Siberia—“Realm of Thrills”. The Genre of “Wild East” Films


In her definitive study on the history of Russian and Soviet film Christine Engel has correctly pointed out that “film is not only fashioned by history, moreover film shapes historical consciousness.” [1] Nevertheless the author only slightly touches the meaning of spaces in the history-shaping and history-making vigor of films. This essay tries to explore space as a visual category of national and intercultural communication. Whereas the legendary Western films are a well researched topic, historiography on modern films is rarely devoted to the genre of “Wild East”. It is a well-known fact that in the 1930s the totalitarian tendency of Stalinism was reflected, at least, through films. The “discovery of space” aimed at the presentation of imperial greatness and the “Wild East” was the scenery well-suited for demonstrating the modernization of the Asian periphery—and far beyond—of the superiority of Stalinist civilization, thereby giving a shining example for Asian countries.

Defense of the Border and Socialist Construction (1920s—1940s)

In Potomok Chingis-khana (by Vsevolod Pudovkin 1928) a Mongol partisan is sentenced to death by the British interventionist troops during the Civil War in Siberia, but he is finally pardoned in order to install as an alleged offspring of Chingis Khan a Mongol empire under British tutelage. But, not surprising, the hero comes in touch with Lenin’s idea of world revolution and wants to revolutionize his Mongol fellows in order to unleash a “Red Storm over Asia”.

Against the background of political tensions in the Far East (Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931) heroes were often border guards or NKVD officials defending rodina against the outer and inner enemy. Soviet film producers here alluded to xenophobic attitudes deeply rooted in Siberian population since the Russo-Japanese War (1904/1905) and the Siberian intervention. The film Volochaevskie dni (The Days of Volochaevsk 1937) stylizes the heroic struggle of Soviet partisans against the Japanese occupying forces in Vladivostok during the Civil War into a kind of patriotic myth. Rather, the spectator gets the impression that “European civilization” will be defended against “Asian barbarism”. Nevertheless, Lev Sverdlin impressively portrays the Japanese colonel Usizhima who seems respectful, exhaling the bushido ideal of Samurai. In Volochaevskie dni the opening up of Siberia (osvoenie) is interpreted as the making of Siberia as an inseparable part of Russia. It is typical of the Soviet films of the 1930s which explored the eastern frontier that the Japanese enemies are always acted by Koreans or Caucasians. By this way the Asian nationalities of the Soviet Union were instrumentalized in Stalinist films in order to create xenopobic images as Soviet Asian played the evil characters.

Aerograd (1935) produced by David Mar’ian resumes the topic of the eastern frontier as defense line against “Yellow Hordes”. Aerograd represents not only a Soviet outpost on the Pacific Ocean, but also the scenery where inner struggles take place. Like the real Magnitogorsk, a steel town at the Ural, the fictitious Aerograd symbolizes industrialization and modernity. Producer Aleksandr Dovshenko were hiking for several months through the Russian Far East where he got fascinated by the landscape the inspirations for his film. An old hunter stands in the core of the action who of course does not jeopardize the forceful transformation of the wildernis, his natural living space, instead he discovers a plot of his friend who collaborates with the Japanese enemy in sabotage of Stalin’s industrialization campaign in the Far East.

“Wild East” films of the 1930s are teeming with spies and saboteurs who are regarded as outlaws like their counterparts—the gangsters who are increasingly appearing in the Western of the 1930s. In his innovative study on Western Georg Seeslen has elaborated the background of these constructions of the imaginary enemy. In the 1930s, the era between the “moral desintegration” of the Great Depression and World War II, the repulse of the gangster produced the spectator’s flight from an identity crisis [2]—a strong argument that can be applied to “Wild East” films. Collectivization and forced industrialization resulted in an atomization of the Siberian frontier society. The discovery of spies and saboteurs gave the spectator a new identity. In the last episode of Aerograd the hunter kills his friend who has betrayed socialism. It is worth-mentioning that the indigenous population is instrumentalized as a “defender of socialism” against the “Yellow Peril” symbolized by the Japanese enemy.

In the 1930s and 1940s the border became also a popular theme in Japan. Since the occupation of Manchuria adjacent to Siberia the Japanese installed a respectable film industry. The cultivation of enemy images was a leitmotiv of Soviet and Japanese films at that time. Siberia and the East Asian—Pacific Rim became a battlefield where film producers were leading “mental fights” by order of a militaristic-patriotic ideology. In Manchuria the Toho film studio produced a series of colonial films that prepared the Japanese spectators for the conquest of the Asian continent. Outstanding was the film “My Nightingale” (Watashi no Uguisu) produced in 1943 by Shimazu Yasujiro who tells the story of a Japanese orphan that grew up in Russian émigre family from Siberia.

Socialist Construction: Youth and Modernity

In Semero smelykh (by Sergei Gerasimov 1936) the “Komsomol’skaia Pravda” calls on juveniles from all over the Soviet Union to erect a weather station in the Siberian Arctic. More than 400 young people arrive at the shores of the Polar Sea and experience the roughness and beauty of the Siberian tundra. The film reflects the euphoria so typical for the period of industrialization and technological advance on the Siberian frontier. In 1938 Sergei Gerasimov produced a film with a similar theme. In Komsomol’sk young Soviet people are again pioneering. Komsomol’tsy from all parts of the country are cutting down the Siberian taiga in order to build Komsomol’sk-na-Amure, a socialist megapolis. Devushka s kharakterom (by Konstantin Judin, 1939) tells the life of a young girl who had worked in fur farming in the Soviet Far East and now comes for the first time to Moscow where she feels fascinated by the pulsing life of the capital. In Sel’skaia uchitel’nitsa (by Mark Donskoi 1947) young Vanvara accompagnies her fiance arrested by the Okhrana into the Siberian exile. Convinced by the ideals of the October Revolution she becomes teacher in a Siberian village in order to educate the rural youth in the mind of socialism. With outbreak of World War II Vanvara interrupts her work when she gets a call-up to the front. The film delivers an interesting insight into school life in a Siberian village between October Revolution and World War II, it also represents an important historical document on anti-illiteracy campaigns.

Crossings and Blurrings of Frontiers and Spaces: Sergei Eizenshtein’s East-West Dialogue

Sergei Eizenshtein’s fascination for the exotic East (Japan, China) and the American West is relatively unknown in film historiography. During Russian Civil war, Japanese intervention in Siberia and the establishment of the Far Eastern Republic Eizenshtein began to study Japanese language at the academy of the General Staff in Moscow and he became also interested in kabuki theater. In the same period Eizenshtein was inspired by the “Mexican”, a novel by Wild West writer Jack Landon that he brought on stage. [3] In 1930s Eizenshtein traveled to New York and Hollywood, the dream factory of the great Westerns, where he negotiated with Paramount on writing a script for Sutter’s Gold, the story of the German captain Sutter who takes part in the legendary Californian goldrush. But Eizenshtein breaks with the stereotype of the American Wild West and its heroes. His attempt to subject America’s great national myth of the West to criticism of social conditions on the frontier was condemned by Hollywood and Eizenshtein lost his engagement for Sutter’s Gold. The US press condemned Eizenshtein as “Red dog”, “dangerous Jewish spy” etc. The case of Sergei Eizenshtein’s Sutter’s Gold demonstrates that film factories were a stage on which national vanities were produced. Nevertheless, Sergei Eizenshtein did not give up his dedication to the theme of spaces and frontiers. In 1938—in view of the tensions in Europe (Treaty of Munich) and the armed Soviet-Japanese conflicts on the Siberian-Manchurian frontier he produced the legendary film of “Aleksandr Nevskii”. In the film like in reality “Mother Russia” has to deal with the scenary of a war on two fronts: on one side the German knights (symbol for the SS-Ostland-Reiter), on the other side the Tatars (Symbol of the Yellow Peril, i.e. the Japanese). In this film epos the Eurasian frontier becomes the scene where the rise and decline of empires take place.

Post Colonialist Dream Factories

In half a century, from the 1950s to 2000 Siberia became a place of imagination among Russian and Western film producers. From Zolotoi Eselon (by Il’ia Gurin 1959) to Sibirskii tsirjul’nik (by Nikita Mikhalkov) the Siberian frontier appeals to Russian national feeling, at least of that of imperial greatness. In Zolotoi Eselon the White armies transfer the gold reserve of the Tsars via the Transsiberian Railroad to the regions east of the Urals. The Whites want to hand over the precious metal to the foreign interventionist troops in order to receive support for their war against the Bolsheviks. But on the way the Red are attacking the Transsib and seizing the gold. The film is very thrilling and revives the myth of Tsarist gold in Soviet post-war society. In 1968 Jaropolk Lapsin produced the film Ugr’um reka based on the novel by Viacheslav Shishkov who traveled between 1890 and 1913 to Siberia. The plot tells the life story of the East Siberian merchant family Gromov. Lapsin has an excellent talent to combine the biographies of the heroes, their relationships (love, intrigues etc.) with the social processes that took place in the Siberian society between the construction of the Transsiberian Railroad and outbreak of World War I. River Ugr’um is fictitious, but it could be the legendary Amur. The film is not only an ode to Siberia, Russia’s “Wild East”, moreover it is especially worth-mentioning that the film does not touch the theme of revolution and civil war so typical for Soviet films, but bourgeois values which is indeed innovative in Soviet film productions. Also interesting is Zemlia Sannikova (by Albert Mkrtsian 1959) that tells the adventure of an expedition into the Polar Sea. After overcoming dangers and at the risk of their lives the participants of the expedition discover the legendary Sannikov Land inhabited by a primeval tribe. In a subtile manner this theme touches the colonial discovery and conquest of “archaic cultures”, the primitive man is actually a metaphor for the indigenous population. At the same time, the expeditions mean for Europeans (i.e. the Russians) the return to the early beginnings of human mankind. Sibiriada (produced by Andrei Mikhalkov-Kontsalovskii 1979) recounts the life of two families in a Siberian village. The first part is spanned from Fin-de-siècle Tsarist Siberia to the 1940s, the second part begins with World War II and ends in the 1960s. Sibiriada is one of the most outstanding monumental films of the late Soviet Union. It delivers a good insight into habits and mentalities of families that experience political upheavals from the decline of Tsarist Russia, the October Revolution, the period of Reconstruction in the 1920s, the dark age of Stalinism and the Thaw of the 1960s. Like in a kaleidoscope Andrei Mikhalkov-Kontsalovskii shows the mixture of ordinary life and political history.

Siberia as a Stalinist Hell: Labor Camps and War

The image of Siberia in Russian and Western “Wild East” films is very ambivalent. One one side the region represents the magnificence of the Tsarist and Soviet empire (a land plenty of mental vigor and natural resources), but on the other hand horror and human humiliation in the shape of Stalinist labor camps. In Vokzal dlia dvoikh (produced by El’dar Riazanov 1982) a pianist got instead of his wife in a Siberian labor camp. On the run from harsh reality he remembers his love affair with a waitress on a station before his deportation. When the labor camp administration informs him of the arrival of his wife, instead of the spouse, the waitress comes. In this tragicomedy film producer El’dar Riazanov introduces the spectator into the pianist’s world of dreams. Zamri-umri-voskresni (produced by Vitalii Kanevskii 1990) represents an interesting variant of the Gulag genre. It is the story of two children who grow up near a Stalinist labor camp in Eastern Siberia just after World War II. Despite misery and violence surrounding them Valerka and Galiia, both twelve-years old, become friends. Their remarkable affection gives a sign of hope in a brutalized Stalinist frontier society. This film demands special notice because it examines children’s mental digestion of the Gulag experience, it is also a clear requital with Stalinism, especially with the juvenile enthusiasm staged by the films of the 1930s. Zateriany v Sibiri (SU/GB 1991, produced by Aleksandr Mitta) has a similar plot: an American archaelogist falls in the hands of the NKVD and is deported to a Siberian labor camp for ten years. In the camp the scientist meets a maladjusted orphan whose life he is saving. Whereas the juvenile succeeds in escaping, there is no chance for adults to survive. Here again children symbolize hope for a better future. Vernyi Ruslan—Istoriia karaul’noi sobaki (Ukraine 1994, produced by Vladimir Khmel’nitskii) is a very interesting variant as it tells the labor camp life from the view of a dog. With the liquidation of the labor camps the dog has lost its function, i.e. guarding the prisoners. Losing his bearings the dog is roaming the Siberian landscape and symbolizes the compliant human guard in Stalinist labor camp system.

Siberia—Russia’s “Wild East” in East Asian films

A legend among “Wild East” films is Dersu Uzala (Derusu Uzala, SU/Japan produced by Akira Kurosawa). Indigenous hunter Dersu Uzala is a hero that symbolizes the harmony between man and nature. According to Akira Kurosawa, nature is a vigor that endows man to exercise charity in society. Less known is the impact of Siberia on mental landscape in Japanese post-war films. Between 1958 and 1960 Masaki Kobayashi has produced a film based on the novel “Ningen no jôken” by Jumpei Gomikawa that recounts the life of the young engineer Kaji who works as a prisoner in a mine in occupied Manchuria and is deported in August 1945 by the invading Soviet Army to a Siberian labor camp. On the escape he dies of faintness. The film is documenting in a remarkable manner the brutality of the Soviet-Japanese war, it also condemns the inhumanity that was characteristic of Japanese and Soviet labor camps alike. Chisai Tobosha (1966) represents a different approach to the Siberian theme. Young Japanese boy Ken hides on a freighter that brings him to Vladivostok, a city actually closed for foreigners. Of course, a Soviet border patrol is discovering the boy and sending him to Moscow. On his trip with the Transsiberian Railroad Ken meets a lot of people and experiences the kindness and helpfulness of Sibiriaki.

Western “Wild East” Films on Siberia

An outstanding example for Western monumental films that develops the theme of prostor is the legendary Doctor Zhivago produced in 1965 by David Lean with Geraldine Chaplin (Tonia), Julie Christie (Lara) and Omar Sharif (Jurii) playing the main part. Before a grandiose landscape east of the imaginery Urals (the film was actually shooted in the Canadian prairies) the individual destiny of physician and poet Jurii Zhivago became blurred with the political and military events of October Revolution and Civil War. Before the scenery of the West Siberian steppes the plot (which is well known and therefore needs no repetition here) gains its dramatic turn. David Lean who became famed for his other films like “Lawrence of Arabia”, was awarded for this monumental production with five Oscars. Until the 1980s the film nets worldwide nearly 200 million US dollars. Aside from the monumental staging of human destiny thrown into a vast landscape, the film has not a great deal in common with the novel by Boris Pasternak. [4] Soweit die Fuesse tragen (The Great Escape, Germany 1959 produced by Fritz Umgelter) shows that the Gulag theme also provides good material for monumental films. In fall 1945 3,000 German war prisoners, among them Clemens Forell, are deported to a labor camp near Cape Dezhnev. The plot describes his successful escape of a man who demonstrates a tremendous love of freedom. Over thousand of miles he is roaming the Siberian landscape in winter and summer alike. Producer Fritz Umgelter does not give the natural beauty so much emphasis, instead man’s encounter with nature, the prisoner’s survival training in the wilderness which symbolizes a frontier under a physical-mental aspect comes to the fore. In contrast to Akira Kurosawas Dersu Uzala there is no harmony between nature and man. But we can also make out a similarity. Like in Dersu Uzala the Siberian nomads who helped the German war prisoner on his escape represent the noble savage who helps the Europeans to orientate in prostor. There are finally two other Western “Wild East” films that demand special notice. The production of Michail Strogoff, legendary courier of the Tsar, based on the novel by Jules Verne, has a long tradition: first produced by Viatcheslav Tourianski (France 1926), by Jacques de Baroncelli (France 1935), by Richard Eichberg (Germany 1936), by Carmine Gallone (France 1956) by Eripando Visconte (France/Germany/Italy 1970) and by Fabrizia Costa (Italy/Germany 1999). With the help of two ladies (a Russian and a Tatar woman) Michail Strogoff succeeds in arresting Tatar Khan Ogareff. Animated cartoon Corto Maltese et la cour secrète des Arcanes (France 2002, produced by Pascal Morelli) takes up the theme of Zolotoi eselon. The White troops under Admiral Kolchak try to bring the Tsarist gold via the Transsiberian Railroad out of European Russia. The “Red Lantern”, a Chinese secret society in Siberia, persuades Corto Maltese to hand over the treasure. The fantastic and revived Rasputin supports Corto Maltese’s robbery.

Some Characteristics of Russian and Western “Wild East” Films

Common to Russian and Western “Wild East” films is the intrinsic myth of the conquest of Siberia and Eurasia by the Russians, thereby conveying the glamor of the Russian empire. Geographical vastness becomes associated with national greatness. Like the legendary Western did help to create a “white imagery”, a “white mythology” of the Indians, we also find in the “Wild East” film (Ermak, Mikhail Strogoff) the (Asian) Tatar who fills Russian settlers with fear. In contrast to this clash of civilizations Dersu Uzala represents the noble savage who is well-disposed towards the “white man” (Vladimir K. Arsen’ev)—a constellation of male friendship that we can find in the Italo Western (Old Shatterhand acted by Lex Barker and Winnetou by Pierre Briece, based on novel by German “Wild West” writer Karl May). This is an example that the frontier is not always a battlefield between “white” and “indigenous” man. Whereas the films Ermak and Michail Strogoff are glorifying the subjugation of Siberian Tatars, Dersu Uzala promotes a positive, friendly attitude of the “white man” (Vladimir K. Arsen’ev) towards the indigenous population. Dersu Uzala breaks with the common stereotypes of the frontier, instead it is seeking for a symbiosis between “white” and “indigenous” civilizations. The two heroes, Vladimir K. Arsen’ev and Dersu Uzala, represent a special kind of man, that of a wanderer between the worlds, a pioneer in intercultural dialogue. Dersu Uzala is a free man with equal rights, Vladimir K. Arsen’ev includes the nomad in his own world view.

These “Wild East” films do not only generate the myth of fighting men of different cultures on the frontier, it is more revealing to explore this film genre under the aspect of gender that blurres with the ethnic category. Like the Indian or the Mexican woman in the American West the Tatar woman (in Ermak, Michael Strogoff) presents with her dark hair and skin an (alien) erotic symbol for the “white”, Russian man. The whole plot of these both films are aiming at conquest of the foreign landscape and seduction of the alien, indigenous woman. The Russian woman in “Wild East” films is often a blond beauty like Ermak’s wife who in the film Ermak is caught in the harem of Khan Kuchum and gives birth there to two sons and seem to be martyr of Russian rodina. Like in the legendary Western the “Wild East” films show the typical erotic relationship: “white” man and “indigenous” woman (Indian, Mexican, Tatar) and “white” woman and “indigenous” man. The genre conveys patriarchal images of the woman on the frontiers. Especially the Tatar and Indian/Mexican woman are symbolizing the womanly wildness that is colonized like the wild landscape.

We can also make out some similarities in the plot of Western and “Wild East” Films: the hero has often to liberate someone from captivity (like in Michael Strogoff) or he himself like Jurii Zhivago is captured by Red partisans or bandits. Another important feature of this genre is the hunt on an enemy, bandit etc. The horse here often symbolizes freedom and unruliness (Ermak, Michail Strogoff, Doktor Zhivago). Additionally there is a main catalogue of characteristics that describes the male heroes in the film: honor, friendship, autonomy (typical virtues on rough frontier). Not only the encounters with the indigenous population (Indians, Tatars) form the type of tough man, but also the rough landscape, the vast and weird space like Death Valley in summer or the Siberian tundra/taiga in winter are symbolizing a doomed destiny that the heroes have to overcome. These spaces/frontiers are not untouched, bandits and fugitives leave their footprints and strains have left their deep marks in the hero’s face (Doktor Zhivago, The Great Escape). Here nature is not a passive element, moreover it enters into an inexorable dialogue with man.

The genre of Western and “Wild East” films often use horror as a stylistic mean, i.e. to make a parody of the romantic plot. In Pánico en el Transsiberiano (Panic on the Transsib, Spain 1972) a revived monster ape is wolfing down a complete cossack unit on the Transsiberian Railroad, a similar plot we find in Killing Box (USA 1993, produced by George Hickenlooper): an African zombie terrorizes the US troops during American Civil War. Here frontiers become a place of a produced nightmare, a surrealistic presentation where the Siberian and American frontiers are vanishing in abstraction and nebula. Whereas the legendary Western has passed its best time, the “Wild East” Film experiences with the new production of Michail Strogoff (1999), Sibirskii Tsiriul’nik (1999), The Great Escape (2000) as a national epos of Russia a new boom after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Wild East” films as work in progress seem to be the mainstream in the West and post-Soviet Russia in order to define Russia as an Eurasian frontier.


  1. Quoted from Christine Engel (Ed.) Geschichte des sowjetischen und russischen Films (History of the Soviet and Russian Film), Stuttgart—Wien 1999, p. XII.
  2. Georg Seeslen Geschichte und Mythologie des Westernfilms (History and Mythology of the Western), Marburg 1995, p. 68.

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