Monday, October 28, 2013

Training with the Russians, and "Stalingrad" 2013 vs "Stalingrad" 1993

The training plan is getting clearer. While my communicative abilities are still lacking, I'm able to figure out what I'm supposed to do on any given day. Today I finally got to go for a run in the woods with some Russian running buddies. They call it a "кросс." I also re-learned the Russian word for competition - "соревнование", or "конкурс". These are useful words when trying to size up my colleagues/competition.

Also, at least in this training program, they take Sundays off. Which is GREAT. And you really need a day off after running for 90 minutes around an 80 meter rectangle of a gym. I showed up on Saturday for the long run... to find out that the entire run would be inside the gym, and that every 5 minutes or so we would do some sort of drill or exercise. OK, drills and exercises, that's fine. But the entire long run in a gym???? As a Russian might say... ZA SHTO?? Except they wouldn't say that in this case because it's not abnormal for Russians (Apparently. Please forgive my blanket generalizations). Well, it was a little cold and rainy, so we stayed inside. To make it worse, we never changed direction. I made a 90 degree left turn every 5-8 seconds for 90 minutes... which comes out to 830 left turns. Besides being slightly mind-numbing, it's just asking for a muscle imbalance or an injury. I asked my new training partner Anatoly if his knees and legs hurt from running like this. He said they used to, but he got used to it. The near strain in my right calf leaves me hoping that I'll get used to it too. At the very least we could have done 400 right turns too!

But! But... I am now training like the Russians, if that means running in an endless ovalish-rectangle for eternity, then so be it. In general, the volume is far less and there are far more exercises and drills throughout the week than I'm used to. I'm more than willing to accept that change, as my overall strength and flexibility are severely lacking and it has lead to injuries and inconsistency in the past. So I'm willing to try this new approach... But I just may run on my own on Saturdays from now on.

The training is also having the effect of filling up my schedule. With English conversation clubs, teaching at the university, and training, I'm about at the saturation point of my participation capacity. But I don't feel overwhelmed (yet). Just the afternoons of going to a friend's apartment and smoking hookah are probably going to be few and far between from this point on. I wrote about settling in before, but now I feel much more settled. I have structure to my week now. My freedom is limited, but that's always the trade off, isn't it?

In my free time, I have managed to participate in some more cultural activities. Last week I watched the new Russian film "Stalingrad," which was entertaining as a movie but, to me, a complete farce as a retelling of the battle . A typical block buster movie, "Stalingrad" features slow-motion action sequences, a silly love story, and very little historical accuracy (Not to sound preposterous to my Russian readers, I happen to be one of the few young Americans who actually knows something about the Russian experience during the Second World War. Indeed, as I watched the German version of Stalingrad with three Russian students of history, they laughed at me when I told them the Battle of Stalingrad actually ended in February, not November. Then they looked up the date :).)

(SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW DETAILS OF THE MOVIE BECAUSE YOU PLAN ON SEEING IT, YOU MAY NOT WANT TO READ THE REST :) )

The newest Russian version of Stalingrad contains many archetypes of Soviet historical action movies, as well as Stalingrad re-tellings general (it had MUCH in common with the German version, although the German version was decidedly less glorious, longer, and focused on the suffering of the German soldiers and the retelling of their catastrophe, both psychologically and physically... in short, it was very German, naturally). The Russian version told the story from both the Russian and German perspectives (but in actuality, it was entirely a Russian perspective). In the style of Soviet War films, it showed the Germans as bumbling idiots, but numerous and well equipped. The Germans, of course, have all of the tiger tanks and aircraft. But what the Soviet (in this case, Russians, because hell, it ain't the Soviet Union any more so all the Second World War heroes can be Russian) heroes lack in material, they make up with cunning, skill, and bravery, all of which the Germans simply lack. Except, of course, for the one German who's a good soldier, but we can only like him because he isn't a very good NAZI.

While the German version ("Stalingrad" 1993) focused on the physical and psychological torment of the battle (there is a lot of gore, and scenes of soldiers freaking out when their friend dies, or they're under fire, or they receive a letter saying that their wife left them), the Russian version uses a stylized form of violence closer to that of 300 or Watchmen where people are brutally stabbed with knives (may I add that the Russian soldiers seem to be very adept with knives...?), but you don't see anyone blown in half laying in the ground like in the German version. The German version raises the questions of loyalty and faith among soldiers as they lose hope in their cause and eventually realize they're never going to make it out alive. The German soldiers go so far as to murder their own stereotypically evil NAZI officer. The Russian version doesn't really ask any important psychological questions - with the exception of when a Russian kills a German soldier trying to get water. The Russian soldiers end the movie by sacrificing their lives in order to kill as many Germans as possible, the ultimate statement of loyalty. They never question their officers, who are never shown aside from the leader of the group (and even he is not visibly differentiated from his subordinates). The Germans, however, have a distinct hierarchy, and the most senior German officer is shown as an out-of-place bourgeoisie dirt-bag (who is fittingly outsmarted by a lowly Russian soldier and stabbed to death).  

But the movies are similar in as many ways as they are different. Each movie focuses on a group of men and their common struggle in the ruins of the city. They even both include some little things like a soldier's joy in finally being able to relax and take a hot bath. And, of course, (spoiler alert!) everyone dies. It can't be Stalingrad unless everyone dies (unless it's Enemy at the Gates, in which case Jude Law and his lover HAVE to live). And, strangely, both films include a Russian girl who is first raped by a German, and then falls into a weird sort of love with a German, and is then killed by Russians. In the Russian version she is killed by a Russian sniper specifically because she fell in love with a German, whereas in the German version she just gets randomly mowed down because the movie was reaching the three hour mark and everyone had to die somehow.

The thing that irked me the most about the Russian version is that everyone was doing crap that just didn't make sense. Ostensibly the Germans knew that the Russians were in the building on the other side of the courtyard. You wouldn't know it by watching the movie, because they all liked standing outside in the open all of the time and never payed attention to the house from which the Russians were sniping them daily. In the most egregious scenario, the Germans had lined up all the civilians in the neighborhood in a search for Jews. Remember, this IS NOT German controlled territory, this is no man's land. The Russians are watching this happen and not doing anything. Finally the Germans find someone who might be a Jew and board her up in a wagon and burn her alive. At this point the Russians, instead of fighting from the cover of their building against the Germans in the open, decide to go on an all out charge - you know, so they could include some slow-motion scenes of Fritz getting sliced and diced by our knife wielding Russian heroes. But why the hell would the Russian's leave the house, where they were safe, to fight the Germans in the open and yield their advantage? This mind-boggling turn of events is closely followed by the Russians having a birthday party with no one standing guard on their last night, as well as the afternoon the Russians spent in the open aiming a canon (which magically appeared nearby...) at the German headquarters (as I said, the German guards were never paying attention). To emphasize Russian slyness, they aimed the canon so perfectly that it ricocheted off of a tank and into the German base.

Long story short, the film is worth seeing if you pride yourself as a World War Two buff and want to see a contemporary portrayal of, arguably, the war's most decisive battle. The Russian version does succeed in creating a colorful metaphor of the war. The opening sequences depict the aftermath of a terrible earthquake that has occurred in Japan, which has led to several Germans being trapped in the ruins of a building there. Russian aid workers have come to dig the Germans out of the Japanese rubble, and Americans, Canadians and British aid workers are there too (well, their flags at least, we don't actually see them doing any of the hard work). Through this image, we see the Russian perspective of the war in general - Russia playing the main role to save the entire world from the evils of Germany and Japan, the populations of which are actually victims too who were liberated through Russia's efforts. America, Britain and a few other countries helped in some way, but Russia was the indispensable cog in the wheel of liberty. The narration of the film further solidifies this perspective, as the narrator describes the battle in Stalingrad as the greatest battle in human history and Russia's victory there as more or less the salvation of civilization.

Do your eyes hurt yet? Mine do. Signing off, til next time.

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