I recently watched the film “For the Children of Donbass“, which is a very interesting short documentary by an Italian filmmaker about the conflict in Donbass, that started in 2014 and in many was was a “prequel” to the current conflict involving Russia and the Ukraine. I recommend that everyone watches it — I added English, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles. It’s only 30 minutes, and the filmmaker, being Italian, adds a certain neutrality or outsider’s view, so it can’t be dismissed as a mere propaganda piece. At least, I don’t think so.
I thought it was pretty well done, and even moving at times. It’s not really historical, or political, and doesn’t really explain what the conflict is about. It’s mostly about children and their parents living in what was basically a small-scale war zone for years. But at least it gives you some perspective. It’s not as if Russia just invaded the Ukraine out of nowhere. These people were being bombed by the Ukrainians, for years, and no one was doing much about it.
(Of course, what is going on now is in many ways worse, so we will have to see how this all ends… Hopefully, not with nuclear bombs.)
I do have some sympathy for Russia, even in the midst of all the current “russophobia”, but it’s a far-away sympathy, like the one I feel for, say, Japan. I have never been to Russia, just as I have never been to Japan, and I have never met many Russian people. Well, I have met a few of them in my life, but no one who was very close — when I lived in Italy, I met a couple of young Russian artists who were very nice. (I think they are anti-Putin and against this war, for all it matters). But that’s about it.
However, I was a great fan of Russian literature in my youth. I think it was Borges who said that everyone should read Dostoevsky in his teenage years, as it is the quintessential youth reading. When I say “youth reading”, I don’t mean Harry Potter or juvenile fantasy literature, I mean that there is, or perhaps there was, when I was growing up at least, a certain subset of young people who used to read high literature, which I suppose is something very rare these days. But I did read Dostoevsky when I was 15 or 16 — “Crime and Punishment” and “Notes from the Underground” were my favourites. Then I read a lot of Chekhov. His short stories (he wrote so many of them), are great, and so are his plays (he wrote only a few). Tolstoy too, but I haven’t read him as much as the others — I confess I never finished “Anna Karenina” or “War and Peace”… However, I still remember a few great of his short stories, such as “The Death of Ivan Iylich” and “How much land does a man need?”
That’s all old stuff, of course. Who reads such books these days? And I don’t know much about Russian pop culture, old or new, but one thing I find interesting is that for many decades, Russia (or in fact, the whole Soviet Union, which included the Ukraine), for good or bad, was mostly isolated from the general Western culture, and vice-versa. So they had something else going on, which we did not know about — except for perhaps a few great exiled artists, such as Solyenitsin or Tarkovsky — but little else reached us in terms of a more general popular culture.
In the documentary about the children of Donbass, at one point a girl plays on the piano the song “Wonderful Future”: “Future, wonderful future, don’t be so cruel with me”. This is actually a song from a 1980s Soviet TV series, “Guest from the Future”about a child that comes from the future to a Moscow school. It seems to have been very popular in the Soviet Union, but, like most things produced there, it never reached the West.
From what I could gather, it seems to be just a normal teen series. For all their censorship, I have the feeling that Soviet culture was less dogmatic and propagandistic than, say, modern Hollywood. Nowadays, every American film seems to be about a certain “issue” — race, or sex, or sexual identity, or whatever is the problem of the moment, and of course always with an extremely diverse cast, sometimes to the point of absurdity, such as, for example, Sherlock Holmes played by an Asian woman. Mind you, some films can still be entertaining, but many of them just feel tiresome or propagandistic, or maybe it’s just me.
And yet, I remember watching a Soviet cartoon (I guess I know a bit more about Soviet animation, having studied it a bit) from the 1950s, a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”, and it was pretty good, and with little if any “Communist brainwashing.” The only change, perhaps, was that the original fairy tale ends with the grandmother quoting a line from the Bible (“Except you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”). That was removed, I suppose because atheism was the official Soviet policy. (I suspect Tarkovsky’s problem with Soviet censorship also had to do with his religious views, as he wasn’t a very political filmmaker.)
As for the Ukraine, to my mind it was a sort of cultural subset of Russia, I guess because during most of my life it was just part of the Soviet Union, which included also Georgia and Belarus and Kazakhstan etc, so I cannot really say much about it, but I am sure it has its own culture and things to be proud of. One of the worse things that the current war is causing is the worsening relations between Russians and Ukrainians, two people who should really be brothers. However this all ends, it doesn’t look that they will be able to remain very friendly going forward. But we can hope.