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Russia: Tsar's Son Takes Center Stage In Historical Film

  • John Varoli

St. Petersburg, 11 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Is nothing sacred in post-Soviet Russia? Maybe not.

Soviet-era heroes have been fair game for re-examination and even vilification for almost a decade now, but reverence for Russian national personages seemed to be increasing.

Nevertheless a new film by St. Petersburg director, Vitali Melnikov, The Tsarevich Aleksei, challenges the traditional view of Peter the Great as a great hero, fearlessly laboring away for the good of the nation. It, portrays him rather as an ambivalent personality who errs and doubts.

His son, the Tsarevich Aleksei (1690-1718), who supposedly died at his father's own hands, is the central figure in this film. Traditionally, Alexei has been portrayed as a weak and indecisive figure who joined the opposition to his father's reforms and efforts to make Russia a powerful force in Europe.

Melnikov tells RFE/RL that in Soviet times anything written about Alexei was negative because he resisted his father's efforts to create a great state. Peter, despite being a tsar, was still praised by the Soviets for his state-building, which resembled the Soviet model. Melnikov says he sought to reexamine Alexei as a historical figure. In this new film, the directors depicts him as a saint and martyr, representing the old Russia that was being destroyed by Peter's efforts to Westernize and modernize.

Peter is not vilified in the film. Rather, he emerges an ambivalent figure -- a tragic one, torn between his desire to serve his country, to make it great, and his love for his son. Central to the plot is Tsarevich Alexei's disgust with how his father is attaining his goal -- through cruelty and violence. Alexei tells his father in the film: "I do not want to have a kingdom built on the blood of my people."

Peter answers: "How can one rule without blood? I serve Russia as best I can."

Some Russian film critics, searching for a subtle political meaning in the film, portray Melnkov's latest work as criticizing the current political process in Russia. But Melnikov denies this. As he puts it: "I did not intend any historical parallels as some critics think. I wanted to make a historical film about people."