Wild, wild east

Soviet-era cowboy films have inspired politicians, writers and cosmonauts alike

When I first moved to Moscow in the early 1990s, my friend Dasha gave me a gift-wrapped video. "Watch this," she said. "It was made years ago but it will help you understand our country." I assumed it was a melancholy epic by Andrei Tarkovsky, with lingering shots through rain-splattered windows, or perhaps a revolutionary classic such as Battleship Potemkin.

When I unwrapped the paper and looked at the cover, I found a man in a grubby white uniform surrounded by sand dunes. "White Sun of the Desert," said Dasha. "It's a Soviet-style cowboy film. The best one ever made."

While Pravda editorials attacked decadent Hollywood, Soviet leaders couldn't resist a good western. Stalin was both fascinated and infuriated by John Wayne; the American actor's anti-communism so disturbed Uncle Joe that, accor ding to Orson Welles, he once sent the KGB to California to assassinate him. Leonid Brezhnev, meanwhile, had a crush on Chuck Connors, a B-movie actor who starred in a 1960s TV series, The Rifleman.

At a party hosted by President Nixon, Connors presented a delighted Brezhnev with a pair of Colt .45 revolvers. The general secretary returned the favour by allowing the American series to be shown on Soviet TV.

What Brezhnev and the rest of the Politburo really wanted, however, was a home-grown product. So the Committee of Cinematography ordered screenwriters to create Soviet supermen who would gallop faster and pull the trigger quicker than the hero of any western. White Sun (1969) was the first big hit, paving the way for a genre of "easterns". In some films, the backdrop is the steppes or Siberia. The Ural Mountains stand in for Monument Valley, the Volga replaces the Rio Grande and the heroes sport civil war-style budyonovka hats or fur-lined shapkas instead of Stetsons.

James Meek, whose novel The People's Act of Love begins with the arrival of an escaped prisoner in a small Siberian village, was partly inspired by watching dozens of "easterns" on television in hotel rooms when he was a foreign correspondent in the former Soviet Union.

"The whole idea of the stranger riding in to town is central to the western, but it is also central to this Siberian world of scattered, remote communities," he says. "Siberia becomes what the old West was in the American western: a place of harsh elements, where Europeans come into contact with the Russian equivalent of Indians, the native people of Siberia. A hard man is alone against the wilderness or alone against criminals and bandits. It is a place where you really make your own law, or there is no law at all."

White Sun, like many later gun-slinging action movies from the Brezhnev era, is set in Russian central Asia during the civil war. The hero, Fyodor Sukhov, is a Red Army soldier who has just been demobbed and is desperate to go home, but gets caught up in a showdown between a Bolshevik cavalry unit and some Basmachis (the Russian name for armed counter-revolutionaries) in the deep south of the USSR.

These Islamic Turkic rebels are the bad guys, the equivalent of the Indians in an American western. The arch-villain is Abdulla, a Basmachi warlord fleeing the Reds. He kills a handful of his wives and abandons the remaining eight in the desert, and so the gallant Soviet hero is forced to come to their rescue. The film was originally called Save the Harem.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Hamid Ismailov, an Uzbek writer based in London, is a fan of the film. "It does caricature central Asians, but not in a really offensive way," he says. "Anyway, that's missing the point. White Sun is really about a deep longing and love for the Russian motherland. I see it as a nationalist film ahead of its time, because in those days Russia was just a mixing pot for other Soviet peoples."

Above all, White Sun celebrates Russian men. Perhaps that is the secret of the film's enduring success and why it is still one of the top five bestselling DVDs in Russia. Ravaged by alcoholism and cursed with plunging life expectancy, Russian men today need reasons to feel good about themselves. Blue-eyed Comrade Sukhov fits the bill. He is the embodiment of Russian macho cool, the sort of guy who serenely lights his cigarette with a smouldering bunch of dynamite. Even in the dramatic final shoot-out on the beach, he remains laconic and unruffled.

This sangfroid appealed to Soviet cosmonauts. Bizarrely, White Sun has become a lucky talisman, ritually watched to this day before each and every launch. Even the recent space tourist Charles Simonyi had to sit through it. "Not bad for a Soviet movie," concluded the Hungarian-born Microsoft billionaire when I called him on his yacht in the Mediterranean. Georgiy Grechko, who made three Soyuz flights and trained with Yuri Gagarin, compares the film to a "tuning fork".

Now a big-bellied pensioner living in a flat north of Moscow, he says: "It put me in the right frame of mind for a space flight. It had lots of jokes but it was also serious. It made me feel like a real Russian hero." Customs officers, border guards and other Russians in dangerous professions are also diehard fans. Members of the KGB so loved White Sun that they let its director, Vladimir Motyl, accompany them on a tour of the nuclear fleet in Russia's Far East. He gave after-dinner talks about the film and answered their questions. It has even spared Motyl from parking fines.

Paradoxically, Motyl was perceived early on as a troublemaker. He had grown up in exile in the northern Urals after his father was sent to Stalin's camps. He had already fallen into disfavour for making a romantic comedy set in 1944 that officials felt was a "disrespectful" treatment of the Great Patriotic War. Motyl was lukewarm about working on White Sun because he found the screenplay wooden and melodramatic. The boss of a Leningrad studio practically forced him to direct it, saying it was his last chance.

As a result, he rewrote most of the script and shot the film on a frantically tight schedule - but it was banned straight after completion. Censors felt the role of the party wasn't clear enough. Above all, they objected to the reluctant hero, who is more interested in getting back to his plump Russian wife than in Soviet ideology.

Convinced he would never work in cinema again, Motyl went home to visit his mother, but then he had an extraordinary stroke of luck when the film was sent by accident to Brezhnev's dacha. It went down very well with the general secretary and his vodka-soaked party guests. On the following Monday, the film minister received a call from the great man himself saying, "You make good film, thank you."

Lucy Ash's documentary "Russia's Lone Rangers" is broadcast on Tuesday 4 December at 11.30am on BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future