Upcycled, mixed media artwork by Keely Jane
"He Who Comes to Us with the Sword shall Die by the Sword." —Final line from the movie Alexander Nevsky
Seven months ago, Vladimir Putin with the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, at his side, traveled to Samolva, a village near Pskov, to dedicate a 62-foot-tall statue of Alexander Nevsky and his soldiers. The statue commemorates the 800th anniversary of Nevsky's birth. Russian television viewers in 2008 voted Nevsky their greatest historical figure ahead of Peter the Great (surprising to many in the West, Stalin finished third). In 1240 and 1242, Nevsky defeated invading armies of Swedes and Germans respectively, thwarting an attempt endorsed by the Pope in Rome to expand the Catholic Church's religious and economic influence eastward in a quasi-Crusade. There are at least 20 monuments to him across Russia along with numerous churches, and Alexander Square in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, is named for Nevsky. Perhaps more surprising, there's a Nevsky statue in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and a Nevsky Church in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Like Russia, Belarus and Ukraine revere Nevsky as a founding father. This is partly due to the historic politically fluid nature of the region, but it's also due to the influence of the Orthodox Church, which remains the dominant religion in all three countries. Like King David and Muhammad, Alexander Nevsky was both a military hero and a religious figure. He was sainted by the Orthodox Church in the 16th century for "saving" the religion and for his own piety at the end of his 42-year life.
The timing of the monument dedication in Samolva and Putin's decision to appear side by side with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church was no accident. Putin has repeatedly used Nevsky as a key symbol for his brand of Russian Orthodox Nationalism both within Russia "proper" and in those areas he claims as part of the Russian Orthodox nation. Shortly after the annexation of Crimea, a new Nevsky statue appeared there. Nevsky statues are also popular in the Donbas. Still, the most vital Nevsky memorial is neither a statue nor a church, it's Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film Alexander Nevsky. Consider this: while the historical Nevsky was just 21 when he led the defense of Novgorod, modern renderings tend to make him look suspiciously like Nicolay Cherkosav, the lead actor from the film who was 35 at the time and arguably looks older on screen. This may also be due to the fact that there may not be surviving paintings of Nevsky during his lifetime. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Russia invasion of Ukraine is how badly Putin, the promoter of Nevsky's legacy, has botched the iconography of the Eisenstein film and how deftly Ukraine has inverted a movie that includes repeated calls to defend Russia.
The Movies as a Political Weapon
Between the World Wars, different countries weaponized the relatively new medium of film. Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935), which chronicled the 1934 Nazi Party Congress, is still the most infamous example. The American Department of War's Bureau of Public Relations commissioned Frank Capra's series of seven films Why We Fight (1942-1945) to specifically counter Riefenstahl. Those seven documentaries are little seen and remembered today. Capra's most effective pro-democracy weapon turned out to be his commercial film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), where Jimmy Stewart uses the filibuster for "Good" to save a camp for the "Boy Rangers." Ironically, Mr. Smith was deemed possibly anti-American by the Hays Code censors and the Boy Scouts of America denied Capra the use of their name because of its portrayal of the corruption of the US Senate not by Mussolini or Hitler but by domestic monied interests (can you imagine?). Hitler and Mussolini, however, immediately saw Mr. Smith's power as American propaganda and banned it. Several French theater owners made Mr. Smith the last American movie they screened before a Nazi ban on American movies went into effect. Because Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938) is frequently cited today as cinematic art due to its long (roughly a quarter of the movie) brilliantly imagined battle on ice sequence—the best mass battle scene since Abel Gance's Napoleon—and its score by Sergei Prokofiev, the film's roots as a USSR propaganda film sometimes get overlooked. In fact, Nevsky was closely monitored and funded by Stalin's inner circle, who assigned handlers to oversee its production and keep its pro-Soviet message on track or, as some would put it, "on tract." Nevsky's anti-German agenda was so clear, the film had to be taken out of circulation during the USSR's brief alliance with Nazi Germany.
All three directors' influence is very much alive. Donald Trump's escalator descent seemingly from the top of Trump Tower to announce his 2016 candidacy was likely taken directly from Hitler's descent from the clouds in Triumph of the Will. MAGA rallies often look strikingly like clumsy copies of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress as memorialized by Riefenstahl. One shudders to think what might have happened if the Republicans had found someone who paid the same painstaking attention to detail as Riefenstahl, who shot take after take to make the event fit her vision. Fortunately, while Hitler may remain popular with the Proud Boys and Madison Cawthorn, his place in the American Christian Nationalist movement has stayed sotto voce, at least this side of Tucker Carlson.
Capra's Mr. Smith stays rooted in the American political imagination. How many times have we seen montages of candidates standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the White House? It may just be the glasses, but progressive publications even use pictures of Mitch McConnell posed in ways that make him look a lot like an older version of Claude Rains's Senator Paine. Progressive candidates routinely trade on the Mr. Smith trope: the lone outsider with little experience with the system (Jean Arthur's character has to coach him about senate rules) tirelessly taking on vested interests on behalf of the powerless. Joe Biden's own working class boy from Scranton campaign motif certainly qualifies. More disturbing, Donald Trump managed to invoke this trope while simultaneously drawing inspiration from Hitler. Trump is not the only current far right politician who successfully uses Mr. Smith outsider imagery and rhetoric. For example, his insistence that the fake news media is out to get him comes from Capra and not his copy of Mein Kampf. Apparently, the technique is more powerful in our political zeitgeist than the actual substance. Perhaps most ironic of all in Capra's paean to the greatness of democracy, Jefferson Smith wasn't elected; he was appointed by the governor.
Eisenstein remarkably managed to make a great anti-Nazi and pro-Soviet Russia film through a story set in 1242 CE, almost 700 years before either "thing" existed. Many have pointed out the Teutonic Knights wear what look a lot like storm trooper helmets, and occasionally something like swastikas appear on their uniforms. In the meantime, the Russian soldiers wear helmets resembling the onion domes of Orthodox churches with the Orthodox crosses snipped off. Nevsky's basic point is a people inspired to defend its homeland will defeat a better equipped and better trained invader. Somehow, Putin got the part about Nevsky being the hero of the movie, but he didn't grasp the why. Nevsky has a scene where the local swordsmith hands out a variety of weapons to an endless line of civilians. Ukraine's Ministry for Digital Transformation, headed by Mikhailo Fedorov, has filled social media with updated images of Eisentein's peasant army volunteering and fighting at all costs to defend their homeland, where seniors, women, and shop clerks pick up rifles for the first time. Fedorov's ministry has brought Nevsky into the present by recruiting some 300,000 Ukrainians to report Russian troop movements with their cell phones and send e-mails to tech companies to take down Russian disinformation. Early in the movie, Eisenstein has a scene where the Germans throw a baby and an infant onto a fire after taking Pskov. Media reports from Ukraine have children's hospitals and schools being purposely hit by Russian rockets, pictures of refugee children fleeing without their parents, and reports of Russians kidnapping thousands of Ukrainian children and spiriting them across the border to be disappeared by Putin's Immigration Service. In the meantime, to quote J.D. Vance, "I don't really care do you?" if Putin includes Melania Trump's native Slovenia in his vision of an expanded Russia.
It may just be me, but the German bad guy looks remarkably like a long ago Trump ancestor sporting a Prince Valiant haircut. It's definitely not a Trump. Although Trump's father's side happens to be German, it's even better known that the Trump family has avoided actual military service for generations. It's to ex-President Trump's credit that he never started any wars during his term—unless you count the one he waged on American ideals. I bring this up here because while Trump was said to have brought reality TV tactics to mainstream politics, Putin was considered a master manipulator because of his use of KGB techniques, having spent several years of his KGB career in East Germany. It's said Putin's vision of leadership and power was shaped when he, just after the Berlin Wall fell, wanted to call in Soviet tanks to keep a KGB Office in Dresden from being stormed. Fortunately, Gorbachev's people recognized it would be less like the tanks rolling over Prague Spring under cover of darkness than a Soviet Tiananmen Squared moment broadcast on worldwide television. Putin may have been manipulative enough to impact American elections with manufactured Facebook posts, but the incident in East Germany may have been an early sign he can also, from time to time, misjudge the optics of military action at a surprisingly amateurish level. If Putin played Edgar Bergen to Trump's Charlie McCarthy in Helsinki, he's now Chris Rock to Zelensky's Will Smith in a new form of warfare where electronic images can do more damage than tanks. Zelensky, however, has much better justification for metaphorically slapping Putin around.
If Ukraine's more obvious use of Eisenstein tropes weren't enough, the image jiu jitsu against the alleged martial artist Putin picks up even stray details from Nevsky. A minor but key figure in the movie is the daughter of the mayor of Pskov, whose father is publicly hanged by the Germans for speaking out. She joins the fight, helps to save one of the buddy pic characters by handing him what appears to be a telephone pole mid combat, then hunts down a Russian traitor and kills him. You may remember a story about a Ukrainian female member of parliament carrying anti-tank missiles to the front in her Chevy Volt, fighting fiercely without contributing to climate change. After the battle, Nevsky shows empathy for all common people by pardoning the German foot soldiers, because they were forced to fight. As skilled as Reifenstahl was, empathy and humor were not her strong suits, and I suspect they're not Putin's, either. Ukraine updated the Nevsky playbook with Zelensky telling the world he realizes many Russian invaders were duped, mis-trained, and have even deserted to avoid participating in further atrocities. Putin's propaganda school was the KGB; Zelensky's school was a sitcom about a teacher who somehow becomes President of Ukraine. In a better to be "loved than feared" moment, Zelensky's media masterstroke came when he went on TV to refuse foreign offers to get him out of the country lest the Russian invaders either capture or execute him: "I don't need a ride, I need more ammunition." That media moment may turn out to be the rotten apple embedded in Putin's Gregor Samsa cockroach carcass. Again, Nevsky has a parallel moment where the newly re-elected prince of Novgorod is encouraged by evil merchants and religious types to retreat, but he insists on attacking instead. No doubt, if things go well for Ukraine, they will complete the good guy bad guy inversion of the Eisenstein film with an image of Russian tanks falling into the ice as they retreat from the outskirts of Kyiv.
There are more serendipitous resonances. Nevsky was 21 when he won the Battle of the Ice. Zelensky happens to be 44, an equivalent age for a modern president. Putin is 69, which make him younger than Joe Biden but maybe as comparatively old as the black cowled German monk who plays that weird looking pipe organ on wheels, a dead ringer for the Emperor in Star Wars. George Lucas often mentions Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress as one of his inspirations, but my first viewing of Nevsky in a very grainy, jumpy print played through a classroom projector in 1976 suggested another. If there was one thing I remembered, it was the way Eisenstein had reversed some movie good guy bad guy conventions. It's the Germans who wear all white and have prominent crosses across the front of their uniforms. In 1977 when I saw Star Wars' faceless white uniformed Imperial stormtroopers, it was a "didn't I see this somewhere recently" moment. There's more than a bit of R2D2, C3P0 in the semi-comic buddy pair of Vasily and Gavrilo. If the eccentric musical instruments in the Star Wars bar scene look familiar, Nevsky uses them, too, only to better effect. If John Williams lifted from Holst and Brahms, it's even clearer he lifted from Prokofiev's Nevsky score, which can finally be heard in a post-Soviet restored print (I watched it on YouTube a few days ago) with a re-recorded score by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Eisenstein—this was just his second sound movie—uses the shots of people playing musical instruments to give the viewer the impression Prokofiev's music isn't just a soundtrack, but is actually playing during the events of the movie. Nevsky and Star Wars turn out to be homeomorphic both with respect to technique and theme. Similarly, the iconography of the Ukraine invasion invokes Nevsky, then flips it.
Sorry for getting off soundtrack there, but the little humanist touches in Nevsky help the movie move its audience. Zelensky the actor clearly has a better feel for them than Putin the spy. In keeping with Soviet dogma, the religious side of the historical Alexander Nevsky gets downplayed considerably. For what it's worth, Eisenstein was Jewish. Coincidentally, Zelensky is also Jewish, something that's made Putin's claim his invasion is an attempt to de-Nazify Ukraine considerably less persuasive unless you happen to be Marjorie Taylor Greene. The Germans' religious scenes stress pomp over substance, especially when juxtaposed with the scenes of their more dastardly acts. By comparison, Eisenstein portrays the Russian common people's love of their motherland as pure and instinctive. The final ceremony takes place in front of a church, but it's General Nevsky, not the Kirill, who presides over it. Putin's first blunder in his attempt to identify with the movie Nevsky's iconography—now more the reality than the actual Nevsky—may have come when he decided to show up at that dedication with the Kirill of Moscow conspicuously by his side in full regalia.
Perhaps the most curious thing about this what's-Russia-what's-not-Russia business is that Alexander Nevsky the movie, and the historical figure, may be important as a symbol of Russia, but the truth is in Nevsky's own time Russia wasn't yet Russia. Historians refer to the culture of the time as Kievan Rus, a mix of Viking and Slavic influence. Kyiv was then the center of the Orthodox church and, according to many, the mother city of what would become Russian culture. Roughly five years before the Battle on Ice, Kyiv had been taken by the Mongols. The Mongol invasion allegedly reduced the population of Kyiv, then the largest city in proto-Russia, from roughly 60,000 to 5,000 or 6,000 people. Although born in Vladimir (yes another coincidence), Nevsky himself might not identify as Russian today; his grandmother was from Kyiv and his father had served as the Prince of Kyiv. As Putin claims, Ukraine and Russia were most certainly one country at various points. It's just that he neglects to mention Russia is less the loving Kievan Rus bigger brother than it is the abusive husband whose wife elected to divorce him and who now won't leave her alone. The beginning of Eisenstein's film is a scene where the Mongols happen upon Nevsky, who instead of doing prince-like things is showing his solidarity with the proletariat by working a huge fishing net on the shores of a lake. The Mongol leader offers Nevsky a generalship in their armies, but Nevsky declines because he only fights for his own people. Maybe he saw the Mongol leader use the back of one of his own men as a step stool? The question is whether his own people today are Ukrainian or Russian. Despite the movie's oft-repeated "Do it for Russia" invocations, it's clear to me this Nevsky is on the side of those defending their homeland from fake-religious, baby-killing invaders. Perhaps in the next restoration, they'll have to change the subtitles to say Ukraine instead of Russia? Perhaps this moment in history will inspire a movie urging future generations to promote peace by refusing to heed amoral leaders pretending to be people of faith?