Echoes of the distant past
The film, to begin with, was a fascinating commentary on film-making at the end of the last High (it came out in 1965.) I believe it was shot in Spain, whose huge, empty landscapes provided a reasonable facsimile of the Russian steppe (although the mountains in the background were far, far larger than the Urals they were supposed to represent.) The production was quite extraordinary and could not be duplicated today anywhere in the world. No expense had been spared to recreate the look of late imperial and revolutionary Russia, and huge crowd scenes, with and without uniforms, abounded. The trains looked amazingly realistic as well. And many scenes, of course, were shot in deep snow that did not appear to be simulated. Interestingly, the director, David Lean, who had previously made The Bridge on the River Kwai (including William Holden) and Lawrence of Arabia with Anthony Quinn, managed this time to convince the producers that he could do without a single American star. The only exception was Rod Steiger, whose reputation was nowhere near what it was going to become.
Yet at the intellectual and emotional level the movie was an almost complete failure. Yes, the book is a historical drama and an adventure story, but it is also an extended meditation on politics, life, art, history, and religion, carried on in one brief, highly intelligent conversation among members of the Russian intelligentsia, one of the more reflective classes in human history. And the characters are not merely victims or observers: they are deeply involved, personally and emotionally, in the events around them, and proud of it. One of the biggest problems, I realized, was generational. The lead characters are Heroes, the young adults of the Russian revolution, but the lead actors--Omar Sharif as Yuri, Julie Christie as Lara, Tom Courtney as Pasha, her husband, and Geraldine Chaplin as Yuri's wife Tonia--were all from the Silent generation, and they usually react to the events around them as Artist generations do in a crisis--like children who don't understand why the adults have gone crazy. (The contrast with The Bridge on the River Kwai, another Crisis movie in which the leads Alec Guinness, William Holden and Jack Hawkins had all lived through the Second World War as young adults, is quite striking in this respect.) Worst of all is the portrait of the female characters. Lara is not merely beautiful and sexual, she is brilliant and a history teacher in the book, but such women apparently were not expected to appeal to 1965's audience, and the script lobotomizes her. Because the movie has been drained of its intellectual content it also moves very slowly, and we decided to leave at the intermission. By that time the Bolsheviks were in power (although Yuri's initial enthusiasm for their seizure had also been cut out of the book), and the images on the screen had conveyed the nightmare of a society in chaos.
And thus, I have not been able to stop thinking about the film during the last two days, because of the parallel which I see between the events it depicted and what is happening now in Egypt. Like the French Revolution in 1789, the Russian Revolution began with the collapse of a venerable but corrupt old order, one in which the educated classes no longer believed. France's attempts to establish a stable democracy were interrupted by the treason of the King and the coming of war in 1791-2. Russia was already at war when the Tsar fell in 1917 and had almost no time to attempt anything similar. And thus, in both cases, the moderate new regimes failed to establish effective authority, and the most ruthless and well-organized minority--Robespierre's Jacobins in France, and Lenin's Bolsheviks in Russia--seized power and won civil wars of varying scope and duration. France, one could argue, eventually emerged a stronger nation on the road to modernity after its revolution, but the process was a very painful one. Russia never did and still bears the scars of 1917. The Iranian revolution of 1979 provides another parallel.
I do not know what will happen in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak seems destined to step down and the crowds in the street want a new order, but most of them don't seem to have much idea of what it would look like. The Muslim Brotherhood shows some parallels to the Russian Bolsheviks and Social Revolutionaries--it is a conspiratorial organization that has also tried to function as a political party despite being outlawed and persecuted by the government for decades--but it can also probably count on a lot more international assistance than they could. I am not aware of any other similarly organized opposition group in Egypt, and Mohammed El Baradei, despite his well-earned international credentials, does not seem to have any actual political base in the country. The possibility of an Islamist regime is very real. Where this could lead, in turn, was described by the Israeli historian Benny Morris in a famous interview in 2004, one which I have discussed here before.
Q. "And today? Do you advocate a transfer [of Arabs and Palestinians out of Israel] today?"
A. (Morris) "If you are asking me whether I support the transfer and expulsion of the Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza and perhaps even from Galilee and the Triangle, I say not at this moment. I am not willing to be a partner to that act. In the present circumstances it is neither moral nor realistic. The world would not allow it, the Arab world would not allow it, it would destroy the Jewish society from within. But I am ready to tell you that in other circumstances, apocalyptic ones, which are liable to be realized in five or ten years, I can see expulsions. If we find ourselves with atomic weapons around us, or if there is a general Arab attack on us and a situation of warfare on the front with Arabs in the rear shooting at convoys on their way to the front, acts of expulsion will be entirely reasonable. They may even be essential."
Q. "Including the expulsion of Israeli Arabs?"
"The Israeli Arabs are a time bomb. Their slide into complete Palestinization has made them an emissary of the enemy that is among us. They are a potential fifth column. In both demographic and security terms they are liable to undermine the state. So that if Israel again finds itself in a situation of existential threat, as in 1948, it may be forced to act as it did then. If we are attacked by Egypt (after an Islamist revolution in Cairo) and by Syria, and chemical and biological missiles slam into our cities, and at the same time Israeli Palestinians attack us from behind, I can see an expulsion situation. It could happen. If the threat to Israel is existential, expulsion will be justified."
The distinguished columnists who grace our op-ed pages such as David Brooks and Nicholas Kristof still see this movement as part of the triumphant march forward of democracy. They refuse to recognize that democracy in Russia has given way to a corporate oligarchy enforced by a police state, that the famous Orange Revolution in Ukraine merely replaced one set of crooks with another, and that democracy in Palestine and Lebanon brought Hamas and now Hezbollah into power. Democracy in the west was a vibrant, revolutionary movement when it was contending with aristocracy or with Fascism and Communism in the last century. Now we take it so completely for granted that we refuse to see that even our own democracy cannot look very inspiring to many of those abroad. Western civilization in the eighteenth, nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries enjoyed unquestioned prestige around the world because of its extraordinary achievements, and also because of the power of its armies and navies. Now it faces very serious threats, at home as well as abroad. No automatic mechanism is destined to spread the bourgeois revolution around the world. We have much to do to keep it alive here at home.
Many American commentators do seem to be awakening to one critical fact: the United States has almost no control over the events taking place in Egypt. The Egyptian people will sort their problems out for themselves, one way or another, and there is little we can about it. Yet I suspect our political, diplomatic and media elites are not yet ready to face a world beyond America's control. Still, one can see emerging from the mists of the future the shape of a new order in which the United States might at last take a step back from the global responsibilities that have proven such a burden over the last few decades.