Subject essay: James von Geldern
Though most historians associate the notion of posthumous rehabilitation to the post-Stalin era, the practice was in fact launched in the late 1930s. The positive reevaluation of national heroes from the tsarist era had reached full swing by 1939. The most robust applause was reserved for long-deceased military heroes of the likes of Generalissimo Aleksandr Suvorov (1729-1800), who had defeated the Ottoman Turks in 1789 and revolutionary French in 1799. Early Soviet historians had labeled Suvorov a reactionary whose political crimes included capturing peasant rebel Emelian Pugachev in 1774, and crushing the Polish Uprising of Tadeusz Kosciuszko in 1793. His reputation was burnished by Vsevolod Pudovkin’s biographical film of 1940, and by the fact that Stalin chose Suvorov’s rank of generalissimo when he assumed supreme command of the army during Second World War.
Other figures undergoing reappraisal in film included Prince Dmitrii Pozharskii and the merchant Kuz’ma Minin, who led popular resistance against Polish incursions during the Time of Troubles, 1611-1612; Dmitrii Donskoi, the Muscovite prince who defeated the Mongol Horde at the Battle of Kulikovo (1380); and Prince Alexander Nevskii (1220-1263), who defended Novgorod against Swedes, Mongols and, in the great battle on the ice of Lake Peipus in 1242, the Teutonic Knights. Nevskii, who achieved sainthood in Russian Orthodoxy, was subject of a film by Sergei Eisenstein, which premiered on the eve of the twenty-first anniversary of the Revolution (November 6, 1938). His example for the Soviet present was manifest in the explicit identification of the thirteenth-century Teutonic knights that he defeated with twentieth-century German fascists (aka Nazis), highlighted by the similarity of their helmets.
History served blunt political purposes in 1939. When Eastern Poland (or Western Ukraine, depending on one’s allegiance) was annexed, the grab was motivated by reference to the 1654 oath of fealty sworn to Moscow by Cossack rebel Bogdan Khmelnitskii in defiance of his Polish overlords. Yet history was a fickle master, as Eisenstein discovered. Awarded the Order of Lenin for his movie on February 1, 1939, and perhaps saved from the bloody purges because of it, Eisenstein found his creation shelved when the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact made anti-fascism inconvenient. He soon received a commission from the Bolshoi Theater to direct Wagner’s opera Die Walküre, which he dutifully did, only to find it banned in 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.