“A Delicate Matter”


Still from 'The Forty-First'

Nomads, Wilderness, and the Soviet Mind

There figure into the mythology of a wide variety of cultures marginalized people who embody Otherness and a pure, essentialized humanity. These run the gamut from extinct to thriving, mythic to moribund: Native Americans in Westerns, Nishadas and Adivasis in Vedic literature, Romani people in British and French drama. In the case of Soviet cinema, these symbols often take the form of people still very much alive and active, namely nomadic cultures whose ways of life were, and still are, precariously close to being absorbed by modernization and the overriding powers of the state.

In Soviet films, nomads may be linked to themes of wilderness, warfare, and political struggle on the margins of the Russian empire. They inhabit desert, forest, mountain, and tundra, with ways of life sometimes mysterious, and cultural mores that do not fit easily into the boundaries of a worker’s society. Their representation often exhibits an age-old and ambivalent relationship between the Russians (who have, for so long, largely inhabited villages and cities) and the people of Central Asia, whom they long viewed as untamed and ungovernable. In Soviet depictions they are, true to their transient lifestyle, never seen from a fixed point, inhabiting multiple paradigms and metaphors at once, and acting as a canvas for both the fears and the admiration of the Soviet people as they continue the push of hegemony inherited from the time of the Tsars. Where nomads are seen in Soviet cinema, it is often with a combination of paternalism and exclusion. Like Native Americans in Westerns, they act as the imperial ‘Other’ – in this case, required to exist within the boundaries of Russia and, necessarily, outside of them at the same time.

In this article, the term “Soviet” is usually a stand-in for “Russian,” as all of the films mentioned are largely based in Russian cultural identity, none of them originating in the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union that they depict.

Storm Over Asia

Soviet Union / 1928 / Silent

Directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin

With Valéry Inkijinoff, I. Dedintsev, Aleksandr Chistyakov

Pudovkin’s silent-era epic Storm Over Asia is distinctive for having a protagonist who is from a nomadic background. In the film a young Mongolian man named Bair leaves his family’s yurt on the steppe, headed to the nearest town to sell furs. Unaccustomed to the hustle and bustle of civilization, he falls victim to British middlemen who underpay him for the valuable catch he brings. His retaliation against this exploitation incites the other Mongol hunters to revolt, and he is forced to flee from the British.

Still from 'Storm Over Asia'

Storm Over Asia (1928)

Hiding out in the mountains, he gets recruited by the Red army, and accompanies them in their skirmishes with anti-Bolshevik forces. Only later is he caught by the British and sentenced to be executed in a gravel pit. Some officers discover an ancient amulet belonging to him that somehow confirms that he is a direct descendent of Genghis Khan, but he is shot by the executioners before this information can be passed along. Bair survives, and the British decide to use his royal lineage to instate him as one of the army heads in the region.

The filmmakers may be forgiven the major historical error that places British capitalists in Mongolia (their “great game” with Russia misplaced geographically by several hundred miles), as the use of Russians or Soviets, the real subjugators, in that role would have brought censorship and worse. But as a propaganda film it serves, in an underhanded way, to turn around and criticize the nation that produced it. While it has the appearance of having an anti-capitalist message, the film comes off more as anti-imperialist.

The connection between the steppe nomad and the partisans fighting against the White army is far-fetched and problematic. Bair is hastily drawn into their struggle but one gets the sense that it is a war of which he has little comprehension or vested interest. Nonetheless the scrappy Bolshevik fighters are mostly glorified, until they themselves infringe on the sovereignty of some nomads, sending Bair to commandeer some of their cattle in the name of the cause. This turns out to be a mistake, as it occasions his arrest, and it points to the troublingly proprietorial presence that Russians, regardless of political affiliation, have shown to their Inner Asian neighbors. Many traders who went on expeditions to those republics, of which all but a couple had been brought under Moscow’s control by the late 19th Century,  ended up staying there, which accounts for the distinction “White Russian” existing in far-flung places like Kashgar and Bukhara.

The British commander meets with the newly ascendant Lama, a toddler sitting on his throne. Shots of the officer and his wife suiting up in their evening attire are cut with the Buddhist monks adorning themselves in masks and animal costumes for the upcoming cham dance. Bair the Mongol becomes another cog in the British military’s “contract colonialism” that characterized their forays in India (where the steady growth of both economic control and cultural insinuation built up to outright domination by the late 18th Century) and China, whom they never ruled but whose strings they pulled using tea, silver, and opium.

Still from 'Storm Over Asia'

Storm Over Asia (1928)

Storm Over Asia points to a certain residual apprehension of Russians towards Central Asian nomadic groups, one that persisted since the late 13th Century, when the Mongol empire spanned from the Korean peninsula all the way to the Mediterranean, the czars of the West basically acting as vassals of the ruling khan. As Russia and Mongolia have had a complex and interrelated history in the time since then, this is less a fear of a foreign nationality occupying the frontier, and more the basic wariness of sedentary society for the pastoral nomad. Peter C. Purdue, in his seminal account of Chinese incursion into Mongolia and Xinjiang, China Marches West, compares the Russians to the Manchus, noting that both were forest-dwelling civilizations who came out of the woods with imperial aspirations, and that initially neither were well suited to the politics of the steppe.

To negate the outdated notion that the nomad’s is an existence that precedes the development agriculture, one needs only to observe the similarity between the Eurasian grasslands and the great plains of North America, where, after millennia of cultivation, the farmers largely died out and were survived by herdsman, who were much better-adapted to the harsh ecosystems there. By the time the Mongols marched west towards Europe, the Russians were no strangers to nomadic populations, having had historical relationships with Kazakh, Sami, Kalmyk and others. But no leaders up until that point had been as savvy or as ambitious as Genghis Khan. The British officers in Storm Over Asia seem to be exploiting this assumed predisposition for autocracy when they enlist Bair as the masthead for their puppet regime. With his help they play the royalist, geopolitical card, and with the Great Lama, the religious.

Owen Lattimore’s adage that “the poor nomad is the pure nomad,” while perhaps directly referring to the need for steppe cultures to supplement herding with some amount of agriculture, also speaks to the concurrent necessity that raids hold in nomadic survival. Raids are not the precise equivalent of theft, as it exists in settled cultures of the city. The strictly nomadic societies are not as strong and adaptable as ones who have integrated the people and economies of non-steppe frontier lands, hence the invasion and absorption of a wide range of regions and cultures. Nomads generally resist outside religions or, like the Tuareg or Kyrgyz, adopt one nominally and still keep their own beliefs. (Bruce Chatwin surmises that the act of picking up and moving regularly is their religion, comprising a lifestyle of ritual). What could be construed as stealing and opportunism may be more a reflection of an eternal need, regardless of how much material wealth one has acquired, to gain more, as tomorrow may begin a period of scarcity of unknown duration. Lattimore, a well-traveled authority on Central Asian cultures, pictures the individual nomad’s home as an alternately swelling and deflating sphere of acquisition. Contrary to this image, the Mongolians in the film are portrayed as guileless, economical, and trusting.

Still from 'Storm Over Asia'

Storm Over Asia (1928)

Purdue asserts that contemporary historians tend to “avoid the Eurocentric and colonialist premises of nationalist historiography that saw the Mongols as nothing more than cruel Asiatics or a gang of bandits. Certainly the initial impact of the Mongols on all Eurasian states was destructive, but after the conquest, the Mongols promoted the revival of the caravan trade, from which Russian princes profited greatly.” The Mongolian empire’s remote rule over Muscovite settlements meant that they had greater influence and lasted longer than they did in Persia or China, as their officers got to keep the warrior way of life that they knew, and also did not have the complex urban systems to which they could become attached and gradually lose their inherited abilities. In other words, there wasn’t much reciprocal influence coming from dominated Russian territories to debase Mongolian values. To the invaders of the film, the British capitalists, the landscape of the steppe represents the residual, dormant power of Genghis’ empire, becoming a monstrous symbol of wild unattainability.

In his essay Nomad Invasions, Chatwin notes that, “isolated groups of hunters are interlinked in a network of reciprocal trading agreements and marriage alliances with their neighbours. Fights flare up when – and only when – the parity of these exchanges is broken. Thus ‘primitive’ war and nomadic insurgency cannot meaningfully be compared to one another.” The nomad reverts to violence when his or her movement is blocked – which is precisely what happens in Storm Over Asia, although Bair seems quite unaware of it at first, enjoying his newly bestowed authority. But it all happened so fast for him, as, barely recovered from the shock and relief of having escaped execution, he is, with equal swiftness, dressed in his new, imperial uniform.

The Siberian-born lead actor in the film Valéry Inkijinoff fixes his captors with an enigmatic smile and a knowing gaze directed from an indistinct point behind his mixed Russian and Buryat eyes, seemingly over an expanse of miles. Being a mixture himself he is quite a fitting choice as the unpacified yurt-dweller brought into the inner echelons of European frontier society. He looks simultaneously like the colonizer’s trouvaille and worst nightmare, an air of loyal complacency concealing his cold loathing for them. He has taken in more than a bit of Marxist ideology, and that, coupled with his past experiences with the British, has curdled his view of capitalism for good. He sheds any notion of the pure or the greedy nomad and takes on a higher cause. On no uncertain terms does Pudovkin liken the tendencies of the Mongolian man’s revered ancestor to those of imperialists in the 20th Century. This is why Bair eventually rebels against the prestige of his own lineage and against the politics of requisition.


Soviet Union / 1929 / Silent

Directed by Victor Turin

Still from 'Turksib'

Turksib (1929)

A motorcar carrying Soviet surveyors rattles through the desert and arrives at the camp of a Turkic tribe, the people gathered outside their yurts and eying the car with suspicion. One of the Russian intruders gets out and greets the people in their own language. The Russians all wear goggles and look quite alien to the nomads, whom they soon have smiling, laughing, and curiously trying out their strange instruments, as though the two groups were old friends, just separated by a few millenia of distinct geographic destiny and technological development, not to mention millions of square miles of life-swallowing desert. Nonetheless, as the surveyors drive off again into the steppe, the nomads still refer to the car as a “devil wagon” – meant to show how unknown (and thus frightening) modern technology is to them, but also foreshadowing the effect it will have on their lives when the Soviets to their land return with machinery and railway sleepers.

Victor Turin’s dynamic, rapidly-cut propaganda film Turksib, chronicling the construction of the Turkestan-Siberia railroad, certainly lends a “short, brutal and harsh” image to its depiction of nomadic life. In one scene a small group of Kazakh herdsman being buried alive, along with their camels, by a horrible sandstorm. The film shows an idealized ‘coming together’ of many disparate cultures for a single economic cause, for the good of the entire federation. Nomads make a long journey by horse, camel, and sled, to work alongside Uzbek cotton growers and Russian engineers. Each of the different groups has its own expertise (or manpower, animal power, resources, etc.) to lend and, as if drawn by a monolithic magnet, lend it they do. In this benevolent view of Soviet-Nomad relations, Turin seeks to both justify Soviet expansionism (it creates a better life for those on the outer margins) and also make Central Asian people seem less threatening and mysterious to Russian audiences, rather than a hindrance to that dream of conquering industry and geography.

Nestled not quietly within the film is the notion that nomads can mend their ways (“adapt” or “evolve” may be better words for it), taking their learned skills beyond the selfish continuation of the tribe, and use them to help the greater good, elevating themselves and other neighboring societies to transcend lives consisting mainly of survival.

The Forty-First

Soviet Union / 1956 / Russian

Directed by Grigori Chukhrai

With Izolda Izvitskaya, Oleg Strizhenov, Nikolai Kryuchkov

“In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves, but in Asia we are masters. In Europe we were Tatars, but in Asia we too are Europeans.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1881

Still from 'The Forty-First'

The Forty-First (1956)

Based on a novel by Boris Lavrenyev, The Forty-First focuses on a female soldier in revolutionary times, a sniper named Maria. She is the star of her regiment, having picked off forty White combatants. On a march through the Karakum desert, she wounds but does not manage to kill her forty-first victim, the suave and sultry, blonde-haired aristocrat Vadim. Maria is put in charge of the captive as the band of Bolsheviks make their way to a ship awaiting them on the shore of the Aral Sea. Gradually she sheds her gruff exterior as she gets to know the man better, falling for his charms in spite of their political differences. All the while they are being pursued by the heartless and severe regimen of enemy nationalist soldiers who exploit the land and people as they progress.

The Red officers, strapped for resources in the punishing desert, are neither pure nor are they particularly bright when it comes to survival. Out of necessity they take the camels from a group of Kazakh herdsmen whom they meet. One of the nomads implores the soldiers not to, saying that being without his camel is tantamount to death for a Kazakh. In the morning the soldiers awaken to find the camels stolen and the local translator murdered. The moral ambiguity of how they engage with their foreign environment is very much apparent in their interactions with the local population, and communists are not entirely glorified as they would be in many contemporary works.As the cinematography goes, there is nothing quite like it to be found in any other film; the burlap textures of the characters’ weathered clothing and faces come through in perfect relief, their eyes, looking like faded scratches in stone, squinting against punishing wind. The desert appears simultaneously vast and claustrophobic, seen in frames pulled into a fish-eye vortex, surrounded by a penumbra of darkness. The clammy and metallic color palate is interrupted only by the brilliant vermillion and magenta of the Kazakh women’s clothing. Their camp is a friendly and rollicking place filled with music, briefly taking the focus away from the somber love story developing between Maria and her captive.

Still from 'The Forty-First'

The Forty-First (1956)

Of course the main thrust of the film lies in its examination of human desire and the immovability of ideology, as seen in the seemingly inexorable rift between the two romantic leads. But something must be said for its treatment of the nomadic people that it depicts, for while it is rich with cultural detail and local flair, they are very much used as an element of the background, intractable and unknowable as the desert itself. Despite this there is an interchange more rich and varied than the out and out subjugation shown in Storm Over Asia.

The soldiers, at least the Red soldiers, in the film, are in a similar situation to that of the nomads, left without material or cultural dominance in the region. As a result they are very much at their mercy, and rely on them for aid and kindness. They see the Kazakh people they meet as simple, childlike, and inscrutable. But this is very much the soldiers’ problem, although their native companions probably see them in the same way, and the filmmakers themselves are remarkably careful not to make such crude reductions. The native herdsmen are neither a threat nor are they complacent, but rugged, independent, and innocent of Western corruptions, at least until a band of them goes to the White soldiers for help. The impact that the passing armies has on them is a preview of future incursions, though the question, of how the nomadic life could continue unchanged even after the revolution, does not arise.

White Sun of the Desert

Soviet Union / 1970 / Russian

Directed by Vladimir Motyl

With Anatoli Kuznetsov, Spartak Mishulin, Kakhi Kavsadze

Still from 'White Sun of the Desert'

White Sun of the Desert (1970)

With a story more closely related to its location, White Sun of the Desert shares The Forty-First’s Karakum setting, with the waters of vast inland seas lapping at all-consuming tracts of sand. But here the desert is blindingly bright, and the film itself is considerably more heartwarming. A returning Red army officer named Sukhov, traversing the desert on his own, dreaming of his beautiful wife and idyllic life by the Volga, finds himself in the company of a detachment of his fellow fighters. They have just taken over the household of a retreating warlord named Abdullah, and leave Sukhov in charge of the man’s nine wives who were left behind. Meanwhile Abdullah is collaborating with the White army forces in the region, intent on winning back his land and harem. Sukhov sets out across the desert headed for the sea, accompanied by the burqa-clad women, a young soldier named Petrukha, and a local brigand named Sayid, whom he found buried in the sand up to his chin at the start of the film.

On the face of it, the Bolshevik soldiers are coming in to free the women from a repressive social order. However Sukhov, considerably more mercenary and individualist in his outlook, is also more sensitive than his comrades to the plurality of beliefs. He sounds idealistic in the letters that he writes to his wife, certain that “worldwide liberation” is close at hand. But at the same time, in aiding Sayid, he is encouraging his feudal vendetta against the enemy Dzavdhet, who had buried him and left him to die. He doesn’t lecture the man on ideological points, perhaps because he himself couldn’t put them into pertinent or accessible terms.

Sukhov tells Abdullah’s wives that he is liberating them, but it’s not what they want, and they start insisting that he, Sukhov, is their new husband. “East is a delicate matter,” he famously sighs, summing up the Soviet ambivalence towards the many backwards groups that completed their multiethnic patchwork empire. It is a delicate matter, of the type that many pretend does not exist. Few are willing to address the complications inherent in placing so many disparate cultures under a unified doctrine. Progressive societies do not invade their neighbors but rather, consolidate to the margins what they perceive to be their natural or God-given territory. Thus people in the Soviet Union, their consciences light because of the perceived rightness of agressive occupation, still wanted ways to make sense of the various ethnic groups to the East that they called countrymen.

Even by 1970 these issues were not far from the minds of the heads of state in Russia, where the film is still adored as a classic and watched religiously by new recruits to the army. White Sun of the Desert bases itself on even broader caricatures than does The Forty-First, here making the Muslim characters (closer to Bedouin than the herders of the steppe) either helpless and childlike, or conniving and monstrous in their practices. Sayid is a little bit of both, but with an air of tough individuality that satisfies the film’s cowboy overtones.

Still from 'White Sun of the Desert'

White Sun of the Desert (1970)

The popularity of White Sun of the Desert does not, of course, hinge on its realism, but on its lighthearted, accessible depiction of invasion and cultural hegemony. It is rife with comic misunderstandings stemming from culture clash, and attempts to promote tolerance by mostly ignoring the negative results of hindering traditional cultures only to supplant them with modern ideology. Along with The Forty-First, it promotes the inclusion of preexisting societies, ones which are neither proletarian nor intensively agrarian, into the fold of communism. But the chaff must be separated from the useful wheat; the villainous polygamist Abdullah is to be stopped at all costs, but the heroic Sayid, a frontier vigilante, is allowed to continue adhering to laws (or from a Western standpoint, lawlessness) dictated by tradition. The Soviet leaders, like Sukhov in the film, evade responsibility for tearing down cultures while laying the blame entirely on the Tsarists and other reactionaries.

Dersu Uzala

Soviet Union / 1975 / Russian & Chinese

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

With Maksim Munzuk, Yuri Solomin, Svetlana Danilchenko

An unusual film for Kurosawa, Dersu Uzala (an adaptation of the best-selling memoir by Vladimir Arsenyev) was filmed in the Soviet Union with a Russian cast. Set around the turn of the 20th Century, it centers on a Russian topographic expedition, led by Arsenyev, who meets with an old, bearded Nanai (called ‘Goldi’ in the film) hunter named Dersu. While the other members of the team dismiss the man as silly, superstitious, and backwards, Arsenyev is impressed with his skills at trapping and survival.

Dersu proves his abilities by getting the expedition out of numerous pickles, even saving their lives on occasion. He is like a wilderness detective, able to tell the number and nationality of the people who have trudged through the forest before them. He becomes very close with Arsenyev, and the two share some traumatic adventures together. Dersu is gentle and principled. Money is worthless to him; he is the antithesis of modern.

Still from 'Dersu Uzala'

Dersu Uzala (1975)

Arsenyev runs into Dersu on subsequent journeys over the years. After inadvertently wounding a tiger with his musket, Dersu, thinking that he killed the animal, becomes despondent and irritable for the rest of the journey. Only later does he encounter the tiger once again, during a ghostly storm that recalls the hallucinatory passages of Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970), as it appears in a radiant vision that teases his failing eyesight. For the first time in an otherwise naturalistic film it is as though we are seeing things from Dersu’s subjective standpoint, implying a sort of mysticism to his knowledge of the natural world. Aging and weather-beaten, Dersu grudgingly accepts that he can no longer competently hunt, and agrees to live with Arsenyev at his home in the city, a place that is completely alien and where Dersu cannot continue his aboriginal practices.

The story is as much about environmentalism as it is about humanity, sensitivity, and cultural understanding. Dersu’s decline is linked inextricably with the destruction of the forest. When Arsenyev visits his friend’s grave at the start of the film, the area around it is unrecognizable to him now, the taiga reduced to a feeding ground for bulldozers and timber mills. In the past, he may have viewed all this as a sign of progress, but now he looks at it through Deru’s eyes, and feels the loss. The maps that he worked on are a symbol of dominance and reduction, not the elemental understanding of the wilderness expressed by the hunter’s lifestyle.

The essential difference between Dersu and the other nomadic or semi-nomadic characters who appear in the films mentioned here is that he was not born into a long-surviving culture of nomadism. He is something of an anomaly, having become transient by a combination of choice and circumstance. He reveals to Aresnyev that he became a wanderer when a fire consumed his yurt, killing his wife and child. This pegs him as an eccentric and a hermit but his position is still, in many ways, analogous to that of the Inner Asian nomads who come in contact with such colonial forces as Russia or China. Becoming an archetypal nomad to the book’s Russian and international readers, he also represents the condition of Tungusic people in the modern world. In her book The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia, Anna Reid writes that, “even by Arsenyev’s time, wise, loyal Dersus were rare.” The new constructions that cover the hunter’s grave had grown steadily throughout the sub-arctic in the 19th Century and nomads had lost much of their independence.

Owen Lattimore, in Inner Asian Frontiers of China, writes, “most of the system to which the Siberian Tungus once belonged has been destroyed. He is now a living relic, without functional adjustments outside of his limited society and economy. He has a tradition but it no longer connects to anything that works.” Dersu still practices the traditional ways of his people, but there no longer exists a unified society in which he can participate. At the time when the film is set, the Manchurian empire was coming to a close, and someone like Dersu could no longer go South and, with relative ease, become a captain or a general. In the story Nanai culture is represented by an ailing old man with a nonetheless dynamic spirit, and with a rugged independence that indicates little of a once deep and interconnected society that existed in the Siberian forest.

There seem to be few prominent societies existing today that are not located on the territory of people pushed aside, colonized, harassed, or exterminated. Absorbing these people into the arts and lore of the dominant nation is a way of externalizing collective guilt concerning their destruction. Could Kurosawa have adapted the story to Japan in the Edo period? Courtly cartographers meet an Ainu man, who is little-understood but undeniably tied to the land, with a history and culture set apart from those of the invaders. With the help of a Soviet production studio, Kurosawa, who had an obvious love of Russian literature, could work off that latent guilt from a distance. By filming a story set in Siberia,  one of the last frontiers for the Russian empire, he could also make a comment on the tragedy of modernization and our loss of communication with nature. So many films of the time discuss what technology can add to human development, but what about all that which it subtracts? Dersu’s transient existence is meant to seem quite sad, his fate the same as that of the tiger.

Still from 'Dersu Uzala'

Dersu Uzala (1975)

An important point to consider is the question of why so many of the films that include Inner Asian and nomadic characters are set in pre-revolutionary times. Their depiction of otherness, oftentimes hinging on contradictions, assumptions, and misunderstandings, must be relegated to a time in the past, when sensitivities were not as acute, society not as developed, and the varied groups of people inhabiting the land not as integrated. There is an unspoken understanding that the problems and inhumanity that arise from such alien cultures making contact no longer occur in a more civilized communist state. What a film like Dersu Uzala hints at, and what films like The Forty-First and White Sun of the Desert (which are closer in character to propagandist art) mostly ignore, is the continuing cultural and political dominance being exerted throughout the empire.

The Tuvan actor who plays Dersu, Maksim Munzuk, is as good a choice as any, since the character himself was a composite of several different Siberian people Arsenyev knew. The nomad, whether used as a symbol for a vanishing habitat, a paragon of uncomplicated humanity, or a sinister toppler of civilization and empire, has a prominent and special place in the Russian imagination. The one persistent characteristic of the depiction of nomads is their peripheral status, skirting the borders, and difficult to pin down. While in the first three films discussed, they ultimately come off as hardy and impossible to subdue, and presumably continue in their traditional culture, minus the bad and non-progressive aspects. It is only Dersu Uzala, a film without revolutionary or militaristic content, whose hero, his home and environment being gradually destroyed, succumbs to the cruel march of Western civilization.


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