He was there. on bil tam: it’s a Russian euphemism for staying in Stalin’s penal camps. Sandar Valiulin ‘was there’ as one of the one and a half million Soviet POWs returning to the motherland. Three million others were starved, tortured, shot by the Nazis. As a thank you for his sacrifice, Sandar was allowed to go straight to Siberia: from Lager to Gulag.
Anyone who has been astonished by Russian servility, blunt opportunism and hallucinatory credulity since the invasion of Ukraine will find many answers in Aliona van der Horst’s last two documentaries. “With a full belly you will never understand hungry people”, her Russian aunt sighs in the beautiful Love is Potatoes (2017). Turn Your Body to the Sun let you experience in a different way how Stalin’s mess continues to the present.
The film outlines the ‘unfulfilled life’ of Sandar Valiulin, the father of writer Sana Valiulina, who lives in the Netherlands. A very young paratrooper, he was dropped behind German lines near Smolensk in the spring of 1942, the start of a fourteen-year odyssey. As a prisoner of war he had himself recruited into a German ‘volunteer battalion’ so as not to starve to death. A traitor in other words, although he had disappeared in the gulag anyway. Stalin’s order 270 was clear: surrender is desertion. A Soviet soldier fights to the last breath.
Turn Your Body to the Sun is a ‘Vatersuche’, a monument to the monstrously treated prisoners of war in the Soviet Union. As such, it’s sort of a counterpoint to ‘Muttersuche’ Love is Potatoes, a monument to Russian peasantry. That last film revolved around a fundamental misunderstanding between Alionia, who grew up in the Netherlands and her stiff mother Zoja, and focused on the 36 square meters of a farmhouse where her mother and aunts grew up – you could almost smell the damp and mold. In Turn Your Body to the Sun everything is in motion, just like father Sandar at the time. We see Sana and her sister Dinar talking on the train or subway about the traumas he kept silent about. Out of guilt or shame, because he would rather forget.
Both films revolve around the totalitarian indifference to human lives that the current Kremlin also exhibits. How that produces suspicious, fearful and closed subjects, averse to self-examination. Sana Valiulina remembers her father as a sullen back she could barely keep up with as a little girl, a back walled up in an alcove full of books: he was a self-taught intellectual, an artistic soul.
Sandar did write about his past: a warm voice reads from his autobiography and from the beautifully illustrated letters that he sent from his “pretty good” gulag camp to his future wife Tagira. There is also that one photo in an American soldier’s magazine: Sandar as an interpreter with the American army just after D-Day. When he was allowed to be human for a while, not just a body to live out, Sandar writes. A man who breathed “free European air,” causing the “slave mentality to leave his soul.” He suspects that for this reason alone, all Russian prisoners of war disappeared after returning to the gulag. The sense of freedom could just be contagious.
Turn Your Body to the Sun unfolds through striking archive images that sometimes enhance the narration’s voice and sometimes tell their own story. The beginning alone: Stalin and Hitler drinking a glass of water in close-up – two cruel behemoths crushing Sandar. Or take naked Soviet soldiers crossing a river with horses and guns: a poetic image of human fragility in a war.
The sources are contaminated: Aliona van der Horst borrows gulag images from Soviet propaganda about a model camp, war images often come from German officers who were equipped with cameras on the Eastern Front to film Russian ‘Untermenschen’. She appropriates these images mainly through the evocative use of slow motion. The kind of bombardment that we are currently taking in daily on social media from the Donbas is turning into a sad flower of flying planks. Russian POWs turn their hands up in slow motion from an unshaven horde into individuals: scared, expectant, hopeful. Most will not survive this war, Sandar will. At a high price.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of June 15, 2022