English Title: Sibiriade

Original Title: Sibiriada

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Mosfilm

Director: Andrei Konchalovskii

Screenplay: Valentin Ezhov, Andrei Konchalovskii

Cinematographer: Levan Paatashvili

Art Director: Aleksandr Adabashian, Nikolai Dvigubskii

Editor: Valentina Kulagina

Runtime: 275 minutes

Genre: HIstorical Drama

Language: Russian

Starring/Cast: Natal'ia Andreichenko, Liudmila Gurchenko, Pavel Kadochnikov, Nikita Mikhalkov, Evgenii Perov, Evgenii Samoilov, Sergei Shakurov, Nikolai Skorobogatov, Vitalii Solomin, Elena Koreneva

Year: 1978

Volume: Russian

At the time of the Revolution, the young Kolia Ustiuzhanin from the Siberian village of Elan’ falls in love with Nastia Solomina, who is engaged to Filipp Solomin, and runs away with her to join the Revolution. A decade later, Kolia returns to Elan’ with his son, Alesha, to construct a road to the marshlands in the hope of discovering oil there. Nastia has died ‘defending the Revolution’, which sparks enmity between Kolia and his brother-in-law Spiridon, who murders Kolia. Alesha escapes, vowing to avenge his father’s death. When he returns a decade later, he learns from Taia Solomina that Spiridon has been sentenced and Alesha falls in love with Taia, when news of the German attack reach the village. After the war, as a decorated war hero, Alesha receives a technical education and becomes Master Oil Driller. He returns to Elan’ with a drilling team, working for several months without luck. Meanwhile Filipp Solomin, now a Party functionary, attempts to block a plan for a hydroelectric power plant near the village. Just as leaders in Moscow are making their final decision, oil bursts forth from the well in Elan’. As the well ignites, Alesha dies in the flames. Filipp rushes from Moscow to Elan’ and Taia reveals that she is pregnant with Alesha’s child, the last of the Ustiuzhanins.

Sibiriade was the final film that Andrei Konchalovskii made in the Soviet Union, before emigrating to France and eventually Hollywood. This four and a half hour epic was a fantastically expensive film, made during a year when attendance for Soviet films was at a fifteen-year low. The fact that Sibiriade was made in the first place indicates Konchalovskii’s cultural cache in the Soviet film industry, despite the continued trouble that had plagued his career, from the controversy in Kirghizstan over his depiction of Kirghiz peasants in The First Teacher (1964) to the banning of his next film, The Story of Asia Kliachina, Who Loved But Never Married (1967, rel. 1987). Nonetheless, authorities in the Soviet film industry recognized him as a talented director, and like many auteurs, gave him unprecedented access to resources and money to make the film that he wanted to make.

A project that began as a Stagnation-era production film about the lives of Siberian oil workers, Konchalovskii transformed Sibiriade into an ambivalent meditation on modernity and tradition. From an imperial backwater at the turn of the century to the centre of the Soviet Union’s oil production region at the end of the 1960s, the village of Elan’ comes to signify both Soviet progress and the destruction to peasant communities wrought by industrialization. Moreover, in its ethical complexity, Sibiriade contains both clear socialist realist conventions, along with moments of sympathy for class enemies and a critical attitude toward social heroes. For example, when Filipp discovers that Aleksei has been killed in the oil well conflagration, he asks officials sitting in the Kremlin Palace to rise in memory of a ‘common worker’. Yet such socialist realist myths exist alongside the conventions of Thaw cinema, with its focus on the individual and private life. In Sibiriade, for example, the Revolution becomes a means for local communities to understand and articulate their differences and personal conflicts. At the same time, Konchalovskii refrains from presenting a simple dichotomy of interior and exterior forces on Elan’. Modernization is not a force imposed from the outside, but emerges from within the community, from individuals whose identities are torn between the village and the city.  

Stylistically, Sibiriade combines elements of classical narrative cinema with several eclectic touches: Fast-paced newsreels of the Revolution, Civil War, the First Five-Year Plan and the Great Patriotic War – history proper – are intercut with the slow-moving drama of Elan’. In its mix of rapid and slow pacing, Sibiriade takes influence from the early work of Aleksandr Dovzhenko, and his Zvenigora (1927) in particular. In addition, Konchalovskii is able to mobilize both tonal and aural shifts, which adds to the stylistic eclecticism of the film. For example, the image frequently shifts between colour and a sepia-toned black and white, focusing our mental engagement with the material in different ways. The realm of memory and dreams is typically rendered without colour in Sibiriade, although this does not encapsulate the full extent to which Konchalovskii employs tonal shifts in any given section in the film. Instead, Elan’ appears to exist simultaneously within the dreamlike space of memory and nostalgia, on the one hand, and the socially defined space of class conflict and rural backwardness, on the other. Sibiriade’s soundtrack also defines the village as liminal space, with its mix of orchestral music, contemporary Soviet popular songs and 1970s electronic music. While successful as a work of European art cinema, Konchalovskii’s film failed to draw audiences at home.

Author of this review: Joshua First