Maya Turovskaya, Russian Critic and Documentarian, Dies at 94

Maya Turovskaya, Russian Critic and Documentarian, Dies at 94


Maya Turovskaya, a Russian film and theater critic, once called “the Susan Sontag of Soviet aesthetic thought,” who also co-wrote a popular documentary in the 1960s that drew parallels between Stalin-era totalitarianism and Nazism, died on March 4 at her home in Munich. She was 94.

Her son, Vladimir Turovsky, confirmed the death. She had lived in Germany for more than 15 years.

Ms. Turovskaya established a reputation for writing cultural criticism that was erudite and cleareyed — and that managed not to outrage the Soviet authorities.

In making the documentary “Ordinary Fascism” (also known as “Triumph Over Violence”), which was directed by Mikhail Romm, she avoided running afoul of censors because it is substantially an anti-Nazi film.

She and the co-writer, Yuri Khanyutin, dug deeply into archives, including the Soviet Union’s, for Nazi propaganda footage; film from Hitler and Joseph Goebbels’s private collections; soldiers’ amateur film; children’s drawings from the Theresienstadt concentration camp; and photographs of Nazi victims at Auschwitz.

The movie, with Mr. Romm as its sardonic narrator, mocked Nazism and juxtaposed images of its evil actions with contemporary film that the crew shot in Moscow, Warsaw and Berlin — everyday scenes of students, lovers, mothers and children — that stood in counterpoint to the malevolence of fascism.

The overall effect was to draw clear but subtle connections between Nazi Germany and Stalinist horrors without offending the Soviet Union, except to note its people’s sacrifices during World War II.

Jane Taubman, a retired professor of Russian at Amherst College, said that the documentary’s target audience had no problem intuiting its meaning. “Russians, whose culture has existed under censorship for the better part of 200 years, are used to reading between the lines (or the frames) of what is called ‘Aesopian language’ to a degree unknown in the West,” she said in an email.

The documentary was released in late 1965 and seen by millions in the Soviet Union.

“Maya said that it led to a lot of self-reflection in the Soviet Union and made people stop and think,” said Olga Gershenson, the author of “The Phantom Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and Jewish Catastrophe” (2013) and a professor of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in a phone interview. “The Soviet press praised the film as an anti-fascist document.”

Ms. Turovskaya did little work in film production after “Ordinary Fascism.” Instead, she focused on film and theater criticism, wrirting for newspapers, magazines and journals. She wrote books about the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, the Russian film and stage actress Maria Babanova and Andrei Tarkovsky, the brilliant Soviet director whose striking, often abstract films were admired in the West but banned in his homeland.

Ms. Turovskaya wrote that each of Mr. Tarkovsky’s films — including the award-winning “Ivan’s Childhood,” about an orphan boy who works as a scout for the Soviet Army during World War II— was a chapter in one long film.

“The subject is but the peg upon which to hang a revelation of the inner world, a world that is not merely a collection of memories but a universe furnished with laws of its own,” she wrote in “Tarkovksy: Cinema as Poetry” (1981). “The elements within this universe are united by what Tarkovsky himself called ‘rhythm.’ ”

In their book “Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost” (1994), Michael Brashinksy and Andrew Horton, who compared Ms. Turovskaya to Susan Sontag for the effortlessness and sophistication of her prose, wrote: “Because Turovskaya, a drama critic first, understands theater so well, she is better than most critics at appreciating film as performance. A connoisseur of belles lettres as well, she is always attentive to the literary core of a film.”

Ms. Turovskaya viewed with a gimlet eye the success of the 1960s James Bond films, including “Dr. No,” Thunderball” and “From Russia With Love”

In a 1966 issue of the Soviet literary journal Novy Mir (New World), Ms. Turovskaya wrote that “one can speak as ironically as one likes about the rather stupid adventures of brave Bond,” but she suggested that the popularity of the films, based on Ian Fleming’s spy novels, “may be rightfully considered as an index of the monotony and dullness of life” in the West.

Maya Iosifovna Turovskaya was born on Oct. 27, 1924, in Kharkov, Ukraine. Her father, Iosif Turovsky, was an economics professor, and her mother, Fani (Shub) Turovskaya, was a physician. When she was very young, her father was arrested and jailed for political reasons. After being released, he worked as an engineer.

“My mother read Freud, my father read the classics,” Ms. Turovskaya said in an interview with The New York Times in 1998. “We followed the Spanish Civil War; we were internationalists. My father had been imprisoned, and at least half the children in my class had missing fathers. We were children of the Great Terror.”

She also recalled a family discussion in 1944 after the release of Sergei Eisenstein’s film “Ivan the Terrible, Part I”

“I had an uncle, Isoif Shpinel, who worked as a set designer on ‘Ivan the Terrible,’ and we would have a great discussion at the table: ‘How can you glorify Ivan?’ I asked. ‘Silly girl, I’m working with the great Eisenstein,’ he answered. Everyone who worked with Eisenstein said that.”

After graduating in the 1940s from Moscow State University, where she studied philology, she received a degree in theater science from the State Theater Institute. Following her education, she was hired by a state radio committee but was fired quickly for being Jewish.

Ms. Turovskaya began to write about theater, film and culture in the 1950s. But her reputation did not blossom until the next decade, when the Soviet Union was still in a post-Stalin political thaw under Nikita S. Khrushchev.

By the late 1980s, her renown as a critic, scholar and historian had grown so much that she began to lecture at colleges in the United States and hold informal seminars about film with Russian scholars from Yale, Harvard, Amherst, Columbia and elsewhere.

“She’d show us a couple of films and give us her interpretations,” Professor Taubman said in a telephone interview. “She was just full of wonderful information and incredibly generous. She called me Janechik and called Amherst her dacha.”

In 2008, Ms. Turovskaya won a Nika Award, the Russian equivalent of an Oscar, from the country’s Academy of Cinema Arts and Sciences for her contributions to cinematic science, criticism and education.

In addition to her son, she is survived by a grandson and a sister, Bertha Roginskaya.

Ms. Gershenson recalled interviewing Ms. Turovskaya a decade ago in a coffee shop in Munich.

“She had a long view of history,” Ms. Gershenson said. She quoted her as saying: “I have lived a very long life, I know it very well. Everything is changing. Now, if something is observed at the moment, it does not mean that it always has been. We are all accustomed to imagining that everything is always like this and everything will always be like that. In fact, everything changes all the time. Continuously.”



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