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Netflix’s 12-Part The Road to Calvary

Walter G. Moss: Although the TV series does have some faults—e.g., a few of the final episodes seem to drag a bit—it provides for the average viewer a good overall picture of a turbulent period of Russian history.
road to cavalry

If you liked the film Doctor Zhivago, you should like the 12-part Netflix series The Road to Calvary. Not that major differences between the two don’t exist. The first is a long English-language film of 1965 (though there was also a lesser known miniseries with Keira Knightley); the second is a Russian-language 2017 series (around 50 minutes each with subtitles). But the two productions are both adapted from novels that deal mainly with the calamitous years 1914-1920. In this brief span Russia suffered through World War I, two revolutions (the second bringing the communists to power), civil war, and allied intervention. Both novels and adaptations tell personal stories with interesting characters and plenty of action and romance against the turbulent happenings of the times.

No doubt, Doctor Zhivago, written by Boris Pasternak, is a better novel than Alexei Tolstoy’s trilogy Khozhdenie po mukamPilgrimage through Torment would be a more accurate translation than The Road to Calvary. Tolstoy (1883-1945) was a distant cousin of the more famous Leo Tolstoy. He wrote poetry and plays, as well as all kinds of other fiction including science fiction and historical novels, his most famous being Peter I, an excellent novel dealing with the famous Tsar Peter the Great. Tolstoy’s Calvary trilogy (completed in 1940) won the Stalin Prize in 1943, but Doctor Zhivago was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. Nevertheless, Tolstoy was a talented writer.

Moreover, film critic Roger Ebert once observed that “a movie shouldn't be ‘based’ on a book but inspired by it. Movies that are faithful to the book are usually dull and plodding affairs, because the things that make a book good are far removed from what makes a movie work.” Thus, in judging a film or TV series we should not be overly concerned about how good the book was that it was adapted from, and the miniseries being reviewed here is rewarding for both its history and entertainment value.

Road to CalvaryFirst, its history value. Like almost all films and TV series that employ historical background to tell their stories, viewers should not expect all aspects to be historically accurate treatments—the ongoing PBS Victoria provides a good example of this. But the average viewer can still learn much. For example, Russia entered World War I against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914; by 1917 many Russian soldiers were unhappy with the war and some deserted; revolutionary dissatisfaction among workers in Petrograd (at the beginning of World War I, renamed from the more German-sounding St. Petersburg) was significant. In early 1917—dates vary because at the time Russians were using a different calendar than the Western one—the Russian tsar abdicated and a Provisional Government (PG) was established, only to fall itself to the communists under Lenin later in the year. (The TV series is rather vague on the PG phase.)

Road to Calvary

Almost immediately after the communists came to power, armed opposition to their rule began to emerge and a civil war fought on various fronts ensued. The two main sides are usually referred to as the Reds (Leon Trotsky became head of the communist Red Army) and the Whites (the anti-Reds, made up of all sorts of political groups and many former tsarist officers and Cossacks). But there were also Green forces, fighting primarily for peasant interests in Ukraine, led by the anarchist Nestor Makhno. At different times, his forces fought against both Reds and Whites. In addition, in Siberia, the Whites were supported for a time by the Czechoslovakian Corps, made up of about 40,000 former Czech prisoners of war who had served in the Austro-Hungarian army. All of these contending groups appear in the miniseries, though the Czechs play only a minor role.

One of the important centers of conflict between Reds and Whites was the Volga city of Samara, which was the childhood home of the two main fictional characters in the miniseries, the sisters Katya and Dasha Bulavin. Their father is a doctor there, and both sisters on different occasions return to this Volga city from their homes in Petrograd. In 1918 White forces support a temporary anti-Red government there, and during that summer its troops combine with elements of the Czechoslovak Corps to take the important Volga towns of Simbirsk (Lenin’s birthplace) and Kazan, only to have them retaken by the Red Army in September, followed by Samara in October 1918.

Until WWI came to an end in November 1918, some western and southwestern areas of the former Russian Empire were occupied by German or Austro-Hungarian forces or (as in parts of Ukraine) by national forces they supported. From 1918 to 1920 troops, mainly from Great Britain, France, the United States, and Japan, also appeared on Russian soil for a variety of reasons, but at least partly to aid the Whites. These 1918 to 1920 foreign involvements, however, play little role in the miniseries.

Besides the traumas of wars, revolutions, and political turmoil, the historical factors that are most dominant are class and cultural considerations. The Bulavin sisters are upper-class urbanites. By 1914, about four out of five Russians, overwhelmingly peasants, still lived in rural areas, and by Russian standards the sisters are rich. In Episode 1, Dasha comes to stay with her older sister Katya, who lives with her husband, the lawyer Nikolai Smokovnikov. In the interior of their residence are rooms richly decorated, including a grand piano and numerous art pieces, and their meals are served to them. Years later, however, after the communists gain control, both sisters find themselves confined to smaller living spaces after the new government confiscates the majority of their residences—a similar confiscation occurred in both the novel and film version of Doctor Zhivago.

When Dasha comes to St. Petersburg in early 1914 she comes from the railway station. The city is then still the capital and Russia’s largest city with a population of slightly more than 1.5 million. In an open carriage, she rides across snow-covered streets and squares—e.g., the magnificent Palace Square that spreads itself behind the tsar’s Winter Palace. Pleasing to the eye and the imagination are the varied physical settings that carry us back to a century ago. They include, but are not limited to, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Paris, battlefield scenes, a prison camp, a steamer on the Volga, railway cars, the city of Samara, the southern Russian steppe, peasant huts, lecture halls, outdoor crowd scenes, hotels, restaurants, and other interiors.

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In 1914, St. Petersburg, along with slightly smaller Moscow, was at the center of a rich cultural renaissance sometimes known as the Silver Age. The experimentation and diversity that marked the writing, music, and art of the era emanated from its restless intellectual searching. Artists, writers, and other intellectuals sought fulfillment in various, and at times contrasting, aims: religious and mystical truths, but also sensual delights, or by helping “transform humanity” while also fearing apocalyptic catastrophe. Reflecting the intellectual spirit of the age is the fictional poet Alexei Bessonov, to whom both sisters are temporarily attracted and who reappears throughout the series.

Katya, who is dissatisfied with her bourgeois husband, Nikolai, who does not share her interest in the latest artistic happenings, has a one-night fling with Bessonov—Nikolai had also been unfaithful and later, sometime after Katya receives news that he had died while carrying out a Provisional Government assignment at the front, she marries a second time to the officer Vadim Roshchin.

Tolstoy himself was thoroughly familiar with the cultural milieu of this period, including the experiences of Russian intellectuals living abroad in cities like Paris and Berlin, as he himself did in various years before and after the 1917 revolutions. Although most of the TV series is set in Russia, the restless Katya does in the early part of the series spend some time in Paris.

Once the communists came to power in late 1917, they attempted to transform Russian culture. One organization they created was the plebeian Proletcult (the Association of Proletarian Cultural and Educational Organizations). Its goal was to train and encourage proletarian writers and to create a proletarian literature. After spending some time in Samara, Dasha comes back to Petrograd and works for Proletcult. One of her tasks was to persuade Bessonov to recite appropriate poetry to an audience of workers, and he does so.

One of the reasons for the revolutionary ferment in Russia, in addition to all the dissatisfactions brought about by the country’s loosing war effort, was the tremendous gap between the rich and the poor. And it was not just a financial one, but also a cultural one. In 1914, while Katya hosts a weekly gathering of artists and intellectuals, and Dasha attends law lectures, a majority of Russian peasants were still illiterate. On one occasion, Bessonov writes poetry on the wall of a hut for a peasant woman he had become enamored with, but she tells him she cannot read.

Dasha’s boyfriend and later husband, the engineer Ivan Telegin, works at a Petrograd factory, where the workers rebel against management. In the early months of 1917, labor unrest did actually lead to the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. Workers’ wages lagged behind accelerating inflation, and an especially harsh winter exacerbated fuel and food shortages. In early March, more than 200,000 strikers, plus many students and other sympathizers, brought everyday life to a standstill. Within a week, after soldiers refused to quell growing unrest, Nicholas abdicated.

Two other aspects of the turbulent era that are captured well are the breakdown of law and order and the difficulty that many educated people had in deciding where their allegiances lie. On one occasion, a pregnant Dasha is assaulted by two men, causing harm to her fetus. On another Katya is abducted from a train attacked by Makhno’s Green forces. In addition, a married couple who make frequent appearances in the series rob numerous people, and he also kills many.

The four main characters—Katya, Dasha, and their husbands Vadim and Ivan—are all over the spectrum in their changing allegiances. Dasha, for example, although married to engineer Ivan, who becomes a Red Army officer, switches from being a nurse in Petrograd to aiding the White cause and even planning to assassinate Lenin, but later reverts to working for the Red organization Proletcult.

Overall, though the TV series does have some faults—e.g., a few of the final episodes seem to drag a bit—it provides for the average viewer a good overall picture of a turbulent period of Russian history. And it is certainly entertaining. In focusing on the loves and challenges of two attractive young women against a background as fascinating as Russia’s experiences from 1914 to 1920, the series provides a subject of almost universal appeal.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. He is the author of A History of RussiaVol. I and Vol. II. For a list of all his recent books and online publications go here.

Check out Walter’s most recent book: In the Face of Fear: On Laughing All the Way Toward Wisdom. Wood Lake Publishing, 2019.