MOSCOW — Five years ago, "Stalin's Funeral" would have been a sensation.
Written and directed by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Soviet Union's best-known modern-day poet, the new film depicts life under Josef V. Stalin as a nightmare, which culminated in hundreds of deaths in the frenzied crowd outside the Moscow hall where the dictator's body lay in state in March, 1953.
Now, however, the Soviet audience is all too well acquainted with the evils of the Stalin regime, so long hidden behind the heroic propaganda.
Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, predicted that Soviet viewers at "Stalin's Funeral," "tired of the curses of the past," would ask, "Is this just the latest nastiness?" It said viewers would wonder, "Is it really necessary to raise corpses from the dust for the fifth or 10th time, to prolong the trial? Isn't there anything to say about nearer and more urgent things?"
Yevtushenko, 57, aware of the recent decline in interest in the past as current political and economic problems grow, argued heatedly for the film's relevance at a press conference after its recent premiere in the Soviet capital.
He decried the government's unwillingness to institute radical economic reforms as a threat to the country, likening the Kremlin's intransigence to the refusal by police at Stalin's funeral to remove barriers that kept the crowd hemmed in and threatened their lives.
"When people, like on Trubnaya Square, cry, 'Take them (the barriers) away, take them away!' and in answer, an officer, almost crying, says, 'I can't,' and it all continues--that's what the connection with our times is," Yevtushenko said. "It's not a coincidence."
Ever an optimist, however, he showed many of those in the crush saving themselves by linking hands to stop the mounting pressure from other parts of the crowd.
"The same way people saved themselves by holding each other's hands on Trubnaya Square, I hope we'll save ourselves," the poet said.
Yevtushenko gained early fame as a poet-rebel by speaking out against Stalin: His 1962 poem "The Heirs of Stalin" carries the same theme as his recent film, begging the government to double and triple the guard on Stalin's grave "to make sure Stalin doesn't rise, and with Stalin, the past."
Throughout the '70s and early '80s his reputation suffered somewhat as dissident poets such as Irina Ratushinskaya and Josef Brodsky shunned him as an "official poet" who appeared too chummy with the Kremlin.
But Yevtushenko entered perestroika- era politics with gusto, in large part by pushing repeatedly for greater openness about the crimes of the past.
A member of the Congress of People's Deputies, the highest body of government power, he has marched in pro-democracy protests and spoken out against mounting anti-Semitism and the conservatism of the Communist Party.
Leaning in part on Yevtushenko's fame in the West, the producers of "Stalin's Funeral," the state-run Mosfilm and a Soviet-British joint venture, plan to try to sell the film in Los Angeles this spring.
After four premiere showings in recent weeks, it will become available for cinemas across the Soviet Union in mid-January, with hefty business expected.
The poet's first movie, "Kindergarten," which premiered in 1984, depicted the adventures of 9-year-old Zhenya (the nickname for Yevgeny) during World War II as he was evacuated from Moscow to Siberia.
In "Stalin's Funeral," Zhenya is already a young teen, a wild-eyed poet who stomps through the house reciting verses and strides through the streets talking into a disconnected telephone receiver.
The adult Yevtushenko gave himself a juicy role in "Stalin's Funeral" as a drunken government sculptor, and managed to find bit parts for virtually every member of his family, from his elderly mother to his 7-month-old son.
Yevtushenko also peppers the film with symbols as obvious as those he uses in his poetry, from a Charlie Chaplin figure wandering through the movie to signify the victimized "little man" to a sinister, hairless type--no eyelashes, even--symbolizing evil.
Soviet critics, however, did not seem to mind the director's heavy hand. The only tough questions and comments at the premiere's news conference came from older people who remembered Stalin's death and funeral and complained that the film did not accurately catch the feel of that unique moment of truly national grief.
Yevtushenko said that he had been unable to find a single photo or foot of film on the funeral crush, despite trying all possible repositories, including the KGB security police.
But he maintained that as he recalled, no one in the funeral crowd was crying: "They were too busy worrying about saving their own lives. There was no time for tears."