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History on Screen: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty Carmel Institute of Russian Culture & History Hosts Screening of Silent Film Masterpiece

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A crowd waits in their seats to watch a film.

"Nicholas II inherited from his ancestors not only a giant empire, but also a revolution. And they did not bequeath him one quality which would have made him capable of governing an empire or even a province or a county."

Such was the blunt assessment of both Tsar Nicholas II and his royal lineage—including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Nicholas I, and three editions of Alexanders—offered by the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Although Trotsky was living in New York when the February Revolution of 1917 overthrew Nicholas, his History of the Russian Revolution scathingly chronicled the final Tsar's reign and ouster in broad strokes reflective of what Trotsky deemed "the great, moving forces of history."

This same preoccupation with the inevitable powers of the past is vividly portrayed in The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, a silent cinema masterpiece screened by the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture & History at the Russian Embassy's Tunlaw Theater on February 28.

Moviegoers dined on a pre-screening buffet of Russian delicacies and desserts and were treated to an oversized Fabergé egg and cakes at the dessert bar. (Smaller replica cookies were on hand as guests exited for the evening.) Carmel Institute students joined scholars from American University and other local colleges such as Georgetown University, George Washington University, the University of Maryland, and George Mason University.

Connor Levin, a sophomore History major at American University who was attending a Carmel Institute event for the first time, has studied modern European history but is currently taking his first Russian history class. "I'm looking forward to learning more about Russian culture and getting an overall feel about these kinds of international environments," he said. "I would say it's a good way to learn more about it, specifically because this film is a much older one, a silent film that was created during the time, or at least a little bit after, when this all happened," Mr. Levin noted. "So it takes you into a good perspective, at least, more specifically from the Russian's perspective, to see how this all came about."

AU Economics major and junior Alex Ahlstrom said that one of the reasons he chose to study at American University is that "the international aspect affects a lot of the curriculum, and kind of has the expectation that you think about things critically from other viewpoints. I've lived abroad; members of my family have lived abroad; so that was a strong incentive to study at AU, to learn about different perspectives, and to bring that to different fields."

While Mr. Ahlstrom's focus is the economy, he believes that "you need to have an international view if you're studying international relations, but it's also actually very important in other fields. Globalization is a huge topic…obviously the United States and Russia, the interplay between those two countries, strongly effects globalization, and the direction that things are moving."

Elizabeta Belkina, an exchange student from St. Petersburg State University attending AU, convinced Mr. Ahlstrom to join her for the film screening. "I'm studying International Relations back home in St. Petersburg," she shared. "It's an amazing opportunity to be here, and I love the events organized by the Carmel Institute of Russian History and Culture, because right now, I feel like I'm a cultural ambassador. I'm sharing my experience as a student in Russia," said Ms. Belkina. "Just interacting with people from all over the world, and especially Americans, is a great opportunity to say, 'Hello! Come to Russia! It's an amazing country; we just want to be friends.'"

Daniella Quiñones, who is also studying International Relations at AU, has attended many Carmel Institute events. "There are a lot of stereotypes about different cultures," she noted. "And then when you come here, it shows you that everyone's the same, regardless of the language you speak; regardless of where you were born."

In the opinion of Thomas Garrett, an Information Systems major at University of Maryland Baltimore College, it is impossible to ignore culture as a means of transmitting information. "Prior to the digital media age…you weren't able to connect with the people so directly; it was a very slow process," he said. "With the availability of technology being so widespread, it's the responsibility of the individual to further delve deeper into that culture itself, and really, it should break stereotypes; it should not create them."

Consisting totally of newsreel footage, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty was assembled by Russia's most renowned female film director, Esfir Shub (1894-1959). Like a dusty antique photo album suddenly come to life, the 1927 film captures both the heritage and turbulence of pre-Revolutionary Russia, covering the period from 1913 to the spring of 1917.

A sparse piano score accompanies a mesmerizing parade of images in what Director of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture & History Dr. Anton Fedyashin described as a "visual history lecture."

But this is history viewed through the lens of the revolution to come, with often trenchant title cards between the scenes; Nicholas II is referred to as "his majesty" in sardonic quotes, and "Nicholas the Bloody"; the "gentry-military clique" is ominously identified; gloomy settings of the "factories and mills of the capitalists" of Europe are featured.

Segues also serve to underscore Shub's narrative; in two of the most memorable, the nobility are seen breaking a sweat while energetically participating in a group mazurka dance, immediately followed by images of ditch diggers toiling in the hot sun; sailors scrubbing a battleship deck on their hands and knees are instantly contrasted with naval officers reclining in a ship's ward room while enjoying a meal on linen tablecloths. Factories, mines, and fields all serve as a shifting tableau to portray the urban and rural servitude of a social order the revolution aimed to upend.

"There's no such thing as an objective documentary," Dr. Fedyashin told the audience, "because thought goes into how the film is put together; into the inter-titles, which you will find are indicative of what you are supposed to react to and how in this film."

Dr. Fedyashin noted that The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is not only the first documentary film the Carmel Institute has screened at the Russian Embassy, it is also the first film by a female director to be shown.

"In the Soviet Union, as in the West, female directors did exist, but they were exceptions to the approved rule about a male-dominated field," said Dr. Fedyashin. "Esther Shub…was by far the most famous female director in the early Soviet days."

Shub began her career as an editor, eventually editing the first Charlie Chaplain film shown in Russia. A contemporary of directors Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov–both of whom had a strong influence on her work. Shub's The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is considered a seminal achievement in early documentary film making.

When the tenth anniversary of the 1917 revolution presented itself, Shub dove into the state archives. "This is what allowed her to do what she loved best," Dr. Fedyashin shared, "which is to put together real documentary footage of the twilight of the empire, and of the lifestyle of the dynasty, and of the Russian aristocracy."

Footage of the Romanovs was plentiful, because Nicholas II loved to be filmed. "Most events that he attended, especially after 1913 (that was the year of the 300th anniversary of the dynasty), he had a personal filmmaker with him," Dr. Fedyashin remarked. "Little did they know, of course, that they were shooting footage for The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty."

Film was still a novelty when the scenes in The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty were shot, so many of the real-life people portrayed (there were no actors or cast) alternate between staring directly into the camera, or self-consciously posing for it. Great crowd scenes capture the swell and dynamism of historical events.

Guests engaged in a Q&A session with Dr. Fedyashin following the movie, asking questions about the Romanovs, the film's public reception, Russian history and cinema, and political movements and the interpretation of them, among other topics.

The public appetite for details of the life and death of the Romanov family continues and is frequently fed by new material.

Star Media, a Russian company founded in 2006 which has since become a leading producer and distributor of movies, series, and documentaries, released Romanovs: The History of a Great Dynasty in 2013. The eight-part docudrama was promoted by Star as "a spectacular new television series commemorating the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the Russian Imperial dynasty."

On Netflix, Empire of the Tsars premiered in 2016, billed as a chronicle of "the triumphs, excesses and violent downfall of the imperial Romanov dynasty, which ruled Russia for three centuries." Netflix was not finished with the Romanovs, however, also ordering the production of a six-episode documentary titled The Last Czars, which will air some time in 2018.

The latest Nicholas literary bio, The Last of the Tsars: Nicholas II and the Russia Revolution by Robert Service (Pegasus Books), hit the shelves in September 2017.

And Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner's next project, The Romanoffs, an anthology series centered around people who believe themselves to be the modern-day descendants of the Romanov family, is slated to premiere on Amazon during spring 2018.

What accounts for the ongoing fascination with the Romanovs?

Perhaps, as Trotsky theorized, those "great, moving forces of history" exert too strong a pull on the human psyche to be ignored, even if, as Dr. Fedyashin observed, we "kind of know how this one ends."

Photos from the film screening can be viewed on the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture & History Facebook page.