I went to the Russian Embassy for the first time this evening to watch Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film Strike. The event was organized by the Initiative for Russian Culture at American University, and open to students and faculty (and a handful of those of us in limbo between the two poles) of the Washington area Consortium of universities (which includes University of Maryland-College Park, American, George Washington, George Mason and Georgetown). The official vice-chair of the Initiative is a former classmate of mine, who is now a professor at American. He is Russian, and in the olden days he would have been an excellent spy, given his great gifts for sociability and the ease with which he rubs elbows with the powerful (he spent all of the pre-screening dinner/reception smiling and shaking hands from one group of guests to the next, speaking easy, fluent American English and equally comfortable and colloquial Russian). These days, I doubt the world of espionage would ever satisfy his ambition--he's got the politician's gift of general likability, he's a good talker, and I would not be at all surprised if in ten years or so he were to be appointed to some influential position in the Russian government. His connections are impressive on both sides of the pond--not only did he persuade the embassy to host this several hundred-person shindig, when the Boston Marathon bombers were identified as Chechens, it was to him that at least one major local Washington TV station went for "expert" commentary (despite the fact that his main familiarity is with 19th-century liberal movements in the Russian empire--he's already managed to turn his dissertation on the subject into a book, issued by a respectable press). What can I say? He's a golden child, marked for success. His name typed into Google brings up more than 15,000 hits, and a selection of nice pictures of him in various professional poses in the "images" section!
Meanwhile, I despair of American leadership--I was briefly seated next to a U.S. congressman at a dessert table (I didn't speak to him, just noticed his official lapel pin on his blazer), and the man knew almost nothing about Russian history (he hadn't known, for instance, that the strike depicted in the film took place almost fifteen years before the Bolsheviks had taken power).
The film was really impressive--beautifully photographed, with stark and elegantly memorable images, and relentlessly paced--no chance for the audience to reflect on its revolutionary message until the devastating conclusion. Eisenstein was the Soviet equivalent of D.W. Griffith (he of Birth of a Nation infamy), able to shape his audience's mind to whatever he chose, a masterful propagandist. What struck me about Strike was how the mostly college aged American audience in the theater tonight reacted differently from how his original audience probably did. One of the final scenes, where a tsarist gendarme drops a toddler off a balcony to its death, did not faze them. But an earlier shot, where a woman kicks a kitten gnawing on a bone, brought an audible gasp from across the whole theater. Earlier Soviet audiences might not have distinguished the two in terms of cinematic verisimilitude, but modern American audiences know that the baby-dropping was just clever camerawork on the part of the director, whereas the unfortunate feline was really abused. Let's just say that Eisenstein would not have been able to get the ASPCA certification that "No animals were harmed in the making of this movie"--a cow is also slaughtered onscreen, and various bears are shown chained and made to perform.
I had a couple of nice conversations over a glass of rather bad red wine and a bowl of pretty good ice cream, and I also got a photo of me next to an odd piece of decorative art (yes, they allowed us to bring in our cell phones--visible electronic security was perfunctory at best, but they had a lot of security people (of various levels of goonishness) looking over the crowd, so in terms of HUMINT resources they were properly covered):
It's a three-foot-tall, wooden, rhinestone-embellished replica of this:
The 1898 "Lilies of the Valley" egg by Faberge. The original is less than 10 inches tall, and made of pearls, gold, enamel and diamonds.