Russian Film Symposium hits Pittsburgh

The annual Russian Film Symposium has arrived. Through Saturday, students interested in Russian history, film, and sociology will be able to see several Russian films daily at the Cathedral of Learning and in the evening at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ Melwood Screening Room. The films include classics of early Soviet cinema from the late 1920s and 1930s, and also several new films from 2005. The symposium’s theme this year is “White Russian, Black Russian: Race and Ethnicity in Russian Cinema.”

Recent years have seen racism on the rise in Russia. The Sova Center, a Russian think tank, reported 28 racially-motivated murders in 394 attacks across Russia in 2005. Neo-Nazi skinhead groups often claim responsibility for the attacks in Russia, which include the victimization of ethnic minorities, tourists, and foreign students. Skinhead activity has recently been on the rise outside of Russia, as well.

Racism in Russia has a complicated, centuries-old origin. Russia has always been a multinational state — the USSR was made up of 15 different republics in Europe and Asia. Many had to be violently brought into the union, giving rise to tension. Within the republics, there are also many ethnic and racial sub-groups. The Russian people were perceived to be favored above all others, and of course most local Soviet leaders of importance were Russians. This favoritism created much friction, which persists to this day. The Communists had been suspicious of nationalism as a rival to their Marxist-Leninist ideology and suppressed nationalist feelings, local customs, traditions, and culture.

Though the phenomenon persists in both countries, the issue of race in Russia is different from racism in America. The Russian Film Symposium’s director, Vladimir Padunov, a member of the University of Pittsburgh’s Slavic studies department as well as associate director of the film program there, said, “Racism is not reflected upon in Russia. It is still seen as natural.” The Moscow Times reported Friday on racist websites in Russia and the authorities’ efforts to crack down on them. One site posted a “Manual of Street Terror,” which described how to quickly turn ethnic targets into “porridge” on the streets.

The consequence of this lack of reflection is that racist groups in Russia still “act out” violently against peoples of other races. “We reflected about racism in America around the civil rights movement, so it’s more insidious now,” Padunov said. American racism now occurs more subtly, but the attitude is still pervasive in American society. “If you are swarthy in Moscow, a cop will walk up to you and ask for your papers. Send a black person into Squirrel Hill, bet you they get stopped,” Padunov said.

The persuasiveness of film has not been used to reflect on racism in Russia. “Films show how ethnicities are represented and what is taken for granted in that portrayal that produces a stereotype. How does that validate already existing stereotypes?” Padunov said.

The Russian Film Symposium is unique among film festivals. The discussions and introductions which accompany the films will not solely focus on the issue of race; the symposium also examines the films from an artistic and cinematic viewpoint. Padunov described the symposium: “It uses a national cinema to address a bunch of interdisciplinary issues, some of which are Slavic, film, sociology, anthropology, [and] music.”

The symposium will have numerous guests, including faculty from the College of William and Mary, the Russian State Humanities University, and UCLA. The symposium was put together by faculty and graduate students at Pitt in collaboration with the Pittsburgh Filmmakers. A full schedule of the films can be found at www.rusfilm.pitt.edu/2006/schedule.htm.