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What's most remarkable about "The Russian Quesion" is the
sophistication of the its portrayal of the conflicts of interest that
surface even in a so-called free society. The political and cultural
taboos that force people to tell convenient lies rather than
interrogate conventional wisdom are laid open in the film, and treated
with intelligence and nuance. Given the failures of the "free" press
during the run-up to the Iraq War and the Bush administration's
trampling of civil liberties in the name of the "war" on terrorism over
the past seven years, the film's concerns are strikingly topical even
60 years after its creation.
Obviously, there would have been much to criticize about a USSR still under Stalin's iron grip in the late 1940s, but just because the film's politics happen to suit the propaganda needs of the Soviets (how could they not?) doesn't mean they're irrelevant or incorrect as criticisms of U.S. society which, then as now, makes extravagant, and sometimes hollow, claims to its liberty and democratic vigor.
I give a great deal of credit to the director, Mikhail Romm (a well-known and able filmmaker who managed to make intelligent work like this even under the constraints of Stalinism), for his ability to maintain his focus on a critique of these claims of Western society rather than get bogged down in praising the USSR - a virtual requirement for most Stalinist film-making. For example, when the journalist makes a trip to Russia, I fully expected to get rosy and extended depictions of life in a "socialist paradise". But Romm shrewdly avoids excessive paeans to socialism, largely by limiting this section of the film to a brief montage showing parades, factories, and other stereotypical hallmarks of Soviet publicity. He then immediately returns the film to New York and the reporter's ongoing dilemma: telling the truth as he sees it - even if it means ending his career - or relating politically expedient falsehoods about Soviet society that will put him in good stead with the powers that be.
In sum, I found "The Russian Question" to be a good deal more penetrating and thoughtful, as an analysis of "freedom," than any corresponding document I've seen produced in the West about totalitarian socialism. Virtually every example of this kind of cinema I've encountered that emanated from Hollywood during the Cold War tends to be more or less hysterical and simple-minded in its depiction of the wicked, evil Commies.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Russian Question' is flat-out Soviet propaganda, with all the
clumsiness of that regime's usual cinematic agitprop. What makes this
movie slightly more interesting than its brethren is that, whereas most
Russian propaganda movies extol the alleged virtues of the Soviet
"worker's paradise", this one sets out to slag the United States. The
central character in 'Russian Question' is an American (played by a
Russian actor). Even more originally, rather than depict this American
as a stereotyped capitalist, he is depicted as heroically in sympathy
with the Soviet agenda: those OTHER Americans are the problem.
Harold Smith (the name suggests an Everyman) is a crusading American journalist who has gone to Moscow to see for himself the truth about the Soviet regime. This being a Soviet movie, of course he's favourably impressed. When he returns Stateside, he receives a job offer from a publisher named MacFerson. The latter is very obviously based on William Randolph Hearst, and possibly also based on a couple of other tabloid publishers such as Bernarr MacFadden. (Notice the similar surnames: MacFadden, MacFerson.) The publisher, being a capitalist, is only interested in selling newspapers ... and is perfectly willing to disseminate lies rather than the truth, if lies will sell more papers. Oh, and he's also interested in starting up a war ... because nothing else sells more newspapers.
MacFerson offers Smith lots of rubles (I mean dollars) to write a book about the Soviet Union, but he wants Smith to depict the Soviets as war-mongers. Smith refuses to see the Russians as war-mongers when he recalls how bravely the Red Army fought against the Nazis. (Huh? The fight against the Nazis was justified, but that hardly proves that the Russians were pacifists.) When Smith refuses to lie for MacFerson, the latter uses his media influence to slander Smith as a traitor to the United States ... slandering him so deeply that even Smith's wife Meg falls for the lies, and deserts him. The Russian actress playing Meg is tricked out in enormous shoulder pads, an elaborate peplum, and hair pulled back so severely, I had difficulty perceiving her as an American.
SPOILERS COMING. There's a 'happy' ending ... by which I mean, an ending that suits the Soviet agenda. Eventually, Smith realises that the problem isn't merely MacFerson but rather the entire Wall Street-Washington axis, of which MacFerson is a mere cog. Smith proclaims that the real enemies of the United States aren't in the Soviet Union ... they're in (wait for it) Washington! Pass the borscht, comrade.
According to the film's credits, this movie is based on a Russian stage play, by one Konstantin Simonov. I can well believe it: despite some elaborate sets, much of this film is directed as if it were a filmed stage play rather than a motion picture. What really annoys me is that this movie actually does what it accuses Uncle Sam (or Aunt Sally) of doing: lying to the public in order to tar the republic on the other side of the Iron Curtain. We see here sequences of the American media -- a very UN-free press -- suppressing Smith's efforts to tell the truth ... when in fact this is exactly what the Soviet government were doing at this time to samizdat publishers. Indeed, a post-glasnost Russian cultural official has told me that Simonov later recanted everything said in this movie. There's no question about 'The Russian Question': it's lies, all lies, and it doesn't even tell those lies very gracefully nor credibly. My rating for this agitating agitprop: just 3 out of 10, mostly for the impressive production design.
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