Spending some time in Kiev (properly called Kyiv) in July 2012, we learned that it claimed to be the birthplace of the Russian nation, though nearby Novgorod makes a similar claim for a date 126 years earlier. It was at Novgorod that the tribal chieftain, Rurik, planted his banner and founded the first dynasty of the Russias. In Kiev, over a century later, the Viking Prince Vladimir united the tribes of Russia and introduced the pagan populace to the Orthodox Christian religion, borrowed from Constantinople. In Kiev and Novgorod, the first cathedrals for the new religion were built and Russia was made whole for the first time. The Cathedral of Saint Sophia in Kiev is said to have been inspired by the monumental cathedral called Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. As a casual observer, I cannot detect any resemblance.
Both Rurik and Prince Vladimir are elusive national heroes perhaps owing to the extreme methods they employed in subduing opposition. Vladimir’s son, Jaroslav the Wise, the cathedral builder, is better known on the streets of Kiev than the warriors of the older generation. The circumstances of Russia’s birth are murky and much more complicated than I have made them here, but the year 988, the occasion of the first public baptism, stands as a milestone in the life of the nation.
Prince Vladimir (2005)
I have found no major movie on the life of Vladimir but there is an appealing animated film, similar to Disney’s King Arthur movie, which pictures it’s hero only in the colorful days of his youth. It is meant to give Russian young people a cleaned up version of their country’s deep history. In 2014, at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Disney-style historical pageants would attempt the same thing.
The Cossacks (1928)
John Gilbert stars as Lukashka, the son of a Cossack warrior. He is an idealistic young man, refusing to fight and interested only in romancing the prettiest girl in the village. When the Cossack army returns after fighting the Turks, the men abuse Lukashka, calling him “Cowslip” and accusing him of acting like a woman. When his father, the warrior, tries to give his son a whipping, Lukashka turns on him and thrashes him. He then rides off at the head of the Cossack band to kill Turks and prove himself.
Taras Bulba (1962)
Based on a book by Nikolai Gogol, this film is set in the Ukraine of the early 16th century, among the Cossacks. A narrated legend gives an account of the spread of the Ottoman Empire from Turkey across North Africa, and northwest to the Steppes of the Ukraine. The opening battle scenes show Polish forces driving the Turks back with the help of the Cossacks. When Taras and his Cossack warriors realize that the Poles do not intend to leave the Steppes, they burn their own farms and return to their nomadic life. Yul Brynner is the title character, a Cossack chieftain, who has been betrayed by the Poles and now must raise his children on the Steppes under Polish domination. Tony Curtis is his son, who is sent to Kiev to be “civilized” at a Polish school. Here Cossacks are thought of as little more than animals.
There is a rousing scene in a drinking hall where Brynner leads a familiar Russian song. The Cossacks answer a call to go to war on the side of the Poles. Brynner and his sons lead a rebellion and direct their forces to freeing their land from the hated Poles. Until this time, the film has been fairly dopey, but when the Cossacks ride out in a great hoard across the Steppes, it is a stirring sight (it is the time of the Cold War, and much of this was filmed in Argentina). They besiege a fortified Polish city in a swarm of Cossack fury. The city suffers starvation and plague.
Curtis sneaks through the gates to see the girl he loves. They are caught and she, heartbreakingly beautiful, is to be burned at the stake. Curtis promises to bring food if they will spare her. He dons Polish armor and leads an expedition from the city. The Cossacks attack and he is captured. There is a father-son confrontation and Brynner shoots Curtis through the heart point-blank. There is a fierce battle and the Cossacks send the Polish army hurtling over a cliff. As Brynner leads his force back to the conquered city, he comes upon the girl crying over the body of his son. He declares they “will take the city in peace, there will be no more killing.” This is an absurd treatment of a sweeping epic of the Steppes.
Brynner (1915-85) is all swagger, but authentic is this situation. He was born on an island off the coast of Siberia, and named Taidje Khan.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
The theme-setter for this film is a song called “Tradition.” The geographical setting is a small Jewish village in the Ukraine around the year 1905. People here struggle to make their livelihoods and to cope with entrenched threats from a hostile world just beyond their horizon. The central character is a humble man named Tevye who relies on the teachings of his ancient culture to guide his decisions as a family man and a citizen. Beyond the boundaries of his world, the Russian Revolution is a gathering storm bringing with it the destruction of all that was once accepted on faith. Traditionally, they have been victimized by the Cossacks; now the threat is compounded. Tevye’s children rebel against him as if he were a czar in miniature. Sadly resigned to the inevitability of change, he and his wife pack only what they need and depart from Eastern Europe to immigrate to New York City, a new world. Fiddler on the Roof was originally a Broadway musical, which opened in New York City in 1964.