An asymmetrical culture war, fought in the movies

Professor of History Stephen M. Norris reflects on the way the movie industry can affect the political image of a country.

Click to enlarge the cartoon. Drawing by Konstantin Maler

The cover story of the March 3 Time Out Moscow was entitled “America in Moscow: Why Do We Love All Things American?” The issue, which came emblazoned with stars and stripes on the cover, argued that “Moscow has surrendered to America.”

American restaurants are popping up across the city, American fashion and art set trends, and American music fills the airwaves. Above all, Russians flock to Hollywood blockbusters. It’s an intriguing issue, made all the more so because it hit the newsstands just as the Crimean crisis heated up and as the political rhetoric emanating from Moscow condemned American support for the Maidan in Kiev. How strange, therefore, that at the same time Time Out Moscow waved the white flag and praised America’s continued cultural conquest of Russia.

Even odder would be the possibility of Time Out New York publishing an issue that celebrated Russian culture’s successful invasion on these shores. As luck (or fate) would have it, Fedor Bondarchuk’s “Stalingrad,” the largest-grossing movie in Russian history, debuted in the United States at the same time as the Time Out Moscow issue.

Made in expensive Imax 3D and telling an epic World War II tale, the film’s foreign distributors (Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures) hoped the film would draw American audiences. And yet, as has always been the case, the Russian film failed to make much of an imprint at all, bringing in $757,000 in its week-long run. While “Stalingrad” suffered from the fact that it had subtitles, received lukewarm reviews and had a paltry marketing campaign, it also illustrated the deep imprints the cultural Cold War has left.

Bondarchuk’s movie employs often dazzling, sometimes dizzying special effects, particularly in its elaborate battle sequences and in his superb rendering of the ruined city. He also works in many of the ways the war’s meaning has evolved since communism’s collapse, including the focus on a timeless patriotism. While the film is far from great — its 48 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes seems right on the money — this doesn’t fully explain why it failed to make a dent at the American box office after raking in nearly $57 million in its six-week Russian run and opening No. 1 in China, where it earned $8.5 million in its first weekend.

The film’s reception might best be understood as part of the cultural Cold War’s continued legacies. The same weekend “Stalingrad” failed to earn much at the American box office saw “The Lego Movie” and “Pompeii” win in Russia. These failures and triumphs reflect the construction of an “imaginary West” within the Soviet Union and the “asymmetric warfare” fought by film industries as part of the Cold War.

Scholars such as the Berkeley anthropologist Alexei Yurchak have explored how Soviet citizens constructed a vision of “the West” during the Cold War and how Soviet citizens consumed Western popular culture. While the Soviet experiment famously aimed to catch up and overtake the West, this attempt fostered feelings of superiority and inferiority vis-à-vis the West. The Time Out Moscow issue indicates that the allure of the West, its products and its role as a measuring stick remain.

Relatedly, what the film scholar Andrey Shcherbenok has described as “asymmetric warfare” within the larger Cold War also survives. Shcherbenok has written that cinema served as an important battle zone but that, unlike the more or less symmetrical technological and militaristic components of the conflict, this cultural element was strikingly different. American movies proved far more consistent and ultimately more successful in their attempts to characterize the Soviet government and Soviet citizens as brainwashed, evil types bent on world domination.

Soviet movies, however, tended to be on the defensive when taking part in the cultural Cold War, constantly seeking to prove that socialism was viable.

Perhaps no single industry involved with the cultural Cold War illustrated what the historian Michael David-Fox has termed the “ideological overstretch” of the catch-up-and-surpass mentality than the film industry. When communism collapsed, the asymmetry emerged quite clearly. In the case of Bondarchuk’s movie, North American film critics judged it through Cold War lenses: prominent American and Canadian reviewers all labeled the film as “propaganda,” a “Putin spectacle” or “patriotic rebranding.”

The Time Out Moscow issue, when compared to “Stalingrad” in America, indicates that the asymmetry has evolved after 1991 just as the “imaginary West” has. Bondarchuk’s movie openly borrows on Hollywood techniques, but imitation did not prove to be the highest form of flattery. American audiences stayed away and critics interpreted “Stalingrad” as a propaganda piece. Meanwhile, in Moscow, American popular culture continues to conquer.

Stephen M. Norris is Professor of History and Assistant Director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies, Miami University (Ohio).

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