Dovzhenko: The Last Utopian

Culture & Science
7 November 2011, 13:43

The Ukrainian Week continues its series of articles about landmark figures in Ukrainian history and literature who were forced, under the pressure of the repressive communist government, to choose between protest and death. This instalment is about a person whose fame did not permit Stalin to physically destroy him. Instead, he was sent into “honorary exile” in Moscow. This man is Oleksandr Dovzhenko, the father of Ukrainian cinema.

Dovzhenko is arguably the most paradoxical figure in world cinematography. Two special features of the cinema process were astonishingly vivid in his personality. First, he was a great director who came into this world with an innate talent for cinema. Second, and most importantly, in the first decades of the 20th century, he revealed the most fundamental paths of national-cultural development in different areas and translated them into the language of cinema.


Not one film director in the world has been able to look into the camera’s viewfinder the way Dovzhenko did. He had unparalleled talent. I say this not because his film The Earth was ranked among the 12 best films in the world by the most authoritative cinema critics in 1958 or because Charles Spencer Chaplin said, speaking in the UN close to the end of the Second World War: “The Slavic world has given the world its most brilliant director, Oleksandr Dovzhenko.” Andrei Tarkovsky called Dovzhenko his cinema university, and no matter what film he was about to shoot, he invariably invited his colleagues to watch The Earth. But the reason for my claim are facts in Dovzhenko’s artistic biography that are similar to what we know about Mozart who while still a small child sat down at the harpsichord for the first time and was soon able to play it like a virtuoso. Some time later, his genius of a composer revealed itself.

Something similar was with Dovzhenko when he first stood behind the camera: he immediately understood and was able to do everything in cinema. Prior to that he had had broad and diverse experience like all people at the time: he grew up in the countryside, made some effort to become an intellectual, experienced the Civil War while a left-wing functionary of the Ukrainian National Republic.

Beginning with his film Zvenyhora, Dovzhenko kept recreating with inexhaustible energy the main trait of Ukrainian culture – an effort to find some kind of ideal in the rural world. It was a conviction that this land with its mesmerizingly beautiful landscapes and handsome people had something of great value, a treasure to be discovered.

Arsenal was released some time later. We sometimes perceive this film as being the product of the dictates of his time, because our perception of rebelling plant workers is different than the Soviet one. There were heroes on both sides, and Ukraine was split into two camps. All of this is shown in the film which stunned cinematographic Europe with its powerful energy.

The trilogy is completed by The Earth, a film that exerts colossal influence. We are used to thinking that it is about collectivization. But we lack a full understanding of life in rural Ukraine before collective farms were forcefully established. After the revolution, Ukraine’s countryside was expecting technological aid from the cities, while at the same time wanting to preserve the most precious things it had: its bond with nature, a sense of a universal natural rhythm and a search for the ideal.

Dovzhenko worked on The Earth throughout 1929-30, and this is why this utopianism comes through so vividly: the Ukrainian village combined with technological progress. This cinematographically perfect film irks contemporaries, who say: “But we know what it came to.” Yes, we do now, but back then no one, including Dovzhenko, did. This tragic lack of foreknowledge led to a film which the regime quickly perceived as a threat to itself. Prior to that, director Dovzhenko was treated fairly well and critics were allowed to give him accolades. But The Earth evoked a frenzied response from official Moscow. It all began with a mean lampoon by Demyan Bedny, who grew up among peasants and hated them viciously.


The regime began to settle its accounts with Dovzhenko. It forced him to apologize by shooting a film (Ivan) on industrial expansion in Ukraine. From the purely technical viewpoint, it is another product of Dovzhenko’s cinematic genius. For example, the image of the Dnipro, a powerful and beautiful river, is absolutely otherworldly. But the rest is just fake – an industrial landscape and no word on what takes place beyond. Dovzhenko is silent on what Ukrainian peasants, who did all the construction work, thought and felt. He worked on the film under the sword of Damocles – all of the party bureaucracy in Kyiv and Kharkiv, including Mykola Skrypnyk, wanted to destroy him. They had no need for a brilliant Ukrainian director, so even Ivan with its half-truths was pronounced a harmful and reactionary ideological product.

By then Dovzhenko had acclaim in Europe – he was well-known and revered there. In 1934, André Malraux, the biggest novel writer and cultural figure of the time, made a special trip to the Soviet Union to meet Dovzchenko and ask him to produce a screen version of his novel on a revolution in China, an indication of his worldwide renown.

The main producer of Soviet films – Osip Mandelstam called him “the Kremlin highlander” – was knowledgeable in cinema. Even Stalin saw that Dovzhenko had a unique talent. So what was the best thing to do with him? Hand him over to the Ukrainian Cheka officers, who killed indiscriminately? No, Stalin saved Dovzhenko from the gallows in Kharkiv (the SVU case – Ed.), summoned him to Moscow and suggested that he make a film about the Soviet Far East. In a way, it was a clever provocation: the director was essentially exiled, sent to the other end of the empire, but with the right to continue this work there.

Dealing with realities he did not know very well, Dovzhenko created a daring utopia – a vision of what this world, at the time governed by regional cruelty, could be in the future and what place it would have for its people: the indigenous population, settlers, intellectuals, peasantry, the military, etc. Everything in the film, titled Aerograd, was naïve and, at the same time, cinematographically perfect. Humankind can now view it as a way of using equipment and images to create nonexistent things. There are good reasons why Jean-Luc Godard holds this film in high regard and calls it “brilliant.” But it was also in Dovzhenko’s nature to add a sobering note: he showed the tragedy of the world in which a friend became a class enemy and where the communist system drove out the Old Believers not just from their Lebensraum but from life itself after they had fled for centuries from the tsarist government.

Today, Aerograd may send shivers down your spine. So why did Stalin have mercy on Dovzhenko? Because he knew he needed someone to shoot films about Lenin. Sergei Eisenstein had already produced October. New sound films were going to be made about the revolution, and they had to be directed by Moscow-based directors. But a film about Georgian Stalin was to be directed by Ukrainian Dovzhenko. Meanwhile, the Chief decided that the Soviet mythology had to have absolute civil war heroes. By that time, 1937, the best high-ranking officers of the Red Army command had been eliminated almost without exception. There was a film about Vasily Chapayev, so Stalin figured there should be one about a Ukrainian Chapayev (Shchors). He made a point of showing the Chapayev film to Dovzhenko, while instructing him: “This is how films need to be shot.”

So how did Dovzhenko handle the assignment? The falsification of the then recent past was going to be so obvious that would verge on indecency. We now know that Shchors was shot by the Bolsheviks as an alleged national communist, because he refused to leave Ukraine when they wanted to move him beyond the Volga River at the so-called Eastern Front. Stalin himself said at a meeting with Ukrainian writers in the early 1950s: “Shchors was killed by our own men.” I know this from Mykola Sheremet, who attended the meeting. Yet, the film Shchors says nothing of this. Instead, it shows Trotsky-led bureaucrats who fought against Shchors, which is absolutely untrue.

However, the film also depicts the real atrocities of the civil war and efforts people made to change their future. Ukrainians, led by Shchors, wanted a better life and died for it. In the beginning, a sunflower field suddenly erupts with bomb explosions and the Germans and Ukrainian guerillas begin killing each other. The cosmic balance was upset by frenzied historical reality. Tarkovsky said that his Ivan’s Childhood evolved from this one episode.

Later, Dovzhenko was allowed to return to Ukraine and work on new topics. The fiasco of the Polish state prompted the idea of screening Taras Bulba with allegedly anti-Polish undertones, even though Gogol’s original work is much more complicated. They assigned the job to the grand master, and it is horrible to think what could have emerged from his studio. His heart was already failing under too much strain from endless humiliation. In the past several years, Ukrainian cinema critics discovered that the police followed his every step in the late 1930s. The atmosphere was such that Dovzhenko recalled the following: at one point, after taking apart yet another script by Dovzhenko, Stalin put him in a car and took him home. As Dovzhenko was getting out of the car, he wondered if a shot in the back of his head would follow.


During the Second World War, Dovzhenko endured such an inferno that it is remarkable that he was able to survive it. But worse was to come. He was planning to shoot a fiction movie in addition to documentaries about the liberation of Ukraine. He wanted to tell about the tragedy that befell our land during the war. He wrote the script (of Ukraine in Flames. – Ed.): Left-Bank Ukraine is already being cleared of the Nazis in 1943; the troops will soon cross the Dnipro… And then it suddenly turns out that Ukraine will again be annexed to Russia, to the USSR, forced back into the union. During the Nazi occupation people changed; they had a glimmer of hope that life would be different after the war.

In early 1944, Stalin blasted Dovzhenko and his script so scathingly that the latter thought it was the end of him. At the same time, Uncle Joe had the idea that Dovzhenko should make a film about him. But in 1945-46, the Ukrainian director was in such poor mental condition that he was unable to work. So the job was given to Georgian Mikhail Chiaureli, an artistically gifted sycophant, while Dovzhenko, his heart condition permitting, decided to return to the main topic of his life: creating a film about the cosmic rhythm and people who join in it with all of their love, improving it and adjusting to it at the same time.

This is how the film Michurin was made. The Soviet era mythologized the man, but he indeed was a trailblazer of breeding science and sensed nature and its development with his every nerve. Judging from what the operators and the few people who watched the first cut said, it could have been Dovzhenko’s best work. But it was not to be. Beria, the Cheka boss, interfered, yelling at the director: “You, a man of genius, grudged 10 minutes for the Chief. Do it this way now: a sickle and a hammer, a sickle and a hammer again and so on.”

Dovzhenko then returned to his favorite topic once again. He began working on a film about how the Kakhovka Reservoir was made. We have no way of knowing what it would be if Dovzhenko had completed it. All we have is a screen version to his script which was shot by his wife Yulia Solntseva. Her talents were a far cry from her husband’s, so it turned out to be a grandiose case of primitivism.

Dovzhenko died in 1956 when his heart could no longer keep up with his plans.


Several years later, the Kyiv Film Studios, which had been renamed after Dovzhenko screened some documentary kitsch about him. Close to the end of the film, his sister, who was in the audience, suddenly burst into tears, jumped to her feet and ran out, shouting: “They hounded him, buried him!” They had tormented Dovzhenko in every possible way, humiliating them in a multitude of forms – from the direct threat of elimination to terrible ideological terror. They did not even permit him to return to Kyiv after Stalin’s death.

Dovzhenko believed in a project to make some other world which he called communist. The entire Ukrainian intelligentsia was eliminated before his very eyes. He witnessed the Holodomor. He was in despair, and yet it seemed to him that humankind would, especially in his beloved Ukraine, realize the dream of a modern Kingdom of God — communism. A prominent French theologian once said: “Marxism is the last Christian heresy.” Dovzhenko was such a heretic.

Dovzhenko's life was a true Shakespearean drama. We have yet to fathom its scale and the depth of his personal tragedy. He came to this world to say in the language of cinema everything that needs to be said about his people and humankind in general, about people living in the Universe and the Universe itself.


Oleksandr Dovzhenko

1894 – born in Chernihiv Region

1911-14 – studied in Teachers’ Institute in Hlukhiv

1917 – moved to Kyiv

1918-19 – fought against the Bolsheviks in the UNR’s army

1920 – joined the borotbysty and worked in the Kyiv Department of People’s Education

1921-22 – posted as a diplomat to Poland and Germany

1922-23 – studied painting under expressionist Willie Jaeckel

1923-36 – worked in Kharkiv as a book illustrator and caricaturist and wrote film scripts

1926-41 – worked in the Odesa Film Factory, Mosfilm and the Kyiv Film Studios

1941-45 – worked as a correspondent of Krasnaya Zvezda and shot the documentaries Bytva za nashu Radiansku Ukrainu (The Battle for Our Soviet Ukraine) and Peremoha na Pravoberezhniy Ukraini (The Victory in Right-Bank Ukraine)

1945-56 – worked in Mosfilm and taught at VGIK (the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography)

1956 – died of a heart attack.

Dovzhenko is buried in Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.

Unfilmed scripts

1926-29 – Tsar, Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), Zahubleny Chaplin (Lost Chaplin) and Povstannia mertvykh (The Rebellion of the Dead)

1934 – Zahubleny i vidnaideny rai (Paradise Lost and Found)

1941 – Taras Bulba

1943 – Ukraina v ohni (Ukraine in Flames)

1951 – Vidkryttia Antarktydy (The Discovery of the Antarctic)

1954 – U hlybynakh kosmosu (In the Depths of the Universe)


“I will die in Moscow without seeing Ukraine ever again! In my last days, I will ask Stalin to order, before my body is burned in a crematorium, to have my heart taken out and buried in my native soil, in Kyiv, somewhere on a hill overlooking the Dnieper.”

From Dovzhenko’s “diary”

“At the time when the future of their people was being decided, they lacked both wisdom and a big heart. Under pressure of the most difficult circumstances, they did not retreat to the east with their great company. Accustomed to typical irresponsibility and not knowing what a solemn ban or a holy call means, the feeble-natured men failed to rise to the heights of understanding the historical moment. Not one of their glorious ancestors, the great warriors, came to rescue, because they had not been taught history. Nor were the heroes of the recent revolution of any help, for their memory was not honored in the countryside. After the first blows of the misfortune, they failed to keep their oath, because the word “holy” did not ring in their hearts as a solemn bell. They were spiritually unarmed, naïve and short-sighted.”

From the film novel Ukraine in Flames

“It was in the air – there was a new man of cinema among us. A master of his genre. A master of his individuality.”

Sergei Eisenstein

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