Writing about Dovzhenko on the seventieth anniversary of his birth, the director Gerasimov said, ‘One thing about which he was always grieving was that he made two or three times fewer films than he could have made.’ He had in mind those years of forced inactivity, the period of limited film production when, according to him, ‘we all kept silent or made one film every five or six years.’ Dovzhenko himself said, ‘We were meant for something more, significantly more, than such an output!’ In celebrating Dovzhenko’s eightieth anniversary the critic Yurenev details this output: ‘If one counts the films he directed one finds there are only thirteen documentaries, two shorts, and eight full-length features. One could add here his unfinished films, unrealized scripts and projects. Not much, in sixty-two years of life and thirty years of film-making.’1
Dovzhenko himself says in his 1945 diary, on the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution:2
My basic aim in life now is not the cinema. I no longer have the physical strength it requires. I have made a pitifully small number of films, killing the best years of my life for them, through no fault of my own. I am a victim of barbaric working conditions, bureaucratic poverty of mind, and an ossified cinema committee. I know that the years will not come back and that there’s no way to make up for them.
And in the introduction to this celebration a Party spokesman, in talking about the bad films produced in the Stalin period says,3
In fact, if in the years of the Cult of the Personality all or almost everything was bad, even if good people became villains and considered that they couldn’t be anything else, such an attitude dragged in, even if involuntarily, the idea that in those years
the decisive role in the life of the people was played by one single will, the will of that evil personality. Only then it was called ‘good’ … that was mystification only with a negative sign. It was the Cult of Personality inside out.
Dovzhenko began working with the revolutionary avant-garde of the Ukraine in the organization called VAPLITE – The Free Academy of Proletarian Literature, headed by the writer Mykola Khvylovy. But eleven years later they were liquidated by the Party, and the ‘bacilli of Khvylovism’ wiped out as Carynnyk says:4
Writing in the ‘Autobiography’ eleven years after Vaplite had been disbanded and the ‘bacilli of Khvylovism’ supposedly exterminated by the party, Dovzhenko naturally played down his association with the group. He did, however, publish his first article, ‘Toward the Problem of the Visual Arts’, in the Vaplite journal, and he became familiar with the most important manifestations of the new cultural upsurge: the pantheistic poems of Pavlo Tychyna and the chiselled verse of Mykola Bazhan, the plays of Mykola Kulish, the expressionistic productions of Les Kurbas’s Berezil Theater, the fiction of Yuriy Yanovsky (a leading Vaplitian who became Dovzhenko’s lifelong friend), the monumental paintings of Mykhaylo Boychuk and the short stories and polemics of Mykola Khvylovy. Today, when we know the fate of these artists – Khvylovy committed suicide; Kulish, Kurbas, and Boychuk died in prison camps; Tychyna, Bazhan, and Yanovsky were broken in spirit – their works smell of tragedy and suffering. They seem of a stature and richness that a mixture of elation and despair alone could have produced.
Dovzhenko had in fact applied for Party membership in 1920 and was accepted, but while he was at his diplomatic post in Berlin there was a so-called Purge (chistka
) of Party members before renewing their Party card. This, at that time, was a regular procedure and I remember our group going through it in the GIK. Each member of the Party had to stand in front of the audience, like at a Salvation Army meeting, and confess his or her sins for the last year and what he had done to prove himself a good Party member. If he passed the Purge Committee then he was given his new Party card. While he was working in the Ukrainian Embassy in Berlin in the early 1920s, Dovzhenko didn’t have a committee in Berlin and
he had to send his card to the Kharkov Committee. He did this, but heard no more.
Then, on his return later, he found that he had been expelled from the Party for not passing the Purge Committee. He insisted that he had sent in his papers. They investigated but couldn’t find the papers, therefore his expulsion still stood.5
Dovzhenko heard no more and himself considered his expulsion a formality and an injustice. He said, ‘Can you tell a man from papers only? A man you can judge not by papers but by deeds.’
Then one day, Blakitny called him into his office and said, ‘Sashko, we have found your papers. Your Party papers.’ The papers which two years ago had been sent by Dovzhenko from Berlin to the Party Purge Committee.
‘Well, you can be re-instated,’ said Blakitny.
And he gave the name of a comrade from the Party Control Commission with whom he had spoken and to whom now Dovzhenko should go. So it seems that during those two years Blakitny hadn’t forgotten his friend Sashko and himself had dug into the Archives and asked people, until he had at last found the papers and confirmed the truth of Dovzhenko’s statements, and the basis for his tragic bitterness about it. But it seemed tragically that this last conversation with Blakitny was indeed the last in his life. For in a few days his friend died. However, Sashka had the telephone number of the Control Commission member he was to get on to, but it was always busy, he could never get through to that very busy comrade for at least a week. Finally, however, he was able to meet him. But the meeting was unsuccessful. It only increased the spiritual pain which never left him.
‘Well, I understand you found my papers,’ said Dovzhenko, entering into the cabinet of the high comrade.
‘No,’ said the occupant of the desk. ‘We didn’t find them; they were always here.’
‘Well, nobody knew about it. I was told that I hadn’t sent them, as if I had been lying to the Party.’
‘Well, that was a mistake, they should have been searched for more attentively.’
‘Well, what will happen now?’
‘Well, you’ll have to write and put in an application for acceptance into the Party’
‘But I’ve been a member of the Party since 1920.’
‘How are you a member of the Party?’ said the man behind the desk, in whose voice Sashka heard a haughty disdain. ‘You didn’t pass the Purge Commission.’
‘No, but they lost the papers.’
‘Well, now you see that they are not lost.’
At this Sashka left the room. Sashka never said anything to anybody and the new application he never gave in.
But for Sashka the justice of his cause was so obvious that it seemed stupid to attempt to prove it.
It is significant that Mykola Bazhan, the leading Party activist and poet of the Ukraine, was a lifelong friend of Dovzhenko. He was with him in 1925 when Bazhan worked in the Scenario Department of the Studios of Vufku, from which came brilliant films and directors like Dovzhenko and Vertov. Later Bazhan himself became a high-ranking influence in the Party, but not a word was ever mentioned of what he did to help Dovzhenko in his years of trial and attack from the Personality Cult and Stalin, and his banishment from his native land.
It is significant that when we criticize the philistines of the Central Committee of the Party for not understanding the artistic value of Eisenstein’s, Pudovkin’s or Dovzhenko’s films until they were acclaimed from abroad, so Dovzhenko himself writes that even Maxim Gorky didn’t understand his films. He says:6
With all my deep love and profound respect for the greatest man of our epoch, the greatest master Alexei Maximovich Gorky, still there are a whole number of questions where I cannot agree with him and would like to clarify his position on the cinema front. For me it is even more difficult, for weighing down on me is the low evaluation Alexei Maximovich gave to two of my older pictures. …
And here the article printed in Moscow in 1967 has dots indicating that something has been cut out on his attack on Gorky. It must be realized how brave he was, because it was done at a meeting of writers, composers, artists and workers of the cinema with Maxim Gorky on 10 April 1935, when he was at the height of
his influence and authority in Russia as the protagonist of so-called socialist realism, with the full support of Stalin. But he, like Stalin and the other leaders, didn’t understand the great pictures of Alexander Dovzhenko.
The veteran writer and critic Victor Shklovsky wrote, ‘Dovzhenko’s path of creative achievement was beset with difficulties. How ill equipped we are to acknowledge the infinite value of a genius’s time. How little help we give him as he climbs the path to the future!’7
But though Victor Shklovsky understated the difficulties, he made up for it in the latter part of the statement, for he is mourning the helplessness of a Soviet citizen in the Communist Party society, unable to help even his brother genius in the face of the total dictatorship that controls them equally.
At the famous 1935 film-makers’ conference, which I attended, I remember vividly Dovzhenko’s speech: it was so utterly sincere and dedicated and passionate and truthful; he still had his faith in the Party. He said about the mission of a Soviet artist:8
Everyone knows the speedy growth of our cinema. It was determined by the special attention of the Party. One of a thousand areas and even here the genius of leadership is revealed. In command [of our Socialist state] stands the most advanced, the very best part of our society and of all humanity.
And later in the same speech he said:9
The Party does not allow a state to be built within a state. And that is completely right and lawful. There is no autonomous art or autonomous criticism. The function of leadership in art is taken out of the hands of the individual.
And how wrong they were – for in the end the leadership was
in the ‘hands of the individual’.10
Just like his brother artists Dovzhenko voted wholeheartedly to entrust his whole art, his whole life, the art and life of the whole Soviet people, into these hands ‘of genius.’ Even the very thing Dovzhenko praised, the increase in growth of cinema, was proven untrue – particularly in his own Ukranian film studio.
The Ukrainian Film Productions in Kharkov, Kiev and Odessa were linked-up in a center known as VUFKU, a very experimental and adventurous center until the Communist domination. They
published a journal, Kino
, which kept them informed of avant-garde and other productions in Europe. They encouraged Dziga Vertov and his Kino-Eye Group, now famous as cinéma-vérité
, until he was forced to work in Moscow, and eventual silence. They tried out Mayakovsky’s scenarios until he too could no longer make films. And they gave Dovzhenko his chance of making films, including Zvenigora
, until he too was forced ...