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Save us all from the liberty, Emperor!

A review of The Union of Salvation. A film directed by Andrei Kravchuk, Moscow, Russia, 2019.

September 3, 2020 - Grzegorz Szymborski - Books and ReviewsIssue 5 2020Magazine

When I saw the trailer for Andrei Kravchuk’s The Union of Salvation (Союз Спасения) for the first time, I was not only impressed by the film’s visuals, but I was also genuinely surprised that a Russian director decided to bring the most well-known plot against the tsar’s power to the big screen. I was truly waiting for the premiere and was curious to see how the liberal tendencies of dissidents would be depicted. The Union of Salvation, tells the story of the Decembrist Uprising in 1825 and it appeared to be a glorification of an undisputable power, highlighting the importance of the tsar through Russia’s existence. And it is also great cinema. The picture itself is high-budgeted and offers beautiful varied landscapes of the Russian Empire’s provinces and magnificent scenes depicting St Petersburg, epic combat sequences, and, most importantly, an atmosphere similar to adaptations of War and Peace.

Political intrigue

Yet the music does not match the 19th century scenery, and the main plot itself is quite jagged. The film tries to cover and connect some events that occurred between 1814 and 1825. In the first part, the story moves forward swiftly. The timeline, locations and characters constantly change. During the introduction leading to the dramatic climax, Kravchuk overwhelms the viewers with many unconvincing facts. Similar to his The Admiral (Адмиралъ, 2008), Kravchuk includes descriptions of the locations on the screen which refer to both geographical spots and characters. But there are many different, yet similar looking, protagonists who do not have enough screen time to let audiences become familiar with them naturally through action and dialogue. As a consequence, the film, to a certain degree, looks like a documentary.

Nevertheless, the cast is talented and consists of a number of popular Russian actors, including the unmatched Leonid Bichevin, Maksim Matveyev as well as Anton Shagin. The cast helps make the production more entertaining, especially for those who are interested in exalted, state-oriented, philosophical and historical Russian films. However, when compared to other films of that genre, this one lacks a developed romance plot. The picture mostly focuses on the political intrigue and limits the scope of the love story angle which usually is a central element of expressive Russian cinema.  

Like many other Moscow-produced films, The Union of Salvation appears to be an instrument of propaganda. This, however, does not mean it is not worth watching. On the contrary, it offers the opportunity to search for hidden messages, which I enjoyed doing while watching the piece. I may be mistaken, but two contemporary motives seem easy to decode: the source of power legitimacy in Russia and the question of Ukraine. The appreciation for samoderzhaviye, tsarist autocracy, may be underlined, for instance, with the striking quotation of Emperor Nicholas I, endangered by conspirators: “They will forgive my cruelty, but not my weakness.” Before his father’s death, and having concerns about the legality of succession to the throne, he hears the elderly Alexander’s message for him as the new ruler of all-Russia – it is the tsar’s will that constitutes the law.

The clash of ideologies may be understood as the struggle of the two orders, where only one is truly Russian and the other is inspired from abroad. Maybe this also explains the flashbacks to Paris in 1814: young conspirators wish to enact change in the empire, despite the fact Russia has already reached its zenith of greatness while occupying the French capital. One of the plotters openly says: “Napoleon wanted the whole world. I want much more.”

The conspirators seem to be presented not only as a reckless bunch of dreamers trying to shake the foundations of the great empire, but also as defiant and overconfident, because they think they know better than the regime that made Russia “the first Empire of the world”, according to the opening credits. And this empire, with its normative rather than legal order, appears to be superior to any foreign concept or idea.

Another impressive quote from the film praises Russia’s Muscovy’s greatness through the Ukrainian question: “History is written in Petersburg and here it dies”, says a high-ranked officer suspecting the assassination attempt that was supposed to take place during the imperial army manoeuvres near Kyiv. It is a very powerful message indeed. Approximately one-third of the screen time is spent in Ukraine. It is to some extent justified because of the historical facts.

Easter(n) eggs

The conspiracy organisation known as the Union of Salvation was established in 1816 by approximately 30 young officers. In 1821, due to political differences among the plotters, two separate groups were created: the Northern Society in St Petersburg and the Southern Society in Tulchyn (present day Ukraine). The Decembrist Uprising on the Senate Square in the Russian capital city was organised by the leaders of the Northern Society, Prince Sergei Trubetskoy and Nikita Muravyov. According to historian Ludwik Bazylow, a Polish specialist in Russia, the Ukrainian plot was marginal in the story of the insurrection. Any rebel attempts in the southern parts of the empire were just a desperate reaction to what happened in St Petersburg on December 14th 1825. The actions were not coordinated, leading to the depletion of the rebelled regiment on January 3rd 1826..

This short historical introduction is important considering that the story constantly shifts from St Petersburg to Ukraine. The location is described in three different ways: “Kyiv Governorate”, “Malorossiya” and “Ukraine”. Personally, I got the impression that everything that was happening in the capital affected the situation elsewhere: this is how I interpreted the director’s intention. Nevertheless, taking into account that both societies were very different, that must be the reason why Kravchuk decided to combine the topics in one production. The answer potentially lies in the film’s title: it is not simply “the Decembrist Uprising”. The director used the historical name of one of the earliest conspiracy organisations established in order to reform Russia. Kravchuk chose the group set up before the break away from the original association, perhaps in order to justify the parallel focus on the Ukrainian plot.

What we call the Decembrist Uprising only occurred in St Petersburg. It is also worth mentioning – since it was not clarified in the film – that some of the conspirators, including one of the main characters, Sergei Muravev-Apostol (played by Leonid Bichevin) was of Ukrainian descent. According to the Encyclopedia of Ukraine of 1993, a majority of the Union of Salvation members had close ties with the Land around Kyiv. It’s another factor merging/tying up the Ukrainian plot and the general concept of the turning point in the history of the Tsardom.

Just like popular culture is full of so-called Easter eggs, Russian cinema has many hidden references to its specific history, where both Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union are equally treated and surprisingly, commemorated. Despite the fact that the film deals with conservatives and liberals, there were winks to Red Russia enthusiasts, as the young poet Kondraty Ryleev (Anton Shagin) tried to persuade uprising leader, Sergei Trubetskoy (Maksim Matveyev), that “there will be no more such an opportunity to reform Russia for the next… 100 years…”

The film first highlights the greatness of the empire that defeated Napoleon. At the end, Russia still remains strong with the memory of its earlier achievements. The narrator concludes with the fate of the conspirators and the further reign of Nicholas I, who never had to punish the rebels. The narrator adds that the reforms, so desired by the Decembrists, were not implemented by Alexander I, but introduced by Alexander II. Surprisingly, the narrator adds that this tsar was later killed by terrorists. Apparently, it is therefore pointless to follow peoples’ wishes in Russia.

Grzegorz Szymborski is a graduate at the College of Europe in Natolin (Poland), a graduate from the Faculty of Law and Administration at the University of Warsaw and author of the books: Wolność niejedno ma imię (2013) and Wyprawa Fryderyka Augusta I do Inflant w latach 1700-1701 w świetle wojny domowej na Litwie (2015).

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