Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson
#40 - JRL 2007-235 - JRL Home
Russia: New 'War and Peace' Plays Up Glorious Past
By Chloe Arnold
Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

MOSCOW, November 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Millions of viewers tuned in to Rossia television on a recent evening to watch the start of the latest interpretation of Tolstoy's classic novel, "War and Peace."

The Russian-Italian co-production, which was filmed in six countries, appears to be the latest product of a mounting national interest in Russia's rich cultural legacy and in making it available to a wider domestic audience.

"I think it's partly a desire to return to the classics and to reinterpret them," says arts critic Viktor Sonkin. "It's also partly commercially driven, because I think the kind of plots provided by the classics are still among the best that you see in current movies or TV series."

In recent years, Russia has seen a spate of television productions of classic novels, including Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Idiot," Boris Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago," and Mikhail Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita."

Just Entertainment?

But political observers say there is more to this week's screening of "War and Peace" than commercialism and entertainment. Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, says it was probably no coincidence that Tolstoy's classic was aired on prime-time television less than a month before the December 2 parliamentary elections.

"There are all sorts of things on television these days that have to do with the campaign, with creating a sense of strong state, a glorious past, and the like," says Lipman. "Of course television is used by the Kremlin, since federal television channels are controlled, to create an appropriate mood for the Russian public prior to the election, and you may suggest that 'War and Peace' is one element of it."

Russians are heading into State Duma polls that look likely to be dominated by Unified Russia. The pro-Kremlin party will have President Vladimir Putin, who enjoys wide popularity, at the top of its candidates list. It is expected to win at least 70 percent of the vote.

Critics say state controls on the three main television networks mean the vote will not be free and fair. There have already been accusations that rival parties are not being given enough broadcast time. But some observers say the Kremlin's manipulation of the airways is more sophisticated.

Working With History

Last year, President Putin was accused of being behind an order for school history texts to be rewritten. The new books portray the Soviet leader Josef Stalin as a great statesman and gloss over the system of state terror, labor camps, and forced starvation that he used to advance his aims.

Now it's being suggested that the historical background to "War and Peace" -- the Russian army's victory over Napoleon's troops in 1815 -- fits well with Putin's drive to portray today's Russia as a great power.

"This is an undisputed victory of the Russian people; this is the undisputed masterpiece of Russian literature," Lipman says. Manipulating history is nothing new, she adds -- but in Russia this manipulation is being monopolized.

"If we had political competition and each party could pick its own bits and pieces of Russian history to endorse its message to the nation, I think this would be OK," Lipman says. "What makes it look not OK is that it is only the Kremlin that may use a media outlet such as federal television, which is several networks with basically 100 percent outreach to pursue its political goals."