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Film offers revisionist look at 20th century Russia

MOSCOW — To the Communists, he was an archvillain: a defender of the oppressors, a class enemy.

And for decades, that's the way films and textbooks portrayed Adm. Alexander Kolchak, a leader of the fight to roll back the 1917 Russian Revolution that gave birth to the Soviet Union.

Now comes a $20-million state-supported movie epic that glorifies Kolchak as a failed savior of Russia.

Such a reversal might seem odd, coming less than four years after Vladimir Putin was decrying the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

But since the beginning of the Putin presidency in 2000, and continuing under his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin has tried to be all things to all Russians, championing the country's Soviet past while at the same time resurrecting symbols of the once-despised, pre-Soviet czarist era.

Rich in Russian flags, warships and Russian Orthodox religious rituals, the movie reinterprets the checkered career of Kolchak, who led an anti-communist government.

Hero or villain?

Kolchak's courage and faith are driven home repeatedly in Admiral, from his steely command against the Germans in a World War I naval battle to his rejection of a blindfold before being shot by a firing squad midway through the 1917-1923 Russian civil war.

Kolchak is played by Konstantin Khabensky, hero of the Night Watch vampire movies popular in the West. The film takes him from the privileged world of an officer in the czar's navy, through the increasingly beleaguered efforts of his so-called White Russians, the counterrevolutionary forces in Siberia, to his execution in 1920.

The movie has sold more than 4-million tickets since it opened Oct. 9 in what is reportedly the widest release ever in Russia.

At the October, a sleek, renovated Moscow multiplex that has kept its Soviet-era name honoring the October 1917 revolution, Admiral has been playing on as many as four of the 11 screens.

Patriotism and pride

Partially financed by a government eager to replace post-Soviet disgruntlement with patriotism and pride, Russia's resuscitated movie industry has produced a string of films — several of them major box office and critical flops — that glorify the country's past.

But Admiral is the first to canonize a figure who fought the founders of the Soviet state.

It stops short of rejecting Russia's Soviet past. But its popularity strongly suggests that, as the Communist era recedes and its staunchest defenders die off, the czarist past is a greater draw for millions of Russians.

Admiral depicts Kolchak as a resolute man with a deep faith in God and unshakable loyalty to Russia.

The Bolsheviks, as the Communists who would run the Soviet Union for 74 years called themselves, get much rougher treatment on the screen in Admiral than Russian moviegoers are used to seeing.

"It would be wrong to answer 70 years of fakery in our cinema with a single film that is just as false," prominent Russian film critic Daniil Dondurei said at a public discussion of Admiral.

Yegor Filippov, a 20-year-old law student, saw Admiral and called it appropriate redress for 70 years of pro-Soviet propaganda.

"There are many films that show the Red movement in too positive a light, and now they are rehabilitating the White generals," Filippov said. "I'm for it."

Film offers revisionist look at 20th century Russia 11/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 4:44pm]
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