Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Must-See Documentary: The Soviet Story

Prior to Sunday night’s Lincoln Center screening of Katyń, Andrzej Wajda gave the audience a probably much-needed history lesson, explaining the Soviet-German alliance during the early years of WWII. When he concluded, Wajda received a well-deserved standing ovation. However, for his in-depth survey of Soviet crimes against humanity, including Soviet cooperation with the Third Reich, Latvian director Edvins Snore was burned in effigy by Neo-Soviet Russians. It is an ominous badge of honor. The film that you are not supposed to see is titled The Soviet Story (trailer here), and it opens in New York this Friday.

From its inception, the story of the Soviet Union was writ in blood. As former Soviet dissident (now essentially a dissident again under the Putin regime) Vladimir Bukovsky explains: “When Communists come to power, it does not matter where, let it be in Russia, in Poland, in Cuba, in Nicaragua, in China, initially they destroy about ten percent of the population” in order to “restructure the fabric of society.”

Soviet Story acts as an effective corrective to the popular notion that the Communist experiment only turned horrific when Stalin ascended to power. The film documents orders mandating mass executions, estimated in the tens of millions, originating with the father of the revolution, Lenin. Still, it is devilishly difficult to outdo Stalin’s sheer capacity for terror. For instance, the deliberate use of famine to pacify Ukraine is explained here in chilling detail. In a crime against humanity largely ignored by the West, seven million Ukrainians were intentionally starved in the cordoned Republic, as foodstuffs were confiscated at gunpoint by the Red Army.

The heart of Soviet Story explores the close ideological similarities and barbaric collusion between the Soviet Socialists of Stalin and the National Socialists of Hitler. There is an eerie sequence juxtaposing thematically similar propaganda posters from both regimes, side-by-side on-screen. Even more damning are the documents Snore uncovers establishing close links between the SS and the Soviet NKVD (the precursor to the KGD), discussing among other issues, the “Jewish Question.” They did not just talk. They carved up Poland between themselves, and at Stalin’s prompting, staked their claims to the rest of Europe.

Soviet Story is most devastating when discussing the ways in which the more advanced Soviet killing machine served as the inspiration and model for the Holocaust. According former Soviet intelligence officer Viktor Suvorov: “A delegation of German Gestapo and SS came to the Soviet Union to learn how to build concentration camps.”

Snore has produced a chilling indictment of the Soviet experience with Socialism. He calls some very convincing witnesses, including Bukovsky, and the eloquent Cambridge historians Norman Davies and George Watson. As evidence, he produces some shocking archival film and documents. However, as the film makes clear, none of those who did (and still do) the Soviet dirty work has ever faced justice for their crimes. All told, Snore has produced a passionate but thoroughly reasoned case against the bloodiest regime of the twentieth century. His only misstep is the periodic use of animated titles, which feel like the commercial bumpers in a History Channel special.

While this is a period of history I consider myself well versed in, Communist oppression was so ruthless and pervasive, Soviet Story was able to catalogue many fresh horrors I was not previously aware of. Probably the scariest aspect of the film is its timeliness, releasing as the Putin regime increasingly embraces its Stalinist roots. Everybody who wishes to continue thinking themselves well-informed should see this film. Since Soviet Story should be seen by a wide audience, I highly recommend seeing it opening weekend, when a strong showing could help it secure further distribution. Soviet Story opens in New York this Friday at the Village East Cinema.