The Kid from Kazakhstan

Film

A Cinematic Gift: A new Kazakh film titled, “The Gift to Stalin,” is a poetic, fictional portrait of atrocities committed in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan during the reign of Stalin.
A Cinematic Gift: A new Kazakh film titled, “The Gift to Stalin,” is a poetic, fictional portrait of atrocities committed in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan during the reign of Stalin.

By Jordana Horn

Published March 09, 2011, issue of March 18, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

If you’re anything like me, chances are high that the only film you’ve ever seen about Kazakhstan starred Sacha Baron Cohen and was not exactly flattering to the former Soviet republic. So when I received a press packet calling “The Gift to Stalin” “one of Kazakhstan’s most recent award-winning international hits,” I involuntarily thought, “very nice,” in a Borat accent.

While I don’t know how “The Gift to Stalin” compares with other works of Kazakh cinema, I can say that the film, opening on March 18 in New York, is a poetic fictional portrait, with lovely acting, of atrocities committed in the former Soviet republic during the reign of Stalin, in 1949.

The film is told largely from the humble vantage point of a young Jewish boy, Sasha, who pretends to be dead to escape from a trainload of Russian prisoners traveling through Kazakhstan. (In 1949, Kazakhstan received many ethnic minorities who had been targeted by Stalin’s purges.) While the Muslim Kazakh trackman, Kasym, sees through the boy’s ruse, he takes pity on the child and brings him into his home, at no small risk to himself.

Kasym, played by Nurjuman Ikhtimbayev, seems more like a candidate for a Bond villain than a snively young boy’s savior, with his scarred face, sealed eye and menacing physique. Yet appearances are deceiving, and beneath his scary exterior lurks that ever-helpful-to-a-narrative heart of gold. He has the boy’s name changed, by a Muslim shaman, to Sabyr, and identifies himself as the boy’s grandfather with help from his neighbor Verka, the exiled widow of an accused traitor.

Verka, played by Ekaterina Rednikova, is the mother figure in the film, bestowing instantaneous love on Sasha, hugging him close enough to allow him to admire the cross she has hidden between her two lovely breasts. Verka, it must be said, has the pillowy lips, high cheekbones, golden-brown tousled hair and figure of a top-of-the-line Victoria’s Secret model. Her beauty is a jarring note on a Kazakh steppe ruled by an oppressive regime. How bad can things really be, I kept wondering, if she can look that hot?

Joking aside, things are bad on the steppe; horrible policemen who routinely rape local women out of little more than boredom and sadism rule the people with an iron fist. The main event is Stalin’s approaching 70th birthday, and a contest develops in which the child offering the best present will be allowed to present it to Stalin personally. In true kid-reasoning, Sasha figures that this will be a good way to get a private audience with the dictator and ask him to release his parents.

This is a world where individual sparks are lost in the expanse of the steppe and in the cruelty of the Stalinist regime. Because what Stalin really wants is not the little white goat — Get it? A sacrifice? — that Sasha sends to him, but rather a test of Soviet nuclear capability, which destroys the lives of virtually everyone in the film. Verka’s wedding to Egi, a nice young doctor who also finds himself stranded on the steppe, is a last-ditch bid for happiness, one that is brutally crushed.

Some may see the film as a downer, even though we know, through flash-forwards, that eventually, Sasha does make it to Israel and survives. But it’s best to see this movie for what it does provide: a glimpse into a world and a time that filmgoers seldom get to see.

Jordana Horn is a writer and lawyer at work on her first novel.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.