Vladimir Motyl's 1970 film "White Sun of the Desert" opens with a perfect Russian idyll: A young village woman in traditional clothes with a red headscarf walking toward the camera carrying two pails of water. She slowly comes into focus and stares hard at the audience as we hear a voice-over writing a mental letter to his beloved Katerina. The voice is, we soon learn, a Red Army soldier, Sukhov, stranded in a desert somewhere in Central Asia trying to make his way home, having liberated some section or other of the steppe for the Soviet Union. The film was released in the still relatively naive year of 1970, a decade before Russian soldiers would find themselves again in the sun and heat of Muslim climates. "White Sun of the Desert" is still a loved and widely watched classic in Russia, and some of the lines in the film, such as, "The Orient is a delicate matter," have passed into the colloquial language.
Russia, with its land stretching from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, has ruled over several non-Russian peoples whom they have duly orientalized in Russian art. Oriental for Russians can mean people living in the Caucasus, or those living all the way in the Turkic nations in the steppes. Russian orientalism - as elsewhere - has been a strong force for self-definition, and this film, with its framing and colors, seems very much influenced by the heritage of Russian orientalism, in particular, by the paintings of Vasily Vereshchagin. Vereshchagin traveled with the imperial Russian army to Turkestan and Samarkand in the 1860s on military campaigns and painted these places and their people. While his paintings are much darker than "White Sun of the Desert," they provide insights as to what interests Russians east of the Caspian Sea and in Central Asia. From the very start, in "White Sun of the Desert" the vivid yellows and blues of the landscape and the multicolored costumes of the locals seem like homage to Vereshchagin and toward the end, we also come across a character called Vereshchagin, a customs officer guarding the fluid borders of Russia of the revolution. Due to the military nature of his travels, Vereshchagin's paintings deal mostly with war and its aftermath, and as such, this aesthetic proves very useful for Motyl's film.
Sukhov fantasizes about having a harem.
The first instance of oriental violence we encounter in "White Sun of the Desert" is a man buried in the sand up to his neck. He is the first obstacle that Sukhov faces on his long way home - the non-Russians east of the Caspian Sea just will not let him go. Sukhov is still needed to ensure order and peace - quite like the way the British were portrayed as the stabilizing factor in the Middle East and India. Russian orientalism and colonialism were heavily influenced by the British well into the Soviet '60s and '70s. The good Sukhov shares his water with the buried man, and we understand that this Central Asian man, Sayid - whose ethnicity is never quite discussed - is foremost a Muslim, a Turkmen of some sort that has been punished by a warlord, Dzhavdet, who makes his money from smuggling and is in cahoots with the White Army (Tsarists), whose remnants seem to have maintained a foothold in this bit of Eurasia.
After freeing the Turkmen, Sukhov also comes across a group of soldiers who, in pursuit of Dzhavdet, have invaded his compound, butthey have only been able to get hold of his women, whom the Red Army has to take and deposit to a place of safety. This task falls on Sukhov, as the Red Army must continue to hunt Dzhavdet. The task of bringing these nine women to a rehabilitation home turns dangerous and of course, it is our hero who must face Dzhavdet in the end. Many cultural misunderstandings occur between Sukhov and the women, who believe that now they are his wives. Meanwhile, Sukhov continues to dream of and write to Katerina in his mind, trying to preserve a sense of normalcy.
The letters to his beloved at home provides references to the beautiful landscape of Russia, against which we are to set the unforgiving terrain of Central Asia. The soldier, his original mission complete, now wants to go home, but the politics and circumstances of the desert just refuse to let him go. While the story is punctuated with absurd instances provided by the women of Dzhavdet's harem, they too are part of this entrapment, a sort of cabal of sirens on Odysseus's journey, if you will. In a daydream sequence, Sukhov's two worlds, Russia and Central Asia, meet and he imagines himself as some kind of sultan, attended on by Dzhavdet's wives, an outdoor harem presided by Katerina herself. However he soon comes to his senses.
The indifferent old men of the "East," as depicted in the film.
The sense of keeping Russia with you - whether you are a white or red at this early stage of the revolution - is embodied in Vereshchagin trying to patrol a lake border in this transitional period. He is not quite sure who is ruling in the west in Russia but tries, half-heartedly, to control the passage of goods - a job that has made him an enemy of Dzhavdet. The camera lingers on the clippings he has stuck to the walls of his house, pictures of the royal family, a sense of opulence and balls, a sense of White Russia that is enacted in this little outpost of the failed empire. It is also in and around this little museum of a house that the various forces that claim a stake in Russia converge in the end.
This effort of encapsulating what it means to be Russian during dire circumstances while putting on a brave face must be the quality that has made "The White Sun of the Desert" a classic. It evokes the sense of a home away from home in such a strong way that Russian cosmonauts have made a tradition of watching it before they are sent to space. It is a narrative, a Russian dream in a hostile environment that they can take with them into the hostile environment that they are about to enter. It contains a blueprint of the Russia they can rebuild in space should they have to settle there. If they do, they will find that the landscape is already familiar, as Russians have already named the rings around Venus after Dzhavdet's several wives.