Jump directly to the page contents

In front of the Arsenalna metro station in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, there is a stone monument erected in 1967 to commemorate the so-called January Uprising at the Arsenal Factory in January 1918. The inscription reads as follows: “Proletarians of the world, unite. On the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, the city authorities of Kyiv express the outstanding contribution made by the Kyiv Arsenal to the proletarian revolution as the first business to take up arms on the side of the Soviet forces in October 1917.” The stone memorial bends the truth a little bit, as the events in question actually took place at the end of January 1918, that is, at a point when the focus was on ensuring the October Revolution took hold in the territories of what had been the tsarist Russian Empire. The Arsenal metal and armaments business was rich in tradition, and by striking, its workers sided with the Bolshevik takeover in Russia. Their protest was violently put down by units of the Ukrainian People’s Army led by Ukrainian national politician and military leader Symon Petliura. According to a standard reading of events, the defeat of the workers at the Arsenal factory is seen as being key for the victory of Bolshevik troops in Ukraine—and thus also for the end of the short-lived attempt to set up an independent Ukrainian state following the downfall of the Russian Empire. In de facto terms, however, the battle for power and influence on the territory of today’s Ukraine also lasted well into 1920.

A film that attempted to take two movements into account at the same time

In 1928, Oleksandr Dovzhenko shot a film at the Ukrainian VUFKU studio (All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration) that remembered the events that occurred at the Arsenal factory in 1917/18. Arsenal was made under the conditions of early Stalinism. Film historian Vance Kepley talks of a “generously budgeted and highly prestigious official project” with which the Soviet film studio in Kyiv was striving to create an “equivalent to Eisenstein and Pudovkin”. A total of four prestige productions were supposed to function as a cinematic celebration of the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution: alongside Arsenal, October by Sergei Eisenstein, The End of Saint Petersburg by Vsevolod Pudovkin and Moscow in October by Boris Barnet. In his interpretation of the events, Dovzhenko was, in principle, tied to the ideological prerequisites of the Soviet Union of the time, although he wasn’t just a Communist, but also a Ukrainian intellectual who had strongly engaged with the nation-building processes of the early 20th century. As a result, Arsenal is a film that attempted to take two movements into account at the same time: the proletarian universalism of the revolution and the patriotic particularism of a young (from today’s perspective and couched in its terms: post-colonial) nation. This contradiction was impossible to be resolved. “Of all the pictures of the revolution projected on the Soviet screen, Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1929) alone pictures a tragedy”, writes Gilberto Perez and alludes in the process to a classical definition of a tragedy, namely a collision between two one-sided positions, “of which each contains something good” (Hegel).

In the second of the seven chapters of this “epic poem” (which is how Arsenal terms itself in an opening intertitle), a man from Ukraine at a Volyhynian post (that is, in the northwest of today’s Ukraine) asks for a coat and boots from a man from Russia. “Give me our Ukrainian coat, enemy!” “Give me our Ukrainian boots.” To reinforce his demand, he adds: “For 300 hundred years, you’ve been torturing me, you damn Russian.” Both of them are soldiers returning from the front, soldiers from the army of the Russian Tsar, one should mentally add, many of them now deserters. Yet the country they’re returning home to no longer exists. It is in the process of constituting itself anew: in Russia via the Bolshevik Revolution, which radicalized the Bourgeois Revolution of February 1917, in Ukraine via a People’s Republic that went through different forms of representation: first a parliament (Rada), later a hetmanate patronized by Germany (the name makes reference to a previous historical example of national independence as part of the Cossack era from the 15th to the 17th century) and then a directorate, or rather an executive government. More than anything, Arsenal picks up on the historical moment when the Russian army retreating from the First World War with an ever-growing number of desertions started having an effect on the balance of power after the October Revolution. Many soldiers wanted to return to their villages or businesses as quickly as possible. “The Bolsheviks were the only major party that would give them that without delay, and many of the soldiers identified with them for this reason”, writes Orlando Figes. For Dovzhenko, this relationship between war and home is decisive for the course of Arsenal. It begins with an almost deserted village, in which the only people that remain are resigned women, hungry children and invalids. This shift back from the war to the tasks that are actually important is now also tinged with a lack of clarity about which goals should be pursued: an independent Ukrainian nation state with a government that tends towards conservatism modelled on the Cossack ideal or a Communist state that sees itself as the avantgarde of a future world order?

The national proletarian is the figure who is supposed to help overcome the contradiction between Ukrainian self-determination and Marxist universalism.

Dovzhenko’s ambivalence is revealed in the scene with the boots by the way he makes the Russian and Ukrainian soldier strongly resemble one another. This establishes the film’s leitmotif; a short time later, these two soldiers in the process of disarming are subjected to a classification (rasdelenye). They have to say whether they are Ukrainian or Russian. This is where the first moment arrives for the central protagonist to move past these alternatives: Timosh Stoyan regards himself as a “Ukrainian worker”. This self-designation represents an attempt on the part of Dovzhenko to do justice to the inner tensions of the revolution as a “multi-ethnic phenomenon”. The national proletarian is the figure who is supposed to help overcome the contradiction between Ukrainian self-determination and Marxist universalism. Yet Timosh is portrayed with considerable ambivalence for this task.  On the one hand, “the stereotypical aesthetic of the positive hero already announces itself”, that is, Socialist realism. But there are also contrasting facets to his character.  For Timosh has a back story stemming from Dovzhenko’s first film Zvenigora (1928), which together with Arsenal and his next film Zemlya (Earth, 1930) are usually grasped as a trilogy of revolution. “I’m showing our country its history” is how Dovzhenko summarized the idea behind the trilogy. The period that it narrates encompasses the invasion of the Varangians (and thus also Kyivan Rus) in the 11th century all the way up to the 1920s, when the first signs of the genocidal collectivization of the farming sector could already be discerned in the figure of the kulak in Earth (the word was aimed at all independent farmers in polemical fashion). In Zvenigora, the options are still split between two brothers, one decadent, the other exemplary. In Arsenal, Timosh is the only positive figure that is emphasized as an individual.  With the final image of the invulnerable proletarian defying the enemy’s shots with his shirt torn open, Dovzhenko invoked a Ukrainian legend (that of rural rebel Olek Dovbush), thus combining the pathos of the proletarian revolution with the national identity of Ukraine. In addition, he created an even greater degree of resonance via the inclusion of certain visual references. Film historian Julia Sutton-Mattocks established that Dovzhenko was quoting two German artists above all in Arsenal: Käthe Kollwitz with her cycle about the Silesian weavers’ uprising of 1844 and Willy Jaeckel with his engravings entitled Memento about the First World War. Dovzhenko was in Germany during the war and made some personal acquaintances here. The allusions to Kollwitz and Jaeckel didn’t just serve as a way for him to show cinema as part of “a continuum of art historical tradition”

(for his whole life, he clung to the idea that he essentially wanted to remain a painter in his filmmaking work). They also invoke historical contexts that seek to serve as keys to the situation in Ukraine in 1917-1920. From Jaeckel, the trail of motifs leads back to Goya, who immortalized the 1808 revolt in Madrid against revolutionary France in one of his most famous pictures—the painting The Third of May 1808 can be seen as a prefiguration of the invulnerable Timosh, albeit in inverted fashion, for in Spain, the Bolsheviks were the French. The invulnerability of the proletarian Ukrainian is also accentuated in critical fashion, for in Goya’s painting, the focus isn’t on the heroic pose, but rather on the horror of war. In this way, the film’s seemingly orthodox ending in particular poses the question of what Arsenal is actually and ultimately all in all.

A more general panorama of human suffering in war

At the beginning, the film was often criticized for its unclear narration and episodic structure. Dovzhenko originally wanted to start the film with the strike at Arsenal and end it with the Red Army marching into Kyiv, which would have been the portrayal the Party wanted. But in the end, he arrived at an entirely different structure, which does have a plot thread, but also contains strong indications that he didn’t want to decide on one particular position in an ideological sense, preferring instead to create a more general panorama of human suffering in war. The arc thus stretches from the woman standing in her empty house at the beginning, full of resignation (a Kollwitz quote) via the maltreated horse that speaks to the man torturing it (“You should be hitting someone else”), the transport of a revolutionary’s corpse to his grave in the village where his mother waiting for him and a child shot dead by the Nationalists while they put down the strike, all the way to Timosh, whose strong chest now comes across more like a dutiful concession to the agenda of the Soviet Revolution film, even as it is subverted at the same time via the “nationalistic” or provincial allusion to the folk tale of Dovbush. Occasionally, Arsenal is even read as being pacificist, a position that can be easily understood with respect to the gas war (which one of the film’s most famous scenes explores). Yet Dovzhenko goes further: the violent actions of the revolution are also pulled along with the current of his humanistic critique. 

The true and the false, violence in the name of progress and as a reaction to it tend to become impossible to distinguish: “(Arsenal) is a lyrical look at the horrors and chaos of war and revolution, centering on the enigmatic figure of Timosh, a «Ukrainian worker», who functions more as a symbol than as the traditional hero of the developing ethos of Socialist Realism. … The action is intentionally difficult to follow, because Dovzhenko wanted to show the rapid flux of events and confused expectations characterizing the Ukrainian situation, in which nationalism and revolutionary ardor were inseparable.”

In its form in particular, Arsenal ultimately proves to be a genuinely Ukrainian film. Dovzhenko made reference to the poetic genre of the duma, a sort of lament that emerged from oral traditions in the 17th century, was revived in programmatic fashion by national poets of the 19th century such as Taras Shevchenko and was recorded and archived in the early 20th century by patriotic ethnographers such as Porphyr Demutsky (the father of Danylo Demutsky, cinematographer on Arsenal). Dovzhenko attempted to translate this specifically Ukrainian genre into a cinematic form. In this context, Ray Uzwyshyn, one of the best Dovzhenko experts in the West, writes about the “question of genre as strategy”. By playing a great lament, the Soviet filmmaker, who was tied to party discipline and measured according to its criteria, managed to evade the Soviet forces’ universalist agenda. For the Ukrainian people suffering under an imperial war could be read prognostically in relation to their experiences as victims following 1930 in the best sense of an open artwork, with these experiences having been caused by Soviet forces acting in imperial fashion.   

A program of aesthetic modernity

Dovzhenko, who had an extremely difficult relationship with the Communist Party his entire life, saw himself in the role of a prophet. As smaller and smaller fractions formed in the years after 1917, he remained close to the Borotbists, a regional group that stood for an agrarian Communism. His Ukrainian patriotism even intensified in the 30s, when he repeatedly made strategic concessions to the party line. His internal distance was irreconcilable in his diaries, however. For example, in 1943, he was already casting doubt on the subsequent myth of the Great War of the Fatherland from the perspective of a Ukrainian patriot: “(It is) bad that we (the Soviet Union) liberate its (Ukraine) people with ill treatment. We, the liberators, to the last man, have all forgotten that we are somewhat guilty before those we are liberating and that we already consider them second category people, unclean, guilty in our eyes, deserters - capitulators - opportunists. We are glorious warriors but we don’t have the normal human goodness to our own kith and kin.” Even while the Second World War was still raging, Dovzhenko understood that Ukraine was also its own quantity, not least as part of the Soviet Union, torn between two totalitarian regimes, seen and treated by Moscow centralism as a “second class people”. “The director’s wartime diary reveals that he saw the Soviet state as the principal enemy of Ukraine and Ukrainians”, writes Trymbach.

From this perspective, Arsenal becomes the film in which Dovzhenko attempts to connect a particular national horizon (his Ukrainian one) with another form of universalism, all before the backdrop of an ideological totalization that was already clearly recognizable: with a program of aesthetic modernity which draws on a wide range of strategies to attempt to do justice to the diversity of the human experience (of suffering and emancipation). The revolution from which the Bolsheviks derived their right to violence was a normative fact for Dovzhenko, but he also saw it as a continuation of the war and a universal act of violence that he was only able to capture in an ambivalent final image. With this insight, which he encrypted within Arsenal in virtuoso fashion, he was indeed a 20th century prophet. 

With thanks to Anna Medvedovska und Barbara Wurm

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media