To make a long story short, the company broke up, and returned to the more important concerns of the election. Rip’s daughter took him home to live with her; she had a snug, well-furnished house, and a stout cheery farmer for a husband, whom Rip recollected for one of the urchins that used to climb upon his back. As to Rip’s son and heir, who was the ditto of himself, seen leaning against the tree, he was employed to work on the farm; but evinced an hereditary disposition to attend to anything else but his business.The other night I watched Oblomok imperii (Fragment of the Empire) one of the best early Soviet movies I think I've ever seen. The plot, in broad outline, follows that of "Rip Van Winkle": a shellshocked soldier from the First World War suddenly comes to in 1928, having missed both revolutions and the first ten years of Soviet rule. Hilarity ensues as he gradually becomes acclimated to the new conditions and transforms into a zealous Communist activist (a notable departure from Irving). I disagree with Owen Hatherley's view, at the link, that this film is somehow not a straightforward piece of propaganda: one of the things a proper propaganda film should do is point out the work that needs to be done, and this one clearly singles out the workplace alcoholic and the petty-bourgeois bureaucrat as populations that must be liquidated.
Rip now resumed his old walks and habits; he soon found many of his former cronies, though all rather the worse for the wear and tear of time; and preferred making friends among the rising generation, with whom he soon grew into great favor.
Having nothing to do at home, and being arrived at that happy age when a man can do nothing with impunity, he took his place once more on the bench, at the inn door, and was reverenced as one of the patriarchs of the village, and a chronicle of the old times “before the war.” It was some time before he could get into the regular track of gossip, or could be made to comprehend the strange events that had taken place during his torpor. How that there had been a revolutionary war—that the country had thrown off the yoke of old England—and that, instead of being a subject of his Majesty, George III., he was now a free citizen of the United States. Rip, in fact, was no politician; the changes of states and empires made but little impression on him; but there was one species of despotism under which he had long groaned, and that was—petticoat government; happily, that was at an end; he had got his neck out of the yoke of matrimony, and could go in and out whenever he pleased, without dreading the tyranny of Dame Van Winkle. Whenever her name was mentioned, however, he shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and cast up his eyes; which might pass either for an expression of resignation to his fate, or joy at his deliverance.
- Washington Irving, "Rip Van Winkle"
At any rate, what is most interesting about Oblomok is the proximity of its context as well as its content to "Rip Van Winkle." Both works were set and created in the midst of a post-revolutionary era, when the excitement of the initial stages had given way to a deeper reflection about the changes that had taken place. By simply deleting the Revolution from the experience of the protagonist, they enable themselves to pose critical questions: what has happened? Is our new world substantially different from the old? Is the discontinuity of
experience somehow uniquely problematic when it encompasses this particular period?
In the case of "Rip Van Winkle," the answers to these questions are highly ambiguous. Certainly the symbolic tissue of social life has changed: the portrait of George III has been taken down, Federals and Democrats have replaced the old political factions. But for Rip himself, the only significant difference is the fact that his nagging wife is gone. He returns calmly to his old habits, and the villagers live their lives in much the same way as before. Irving's unstated conclusion is that the Revolution was a fundamentally superficial experience, powerless to transform the deeper dynamics of human nature. It is as if Rip had never really gone to sleep at all.
Oblomok, with its explicitly ideological orientation, must seemingly take the opposite tack. To be sure, the world is 1928 is a much "newer" one than that of the 1790s. Social institutions, and even the experience of urban life itself, have been irrevocably transformed. But in fact the film undermines its own message (perhaps intentionally). Village life, for instance, is much the same, so much so that it is only a glimpse of his wife in a passing train that permits the protagonist to recover consciousness. (Ironically, the film was released in the midst of the vast changes in Russian rural life attendant upon collectivization and de-kulakization.) But more importantly, even the urban landscape is littered with "fragments of the Empire" like the ruined former factory owner. The main antagonist, a bureaucratic crypto-bourgeois cultural official, is not much different from the Tsarist exploiters. As presented, the film is certainly propaganda, but nonetheless it almost manages to echo Irving: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
There is something about this "genre," then, that privileges the cyclical over the linear. The Revolution, it suggests, prevents us from seeing that the new world is nothing but a rebadged version of the old; this makes it, in a certain sense, anti-revolutionary. The crucial difference between "Rip Van Winkle" and Oblomok imperii is in their evaluative tone. Rip's life continues as before, and for Irving that is just as well. Tsarist power relations persist, and in Oblomok this translates into a kind of anxiety--a feverish desire to push the Revolution forward, to sweep away the remaining fragments of the Empire. With its propagandistic impulses, the film ignores the most potent question: can revolution ever keep its promises?