Having recently watched two films available on Amazon Prime, both involving Russians, I was reminded of lines from two of my favorite writers–Carl Sandburg and Wendell Berry. From Sandburg in the book The Family of Man:
Everywhere is love and love-making, weddings and babies from generation to generation keeping the family of Man alive and continuing. Everywhere the sun, moon and stars, the climates and weathers, have meanings for people. Though meanings vary, we are alike in all countries and tribes in trying to read what sky, land and sea say to us. Alike and ever alike we are on all continents in the need of love, food, clothing, work, speech, worship, sleep, games, dancing, fun. From the tropics to arctics humanity lives with these needs so alike, so inexorably alike.
From Berry: his 1968 poem “To a Siberian Woodsman,” in which he writes of the commonalities between himself and a Siberian woodsman and decries government propaganda that would have them hate each other.
White Moss, which won a Special Jury mention at the 2015 LA Film Festival, is set among the nomadic Nenets reindeer herders of northern Siberia. Sandburg’s words about love, weddings, family, stars, climate, food, work, fun, and arctics are all relevant to it. For it deals with Aloysha, whose mother brings a bride, Savane, back to their reindeer-skin teepee–being nomads, completely dependent on reindeer, the Nenets periodically remove and reassemble the teepee skins at new locations. Aloysha is not happy about the arrival of Savane, for he has his heart set on another Nenets woman, Aniko, who has left the tribe to live in a city.
We come to realize just how strong his feelings are for Akino after she returns by commercial helicopter after discovering that her mother has been killed by a wolf. Compared to the traditional Savane, still immersed in her native culture, Aniko’s attire, manners, language (Russian and not the native tongue), and cell-phone use all reflect that she has been thoroughly citified.
When she is unable to get any reception, Aloysha sits her in his snowmobile (most of his tribe travel by reindeer sleighs) and takes her out to a wooden tower, where she is able to call a friend. The night sky is full–really full–of stars. (I can remember a similar night aboard a ship on Siberia’s Lake Baikal, when I saw stars so thick that there were almost no gaps between them.)
The cold, snow-covered, tundra landscape is a constant in the film, relieved occasionally by scenes inside the surprisingly cozy-looking teepees. Both outdoors and indoors, Nenets life seems both different and yet similar to that of most Hollywood Progressive readers. Ice and snow vs. heat and fires, eating with one’s hands vs. with silverware, travel in reindeer sleighs vs. in automobiles. And yet there are also the global universals of love, marriage, children (both grateful and ungrateful), climate effects, drinking (some drunkenness occurs), and talking.
The film reminds us of how important our culture and subcultures are, the ways of life we are brought up with that are so important in influencing how we think and look at life. The culture of the Nenets people (44,600 of them according to a 2010 census), who live primarily in the Nenets Autonomous Region of northern Siberia, reminds us of that of some past Native American tribe. As in the early United States, so too in pre-modern Siberia, native tribes were spread out over a large area, many of them with their own language and customs. Then the conquerors appeared and took over. Many of the native peoples died as a result of exposure to the conquerors’ diseases.
In White Moss tribal children are taken to area schools, where they remain for many months and become more Russified. Some adults like Aniko leave their tribe more permanently and basically abandon their native language and customs. In the teepees and on the tundra some modern technology mixes with the traditional–e.g., occasional cell-phones, computer tablets, televisions, commercial alcohol. The clash of modern and traditional ways disorient some Nenets, and drunkenness occasionally results.
In contrast to White Moss, Song from the Southern Seas (hereafter Song) is set outside today’s Russia, but in an area that was earlier part of Tsarist and then Soviet Russia. It is Kazakhstan, where (in 2014) approximately 24 percent of the people were ethnic Russians. Since 1991 an independent country, it was earlier conquered and colonized by Russia, mainly in the nineteenth century. Whereas in White Moss, the landscape is snow-covered tundra, Song occurs in the Central Asia steppe area, with mountains, rivers, and lakes also appearing. Instead of reindeer, horses predominate. Instead of reindeer-skinned teepees, we see wooden houses and occasional yurts.
The main characters are ethnic Russians–Ivan, his wife Maria, and their son Sasha, although there is some doubt about Sasha’s biological father. The son is darker skinned than his parents, resembling more the hue of their neighbor Assan, who is a Kazakh. Ivan’s suspicions that Assan might have fathered Sasha lead to rowdy quarrels between him and Maria. There are also dustups between him and Maria’s family, who come from a proud Cossack tradition. Ivan gets in a fight with a brother-in-law who thinks his sister made a mistake marrying the farming Ivan.
Toward the end of the film, Ivan learns from one of his grandfathers about that man’s own father, Alexander, who married a native Kirghiz woman of a “different faith” and was subsequently shunned by his Russian father. Realizing that the tsar was going to send troops to put down a 1916 anti-conscription Muslim revolt in Central Asia, Alexander asked his father to take his mixed-race children under his protection, but the old man would only take the two fairest of the five grandchildren, saying “they are of our race.” Alexander, his wife, and remaining children ride off and later face a tragic end when tsarist troops attack their village of yurts. Ivan’s grandfather’s words as Ivan departs from his visit on his motorcycle are that what holds life together is love.
With its focus on family drama, jealousy, and ethnic conflict, the film, as its director has stated, “has a universal resonance and relevance…. Humanity is single entity, we all have common roots and are a single family, which is the conclusion reached by my characters.” But he also realized that we are also born into different cultures and religious traditions.
In the two films reviewed here we are reminded of the conquests and multiethnic nature of the Russian Empire and Soviet Russia. At the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the Russians just barely outnumbered all the other nationalities in the USSR. The two films also indicate how the term Russians can mean two different things: citizens of Russia, as the ethnic Nenets are in White Moss, or ethnic Russians who may or may not live in Russia. Some parts of the former USSR, such as Kazakhstan, Estonia, and Latvia, contain a significant percentage of Russians (each about one fourth of the population). In Ukraine about 17 percent of the population were Russians in the 2001 census, and the present simmering conflict in Eastern Ukraine between separatists aided by Russia and Ukraine reminds us of the importance of nationality and ethnicity, and how differences can exacerbate conflicts.
We are also reminded of the vast space (about 1.8 times the USA) and geographic variations of Russia. It stretches from northern polar regions to southern steppe grasslands and semitropical Black Sea cities such as Sochi.
In summation, the two films stimulate thought on such universal themes as love, family, jealousy, ethnicity, colonialism, and culture, but also entertain us by depicting dramatic events in the two very different settings of northern Siberia and Central Asia’s Kazakh steppe.
Walter G. Moss