In 1767 Catherine II began facilitating the recording of the transit of Venus, a rare astronomical event that would occur in 1769 and that scientists from all over Europe and North America would be observing. Working with the director of the Imperial Academy of Sciences Vladamir Orlov and the naval officers who would note the various positions of the planet’s trajectory as it traveled between the earth and the sun, Catherine ensured that Russia would be a part of this important event which would help scientists all over the world measure the size of the universe. She engaged in logistics with scientists and data collectors in the Winter Palace (Jaques, 2016:80-81) the site of what is now a part of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the subject of Alexandr Sokurov’s dreamy and beautiful movie, Russian Ark (2002).
Russian Ark is a multilayered docudrama about the Hermitage Museum, told from the perspective of a bewildered voice from off screen whose perspective is what viewers see on screen. The unseen voice finds himself entering the Winter Palace wing of the Hermitage Museum and touring the museum with the historical character of Marquis de Custine, a French Aristocrat who wrote a classic work of travel literature about Nicolas I’s Russia. As they move through the building, the characters who shaped the museum’s collections pass them, while the unseen voice and Le Custine converse and verbally spar. Completed in a single shot, the two characters’ discussion of art touches on issues of nationalism, empire and international relations as selected events from the building’s past unfold around them.
Birgit Beumers’ book is an excellent primer on the movie, contextualizing it and presenting the critical reception and scholarly analysis the motion picture has inspired. At once a production history, a film analysis and a history of the museum, the Chair of the Film Studies Department at Aberystwyth University has written a concise and thought-provoking volume. Based on interviews, research and an interpretation of the digital movie, Dr. Beumers explores the contradictions and controversies for viewers, scholars and critics responding to the film, which celebrates Russian modern history and Russian nationalism by focusing on an international collection of Western European Art, featuring mostly art collected by the strong and charismatic Empress Catherine II.
Isabel De Madariaga’s Catherine The Great: A Short History describes how Princess Sophia of Anhalt Zerbst became Catherine II, outmaneuvering the various schemers plotting against her ineffective husband Peter II and claiming the throne in 1762. Ruling Russia for 34 years she oversaw the expansion of empire and continued Peter I’s modernizing project, reinvigorating cultural life as well as positioning Russia as a part of the Western European Enlightenment. Directly involved in governing, she used her Enlightenment education to oversee the rewriting of Russia’s legal code, facilitated Russia’s involvement in the world historical events such as the observation of the Transit of Venus and commissioned translations of important Enlightenment literature into Russian. In short, she was instrumental in the development of Russian Modernity.
Most importantly for Sokurov’s Russian Ark, Catherine sent envoys out all over Europe to buy up other collectors’ paintings and sculptures in order to amass a world-class collection of art, guided by her aesthetic understanding as it related to the other aspects of her modernizing project, the quest for Universal knowledge and to demonstrate Russia’s place in European culture. Beumers discusses the paintings such as Titian’s Flight Into Egypt (1507), as well as paintings by Van Dyk, Peter Paul Reubens and others that Catherine acquired for the museum and gives a brief biography of Custine in “Chapter 2: Contexts”. This provides the reader the with the background necessary for “Chapter 3: Film Analysis”, in which she discusses Sokurov’s version of Custine and his reactions both to the selection and placement of the paintings in the museum and describes the major narrative points in the movie.
Sokurov has the two main characters view only Western European art and focuses on the events of European-minded and modernist rulers, while emphasizing through Custine and the unnamed voice’s conversation that Russia is the protector of European culture. Reviewing the critical and theoretical writings on Russian Ark, Beumers argues in “Chapter 4: Themes and Motifs” that the choice of having the unnamed voice and Custine make their journey through the part of the museum that ignores native Russian art and Asian and oriental art, Sokurov presents a contradictory kind of nationalism. Russia is separate from Asia and is superior to the rest of Europe because only Russia can properly preserve Western European art while the rest of Western Europe abandons its own cultural heritage, (49).
As a reader who has seen Russian Ark several times, I was most resistant to this part of the book. Russian Ark nicely subverts the celebratory tone of a national museum film, engaging in the contradictions of modernity and the national imagination, and little of the criticism resonated with my experience of the movie. Without knowing any of Sokurov’s other work, nor his public stances on current Russian politics, the movie expressed the confused pride, misplaced desire and sense of belonging inherent in investing in a nationalist stance through art. Additionally, it did not strike me as kitsch, but as an epic, rhythmic, well planned and beautiful pageant, offering the thrill of the coordination of hundreds choreographed bodies in celebration of a history of the Hermitage building.
By the fifth chapter, “Reception”, which covers some of the controversies which occurred at film festivals and the critical reception in Russia and other places, it occurred to me what Dr. Beumers’ book does well is collect everything that had been written about Russian Ark and contextualize the film for further research. Reading the above chapters along with the first chapter which gives a detailed narrative of the logistics of completing the journey of the single shot and a map of the cameraman’s path of the timeline, Aleksandr Sokurov: Russian Ark serves as a succinct companion to the landmark movie.
While I don’t agree with many of the interpretations of the film that Birgit Beumers presents, she synthesizes and presents those interpretations with skill. It would be stimulating to see the movie with others, read the book and engage in a lively group conversation about the two, an activity of which Catherine II, a frequent correspondent with Diderot and Voltaire, would approve.