Wednesday, April 09, 2003

russian-is-arabic-to-me dept.

Some days ago, I came across this little book called Ivan the terrible by Sergei Eisenstein. Yes, the same Eisenstein of Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky fame. Widely held to be amongst the foremost innovators of world cinema, known for his meticulous cinematic choreography.

It was a film script. Actually I had encountered the book before as a child. It was in my grandfather's closet, and I had thumbed through it, and the stark, B&W stills of wide-eyed, grotesquely dressed Russians somehow fascinated me. This time, I actually fished it out, and started reading it.

Well, the film is a trilogy, of which only the first two parts were filmed, and Eisenstein died just after canning a few minutes of footage of the third. I still haven't finished reading the script, but it was the introductory text that really gripped me. Eisenstein was quite a remarkable man. What was remarkable about him, was that he was a great film director, never compromised on his artistic integrity, all during the very height of the Stalin Era. It was a miracle that he managed to stay out of the labour camps. I have found multiple sources alluding to his miraculous escape. But he probably died too early to really catch Stalin's evil eye.

Anyway, the whole film (especially the second part), is basically an allegory for Stalin and his regime. Originally meant to bolster the cult of personality that Stalin was building around himself, the film allowed Eisenstein to grab the oppurtunity to make a statement about absolute power, and the tyranny it can engender. The first part was, for him, a dry run to tackle the technical and cinematic aspects of telling this story. But the second part contained pretty much the gist what he really intended to speak through the medium of this trilogy.

So to get back to the story, Ivan the terrible (the Russian is Grozny, more accurately translated as 'the formidable'), declared himself sovereign Tsar of all Russia, first to do so for about a couple of hundred years. He was the first Russian emporer to maintain a permanent, central standing army, which he called the Oprichnina. He mostly destroyed/debilitated the power of feudal Russian lords called the Boyars, and unified Russia for the first time in history under a strong central monarchy. Then with his 100,000 strong army, he subdued the western khanates that controlled the trade routes into Russia, and broke through to the Black Sea establishing direct trade relations with Europe. This set in motion a gradual 'Europeanisation' of Russian society, which was furthered by Peter and Catherine the Greats.

Not surprisingly, the third part ends with a glorious scene on the beach, with Ivan at the head of his troops, where the closing dialogues read "We have reached the sea, and here we shall stay!". This scene, of course was never shot - Eisenstein died through filming the third part, and none of his colleagues could bring themselves to take his masterpiece-in-the-making to its logical conclusion (most probably into a forced labour camp in the Siberian wilderness ;-)). Apparently, Eisenstein, and the actor who played Ivan in both films had an interview with Stalin, actually to discuss 'corrections' to the second part, where he made some 'fascinating' and 'constructive' suggestions, but he apparently enjoyed the idea for the closing of part III.

But the whole story of the making of the film set me thinking. There are striking parallels between Ivan & Stalin and other tyrants in history. Muhammad Bin Tughlaq is one, Napoleon another, Hitler(?), Tito, Castro, maybe Indira and Sanjay Gandhi and of course, Saddam Hussein. Especially Saddam, what with the war against him now virtually won, and his regime in complete shambles. Somehow, the 'modern' history of most great nations can be traced to one tyrant, one survivor, who cleaned out all opposition to his/her rule with complete ruthlessness, and unified fragmented feudal domains into a nation. Elizabeth I of England comes to mind.

It is no wonder that Saddam considers himself to be the 'Ultimate Survivor' (this was the impression that Dan Rather of CBS got when he interviewed him just before war broke out). He modernised Iraq, managed to create a secular government, which of course he imposed on Iraq with an Iron Fist. He built roads, universities and factories. Iraq is one of the few Arab nations to manufacture much of its own munitions. Women enjoyed complete freedom to work or otherwise express their aspirations in Iraqi society. Yes, he waged that meaningless war against Iran, but if you think about it, nothing really unifies a disparate populace like war. Do I see Indians in the audience nodding their heads in silent agreement?

So is Operation 'Iraqi Freedom' cheating Iraqi history out of its great tyrant, its Ivan Grozny? Where will the push come from now? Where will the attitudinal and institutional changes that need to precede, nay which create the ability to self-govern come about from now?

Here's my prediction for the future of Iraq. Lets see how well it holds up against the relentless turn of the wheel of time (I am trying to be eloquent here).

Saddam is killed or kills himself. Iraq becomes a playground for American conglomerates. The replacement administration is pretty similar to the regime that preceded it, with new faces at the top, but the same old guys running it at the bottom. A repressive, single party (well at least in practice) regime that favors American companies, and which could also have a marked Islamic bent. In other words, another Pakistan, only with more $$. And the ordinary Iraqi dissolves back into the shadows, into his shops, into his bazaars to lead the same life that he led before his freedom was so graciously returned to him by G.I.Joe.

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