The Wild East

By Sian Glaessner


Soviet ‘western’ White Sun of the Desert still takes Russia by storm

Turkmenistan’s desert landscape has a desolate and overwhelming beauty. Travel there today is still difficult, and much is uncertain following the death of the country’s brutal and eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov. These ancient deserts, in what was then Turkestan, saw some of the fiercest and most prolonged fighting of the Russian Civil War. The Bolsheviks encouraged national separatist movements across Central Asia against the Tsarist regime, but on coming to power they quickly sought to consolidate lands conquered by the Imperial Tsarist forces in the nineteenth century.

In 1969 these deserts became the setting for one of the Soviet Union’s most surprising cinematic hits, the iconic Soviet Western White Sun of the Desert. Like Hollywood, Soviet films were political. They sought to create the ideal citizen, and were not intended to be straightforward entertainment. Hollywood of course was slightly more agile in its combination of message and plot, while many Soviet films suffered from a ponderous surfeit of obvious ideology.

White Sun of the Desert was an accidental hit. Filmic success in the Soviet Union was centrally planned. Films officially destined for box office popularity would have many prints made, and be widely advertised. White Sun of the Desert was banned so soon after completion that the director, Vladimir Motyl, thought his career in film was over. Many directors had been approached over it. Most read the wooden, stilted scenario and refused the job. Where they saw lacklustre writing and cut-out characters, Motyl saw a rare opportunity to create something new.

White Sun... was made under Brezhnev, but was created in the spirit of Khrushchev’s thaw, and reflects a period when people felt, for the first time in a long time, that they could be the masters of their fate. It offered a brief moment of hope and idealism. Perhaps that is why Russians love it today as much as they did when it was first screened.

The story of the film itself, like the plot, turns on accidents of fate. It was only reluctantly released, after it had been sent, by accident, to Brezhnev’s dacha, where the General Secretary and entourage, well in their cups, enjoyed it. On the following Monday the minister for film received a call from the great man himself saying, “you make good film, thank you”. So White Sun..., whose wry take on the Civil War had earned it a place on the shelf of banned films never to be screened, was liberated. Still deemed ideologically unsound, it was given a quiet circulation, with little publicity. Its success took everyone, especially the director, by surprise.

white-sun-of-the-desert-vladmir-motyl-2.jpgWhite Sun of the Desert, 1970

The film’s hero Sukhov is out of place in the harsh Turkmen landscape, and he knows it. He walks through the desert, dreaming of his lush green home, and his plump Russian wife. He looks down, to a head in the sand, and starts talking to it. This is normal. Everything is normal. Everything is as it should be. He talks to the head, gives it some water, and starts to dig it, and the man attached to it, out of the sand, all the while recalling in jolly chatter a similar encounter, when the man he helped cursed him for not leaving him there to die. This man is to be his trusty warrior friend, a local sidekick in his personal war against the bad guys.  

For Sukhov, it is always personal. That is what the censors objected to. He dreams of home, and reluctantly does his duty. That was not the Soviet Way. The Homo Soveticus was supposed to be guided by the committee, and fired by an internal longing to aid the great Soviet victory. He was supposed to be willing to sacrifice everything, even his plump wife by the river in the meadow, for that Soviet dream. Not so our desert-crossing bogatyr cowboy Sukhov.

The film has a number of similarly surreal and humorous moments. There is the abandoned harem of veiled women Sukhov reluctantly takes charge of, and who follow him in a billowing line through the dunes. White Sun… is not explicitly radical, or subversive. It rewrites the Soviet domination of Tsarist lands as a struggle of liberty, humanity, and progress against the barbaric and the primitive. Central Asians are drawn in broad caricatures. The Russians are unstintingly good and noble. Even the flawed, corrupt Tsarist customs officer is a hero in the battle between the good forces of the Russian State and Soul against the brutal, fundamentalist evil of their opponents. There is a lot here that speaks to today’s reality, in Russia and beyond.

Central Asian viewers recognise the caricature. Some resent it, others accept that one should not look to a film intentionally modelled on the US western for impartial history or ideology-free entertainment. The parallels between Russia’s Wild East and the American Wild West are seductive. In addition to the shared recreation of a past framed in conquest, there is the delineation of a politically expedient enemy as integral to the creation of a common identity.

The Western was the defining political genre of American cinema. Perhaps that is why John Wayne was on Stalin’s hit-list. Brezhnev loved Westerns and ordered the creation of Soviet Westerns as part of the propaganda war between the two superpowers. But Motyl was no simple ideologue, no friend of the party. His father died in the camps and he grew up in exile. He understood the brutality of the Soviet regime and that understanding gives the film its humanity, its warmth.

white-sun-of-the-desert-vladmir-motyl-3.jpgWhite Sun of the Desert, 1970

Once released its popularity was uncontrollable, even by the power of the Soviet State. It became traditional for cosmonauts to see it before their space missions. Members of the KGB so loved it they let Motyl accompany them on their vessels, in exchange for carte blanche to question him about it. It has even spared him parking fines. Decades after it was made, the film has taken on a new life in post-Soviet Russia. Lines from the script are catchphrases quoted by old and young alike. In that way it manages to do what contemporary Russian politics, even at its most nationalistic, seems unable to. It unites the older generations, who remember Soviet life, with Perestroika’s children, who do not.

In Soviet times the party decided what was good and what was bad. These days money and the market rule. Back in the USSR news readers made obligatory references to Soviet slogans. Now they look straight and solemnly into the camera to tell us, with the same sincerity, about the health value of Calve mayonnaise, or the benefit to the busy housewife of a particular brand of magi-slicer. The slogans have changed, but the process is much the same.

There's a Russian joke that goes: an optimist and a pessimist are sitting on a bench. The pessimist is in despair, his head in his hands. Weeping, he cries, “it can't get any worse.” The optimist lays a comforting hand on his shoulder and replies, reassuringly, “ah, but my friend, but of course it can!”

Perhaps the real secret of White Sun’s success lies not in the vanquishing of the bearded baddies by brave Slavs but in its romantic idealism and playful mode of address. Russian TV is replete with war-hardened heroes killing terrorists and bandits. There is plenty of focus on national pride and honour in opposition to underhand, brutal fundamentalist enemies. An optimistic reading would suggest that White Sun... retains its appeal because it creates a world where it is possible for the good guys to win and retain their humanity.

There is something troubling about it, though. In a world where caricature bad guys populate international media outlets more prolifically than they do the cinema of genre, is there something darker in White Sun’s continuing popularity? In our cynical age do we turn a blind eye to its humanity and focus instead on the stereotype enforcing crude doctrines of self and other?

A feature on the film, Russia's Lone Rangers, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on December 4th.

Sian Glaessner is a translator from the Russian, a researcher and an obituary writer.