Russia’s Secret Life

The Washington Post reports:

Soviet Russia’s missiles and soldiers snaking through Red Square made chilling images, but one Russian-American filmmaker is casting a new light on this time to show there was life beneath the ice.

Semyon Pinkhasov, an emigre to the United States at the height of the cold war has made documentary films about prominent Soviet-era artisan and sport figures, who not only survived but thrived during communism’s repressive rule.

“When the temperatures sink and snow is on the ground there is still life under the ice. It is the same for society under a dictatorship,” said Pinkhasov.

Self-taught and self-financed, his films have been shown worldwide at festivals, and on Russian and English-language television channels.

One film about German fencing legend Helene Meyer, whose half-Jewish heritage provided Adolf Hitler with political cover to stage the 1936 Olympics, won for best screenplay at the 2009 International Festival of Sports Films in Moscow.

All of the films expose the tragicomic truths about cultural life under the grey facade of communism and fascism.

After having his medical school hopes crushed by Soviet prejudice, he reinvented himself as a physiotherapist, supported a family, trained champion fencers and marched with the U.S. Olympic team as a coach in 1984.

And then nearing the time when most people retire, he plunged head first into the world of documentary films.


“Music Made on Thursdays,” his first film tells the story of Grigory Fried and his music club that took hold in 1965. Fried tackled taboo subjects when paranoia ruled and Russia’s military industrial complex turned out war materiel above all else.

Every topic of discussion was taboo without communist party approval. Fried just never bothered to get advance clearance.

The club served as an outlet to listen and discuss classical music, something far removed from the overbearing state, the drudgery of work, and the miserable weather.

“It didn’t work out the way (Fried) wanted. I started to go when I was 20 years old. Now everyone in the audience is in their 60’s. There are no young people and I thought I have to get this all on film before it dies,” he said.

“The whole system, communism, was a fraud. It was about suppression and squeezing the life out of people. But even then, under this dictatorship they achieved some positive things.” Pinkhasov explained.

A composer and musicologist, Fried at 94 still runs the club but has never taken a salary, Pinkhasov said.

“We like to vilify the Soviet Union, but there were many positive aspects of the system. The music club shows a close group of friends getting together. Art mattered then. It was a matter of escape and in it a way to find reality,” said Harlow Robinson, professor of history at Northeastern University in Boston.

Pinkhasov left in 1976 and believed he would never return, only to see the spectacular collapse of the regime in 1991. But he did return – and often – to see family and friends and found the remnants of his old life still ticking.

Growing up in the aftermath of World War Two, Pinkhasov remembered the propagandist cartoons of Boris Efimov, perhaps Stalin’s favorite cartoonist.

His brother Mikhail Koltsov was a journalist and top editor of Pravda before Josef Stalin had him arrested and executed in one of his purges.

Efimov antagonized the Nazis so much during Russia’s brutal war against Germany that Hitler issued a standing order to have him arrested and shot once Moscow was captured.

When he died at age 108 in 2008, the diminutive man from Moscow, a Jew, was buried in the Russian Orthodox Novodevichy Cemetery, along with Boris Yeltsin and other Russian elite.

“Why wasn’t I arrested?. This question people very often ask me, and I don’t really know the answer, but I think Stalin liked my cartoons,” Efimov said in the film titled “I am not Giordano Bruno.”

The film’s title is a reference to the 16th Century Italian priest, philosopher and astronomer who died when he refused to sign onto Vatican statements that the earth was the center of the universe.

Another film called “Judge Not…” tells the story of Tikhon Khrennikov, the first and last secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers, whose job was thrust upon him by Stalin in 1948. He held it until the Soviet Union’s collapse. He died at 94 in 2007.

His influence in the country was enormous. He was responsible for the music played publicly in Russia, the venues, salaries, and the pecking order of Soviet musicians.

Pinkhasov says that while authors and poets were convicted of anti-Soviet behavior, with many imprisoned, exiled from public life or killed, no musical composer under Khrenikov was believed to have suffered similar fates.

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