Cinematizing the Past: Cinema and Ideology in the South Caucasus from the Soviet Era to the Present Day


Cinematizing the Past: Cinema and Ideology in the South Caucasus from the Soviet Era to the Present Day

On April 16, 1923, the Council of People's Commissars (government) of the Armenian SSR passed a decree on establishing a cinema production entity, initially called Petkino, which was later renamed Armenfilm. Soviet Armenian, as well as Georgian and Azerbaijani cinematography was called upon to popularize the ideology and ideological concepts of the young Soviet regime in the Sovieet Union republics.

Text: Tigran Zakaryan


When talking about the relationship between ideology and cinema the first things that come to mind are Nazi and Soviet propaganda machines with their two admittedly talented representatives, Leni Riefenstahl and Sergey Eisenstein. 


Meanwhile, a second look at the propaganda machines of both totalitarian systems reveals that Soviet cinema, unlike its Nazi counterpart, had various stages of development due to its comparatively long life-span. The ideological control over cinema during that period was not invariably tight, periodically changing under the influence of internal political trends.
The Soviet regime made ample use of cinematography to promote its dominant ideology and combat alternative and hostile ones. .Cinema became an important playground where nationalism was put to the service of Soviet ideology coupled with veneration towards the Big Brother, Russia, which according to the Soviet historical grand narrative, “saved” the smaller nations from powerful empires.  
This article will focus on consequential historical films shot in the South Caucasus in the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. 


Armenia’s past in the language of cinema 

Armenian Soviet cinema in the 1920’s at the height of korenizatsia was almost silent about Armenian national issues.  Hamo Bek-Nazaryan’s “House on top of the Volcano” (1928, shot in Azerbaijan in cooperation with AzDovletKino) was a rare attempt to touch on the relations between different nationalities, namely in the oil capital of the Russian empire Baku. The film, expectedly, glorifies the solidarity between the workers of different nationalities as opposed to the oppressing bourgeoisie, personified by an Armenian.   

In a rare instance, Russian imperial chauvinism and cultural colonization were also episodically displayed in the pre-war Armenian cinematography such as in the first Armenian sound film “Pepo” (1935, Bek-Nazaryan) where a member of the Russian administration in Tiflis (Tbilisi) mockingly refers to an Armenian wealthy merchant Zimzimov dancing “Asiatic dances”.  


However, this was rather an exception to the rule and the Armenian cinema largely lacked criticism of Russian tsarist policies and we see such a trend throughout the existence of Armenian film history and even presently.  

A new fashion for historical films came with Eisentein’s “Alexander Nevsky”, a historical drama (1938) assessed by some as sending a warning message to Nazi Germany. In the wake of these films and particularly during World War II (largely known as the “Great Patriotic War” in the USSR) several historical dramas were shot, aimed at encouraging respective nationalities while in the meantime keeping and intensifying pro-Russian sentiment. It was under such conditions that the first Armenian historical drama “Davit Bek” was shot (released in 1944, directed by Hamo Beknazaryan), featuring the story of an uprising, headed by Armenian nobility in the south-east of Armenia against larger Muslim lords during the period of decomposition of Iran’s Savafid Empire in the 1720’s.

The film is dotted with historically misplaced, completely unattested and highly questionable characters and episodes (like Tsar Peter the Great practically backing the uprising and even naming Davit Bek as its leader, sending Russian gunners in support to the rebels etc.) with an apparent purpose of showing Russia’s presumed “eternal support” to the Armenians and probably calling Armenians to “pay off” Russia with the same in the war, or maybe hinting that without Russians, Armenians could not make a stand against their powerful neighbors, Turkey first of all.   

This topic was touched on yet another time by a most renowned Soviet blockbuster-maker, Edmon Keosayan (he is mostly known for the iconic “Imperceptible Avengers” trilogy) in a historical two-episode drama “The Star of Hope” (1978), continuing the story where it concluded in the previous  film.


This time the victorious rebels, who after Davit Bek’s death chose a new leader Mkhitar Sparapet, had to deal with an even stronger adversary, the advancing Ottoman army.  Quite in the fashion of the previous film, in an apparent historical distortion, after the Turks seem to have vanquished the Armenian defenders, Russians appear at the very end of the film and are greeted joyfully, despite the widely known fact that the Russian troops actually appeared in Armenian territories only about one hundred years after the described events. In fact the Russians did not move beyond the Caspian littoral, which they seized from the collapsing Iran in accordance with the 1724 Treaty of Constantinople with the Ottomans. Such an apparent failure to clearly articulate the geostrategic background in such kind of historical representations could hardly be incidental. 

Unfortunately, historical distortions and misplacements, albeit to a lesser extent, are present in post-Soviet Armenian historical dramas as well. A prominent example of this is the film “Garegin Nzhdeh” (2013, directed by Hrach Keshishyan). It touches on the events in the same southern region of Armenia, Syunik, during Armenia’s independence in 1918-1920 through the main character, Garegin Nzhdeh, the military leader of the region in 1919-1921.

The film, as some critics argue, is marked with many clichés and sometimes primitive nationalist imagery, simplifies or even avoids some “hot issues”, including his complex relations with the Soviet authorities, portraying him as a stark nationalist with an almost racial hatred towards the “Turks” (a term used by Nzhdeh’s character to also refer to Azerbaijanis). In the meantime, ethnic Armenian Soviet KGB agents, who under Stalin are expected to be the worst of their kind, are depicted as quite polite and reserved towards their renowned inmate, the reasons for which remain unclear to the viewer. The film does not provide an adequate picture of the Stalinist regime’s attitude towards Armenian nationalism, despite the fact that it is shot years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Overall it can be said that Armenian cinema along with historiography is still partially under the influence of Soviet narratives despite decades of independence.  


Azerbaijan: constructing nationhood and cinema 

Azerbaijan as a nation is a classic example of the Soviet korenizatsia (“nativization”) and nation-building, although its project started before the collapse of the Russian Empire. Cinema was to play an important role in that project although it started with the help of specialists of quite different ethnic backgrounds. Initially the Azerbaijani cinema avoided touching on historical topics, because of the nation’s young age and its usual topics did not extend beyond the glorification of Soviet Azerbaijan’s achievements. 
However, the authorities and Soviet ideology gave Azerbaijani historians and publicists more room for constructing history and creating an Azerbaijani or a “proto-Azerbaijani” nation where it could not have existed, such as, for instance in the pre-Turkic past. 

The first attempts of Azerbaijani historical cinematography referred to the 19th century, around the time of the birth of Azerbaijan as a national project.   
The film “Dəli Kür” (Mad Kura/Untamed Kura, 1969) represents Azerbaijani nationalism in rather “modest” tones, in which Russian and Georgian “revolutionary-minded” intellectuals played an important role. While welcoming democratic, westernizing and modernizing influences under the Russian administration the films also criticized the “tsarist” regime. 

The situation soon changed with growing Azerbaijani nationalism and historical appropriations with the aim of artificially making it more ancient to which Moscow usually turned a blind eye. A classical example of “ancientization” was the case of representing the Zaroastrian Babak Khorramdin’s anti-Arab and anti-Muslim uprising of the late 8th century in northern Iran which even entered the general Soviet history school textbook under the name of an “anti-feudal movement of the Azerbaijani people”. 


In 1979, a film entitled “Babek” was released as a product of cooperation between "Azerbaycanfilm" and "Mosfilm". The controversial historian, Ziya Buniatov, was selected as the historical adviser to the film, which probably contributed to its “nationalization”. The film was generally repetaing the above-mentioned ahistorical statements, yet serving as a propaganda tool for Azerbaijani claim of “ancient origins” of this young nation.  
Following independence and the Karabakh war in 1992-1994 Azerbaijan produced some outright propagandistic films, one of which was released in 2009 with the title “Qarabagdir Azerbaycan” (“Karabkh is Azerbaijan”). It was shot as a short docudrama, based on the narratives of some of the soldiers killed in the war, afterwards honored as “heroes” as well as including some patriotic poetry recited against background footage of battle scenes between Azerbaijani and Armenian soldiers and claimed atrocities committed by the latter.  

The shooting of the film was supported by Azerbaijani ministries such as the ministry of defense, foreign affairs and other state structures, the caption at the end of the film reads. 
It is hard to imagine that given the present circumstances and the current state of historical narratives in Azerbaijan that any new films challenging the current setting and ideology can be expected.


Georgian cinema between the past and present 

Georgian cinema itself was quite distinct in its artistic ways and was well known not only within the Soviet Union but also to some extent, beyond its borders. 
From the very beginning it started discussing national issues, albeit speaking the language of anti-colonialism and class struggle. The first soviet Georgian silent film shot in 1921, “The Murder of General Gryaznov”, was devoted to the recent past of the country, namely the 1905 peasant uprising in western Georgia.

Georgian cinema also produced panoramic historical films along the lines of other Soviet constituent republics, like the “Giorgi Saakadze”. It was based on the real story of a Georgian nobleman of the 16th-17th century, allying himself from time to time with Iran and the Ottoman empire who were fighting against each other. Albeit controversial from the viewpoint of Georgian nationalism, Saakadze was established by Stalinist propaganda as a main hero of the nation and was hence glorified. The film was released in 1942 during World War II and showed the success of the Georgian nation’s fight against the Ottoman incursions and their own Iranian overlords. However, the struggle ends in a fratricidal fight, which caused the resistance to collapse.

Georgian cinematography also produced other historical films as well, which were quite in line with Soviet ideology. The “A Written Oath” (1983) was dedicated to the bicentennial of the Georgievsk treaty of 1783, under which Georgia became a Russian protectorate and ultimately was annexed to the Russian empire. The film’s authors in a concise introduction announced it as the “first manifesto of friendship and brotherhood” between the two nations. The film depicts Georgia’s suffering from Persian and Turkish invasions and devastating warfare, to which Russian intervention was called for to put an end. The film also promoted the idea of the communality of the fate of the Caucasian nations, namely Armenians and Georgians (featured through an Armenian merchant figure, who according to the script, in 1578 was delivering a letter from the Georgian king to the Russian tsar).  

Meanwhile, only a year after that, Georgian cinema made an extraordinary attempt in its time to touch on the topic of Stalinism. Tengiz Abuladze’s acclaimed film “Repentance”, shot in 1984 but released only in 1987 under Gorbachev’s glasnost, touched on the vestiges of Stalinism in modern society and the need to arrange matters with the past. “Repentance” goes well beyond specific Georgian and even Soviet frames and is a unique and successful film that depicts not only history. 

There is little hope that the current situation of historical narratives, the ideology of historical films will change in the South Caucasus. Even independent filmmakers are unlikely to be able to make revolutionary films about the past until the influence of the Soviet propaganda machine and the one-sided interpretation of nationalism is overcome.

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