- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2008

MOSCOW

To the Communists, he was an archvillain: a defender of the oppressors, a class enemy. And for decades, that’s the way films and textbooks portrayed Adm. Alexander Kolchak, a leader of the fight to roll back the 1917 Russian Revolution, which gave birth to the Soviet Union.

Now comes a $20 million state-supported movie epic that glorifies Kolchak as a failed savior of Russia.

Such a reversal might seem odd, coming less than four years after Vladimir Putin was decrying the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

But since the beginning of the Putin presidency in 2000, and continuing under his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin has tried to be all things to all Russians, championing the country’s Soviet past while at the same time resurrecting symbols of the once-despised czarist era.

Rich in Russian flags, warships and Russian Orthodox religious rituals, the movie reinterprets the checkered career of Kolchak, who led an anti-communist government and held the title of “supreme ruler.”

Kolchak’s courage and faith are driven home repeatedly in “Admiral,” from his steely command against the Germans in a World War I naval battle - to his rejection of a blindfold before being shot by a firing squad midway through the 1917-1923 Russian Civil War.

To underscore his religious devotion, the film shows his body being dumped in a cross-shaped hole cut in the ice of a Siberian river.

Kolchak is played by Konstantin Khabensky, hero of the “Night Watch” vampire movies popular in the West. The film takes him from the privileged world of an officer in the czar’s navy through the increasingly beleaguered efforts of his so-called “White Russians,” the counterrevolutionary forces in Siberia, to his execution in 1920.

Some have compared the new myths and images created by the film to Mr. Putin’s own path to supremacy.

“Just as Putin built his chain of command, so ‘Admiral’ builds a new historical line,” reviewer Yuri Gladilshchikov wrote in the Russian edition of Newsweek.

This lavishly promoted history lesson has sold more than 4 million tickets since it opened Oct. 9 in what is reportedly the widest release ever in Russia. Filmmakers plan to release the movie, directed by Andrei Kravchuk, in the U.S. and elsewhere once they find distributors, executive producer Dmitry Nelidov says.

At the October, a sleek, renovated Moscow multiplex that has kept its Soviet-era name honoring the October 1917 revolution, “Admiral” has been playing on as many as four of the theater’s 11 screens.

Partially financed by a government eager to replace post-Soviet disgruntlement with patriotism and pride, Russia’s resuscitated movie industry has produced a string of films - several of them major box-office and critical flops - that glorify the country’s past.

But “Admiral” is the first to canonize a figure who fought the founders of the Soviet state.

It stops short of rejecting Russia’s Soviet past. But its popularity strongly suggests that, as the Communist era recedes and its staunchest defenders die off, the czarist past is a greater draw for millions of Russians.

Shortly before the movie opened, Russia’s Supreme Court declared that Czar Nicholas II, his wife and children, shot in 1918, were victims of political repression, officially rehabilitating them.

“Admiral” is Kolchak’s rehabilitation, depicting him as a resolute man with a deep faith in God and unshakeable loyalty to Russia.

The Bolsheviks, as the Communists who would run the Soviet Union for 74 years called themselves, get much rougher treatment on the screen in “Admiral” than Russian moviegoers are used to seeing. In one scene, Bolsheviks bind a block to a White Russian officer and drop him into the sea.

It is the mirror image of a famous scene from Soviet cinema, but with the good-guy/bad-guy roles reversed.

But Soviet audiences would recognize one aspect of “Admiral,” reviewer Larisa Malyukova wrote in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta: “a White and Red world divided into us and them - only the chessboard has been turned upside down.”

One theme of the film - and of Russia’s current rulers - is that the biggest threat to Russia comes neither from Reds nor Whites, but from abroad.

It is a French general and Czech forces who, in the end, deliver Kolchak to the Bolsheviks for execution. And some of the Communist villains look more Georgian or Central Asian than ethnic Russian.

“In line with Russian ideology today, a foreigner can only be a foe,” Mr. Gladilshchikov wrote.

Mr. Putin’s critics have accused the Kremlin of playing down the crimes of the Soviet era to help justify its centralization of power. “Admiral” may seem to buck the trend in that here it’s the anti-communist Whites who get whitewashed.

But few expect the film to mark the death knell for the Kremlin’s celebration of the Soviet legacy, or of lingering public nostalgia for Josef Stalin, the most brutal of Soviet dictators.

Critics warn that glossing over the gritty details brings the nation no closer to a much-needed reckoning with its tortured 20th-century history - in the way Germany, for example, has sought to confront the Nazi past.

“It would be wrong to answer 70 years of fakery in our cinema with a single film that is just as false,” prominent Russian film critic Daniil Dondurei said at a public discussion of “Admiral.”

Yegor Filippov, a 20-year-old law student, saw “Admiral” and called it appropriate redress for 70 years of pro-Soviet propaganda.

“There are many films that show the Red movement in too positive a light, and now they are rehabilitating the White generals,” Mr. Filippov said. “I’m for it.”

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