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C. Stephen Evans
When I began teaching modern world literature I wrote to the cultural attaches of several embassies in Washington, asking them what they thought my students should read. The PLO Fed-Ex'd me a box of hardcover books. The South Koreans put me in touch with several editors and translators. The Soviets never answered. Not a peep. A Sovietologist finally told me, "Those Commies will never answer. They're afraid they might say the wrong thing and end up like Ivan Denisovich."
Recently I interviewed Sergei Bodrov, whose Academy Award-nominee Prisoner of the Mountains (now in American theaters) was Russia's number-one film last summer. Sitting in my classroom, he told my students that some of the Russian generals in the Chechen war were stupid. Such candor would have resulted in his quick disappearance a few short years ago.
Indeed, his fine film couldn't have been made during the Afghan war in the eighties. (To be perfectly fair, a similar film couldn't have been made in America during the Vietnam War. With the notable exception of John Wayne's unintentional parody The Green Berets, the American film industry avoided the topic until long after that war was over.) But Russia has changed.
Prisoner of the Mountains is an updated version of Leo Tolstoy's poignant short story "Prisoner of the Caucasus," written nearly 150 years ago. "It's really the same war," Bodrov says. "But Tolstoy had been a soldier in the Russian army, and he saw it from the Russian point of view. I wanted to show the conflict from a more ambiguous perspective."
Remembering the bitter cultural polarization Americans suffered during Vietnam, I asked him if Russians questioned his patriotism. "A few nationalists were very upset with the movie," he admitted, "but most Russians saw it as a reflection of a tragedy. Chechnya is part of Russia, but the generals who got us into this latest war behaved stupidly. They went in and brutally provoked the Chechens, then tried to fight the war with raw, untrained soldiers. ...