Tina Poglajen
Poglajen is a freelance film critic who lives and works in Berlin.

STALIN, RUSSIA: Through interviews, observations and archival footage, this documentary explores the present baffling and widespread reverence of Stalin.

The Red Soul

Jessica Gorter

The Netherlands, 2017

Until the 1960s, the map of the Russian territory was covered with dots marking the locations of the GUlag run forced labour camps that held a wide range of convicts – from petty thieves to political prisoners, the number of which peaked under the rule of Joseph Stalin. Millions of people who were imprisoned have disappeared forever without a trace, despite their families’ efforts to uncover what happened to them. The camps and their prisoners – who were often being worked to death – were responsible for building much of today’s Russia, especially the major industrial cities of the Russian Arctic, such as Norilsk, Vorkuta and Magadan.

Human bones can still be easily found lying on the ground at the places their bodies were dumped. How is it then possible that a great deal of people in Russia still see Joseph Stalin as a hero of the Russian people, rallying on the streets of Russian cities to show their support for his vision of Russia with his portraits in their arms? As one interviewee asserts at some point in the documentary: Stalin supporters make up more than half of the population.

A Russian communist holds placards with portraits of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin during a rally to celebrate International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day in Moscow May 1, 2012. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov (RUSSIA – Tags: SOCIETY CIVIL UNREST POLITICS BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT) – RTR31G68

«Gorter sets out to explore how it’s possible that so many in Russia still see Stalin as a hero.»

Intriguing people. In search of an answer Gorter interviews, observes and uses archival footage of a fitting array of people, each astonishing in their own way. In the film we encounter the secret Stalin regime nostalgists of rural Russia and old ladies bringing flowers and convening at the statues of Joseph Stalin in the city. We also meet children of people that were sent to the Gulag camps in the Stalinist era for no particular reason, who are still reluctant to condemn the regime today. Moreover, we meet the guests of a television programme debating the pros and cons of Stalin’s politics, and youth gathering at a pro-Russian celebration in Crimea. Among others, Gorter interviews a Stalin devotee with his own museum dedicated to the former Soviet leader, who answers her questions defensively, but defiantly. Finally we get to know a class of teenagers who find discussing the country’s past with their families a taboo topic, and their teachers who have a hard time refraining from passing judgement. Sprinkled in between are interviews with people trying to establish the harsh realities of the Stalin regime in the public conscience, finding their work to be almost completely unsupported by the contemporary Russian state – perhaps coming off as a bit redundant, since the audiences of the film (presumably outside Russia) probably don’t need any convincing of the repressiveness of Stalin’s regime (or the state of the country’s politics today).

Not brave enough. It is too bad that The Red Soul is not a film brave enough to forgo asserting the familiar in favour of foregrounding entirely that which we don’t hear about often enough, if ever. I wish the film were completely dedicated to exploring the psyche of the contemporary Stalinists, who are undoubtedly the heart and soul of
the film. Thanks to the people we meet in the film, The Red Soul is truly an engaging documentary. Unfortunately it is only so as far as they are. A mix between the classic expository mode and participatory documentary, the film would perhaps have benefitted from a bit more boldness in the formal sense as well, especially taking into account the fascinating subject it deals with. The film itself is easily associated with its own brand of style and aesthetics. Contentwise The Red Soul – while trying to find the answer to its question – seems to stay on the surface of the problem, failing to explore in depth how the answer might be found in the present rather than the past.

«Thanks to the people we meet in the film, The Red Soul is truly an engaging documentary.»

Comparative aspect missing. The film hints somewhat at an uncanny parallel between the traits of the personality and politics of Joseph Stalin – as underlined by his fanatic and nostalgic admirers – and the state of Russian politics of today: Stalin had, in their opinion, won the war, enlarged Russia and made it a superpower; he had been a strong
leader, and “a strong government with a strong leader can achieve anything.” It is a similar argument to that made today by Vladimir Putin’s supporters, who celebrate the way Russian politics seeks to emulate the former Soviet Union’s grandeur, belligerence and expansionism, and who revel in Putin’s personality defined by toughness and open machismo; even seeing Putin as “the king” who put an end to the reign of chaos. What the film leaves unaddressed however, is how explicit the connections between the leader of the most famous communist state in history and today’s leader of a post-transitional country who lauds economic libertarianism, the country being seen by some as a private moneymaking organisation rather than a state. Gorter does not investigate why Putinism has been linked to Stalinism in the media several times, the changing image of Stalinism and explicit growing of nostalgia for Stalin under Putin, and the fact that Putin himself has refrained from criticizing Stalin’s legacy. The film is thereby, perhaps, missing an important point about the interconnectedness of repressive and authoritarian regimes in general.