When it comes to so called "historical" dramas, one cannot wish for them to be historically objective. If you were to take a couple of Hollywood produced historical films, and test their content for historical accuracy, or rather the degree of conformity to some established historical consensus, a lot of them would probably fail miserably. At RFE/RL they however have a job of smearing everything Russian, so they quoted the displeasure of two historians about a new Russian historical film. However, the lack of an absolute historical objectivity does no harm to a historical drama, whether Russian or American produced. A drama is a work of art which has the right to take a liberty with the narrative and esthetics to produce a more captivating and entertaining sight.
The main detractors are expected to be Russia's nearly 6 million Tatars, who are considered the country's modern-day descendants of nomads who joined Genghis Khan's army and eventually helped to create the Golden Horde.
They say the film -- which received financial backing from Orthodox Encyclopedia, a company that has backed numerous movies glorifying the Russian Orthodox Church and the lives of its saints -- falsely depicts the Golden Horde as an empire dominated by random violence, greed, and ignorance.
The film's director, Andrei Proshkin, has defended the film as a work of "historic fiction," saying it was never intended as a true-to-life depiction of the Golden Horde.
The director is right, the picture is a drama, and while it might be based on some historical accounts, the producers cannot do a drama without adding fictitious material.
As for the Horde being an empire dominated by violence and greed, the picture may not be that far from the truth. The article on RFE/RL does not provide much in terms of information on the plot, but thankfully there is a Wikipedia page which does. Some information might come in hand before I continue.
Mother of Khan Janibek, Taydula, suddenly becomes blind. The word has reached the Horde that in Moscow there lives a man who has the gift of miraculously healing people, Metropolitan Alexiy. The Horde sends for Alexiy, threatening the Muscovites with a raid in case he rejects.
To give you an illustration on the state of affairs in the Horde, Janibek came to power by killing his two brothers, and there is also a version which says that he himself was eventually killed by his own son. These people were no strangers to violence.
But I do not think there will be much displeasure of the Tatars towards the film, although I am sure that RFE/RL and their nationalistic Tatar brigade are salivating over such a prospect. Prepare for Azatlyk (see my recent post about them here) picketing the cinemas in the best case.
Among those offended are the very researchers who were hired to help Proshkin and his screenwriter re-create the sights and sounds of life under the Mongol Empire.
Vadim Rudakov, a researcher specializing in the Golden Horde, was the first consultant hired by the Orthodox Encyclopedia staff in June 2009.
He came away from the first meeting feeling enthusiastic that Russia would "finally" have an accurate depiction of life under its Mongol forbearers, who are widely credited with establishing regional government, a postal system, census-taking, and military organization.
But once the script was developed, Rudakov was crestfallen. Most of his suggestions about historical accuracy had been ignored, he told RFE/RL. And the depiction of the Mongols, he said, was deeply degrading.
"Some of them were given human qualities, but the overall impression is of brutal, bloodthirsty, evil-minded, greedy people.
Regional government? Postal system? Military organisation? What? How? I am sure there is much more to these terms, but on their own they say nothing. One is forced to ask whether the Russians did not know about regional government, did not have means of communicating between themselves over long distances, did not gather data about their people, and did not have the knowledge of military organisation and tactics, prior to being ransacked by enlightened nomads from the steppe? Centuries of contacts with Byzantium did not yield any results in those areas?
Despite such controversy, "The Horde" has earned early accolades, with Proshkin taking the top directing award at this summer's Moscow Film Festival and one of his stars, Rosa Khairulina, taking the prize for best actress.
Rosa Khairulina is a Tatar actress who apparently did not have a problem with her role as Taydula. Reviewers say she is really good in the film. I am sure that Taydula is depicted as no less brutal than her male relatives, but aren't brutality, violence, and greed also human qualities? By the way, the film also received an award from the Network for Promotion of Asian Cinema.
Orthodox Moscow in the film according to the above-linked review looks formal and stereotypical, and in terms of the energy of the place cannot compete with the Horde.
And many movie fans are likely to be drawn in by the film's ambitious set design, which involved the reconstruction of the city of Sarai Batu, the capital of the Golden Horde, outside the Russian city of Astrakhan.
But Rudakov, who originally recommended the Astrakhan site, says the film designers took liberties with the architecture, clothing, and customs of the times, building a "stereotype" of an eastern city but ignoring long-established facts about the Horde.
The intention of a film maker is to make an awesome, and entertaining scene, the intention of a historian is to come as close as possible to learning the truth about things such as architecture, clothing, and customs of the period that he is researching. Here, obviously, we see a conflict of interests. My suggestion is that historians should not expect historical accuracy from drama.
Rudakov and others say "Horde" is little more than an attempt to denigrate Russia's Mongol roots and herald the role of Christianity in throwing off the "Mongol yoke." In the film, the character of Metropolitan Aleksei is credited with protecting Moscow from a Tatar raid in the 14th century.
Not even the Tatars of today have any significant Mongol roots, they are descended from Turkic people who knew high culture long before the Mongol conquest. As for the role of Metropolitan Alexiy, his success in healing Taydula, according to tradition, won favour of the Horde for the young Muscovite state, this in turn led to Moscow becoming the dominant Russian principality, and in the end making the Horde itself its domain, but that had to wait for several centuries after the events on which the movie is based.
The movie's release also comes at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and its Tatar population, which has accused the Kremlin of seeking to restrict minority-language rights and even Muslim worship.
Tatar historian and novelist Wahit Imamov says "The Horde" and earlier movies like "Yaroslav the Wise" are part of the Kremlin's determination to use culture to promote Russia's image as a Slavic, Christian nation.
"Russians have always tried to picture themselves as the most 'civilized' nation," Imamov says. "Non-Russians can hardly accept films such as 'Yaroslav Mudriy' or any other similar ones. They show Tatars as a wild tribe constantly eating raw meat and moving from one place to another. What is really sad is that Tatars or the Tatarstan government are doing nothing [in terms of making their own movies]."
As far as I am remember, there was no mention of Tatars in "Yaroslav the Wise". Maybe I did not pay attention to the film as I did not enjoy it, please correct me if I'm wrong.
The initiative behind "The Horde" comes from the Church, it is about an Orthodox Saint. The closest one can get to seeing some support from the state is that it received sponsorship from Gazprom. But then again Gazprom also owns Ekho Moskvy, so in terms of propaganda, the company does not always act in government's interests.
The argument that the government wants to present an image of a country which is Orthodox and Slavic (it overwhelmingly is by the way) is not supportable.
But who is making noise about this anyway? Few nationalistic Tatars who get their rants published published on the State Department funded RFE/RL?