There's a strong tendency in much of the media and the academy to downplay the moral stakes of the Cold War and to assume that the Soviet Union wasn't an “evil empire” after all. The fashionable buzz word is “moral equivalency,” which suggests that both sides were equally at fault and that American excesses like McCarthyism and certain ill-conceived CIA coups were somehow just as bad as the gulag and the Soviet invasion of Eastern and Central Europe.
These views, while popular in our TV newsrooms and elite faculty lounges, have been rejected by that part of the Russian intelligentsia struggling for democracy and economic liberty. Having suffered so much, these cultural freedom fighters are determined to bear witness to those evils unique to the Soviet empire.
The Thief, which was nominated for last year's Academy Awards as Best Foreign Language Picture and won five NIKAs (the Russian equivalent of the Oscars), dramatizes this point of view with great passion. But rather than address the issue head on, writer-director, Pavel Chukhrai (Remember Me As I Am), has chosen to use allegory and metaphor to expose the moral rot of Stalin's Russia, a condition which he suggests continued to infect that nation until communism fell.
The movie is narrated by a young man, Sanya (Misha Philipchuk), recalling the circumstances of his childhood. It's 1946, and his mother, a young woman named Katya (Ekaterina Rednikova) whose husband has died from war wounds, gives birth to a son without a doctor on a muddy dirt road.
Six years pass, and she and Sanya are struggling to make their way in a totalitarian society. The young boy misses his dead father, seeing what he imagines to be his face everywhere. While on board a crowded train, Katya and Sanya share their compartment with a handsome, self-confident army officer, Tolyan (Vladimir Mashov). He and the young woman are quickly attracted to each other, and he offers to take care of her and her son.
Pretending to be husband and wife, the couple and the boy move into a crowded apartment building in an unspecified city. Although at first jealous of the soldier's relationship with his mother, Sanya enjoys having a father figure in his life. Tolyan is a tough disciplinarian, teaching him that “might makes right” and that he must beat up his adversaries when picked on. This dog-eat-dog view of the world seems harsh, but Tolyan's distorted masculine virtues fill a void in Sanya's upbringing, and he soon stops thinking about his long-dead father.
Tolyan seems to have a genuine affection for the boy, and their family unit appears headed for better times, but things are never what they seem in such a corrupt culture. Tolyan has a tattoo of Stalin on his chest and brags that the dictator is his father, implying that the Soviet leader's moral code has influenced his life.
This leads to a surprising revelation. Tolyan is, in fact, a professional thief masquerading as an army officer, who uses his disguise to get potential victims to let down their guard. Always a charmer, he invites everyone who lives on the same floor in his apartment building to be his guests at the circus. While they're enjoying the show, he steals all their valuables and leaves town before they return.
Katya and Sanya flee with him, becoming unwilling collaborators. As they move from place to place, Tolyan tries to train the young boy to be his accomplice, with mixed results. But Sanya continues to look up to the older man as an authority figure.
Katya wants to leave Tolyan, but she's still in love. Although she and her son know the evils he's perpetrating, they can't find the strength to break free.
Their conflicted emotions can be interpreted as symbolic of the contradictory, dependent relationship that existed between Stalin and the Russian people. Because the dictator's rule was based on terror, his subjects feared and hated him as a tyrant. But much like Katya and Sanya with Tolyan, they were mesmerized by his hubris and power and always remained loyal.
Chukhrai doesn't force the comparisons, allowing his drama's natural conflicts to make the necessary points. Tolyan often toasts “Comrade Stalin,” but we can't be sure whether it's a calculated attempt to strengthen his disguise as an officer, a heart-felt expression of a bond between kindred spirits, or some crazy combination of both.
A bored doctor's wife (Amalia Mordvinova) is attracted to Tolyan, who encourages the infatuation despite Katya's resentment. He enlists Sanya in a caper to burglarize her apartment, but nosey neighbors get wise, and Tolyan is arrested and sent to prison.
Sanya misses the father figure in his life and hopes that someday they will be re-united. His mother dies from a botched legal abortion, and he's placed in an rundown orphanage where he waits for Tolyan's release. But the prospects for a happy ending in Stalin's Russia aren't good.
Tolyan is a thief both of property and of people's hearts. He gains Sanya's trust and admiration and then betrays them. Because of this, the young boy loses his ability to believe in other people and his own dreams. He has been conditioned to have no hope for the future. The implication is that Stalin, as “the father of all peoples” in the Soviet Union, damaged the collective psyche of his subjects in a similar way and that of every generation that has come after.
The Thief shows us the terrible moral price paid by ordinary citizens for communism's oppression. There is no equivalent in American history.
Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
The Thief is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.