by Allan Fish
(UK 2000 180m) not on DVD
The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians
p Angus MacQueen, Liana Pomerantsev, Olivia Lichtenstein d Angus McQueen ph Sergei Astakhov ed Sally Hilton, Krista Malinowska m Nicolai Parfeniouk, Dimitri Smirnov
So Garbo said in Ninotchka, a line which may then have seemed funny in a macabre way, but which now leaves a very unsavoury taste. Now we know that what happened in the Gulags was every bit as horrific, every bit as apocalyptic, as those more commonly accepted dark hours of recent history under Hitler’s Nazis. In the words of the opening caption to Angus MacQueen’s shattering and deeply emotional documentary, “we will never know how many people were victims of Communism between the October Revolution and Stalin’s death in March 1953…” but we have an idea, and either end of the spectrum is frightening. Stalin himself may have argued that one individual death was a tragedy and a million merely a statistic, but this documentary both proves and disproves that statement, depending on which standpoint you take.
MacQueen first came to notice for his work on the groundbreaking BBC docu-series The Death of Yugoslavia, which dealt with the terrible war and the atrocities committed in the name of Slobodan Milosevic. This follows a similar road, but in a much more cinematic manner, mixing the testament style of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah with the incorporation of period footage and even propagandist cinema – both documentary and fictional propaganda – all the while attempting to convey the big picture without losing sight of the individual tragedies that took place. We are shown by one truly disquieting interviewee that there were so many Gulags that they were dotted along the Trans-Siberian Railway like beads on a never ending necklace. They were built over several years, along with major engineering projects like canals, mines and factories by the peasant population, especially those whose farmland had been ravaged by the famine that resulted from the failed venture of Collectivisation. When the task was done they were disposed of, quickly and quietly, in an act of hushed-up genocide that makes Stalin’s sharing in the victory over Nazism at Yalta and Potsdam a sick joke. One witness to proceedings finds the interviewer’s questions impossible to answer, despairingly murmuring “do I have to spell it out?” Near the end another unfortunate woman describes how she and many other young women were gang raped, often to the point of death, by guards, and left in huts with a stench made unbearable by the odour of every form of human excretion. Almost subliminally the viewer finds cathartic tears transformed into anger that such things could happen. Like the various Nazi exposés by Laurence Rees, there are a mixture of victims and enforcers interviewed, and it’s often the testimonies of the latter that are most infuriating.
In truth, though the undoubted power of the various testimonies do recall the heartbreak of Lanzmann’s aforementioned piece, Gulag is a far more immediate, cinematic work. Closer related to the crusading insights into past atrocities by Marcel Ophuls than virtually any modern documentary can lay claim to. He begins with images of victims undercut by the words of some of the survivors, and ends with a truly poignant sequence of photos of victims superimposed over the real-life burial of one of the recently deceased survivors.
Though also largely financed by the BBC, this was really not a TV documentary at all, receiving several selected showings before a one-off TV showing in 2000. You’ll barely find a mention of it anywhere on the web, which makes you wonder which is worse; that in a world where films and documentaries about Nazi genocide are commonplace on every history channel, this chapter in history is ignored, or that this masterpiece of the documentary art, which fits the bill in one full swoop and is at the very least the equal of any of them, is condemned to anonymity. As one fellow says, “to know our present, we must know our past.”