Andrei Rublev 1966: The birth of Slavic Nationalism through Soviet Cinema

Andrei Rublev 1966 is in many ways a satire that maintains its ambiguity. The film is structured in eight parts that explain the journey of Andrei Rublev and that of the Slavic people as a whole. Throughout the film, Rublev is very conflicted between austere Christianity and Sensual Paganism. This is particularly relevant because the entire Russian nation was under the Tartar invasion. Rublev stumbles upon St. John’s Eve celebrated by alien rites, strange and delicate, with naked peasants carrying torches through the mist ( a scene which is very important as it signifies the struggle of the Slavic people in search of enlightenment and hope). It is here that he witnessed the capturing of the monk (a sign of oppression). Suddenly one of the torches touches him accidentally and momentarily his robes are set aflame.

Andrei Rublev 1966 trailer

In many of the film’s episodes, Andrei Rublev isn’t even present. One can say it is only the memory that surmounts the events that follow. Is it even possible to penetrate the thoughts of an entire community? Perhaps not. But Tarkovsky maintains his brilliance in more than one way. This is a film that can only be experienced, a film that penetrates the regime of the haptic and makes the viewer a part of it. The difference between myth and real becomes extremely thin. In today’s world, all biographies are merely cause-and-effect simulations. It is done so as to paint a clearer picture of the person on whom the biography is based.

Andrei Rublev tackles the question of Art and the Artist

Andrei Rublev asks critical questions about the relationship between the artist and society at large. Tarkovsky decides boldly not to answer any leaving the audience masters of their own opinion. It is formless but aesthetically coherent. It is safe to say, that much of this can be attributed to the time when Tarkovsky tries to put history on trial.

Andrei Rublev (played by Anatoly Solonitsyn)

On May 29, 1453, the world was taken aback by the sudden rise of the Ottoman Turks. It was on this day when Mehmed II marched victoriously against his Byzantine rival Constantine XI Palaiologos. With that, the great city of Constantinople fell to the Turks. But why is this significant?  The answer to this question is full of contradictions. One may as well argue that this rude awakening was one of the primary reasons why, in the next couple of centuries, the continent of Europe would be tackling the question of nationalism.

Onward with the Historical Detour

At this point in time, the nations per se did not have a fully formed political identity. It would not be until the renaissance that Europe would categorically try to come up with the answer to what a citizen was. A mere subject meant for the collection of taxes? Or individuals with formidable decision-making capacity who had rights. But the East-West schism had made the matters worse because of constant war and retribution. It was during the fourth crusade when the crusaders plundered the city of Constantinople.

War and Devastation (imagery from Andrei Rublev 1966)

The once prosperous East was now in a state of conflict with its now powerful West. There were no nations, there were empires, Kingdoms, Principalities, and a few archaic Republics. But it is here at this moment when the ever-powerful Ottomans marched into Europe. One after another many old and illustrious empires fell, communities were annihilated and what remained was a mere province full of sheep. But their death warrants were signed long before, the first “Janissari” ever set foot on Slavic soil. The Ottomans eradicated the Slavic language and custom by force, to the point it was only in the late 18th century that the Slavic revival gained momentum.

Slavic nationhood redefined (through Andrei Rublev)

As for the Slavs, the question of nationality was always answered by violence. The Slavs, therefore, found respite in religion. Their beloved Orthodox Church was abandoned by the West and Oppressed by the Turks. The Slavic identity now was inseparable from the Christian faith. One may say the struggles the Slavs faced were similar to those faced by “Early Christians” who were constantly harassed by the Roman Empire. The Slavs would later rally behind the “Russian Empire” first led by Peter the Great and then by his successors.

And finally, when the mighty Russian Empire fell in a similar fashion to that of Constantinople, the jubilation quickly faded. The very God that had helped an entire community to fight against the Turks, gave them their place under the sun, and led them to the path of nationhood was now outlawed in the “Marxist-Leninist” State called the Soviet Union. The sense of belonging with atheism was something alien to these people. To them, the history of their own and that of the Orthodox Church was no different. 

Andrei Rublev- An identity marker

But the question of religion was one that wasn’t to be raised in Stalinist Russia. It was only after his death and the Coup by Khrushchev, that the question of culture was once again raised, and Andrei Tarkovsky seized this opportunity. Andrei Rublev was his attempt to approach this question of identity. The film tackles many themes like artistic freedom, political ambiguity, freedom of expression, and autodidactism. In the eyes of Tarkovsky, Rublev embodied the spirit of Russia and thereby of all Slavic people. 

The overarching theme of Eastern orthodoxy in Andrei Rublev (1966)
The overarching theme of Eastern orthodoxy in Andrei Rublev (1966)

Made under repressive conditions, the film was Tarkovsky’s genuine attempt to answer the prevailing questions of the time. The very sensation of insignificance became even more pertinent after the downfall of Khrushchev and the rise of the paranoid Brezhnev. Tarkovsky invented the myth of Rublev in his own way. One, that in many ways is autobiographical in nature. For both Rublev and Tarkovsky were artists oppressed by the state. Rublev was able to visualize the spiritual being of Christ and paint him in his own image. Tarkovsky created myths to justify the concurrent reality.

The Marxist approach to identity begins with the proletariat and ends with the same. It is so because of the apparent denial of Marx and Marxists that ethnicity is a major contributing factor behind the creation of a community. The role of religion is that of an adhesive because it is from here the questions of being and self are answered. But the Soviet Union decided to completely ignore the nature of ethnicity thereby terming culture to be of feudal origin. The only problem is this left many without a legacy because history was being rewritten using a Marxist pen.

Parting words …

An ode to death...
An ode to death…

As the famed French film critic Andre Bazin said in his essay “Myth of Total Cinema” the world itself is attempting to force itself out of the screen. Strange creatures animated by Tarkovsky’s imagination, a cat bounds across a corpse-strewn church, wild geese flying and fluttering over a ravaged city. The birch woods are alive with water snakes and crawling ants. Even the soundtrack is full of birdcalls and wordless singing.  All of this is a constant reminder of uncertainties that the Slavic people have faced throughout history. Tarkovsky does not engage in an ideological battle. Rather he attempts to put history on trial itself and uses Rublev and Christianity as his axioms.

To Tarkovsky, Rublev is an artist on a sacred mission. He paints god in a manner that transcends region and nation and touches the Slavic community as a whole. The brushes and patterns do not belong to the painter. The almighty wishes to be portrayed in such a way. Andrei Rublev is a film not just about the iconic painter but rather the journey of the entire Slavic nation as a whole. It uses myth to describe the image of the Slavic people throughout their history. Never has one made a film so masterfully that subtly tries to answer questions long ignored by history and politics, through the eyes of an artist.

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