Alexander Dovzhenko: A Guide to Published Sources.

Alexander Dovzhenko: A Guide to Published Sources. – book reviews

George Liber

Who was Alexander Dovzhenko? What did he really represent? As Marco Carynnyk pointed out in the Journal’s special issue, ‘almost forty years after the death of Alexander Dovzhenko we still know little about the man behind the myth and cannot view his films or read his writings in the form in which he left them. His major films have been cut; his minor films lie buffed in archives; some of his most cherished projects never made it to the screen; his film scripts have been censored; his correspondence, diaries, and notebooks continue to be published in bowdlerized versions’ (p. 5). Carynnyk is on the mark. But our inability to discriminate between the realities and the legends in Dovzhenko’s life and to establish an overall interpretation of him is more than a consequence of the ‘tenacity of Stalinist thinking and Soviet censorship’. Our limited understanding of Dovzhenko is muddled also by his own rewriting of his past and by his own conformity to Stalinist orthodoxy.

To celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Soviet Ukrainian film-maker Alexander Dovzhenko (1894-1956), the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies published two indispensible works. Edited and compiled by Bohdan Y. Nebesio, a PhD candidate in Slavic and East European Studies at the University of Alberta, these studies are critical for any future re-evaluation of Dovzhenko, a man who possessed many public identities and private personas.

In addition to Carynnyk, Vance Kepley, Jr, Murray Smith, Bruce Williams and Waclaw M. Osadnik and Eugeniusz Wilk contributed articles to this special issue of the Journal. All of the articles are excellent; some, such as Carynnyk’s translation of Dovzhenko’s complete 1939 autobiography (heretofore published in expurgated versions) are provocative.

The majority of the articles in the Journal deal with Dovzhenko’s cinema, not his life and times. Kepley analyzes the problems of narrative comprehension posed by the montage style of Dovzhenko’s three most famous silent features: Zvenigora (1927), Arsenal (1927) and Earth (1930). According to Kepley, Dovzhenko’s strategy in his film-making is ‘to retard the narrative process and to challenge the spectator to explore other patterns, to form other schemata’ (p. 36). As a result, Dovzhenko forces the viewer to do his/her own interpreting of his films. Dovzhenko’s montage demands that his spectators pursue many potential associations and alternatives.

Smith investigates the significance of socialist realism on the Soviet montage in Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg, Friedrich Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire and Dovzhenko’s Arsenal. He concludes that ‘central features of socialist realism were continuous with, rather than inversions of, features of the “formalist” films’ (p. 47).

Williams, Osadnik and Wilk use highly sophisticated literary theories to analyze Dovzhenko’s films. Williams writes on ‘poetic discourse and the autotelic aesthetics’ in Earth. Osadnik and Wilk provide a formal semiotic analysis of Arsenal.

Carynnyk’s faithful translation of Dovzhenko’s 1939 autobiography (the original is held at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow) is annotated with great care. He even includes a controversial addendum to the autobiography, an addendum which suggests that Dovzhenko worshipped Stalin and harbored anti-Semitic feelings.

The special edition of the Journal is an excellent one. However, it is unfortunate that its authors concentrated on Dovzhenko’s films released up to 1930 and did not assess Ivan (1932), Aerograd (1935), Shchors (1939), his three documentary films (1940, 1943 and 1945), or Michurin (1948). Although these films are artistically weaker than his pre-1930 films, an analysis of these films are important in our understanding of Dovzhenko and his Stalinist environment.

Nebesio’s bibliography is the most impressive of the two works under review. Nebesio draws on and expands on previously published bibliographies, such as Volume 4 of Ukrains’ki pysmennyky: Bio-biblioqrafichnyi slovnyk (1965) and those compiled by Julia Rubenshtein (1958) and Marco Carynnyk (1973). Encompassing 2375 positions, Nebesio’s bibliography covers the entire Soviet period, but concentrates on the decade preceding the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The bibliography’s strength lies in its accumulation of Ukrainian, Russian and English-language sources. Although it also includes sources in a dozen other, mostly European languages, it does not claim to be exhaustive in these areas.

Nebesio divided his bibliography into five sections: Dovzhenko’s own writings, contemporary commentaries and reviews of Dovzhenko’s 13 released films (Dovzhenko’s fourteenth film, Goodbye, America, was partially completed in 1951 but was released only in 1996 and is not included in this bibliography), Dovzhenko’s scripts and plays, Soviet and Western dissertations on Dovzhenko and publications on Dovzhenko and his works. Each section is arranged chronologically by date or by the alphabetical order of the authors included. An index of authors rounds out the bibliography.

Nebesio’s bibliography is well-laid out, but unless one knows which author one wants to read, is not easy to use. (As a result, every entry needs to be read carefully.) A number of the compiler’s citations repeat previous citations. If Nebesio did not want to compile a subject or thematic index, he might have cross-referenced a number of his citations (i.e. number 1574 and 1579, 1922 and 1924, 2311 and 2312). Moreover, he does not provide an analytical index of the four most important collections of memoirs of Dovzhenko (S.P. Plachynda’s Dovzhenko i svit (1984), Julia Solntseva’s and L.M. Novychenko’s Polum’iane zhyttia: Spohady pro Oleksandra Dovzhenka (1973), L.I Pazhitnikova’s and Solntseva’s Dovzhenko v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov (1982) and O. Babyshkin’s Oleksandr Dovzhenko: Zbirnyk spohadiv i statei pro myttsia (1959)). Each of these collections contain valuable memoirs, which were not necessarily published elsewhere (or otherwise included in Nebesio’s bibliography). Although heavily censored by Glavlit, the Soviet literary establishment and Solntseva (Dovzhenko’s widow), some of the published memoirs provide us with details not found elsewhere.

Despite these shortcomings, Nebesio’s bibliography supercedes all previous bibliographies of Dovzhenko. Using Nebesio’s bibliography to sift through the published sources and to compare them with materials in the Ukrainian and Russian archives, scholars will now be able to uncover the ‘real’ Dovzhenko. The Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies and Bohdan Nebesio should be congratulated for a job well done.

GEORGE LIBER, University of Alabama at Birmingham

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