Grumant: An Island of Communism (Grumant: Ostrov Kommunizma)
Distributed by Grasshopper Films, 12 East 32nd St., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10016
Directed by Ivan S. Tverdovskiy
DVD , color, 54 min.
College - General Adult
Russia, Ukraine, Communism, Socialism, Sociology, Political Science, Geopolitics, Soviet Studies
Reviewed by Dmitrii Sidorov, California State University, Long Beach
Date Entered: 1/4/2018
This documentary film is a rare opportunity to visit one of the most remote and least hospitable places on earth, the Norwegian Arctic archipelago Spitsbergen (Svalbard). The film opens with wide panoramic shot of local Arctic landscape that is superimposed by text providing a history introduction. Clearly, for the film that favors the theme of isolation and environmental and social extremes, the larger geographic milieu of the place is not a priority; in fact, the landscape becomes visible again only in the very end of the film (‘Welcoming the Sun” Day). Instead, the film highlights six sunless winter months of this northern most continuously occupied settlement in Europe.
The introduction informs that the archipelago was discovered in 1596, and appeared on Russian maps under the name “Holy Russian Islands.” A 1920 treaty secured Norway’s sovereignty over the archipelago yet also provided the right to carry out commercial and research activities there to all 46 states, parties of the treaty. Currently, only Russia and, perhaps, Norway do that. Russia has a settlement (Barentsburg) which tourists call “an island of Communism.” Brief archival footage (placed inconveniently somewhere in the middle of the film) visualizes the high period of the place: the Soviet Empire not only was able to sustain a several times larger population there but also, as nostalgically recalled, better varieties of free food and free entertainment (e.g., the local film library contained 5000 titles; this rare collection of 35 mm films is not recovered). Communist iconography enters the film from the very beginning. We see a monument to Lenin, banner “Our goal is communism!”, and a Soviet time slogan “Peace to the world” placed above the settlement on a nearby slope. Still, the film is not a geographic take on the place, rather a socio-psychological observation of its unique lifestyle.
Strictly speaking, the film’s title (“Grumant: an Island of Communism”) is somewhat inaccurate: the film is not about Grumant (the 12th century Russian name for the archipelago as a whole) that is mostly abandoned now. Rather, the film is about its only remaining occupied part, the settlement of Barentsburg. The “island” in the film title, too, is rather a metaphor for the enclave of a unique community, a legacy of the Communist social arrangement that has become extinct elsewhere in the mainland Russia. At its core, the film observes remaining Communist eccentricities perhaps needed for survival in that remote environment. Greatly reduced in scale, it is still one of the last preserves of the lost Soviet civilization with its utopian paternalistic characteristics taken to extreme. For example, money means little in Barentsburg, all transactions are cashless. There is no private property, and variation in residences is so insignificant that keys to homes are provided while in the bus before arrival to the settlement. The “normal” economic structures and relationships are essentially abolished there in favor of superficial Communist-style non-monetary exchanges, freeing the residents to enjoy greater sociality. Communism is a paternalistic system; life on the remote island is peaceful and secured (if not bordering boredom). The strongest artistic feature of the film is a sense of emotional suspense amidst the overall peaceful routine existence. The film is punctuated by unexpected, subtle, periodic and routine intrusions of references to work and travel related fatalities (“3-4 cases a year”) that perhaps serve as true practical markers of Barentsburg’ rather monotonous history.
Perhaps a wider geographical context and greater visual references to surrounding landscapes are still needed to increase the educational utility of the film. Beyond the opening, the film does not provide many locale references to get a sense of both immediate and wider geographical settings of the settlement, perhaps contributing to an artistic sense of uniqueness and closeness of the case and allowing focusing on the people rather than on the place, and on social anthropology rather than on physical geography of human-environment interaction. Geopolitics, too, is a victim of this artistic decision by the film director, Ivan S. Tverdovskiy (not to be confused with his son, also named Ivan and a filmmaker). It would be very interesting to understand the extent of interaction between the Russians and the Norwegians (or tourists), contrasting Russian Barentsburg and Norvegian Longyearbyen yet none of that is provided.
If anything, the case is connected to the residents’ region of origin: most of them come from Donbass, the Ukrainian/Russian borderlands. Their travel from there to the island is long and complicated: first, from Donbass via Rostov to Moscow by train; then from Moscow to Longyearbyen by air; the last 60 km stretch to Barentsburg is done by helicopter. With Moscow being 2611 km away, the community has to be self-reliant and collectivist. The film evolves mostly indoors and focuses on people--Grumant residents in their working spaces of dangerous underground coal mining, in their family settings as well as among social gatherings. The infrastructure seems to be simple yet functional, perhaps in better shape than in the numerous impoverished deindustrialized working class areas of the former Soviet realm, especially Donbass itself. We hear personal stories of the people who work in this remote place, most of surnames are Ukrainian (e.g., Semenchuk, Vasenko, Moroz). Soon after the film was released (2014), the Donbass Russian/Ukrainian borderland region became globally famous because of the separatist conflict in Donbass/Lugansk providing the film with an additional and perhaps not anticipated significance. If the film is done just a little bit later, the contrast between that peaceful (although extremely socially protected) lifestyle in Barentsburg and the residents’ war-affected homeland (Donbass) would most likely be in the film as well as an exploration of the (peaceful) relations between Russians and Ukrainians in this utopian place out of place. There is potential for a sequel that would explore the impact of the conflict on the Ukrainian diaspora of Barentsburg.
- Best Feature Length Documentary, ArtDocFest, 2014