Zhanna Vasilieva
Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Oct 07, 2010

After his motion picture Faith and Fidelity (Veroy I Pravdoy) was crippled by censorship in 1979, film director Andrey Smirnov became a screenwriter, novelist, and actor.

He had not been directing motion pictures for almost 30 years. Very few people were aware that during that time he had been collecting materials for a script about the bloody suppression of the peasants’ uprising in 1921.

Production of the film Once Upon a Time There was a Simple Woman began in 2007. The shooting period was completed just recently. Andrey Smirnov talks about the concept of his film, Russian history, and the tragedy of the peasantry in an exclusive interview for the readers of Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

Family Tragedy Russian Style

RG: You said that at the center of the film is a woman's destiny. For many people the choice of such a plot is connected to the possibility of a metaphorical narrative about the sufferings of the country and its sacrificial role.

Smirnov: I had very concrete historical material. The suffering of the country was really great. For example, according to official data, during collectivization, which lasted about three years from 1929 to 1932, five million families were deported from central Russia (and partially from Siberia and Altai as well). During the previous years of the New Economic Policy, the peasantry got back on their feet, the countryside was doing alright. Peasant families were traditionally at least 5-8 people, including children and the elderly. Even if we take the minimum number - five people in a family, it turns out that more than 25 million people were deported.

As for the victimization of the people, well – here’s the thing.  In order to arrest, transport, and erect barbed wire fences for 25 million people you need at least as many millions to be the guards, interrogators, torturers and executors. Where did these people come from? They didn’t land from Mars; they were neither Chinese nor African assault forces. They grew up on the very same land. All of the repressions were committed by Russians themselves. This is the tragedy of civil wars. The best people, those who are the most active, or the “passionaries” as Lev Gumilev called them, die during such wars. Tambov passionaries.

RG: Why did you choose this particular historical material? Don’t you think that it is too little known and not very timely?

Smirnov: Too little known - yes. But that's because we have this kind of historical education, these kinds of books, these kinds of schools. If people still walk around holding portraits of Stalin - a murderer who killed more people in Russia than Hitler and Napoleon all together, then what can one say? And about timeliness, I disagree. For me, this film is an attempt to speak on the most basic question of Russian history.

RG: You mean the relationship between people and the government?

Smirnov: The main question for Russia is, what happened to the peasantry in the 20th century, what did peasantry mean for the country?

RG: And what did it mean?

Smirnov: It was the foundation of the Russian civilization. Russia was a peasant country. According to the census of 1917, 83% of the population considered themselves to be peasants. I think that Russian culture grew out of two grounds - one was the peasant way of life, the other was Orthodox Christianity. Whether that is good or bad is another question, but this is contained in the Russian mentality. There should be an understanding that the basis of our country, as Nikolai Nekrasov said, was "our sower and custodian" along with the church where our sower and custodian went on Sundays and holidays. It was their interaction that created the foundation on which this great culture grew.

RG: A global tragedy of our peasantry is associated with collectivization. Why did you choose the history of the Tambov Rebellion in particular to talk about the tragedy of the peasants?

Smirnov: Tambov was a thoroughly peasant province. Back in the early 20th century a cubic meter of Tambov black earth was placed in the Paris Chamber of Weights and Measures as the most fertile soil on Earth. According to Brockhaus, before the Revolution, about three million people inhabited the Tambov Province, of which less than one hundred thousand were industrial workers. There was almost no industry there, except maybe some small beer or candle factories. Of course, this province voted for the Socialist Revolutionaries, a party of peasants, at the elections of both the State Duma and the Constituent Assembly.

When “food collection detachments” arrived in 1918, the uprisings of the peasants began almost immediately. The first food detachments left St. Petersburg two weeks after the October Revolution, and according to Cheka, in February 1918, 400 armed peasant uprisings had been registered in just six central provinces of Russia alone.

In 1920, a harsh levy of 11 million poods (about two hundred thousand tons) of grain was put upon the Tambov Province. This was more than the entire crop for all the Tambov Province. At the end of August 1920, a revolt broke out in the Village of Kamenka. The peasants disarmed the food detachment there. Immediately thereafter, the so-called Gang of Antonov joined them. In the autumn of 1920, Antonov apparently had about fifty thousand fighters. This is slightly less than the Pugachev army. In April 1921, Lenin insisted that the suppression of the uprising be led by Tukhachevsky. In June 1921, more than one hundred thousand elite troops of infantry and cavalry were fighting against the peasants of Tambov Province. Squadrons of planes dropped not only fliers but bombs as well. There were four armored divisions there with Fiat armored trucks, carrying both cannons and machine guns. Uborevich was the commander of these troops. There were also about one hundred and fifty artillery canons. The only case in the history of the civil war of chemical weapons being used against fellow citizens was the firing of mustard gas shells in 1921 on the Village of Kipets in the Tambov Province upon the orders of Tukhachevsky.

In his 1922 article for the magazine "War and Revolution", Tukhachevsky described how the fighting went on in a very simple and completely truthful way. These were pure acts of terror. The province was divided into sections. Troops entered a village and surrounded it. All of the inhabitants were taken out into a square and lists of men who were fighting on Antonov’s side were read aloud. Enlisted people were given two to three hours to surrender voluntarily and to hand their weapons over. If nobody surrendered - the hostages were shot. In the Village of Parevka in the Kirsanov District, eighty hostages were shot in one day, half of them were old people and teens. And so it went like that step by step.

Terror as an effective method of political influence on a nation was the Bolsheviks’ invention. This happened during the colonization of the American Indians, but this was not against one’s own people anywhere else, neither before nor after. So I think this is the main knot in our history today.

The main lesson here is that any government or ideology that is based on the idea that a person can be killed if he does not meet a certain accepted doctrine will bring a country nothing but misery. Until we implant into the heads of every policeman, every ordinary citizen, and every official that there is nothing more valuable than a human life and the Christian commandment "Thou shalt not kill", we'll continue to live the way we do now.

Between liberty and freedom

RG: The idea of a Christian civilization – is a good one, but first, "my kingdom is not of this world." And second, there are lots of commentators and interpreters. Can’t we rely upon the earthly establishments - the laws that are not as lofty, but are precise?

Smirnov: Do you want to know why this is impossible? There are no prospects for Russia except for liberalism and democracy. Until Russia becomes a democratic country with a liberal economy, we'll keep being dependent on the oil pipeline. 

RG: In other words, it's still the Western way of development?

Smirnov: I do not know. We are as much Europe, as Asia. So far our Asian origin has not been fruitful in any way. And every time we have stepped on the European road, we achieved at least something. Our Silver Age is also the result of the reforms of Alexander II. One-third of the grain which was exported in the world in those times was Russian. I do not believe that the most enlightened authoritarian government can make Russia happy. A return to the path of democracy and liberalism is inevitable.

RG: You are an optimist.

Smirnov: Churchill once said something like, “To make people used to freedom you have to free them.”

RG:  Shukshin wrote the novel I Come to Give You Liberty about Stepan Razin. Liberty and Freedom seem to be similar concepts, but they are not quite the same. One researcher from Samara, who is examining the history of the concept of liberalism, has decided to see how it relates to Russian ideas about freedom and liberty.  What she found out was that liberalism is based on the concept of freedom. First of all it had to do with the elite and was linked with their social responsibility. Liberty is the realization of dreams of escape. This dream was born in the low social rung - this notion of the poetic, rebellious, and riotous. At this point nobody means responsibility, but rather crossing borders: administrative, social, legal... It turns out that liberals talk about freedom, and the Russian people hear about liberty. With all the due consequences.

Smirnov: I think different concepts are being mixed here. Yes, the dream of leaving, of escape, of liberty, is alive among the lowest rung. But the world of peasantry did not rest on that, but rather on prosperous peasants and their relations with the authorities. Two or three guys kept a community running. Officials took bribes. I think Chekhov's stories draw an objective picture. But what does this have to do with Russian liberalism?

Liberalism in our country had its breakthroughs only at the "top" with businessmen and high government officials. Russian liberalism has never descended to the level of the village community. It has never had enough time to get there, unfortunately.

You call me an optimist? I am rather a pessimist. I am sure that sooner or later, most likely beyond my earthly life, Russia will have to go down the only path that creates the psychology of a free nation, one that is able to respect its neighbor. For this to happen, more than one generation is necessary- two, three, or four will need to grow up in the conditions of freedom and democracy. We haven’t had this kind of experience yet. But it must definitely emerge.