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Remembering the Ukraine we've lost in the classic documentary, ‘In Spring’

'In Spring' was a silent experimental documentary, released in the Soviet Union in 1929 by director Mikhail Kaufman
Video still
Public domain
'In Spring' was a silent experimental documentary, released in the Soviet Union in 1929 by director Mikhail Kaufman. the George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theatre is showing it at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 3.

Let’s not pretend that COVID will fade away on its own.

Let’s not pretend that a horde of vandals storming the United States Capitol on Jan. 6 is how democracy works.

Let’s not pretend that sitting in our living rooms, watching conflict unfold on television, is normal family entertainment. And I’m not talking about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars.

Disease. A traitorous insurrection.

And war.

These are days of mass delusion.

Three years after Peter Bagrov left Russia, he remains in contact with friends there. He exchanges emails with friends in Ukraine. He is on social media with friends who have recently fled both countries.

“I have this weird feeling, you know, like I…” Bagrov pauses for a second, searching for the proper historical context. And he finds it, in another country. In another century. He has this weird feeling, he says, “like any normal German would have during World War II, when you belonged to a country which started that pointless and cruel war.”

The weird feeling he gets through his communications with friends: We’ve been here before.

“These are the types of letters,” Bagrov says, “I am used to reading in archives, and in books, when I am reading about the 1940s.”

Bagrov is the George Eastman Museum’s curator in charge of its Moving Image Department, arriving here with an extensive résumé in film. His work as a curator and scholar includes time as the vice president of the International Federation of Film Archives. He was the senior curator of Gosfilmofond, Russia’s national film archive. And he was artistic director of Belye Stolby, the oldest archival film festival in Russia.

He has always had an interest in old films, both as art and as a document of their time. To that end, the George Eastman Museum’s Dryden Theatre is showing a 1929 Ukrainian film, “In Spring.” It is a 65-minute silent film, with piano accompaniment by Rochester’s voice of the silent film, Dr. Philip C. Carli.

Admission to the 7:30 p.m. Sunday showing is a pay-as-you-will donation. The money will support the people of Ukraine through ROC Maidan, a nonprofit group supporting humanitarian aid for the people of Ukraine. Some of the proceeds will go to the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, the Ukrainian film archive in Kyiv, protecting Ukrainian cultural heritage.

The world, and the arts community, have taken up the cause of Ukraine. On the same Sunday as the showing of “In Spring,” Fairport’s Iron Smoke Distillery has a 1:30 p.m. Ukrainian benefit with live music, food, drinks and raffles. ROC Maiden will again organize the distribution of the funds collected.

Ukraine is on our minds. The Ukrainian group Dakha Brakha has an April 5 show at the Eastman School of Music’s Kilbourn Hall. I saw them at the 2017 Rochester International Jazz Festival. An unexpectedly theatrical quartet in black and red traditional garments, Dakha Brakha is a bearded bald man and three women in black fur hats 1½ feet tall.

The music was astonishingly powerful, percussion-driven folk music performed at breakneck speed, with a smattering of accordions, ukulele, cello and some native instruments, and the angel-to-wraith wailing of the women woven throughout. The group’s piece simulating the sounds of birds was one of my single-most memorable moments of the festival.

I always hope that art overcomes war. Or at least helps alleviate the pain. I tried to arrange an interview with Dakha Brakha. The group could not oblige; it is too overwhelmed with requests from journalists who want to speak to Ukrainians.

That war we are watching on television -- Russia’s invasion of Ukraine -- is a civil war in many respects for Bagrov. He was born in St. Petersburg, some of his great-grandparents were born in Ukraine. His wife, Anna, a scholar of literature and cinema who is currently writing a book, splits the difference: She was born in Ukraine and used to teach in Moscow.

Pater Bagrov.
Jacob Walsh
Pater Bagrov.

As a response to current events, the choice of “In Spring” as representative of Ukraine is deliberately apolitical, Bagrov says.

“To me what is wonderful, and I would say specifically in Soviet, in the best Soviet foreign films -- there were plenty of bad ones, of course -- is that like many Hollywood films, which were beautifully shot on sets with lots of makeup and big stars, the Soviets, even some of the fiction films, had this documentary angle.”

Bagrov speaks with the accent of his native Russia, but that is no hindrance to him creating spectacular run-on sentences in English.

“And the ability of going on the streets and seeing the actual faces of the ’20s,” he says, “with no makeup and no artificial lighting for sets, that is what to me, that is what is particularly valuable in Soviet cinema in general of that period, and this one in particular.”

Hollywood’s vision of Russia, Bagrov says, is not 20/20.

“That’s not how the people looked, and that’s not how they walked, and how they dressed. That’s the movies.

“When you’re looking at a film shot on a set which takes place in Kyiv, for example, it’s very difficult to associate that with Kyiv today. In this case, that’s quite the opposite because it’s the same streets, the same people, except now it’s great-grandchildren.”

“In Spring” is the creation of Mikhail Kaufman. He is part of a cinematic trio of brothers, Dziga Vertov and Boris Kaufman. Boris went on to be the cinematographer for classic films such as “Twelve Angry Men” and “On the Waterfront.” And Vertov directed “Man with a Movie Camera,” what Bagrov says is “one of the greatest silent films ever made.”

Bagrov describes Ukraine as having experienced two periods of filmmaking excellence. One was the 1960s. “In Spring” emerged from the earlier period, the 1920s and into the early ’30s. In fact, four years before “In Spring” was shot, there was another film that even people with a casual acquaintance with silent films may know. Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin,” a drama of the Russian Revolution. The most famous scene in the film, the massacre of civilians by Russian Cossacks, is set in the Ukrainian city of Odessa.

So history is precedent. And film is prescient.

Mikhail Kaufman looking through his camera at the photographer
Eleazar Langman
Public domain
Mikhail Kaufman.

Mikhail Kaufman was the cameraman for “Man with a Movie Camera.” In fact, he even appears a few times in it as a man with a movie camera. It's a film that while Bagrov says is about “the everyday world, it is actually a very poetic film about the omnipotence of the movie camera.”

That wasn’t enough for Kaufman. While he was filming “Man with a Movie Camera,” he was also setting aside scenes for the film he had in mind: “In Spring.”

This resulted in a professional rupture between the two brothers. “They never worked together again,” Bagrov says.

That’s a theme here. In this case, a professional civil war. Kaufman was “more interested in the reality.”

In other words, a documentary. Yet poetic. “Winter turns to spring,” Bagrov says. “Death turns to life.” And Kaufman nailed it. Bagrov quotes a Ukrainian poet who wrote of it, “a snail in this film is as beautiful as Greta Garbo.”

That’s one hell of a cinematic magic trick. “In Spring,” Bagrov says, is about “the joy of life. And this is one of the reasons we selected the film.” He calls it an overlooked classic.

“It was not by accident they made this film in Ukraine. Censorship was beginning to get quite strict in Moscow, and a whole bunch of filmmakers, especially those who didn’t have any strong Moscow ties, they actually decided to work in Ukraine. Which was much more liberal place back then.”

Yet it wouldn’t be long before what Bagrov calls “the Russiafication of Ukraine.” Preserving that pre-Soviet Ukraine is the value of “In Spring.”

“It actually shows the life of simple, of everyday life of Ukrainian people,” he says. “Which is the greatest tragedy, that it is being attacked right now.”

Even the most peaceful landscapes cannot escape war.

“As much as I am skeptical,” Bagrov says, “I was skeptical about Russian politics for quite some time, and that’s why I am here and not there. This is something that even I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect Putin to go that far. It’s rather unbelievable.”

As a well-informed skeptic, Bagrov says, he should have known better.

“I think the people who are civilized and educated, intelligent to a certain extent, they know how history works. And they have no illusions about the government, and about the president.”

That’s President Putin he’s talking about.

“So they know where to look for the news.”

But there is danger in finding that news.

“If you write about the war, for example, and call it ‘war,’ rather than an ‘anti-military operation,’ that’s formally breaking the law. You can be arrested for that.”

You won’t be sentenced to an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn-style Gulag. But Bagrov says he has three friends who have each spent 10 to 20 days in prison for crossing that line.

Others simply shrug, or ignore, the relentless lies of Russian state television.

“I’m sure that there are many who don’t care,” Bagrov says. “And many who support, and many who believe the official propaganda, that Ukrainians are all Nazis. That’s sort of the official line of propaganda.”

So yes, he concedes. It is possible that Russians who live in little villages, with no access to the internet, and no time to seek the truth, believe Ukrainians are Nazis.

But Russians who are educated, Bagrov asks? And aware?

“I cannot see how they can support this.”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.