Michael Beckelhimer, REECA A.M. '96, is the director of Pushkin Is Our Everything. Through the stories of individual Russians, the documentary explores why the 19th-century poet Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin remains a powerful and fervently adored national figure after two centuries. Beckelhimer appeared in person at the Davis Center for a public screening of Pushkin in February 2017.
You graduated from the REECA program in 1996. Did the Pushkin project grow out of your studies there?
No, literature really wasn’t my thing. After college I’d spent a year in Estonia and a year in Moscow before returning to the States for a master’s. A classmate and I started studying Estonian at Harvard. They brought in a professor to teach us. It was cool. The program was very flexible in letting us pursue our interests. At the time, the Soviet Union was disintegrating, and the trend was to focus on a particular region rather than just Russia as previously.
I ended up doing so many things—I took a couple of courses at the Business School, the Kennedy School. I went into Internet advertising, all because I took a class at HBS, went to California, and got hired at an agency. In a weird way, REECA led me away from Russia.
When I graduated from the program, I didn’t want to go back to Russia. The mid-1990s were very violent and I was a bit burned out, especially after the long Boston winters.
What finally brought you back to Russia?
I was living in California when 9-11 happened and it jogged me. I thought, “I’ve become one of these boring people in California,” and I was so disconnected from everything happening in Russia. In the early 1990s I had been working in intelligence, giving briefings on the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. When 9-11 happened I realized I’d really lost touch with what I’d been interested in. So I picked myself up from the Internet and brushed myself off.
Why did you decide to make a documentary about Pushkin? He’s not exactly understudied.
I went to Russia knowing I wanted to do something related to the classics, maybe Gogol or Tolstoy, and something that would involve interviewing people and visiting them. But I completely avoided Pushkin (in fact, an early title of the film was “Pushkin Overload”). I thought it was a cliche, but the fact is, I didn’t know Pushkin—hadn’t read him.
But then while on a Likhachev Foundation fellowship, I met the director of Moika 12 [the apartment-museum where Pushkin died] in St. Petersburg and she completely inspired me. She embodied the excitement Russians have for literature: when they talk about their favorite authors, their eyes just light up. For her, it was Pushkin.
And it occurred to me: none of my audience in the U.S. knows anything about Pushkin. Outside of Russia, a film about Pushkin can be interesting and unique, unlike another film about Chekhov or Dostoyevsky. But I was almost embarrassed to tell people… It reminds me of when I came out of the closet and went to San Francisco. And then I started reading, and I fell in love with Pushkin—his writing, his biography, everything about him. As I looked for an interesting angle to explore, I started asking, how is it, what is it about Pushkin…how did Pushkin become Russia’s everything?
And through that I think you get a good picture of what Russia is about. A story of Russia.
Any tales of woe or triumph from when you were working on the film?
Nothing bad happened, but it was my first film and I was teaching myself as I went along. One of my goals was to make a film but another was to reconnect with Russia. I spent a lot of time reading, exploring, and talking, and I wasn’t laser-focused on getting my story. So it took so long. I was living in LA with a full-time job, making a film in Russia, getting over there a couple of times a year. This resulted in some technical inconsistencies—I shot with different cameras, had different people helping, cut a lot of corners, made a lot of mistakes…
The best things were the fascinating people I met—the people I interviewed. I worked really hard to find the perfect people. You know what it’s like in Russia: every single person has a story about Pushkin, a relationship with Pushkin. I worked really hard to find people who knew an aspect of Pushkin’s life that fit in with the structure of my film.
Tell me about some of those people.
Galina Sedova, director of Moika 12, really inspired me to make the film. I met her several times, including two occasions when I interviewed her in Pushkin’s study, which is now a museum. She was a great sport. There were crowds coming through the museum… We’d set up the camera in the study where Pushkin died, surrounded by his books. The babushkas would close the doors, we’d film a bit, and then they’d open up the doors again and the crowds would come back through….
There was also the sculptor of Pushkin in Moscow. During our second interview he was getting impatient with the idea that Russians have a special relationship with Pushkin: “In America you have Lincoln!” Well, no, we don’t have a Lincoln on every corner, we don’t go around quoting Lincoln…
Many people in academia bemoan the lack of understanding of what’s happening in Russia today. Why do you think that is?
It seems like when I went into Russian studies it was so hot, everybody wanted to know everything about Russia, and then in the mid-90s everyone lost interest. It’s great that there’s a resurgence. In general, it’s amazing how little Americans know or understand about Russia, how limited the discussion is. That was partly the motivation for the film. Let’s talk about something other than the Kremlin and Pussy Riot. I wish people knew more, shared more… Living here in LA, hearing I was making a film about a dead Russian poet, people basically disintegrated. They could not comprehend how anyone would be interested. I hope that will change. My next project will tap into the resurgent Russia-related interest.
What would you tell someone who’s thinking about pursuing a REECA degree?
I’ve always believed in studying what you love. And so I wanted that REECA degree because I loved the Russian language, I loved studying Russia and the former Soviet Union, and I would say definitely do it if you’re interested in it, and if there’s a concern that it’s not relevant...well, I think it’s more relevant now, Russia’s in the news, and to the extent people are recognizing a lack of experts in government, language skills… I think that’s going to reemerge as an important area of expertise. It’s both interesting, fascinating, and relevant again.
What do you wish Americans knew about Russians’ relationship to their national literature?
What inspires me about this story is the commitment Russians have to knowing their literature, the appreciation they have, and the way it’s expected that you’ll know your poets, your writers, you’ll be able to quote them, and they’re relevant. Here in the United States we spend time questioning what is or isn’t it relevant, whereas there it’s sort of ingrained. This is an aspect of Russia that most Americans wouldn’t really get. And it’s deep and meaningful. We have such a bad habit here of bashing Russians—there are so many bad stereotypes and negative views—but their appreciation of literature is something I think Russia can be proud of and we should want to emulate.
Your film will be shown exactly 180 years after Aleksandr Sergeevich died from injuries sustained in a duel. Do you ever think about what might have been?
Yeah. And the film ends with that idea of what might have been. I do wonder if there’s something to be said for dying young in a duel at the height of your creative work. If he’d lived till 90 and sort of faded away, maybe he wouldn’t have such a presence today. With his passing, there was such a rigorous debate: was he our national poet, what did he mean… that jolt made people fight for his memory. The pessimist in me says he wouldn’t have been poet number one and might have been overtaken by Lermontov had both of them lived longer.
What, above all, do you want people to get out of the film?
I wanted the story to be revealed by Russians in their own words, through their own personal stories. With one exception, everyone in the film is Russian. The camera moves slowly—there are no strange shots, you’re not bouncing all around. You know exactly where you are, and why you’re there. When you watch the film, you’re going to experience Russia.