Back in the USSR


Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today. 

I’m Lia Paradis.

And I’m Brian Crim. 

Over this season we’ve traveled the world and looked at actual revolutions as well as social revolutions and failed revolts. Here, in our final episode of the season, we’re returning to one of the classics. In the spring of 1917, a revolution began in Russia with the mutiny of starving, poorly armed and poorly clothed soldiers at the front. By the fall, a moderate revolution had given way to radical revolution. It’s difficult to identify a single geo-political event since then that can’t be traced back to the Russian Revolution. 

But the meaning of the Russian Revolution, and the meaning of America’s opposition to the Soviet regime that followed, has changed many times. The bi-polar world order of the Cold War era looks pretty black and white. Starkly different political philosophies apparently underpinned that Manichaean world view. 

The reality was very different. So the lies agreed upon in this episode are about how the United States has understood, and treated, the political philosophies of socialism and communism at different points in the 100+ years since the Russian Revolution. And how America’s stance at any given time wasn’t necessarily shared with the rest of the West. 

Since the beginning of Season 1, we’ve talked about how Hollywood often reinforces historical lies by reverting to familiar narratives, oversimplifying historic events, or allowing one event to stand in for another. This week, however, we’re looking at how, in both cases, our movies push back against those kinds of lies, rather than reinforce them. 15 years apart, Dr. Zhivago and Reds ask their audiences to follow complex stories that sweep across vast territories and refuse to fall into neat categories of good and evil. 

So what are the lies that David Lean (by way of Boris Pasternak) and Warren Beatty (by way of John Reed) are refuting? 

Well, first of all that the Russian Revolution was a calamitous and unwarranted defeat of democracy and capitalism. 

Next, that the Russian revolution immediately and inevitably resulted in totalitarian dictatorship. 

And finally, following from that, that if A and B are true, then socialism offers no legitimate alternatives to capitalism, nor is it compatible with democracy. 

That seems like a tall order to cover in one episode, with 2 films. But trust us. Looking at these films, and the context within which they were made, will do most of the work for us. 

As we always do, let’s start with a recap. One is 56 years old, the other merely 40, so we won’t trouble you with spoiler alerts.


The incredibly beautiful , that is to say, visually stunning Dr. Zhivago was released in 1965 and directed by David Lean, the brilliant English director of such classics as Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and A Passage to India. Long-time collaborator Robert Bolt wrote the screenplay, adapting the 1957 novel by Russian author Boris Pasternak. The book was very popular in the West, but, as you might expect, banned in the Soviet Union for decades. I guess the idea was to film it in the Soviet Union, but that wasn’t possible (although I was fooled). It was filmed mostly in Spain. 

The international cast is stellar, representing a who’s who in cinema during this Golden Age of Hollywood. Omar Sharif is the titular character, Yuri Zhivago and his star crossed lover, Lara Antipova, is played by Julie Christie. Geraldine Chaplin is Tonya, Zhivago’s long-suffering wife. Rod Steiger is the loathsome Victor Komarovsky; Alec Guinness is Zhivago’s long-lost half brother Comrade General Yevgraf Zhivago; Tom Courtenay is the Bolshevik purist Pasha, Lara’s husband who later morphs into a cruel general known as Strelnikov. There are other great performances by Ralph Richardson, Geraldine Chaplin, and Rita Rushingham. 

It’s surprising to read that critics weren’t sold on Dr. Zhivago when it first came out, but it is the eighth highest grossing film of all time in the US and Canada. It won 5 Oscars, but lost most of the big ones to The Sound of Music. Some critics accused it of trivializing history, which we will discuss I’m sure, but to say the film “holds up” is an understatement. Dr. Zhivago is 39th on the American Film Institute’s 100 years 100 films list and the British Film Institute voted it the 27th greatest British film of all time.

The film is mostly set against a backdrop of World War I, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Russian Civil War, which lasted until about 1922. The first scene is a narrative framing device set in the 1950s when Yegrav Shivago, a senior Soviet official, is searching for the daughter of his deceased brother Yuri, Dr. Zhivago, and Lara. Yegrav tracks her down and begins to tell his niece her parent’s story.

We are then treated to some gorgeous flashbacks of Yuri’s life in rural Russia, his young adulthood in turn of the century Moscow, and then his experience as a doctor witnessing the horrific suffering of the Russian people during World War I. An orphan, Yuri is taken in by the Gromekos, wealthy family friends from Moscow. They educate Yuri to be a doctor and pair him off with their daughter Tonya. His life seems set, but he is a poet at heart and his well-planned life is derailed when he meets young Lara, a 17 year old dress maker who is victimized by her mother’s influential consort, Victor Komoravsky. She is also dating the idealistic Socialist activist Pasha. These complicated relationships occur amid the backdrop of growing tensions in Russia as the small, but vocal Socialist movement challenges centuries of Tsarist rule. As we know, World War I topples the already fragile Romanov dynasty, throwing Russia into chaos and revolution for years.

After Yuri is drafted as a battlefield doctor, he encounters Lara, who he admired only from a distance in Moscow. After Pasha had joined the war, she volunteered as a nurse. Yuri and Lara fall in love, but stay true to their spouses, although Pasha is feared dead. News of Lenin’s return, the czar’s abdication, the provisional governments, seem very distant at first, but that will change dramatically.

Yuri returns to revolutionary Moscow. The Gromeko mansion is now commandeered by the party and the family lives in one room. Yuri is a romantic humanist, and he is drawn to the ideals of the revolutionaries. But his proletariat neighbors and the increasingly intolerant and radical Bolshevik elite only see the family’s privilege and wealth. Yuri’s half-brother Yevgraf visits and warns Yuri  to take the family to their dascha and wait out the chaos and violence. They pack up and go on an amazing train ride punctuated by the violence of the civil war. At one point Yuri meets Pasha, now Strelnikov, who declares Lara is better off thinking he’s dead.

Let’s play the clip of Yuri meeting Strenilkov. Its gives you a sense of why Yuri’s simple humanism is suddenly dangerous during the paranoid, radical phase of the revolution. 

I think that line, “The personal life is dead in Russia. History has killed it” is important. There is always a lot of talk about history in the films this episode. 

As if by fate, Yuri and Lara reunite in the small village and begin a passionate love affair that is interrupted by the civil war. Yuri is kidnapped for two years and forced back into service as a doctor. Horrified by what he sees, he deserts and finds that his family fled to Paris. Their pasts catch up to them, however, when Victor shows up to warn them they are both in danger – Lara for being Strenilkov’s widow (Strelnikov is now on the enemy list – a clear case of the revolution eating their own) and Yuri because of his poetry, which was once deemed idealistic and populist, but is now too bourgeois and personal. They are forced to split up, but Lara is pregnant. 

The tragic story ends years later when Yuri dies of a heart attack after running to try and catch Lara when he sees her on a Moscow street. Lara perishes in a Stalinist gulag. The final scene takes us back to Yevgraf speaking with their daughter, Tanya, who may have no memory of her parents, but seems to have Yuri’s artistic spirit. 

Released 16 years later, Reds is also the story of a man and a woman who were sympathetic to the revolution but became casualties of its radical phase. Another 3.5 hour long epic drama, Reds covers the lives and careers of journalists and writers John Reed and Louise Bryant. Reed was an avowed communist activist and author of the amazing first hand account of the Russian Revolution – Ten Days That Shook the World. Reds is Warren Beatty’s baby. He co-wrote, produced, directed, and stars in the film alongside pretty much every other great actor he knew at the time. Beatty won the Academy Award for Best Director, but Reds lost the Best Film award to Chariots of Fire. A number of cast members, Beatty included, were nominated for acting awards, but only Maureen Stapleton won for her role as anarchist political philosopher and writer, Emma Goldman. 

And let’s just look in awe at this cast. We can imagine Beatty just calling up his buddies and saying, “Hey, wanna make this movie with me?” So, Beatty is John Reed, but I found that Diane Keaton’s Louise Bryant stole the film as Reed’s companion and eventually wife. The character evolved into a fiercely independent talent in her own right. We have Jack Nicholson as playwright Eugene O’Neill; Edward Hermann, Richard Gilmore (or FDR, if you prefer that reference) himself, as writer and activist Max Eastman; we mentioned Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman; Jerzy Kosinski, the author of Being There, which had just been adapted brilliantly for the screen by Hal Ashby a couple of years earlier, plays one of the original Bolsheviks and Lenin associate Grigory Zinoviev. There are some other noteworthy appearances by young Paul Sorvino, young M. Emmett Walsh, George Plimpton, and William Daniels, who was John Adams in 1776 if you remember, but here plays a leader of the American Communist Party. Even Gene Hackman plays a cantankerous New York publisher for about 30 seconds. Like we said, it’s a who’s who of Warren Beatty’ rolodex.

Most effective, though, are the appearances of real-life witnesses to the era, and to the lives of Reed and Bryant. Their memories of the events on screen are interspersed throughout the film and lend the story some real authenticity. Some of the witnesses include radical writer and activist Scott Nearing, suffragist Dorothy Frooks, Roger Baldwin, one of the founders of the ACLU, and writer Henry Miller. I even caught comic actor Georgie Jessel, if you can believe that. 

The point of the interviews is to highlight just how dynamic and close-knit the community of artists and activists living in Greenwich Village was in the 1910s and 20s. And also, crucially, to remind Americans that this era was not so far gone – there were still living witnesses to it. And that to be a Communist, or at least a socialist, or a labor leader, was neither rare nor outlandish. 1917 was a moment when liberal democracy was really only just getting started in many countries and was still in the future for others

Reds begins in Portland, ORegon in 1915 where we meet Louise Bryant suffocating in a bourgeois marriage. She’s an artist, writer, journalist but her ambitions are thwarted so far from the action. John Reed, a socialist journalist,  comes around to preach an antiwar message and encourages Louise to come to New York. She takes him up on this and gets dropped into the intimidating world of more accomplished figures feeding off of each other’s talent. Initially seen as just another Reed conquest, Louise fights to establish her own voice and become more of Reed’s equal than a consort. 

As Reed gets drawn further into anti-war activism and socialist party politics, Bryant has an affair with Eugene O’Neill, played memorably by Jack Nicholson in an understated performance, and gains confidence in her own work. When the US gets into the war, Louise travels to France and becomes a war correspondent. Reed comes looking for Louisa and convinces her to go with him to Moscow and report on the revolution they have all been hoping for. 

We get a great montage that illustrates the intoxication of the moment. Here we hear them reading the dispatches they are frantically writing for whatever papers will take their copy. 

Unlike the journalists we discussed in earlier episodes, Reed and Bryant see their journalism as having a very specific and necessary political agenda. 

But Reed, one of the few Americans in the country at the time, is more than just a journalist here, he becomes part of the revolution, speaking at rallies and preaching US worker solidarity with the new regime. We watch the Kerensky governments fall apart and the Bolsheviks rise. Reed hob knobs with Lenin and Trotsky, but mostly he’s about getting the Comintern to sign off on Reed’s pet project, the breakaway Communist Labor Party of America. 

At this point in the film we come to view Reed as an egotistical, self-important figure. This is his major flaw, but also what drives him. And it’s after this first trip to Russia that Reed writes the book that makes him famous – Ten Days that Shook the World.

Louise Bryant is back in the US, facing the wrath of a government pushing the post-WWI Red Scare pretty hard. Reed is already charged with sedition and Louise is suspected of it as well. Congress doesn’t understand the Bolshevik Revolution and calls Louise forward to testify, both because she was a witness, but also because they want to silence and intimidate any socialist voices. Let’s play her exchange with some Senators at a hearing:

And she’s right on a number of fronts, but about the Soviet government working. 

This is where Reed goes off the rails. He goes back to Russia to represent American communists, but winds up staying and working for the new propaganda department. Reed is also struggling with a kidney ailment that is progressively getting worse.If you want to get a sense of just how unhinged Reed has become, adopting the worst parts of the Bolshevik platform, consider this argument with his friend Emma Goldman. She also goes to Russia hoping to see a glorious revolution unfold, but the civil war empowers the violent and oppressive elements over the idealists. 

As harsh as Reed sounds there, he’s kind of right. The Bolshevik revolution is not what anyone planned for, but it happened the way it happened. It can only “work” with an enormous body count. Reds is interesting because it shows how disconnected Greenwich Village activism can be from the reality of a revolution as complex and violent as the Bolshevik takeover of a backwards, agrarian empire. I mean, what do these overeducated writers and playwrights have in common with peasants in Baku?

Reed does get a little disillusioned, mostly because he can’t be in charge of the American communists, and tries to leave Russia. He walks to Finland and is detained for over a year while Louise, always loyal to him, moves heaven and earth to save him. Released in 1920, Reed goes back to Russia, but his spotted typhus is only getting worse. By the time Louise sees him in Moscow, Reed is on his last legs. She cares for him, but Reed dies soon after their reunion. Reed is just one of three Americans buried in the Kremlin.

Some Americans today are obsessed with the apparent threat of ‘socialism’. This hysteria, ironically, has increased since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, rather than decreased. So it’s interesting to watch these two movies – both made during particularly “hot” phases of the Cold War. In fact, it’s downright disorienting. In both films, the arguments being made by critics of capitalism or critics of dynastic imperialism are, quite frankly, treated as perfectly legitimate ones. 

In other words, it’s complicated. In a common development after revolutions, and particularly after revolutions that are then attacked from without, the doctrine of communism is gradually coopted to become the cover story for authoritarianism. The goals of the revolution — an end to private property and the control of the means of production by the proletariat, are replaced by a regime that claims to act on behalf of the revolutionary ideals, but in an emergency capacity because of the threat from without. 

Meanwhile, socialism, which seeks to create a more just and equitable distribution of wealth and greater control of the means of production by the people, but through democratic processes, is on the same spectrum as classic communist ideology, but isn’t the same. And social democracy in varying forms, took firm root in the democracies of the West in the 20th C. Except the US. 

And this is what takes us back to our films – they are both the product of writers, directors, who possess a particularly common world view in most of the West: that there are complex variations in versions of socialist and communist philosophy. And, as a political and economic philosophy, it can coexist with democracy. 

Mainstream American Cold War culture wasn’t interested in parsing those details. 

So how did these movies get made and what was going on at the time? 

Well, Pasternak’s novel was published in 1957 after being banned from publication in the Soviet Union. Always up for making political statements while claiming they are apolitical, the Nobel Committee promptly bestowed the Nobel Prize for literature on Pasternak in 1958. He was forced to refuse it, and so the novel and Pasternak became cause celebres in the West, particularly the US. 

But it’s complicated. The book was published by a press run by the Italian Communist Party. Not some bastion of the New York publishing world. And Pasternak himself, given many opportunities over the decades since the revolution, had always steadfastly remained in Russia. He was not a dissident nor was his book a critique of communism in the way that it was portrayed by the West. 

In fact, he and Yuri Zhivago had a lot in common. They valued individual idealism, which put them on the wrong side of the party. But they both believed in the ideals of socialism: a more equitable society where the dignity of the individual was valued. And, considering his background and the projects he gravitated to, David Lean likely did too. 

We can look at Lean’s films today and focus on Alec Guinness in brownface playing an Indian in Passage to India and an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia. But the empathetic treatment of the female and Indian protagonists in Passage, and the respect and time given to the Pan-Arab movement that Lawrence championed, suggest he had deeper sympathies. 

The Britain of the post-WWII era took a very different path than America. Victory in the war and prosperity after it led Americans to adopt a syllogism that the nation was successful because it was righteous and the proof of its righteousness was its success. Although we know now that the post-war era was one of strong union membership and progressive taxation that funded a vibrant civic life, the bi-polar logic of the Cold War led Americans to think of their country as the negation of the USSR. 

Britain, on the other hand, responded to the destruction of the war with a commitment to a cradle to grave social welfare system. Here’s Sir William Beveridge, reading out the basic principles of his report, delivered just before the end of the war. 

And on the European continent, generally speaking, the public and their governments were also quite comfortable telling the difference between democratic socialism and totalitarian communism. So what we see in David Lean, being attracted to Pasternak’s story, is a sympathy for the ideals that drove the Russian Revolution and a fascination for the possibilities of good and evil on all sides of an incredibly complicated revolutionary era.   

Warren Beatty was never afraid to splash his political and social views on screen, and he definitely used his talents and gravitas in the service of a film most Americans would likely go out of their way to avoid if it were not for the amazing cast he put together. Reds is released months into the Reagan presidency, a true watershed moment in American politics that represented an escalation in the Cold War. A biopic about an avowed American communist buried in the Kremlin is a statement film, no doubt.

Reds was based on a book written by a pioneer in the field of film and history, Robert Rosenstone.  Rosenstone wrote John Reed: Romantic Revolutionary in 1975 and served as a historical consultant for Beatty on Reds. Using this experience, Rosenstone began to advocate that historians take the moving image as a source seriously, and that in turn, film makers take historians seriously. In 1989 he was asked to create a film section for the American Historical Review, the flagship publication for the AHA. For anyone interested in the discipline of film and history, start with Robert Rosenstone’s History on Film/Film on History where he uses Reds as a case study.  

But let’s look back to this precarious time of the early 1980s, right after Reagan’s election. Why there was no Red Scare on par with what Jack Reed and Louise Bryant experienced in the wake of World War I and the world changing Russian Revolution, the cultural shift turn to the Right was palpable in politics and even in Hollywood. After all, Hollywood is about pandering and the Reagan revolution seemed to have the upper hand. Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris – killing commies, refighting Vietnam and winning, unrepentant nationalism, evil empire rhetoric – Hollywood didn’t care, the box office has spoken. 

On television, Family Ties was signaling that the social idealism of the Sixties was giving way. The hippy parents raising Alex P. Keaton, Young Republican. And of course President Reagan, who cooperated with McCarthy during the 2nd Red Scare in his role as the President of the ?? of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, was signaling the end to the Sixties idealism. 

Let’s refresh our memories (at least for some of us old enough like us) about the cultural zeitgeist with Reagan’s evil empire speech. 

“The focus of evil in the modern world.” Reds, as we’ve shown, gives you the whole spectrum. The idealism behind the revolution was genuine and given the regime it overthrew, warranted, but Reds also shows the brutality and oppression resulting from the civil war, mass starvation, and outside pressures. Reagan’s America had no interest in subtlety.


Let’s review our lies to refute before getting into some more topics. First, the Russian Revolution was a disaster and posed an immediate and sustained threat to democracy and capitalism. 

Next, that the Russian revolution immediately and inevitably resulted in a totalitarian dictatorship. As if Stalin was just right around the corner.

And finally, following from that, that if lies one and two are true, then socialism offers no legitimate alternatives to capitalism, nor is it compatible with democracy. 

I am always interested in the Bolshevik concept of history, which of course begins with Marx. History as a force that basically replaces God. Communism will conquer history and every temporary setback or tragedy, even monumental loss of life is forgiven if it moves history along the correct path. 

When we add Lenin we get the idea that this inevitable history can be helped and moved along through the efforts of a particularly dedicated cadre. Both our films feature discussions about prioritizing history over the private life, like Pasha abandoning Lara. When he massacres the wrong town, Pasha brushes it off as a victory for history nonetheless. Alec Guinness speaks to this when, in the very first scene of the movie, he chastises an engineer who wants to increase the capacity of the dam where Yuri and Lara’s daughter now works: “You are an impatient generation,” he tells the engineer. Meanwhile, the story he tells is all about the private life Pasha declared dead. 

In Reds, Reed conflates history with his making his own mark in said history. He will abandon Louise, and even the revolution at one point when the COmintern refuses his request to lead the American communists. He just walks off to Finland. Louise, Emma Goldman, and some other American activists know history is contingent  – which is why Louise can tell Congress Bolshevism in the American context makes no sense. But at the same time, as so many of the witnesses – those whose interviews punctuate the movie – keep making clear, it was perfectly reasonable and rational to try and find a different version of social justice for the United States. 

There is something very American about Reds, and very Russian about Dr. Zhivago. In Reds, the hero is a man who believes he can shape history, that his can-do attitude will be welcome and a valuable addition to the cause. As viewers, we are at the center of the struggle for the soul of the Bolshevik party, the course of the revolution in Russia, and the shape of Communism in America. John Reed believed he was vital to all three.

In Zhivago, history is something that randomly and destructively intersects with people’s lives. We get a sense of the vastness of the struggle precisely because it seems to keep crashing into the lives of our lovers, despite the fact that they never seek it out. The viewer experiences WWI, the Russian Revolution, the subsequent White and Red civil war, and the results of Soviet forced progress through to the 1950s. And the end of the movie shows the young woman, Yuri and Lara’s daughter, dwarfed by the monumental dam, as she walks away with a balalaika slung over her shoulder. History looms over her but she also carries a small bit with her. 

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: