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Monster or messiah?

Jessica Gorter

On the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Jessica Gorter’s The Red Soul examines how Soviet leader Joseph Stalin continues to divide the Russian people. Melanie Goodfellow reports. Millions of Russians perished in labour camps and mass executions under Stalin’s repressive rule, but today’s population remain deeply divided in their opinions on his legacy. Where some see a mass murderer, others see a World War Two hero and father of the nation. In her third feature-documentary The Red Soul, Jessica Gorter attempts to deconstruct this complex relationship, taking the spectator on a journey across Russia from pro-Stalin commemoration ceremonies in Moscow to forgotten mass graves in the north. Gorter believes that what happened under Stalin’s rule still plays on the Russian psyche. “In order to understand anything that is going on in Russia today, it’s very important to understand how Russians look at their own history,” she says. 

She introduces a range of characters on either side of the divide, from sisters whose mother was interned in a labour camp for most of their child­ hood to a pro-Stalin photographer, who lays red roses on his grave, to civil rights activists on a mission to research evidence of the killing that went on under Stalin’s rule.

When the Berlin Wall came down Gorter’s father called to say she should be in Berlin – but she had other ideas. She had got talking to a young Russian man in a bar in Amsterdam, who invited her to visit him in his home city of Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg. Gorter decided to take him up on the offer.

“Sometimes the ambiguity can even be found in a single individual,” says Gorter. “There are plenty of characters in the film where the family suffered under Stalin, but they still admire and respect him.”

“My dad came to Utrecht Central station to see me off,” she recalls. “He gave me a compass – he was a child of the Cold War – and said,

Gorter and her crew also stopped off at an elite youth camp to see how Russian history was being taught to youngsters today, partly at the behest of her producer Frank van den Engel at Zeppers Film. “My main challenge was to make sure the film was contemporary and not only about history. For me it was important that the film looked at the significance of the events under Stalin for people living today,” comments Van den Engel. The Red Soul is the latest in a body of work by Gorter exploring postSoviet Russian, which she has been visiting since the early days of Perestroika in the late 1980s. Gorter fell in love with Russia through its literature: “My father had travelled to Moscow in the 1960s and it made a huge impression on him… As a teenager. I read all the literature on his bookshelves, from Dostoyevsky to Solzhenitsyn. My fascination for the country grew from there.” 


“When I got off the train I stepped into Perestroika, what I call this silent revolution” ‘If it goes bad just walk west and I’ll pick you up at the border’… When I got off the train at the other end, I stepped into Perestroika… or what I call this silent revolution.” That first trip marked the beginning of a long friendship with her St Petersburg contact Alexei as well as a fascination for post-Soviet Russia. It is a fascination Gorter has explored in most her shorts and films, including last feature 900 Days, revolving around eye-witness accounts of the Siege of Leningrad. “My next film will be more about my generation and their children and really what is going on,” says Gorter. “With every film, I arrive more in the present.”

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