Film Review: Ангелы Революции, reviewed by Callaway Sprinkle

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The film “Ангелы Революции”, or “Angels of (the) Revolution”, by Alexey Fedorchenko, chronicles an attempt by the Soviet government to reach out to and modernise Siberian peoples through art. Though based on historical events (the Kazym Rebellion), the film is decidedly a dramatisation of the period and is remarkable as much for the cinematography as the nature of the story (though I won’t be going as much into that as I’m not sure quite how to approach it). The narrative, however, is as follows: In the early thirties, the Soviet government is pursuing a policy of cultural collectivisation, trying to unite the peoples of the former Russian Empire and extend their authority. Faced with resistance from the Khanty and Nenets people of Siberia, the folks in charge of the initiative formulate a strange plan to try and convert these Siberians through art.

They place in charge of the mission a remarkable woman, Polina Schneider (who did in fact exist), portrayed as a veteran of multiple other difficult initiatives on behalf of the Revolution, both a soldier and a leader. She is joined by five men, avant-garde artists from theatre, music, film, and poetry, revelling in the lack of constraints laid on them by religion or tradition in the quest to create new and modern forms of expression. Five vignettes follow, chapters in each of their lives that highlight their work and sometimes previous interactions with Polina.

The first part of the film isn’t a strictly linear thing, confusing at first, but is beautifully rendered and poses chilling questions about the morality of the art these men create, as well as the equally capricious (at times) nature of the government they serve. More than anything, the series of vignettes at the start of the film highlights the strange substitution of one faith for another during the early years of the Soviet Union. At once secular, holding nothing holy and transgressing freely against the sensibilities of their forefathers, and still spiritual in the way they approached the new doxology of the Revolution, the characters of the film set up from their introductions the surreality of what is to follow. “Angels of (the) Revolution,” the film is called, not because of the supposed holiness of the characters, but rather because they come to announce an earth-shattering change, a break with all that had come before.

In fact, even the arrival of Polina and her comrades in Siberia is in its own way a Communist version of the Gospel: “Do not be afraid, for we come with tidings of great joy”. Not of Christian faith, to be certain, but certainly tidings of salvation from ignorance and living in a separate world. Of course this overlooks the fact that the gospel of avant-gardism and racing forwards into modernity is not something at all agreeable to the Khanty and Nenets. This is played out across the film; the contrast between the beliefs of the Siberian peoples, who still hold things sacred and believe their gods’ warnings against the ambitions of the Soviet emissaries, and the resolute belief of Polina and comrades there is no higher power than themselves.

Likely the largest part of this is that even as the Soviets demonstrate with gifts and lessons the superiority of their own catechism, they work to deconstruct the myths and faith of the people amongst whom they live. The two most striking examples are the balloon and Polina’s interactions with the Nenets’ own gods. An image the reappears frequently during the latter half of the film is that of the hot-air balloon the Soviets are building as a demonstration of their science and the way to the future. The talk of conquering the sky, something terrifying to the Nenets, is a reminder that not only do the Communists hold nothing of the old sacred, they also hold themselves to be masters of somewhere even the Tsars did not go. At one point in the film, an elder of the village expresses the sentiment that the greatest thing the tsars did was leave them utterly alone so long as they paid lip service and furs– only this new government is demanding not only tribute, but also their faith.

Of course, the final act of sacrilege is the trip by Polina to the sacred island of the tribe, wherein she seeks to actively deconstruct the Nenets religion and tell their tales (via film!) as a sort of relic, a cultural curiosity, as she wears their relics and capers about. This in many ways mirrors Zakhar the sculptor’s playful desecration of Orthodox tradition (by venerating Judas Iscariot with a statue) that causes the man who unwittingly modelled for it to hang himself, because it is this second act of capricious desecration that strangled them all. The film ends with the night before the balloon is to be launched: Polina and company are celebrating the fruits of their labour with the Nenets, who sit silently and watch their speeches as a film is projected on smoke rising from a fire. This is cut with a scene of the village men resolving that the gods wish the Soviets dead, and when we return  to the projection of the film, the only witnesses are their bodies, strangled and left as the Siberians disperse into the wilderness to avoid retribution.

In all, the film was simultaneously chilling and beautiful, leaving a lot of things open. Despite being a critique of Soviet policy and their disrespect for the old and the religious, it simultaneously highlighted the almost fevered beauty of the optimism people had during these early years– a local commissar for nationalities is seen near the beginning wearing queer garments, and when he’s asked why, he laughs and claims it’s Polynesian. “It is, after all, to be a world revolution,” he laughs.