Saturday, August 5, 2017

На балу у Воланда. Миссия в Москву/At Woland’s Ball: Mission to Mark Teeter on: Moscow (Documentary. Russia, 2013)(Rossiya 1, 00:15)

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34 mins
MOSCOW TV TONITE: US-Soviet Relations, Through a Glass Rosily
На балу у Воланда. Миссия в Москву/At Woland’s Ball: Mission to Moscow (Documentary. Russia, 2013)(Rossiya 1, 00:15)
--> Joseph E. Davies was the 2nd US ambassador to the court of Stalin (1936-38) and author of the bestselling memoir "Mission to Moscow" (1941). As a diplomat he remains difficult to characterize ‘tout court’: a careful and often astute observer -- particularly at events staged at Spaso House, where he hobnobbed w/ Soviet beau monde types from Tukhachevsky to Bulgakov -- JD also proved singularly obtuse vis-à-vis certain functions and figures: purge-trial prosecutor Vyshinsky, for example, seemed “dispassionate, intellectual, able and wise” to Davies, and a man who commanded his “respect and admiration as a lawyer.” Yikes.
JD will likely always be better remembered, in any case, for the 1943 Michael Curtiz-directed war-propaganda film derived from his memoir than for the book itself. Made in faux-documentary style (and at the request of FDR, no less), it features Walter Huston as Davies and earnestly makes the background case for the United States doing all it can to aid its wartime Soviet ally. Notwithstanding its gung-ho "revelatory" Warner Bros. tagline (“One American’s journey into the truth!”), the film is so chock full o’ Stalin flattery, historical inaccuracies and contentious political claims – Robt. Buckner, the producer, called it “an expedient lie for political purposes” – that it evoked derisive laughter when screened in Moscow and was later scrutinized by the wary subversion-hunters of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Yikes again.
But to cases: this Rossiya 1 documentary on the “mysterious” relationship between ambassador-then-special envoy JD and sociopath-dictator JS – which culminated in the former receiving the Order of Lenin, harrumph, from the latter in May 1945 – offers both some fascinating period footage of the Big Onion in the 1930s and 40s and a no. of sound-bite/clips from knowledgeable people in both camps, incl. journalist Celestine Bohlen (Moscow diplomat Chip’s daughter) and Russian historian/FDR specialist Vl. Pechatnov (a Kennan Institute alum, fyi). Yet one also senses considerable slight-of-hand in the set-ups for these sources' commentaries and in the film’s (often selective) voice-over narrative.
What makes this such a timely airing of (one version of) the Davies story? Welp, we've certainly entered another Highly-Placed-Americans-Lacking-A-Clue-About-Russia period. And people Downtown, as they're busily shooting themselves in the foot by tossing out every US rep (or faux-equivalent) they can round up, no doubt like the implied notion of inviting more such pre-Cold War I naifs to show up here in diplo-garb ("Why can't we have another, y'know, sympathetic ambassador like that guy Davies -- so we can just All Get Along again?"...or sth).
In the end, the message this time around will have to be simply what you make of it. So have a go. If you can, take a look at “Mission to Moscow” in print (link 1 below) or on celluloid (link 2); then watch this Rossiya 1 effort (on the air or online: link 3). We’ll take a poll afterwards, in which some 85% of random Moscow respondents will say they approve or strongly approve of this feature. Or else.

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