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1st August, 2020

By Andrei Tarkovsky - Vectorized from DVDBeaver screenshot, Public Domain,

Every musician that Shostakovich was at the Moscow Conservatory with in one particular year was shot. Every one, on Stalin’s orders. And when he asked… why he’d been spared, Stalin said, ‘Shostakovich can write film music. We need film music. Because we need film. Because with film we can go straight into the mind of the masses!’.

Jonathan Bowden, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg: Leni Riefenstahl’s Heir

The Soviet authorities spat on my soul.

Andrey Tarkovsky

The Soviet Union was a wretched curse on mankind. Its fanatical Communist ideology crushed the spirit of its people and ultimately murdered millions of them. In terms of culture, there is no better example of its nihilism than the treatment of its artists although, paradoxically, great art still emerged from this failed human experiment despite rather than because of the Soviet authorities. As Britain and the USA creep ever closer to a censorious, cultural surveillance state resembling the USSR, it is instructive to look at one work of art and the story of its creation.

In 1979, Russian film-maker Andrey Tarkovsky released Stalker, a film based on one section of a science-fiction novel called Roadside Picnic, written by two brothers, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. This is the story of how both works of art were created despite the best efforts of the Soviet authorities. It may teach us something.

Stalker is an acknowledged masterpiece of what used to be called ‘art-house cinema’, a genre which could now usefully be defined as those films which are rendered unwatchable to anyone who has undergone a prolonged exposure to Hollywood. Modern cinema is built around rapid jumps and short scenes. Stalker contains 142 shots in its 163 minutes. As with all of Tarkovsky’s work, it troubled the kommissars.

The Soviet film authority, the notorious Goskino (Central State Photo-Music Enterprise), was set up in 1922, around the same time as the Soviet Union came into being, as a priority. It would restrict showings of Stalker (and Tarkovsky’s previous film, the semi-autobiographical Mirror) because of their ‘strange use of language’. They were both ‘philosophical’ films. Tarkovsky was known for his directorial control as well as working through many changes of script. Each one had to be presented to the Goskino.

Stalker was the last film Tarkovsky would make in his homeland, which revered him sufficiently after his death to feature him on a postage stamp. For his part, Tarkovsky was bitter about leaving, saying that he ‘felt like a Russian, but not a Soviet’. Although he made two more films, Nostalgia and Sacrifice, the director never returned from his expatriate home in Italy.

Stalker was Tarkovsky’s second foray into science fiction, a genre he stated he disliked (with the curious exception of Terminator), having previously adapted Polish author Stanislav Lem’s Solaris. Stalker is a science-fiction film with no special effects. He had hated Kubrick’s 2001, and was determined not to replicate the gleaming futuristic style for Solaris, producing a rusted, low-tech look which would certainly go on to influence Blade Runner, among others, and saying of 2001, ‘let’s make our space-station look like a broken-down bus’.

Stalker achieves the sense of the uncanny necessary to good science-fiction entirely by suggestion. Both book and film have as a central theme a mysterious ‘Zone’ left by an extra-terrestrial visitation, deadly and now home to alien detritus of value to the authorities and others. Troops entered but never returned, and now only desperate men known as ‘stalkers’ guide those who wish to enter. Travelling through this cursed land, the stalker explains that ‘in the Zone, the longer the way, the less risk’. It is a warning that could be applied to the production of art under the Soviet regime.

Artistic censorship and the Soviet Union are inseparable. Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin may have had ideological differences – Trotsky’s led to his assassination by Stalin – but the rigid control over art in all its forms was not one of them. It was not always direct censorship which lessened a film’s impact. When Tarkovsky’s debut, Ivan’s Childhood, won the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1962, one might think the Soviet authorities would grandstand the fact. Instead, worried the film might be seen as pacifist and so fail to meet their tough Cold War rhetoric, the programmers marketed it as a children’s film and showed it only in the morning. Tarkovsky was well aware that film was vital to Soviet propaganda, and that Goskino could be at their most intrusive at the editing stage. As the director pointed out, a poet requires only pencil and paper to produce art (his father Arseny was a poet, and Tarkovsky used a beautiful poem of his in Stalker), and cuts and changes are not too taxing. With cinema, this is about as different as it is artistically possible to get. Tarkovsky learned to shoot extra-long scenes – even for him – so when cuts were suggested he could seem simply to be following orders.

The film itself, however, was one of cinema history’s most troubled productions, and may even have killed its director and some crew members. As we shall see, the curse that seemed to lie on its production was in fact the curse of the old Soviet Union, which did not need to actively censor its artists, but whose wretched nature was enough to hobble and even kill them.

The film had to be shot three times. The second reels simply lacked the magic Tarkovsky knew he could produce, but the first shoot was marred by technical problems. The film stock the units were using was Kodak 5247, a new film stock, more or less in its experimental stages, and the first development of the film came back with a deep green shading to every shot. Kodak 5247 would go on to be very popular for dark science fiction movies, including Alien, Blade Runner and Black Rain, but this being the Soviet Union, Tarkovsky’s stock was faulty and there were even whispers that it was sabotaged.

But the Zone was to prove a more deadly territory. The second shoot, which Tarkovsky rejected on artistic grounds, had been shot in an abandoned hydro-electric plant in Estonia, with the final and familiar film mostly shot in and around two similar plants. But some of the scenes before the entry into the Zone were shot at an old chemical plant near the centre of Tallinn. Years later, Alexander Solonitsyn, a favourite actor of Tarkovsky’s who plays the Writer in Stalker, Tarkovsky’s wife (who had been furious to lose the part of the stalker’s wife to another actress), and Tarkovsky himself all died from illnesses almost certainly related to time spent in close proximity to hazardous chemical waste. There is a scene in the final cut from the first shoot, showing a noxious red foam covering a river, effluent waste from a pulp plant upriver. The Soviet Union, with no care for health and safety or ecology, had struck again.

But despite the gruesome Soviet machine, the world of cinema has Stalker. As a film, it is certainly not everyone’s cup of chai, but those who love it, amid dreary Hollywood pap with its comic-book franchises and increasingly ‘woke’ screeds, treat it with a reverence shared only among the pantheon of cinematic artistic giants such as Bergman, Welles and Tarkovsky’s favourite, Bresson. But what of its source, what of the novel Roadside Picnic? As you might expect, it too had a difficult rite of passage.

The premise of Roadside Picnic is that earth has been visited by aliens who did not themselves stay, but left instead an area of countryside forever altered, and called by the authorities ‘the Zone’. Cordoned off, the area contains various types of mysterious objects, things which defy earthly physics and become much prized. The government wants them for research, both ethical and nefarious. Collectors want them for curiosity value and financial gain. Others want these blasphemous things destroyed. The only individuals able to access these powerful curios and enter and leave the Zone and brave its deadly unpredictability are stalkers.

These are men on the cusp of sanity, surrounded by dark myth, who fear, respect and yearn for a return to the Zone, and we follow stalker Redrich Schuhart for three of the book’s four sections as he plunders a fabulous and deadly treasure trove, always searching for the ultimate alien artefact, the legendary Golden Sphere, which will grant the innermost desire of its finder, whether he wants it or not…

The novel is about the impotence of science in the face of mystery, and how, when science cannot explain, it becomes scared. Explanation is what science does. The effects of the Zone are not limited to its barricaded territory. The stalkers have mutant children. Curious and terrible things happen to those who move away from the Zone, as well as to the areas they move to and the innocent people in those areas. And always the inventory of mysterious and inexplicable objects grows as the stalkers return with their plunder.

This is the beauty of the book. It is about the search for meaning with absolutely no clues whatsoever. Everything about the Visitation is a conundrum, including the almost erotic yearning of the stalkers to return to the Zone. Take one of the objects, the highly prized ‘empty’ (which does not feature in the film).

An empty is composed of two copperish discs a couple of feet apart, as though they were the two ends of a cylinder. But there is nothing in between the discs, a hand can be passed between them although the discs cannot be moved with relation to one another under any force applied. The teasing description of the discarded alien detritus is one of the most entertaining features of the book.

But crafting a masterpiece in any artistic medium in the Soviet Union required talents supplementary to the creative. An afterword to Roadside Picnic is a small diary by Boris Strugatsky detailing the genesis of the novel. It is an extraordinary document in its own right, and a vital insight into the labyrinth of Soviet censorship. But it is also steeped in the humour found in many artists under oppressive regimes. The first and most delightful fact is that the word ‘stalker’ was brought into the Russian language by Arkady Strugatsky as a simple etymological derivation from his favourite novel, Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co., the Englishman’s short novel of artful public schoolboys amid the gathering storms of the First World War.

But it is the struggle with the Soviet censorship board which shows a side to Soviet art which may not be far away in the contemporary West;

‘I’ve preserved a remarkable document: the page-by-page comments on the novel Roadside Picnic by the language editors. The comments span 18 (!) pages and are divided into sections: “Comments concerning the immoral behaviour of the characters”, “Comments concerning physical violence”, and “Comments about vulgarisms and slang expressions”.’

One comical feature of the sub-divisions of the Soviet censorship machine was its fondness for titles which might themselves have benefited from the editor’s pen. The Strugatskys had to deal with both The Central Committee of the All-Union Young Leninist Communist League and The Department of Culture of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. These people were ‘the Soviet ideological fauna, rulers of destinies, deciders of fates’.

Roadside Picnic took eight years to pass through the hyper-editorial ‘spiteful commentary’ of these ideological fauna, despite Strugatsky considering that the novel ‘certainly didn’t contain any criticism of the existing order and, on the contrary, seemed to be in line with the reigning anti-bourgeois ideology’. But as the great anti-Communist essayist of our own times, Theodore Dalrymple, has written, ‘In my study of Communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of Communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate…’ The point is not, or not only, to produce state-approved literature, but to make the writers know better than he knows himself who are the rulers and who the ruled.

The various nit-pickers who read this brilliant novel came up with 93 problematic comments concerning immoral behavior (most concerning drinking), 36 concerning violence, and a staggering 251 on the subject of slang and vulgar expressions. This from the protectorate of one of the most drunken, violent and linguistically expressive nations in history.

Strugatsky makes a point that echoes down through the decades to our own literary culture, with its cordon sanitaire allowing only the ‘purest’ ideologically unadulterated prose to pass the gate-keepers;

‘It was once said, and very rightly, that a man who is well brought up may read anything. The only people who boggle at what is perfectly natural are those who are the worst swine and finest experts in filth. In their utterly contemptible pseudo-morality they ignore the contents and madly attack individual words’.

Just as we now have an unofficial yet state-sanctioned index prohibitorum relating to what can and cannot be said and shown, so too, as it did with the Strugatsky brothers and who knows how many countless other authors, this will inevitably mean soul crushing, and ‘an incalculable amount of nervous energy wasted on trivialities’.

So much for the Soviet Union’s treatment of what became one of its most successful literary science-fiction exports. Today, in the West, novel writing is increasingly policed, but the emphasis is on race – not an issue for a regime interested in a transnational Soviet – and the dirty work is done on behalf of the state by the private sector. Thus, publishing houses on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean now employ ‘sensitivity readers’, apparatchiks who trawl manuscripts for racial quotas and favourable treatment of fictional ethnic minorities. Art can thus only feature content which has been ideologically approved, and cultural artefacts created prior to the present are subject to a strict revisionism.

In the end, the existence against the odds of both Stalker and Roadside Picnic is testament to what we might call the Harry Lime Paradox, as Orson Welles’s portrayal of Grahame Greene’s mercenary drug-dealer in The Third Man explains in a famous scene set on a Ferris wheel that great art comes from troubled cultures, the Renaissance birthed via the reign of the Medicis, the cuckoo-clock standing for the Swiss.

Soviet censorship of art was all-consuming, and it cannot be denied that contemporary Western governments, and their water-carriers in the ‘entertainment industry’, are moving towards a state closer to that of the former USSR rather than further away. And this forced jurisdiction is an expression of power rather than any consideration for victimised minorities as pretended. Thus freedom dies, by increments. The artist should be king in his own domain. But, as the Writer says to the stalker, ‘here, in the Zone, you think you are a god’.

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