Obituary: Arkady Ruderman

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The Independent Online
Arkady Ruderman, film-maker, born Minsk 15 January 1950, died Tajikistan 22 September 1992.

Arkady Ruderman was, with the Latvian Juris Podnieks, who died aged 41 in June, the most prominent of the Soviet documentary film-makers. One of his 14 films created a crisis in the Politburo. Another received a first prize for 'honesty in reporting'. Ruderman was killed two weeks ago in a car crash. He was 42.

He was the only son of a senior executive of an engineering plant in Minsk, the capital of Belorussia, where he was born in 1950. In 1974 he graduated from Minsk Polytechnic Institute and worked for a short time as a manager at an advertising agency. He moved to the then Leningrad, now St Petersburg, where he enrolled at the prestigious Leningrad Institute of Theatre, Music and Cinema. He graduated as a film director in 1981 and then returned to Minsk. His first film for Minsk Television, Kto Ispravit Oshibku Demetry? ('Who Will Correct Demeter's Mistake?', 1987) won the Grand Prix at Ostrava (Czechoslovakia) International Film Festival. But Brezhnev's culture-hounds attacked him for 'always seeing Soviet life in a black light'. He had little choice but to join one of the most conservative Soviet studios, Belarus Film, in Minsk - a studio with a terrible reputation which specialised in making crude propaganda and primitive sentimental films.

By Christmas 1985 - Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power in March - Ruderman's first full- length documentary film was ready, Letyashchaya v Grozu ('Flying into the Storm'). It told the true story of an NKVD (KGB) officer who during the last war turned two Minsk schoolgirls, both his lovers, into guerrilla fighters. He then shot the child (by himself) of one girl and probably had something to do with her death, and sent the other off to Minsk to take part in a guerrilla operation knowing that she was Jewish (there were posters putting a price on her head, dead or alive, all over the city). Natasha Klimantovich, who today lives in Moscow, was caught, tortured and, half-dead, transferred to Auschwitz concentration camp. She was found there by the Americans and volunteered to return to the Soviet Union, where the NKVD accused her 'being too long abroad'. By sheer chance she survived.

Ruderman was accused by Belarus of 'distorting the bright image of the Soviet intelligence officer' who - as was discovered later - had defected to what was then West Germany. The management put pressure on Ruderman to remake the film. Then the film was 'arrested' (snatched at night from the editing room) and banned.

In 1987 Ruderman made his most famous film, Teatr Epokhi Glasnosti i Perestroiki ('The Theatre During the Epoch of Glasnost and Perestroika'), a documentary about the early life of the artist Marc Chagall in Russia. Local Communist authorities, hearing about Ruderman's shooting on location in Vitebsk where Chagall was born, declared quite untruly that the town was situated outside Belorussia and Chagall had nothing to do with the republic. A scandal broke, with anti-Semitic undertones, and went out of all proportion. The case of Ruderman v Vladimir Gorbachev (no relation of the General Secretary), the head of Bolarus, came to court and to the notice of the central press in Moscow and Leningrad. Gorbachev seized the film. Then nine senior executives of the powerful Film Makers' Union flew from Moscow to Minsk to force him to return it. A copy was smuggled to Sverdlovsk Documentary Films Festival, where it received the first prize for 'honesty in reporting facts'. The scandal caused a crisis in the Politburo (the Soviet Cabinet). Brezhnev and his cultural lieutenants summoned the Belorussian comrades to explain: 'An anti-Chagall operation has got out of all proportion and must be stopped'.

I met Arkady Ruderman in December 1989 at the Moscow Film Centre after the premiere of his film about the arrest of Dubcek and his enforced visit to Moscow during the Czechoslovak crisis in 1968. He was the first Soviet film-maker Dubcek invited to Prague and co-operated with the film fully.

In 1990 Ruderman filmed an episode in Gorky, now restored to its original name, Nizhni Novgorod, for the American producer Cherry Jones's film In Sakharov's Shadow, where Sakharov was exiled by Brezhnev (and released by Gorbachev in 1986) and which was closed to foreigners. The film was shown this year on Channel 4. He also filmed a part of In Gorbachev's USSR by the American journalist Hedrick Smith (author of a bestseller, Russians), and last year he made and for the first time appeared himself in three episodes of a political series about Soviet life for Austrian television. His last television film was about the exodus of Soviet Jews from the Soviet Union. It had a huge commercial success and has been shown four times on Russian television this year. Last month, commissioned by the main Ostankino Channel One Television in Moscow, he went to Tajikistan, where war was going on between three rival gangs. Ruderman's idea was to film of the atrocities committed by the gangs in this and other areas of the former USSR to prevent their being repeated in Russia. He broke every rule of security by going to 'hot areas' such as Tajikistan. Instead of hiring a car, filming interviews and leaving the same way, he accepted a lift from Langari Langariev, the leader of one of the three gangs representing the former President Nabiev. It is suspected that the car travelling on the Shar-Shar road towards Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, was attacked by another gang and went out of control. Ruderman was the only one of four in the car who died.

Last spring after making his film about Soviet Jews in Israel Ruderman - who was half-Jewish - applied and received an Israeli passport while retaining his Soviet passport. His wife, Galya, is Belorussian and a music editor on Minsk Television; his only child a son, Alesha, aged 11, whom he adored.

In July he came from Minsk to Moscow to see me and he chatted about his plans to make a film about Soviet girls going to Turkey to work in Istanbul brothels. He had already found a backer but I didn't like his idea of crossing the Georgian-Turkish border with a Turkish guide. He was constantly searching for a challenge: usually quiet in manner, he became restless when there was not much to do. Two years ago I brought him and his crew by car from Paris (where we applied for him to come to be my guest in London, an idea which delighted him) where he was filming, to Brittany to the house of the late Grand Duke Vladimir Kirillovich, head of the Romanov dynasty. We spent four days there filming the Grand Duke and his family. He also filmed my interview with the KGB ex-Chairman Vladimir Semichastny part of which appeared in The Independent on Sunday (2 September 1990). In February Ruderman gave me his last major interview, for Nezavisimaya Gazeta. His early death at the peak of his career has shocked his many friends. He was buried in his native Minsk.

(Photograph omitted)

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