Jules Verne’s Michel Strogoff and Russian Émigré Cinematic Mythology

On how the great silent movie came to life

/ by Vladimir Alexandrov

The story of how the great, epic silent film version of Jules Verne’s novel Michel Strogoff came to be made in Paris in 1925-1926 actually begins with the Russian Revolution and civil war. Together with representatives of the other arts, many members of the vibrant Russian pre-Revolutionary film industry left the country in 1919 and 1920. This included an entire company centered on the Ermoliev film studio in Moscow. Iosif Ermoliev had founded his studio on the eve of the First World War after having been the chief of sales for the famous French film company Pathé in Russia, which gave him an important connection with Paris that he would be able to exploit later. The group of actors, directors, technicians and other specialists that Ermoliev assembled included many leading figures of the day, such as the director Yakov Protazanov, who had made two of pre-Revolutionary Russia’s greatest films, The Queen of Spades (based on a story by Pushkin) and Father Sergius (based on a story by Tolstoy); Aleksandr Volkov and Viacheslav Turzhansky, who at various times worked as writers, actors and directors; the brilliant puppet animation (stop action) master Ladislav Starevich; cameramen Nikolai Toporkov, Fedot Burgasov and Nikolai Rudakov; the set designer Aleksandr Loshakov; and the actors Nataliya Lisenko, Nataliya Kovanko, Nikolai Rimsky, and especially Ivan Ilich Mozzhukhin, who was pre - Revolutionary Russia’s greatest male film star.

After the October Revolution, Ermoliev and his company left Moscow and went south to Yalta to escape the Bolsheviks. He established a new studio there and during the period 1918-1919 shot some sixteen films, including several that were anti-Bolshevik propaganda. Because of Ermoliev’s long-standing ties to Pathé, he was able to make several scouting trips to Paris during this period of civil war to prepare the evacuation of his entire company to France. Finally, in February 1920, Ermoliev and his troupe sailed into exile via Constantinople, where they spent two months and even shot some footage, before arriving in Marseilles. They brought with them several unfinished films and settled into their new home in the former Pathé studio in the Paris suburb of Montreuil-sous-Bois.

This was of course the era of silent films, so the fact that many of the Russian émigré actors did not know French, or spoke it with heavy accents, did not hamper their careers, at least during most of the 1920s. To familiarize the French public with Ermoliev’s Russian newcomers, French distributors released some of his earlier Russian successes, including The Queen of Spades. It was in Montreuil that Protazanov completed the first genuine Russian émigré film production, L'Angoissante aventure (The Distressing Adventure), which had been begun in Yalta, included footage from Constantinople, and was rewritten in France to include a number of French actors and locales, such as Marseilles. However, its release in November 1920 did not meet with much commercial success or overt critical curiosity1

After making a series of films that attempted to cater more successfully to French tastes by eschewing the kind of longueurs and morbidity that had been typical of Russian pre-Revolutionary cinema, in 1922 Ermoliev decided to move to Germany. He sold the Paris studio to his two associates, Kamenka and Blokh, who kept most of the troupe when they created a new company, Les Films Albatros, and who in 1924 annexed a failing distribution company, renamed Les Films Armor, to handle their productions. Together they brought the newly reconstituted Montreuil studio to its first stage of fame. Mozzhukhin was the small firm’s biggest star and 1923-1924 was Albatros’s apogee, with a dozen films produced—among them, Le Brasier ardent [Burning Brazier], Kean [Kean], and Les Ombres qui passent [The Passing Shadows]. These films consolidated Mozzhukhin’s popularity and critical standing in France2. It is worth noting, in light of my subject, that most of these films had nothing to do with overtly Russian themes and were based on a variety of sources (although, as Nusinova has shown, aspects of Russian émigré “mythology” regularly appeared in these films, especially the repeated themes of lost identity and exile)3.

There were other steps in the evolution of the Russian émigré film industry in Paris that I will skip. Suffice it to say that the core group of talent that constituted Albatros Films and that had originated in Ermoliev’s Moscow company moved in 1925 to yet another new company called Ciné-France-Film. This was the French branch of a film consortium established by Russian businessmen in Europe for the purpose of competing with Hollywood, especially in the genre of “blockbuster movies”—large, lavish productions of adventure stories with “casts of thousands.” And so it was that in keeping with this aim, the group that had remained intact to a considerable extent after leaving Russia five years earlier and had established itself as a going concern in Paris decided in 1925 to film Michel Strogoff4.

Why Michel Strogoff? As is well known, this is an adaptation of Jules Verne’s eponymous novel of 1876. Because the novel had been very popular in France for the previous fifty years, there was already a large potential audience for a film version of it, which augured significant commercial success. In fact, the novel was so popular that a stage play had been based on it and ran for several thousand performances in Paris from 1880 until the beginning of the twentieth century5. Furthermore, those who have read the novel, or seen the film version of it (which is quite faithful to the text, and which, by the way, is only one of a half-dozen or so film versions that exist—additional evidence of the work’s long-standing popularity), will recognize that it fits well the requirements that motivated the financiers behind Ciné-France-Film. It tells a dramatic adventure story about a noble hero against the background of a great rebellion in Russia that threatens the entire country and has, literally, a cast of hundreds if not actually thousands. The film also adheres to the Hollywood requirement of a “happy ending” because the uprising fails, the villain perishes, and the hero is handsomely rewarded and marries his sweetheart. As the film’s credits indicate, and as the film’s promoters did not tire from advertising, units of real Latvian cavalry and infantry participated in the battle sequences in the film, which was partially shot in Latvia, with the rest in the studios near Paris. Finally, and for my purposes most importantly, there was the novel’s Russian subject matter. Given the Russian émigrés who made the film, it is more than likely that the fact that the novel dealt with the past of their own lost country must have added significantly to the novel’s appeal.

But here the story of the novel and the film gets more complicated and interesting. Jules Verne never visited Russia and knew the country only second hand. Moreover, the central event in the novel—the uprising around 1860 of various Asiatic peoples in Siberia against the Russian Empire—never occurred. This was sheer invention on Verne’s part, in a way more fanciful than the kinds of novels for which he was most famous. What made Verne a household name in Europe and beyond, both in the nineteenth century and later, were his “technological” adventure fictions, or his “science” fiction. Among the best known works of this genre are Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873). There are dozens of others. Verne is still one of the most translated authors in the world, and his works were and are immensely popular everywhere, including Russia. For example, the famous Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin wrote the first admiring review of Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon in 1864 and recommended this novel as an essential book for young people. Leo Tolstoy himself praised Verne’s fictions, such as Around the World in Eighty Days, The Children of Captain Grant, and The Floating City, used them when teaching peasant children, and even sketched his own illustrations to some of Verne’s works6. However, in Russia Michel Strogoff was an exception to the general rule. The work was little known and was, in fact, first translated into Russian only in 1900, and poorly at that7.

Why did Verne depart from his successful practices to write something like Michel Strogoff, and what explains this novel’s fate in Russia, in contrast to his other works?

Verne was a staunch republican and prior to Michel Strogoff tended to view Russia in the terms of the Marquis de Custine’s notoriously Russophobic screed La Russie en 1839. Indeed, Verne’s original plan for the character Captain Nemo, the avenging commander of the submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, was to make him a Pole who is rebelling against Russian tyranny and barbarism, which destroyed his family and friends and enslaved his nation8.

But Michel Strogoff is an unequivocally Russophilic work, and the change in Verne’s attitude reflects the general shift in French views of Russia that occurred in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 ended very badly for France, which lost the border territories of Alsace and Lorraine and was forced to pay Prussia an enormous indemnity. Following this, France began to look for allies who could help her resist the new German Empire that Bismarck had succeeded in constituting, and her gaze stopped on Russia. The threat of a new war in 1875 aggravated French fears and correlated with a new enthusiasm for Russia, which was seen as a potentially strong ally of France against Germany. Of course, the dramatic social reforms of Alexander II, including the liberation of the serfs, also caused many in France to warm to the new, more liberal Russia. This process was further abetted by the role that Turgenev played in promoting Russian literature, which allowed the French to see the Russians in a more humane light. That Verne was consciously reflecting this new political and cultural state of affairs, and that he did not want to risk offending the Russian Imperial government in any way, is evidenced by his willingness to change the original title of the novel, which was “The Czar’s Courier,” and to remove all references in the text that might be construed as referring specifically to the reigning Tsar (Alexander II) or his father (Nicholas I). At the same time, the allusions to liberal reforms in the novel that have been preserved (such as the Tsar’s remark to his chief of police that as long as he is alive prisoners will in fact return from exile in Siberia, rather than perish there) clearly show that Verne had Alexander II in mind. To insure that the Tsar’s government would not find anything objectionable in the novel, prior to its first book publication Verne’s publisher even sent it to the Russian ambassador in Paris, Prince Orlov, to check. Orlov had no objections, but because of censorship restrictions in Russia pertaining to portraying living or recent monarchs in fiction, the novel still would not be translated for another twenty-five years9.

These historical events may explain Verne’s Russophilia in Michel Strogoff, which surely played a role in the émigrés selection of it for adaptation to the screen. But what explains the novel’s equally prominent “Asia-phobia,” if one can put it that way? Indeed, the novel, like the film that was made from it, creates a stark opposition between the Asiatic, barbaric, rebellious and nominally Muslim inhabitants of Siberia, and the European, civilized, Orthodox Christian Russians who are threatened by them. There is little ethnographic accuracy in Verne’s names for, or descriptions of, the various peoples of Siberia that he portrays as rebels against the Russian Empire, and whom he usually calls “Tatars.” Nevertheless, one possible reason for Verne’s invoking these peoples may have been Russian expansion into Central Asia in the 1860s and 1870s, i. e., prior to and contemporaneously with his work on the novel, and the recent annexation through military campaigns of the khanates of Kokand, Bukhara and Khiva, including such legendary cities as Tashkent and Samarkand.

But there is more than a loose reliance on current historical events behind Verne’s choice of Asiatics as the enemies of the Russians in the novel. The end of the nineteenth century was also the time when the overtly racist European conception of what became known as the “Yellow Peril” was being formulated. As a result of increasing imperialistic forays into Asian countries, especially China, and contacts with various Asian peoples and cultures that resulted from this, Europeans began to develop a paranoid fear of Asia as a threat to Western civilization. A central figure in the formulation of this ideology was the Frenchman Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau (1816–82), who was one of the nineteenth century’s most systematic and best-known race theorists. His Essai sur linégalité des races humaines (Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, 1853-55) is his most famous work and was influential in Europe for some ninety years, until the end of World War II. His central point is that the three human “races”--the “white,” the “yellow,” and the “black”--differ markedly in all the important skills and traits necessary for civilization and that the white is superior. He especially feared Chinese emigration overseas and raised the specter of a Chinese wave that would eventually flood into Europe through the new railways of the expanding Russian empire. Gobineau was in favor of racist laws that limited Chinese immigration in various parts of the world, but predicted that ultimately Europe itself would be overcome by hordes from the East. His views thus took on a distinctly eschatological flavor. One of his most prominent ideological acolytes was apparently Kaiser Wilhem II. In fact, the German Emperor himself drew a sketch reflecting Gobineau’s ideas that was made into a well-known engraving that was

The "Yellow Peril".
disseminated throughout Europe (Figure 1). It depicts the nations of Europe as armored female figures gathered under a heavenly cross, while in the distance a menacing Buddha enthroned on a black dragon hovers above a scene of fiery destruction. The Buddha and dragon symbolize Japan and China, respectively. Archangel Michael stands before the personifications of the European nations, holding a flaming sword and exhorting the European nations to arms. Lest the message be unclear, the Kaiser added an inscription in French, “Nations Européennes! Défendez vos biens sacrés!” [European Nations! Defend your sacred values!]. It is especially noteworthy that the Kaiser presented the original engraving to Nicholas II of Russia10.

In Russia, as in various other western countries, these ideas fell on fertile ground (as variants also did, paradoxically, in some Asian countries). (Incidentally, I should add here that I do not believe that the term “Asia” or “Asian” is sufficient to characterize without any further distinctions the many peoples and cultures that inhabit a large part of our globe; rather, I use the term as shorthand, like “the West,” and in a way that also echoes the terminology of the times and beliefs that I am discussing). The number and variety of manifestations of these ideas in Europe and the United States in both high and low culture is very large (and survived through the twentieth century to the present). Russians may have been especially receptive to ideas like Gobineau’s because Russian history testifies at length and repeatedly to the dangers that came from the East, albeit with varying degrees of severity, from the 12th through the 19th centuries, including a centuries-long Mongol suzerainty over most of the medieval Russian principalities. Scholars of Russian literature will of course recognize the kinds of ideas that Gobineau advanced as a central theme during what is called the Silver Age of Russian culture—the period from approximately 1895 to 1920, i.e., one during which members of our film company grew up and lived. From the Russian religious philosopher Vladimir Soloviev and his apocalyptic Brief Tale of the Antichrist and poem “Panmongolizm”, to Andrei Bely’s novels The Silver Dove and especially Petersburg, to Valery Briusov’s lyric “The Coming Huns,” Aleksandr Blok’s cycle of poems “On Kulikovo Field” and narrative poem “The Scythians,” to Pilniak’s early Soviet novel The Naked Year, Russian literature and thought before, during, and after the First World War was full of variants of an eschatological “Yellow Peril.” Indeed, the fears and imaginings of these poets and novelists seemed to many representatives of high culture to take on real flesh and blood with the Russo- Japanese War of 1904-1905 and its disastrous consequences for Russia. And of course the sense of apocalypse that this war in Asia brought could only continue to grow in subsequent years, during the Great War, the Revolution, and the civil war, culminating in the destruction of old Russia.

Given all this, is it likely that the Russian émigrés who chose to film Michel Strogoff would have ignored the novel’s contemporary resonances? In other words, could Russians who were in Paris because a revolution drove them out of their native country see the story of a rebellion that threatens the entire Russian Empire simply as a fantasy about the distant past? Could the émigrés, who were, after all, educated people constantly immersed in the culture of their time, have seen the Asians in Verne’s novel in a way that did not resonate with the apocalyptic significance that the Asian theme had developed in Russian culture during the preceding twenty-five years? Finally, is it not possible to understand the film as an expression of émigré beliefs, whether conscious or not, about the true meaning of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath and of their wistful fantasies about how it all could have gone differently?

Let me acknowledge here that I do not have any overt evidence that the Russian émigrés who created the film saw it as an allegory of their country’s recent fate. In other words, I have not found (although I have not finished looking for) statements by the film script’s authors (Turzhansky—the director, Mozzhukhin—the star, and Fastovich—an actor with a crucial role, about which more below), or the other actors, or anyone else, that would indicate that below the surface of the popular action film is a concealed, personal, émigré message. Nevertheless, and despite the interest and importance that “authorial intentions” undeniably have, in the end we have to “read” the text before us to see what it means (by which I mean something different from Kinbote’s insistence in Nabokov’s Pale Fire that “for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word”). And so, based on the film itself and some information about how and where it was shot, it seems entirely plausible to me to interpret it as containing images and references that derive not from Verne’s 19th-century historical inventions, but from the émigrés’ own cultural memory and recent experiences.

Thus, I see the film as having a second level of meaning that redefines Verne’s plot in terms of Russia’s mythologized historical conflicts with Asia as well as Lenin’s Revolution, which are interpreted as a religious struggle between good and evil. On this hidden level--one that could not have been featured openly in a commercial entertainment intended for the world outside the émigré diaspora—the film is, to repeat my formulation above, an expression of émigré beliefs about the true meaning of the Russian Revolution and the civil war that followed, and of their wistful fantasies about how it could have gone differently.

One of the most interesting changes that the Russians made in their film by comparison with the novel is the physical appearance of the Tatar leader “Feofar Khan.” In the novel, he is described as follows: tall, pale, ferocious expression, black beard layered with curls descending to his chest, wearing a helmet with a flashing diamond11.

Figure 2. Feofar Khan
In the film, his appearance is completely different (and I must apologize for the quality of these images and the copy of the film from which these stills were drawn; I have not been able to find a cleaner, more focused copy of it). And I would like to juxtapose pictures of Feofar Khan with a notorious historical figure (Figures 2-5).

Figure 3. Lenin
I am of course not alone in thinking that Lenin had a somewhat Asian cast to his features. For example, Ivan Bunin, the great Russian writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1934, referred to “slant-eyed Lenin” in the context of lambasting Aleksandr Blok’s famous poem “the Scythians,” in which Blok conceives of all Russians as quasi-Asians and juxtaposes them to the West.12

Figure 4. Feofar Khan
It is also a curious fact that the actor who portrayed Feofar Khan, Boris Fastovich (who is listed in the film’s credits with one of his screen names, “Boris de Fast”), who also co-authored the screenplay, and who would go on to a career as an actor and make-up artist both in Europe and in Hollywood, was identified by a contemporary with Lenin in yet another film. The Tempest, a Hollywood confection released in 1928 about the Russian Revolution that is a vehicle for John Barrymore and his co-star Camilla Horn, with a script originally begun by Erich von Stroheim before other hands took over, has Boris Fastovich, using the screen name “Boris de Fas” on this occasion, playing the role of a Bolshev commissar. Perhaps because of
Figure 5. Lenin
Fastovich’s role in the film as the primary harbinger of the coming Revolution as well as the Revolution’s primary power broker, a reviewer in 1928 for the New York Times made the following comment about Fastovich: “Boris De Fas, lacking one tooth in front, still reminds one slightly of Lenin.”13 In this film, Fastovich is in fact not made up to resemble Lenin physically at all. Nonetheless, the reviewer’s association is notable, in part because Viktor Turzhansky, the director of Michel Strogoff, also had an early hand in directing The Tempest before he was replaced, and because a number of former White Russian officers worked in the film as bit players and technical advisers14.

Figure 6. Ivan Ogareff
The character Ivan Ogareff is also worth considering in relation to historical personages. In the film he is put in charge of all of Feofar Khan’s troops, whereas in the novel he is merely one of several commanders in the
Figure 7. Trotsky
Tatar army. This change in emphasis may have been dictated by the film makers’ desire to intensify his role. He is presented as an especially malevolent traitor for siding with the enemies of the Russians. That he has betrayed his own race is further underscored by his affair with the exotic and alluring, but clearly non-Western, gypsy girl Sangarre. In connection with this, it is worth noting that Verne mentions that Ogareff has some “Mongol” blood. I do not want to insist on this possibility too strongly, but because Ogareff is Feofar Khan’s primary military commander, or the “organizer” of his “Red” army, and because of the way that he is made up with a moustache and a karakul hat that rather looks like a mass of dark hair (which he also displays in the film), it seems to me that he could be seen as a Trotsky figure (Figures 6-7).

Bunin’s revulsion at Blok’s notion that Russians are really quasi-Asians rather than Europeans has additional relevance to the film Michel Strogoff beyond the slur about Lenin. Bunin’s comment and Blok’s narrative poem “The Scythians” also evoke two overlapping Russian ideological movements that represent variations on the idea that Russians are a hybrid race with a strong Asian component. One of these movements existed in the early 1900s and is called “Scythianism”, after the title of Blok’s poem; it is associated with such writers as Bely, Zamiatin, Ivanov-Razumnik, Esenin, and Kliuev, among others. The second movement is known as “Euraisianism”, and was formulated by several prominent Russian émigré intellectuals during the 1920s and 1930s, including the literary scholar D. S. Sviatopolk-Mirsky, the philologist N. S. Trubetskoy, and the historian G. Vernadsky. The distinctive feature of “Euraisianism” is that its ideologists thought that Soviet Russia was an embodiment of the blend of East and West. This view in fact led Sviatopolk- Mirsky to return to Russia in the hope of achieving a rapprochement with the regime, an act for which he paid with his life in a concentration camp. I might add that this view of Russia as a kind of racially hybrid state was also often echoed, albeit in a distinctly non-intellectual key, in many casual comments by Western visitors to Russia before the Revolution who saw “Oriental” traits widespread among the simple people. In any event, and in striking contrast to this complex of ideas, the Russians who made the film Michel Strogoff (like Jules Verne in his novel) drew a sharp divide between Asians and the Russians, who emerge as Europeans, albeit with couleur locale. Given the possible association of Feofar Khan with Lenin, and of his Asiatic uprising with the Russian Revolution, exorcising the Asian strain from Russian culture and national character would be a way for the émigrés to claim that Bolshevik ideology is a foreign import onto Russian soil. This was of course also a widespread view among many émigrés in general, and persists to this day.

Figure 8. An Orthodox Church.
How else are the Russians defined in the film? One of the most striking ways is via Orthodox Christianity. Verne does mention such things as churches and Strogoff’s saying his evening prayers. But the number of scenes in the film that show Russian churches with their characteristic domes, or homes with icons in the “honored corner” of the room, or characters crossing themselves and others, and wearing crosses around their necks, far exceeds what Verne wrote and is clearly something that the émigrés added (Figures 8-10). This emphasis on the Orthodox religion being
Figure 9. Nadia Fedor crosses the soldiers.
intertwined with all aspects of Russian life is in part an attempt by the émigrés to augment the film’s historical accuracy and to counteract the “overhanging cranberry” dimension of Verne’s novel. (The phrase “overhanging cranberry” [razvesistaia kliukva] is used by Russians to denote absurd mistakes with regard to Russian realia in fiction; we all know that the cranberry is in fact a low-growing shrub.) But the emphasis on Orthodox Christianity is also an oblique comment about the militant atheism of the Bolsheviks and their notorious repressions of the country’s religious life that began soon after they seized power in 1917. They killed tens of thousands of priests, monks, nuns and other believers, and seized and destroyed thousands of
Figure 10. Russian Orthodox Prayer and Ritual.
churches and shrines.

Figure 11. Russian Otrhodoxy Militant and Defeated.
This theme is invoked especially prominently in the battle sequence when the Russian infantry detachment is annihilated by a Tatar horde. Here are two stills that show the role of a Russian priest in the sequence and
Figure 12.
what happens to his cross (Figures 11-12)

Figure 13. Strogoff's miracle
Another major concentration of visual references to Orthodox Christianity surrounds the hero of the film, Strogoff-Mozzhukhin. The most dramatic event in his life, and in the film as a whole, is his blinding with the heat from a saber that has been heated to incandescence in a brazier. It is noteworthy that, according to the film’s and the novel’s plots, this exceptionally cruel punishment is dictated by the Koran. This is the film’s only reference to the Muslim holy book, and Feofar Khan chooses the punishment
Figure 14.
for Strogoff by randomly selecting a passage and finding an appropriately grisly interpretation for it. Now, because of the film’s stark opposition between the Tatars and the Russians, it is fitting, according to the film’s ideology, that the Koran’s pernicious influence be thwarted by the true faith of Orthodox Christianity.
Figure 15.
In Verne’s novel, Strogoff’s ability to see after the ordeal of the heated saber is explained materialistically--by his shedding tears at the crucial moment of execution. No one notices the tears, but their vaporization from the heat saves his eyes and he goes on only to feign blindness in order to seem harmless in the midst of the enemy. In the film, we are given the same explanation, but in addition there is also a quasi- or authentically miraculous intervention that involves an icon of Jesus Christ. We see this in the scene when Strogoff and Nadia rest in a simple, abandoned house in the Siberian wilderness, to which she leads him because
Figure 16.
he cannot see. In fact, it is not at all clear in the film that he is merely feigning blindness at this point. Despite the ruin of the house, there is still a triptych icon that hangs in the corner, with an icon lamp implausibly burning before it. And in a way that is not commented on in the film, but that is clearly more than a mundane explanation for the restoration of Strogoff’s sight, we see him turn with strange alertness toward the icon, his eyes closed and his lids scarred by the heat, but as if he is still somehow aware of the icon’s presence, then cross himself reverently, and, while a halo-like ring of light grows around his head, his eyes open slowly and see the depiction of Christ in the central icon (Figures 13-16). Indeed, the film strongly implies that Strogoff’s sight was restored via the icon’s miraculous intercession rather than by the tears he shed when the glowing blade was held before his eyes. (Yet another dimension of the scene is an echo of what was for many of Mozzhukhin’s fans one of his most striking features as an actor—his famously “hypnotic” and expressive eyes). In any event, the halo around Strogoff’s head inscribes him in the pantheon of warrior saints from Russia’s past struggles against enemies that threatened the destruction of the homeland, including St. Alexander Nevsky, the warrior prince who defeated the Teutonic Knights and the Swedes in the 13th century, and St. Dimitry Donskoy who defeated the Tatar Khan Mamay in the 15th. It goes without saying that the struggle between good and evil that their victories represent could also easily be inscribed into the White struggle against the Bolsheviks. In the film as in the novel, the Russians eventually triumph and suppress the Tatar rebellion, which I see as being the “wishful thinking” part of their making the film. However, during the earlier part of the uprising, as is shown by the annihilation of the unit that I mentioned above, things do not go well for the Russians at all. There are of course good reasons for telling the story this way. There have to be conflicts and ups and downs in the fate of the “good guys” to keep the story moving and the reader or viewer engaged. But there are also details in this battle sequence that resonate with more than just deft narrative construction. The viewer shares Strogoff’s perspective as he watches from a distance the valiant but doomed effort of a relatively small regiment against overwhelming Tatar hordes. The Russian soldiers are dressed in neat white tunics, in contrast to the motley caftan-garbed Tatars, and fight in well-ordered, “European” lines, rather than in incoherent masses, thus maintaining the “good” vs. “evil” opposition. We see the Russian firing line under continuing attack, soldiers falling and dying, gaps in the line being filled from the rear, until the commander orders that all the reserves be sent in. But there are not enough Russian soldiers and soon the few remaining ones are surrounded while they make their “last stand” against the enemy closing in on all sides. This situation recapitulates the fate of the White armies toward the end of the Civil War (as well as a possible generic situation in warfare between unequal numbers, of course). Among the various reasons why the Whites lost was the sheer numerical superiority of the Bolshevik enemy. During the final months and weeks of fighting in the Crimea in 1920, for example, the number of Whites trying to stave off the continuing attacks of Budenny’s cavalry and other Red units, and to defend the narrow isthmus connecting the peninsula to the mainland, was far smaller than the enemy’s. Nevertheless, the Whites in the Crimea fought bravely, if quixotically, and also, most importantly, preserved the image of themselves as fighting the “last stand” when they went into exile in Constantinople and the famous internment camps in Gallipoli and elsewhere in Turkey. To illustrate this topos of the Whites’ heroic “last stand,” here is a watercolor done by an anonymous, amateur Russian émigré artist in Belgium who sent his picture to an émigré exhibition that was
Figure 17.
held in New York City many years ago (Figure 17).

Figure 18. Russian's Last Stand.
We find a similar moment in the film (Figure 18).

This is a motif that seems always to accompany the depiction of the moral victory of those who were destroyed by overwhelming numbers of otherwise inferior enemies (from the perspective of the ultimately victorious side, of course). The Western prototype may go back to the Spartans at Thermopylae — who died stemming the Persian hordes, but lived in eternity. Here are two additional illustrations of this widespread motif, which I introduce to show that the Russians and their film are not unique in celebrating their “last stand.” One is from the history of the American expansion into the West, which resulted in “Custer’s Last Stand,” depicting the destruction of Major General Custer’s cavalry unit by a coalition of Sioux and other Indians at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. The second is an episode reflecting British imperialism in South Africa, and the final moments of British troops against the massed Zulus in the Battle of Isandhlwana in 1879

Figure 19. Custer's Last Stand.
(Figures 19-20).

Figure 20. Last Stand at Isandhlwana.
In conclusion, I would like to mention that in addition to imagery in the film itself, there is some circumstantial evidence from the story of how it was actually shot that also suggests that recent historical experiences were on the minds of Mozzhukhin and his colleagues as they worked through Verne’s novel. As I mentioned, the mass scenes of battle were shot in Latvia, which, as Mozzhukhin explains in a promotional book about the film, was chosen as a location because of its resemblance to old Russia. One of the most dramatic scenes in the film is Strogoff’s and Nadia’s attempt to cross a river by ferry, during which they are attacked by Tatars. It turns out that the sequence was filmed on the river Daugava, known in Russian as Zapadnaia Dvina, near the border with Soviet Russia, and that during the filming the ferry broke loose and began to be carried by the current toward Soviet territory. Mozzhukhin claims that he and the others in the film crew were genuinely frightened at the prospect of landing on Soviet territory and being seized because the Soviets had put a price on his head. Whether or not this is true, and it has been claimed that Mozzhukhin’s “memoir” was actually ghost-written, it does suggest that there was a connection between the film and Soviet reality in his imagination15.

The final bit of circumstantial evidence that I would like to adduce is that simultaneously with the filming of Michel Strogoff in Paris, Abel Gance’s famous film Napoleon was being filmed at the same studio, in a neighboring building. In fact, Mozzhukhin was offered the role of Napoleon but claimed that he turned it down because he thought that a Frenchman should play it. Nevertheless, there was cross-fertilization between the two sets, and some actors, like Acho Chakatouny, who plays Ivan Ogareff, simultaneously acted in both Michel Strogoff and Napoleon. Why is this coincidence relevant? Because Mozzhukhin in his memoir stresses the close proximity and actual physical overlap between the two projects—a film about the French Revolution in 1789 that gave General Bonaparte his start, and a film about the fanciful rebellion in Russia circa 1860: “the French Revolutionary soldiers were side by side with Cossacks . . . the French Revolution and the Tatar rebellion . . . and an artillery captain explains to me, a captain of the guards [Mozzhukhin’s rank in Michel Strogoff] events from the French Revolution and Napoleon’s career . . . I should explain that prior to being was captain of the guards Michel Strogoff, I had been artillery officer Mozzhukhin before the Revolution, in 1916-1917.”16 The two Revolutions appear to overlap in Mozzhukhin’s imagination in a way that echoes the “double vision” that I believe the émigrés also used in treating Verne’s story.


1The history of Ermoliev’s enterprise and its move to France comes from Lenny Borger, From Moscow to Montreuil: the Russian Émigrés in Paris 1920-1929,” Griffithiana, n. 35/36, October 1989, pp. 28-31; see p. 28. See also Nataliia Nusinova, Kogda my v Rossiiu vernemsia: Russkoe kinematograficheskoe zarubezhe (1918-1939), Moscow: NIIK, Eizenshtein-tsentr, 2003, chapters 1-3.

2 Borger, pp. 29, 30.

3 Nusinova, pp. 107-115.

4 Borger, p. 30.

5 Louis Bilodeau, “Introduction,” Jules Verne et Adolphe D’Ennery, Michel Strogoff: Pièce en cinq actes et seize tableaux, Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1994, pp. xliii-xlv.

6 http://old.vn.ru/040313/0313-22-20.html (По материалам книги Евгения Брандиса «Рядом с Жюлем Верном», Ленинград, «Детская литература», 1985); see this web site for Tolstoy’s sketches. See also http://lib.aldebaran.ru/author/vern_zhyul/:

7http://www.rgz.ru/archive/nomer/951/13347; “Дорогой дальнею”, Росс, № 49, от 22 декабрa 2005.

8 Bilodeau, p. xx.

9 A. V. Bodrov, “Psikhologicheskii effect ‘voennoi trevogi’ 1875”. Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia v novoe i noveishee vremia: Materialy mezhdunarodnoi konferentsii, posviashchennoi pamiati professora K. B. Vinogradova, Sankt-Peterburg, 2005; Biblioteka istoricheskogo fakul’teta SPbGU, www.history.pu.ru

10 Gregory Blue, "Gobineau on China: Race Theory, the ‘Yellow Peril,’ and the Critique of Modernity." Journal of World History. Volume 10, Number 1, Spring 1999, pp. 93-139.

11 Jules Verne, Michel Strogoff, 2 vols., Paris: Hetzel, n. d..; see vol. 2, pp. 24-25.

12 I. A. Bunin, Vospominaniia, Paris: Knigoizdatel’stvo Vozrozhdenie—La Renaissance, 1950. p. 221: “Но вот наконец весь русский народ, точно в угоду косоглазому Ленину, объявлен азиатом ‘с раскосыми и жадными очами’.”

13 Mordaunt Hall, Review of The Tempest, The New York Times, 18 May 1928.

14 Back cover, The Tempest, DVD by Image Entertainment, Film Preservation Associates, Inc., 2003.

15 Ivan Mosjoukine, Quand jétais Michel Strogoff, Paris: La Renaissance du livre, 1926, p. 84. For the claim that this “memoir” was actually written by Jean Arroy, a young director, see Jean Mitry, Ivan Mosjoukine 1889-1939, Anthologie du Cinema 48, Octobre 1969, n.p., n. d., p. 398.

16 Mosjoukine, p. 97.

Vladimir Alexandrov

is the B. E. Bensinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Yale University, and author of The Black Russian.