Michurin, dir. by Alexander Dovzhenko, 1948

At a first glance this film may give you a strong impression of being merely a piece of communist propaganda. Marxist ideology and materialistic philosophical notions seem to permeate every scene and every bit of dialogue. Characters in this movie shout a lot, and seem to express their political views in clichés borrowed from the “Pravda” newspaper. Alexander Dovzhenko made this film in USSR in 1948, at the very peak of the period of Joseph Stalin’s personality cult – and received 1949 Stalin’s Prize for outstanding achievements in feature film (the kind of honor that could only be given to creative works fully compliant with communist ideology).

The film is the biography of a Russian biologist Ivan Michurin, the practitioner of botanic selection and one of the precursors of modern genetics. In tzar’s Russia, Michurin’s scientific research was met with public scorn, but the communist revolution of 1917 brought Michurin unexpected success and fame out of all proportions. No wonder that his story could be chosen to illustrate the supposed intellectual superiority of the totalitarianism.

A closer look at the film, however, reveals a hidden philosophical message – unexpected and practical. Let’s see what this movie really tells us.

Michurin works with obsessive passion, struggling to create new sorts of fruit plants that would be able to survive in the severe climate of northern Russia. He has an impossible dream: to have fruit gardens blossom all over his cold, tough country. This work takes many decades, consisting of endless trials and errors, and bringing no practical results: all Michurin’s new plants wither and die, again and again. Michurin’s fanatical, laser-beam-like, single-minded focus on his research renders everything else in his life secondary: even with his beloved wife on her deathbed, the scientist is so engrossed in his work that he addresses her in absentminded monosyllables, not leaving his desk. Corrupt government officials of stagnant, barely out of feudalism Russia, the clergy of Orthodox Church and conservative established scientists not only refuse to support Michurin, but actively try to prevent him from succeeding in his work – and yet Michurin rejects the offer from the US Department of Agriculture to move his research to United States. It’s important to Michurin to give the result of his work to the people of his country – to simple folk from Ural Mountains and Siberia who understand and appreciate what he’s trying to achieve. Michurin doesn’t attempt to wrestle with the bureaucratic Russian system; instead, he focuses even deeper on his work, hoping against hope that one day it will bring fruit. His dedication is a perfect illustration of the Chinese “kung fu” principle in its original meaning: achievement through hard work, time multiplied by effort.

And then a miracle happens. The communist revolution overthrows the corrupt old regime. The people – the simple folk – come to power, and immediately Michurin’s research receives recognition and financing it needed. Mikhail Kalinin, the top official in charge of agriculture in the new government, visits Michurin and in a long, friendly conversation shows a deep understanding of Michurin’s goals. Students arrive from all over the country to learn from Michurin. Encouraged by the overwhelming support, Michurin makes several important discoveries and finally his dream becomes a reality. Fruit gardens blossom throughout Russia.

The message is deeply idealistic, and therefore in its essence has nothing to do with communism. Find your purpose. Invest yourself in it. Concentrate completely on your work. Do not allow yourself to be distracted by any obstacles. Do not try to modify the unfavorable external reality; doing so would only scatter your effort. Instead, focus on doing what must be done in your field. The material world will yield. If you give yourself completely to your high mission, God will grant you the kind of reality that is best for fulfilling that mission’s purpose. If old Russian monarchy system can’t accommodate Michurin’s research, the system has to go. The communist revolution in this film doesn’t occur accidentally: it comes as a direct result of Michurin’s full commitment to his science; it happens only because Michurin needs it. The external world is merely a projection of our inner spiritual reality, so if our thoughts and actions are pure, selfless and focused, the external world has to become what we need it to be.

I admire Alexander Dovzhenko’s courage and creativity in expressing this idea notwithstanding his own external circumstances.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Wednesday, April 20 2011, 10:20 PM, New York

1 reply
  1. Ian Daitz says:

    I found this bit about this film while searching for information about Michurin. I am about to plant several dozen Russian apple trees, some of them were bred by Michurin at the beginning of the last century. I am excited to begin work with these apple in the spirit which you describe.

    Reply

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