that the Emperor lay hidden in so poor a hut, set fire to it (as is customary in dealing with a cruel foe), and thus he was cremated in royal splendour. Plainly it was a direct judgement of God that he should be burned with fire by the very men whom he had perfidiously led astray when they sought the true faith, turning them aside from the flame of love into the fire of hell.
One of Jordanes’s projects in the Getica is to build up an ancient historical pedigree for his people going back to their origins on the ‘island’ of Scandza. He accomplishes this by establishing linkages between the Goths of distant antiquity, and the peoples among whom they lived: in particular, the Scythians, the Thracians and the ‘Getæ’ (a term which Jordanes uses interchangeably with ‘Goths’). These identifications allow Jordanes to claim for the Goths the Amazon queens Lampedo and Marpesia, the Scythian warrior-queen Tomyris, and the legendary Thracian philosopher-kings Zalmoxis and Deceneus.

In Swain’s view, these identifications also allow Jordanes to set up a direct parallelism between the Goths and the Romans using the Æneid as a literary template, in which the Thracian tribes stood as foils to the Trojan adventurers at the heart of the story. This parallelism would have had profound resonances for any Greek- or Latin-speaking audience – and, indeed, profoundly subversive ones. The œconomic exploitation and enslavement of the starving Goths at the hands of Lupicinus and Maximus, and the subsequent betrayal and attempted murder of Fritigern, is placed in the centre of Jordanes’ narrative, and it deliberately echoes and parallels the episode in the Æneid in which the Thracians murder the Trojan Polydorus, forcing Æneas to flee. This episode is not only meant to evoke sympathy for the Goths under Fritigern. It also would have served to give the Goths the prestige of a culture with claims to literacy and philosophy and a disciplined soldier-tradition, and thus a more central place in the world according to Hellenistic or late-classical thought. In effect, Jordanes was deliberately blurring the distinction between ‘barbarian’ and Greco-Roman.

This distinction-blurring for the benefit of the Goths did not, however, prevent Jordanes from erecting and sharpening that same distinction between the Goths and the other barbarian tribes around them. Jordanes routinely belittles other tribes as dim-witted, crude, illiterate, undisciplined and animalistic, including the Huns, the Franks, and even the Goths’ linguistic kissing-cousins the Gepids. It also did not prevent Jordanes from criticising particular Gothic historical figures when it suited him. But the fact that his narrative set out to provide a parallel standing for the Goths alongside the Romans deserves some careful consideration.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that in the Getica, Jordanes was issuing a thinly-veiled challenge – from a perspective that was both explicitly Chalcedonian Christian and distinguishably literate in the founding mythology of Rome – to the ideology of Justinian, which was based in the notion of reconquering the West and restoring it to a universal Romanitas. The task of Jordanes, which even as it lauded Justinian and Belisarius for their efforts in uniting the Gothic and Roman peoples, nevertheless placed the Gothic and Roman peoples on an equal footing. Even if he was unwilling to do this for other barbarian peoples, Jordanes had still thrown down a gauntlet against one of the chief unspoken prejudices of the Hellenistic mind.

And here the Orthodoxy of Jordanes, though we have no reason at all to think it less than sincere, serves him an additional purpose. Despite his political challenge to Justinianic imperial ideology, he could by no means stand accused of Arianism or any other theological aberration. His invocation and deft avoidance of the Origenist controversy in the introduction to the Getica – which borrowed a great deal in style from the preface of Rufinus’s translation of Origen’s letters into Latin – shows that he was not insensible to this possibility; and thus he takes pains to establish himself on the side of doctrinal correctness. Further: he places Christianity and the Great Commission outside the claims of nation-building in his doctrinal criticism of Emperor Valens. Jordanes does not place an overbearing finger on this point, but it’s clear that in his view that being linguistically and culturally Roman is not a necessary prærequisite for Christianity.

This is an important point to get in our day and age. Is celebrating Greek independence the priority for us, or the Annunciation of Christ to the Holy Theotokos? Are ‘barbarians’ spiritually inferior to Hellenes? Is it necessary to culturally ‘Romanise’ before adopting Christianity? These are questions which are nearly fifteen hundred years old, but even in an indirect form they were being explored by the Gothic notarius. Though belittled for being too Byzantine in our own recent past, ironically Jordanes may prove a valuable intellectual ally in our own day against the sin of phyletism.

Brat 2: ‘Are y’all gangsters?’ ‘No, we are Russians.’

Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov, Jr) in Brat 2

Aleksei Balabanov’s sequel to Brat, Brat 2, is at once quite a bit more and quite a bit less than the movie which kicked it off. The first film traded heavily on having an indie-film feel, which has been totally jettisoned in this film for a million-and-a-half dollar budget, a professional film crew, international set pieces, chase scenes and lots of vintage weaponry. Brat was no blockbuster. Neither, really, is the sequel – but it comes close.

The premise of Brat 2 lies in its transplanting the main characters from the first film – who were fish-out-of-water in Saint Petersburg in a renovated Dostoevskian style – into a similar fish-out-of-water situation in Chicago. It’s a premise that seems to work fairly well, and Brat 2 does deliver us a rather tart commentary on life ‘at the bottom’ in both countries. The story takes us fairly quickly from Moscow to a much more international setting in short order, but once the characters board their Aeroflot planes events take their time in unwinding, giving the film a slow-burn, meditative and almost brooding pace around the middle.

Warning: spoilers below.

The events of Brat 2 take place about a year after the first film ends. Danila Bagrov (Sergei Bodrov, Jr) is living in Moscow with a couple of friends and fellow-veterans of the Chechen Wars, the museum guard Ilya (Kirill Pirogov), and the bank security man Kostya (Aleksandr D’yachenko). The three of them do an interview for a Moscow TV station about their experiences in the war, during which Bagrov meets the pop star Irina Saltykova (herself) and gets her mobile number. Back in Danila’s hometown, his mother and his brother Viktor (Viktor Suhorukov) watch Danila’s interview – and in a distinct rôle reversal from the first film, their mother tells Viktor to go visit Danila in Moscow and make something of himself instead of being a burden on her.

We learn that Kostya’s brother Mitya (also Aleksandr D’yachenko), an NHL hockey star playing for the Chicago Blackhawks, got himself mixed up with the Ukrainian mafia in Chicago and has been forced to pay most of his salary to the local crime boss Richard Mennis (Gary Houston). Kostya asks his boss Valentin Belkin (Sergei Makovetsky) for help, but ends up being killed by Belkin’s henchmen for his ‘request’, as Belkin and Mennis have agreed to a somewhat risky joint business venture. Danila finds his body, and he and Ilya go into hiding and start planning to get even with Belkin. Viktor arrives in Moscow and joins up with them. After outwitting, outdriving and outgunning Belkin’s henchmen, Danila corners Belkin at a recital where his son is performing and threatens him at gunpoint. Belkin lies to Danila and says that it was Mennis who had Kostya killed. Danila decides to spare Belkin on account of his young son, who recited a patriotic poem ‘Я устал, что у меня есть огромная семья’ by Crimean playwright Vladimir Orlov at his recital.

Ilya makes plans for Danila and Viktor to travel to America to deal with Mennis. He sends Viktor to Chicago and Danila to New York, from which he can drive to Chicago. This turns out to be a wise precaution, because Belkin sics his henchmen on Danila, hoping to get him at the airport. Because they aren’t expecting Viktor, they let him pass – and Danila doesn’t show on the flight he’s supposed to be on. Belkin learns about Viktor’s past in the mafia, warns Mennis about both Viktor and Danila, and has Irina’s phone bugged. (In some comic asides, Irina calls up Danila to ask where he is; Danila tells her he’s in Tula, and Belkin’s henchmen try without success to catch him on the road there.) Danila buys a car in New York from a Russian dealer who assures him it will get him ‘to San Francisco and back’, starts driving it to Chicago, and the car promptly breaks down before he can get into Pennsylvania. He ends up having to hitch a ride with a trucker, Ben Johnson (Ray Toler), with whom he strikes up a friendship, despite not knowing any English and Johnson not knowing any Russian.

Danila has difficulty navigating Chicago with no English, and tries unsuccessfully to contact Mitya. He gets run over by a news anchor, Lisa (Lisa Jeffrey), and manages to charm his way into her apartment and her bed for a night. However, still in need of a translator, he tries to get in touch with a Russian prostitute he met on the street, Dasha (Darya Lesnikova), and ends up on the wrong side of her pimp, and (briefly) on the wrong side of racist Chicago cops. As in the first movie, Danila uses homemade weapons (a shotgun made from plywood, an old pipe, wires and matches, filled with nails) and his wits to arm himself and defend Dasha. He ultimately kills her pimp and she joins up with him. Danila runs into Viktor – who had gotten into trouble with the Ukrainian mafia and the police – and manages to connect with Mitya.

The three of them try to boil some crawdads on Lake Michigan, and the three of them get into a discussion about life in America. Viktor loves the idea that in America one can become powerful by getting money. Dasha is quite a bit more jaded. Having come to New York as a student during glasnost’, she found herself going through a bad marriage and a messy divorce, ultimately having to sell her body to make ends meet. Danila floats the proposal that she can go home, although she’s initially sceptical of the idea. They are interrupted by a black man who tries to warn them of lake pollution, and who storms off when Danila calls him a ‘negr’ in Russian, not knowing that it’s a racial slur. The man comes back with company, and Danila shoots at their feet, scaring them off.

Danila learns that Mennis operates through a nightclub, ‘Club Metro’, which he uses as a front for his criminal enterprises. He stashes an SMG in the men’s bathroom in the back one night, and then uses it the next night to kill all of Mennis’s employees, who use the back of the club to deal in drugs and snuff films. Danila steals the money from the club and learns where Mennis’s ‘legitimate’ office is. Having once been turned back at the lobby, he climbs the safety stairs (reciting Orlov’s poem the whole way up) and smashes his way through a window, gunning his way into Mennis’s office. There he confronts Mennis at gunpoint over a game of chess. Seeing his brother’s picture – the same one the Ukrainians were using to track him down – on the table, he tells Mennis he disagrees with his brother about money being power. In his view, power belongs to those in the right. Having gotten his message across, he tells a frightened Mennis to give him the money he owes Mitya.

Danila gives the money to Mitya and tells him not to worry about the contract anymore. He and Dasha visit Lisa to borrow her phone; Dasha translates for him to call Ben the trucker for help. Viktor, in the meanwhile, has been tracked down by the cops and gets arrested, though he calls out to Danila as he’s cuffed and led to a squad car that he’s staying (in America). The police put out an APB on Danila and Dasha, but Ben escorts the two of them to the airport with no one noticing. At check-in, a man examines Dasha’s passport and tells her that her visa expired years ago and she won’t be able to enter the country again; she just flips him the bird and gets on her flight. At the airport, Irina Saltykova calls Danila again and he assures her that he’s coming back to Moscow. The implication is that Belkin’s joint venture with Mennis failed, and his Russian creditors have come to ‘collect’.

End spoilers.

Brat 2 explores some of the same themes that the first movie did, including (naturally) brotherhood, national feeling and œconomic distress – and of course the question of whether money really is power. Balabanov has a markedly cynical take, both on the promise of the ‘American Dream’ and on its parallel in Russia: Belkin and Mennis are more alike than different, including in their palpable physical cowardice when confronted by Danila. And this is nowhere more fervently expressed than in the philosophy espoused by Viktor, who really does seem to think that money can buy him whatever he wants and that America is the best place to do it.

But Balabanov revels in showing the darker side of American life. He is certainly drawing deliberate parallels and equivalencies in some instances between the materialism of Russia under Eltsin and the class of new biznismen, and that of America. Girls, booze and cars accompany organised crime life in both places. The Russian cab drivers in both Moscow and Chicago both speak with such open cynicism about life (and about Russia under Gorbachev) that Danila asks them if they’re brothers. The fascism of Ilya’s weapons-dealing ‘friend’ in Moscow is paralleled by the racism of the Chicago cops. American storefronts in New York show Russian signs, and signs in Ukrainian in Chicago: the only difference is in the blatancy of the advertising in those street scenes. And of course the plight of the two brothers at the heart of the movie, the ill-fated bank security guard Kostya and the exploited hockey player Mitya, is the same. It’s noteworthy that the only two ‘good’ Americans he shows are the Midwestern working-class truck driver Ben, and the black TV journalist Lisa.

The film is accused of being Russian nationalist, even chauvinist, but this seems contradicted by the fact that in the movie, the real instances where Russian nationalism is expressed – for example, by Belkin’s son Fedya or by Danila when reciting Orlov’s poem – it is done so in a spirit of profound naïveté. Danila saves Belkin on account of his son despite Belkin using every opportunity to try to kill him. And Danila predictably gets cheated by the Russian car salesman in New York who assures him that ‘Russians don’t cheat Russians’. Literally the only in-film validation of Danila’s nationalism, is when he manages to convince Dasha to go back to Russia, and that is done in a remarkably understated way. ‘What would I do there?’ she asks; and Danila answers: ‘What have you managed to do here?

But regarding the central question of the film, money and power – the ironic conclusion seems to be that, particularly for this director, an emphatic no. Money does not seem to equal power. In losing the ‘indie’ feel of the first movie, it also loses its emotional impetus. Brat 2 is a far less moving and far less profound film than its predecessor, despite being in every possible way more technically proficient an action movie: bigger budget, better effects, better editing, better stunts, better camera work. The music – courtesy bands like Bi-2, DDT, Agatha Christie and Irina Saltykova herself as well as Nautilus – is still excellent: a good glimpse into what Danila is playing in his Walkman (or through the stereo of Ben’s truck). In the first film, the sudden, understated nature of the mortal violence had a profoundly disturbing effect. Here, the violence loses its impact on occasion for being over-the-top: as when a laughing Viktor sprays his pursuers with machine-gun fire from a Maxim from the back of his stolen Volvo until both of their cars explode, and then Danila flings a German grenade in the back seat to destroy the evidence. Sometimes the viewer can’t tell if he’s watching a Hollywood-style crime thriller or a parody of one. Sometimes it feels like Balabanov himself couldn’t decide.

At the same time, Brat 2 is still a fun, cheeky, politically-incorrect, occasionally-cheesy action film with considerable rewatch value. Sergei Bodrov, Jr is still sterling as Danila, and his supporting cast all deliver themselves admirably of their performances, and even the two-hour runtime doesn’t feel stuffed or drawn-out at all. This one gets a recommendation from me, with the qualification that it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first instalment.

27 March 2020

Baksy: pretty but flawed gangster flick

Aıdaı (Nesipkúl Omarbekova), Toha (Tolepbergen Baısakalov)
and Asan (Almat Ayanov) in

Gulshat Omarova’s second film after Shıza, and second collaboration with Sergei Bodrov, Sr, is the 2008 movie Baksy. In English, this title is somewhat ineptly translated as Native Dancer, which doesn’t do justice to the double entendre in the title. Baksy Баксы in Kazakh means ‘shaman’, but in Russian, it’s a slang term for money (coming from the English word ‘bucks’). Even from the title we can see that Omarova is still developing the themes that she began with Shıza here: the ambiguities and ironies that face a Kazakhstan which straddles Kazakh and Russian cultures, as well as ways of life that are traditional and semi-nomadic on the one hand, and capitalist and post-Soviet on the other. But, whereas in Shıza Omarova was playful in exploring the ambiguities of the relationship between Kazakh and Russian – both in the interior life of her protagonist Mustafa and in his romantic involvement with the Russian Zinka – in Baksy it seems like Omarova has definitively chosen a ‘side’.

In the broad strokes, Baksy tells the story of a traditional aul centred around two people: the shady, Mafia-connected biznismen Batyr (Farhat Amankulov) and the elderly shaman Aıdaı (Nesipkúl Omarbekova). Aıdaı lives on the land owned by Batyr, on account of its mystical healing properties, and a small community has grown up around her. When a local crime boss, Arman (Nurlan Álimjánov) decides to move in on the property, it touches off a power struggle between the forces of biznis and the forces of nature.

Warning: Spoilers below.

Aıdaı makes a living on her rented land, giving folk cures to those who come to her. These cures often involve a mixture of Islâmic prayers including the takbîr and repetitive chants, the entrance into the shamanic trance, the sacrifice of animals and the ritual use of their blood. Some who come to her include the wayward sixteen-year-old girl Gauhar (Asel Abutova), and Mustafa (Oljas Nýsýppaev) and Zina (Olga Landina – uncredited) who make a cameo reprise of their rôles in Shıza. There are some semi-permanent fixtures of Aıdaı’s aul that we see as well, including Toha (Tolepbergen Baısakalov), a lazy, cowardly, beer-swilling and pool-playing scoundrel whom we first see down a makeshift oubliette for an unspecified offence, but who normally does odd manual tasks for the shaman.

Aıdaı’s uneasy relationship with the wealthy Batyr comes to a head when Arman attempts to strong-arm her off the land so that he can build a full-serve filling station and nightclub where her aul is. Toha starts sleeping with Gauhar – and Aıdaı beats him for it. The police find out about it, which – having been bought off by Arman – is all the excuse they need to evict Aıdaı from her property. Aıdaı goes into a trance and falls down, seemingly dead. The only one who sees that she is not in fact dead, is Batyr’s young son Asan (Almat Ayanov). Arman moves in at once, has the aul all but demolished, and promptly builds the filling station and nightclub, a gaudy joint named ‘Las Vegas’.

The only people who stay on the ruined aul are Toha and Gauhar. Toha gets into a fight with Batyr over his having sold out the shaman, and Batyr himself begins to have second thoughts about the whole enterprise when Asan tells him that he’s seen Aıdaı alive. When Batyr refuses to congratulate Arman at the celebration of the opening of his nightclub, the two of them have a falling-out. The following night, Toha witnesses one of the fake, electric-lit palm trees suddenly and inexplicably come crashing down, starting a petrol fire which completely destroys both the filling station and the nightclub. Arman learns of the destruction and promptly blames Batyr – demanding that the landowner pay half a million dollars to recoup the losses. When Batyr refuses to pay, Arman sends two thugs to kidnap Batyr’s son Asan after his boxing lessons, and the film takes a sharp turn from the supernatural into bog-standard Russian crime thriller territory.

Batyr recruits Toha to track down the baksy if she’s still alive, and gets the boxing instructor and some of the older students at the dojo on board to help him. He delivers the money, only for Arman to renege on his promise to release his son and demand another half a million dollars. When Toha at last finds Aıdaı, the first thing she does is start beating him with a stick, but once she learns what has happened to Asan she goes into a trance and shows Toha where he’s being kept. Batyr, the boxing teacher and the older students hijack the SUV of one of Arman’s henchmen and have him lead them to his hideout, and he rescues his son after a shootout that leaves both Arman and Batyr dead – but Asan, who witnessed the bloodshed, becomes traumatised to the point where he cannot speak. Asan is taken back to the aul, where Toha and Gauhar help Aıdaı conduct rituals to help Asan work through his trauma and mourn his father.

End spoilers.

There’s a lot going on in this movie, with the central character of Batyr here representing the internal struggle for the Kazakhs between outward material wealth and Western notions of ‘progress’ as represented by Arman, and the spiritual connectedness of Kazakhstan’s præ-Islâmic shamanic past as represented by Aıdaı. Omarova makes no bones about which side she sympathises with; there is as much a moral contrast between Arman and Aıdaı as there is a contrast in the languages they use or the clothes they wear. She does little to glamourise or romanticise the shaman’s rôle in the community – or, for that matter, the shortcomings of that community itself. Toha and Gauhar, although they remain the most loyal to Aıdaı and Asan by the end of the film, are still remarkably flawed: it’s their indiscretion that gives the police a pretext to raid the aul in the first place.

On the other hand, there is no redeeming quality in the mobster life, despite its naked opulence. Omarova does her level best to portray the encroachment of biznis onto Kazakhstan’s native traditions as superficial, and marked by cupidity and decadence. Other reviewers have remarked on the discrepancy between the vast Kazakh landscapes and the Lexuses, Bimmers and Benzes that the characters use. This discrepancy is clearly deliberate. There is certainly a remove between Baksy and a film like Brat, but there are interesting parallels as well. Omarova wants to draw our eye to the contrast between the healthier, authentic vices of ordinary or even ‘bad’ Kazakhs like Toha – drinking vodka out of dusty glasses, playing pool, screwing around in a yurt – and the sterile shallowness of the nightclub glitz. Everything about the nightclub seems fake: it literally has a flat façade that makes it look like a stage prop; it’s decked out in electric lights and fake palm trees. It’s on account of these that it literally goes up in flames.

Progeny seems to play an important thematic rôle here, as it did for Scorsese in his 2006 remake of Infernal Affairs, The Departed. Batyr has a son from a previous marriage – but that son is under the care of Aıdaı for most of the film, and we never see Batyr have any genuine connexion with his heavily made-up, shades-rocking, high-heeled girlfriend. Likewise, even though Arman is surrounded by girls, he clearly has no one he can leave a legacy to. On the other hand, Toha, despite having a number of venial faults, gets Gauhar pregnant: and by the end of the film, Toha and Gauhar seem to be acting as Asan’s surrogate parents.

The film suffers somewhat in that it doesn’t really own up to being a gangster film until about halfway through, and the result is something that stands halfway between the introspective criminal drama of the previous year’s Réketır, and the beautifully-bleak magic realism of the following year’s Kelin, without really managing the depth of either. At the same time, the cinematography and lighting are excellent, and the camera lingers lovingly on the steppe, the dusty rural roadscapes, the edifice of the mosque, equally as it explores in palpable excitement the controlled chaos of the bazaar. The fight choreography isn’t as well-executed as in Shıza, sadly, and most of the acting seems fairly wooden – with the exception of the young Almat Ayanov’s precocious insight and Tolepbergen Baısakalov’s expert comic timing, which give the movie something of a heart. Is it worth a watch? Sure. But there are certainly better films in the same genre.

26 March 2020

Venerable Malchus, Hermit of Qinnasrin

Roman road in Syria, near Qinnasrin

On the twenty-sixth of March, the OCA commemorates the feast-day of a Syrian holy man of the fourth century, Saint Malchus. During his early monastic life, Malchus resided in the wilderness near the town of Chalkis in Syria, which is the modern-day archæological site of Qinnasrin, 25 kilometres from Aleppo. The only source we have concerning the life of this saint is the hagiographical Life of Malchus given to us by the Latin Church Father Saint Jerome, who visited the saint in his old age.

Malchus [Gk. Μαλχος, Sy. Malka ܡܠܟ, Ar. Malik ملك – from a Semitic root meaning king] was born in Nisibis, the only son of a family of fallahîn there. Like many farmers, the parents of Malchus were desirous that he should marry and get children, and tried to cajole him in that direction: his father by threats and his mother by caresses. The young man’s mind was of a different bent, though – he longed for a monastic life, and, when the pressure from his parents became too much to bear, he fled their house. Because the Roman marches with Persia were near then, and because the wars between Persia and Rome threatened to brew up again, he did not flee eastward, but instead westward.

He came to the desert of Chalkis ‘which lies between Immæ and Berœa, but rather more to the south’, and there found a community of monks. He placed himself under their rule, gained subsistence by the work of his hands, and subjected his body to the discipline of their fasts. He kept this way of life for some years, but then news reached him from Nisibis that his father was dead. He made a resolution to visit his elderly mother, to comfort her for the remaining years of her life, and then to sell the farm, distributing one part among the poor and keeping the remainder for himself.

The abbot saw his intentions, and when Malchus came forward to ask leave of the elder, the old monk cried out to Malchus that this was a trick of the Evil One meant to ensnare him, for the Devil often hides under a guise of duty. The abbot pointed to Malchus from the Genesis the guile by which the serpent first tempted Eve, but the young monk would not listen. The abbot implored him with tears not to leave, but Malchus was intent on leaving for Nisibis.

He had not gone far on the road homeward, in the company of some seventy other travellers, but as he neared Edessa he fell into the clutches of wandering brigands. He was taken as plunder and allotted to one of them as a slave, along with a poor woman who was in the same company. He was bound and slung over a camel and taken into the desert. There he was stripped of his clothing and made to tend sheep in the fields for his master. He served his master faithfully, and had even begun in his captivity to become complacent and think his condition to be not so bad. But his master, hoping to bind him more closely to him, compelled him to marry the woman that had been taken with him on the road. Malchus objected, saying that the woman already had a living husband, and that his faith forbade him from committing adultery with a married woman. The master bore them both off to a cave and had them married – in Malchus’s case at swordpoint.

The nuptials were attended with horror, and both the groom and the bride grieved when the rites were finished. Malchus flung himself onto the ground, sobbing that he had forsaken and forsworn his country, his parents, his property, even his monastic vows – and now was even bound to forswear his celibacy and sleep in an adulterous bed. He drew a knife and was about to plunge it into his breast, but as he was about to commit suicide his new bride took pity on him and held his hand back. She told him she would not compel him to sleep with her, but instead they would live in a celibate union: she knew how to fool their master into thinking Malchus her husband, but Christ would know Malchus as her brother.

Malchus then did not fear for his celibacy, though he notes to Jerome that he loved his new sister more than he could have loved a wife. The two of them spent many years together under service to the same master, who was then content that neither of them would run away. But while Malchus was out tending sheep he began thinking on his old abbot, and he observed a colony of ants. He saw how the ants cleared the path for each other, and helped one another when they were overburdened, and he began to long for the life that he once had under the cœnobites, who laboured together for the common good, with all things belonging to the community and nothing to the individual.

The saint made a resolution to leave his master’s house, and told his wife so. She took kindly to the idea. Saint Malchus slaughtered two goats, kept both the skins and the meat, and prepared the meat so that the two of them would have something to sustain them on their journey. They left during the night while their master slept, and when they came to a river they made rafts from the goatskins and floated them downstream. They had made three days’ progress, keeping an eye out for the brigands that had captured them, when two riders were seen bearing down on them – it was their old master, following their tracks, visible in the sand. Malchus signalled to his wife to hide in a nearby cave. They did not go far inside, for they feared the poisonous snakes that often inhabited such caves. The master sent another of his slaves, with blade drawn, to fetch out Malchus and his wife, that he might take out his displeasure upon them. But as the slave drew near the mouth of the cave, which was in fact the den of a lioness, the lioness pounced upon the slave and dragged him off. Then their master, too, in a rage drew his sword and entered the cave. The lioness killed him as well.

Saint Malchus and his wife were seized by amazement and fear, but the lioness which mauled their pursuers did them no harm; it occurred to them only later that it was Christ who had been protecting them. They emerged from the cave only after some hours, and found outside the camels and the horses that had belonged to their master. They took these, and after ten days travel came to the Roman camp. They told their story to the tribune, who sent them to Mesopotamia under the protection of the governor, Sabinian. There they were able to sell their camels and make their way back to Chalkis.

The abbot whom Saint Malchus had known and loved had reposed in the Lord during his captivity, but Malchus nonetheless settled down to the cœnobitic life. He also made provision for his wife in a cloister nearby. By the time that Saint Jerome came to them, before the death of Saint Malchus in the year 390, he found the saint living together in a hut with his wife. Both of them were markedly devout and made regular attendance at the Liturgies; and they had the trust and respect of the local people, who related to Saint Jerome several of the wondrous healings the two of them accomplished. Holy Father Malchus, and his faithful and holy wife, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

24 March 2020

Holy Martyrs Peter and Stephen of Kazan

Saints Peter and Stephen of Kazan

On the twenty-fourth of March, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates two martyrs for Christ who suffered in the middle of the sixteenth century. These men were both Tatars of Kazan, who converted from Sunnî Islâm to the Russian Orthodox Church prior to their martyrdom. They converted after the conquest of Kazan by Tsar Ivan IV ‘the Fearsome’ and his installation of the Tatar Khan Şahğäli, and were put to death after the Tatars temporarily reconquered the city. The Orthodox Christians of Kazan began to venerate these martyrs very soon after their victory.

Saint Stephen [or Stefan] was born in Arsk, a small town sixty-five kilometres northeast of the main Tatar stronghold of Kazan. He was a devout Muslim, but he suffered from a debilitating and painful deformity in his legs from his youth, one which kept him bedridden for many years – some sources say twenty, others thirty. He heard from his compatriots that the men of Kazan were fighting against the Russian Tsar, and also that they did not expect to hold out long against him. His curiosity began to be provoked about what sort of God the Russians worshipped, that allowed them to fight so tenaciously as to overcome the mighty Tatars, and so he began to study Christianity in secret. When at last he made the resolution to embrace the Resurrected Christ, on that very day the pains and the deformities in his legs left him, and he found himself able to walk.

The Russians under Ivan IV mounted a series of campaigns against Kazan beginning in 1545, and built a fortification at Sviyazhsk in 1551, at the strategic confluence of the Volga and the Sviyaga Rivers. Among them came a certain archpriest named Timofei. He was carrying a message from Metropolitan Saint Makarii in Moscow to the troops of Tsar Ivan, who were stationed at Sviyazhsk. Once the healed lame man heard of this, he got up and went out, and journeyed to Sviyazhsk to visit Fr Timofei. He met with the priest and asked to be baptised.

The bemused Russian cleric, looking him over, asked him sternly: ‘Take careful thought – is it not out of your poverty, or out of your fear, that you wish to be baptised?’ Stephen answered the priest that neither was true of him.

Instead, he replied: ‘For thirty years my legs would not work, and I was an invalid who could not stand upright on them. Now the Tsar of Moscow is in the ascendant, and his power looms in our direction. With him became known to us the word of Christ, and I began to think: great is the God in whom the Christians believe. If He can give victories to the Russians, then he can give strength back to my legs and feet. I swore then to believe in Christ and to be baptised; and from that moment I was able to walk. I am here now to keep my word. Please give me baptism.’

Timofei answered him again: ‘See here – your fellow Tatars will try to turn you away from the Faith.’

‘They shall not turn me.’ The elderly man then began tearing out his beard in great handfuls and casting it onto the floor before him. ‘Even if they tear me limb from limb, even as I have now torn out my beard, they shall not make me to forsake Christ!’

The archpriest from Moscow, seeing that this elderly Tatar’s faith was sincere, gave the Tatar what he asked for, and baptised him in the name of the Holy Trinity, with the baptismal name of Stephen. It should be noted here that even nowadays in the Middle East, it is highly common for Muslims to visit Christian shrines to receive healing, with Saint George (who is called by the Muslims al-Khidr الخضر or ‘the Green One’) being a particular favourite. It is a common practice and the Muslims of the Levant see no contradiction or hypocrisy in venerating a Christian saint or even making offerings of money or livestock at Christian altars. Saint Stephen, however, truly did seem to have had a conversion experience and wished to stand before Christ in singleness of spirit.

Saint Peter [or Pyotr] had a similar story, though he was much younger and able of body. After the conquest of Kazan by the Russians, he made his way to the court of Şahğäli to serve him. He spent some time with the Russian boyars who supported him and lived in his courtyard. We may imagine that the young Tatar made some fast friendships there, and conversation may have turned to religious matters. Eventually he became convinced of the truths of Christianity, and sought to be baptised in the faith under the name of Peter.

The new converts that had been made by the Russians were subjected to particularly harsh persecution after they withdrew for Moscow early in 1552. The Kazan Tatars revolted against Şahğäli, who was forced to flee Kazan for the Russian fort at Sviyazhsk. During this revolt they conducted a pogrom against Orthodox Christians in which about 3,000 believers were killed, and turned with a particular ferocity against their own who had converted. Saint Stephen was given the opportunity to flee, but he refused. He also refused to hide the fact that he was Orthodox. And then his pronouncement of the sincerity of his faith at his baptism turned out to be prophetic, for when his countrymen found him they indeed tore him limb from limb, scattered the remains of his body so that it could not be recovered, and plundered his home.

Peter, the young Tatar soldier of Şahğäli, was forcibly sent home to his family. They called him by his birth name, but he insisted instead on being called Peter, for so he had been baptised in Christ. His family attempted to persuade him, at first with kind and soothing and reasonable words, to return to Islâm, but he would not be moved. Nor would he be moved by threats or by torture. And then his family turned him over to a jeering angry crowd, which proceeded to beat him to death. But in all that time he never once pleaded for mercy, but instead continued to proclaim his faith in Christ. Peter’s body was taken and buried at the Zhitny Torg, but not before the local Christians had observed where he was lain. In later years an Orthodox church would be built on that site and dedicated to the Resurrection of Christ.

The Christians of Kazan, both Tatar and Russian, commemorated Saints Peter and Stephen locally for about forty years. On the ninth of January, 1592, the Metropolitan of Kazan, Saint Germogen, asked permission from the Metropolitan of Moscow, Saint Iov, to commemorate these local Tatar martyrs for Christ throughout the nation. This permission was swiftly granted, and the martyrs were inscribed in the Synodikon for the entire Russian Church. Their commemoration was to be held on the day before the Feast of the Annunciation: that is to say, the twenty-fourth of March. Holy martyrs Peter and Stephen, confessors of Christ among the Tatar nation, pray unto Christ our God that he grant us great mercy!
Apolytikion to the Martyrs Peter and Stephen, Tone 4:

Мучеников двоица единонравная,
Стефане и Петре славнии,
Неверие соплеменников обличивше,
Христу последовали есте,
Во Святую Троицу веровати всех научающе,
Еяже ради великия страдания приемше,
Молитеся о нас ко Господу,
Да, избавившеся тьмы греховныя,
Света явимся общницы невечерняго.


Two martyrs of a single mind,
Glorious Stephen and Peter,
You exposed the unbelief of your compatriots
And followed Christ,
Teaching all to believe in the Holy Trinity.
For His sake you underwent great torments.
Pray for us unto the Lord,
So that in casting off the darkness of sin
We might become partakers in the unfading light.

Church of the Resurrection, Kazan, Tatarstan

22 March 2020

Qosh bol, Gúlsary: for the love of a horse

Tanabaı (Doha Qydyralıev) and Gúlsary in Qosh bol, Gúlsary

Ardak Ámirqulov, the Kazakh New Wave auteur who directed the sublimely psychedelic period drama Otyrardyń kúıreýi in 1991, teams up again with his commanding lead actor from that movie, Doqtyrbek ‘Doha’ Qydyralıev, in his 2008 film Qosh bol, Gúlsary (‘Farewell, Gulsary’), which is based on the famous Chyńgyz Aıtmatov novel of the same name. Apart from Doha’s spirited performance as the aging Kyrģyz soldier Tanabaı, this film unfortunately shows little of Ámirqulov’s former brilliance and subtlety. Ámirqulov tells Aıtmatov’s tragic story of Tanabaı and his beloved stallion Gúlsary in an almost polemic fashion – at the expense, it sometimes seems, of artistry. It is a much smaller film, and one which doesn’t quite earn its 98-minute runtime.

Warning: spoilers below.

Ámirqulov tells Aıtmatov’s story of Tanabaı and his beloved stallion Gúlsary through a series of flashbacks when Tanabaı (Doha Qydyralıev) is an old man and leading Gúlsary and a cart along the road toward a destination that will be Gúlsary’s last. We learn through his flashbacks that Tanabaı returned home from the Great Patriotic War together with his friend Choro (Nurlan Sanjar), to be rewarded with money and a Communist Party membership. He subsequently breaks in a stubborn young stallion and buys him. Tanabaı discovers a mutual attraction between himself and the young woman (Jánel Maqajanova) he buys the horse from, and they begin to have an affair. This causes some strain between him and his supportive wife Jaıdar (Raıhan Aıtqojanova). However, after Tanabaı wins a race with Gúlsary, the horse attracts the covetous eye of the local Communist Party boss, and Tanabaı is forced to part – reluctantly – with his beloved horse.

The horse runs away from his new owner twice, and Tanabaı discovers that its owner is using the wrong kind of saddle on it, and keeping it in iron fetters that make its hooves bleed. On top of this, when the stallion continues to be uncooperative, the new owner has him castrated. This mistreatment of his horse grieves and angers Tanabaı, to say the least. The government forces the old farmsteads to consolidate, leading to an awkward situation where Tanabaı is living together with both his wife and his girlfriend, who help around the farm. He is forced to ask the government for supplies, which do not arrive in time – his barn floods, killing off most of the newborn lambs and a few of the sheep in his flock. There is one particularly telling scene where Tanabaı and his son are trying to get a mother ewe to nurse one of the surviving young that is not her own, and she won’t do it; Tanabaı blames his son and strikes him. The boss tries to force Tanabaı and his family onto a sovkhoz, but the veteran, at the end of his tether, strikes the boss down off his horse with a pitchfork and proceeds to beat him up in front of Choro. The matter is brought to the local Party leader, and Choro – along with several other members of his village – votes to expel Tanabaı from the Party, ending their friendship. In the end, Tanabaı is exiled from his village. His wife dies – the result of an accident in the disrepaired barn – and his girlfriend is shipped off to a sovkhoz. After Tanabaı’s exile is over, we see him together leading Gúlsary on his last ride.

End spoilers.

When Chyńgyz Aıtmatov wrote his novel, it is probably fair to say that he did have a critical eye toward how the traditional lifeways of the Kyrģyz people were changing. Nonetheless, Ámirqulov puts together something that is far more than critical – and also quite a bit less. With a leading man like Qydyralıev, it’s little wonder that masculinity becomes a key thematic preoccupation. In Otyrardyń kúıreýi, the cinematography often lingers on the pantherine grace of Unju’s body, whether dressed or undressed, and his facial expressions and dialogue are indicative of a feral, predatory beauty and cunning. Ámirqulov clearly wanted his hero in that movie to represent the quintessence of Kazakh martial virtue and strength – and then to present the insufficiency of even that when subjected to the vagaries of gæopolitical power politics and the brutal alien wrath of the Great Khan.

Here, on the other hand, we see an aging Tanabaı – unlike Unju, his fighting days are behind him – similarly rendered helpless by political forces beyond his control. The tragœdy of Tanabaı mirrors that of his horse. Just as his horse is misprised, mishandled and ultimately castrated by a callous Party boss, so too the Party finds little use for Tanabaı’s temper or his talents in peacetime, and just as effectively and just as coldly emasculates him. The cinematic language is quite blunt on this point. Four people are needed to restrain Gúlsary before he can be ‘snipped’; and near the end of the film four police tackle Tanabaı off his horse, beat him and put him in chains to send him into exile. The juxtaposition and contrast between Tanabaı and Choro couldn’t be any more blunt, either: living in the countryside we see Tanabaı at his best and most physically-fit, while the meagre, bespectacled Choro suffers from a cough that overtakes him when he’s out of doors.

As with Otyrardyń kúıreýi and Ulzhan, I watched this film in the original Kazakh language without the benefit of subtitles. Even so, the story was fairly intuitive to follow. The cinematography showed a few flashes of brilliance, but despite a few wide-angle shots of the steppe, the film was a bit claustrophobic. That may or may not have been intentional. Also, the beauty shots of the horses, which seem to be a necessity in any film featuring a fine horse like Gúlsary, were a little bit lacking. The music wavered back and forth between traditional Kazakh fiddles and drums, and jazz music which would have been appropriate to the Soviet fifties and sixties. To be honest, both in the cinematography and in the building of the story, it felt a little insubstantial: like a made-for-TV movie, made needlessly turgid by the requirements of a full-length feature.

I did appreciate Doha Qydyralıev’s acting chops in this one. Whether bearded or clean-shaven, Doha’s face can say a lot without him having to open his mouth. Alternatively, he can chew scenery with the very best of them: Tanabaı’s rages at the forces which cage him in are palpable and plausible. The friendship between him and Choro didn’t really ring ‘true’ until one flashback near the end, and so his falling-out with Choro before then didn’t carry a lot of weight – but that’s not as much an issue with the acting as with the choice of how that sequence was edited. I won’t say that Qosh bol, Gúlsary is a bad movie. It’s not. But it does watch like a one-off public television rendition of a classic novel, which is a bit less than what a filmmaker of Ámirqulov’s talents should aim for.