This ain’t no sleigh ride

The movie Lieutenant Kizhe is set during the reign of Tsar Paul, a pedant, a tyrant, a martinet, even by tsarist standards, and no small bit of stand-in for Stalin when the movie was made in 1934  — so much so I am astonished the film was allowed distribution. Sergei Sergei’vich Prokofiev composed the music for the soundtrack.

At one point, two sergeants and a drum major are ordered to quick-march a prisoner, who’s just received a hundred lashes, from Petersburg to Sibera. No coats, no provisions, just a quick-march to Siberia. It gets better: the prisoner, Kizhe, does not exist. This unimportant detail is explained away. Kizhe, you see, is ‘a confidential prisoner: he has no shape.’

Off they go.

The two sergeants and the drum major, about to drop with exhaustion, arrive at Siberia — the gate to the prison camp looking quite modern, I might add — to deliver Prisoner Kizhe. The camp commandant, after suffering a moment of confusion, sees the light: ‘Ah, an affair of state!’

Tsar Paul changes his mind and orders Kizhe be returned from Siberia and promoted to Colonel of the Guards. Our Hero is dispatched on this sacred duty. He arrives at the prison camp in a cart draw by belled horses. Our Hero and the Camp Commandant, struggling with the potentially fatal absurdity of their lives in this moment, get stinking drunk. We first hear the ‘troika’ motif as they sing a crude and sexist drinking song (is there any other kind?) and then kiss each other goodbye. Our Hero, and, of course, that confidential prisoner with no shape, Kizhe, bundle into the cart to race back to the palace. So does the camp commandant. The song trails out: ‘Like a roadside inn is a woman’s heart where travellers stop and stay / Checking i-i-i-n or checking out all the night and all the day! Roadside inn, roadside inn. come and stay, come and stay!’ Then the commandant falls out of the cart.

Prokofiev’s Troika always struck me as frantic and ridiculous, and not, as it’s often presented, as pretty and joyful riding music. Now I see why.

Here’s a recording of the Troika that captures what I’m on about: Anantole Fistoulari conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra.

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