End of the Ataman

English Title: End of the Ataman

Original Title: Konets Atamana

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Kazakhfilm

Director: Shaken Aimanov

Screenplay: Andrei Konchalovskii, Eduard Tropinin

Cinematographer: Askhat Ashrapov

Art Director: Viktor Lednev

Runtime: 146 minutes

Genre: Action/Red Western

Language: Russian

Starring/Cast: Asanali Ashimov, Viktor Avdiushko, Gennadii Iudin

Year: 1970

Volume: Russian

In 1921, at the height of the Civil War, the Red officer Chadiarov is assigned a special task: to kill the ataman Dutov, a collaborator of the Whites. During this operation Chadiarov discloses the spy in the Red Army headquarters in his Kazakh hometown. In order to fulfil his mission, Chadiarov, who is a Chinese prince, has to get himself arrested as a spy by the Soviet commander; then he escapes and crosses the border to China, where he pretends to side with the ataman who resides there. Chadiarov fulfils his secret mission successfully while its full scale and significance of his action transpire only at the end.

The film’s director Shaken Aimanov (1914–1970) was an actor and director at the theatre in Alma-Ata before he made the first genuine Kazakh feature film, A Poem About Love, in 1954. The film studio in Almaty is named in honour of this first ethnic Kazakh filmmaker.

The film is part of a trilogy about the Revolution: The End of the Ataman was followed by Trans-Siberian Express (1977) and The Manchurian Version (1989). Andrei Konchalovskii wrote the script for this film together with Eduard Tropinin, which earned him a Kazakh State Prize in 1972.

The theme of the Civil War raging in the southern and eastern borderlands of the Soviet empire offered a most suitable subject matter for adventure or action films, genres that were in early Soviet cinema tied closely to the Revolutionary struggle, translating in ideological terms into the opposition of the Red vs White Army to match the classical Hollywood opposition of the action/adventure between good vs evil. Cavalry chases, escapes, hide-outs in the steppe made this film a true gem in the tradition of the ‘Eastern’, or ‘Red Western’, but even more significantly this was a film which showed that support for the Red Army extended way beyond ethnic Russians, showing the Chinese prince Chadiarov as a Soviet hero, thus reflecting the full Sovietization of Central Asia.

The second film in the trilogy, Trans-Siberian Express, follows secret agent Chadiarov to the Manchurian city of Kharbin, where in 1927 he resides under the pseudonym of Fan and poses as manager of a cabaret. Fan is blackmailed by a banker to travel to Moscow with a Chinese passport and in the company of his ‘wife’ Sasha. He soon discovers a plot to kill the Japanese businessman Saito, travelling on the same train to offer economic collaboration to the Soviet regime. A criminal gang – composed of Sasha, Saito’s bodyguard and a journalist – intend to blame the murder on Fan, who will appear as a Soviet secret service agent. Thus, the counter-Revolutionaries will prevent economic collaboration with Japan, while the blame will fall on the Soviet Union. As the train travels through Mongolia and Siberia Fan works out the plot and, continuing to play the foolish and silly cabaret owner Fan, he sows suspicion among the enemy. Once Fan has debilitated the gang and prevented the crime, the Red officers arrive to arrest the criminals. The film adopts the style of a detective story, with clear references to a Soviet version of the ‘Orient Express’.

The three films represent an attempt to create, in the popular genre of an ‘Eastern’ action film, the story of a secret agent’s life, bringing out his commitment to the communist cause and underscoring the unity in Central Asia with the Soviet Empire during the 1920s. The choice of a spy story further aligns the film with genre cinema at a time when spy films flourished both in Russia and abroad. The entire project of the trilogy made at Kazakhfilm is significant for the Eurasian theme, the links between the centre and the periphery, between Asia and Europe. In the context of Soviet cinema of the 1970s Central Asia was an attractive location for the adventure genre, and the popular film White Sun of the Desert (1970), directed by Vladimir Motyl’ and scripted by Rustam Ibragimbekov, further underpins the popularity of these exotic settings.

Author of this review: Birgit Beumers