Image of a busy road in Russia with billboards on all sides

Teaching Casablanca in Moscow

The Russia I came to know in 2010 differed profoundly from the country I had visited in the past. Yet much remained the same.

I first visited the Soviet Union in the summer of 1964 at age 19, when Nikita Khrushchev was in power and ardent banners proclaimed the superiority and ultimate victory of communism.

The Russia I came to know in 2010, when I taught a History of Hollywood class in Moscow’s Center for American Studies on a Senior Fulbright Award, differed profoundly from the country I had visited in the past. Yet much remained the same.

Ads for high-end consumer goods were ubiquitous, and good restaurants abounded, though colleagues admitted the appearance of prosperity was a sham and the country remained bleak and backward outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Enmity now occasionally tempered the mixture of awe and jealousy that had once characterized Russian attitudes toward Americans. I gave up Russian television news in the first week, the anti-Americanism so predictable.

My students seemed to harbor little if any of that hostility. That they lived in the capital, attended an elite institution, and had been educated in English marked them among the privileged.

All had been born after the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991. They considered themselves “Russian,” never “Soviet,” and the results of that distinction continually surprised me.

None had heard of Glavlit, the Soviet censorship authority, without whose approval a manuscript could not appear in print. In America, while we pride ourselves on free speech, the movies are the exception, I explained. Some seemed relieved to hear that we too bore the stain of oppression.

I showed them clips from two Tarzan films. In Tarzan and His Mate, Maureen O’Sullivan dives into a pond with Johnny Weissmuller waiting below. Underwater she is naked. In Tarzan Finds a Son, with movie censorship firmly in place, Jane, Tarzan, and Boy pursue a perfectly middle-class existence in their well-appointed tree house. That, I said, was censorship.

Ninotchka proved the most controversial film we discussed. The students argued furiously over whether Hollywood had portrayed Stalin’s Russia accurately. Had it been the rigid, militaristic surveillance state to which Garbo returns after the light and romance of Paris? Certainly not, some angrily insisted, as ignorant of Stalin as of Soviet censorship. Alas, yes, others argued. The Russian émigrés in Hollywood had got it right, and so had Garbo.

Neither my Russian colleagues nor my students had ever heard of Casablanca. I explained that the film contained references to isolationism vs. intervention in American politics on the eve of war but gave no further introduction.

My audience was mesmerized. The cleaning ladies came and sat to watch, crowding in among the students. The next week every class in the American Studies Center found a reason to show it. “I know; we love it too,” I told my colleagues—and gave them my copy of the film.

Some of my students wanted to meet me outside of class and show me Moscow. Under Putin, the city now suggested a theme park in homage to Catherine the Great, the conqueror of Crimea. I wondered if Putin intended to emulate her. He had resurrected Catherine’s Tsaritsyno Palace from a pathetic ruin into a showplace of 18th-century imperial style and regularly wore the black and gold ribbon of the Order of St. George the Martyr, established by Catherine to award commanders fighting in Crimea or elsewhere in the south.

Some of my students did not buy into this image of their country. Their parents insisted, they confided, that if they could not live in Moscow or St. Petersburg, they had to leave Russia.

One of them showed me a saltshaker in the form of a bust of Putin. The salt ran out of his eyes. It was, after all, only four years since the murder of the renowned journalist Anna Politkovskaya on the doorstep of her apartment building.  Censorship by assassination.

I had been in Moscow two months when I awoke to the sound of ambulances with blaring sirens screeching toward the Institute of Emergency Medicine. Two bombs had gone off in the Moscow metro at rush hour. Within days, ominous notices went up all over the city warning the populace to report suspicious activity to the FSB (successor to the KGB), not the police.

I have not heard from Russian friends since December 2021. The Russia I knew only 11 years earlier, both paradoxical and filled with possibilities, now seems like a collection of archaeological sites.

Alexis Pogorelskin ’66, who chaired the history department at the University of Minnesota Duluth for 19 years, has just completed a book titled America’s Mortal Storm: Filmmaking as Political Struggle on the Eve of War. She is co-editor of a collection of essays on the Tenth Party Congress.