Stars: Pyotr Kislov, Artur Smolyaninov, Michal Zebrowski
Promoted with a 300-style poster and a media campaign that branded it “patriotic cinema,” Vladimir Khotinenko's 2007 film 1612 blurred the lines between present-day uses of the past and the political uses of cinema. Set during the Time of Troubles, 1612 is more about the 1990s than the 17th century and more about contemporary political concerns than adhering to historical accuracy.
The events that ultimately established the Romanov dynasty certainly have provided fertile grounds for artistic exploration. Between 1598 and 1613 the Muscovite state experienced political instability, a famine that killed nearly one-third of the population, a powerful uprising from within, a pretender to the throne who became Tsar Dmitrii, an invasion by the Polish and Swedish states that resulted in the occupation of Moscow and the near-complete collapse of the state, and finally a resistance that first threw the Polish occupiers out and then elected a new dynasty for the realm. And that's just the highlights. Given all that happened in this short time, it makes sense that afterwards, these events became known as the Time of Troubles, or smutnoe vremia.
The Time of Troubles have captured the attention of political figures, priests, artists, and producers of folklore ever since. The events of 1612, the climactic point of the Time of Troubles when the Poles occupied Moscow and the legendary forces raised by Dmitrii Pozharskii and Kuzma Minin expelled them, provided rich story lines for writers and historians. This era appeals precisely because it is so difficult to explain and yet so decisive to the history of Russia. For Romanov propagandists, the Time was a clear indication that God frowned on weak dynasties and illegitimate rulers like Boris Godunov, who seized the throne in 1598 and who ruled during the 1601-03 famine. After Napoleon's invasion of 1812, 1612 became the subject for a renewed retrofitting where, in the words of Nikolai Karamzin, Godunov was a 17th-century Napoleon who suffered from “an immoderate, illicit thirst for power (Pipes, 113)” and the true heroes of Russia were the patriotic butcher and prince from Nizhnii Novgorod, Minin and Pozharskii, or even mythic serfs like Ivan Susanin, who allegedly saved Mikhail Romanov and sacrificed himself for the future tsar. As Karamzin had it, “their [Minin and Pozharskii] faith, their love of native customs, and hatred of alien rule engendered a general glorious uprising of the people” (Pipes, 117). During the Soviet era, the official story about the Time was made to fit with the Marxist viewpoint of history, where all the violence could be explained as an early form of class warfare and where Glinka's 1836 patriotic opera “A Life for the Tsar” was renamed “Ivan Susanin” in order to stress the little man and not the oppressive autocracy (accordingly, the chorus “Glory, glory, to our Russian tsar” became “Glory, glory to our Russian land”).
These dominant narratives did not go unchallenged when they appeared. The popularity of the false Dmitrii lingered in Russian folklore, the social unrest and civil wars that dominated the Time of Troubles bubbled up again and again, poets like Pushkin and Lermontov challenged Karamzin's views, and opera goers in the Soviet Union didn't soon forget that “Ivan Susanin” was a dressed-up version of the tsarist-era staging. In other words, the Time of Troubles and its part in Russian historical memories represented something of a memory overload, the meanings of which were constantly present and constantly contested. Perhaps the only thing that can be said definitively about the multitude of popular prints, songs, oral stories, novels, plays, poems, paintings, operas, and statues about 1612 (again only a few means that memory was expressed) is that the only things missing from them are ghosts of Spanish swordsmen, Gandolf-like wizards, and unicorns. ...
Reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2008 in KinoKultura