Review: The Red Soul (2017)


The Red Soul (2017)

Directed by: Jessica Gorter | 92 minutes | documentary

Impressive documentary in which ordinary Russians talk about how they deal with the reign of terror and the gulags under Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) today. Or, as the makers put it: “Why are there still so many Russians who continue to defend Stalin as a great leader and hero? ‘The Red Soul’ exposes the psyche of the contemporary Russian and reveals a world full of contradictions.” Stalin is abhorred in the West for his heinous crimes during his reign from the 1920s until his own death in 1953. During his leadership of the communist Soviet Union, millions of Russians and other peoples were murdered, imprisoned and mistreated. In the bloody history of the 20th century, he ranks second behind Adolf Hitler in the macabre list of the greatest mass murderers of all time.

In present-day Russia, however, he is once again adored by parts of the population. Again, for though his star had been waning for a long time, Stalin’s popularity is on the rise. Condemned by his own successors from the 1950s onwards for mock trials, labor camps, disappearances and executions, many Russians today believe that Stalin was a hero and still an example for the country. Documentary maker Jessica Gorter traveled all over the country in search of stories from the relatives of victims and for those who nostalgically long for the ‘good old days’. That gives a penetrating, because contradictory picture. Russia’s collective past is not perceived as a collective history. There is no shared experience, but a divided experience of what happened in the 20th century. Some want to hear no harm and extol the Soviet era as a time when everyone was kind and helpful to each other, others try to find traces of the terror: in archives and documents, such as researcher Razumov of the National Library or physically in the landscape: the father who searches the pits of mass graves with his young daughter and the old woman who collects the bones of victims she finds.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with the past. That the debate continues to this day is not only clear from an excerpt from a TV broadcast about terror, but also from the conversations Gorter has with young historians at a large summer camp. These young people are together, party and follow workshops in which they are prepared for leadership positions. The speaker who characterizes Putin as a “monarch” and that Russia is not yet ready for “real democracy” is inundated afterwards with requests for autographs and photo opportunities. Perhaps most detested is the “democratic experiment” of the 1990s, the first years after the fall of communism, until in the tail end of 1999 Putin takes power from Yeltsin. The thinking is that Russia needs a strong man: whether that be a Czar, or the Secretary General of the Communist Party, or a President, as long as it is an authoritarian one who propels the country up and makes it bigger.

As a maker, Gorter often stays at a distance. You really only hear the interviewed Russians themselves, as they talk about their traumas, from two sisters whose mother disappears in a labor camp after being betrayed, to a woman whose parents were executed in the late 1930s. We also follow her to the forests where there are huge mass graves. Some estimates put 20,000 casualties. Because the families do not know who is where, they have nailed portraits to the trees as a funerary monument. It is then distressing to hear other interviewees declare almost with a shrug that no innocents were arrested and that these “enemies of the state” must have had something on their conscience.

Russia is such a split country, because no accountability has ever taken place, as was the case in Germany after the Second World War. After all, the Soviet Union had won that war and the Soviet army had beaten the Nazis back at Leningrad (the long siege whose aftermath Gorter previously documented in her vaunted ‘900 days’) and Stalingrad as far as Berlin. Stalin is still honored by large groups for this – and to what extent this has also been his own personal merit is hardly a subject of discussion. He was the leader and he led the people to victory. Point. The tens of millions of victims are secondary. The fact that mass purges took place in the 1930s, including among the officers of the armed forces, which facilitated the German attack and major military blunders were made by wary generals who were closely controlled by political officials, remains unmentioned. The attitude for many is ‘where there is chopping, chips fall’. A rough, merciless assessment, which contrasts sharply with the grief of the pain of relatives. Young students, too, carry with them the duality of modern Russia: one in his class sets the example that his paternal grandmother is still a strong supporter of the regime, while the maternal family was the victim of the purges.

Incidentally, it is also striking that if there is one thing that binds the Russians, it is the love for the motherland. Individual criticism of the person Stalin or even of the regime is expressed, but it is terrifying to label that as criticism of Russia as a country. That crampedness does indicate that it will be very difficult to really come to terms with the past.

What makes ‘The Red Soul’ so powerful is that not a Western documentary maker comes here to point a moral finger at everything that is wrong. She gives the floor to both supporters and opponents of Stalin. No one is to blame and she is just registering. The conclusions are up to the viewer.

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