Monday, 12 October 2009

The Making of a Rebel: Salavat-Batyr

Salavat Yulai was the name of a man who became the national hero of today's Bashkiria. He was born 16 June 1754 in Tekeevo (a now eradicated village in Bashkiria) and died 26 September 1800 in captivity in Rogervik (today Paldiski, Estonia). He participated in the rebellion of Cossack leader Yemelyan Pugachev against the rule of Catherine the Great. This ensured him a place in not only Bashkir national history and folklore, but also the official Soviet historiography. This article is illustrated with screencaps from the Soviet movie Salavat Yulayev from 1941, which reflect the fact that history is always written with the present in mind.

Already in his youth, it was told, Salavat was a very strong lad who went bear-hunting at age 14 armed only with a dagger. Another sign of early maturity was his poetry - his first writings reflect on the beauty of nature and freedom.

Salavat's father, Yulai Aznalin, had participated in the peasant rebellion of 1735–1740. Salavat was conscripted by the Imperial army to fight the rebellious Cossacks of Emelian Ivanovich Pugachev, but he joined Pugachev instead.

A beaming young leader (played by Arslan Mubaryakov) - but treachery looms behind the imperial eagle.

Pugachev appointed him a colonel (polkovnik), and Salavat recruited a Bashkir troop of 10.000 and fought bravely until the downfall and capture of Pugachev by the Imperial army.

Salavat captured and whipped. In the film, this is one of the turning points in his youth.

In 1774, Salavat was also captured in the village of Medyash and sent to Moscow. In September 1775 he was sentenced to hard labour for life, together with his father. They were sent to the fortress of Rogervik at the Baltic Sea, where all peasant rebels were incarcerated. Father and son spent their last years there.

In the film, Salavat breaks his chains and avenges himself on his tormentor - tragically, a fellow Bashkir.

In the 1940 film, his poetry is relegated to a supporting role. He displays his oratory skills only a few times, to excite his followers and charm his supporters, but true to Soviet realist principles he is more a man of action - even a "noble savage" at times, thumping his chest enthusiastically after defeating an evildoer, exclaiming: "Salavat batyr!"

Salavat and his Russian friend have beaten the feudal exploiters of the labourers.

Very little of his poetry has been preserved in the Bashkir language. One of his final lines of poetry was said to be: "No, Bashkirs, I am not dead!" And the film ends on this triumphant note, leaving out the long years in prison.

The depiction of Russo-Bashkir cooperation is particularly interesting in the film. In the beginning, Salavat is indiscriminately anti-Russian. This is made understandable in a very simple way - he has only met drunk Imperial officials who abuse the peasants and disrespect the elderly.

After being injured by soldiers, Salavat is rescued by an escaped Russian convict, who eventually makes him realize that not all Russians are evil.

Especially not Tanka.

She pushes him in the snow, throws snowballs at him and calls him a bear. Love at first sight!

Tanka, the daughter of a Cossack, bears Salavat a son - but the war cuts short their happiness.

Further adventures at the hands of treacherous Bashkirs opens his eyes to the flaws within his own nation. This obvious moral lesson is maintained throughout the film - in the end, Salavat's sister Amina learns to love her nephew, although he is half-Russian.

Amina and little Salavat - "my Salavat!"

The heavy-handed approach was necessary to make the story of a minority national hero suit Soviet politics. the official historiography stressed Salavat Yulayev's wish for freedom through friendship and mutual aid between all nations. In reality, the cooperation plan between Pugachev and his supporters of various creeds and ethnicites was more complicated. The desertions and deceptions that plague the rebels throughout the film reflect the reality - not everyone believed that Pugachev fought for free-for-all "freedom", probably not even Pugachev himself.

Salavat and Yemelyan share a bear hug.

There certainly was a place in Soviet historiography for the development of national consciousness among the minority peoples - it was seen as a necessary requirement before they could reach the next stage in history, socialism, and finally communism. But national independence was not an issue. History had a pre-determined path to follow, and nationalism was only a phase, according to this way of thinking.

An intertitle listing all the nationalities that joined the rebellion: Cossacks, Russian peasants, Tatars, Chuvash, Mordvins, Mari, Bashkirs...

Today, the flaws of Soviet historiography and its political uses are obvious. But can we deal with our own interpretations of history with an open mind? Doubtlessly rebels like Salavat Yulai still have a meaning and a purpose, even as names of cities, hockey teams and public parks. Catherine the Great, who wanted to eradicate his memory by publicly shaming him and later prohibiting the use of his name among Bashkirs, has failed. What will the Salavat-batyr of the future look like?


The movie Salavat Yulayev can be watched in its entirety on YouTube. It was directed by Yakov Protazanov, also famous for his 1924 version of the Soviet sci-fi novel Aelita filled with constructivist design.

P.S. For those of you who have a thing for evil Imperial officers with pointy noses and periwigs... come on, know I can't be the only one...

1 comment:

Tinet said...

Ooh! I have some old Soviet films with a Chirayliq theme, such as "The swine herd girl and the shepherd man" ... *must watch and post*