“This is What the Current Government in Russia Would Like to Ban”: Interview with Vladimir Paperny
Cinema, Culture, and the Spirit of the Times (NLO: Moscow, 2023), a new publication by the late film historian Maya Turovskaya and Los Angeles-based culturologist Vladimir Paperny, presents a thoughtful comparative analysis of the Soviet and Hollywood film industries. We are publishing an exclusive translation from one of the book’s key chapters below. Maya Iosifovna Turovskaya (1924–2019), a legendary figure in the world of film and theater criticism who passed away in 2019 at the age of 95, left behind an extraordinary legacy. Her work on the iconic Soviet documentary Triumph Over Violence (dir. Mikhail Room, 1965) offered groundbreaking comparisons between fascism and communism. Later, Turovskaya noticed crucial similarities between Hollywood and Soviet cinema from the 1930s and 1940s that, according to her, transcended national boundaries and reflected what she called the “spirit of the times.” Paperny and Turovskaya shared a profound connection that stretched over years. Meeting Maya at an early age, Vladimir acted in many roles throughout their relationship: as Maya’s friend, literary secretary, student, and eventually as a co-author. In 1992, the two scholars embarked on an ambitious project: to uncover and compare the unique paths of Soviet and American cinema. Initially it was conceived as a documentary film, but due to the copyright restrictions, the project was transformed into a book, from which we are publishing an excerpt. After years spent examining filmographies, Turovskaya and Paperny presented their findings in 2008 at a highly-anticipated seminar hosted by Washington’s Kennan Institute. The results of their research shed new light into two distinct cinematic traditions that shared far more similarities than first believed.
Vladimir Paperny finished and published Cinema, Culture, and the Spirit of the Times four years after Turovskaya’s passing. In doing so, he completed his partner’s unfinished work as a lasting tribute to her memory. The book’s thought-provoking analysis of Soviet and American cinema stands in sharp contrast to Russia’s present anti-American propagandist narrative and represents a valuable asset for understanding complex issues involving the two adversary superpowers of the 20th century.
Sasha Razor: Can you explain the significance of Maya Turovskaya in the history of Soviet cinema and film studies for a Western reader?
Vladimir Paperny: Maya Iosifovna Turovskaya was a great theater critic, film critic, and cultural critic. Her biography is unique. In Moscow, she attended school number 110 named after Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian polar explorer, where the children of Western communists who had escaped the growing Nazism in Europe — the Germans Konrad (Kony) Wolf and Lotar (Lotka) Vloch and the American Victor (Vitya, Vic) Fischer — studied with her. Brought up in the Soviet spirit, many of them were not non- or anti–Communists. The American journalist Louis Fischer, a biographer of Lenin and Gandhi and Vic Fischer’s father, was a Communist. In the famous collection of memoirs by former Communists, The God that Failed, (Richard Grossman, ed., The God that Failed (New York: Harper & Row, 1949).) Fischer spoke frankly about why he became a Communist and why he later stopped being one.
Maya had been in the company of refugee children from Germany and elsewhere from the beginning. She was quite fluent in German and even knew how to write in Gothic script, since as a child she had had an old fashioned nanny (or bonne, as they were traditionally called in Russia) who had taught her German. The experience of the refugees, their view of the world, was passed on to her in this way. Children who had come from these countries could tell her about why they had fled Nazism and what it was all about. These personal connections, plus her talent, intelligence, and insight, resulted in her being able to see the whole world. Her expression, “what’s happening on the ‘ball’ (referring to planet Earth)” could only have occurred to someone who had imagined earth as a “ball” since childhood.
SR: Do you know how her most famous work, the screenplay of Triumph Over Violence (dir. Mikhail Room, 1965) came about?
VP: First of all, I must say that the American translation of the film’s title has nothing to do with the original Russian title. The exact translation of “Obyknovennyi fashism” is “Ordinary Fascism”, not Triumph Over Violence—no triumph occurs in the movie. This “varnishing of reality” shows that the American need for a Happy Ending far exceeded the Soviet one.
The idea for such a documentary could have occurred to many people, and probably did. But as soon as Maya had the idea, she immediately set to work, having obtained permission to watch “the enemy propaganda”, sitting down in the Russian State Archive of Film and Photo Documents in Belye Stolby where she carefully reviewed both Nazi chronicles and Nazi feature films. At a nearby table, she suddenly saw her good acquaintance, the screenwriter and film scholar Yuri Khanyutin (1929-1978), who, as it turned out, was reviewing the same films. They immediately joined forces and wrote a screenplay for the documentary Ordinary Fascism.
In order for a film with such risky content and title to be released in the USSR, it was necessary to find a famous director, preferably even a winner of the Stalin Prize, who would be willing to undertake it. They managed to persuade Mikhail Romm (1901–1971) to read their script. One of the reasons Romm agreed relatively easily was because his last film, Murder on Dante Street (1956), was received coldly by the audience, the press, and officialdom. Turovskaya and Khanyutin invited Romm to Belye Stolby and began showing him feature films. Romm was perplexed. “Where are the fascists in these films,” he asked after the screenings. Maya replied: “People don’t think of themselves, ‘We are bad.’ We think ‘we are good, and they think they are good.’ Eventually, Romm accepted the role of director but insisted that the documentary Ordinary Fascism was made from newsreels, not from feature films.
Later, after watching a huge amount of Hollywood movies of the ’30s and ’40s, Maya was struck by the unexpected similarities between contemporary Soviet cinema and not only German cinema, but also Hollywood. She could think of some reasons for this similarity — a few Soviet filmmakers had been sent to Hollywood to learn. They had copied a few things, borrowed some techniques. This was the case for example with Grigory Alexandrov, who, according to Maya, confessed to her his secret love for Hollywood. But in addition to direct borrowing, these similarities can also be explained by the Zeitgeist, the “spirit of the time”.
SR: Can you explain the meaning of this “spirit of the times” or Zeitgeist, as referenced by Maya?
VP: No one can explain what the spirit of the time is, or how it works, but almost everyone admits that something of the sort exists. On one level, one can find quite rational explanations for the similarities between Soviet and American films. In the 1930s socio-economic processes such as industrialization, the emancipation of women and the like took place at the same time in many countries and gave rise to similar images in movies. In addition, the watershed between the 1920s and the 1930s is the end of a certain era in both countries. In America, this is the end of laissez-faire capitalism and the New Deal. In Russia, it is the end of the dream of world revolution. As Maya said, “The USSR had to either move to capitalism or build socialism in one country, because there were no alternatives.”
In the late 1940s, the similarities we are talking about are even more striking. Here, too, some rational explanations are possible — in both countries there was a struggle with ideological enemies. When the playwright Arthur Miller was called before the Un-American Activities Commission, Congressman Clyde Doyle told him with paternal concern, “Why do you not direct some of that magnificent talent you have fighting against well-known Communist subversive conspiracies in our country and in the world?” With these same words, KGB General Viktor Ilyin, who supervised the Writers’ Union, could have addressed Boris Pasternak, with only one word being substituted.
When Maya and I were reviewing films, we often stumbled upon coincidences that defied logical explanation. In these cases, we appealed to the inexplicable “spirit of the time” that “sails around the earth,” turning in each case into a “spirit of place.” At some point, Maya had the idea of using a German neologism Zeitheimat, which can be translated “time-as-motherland,” instead of the hackneyed “spirit of time,” but this rich idea was left unrealized.
SR: Could you provide some additional background on your connection with Maya Turovskaya and your book?
VP: My friendship and collaboration with Maya began through my family. She visited us many times, and I remember her at least from the age of eleven. In May 1961, I became her fictitious literary secretary (it was her way of saving me from the possible consequences of the new Soviet “law of parasitism”). Then it became a teacher-student relationship, then more like a friendship, then we were co-authors, and finally I reverted to being her student who felt it to be his duty to finish what the teacher could not finish because she passed away.
In 1992, she phoned me from Munich, where she was visiting her son, and offered to work on a book together. She said: “I read your book Culture Two (Kul’tura dva) and realized that we should do a project together. You know everything about Soviet culture, and I know everything about cinema, so we should do a project on Soviet and American cinema, on Hollywood and Mosfilm. I’ve already done a little bit of that, and I have some material. But your brain is needed, because you are immersed in the history of Soviet culture and you know all of its stages, maybe even in more detail than me, although I, unlike you, have observed it all from the inside.”
It’s clear that one’s observation from the inside and outside are never the same. My most vivid experience of this is when shortly before I emigrated, I showed the manuscript of Culture Two to Lev Kopelev and Raisa Orlova, who had already become dissidents. They read it, called me and said: “The text is wonderful, it must be published. We’ll send it to our publishers. (I had no idea then who “our publishers” were, and then I found out they were Carl and Ellendea Proffer). “But we must tell you,” Kopelev and Orlova added, “that we did not recognize this era in which we lived, your analysis simply has nothing to do with what we remember of it. But it doesn’t really matter, you are entitled to your own vision of this era, because you are observing it from outside, while we observed it from inside.”
SR: What do you believe led Turovskaya to extend an invitation to collaborate with you specifically?
VP: I think there were two reasons. On the one hand, I was a professional designer, or, as they say in Russian, a “khudozhnik-konstruktor” or “artist-engineer” (as my diploma from the Stroganov school said), and Maya had always dreamed of seeing her books as a complex verbal-visual structure. (The Stroganov School, a university level school of art and design, established in the 19th century. Today, Stroganov Art Academy.) On the other hand, long before the onset of postmodernism she already avoided any “grand narratives,” and this had something to do with the role of philosophy in the USSR. “The compulsory single [Marxist] philosophy and aesthetic theory,” Maya wrote, “taught me (like many others in my generation) to avoid philosophy and theory altogether and to stick to the facts.” In the Soviet Union, turning to philosophy and theory inevitably led into the dead end of Soviet ideology. So not only Maya but also many of her friends who studied art stuck to the “facts” and avoided constructing anything.
I, on the other hand, the “artist-constructor” inspired by the emergent schools of Soviet structuralism and semiotics, willingly engaged in the construction of grand narratives. Combining her facts with my irresponsible constructions produced synergy between us.
SR: Can you explain the methodology behind your comparative approach?
VP: Maya’s idea developed in the following way. First, she watched a huge number of Hollywood movies, about which, in her words, “no one in the Soviet Union had a clue.” Then she realized that certain elements of these movies were very similar to those produced by Soviet filmmakers — on a different level, of course, with a different ideology, and with less technology and less funding. The film production technology was imported from the USA. The cameraman Vladimir Nielson, who spent some time in Hollywood (he was arrested and shot upon return, in 1938) wrote a book about Hollywood film production technology. Although the book was not published, a typescript was available at the Mosfilm library. Many people studied it.
Unlike comparisons between Nazi and Soviet cinema, which usually point to the correspondences between different protagonists (the leader, the enemy, the traitor, etc.), it is impossible to find the same parallels in Soviet and US cinema. For starters, the cult of the great leader, such as Hitler or Stalin, never existed in the US. Instead, I am convinced that any comparison between Soviet and American cinema must be carried out with reference to the dichotomy of individual vs. collective. In the US, the hero is most often a loner who overcomes all odds and wins. In the Soviet Union, the hero is always part of a collective that is ruled by the party committee. A good example of this is the story of the celebrated Soviet novel The Young Guard by Aleksandr Fadeyev. In the first version of the book (1946), a group of young men and women formed an underground squad fighting the German occupation. After reading this version, Stalin called Fadeyev and requested that he rewrite the novel: “How could such an organization exist and effectively fight the enemy without party leadership?” Naturally, Fadeyev obliged and published a revised version (1951).
This also applies to the image of the enemy. In American cinema, the enemy is simply a villain or a group of villains. In Soviet cinema, the enemies are usually sent from abroad, or they are surviving members of the landlord and capitalist class.
SR: Which of your pairings between Soviet and US films do you consider the most successful and why?
VP: When selecting films, Maya and I were not so much interested in plot coincidences than in the main axes of the films around which the plot is moving. The most incontestable pair here is Ninotchka and Circus. (Ninotchka, Ernst Lubitsch, MGM, 1939. Tsirk. Grigorij Aleksdandrov. Mosfilm, 1936.)
As far as I know, Maya was the first to juxtapose and analyze this pair of films together. By the time we started working with Maya, she already had some ideas about these two films. So my first job was to find episodes that would support Maya’s intuition. As I scrolled through both films on my computer, I selected pairs of episodes where both their similarities and differences would become immediately readable, even before reading or hearing our commentary. Our first presentation of the project took place at the Kennan Institute in Washington, DC in 2008. I ran some pairs of episodes on the screen simultaneously, and it always elicited a kind of “Aha!” effect in the audience.
The Ninotschka–Circus pair is based on the “exchange of ideologies” between the main characters. It would be interesting to imagine both heroines meeting by chance somewhere on a layover, say in Constantinople. Surely both would have screamed at the same time, “You’re crazy! Where are you going!” The scene would have been in the spirit of the opening shots of Andrzej Wajda’s movie Katyn (2007).
The least obvious pairing is High Noon-Clear Skies.High Noon, Fred Zinnemann, United Artists, 1952 — .Чистое небо, Григорий Чухрай, Мосфильм, 1961. (High Noon, Fred Zinnemann, United Artists, 1952 — .Чистое небо, Григорий Чухрай, Мосфильм, 1961.) I added it after Maya’s death. I watched High Noon on the advice of her son, Vladimir Turovsky, and I chose Clear Skies on my own. What attracted me to this pairing was the fact that the comparison was not obvious, that is, the difficulty of the task itself. The difference between the films is enormous. Still, there are similar elements of the plot — everyone except their loving wives turn away from both heroes, and in terms of the hero’s state of mind, they are very similar. In essence, it is the same drama, but played in different times, with different costumes and under different circumstances.
SR: If there were no copyright limitations, what would be your preferred format for presenting your research?
VP: From the very beginning, we knew that this must be a documentary, with “moving pictures”. The attorneys at the Wilson Center explained to us all the difficulties with film copyrights and suggested that we try to make a book. I still hope to be able to make a documentary film someday. I have quite a lot of video footage of Maya.
Nevertheless, I’m glad I was able to do the book. Many of the people to whom I showed the Russian manuscript said bluntly: “Forget it! Similarities between Russian and American cinema is not a topic that would be welcome in Russia today. Fortunately, NLO publisher Irina Prokhorova was brave. NLO came up with the idea of publishing the book as a textbook for film students. This way, there was no problems with copyrights.
SR: You chose to release your book in Russia during a time when the country is facing sanctions due to its unlawful and unjustified military aggression against Ukraine. Did you have any doubts or reservations about this decision?
VP: In the aftermath of the invasion of Ukraine, the question of whether it was morally acceptable to continue working with a country that violated international laws demanded an immediate answer. On one side of the scale is the death, torture, and destruction caused by the Russian army in Ukraine and the dramatically increased level of repression inside Russia. On the other hand, there is the example of Maya Turovskaya, who managed to prove that a sober analysis of the worst examples of cultural catastrophes (Stalinism, Nazism) is a more effective way of dealing with them than emotional outrage. Her latest and perhaps best book, Dragon’s Teeth (2015), came out after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In addition, the books NLO publishes make you reflect and think critically. This is something the current government in Russia would like to ban.
This interview was conducted via Zoom in January 2023 and edited for clarity.