"The life that has been left behind", the story of a man, of a country, of an era

Nicolai Leonov

The Round table will premiere this Thursday and Friday a documentary in two parts by the filmmaker Manuel Pérez Paredes: “The life that has been left behind”, a title that, while summarizing the spirit of the work, barely allows a glimpse of the shocking testimony contained in its two hours and 20 minutes, a short time if you consider the credentials of the protagonist and the dimensions of the story he tells.

Nicolai Leonov, whom the Cuban public will recognize as the author of the biography “Raúl Castro, a man in Revolution”, is today a retired senior officer of the legendary Soviet KGB, with a huge and sensitive memory, who during three weeks of 2012 He dedicated more than 60 hours of talks, 15 of which were recorded, to an ICAIC team, led by Manolo Pérez, the latter determined to collect for the Cuban archives the memories and evaluations of an exceptional witness of the Cold War.

How and why the 2013 National Film Award reaches Leonov and how he manages to put together the valuable testimony, is part of the charm that surrounds the film from where you look at it.

According to the filmmaker, it all began on July 31, 2006, when “the health blow that Fidel had suffered” was announced, or perhaps a few months before, when the leader of the Cuban Revolution said in his memorable speech at the University of La Havana, celebrating 60 years of his initiation as a student and revolutionary, that the Revolution could implode rather than be defeated by its external enemies. A revolutionary militant from his early youth, he felt that there were many unanswered questions, after the collapse of the world socialist system with the USSR at the head.

“Under the impact caused in me by the news that Fidel has suffered a health stroke like never before, I start to search the Internet for the repercussion of the fact and among hundreds of notes, I find a left-wing Argentine blog which tries to provide information on who is Raúl Castro, the second man of the Revolution who was at that time much less known than Fidel due to his own personal characteristics.

“Who writes the blog mentions Nicolai Leonov, as an accidental friend of Raúl in his youth. I knew about the existence of that Soviet man who met him on a boat and they became friends, but I didn’t have the exact dimension of who he was, until that information prompted me to look for more ”. Behind that reference, he begins to dig and finds numerous materials, some written by Leonov himself and others referring to him, among which a long interview by a Catalan journalist stands out, where he is revealed for the first time “a way of thinking and very attractive reasoning. And I feel that I immediately identify with his way of telling life ”.

Later captivated by reading lectures and other texts by Leonov himself that he found on the internet, Pérez Paredes decided to get to know him and interview him personally. The first opportunity comes in 2009 when he is invited to participate as co-writer of a documentary on Central America with a Spanish producer, to whom Manolo proposes (and his proposal is accepted), to interview Leonov, under the argument that he had been an analyst at the region in his years as a diplomat in this part of the world. Under the auspices of the journalist Marta Carreras and her husband Juan Valdés, who was ambassador to Russia at the time, in 2010 the meeting with in Moscow finally took place. There the Cuban filmmaker discovers that, live and direct, the Russian’s narrative is even more fascinating than his writings.

“When I hear him speak, I see that he not only knows how to write, analyze, but also has a gift for communication, he is cinematographic. I discover that he is not only intelligent, lucid and with great experiences, but that he tells them very well … “

Manolo returns to Havana after contributing Leonov’s formidable testimonies to the documentary on Central America, but feels he needs to do more.

“You could not miss the audiovisual testimony most directly related to Cuba, in the way this man tells it. I was not so clear if he was going to make a documentary or not, but I felt that his story had to be in our historical archives, on the side here. Because his memory is Latin America, it is Cuba and it is the Soviet Union in the course of the Cold War. Nothing less”.

Omar González, president of the ICAIC at that time and one of the greatest animators of memory preservation projects at the institution, approves Manolo’s request, who in 2012 leaves for Moscow again with a minimum team of three other people: Velia Díaz Villalvilla, sound engineer, Raúl Rodríguez, photographer and Harold Rodríguez, cameraman. With the indispensable help, once again, of Marta Carreras and the Cuban embassy in Moscow, the recordings of Nicolai Leonov were finally produced. Cuba, his relationship with our country, with Latin America, what was his life in the USSR from childhood until the disintegration of that great country, fill 15 hours under the spotlight.

“They were days of three or four hours each time, which became shorter when he addressed, for example, the collapse of the USSR, which affected him a lot. His wife, who also came from the KGB, set us more limited hours so as not to harm her health. Then Leonov was 84 years old.

“For us it was like a doctorate, not only recording those 15 hours but also talking 60, during which he told us any number of stories.

Leonov translates Fidel 1963

When he went to speak with Niquita Krushov in 1963, after the October crisis, Fidel’s translator, Leonov only counted public things, the others, more private, could only have been counted by Fidel or Niquita. But over the course of three weeks, there were many conversations about a Fidel snooping next to Niquita, asking about Stalin and what happened after Stalin, for example.

Other anecdotes that are not in the documentary that will be released on television this Thursday, remain as valuable memories in the memory of the team. Manolo tells of some fascinating ones, such as the evaluations he made about Che, how demanding he was with the translation, to the point of asking that if he told Gromiko: “those are nonsense”, they would not change the words for other more soft, because he wanted to observe the reaction of his interlocutor. Che trusted Leonov so much that he took him as a translator on a trip to Korea.

By the time the filming of the documentary “The Life Left Behind” was made, Leonov had written a brief biography of Fidel and had a sketch of what would later become “Raúl, a man in Revolution”, so it is not that book was the guide to the documentary, but apparently a kind of accelerator of the editorial process of the text, which was presented in 2016.

Upon his return to Havana, Manuel delivers the recordings to ICAIC without considering a documentary project.

“I am not a documentarian,” he clarifies, “I am essentially a creator of fiction, but I am curious about politics on these issues.” The filmmaker realizes that the story that can be made by someone who in the years of the Cold War was not only friends with Fidel, Raúl, Che, but also with Omar Torrijos -of whom he also wrote a book, after collaborating with the Panamanian leader during the negotiation of the agreements for the recovery of the Canal – and of the Peruvian General Velazco Alvarado, among other important Latin American politicians. According to Leonov, his stay in Latin America changed his life.

But, how do those 15 hours finally become 2:20 that are summarized in the documentary that we will see in the Roundtable space?

“A week after my return to Havana, Raúl is on a business trip to Moscow and he will surely visit his friend Leonov who will surely tell him that we have just interviewed him. It must have left him quite motivated, because on his return, Raúl asked me, via Omar González, for a 3-hour version of those dialogues. I did the summary with the editor Saúl Ortega, selecting what he considered most interesting for Raúl and by extension for ourselves. I also showed that selection to Leonov and he was satisfied. Then I continued making my life at ICAIC and what was filmed was saved, until, in 2020, Ramón Samada, the current ICAIC President, motivates himself and motivates me to do something that was valuable, with the summary of the three hours , to premiere it at the Party Congress in which Raúl was dismissed from the Party leadership. From there comes this version of 2:20 that focuses on his life, which is the life of the Soviet Union and also in its relationship with Cuba. This is how the documentary “The life that has been left behind” came about.

But Manuel Pérez Paredes is not only the director of this documentary testimony that shakes the most alert viewer. Without question, the filmmaker who everyone recognizes as the most formidable living memory among the founders of the ICAIC, takes up the original idea, the militant’s anguish over the fate of the Revolution and in general of the socialist processes in contemporary history, which It came after the sharp warnings of Fidel in 2005 and the news of his illness in 2006. Then he points to what he is most passionate about in his own work: The way in which Leonov tells his version of how the Soviet Union fell apart.

“For me it was very revealing, very shocking, very hard, but very necessary, as hard as necessary, to delve into what were the internal, endogenous factors that contributed to the breakdown of the USSR.” The protagonist, you will see, knows how to tell it, how he knows how to calibrate the story without pessimism, without feeling discouraged or defeat. With the gallantry that he suggests, from a privileged space in the living room of his house in Moscow, the tall fighting cock that his best Cuban friend gave him.

Nikolai S. Leonov in Mesa Redonda.

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