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Surely the Russian generals must have realised the folly of invading Northern Finland with an army of conscripts from the Ukraine.  They must have known what the conditions would have been like, a minus 30 degree cold that froze everything, so that the guns wouldn’t fire, their tanks wouldn’t start, the darkness for most of the day, the mobile Finnish troops, the white death, that materialised out of the forest in their white snowsuits shot up the field kichens and ammunition dumps and vanished into the wilderness, the lack of shelter and food.  So why didn’t they abort the invasion until spring?  Why didn’t they turn back when they realised it was so hopeless?   The answer was that they didn’t dare.  One of their number, perhaps the most courageous and intelligent had dared to suggest delaying the invasion at a briefing at the Russian railhead.  The political commissar went up behind him, drew his pistol and coolly shot him in the back of the head and then turned to the others. ‘Comrade Stalin said there would be no delays.’  And when General Novgorod escaped back across the frontier in a tank with three other staff officers after the piecemeal destruction of the 44th Division on the Raate Road, they were all taken into a wood and shot.  That was the way Stalin dealt with opposition, even a hint of opposition.

‘Burnt by the Sun’ adapted for the National Theatre by Peter Flannery from a film by Nikita Mikhailkov captured the threat of Stalin even to his friends.  The year is 1936.   Stalin, man of steel, had led Russia through the Great Depression that had afflicted the west by a massive programme of collectivisation and industrialisation.  He was immensely powerful, but dreadfully insecure. 

General Kotov was a hero of the revolution, a strong man, he had Stalin’s personal telephone number and lives in heroic retirement with his wife, the beautiful Mouroussia, and her family in their dacha in the country not far from Moscow.  Kotov is a large man, a dangerous, brooding presence who allows Mouroussia’s family, the old professor, the grandmothers, to continue their privileged way of life, but things have changed.  Heavy aeroplanes flew overhead, soldiers are on manoeuvres around the house, young Stalinist pioneers marched about singing patriotic songs and there are compulsory holidays to celebrate Stalin’s achievements. The threat is everywhere.  Do as you’re told or disappear.   

This is Chekhov with terror.  But whereas Chekhov hinted at the change that was about to overwhelm the pre-revolutionary bourgeoisie who seemed to have lost their purpose of their existence, in Mikhailkov’s drama, change had swept through and left Mouroussia’s way of life intact but under terrible threat.

For them, the collapse comes in the person of Mitya, who had once been Mourussia’s lover , who arrives after an absence of 12 years.  Mouroussia is shocked and upset.  They had been going to get married.  Why had he not written?  She discovers that her husband  had arranged for him to be exiled to Paris to spy on the white generals.  Mitya became an agent of the state.  The meaning of his life collapsed with the loss of Mouroussia,  her family and their life at the dacha. Kotov had stolen all of that.  Mitya returns as if to reassert his love for Mouroussia but all is not as it seems.  He is now a high ranking officer in the NKVD.  The terror of the purges has begun.  Stalin is suspicious of his friends and only trusts those he knows he can control. Mitya does his duty and wreaks a terrible revenge on Kotov, Mouroussia and her family.  He has Kotov arrested.  He will be shot.  The dacha will be possessed, the family dispersed and will most likely die.

Having done his duty, he takes his pistol blows his brains out.  It was only his anger and the idea of revenge that was keeping him going.  Now that that is worked out, he had nothing more to live for.  He has lost Mouroussia for ever.  The dark meaning that had kept him alive has now gone. His loss of meaning is a metaphor for the whole Russian state, lacking a sense of purpose other than suspicion and revenge. An army that lacks conviction is never going to succeed, even against a numerically much weaker force. 

Distances in Russia are enormous.  It took until 1917 for Russia to advance from its feudal existence.  One wonders even now whether it has really recovered from the hopelessness of post revolutionary oppression.

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