Well now. I was not quite ready for the experience that was The Gift to Stalin, Rustem Abrashev’s tale of a man recounting his escape and survival as a boy during the forced deportations/migrations imposed by the Soviet Union in the 1940’s. Now I’ll be the first to admit that my Modern European lessons haven’t solidly stayed with me over the years, but I know for sure that there is a very special place reserved in hell for one Joseph Stalin. An incredible amount of lives in the Soviet Union were ended senselessly (something I feel is too often glossed over), but millions of people were also displaced. This film in all honesty should be weighed down by the darkness of that time period, but the story is told on a smaller and more localized scale, with it’s focus the people of a small village in Kazakhstan and their determination to live life as best as they know how, despite all that is going on.
The story in The Gift to Stalin opens in a flurry: With the sudden death of his grandfather, the refugees on a deportation train plot to help young Sashka escape exile by means of hiding him among the bodies of the already deceased, which will be removed from the train on the next stop. He is saved from certain death – a soldier is checking the dead bodies by stabbing them – with the aid Kasym, a one-eyed and relatively quiet railworker who is prepared to cause a stir by defending Sashka mere moments after laying eyes on the him. Kasym whisks the boy back to a his small village home in Kazakhstan, which is populated by other refugees exiled for various reasons, depending on one’s politics, religion or ethnicity. Sashka is quickly taken by the villagers and is raised as Kasym’s son, who’s frequent conversations help to shape the boy’s mind. He is coming into his own when he discovers a flyer that states to celebrate Joseph Stalin’s birthday, children of the Soviet Union are making him gifts, which the winner will get to deliver to the dictator in person. Sashka becomes convinced that if he wins, perhaps he can persuade Stalin to free his parents from imprisonment for their religious beliefs.
It is clear from the premise of the film that young Sashka’s innocence is tattooed all across it, as is evident in one particular scene where he says, “I just don’t understand… in Moscow, we don’t kill anybody!” His naive viewpoint of the world, his sorrow for his absent family and joy in his new life all combine to give what should be a bleak and disheartening story one of hope, and at times, happiness against all odds. Sashka plays with the other boys, joining their “gang” and coming up with ideas to help their schemes more successful. He bonds with them over stories about their families, past experiences and their beliefs and thoughts on God. In this, I am reminded that the way children adapt to their surroundings, no matter how harsh, always astounds me. Yes, it’s a sad film; it’s just sad in a different way.
The refugees of the village are an interesting collective, surviving the misfortunes life has bought them as well as enduring the new daily challenges brought on by the Soviet Army. The town is constantly plagued by livestock thieving military, as well as a lecherous and womanizing police officer who’s visits bring nothing but terror and fear. They cling to each other, more and more as the film goes along as they come to understand that they are an enormous family, and this is all a harsh life will permit them to have.
Also, the symbolism of Sashka’s pet – a young pure white sheep separated from the rest of his flock at the start of the film – is not lost on me. As Sashka’s gift to Stalin it does seem a little heavy-handed but in such a great film it is also easily forgiven, especially when compared to the gift Stalin gives the people of Kazakhstan in return. A history lesson I definitely didn’t recall about atomic testing is involved.
There is something so strikingly beautiful about the landscape of Kazakhstan, and there are numerous opportunities to see it throughout The Gift to Stalin; be it the endless fields of wheat and the plains that go on forever, or the small watering holes that the boys play around. What else I found striking about the country was the variety of people who live there. I certainly did a head scratch when I saw that some of the children and adults (including Kasym) looked distinctly Asian in origin, yet spoke Russian; later research would tell me that Kazakhstan is bordered by 5 countries, including China. A geography major, I am not.
The Gift to Stalin really is an impressive piece of work. I can’t express fully how surprised I was at the depth of what the story would entail, but I will say this: We too often consider the hardships in our perspective countries to be the worst, until we come along stories that are humbling in comparison, and this film is a fine example of such. I encourage you to give The Gift to Stalin a viewing; it was certainly an enlightening and educational one for me.