Prof. discusses Russian film stereotypes

By Christina Prignano

Professor Harlow Robinson was first introduced to Russian culture from the silver screen as he sat in a Connecticut movie theater watching the 1965 drama “Dr. Zhivago.” Years later, his enthusiasm for the culture earned him a Matthews Distinguished University Professorship.

Robinson, a professor of history and modern languages, gave the second annual Matthews Distinguished University Professor Lecture Thursday in 10 Behrakis to a crowd of students, faculty and guests, as well as a handful of previous Matthews Distinguished Professors.

“His achievement as a scholar is matched only by his deep commitment to teaching,” Abdelal said

The Matthews Distinguished Professorship is given to a professor each year who has demonstrated excellence in teaching and in his or her field.

The purpose of the lecture was for Robinson to share his academic work during his two years as Matthews Distinguished Professor with the Northeastern community. His lecture, titled “Stereotypes and Sidekicks: Russians and their image in the movies,” chronicled his findings about Russian culture and the American film industry.

Robinson said “Dr. Zhivago” was part of what provoked him to research this subject. He spoke affectionately of the characters in the movie.

“They seduced me utterly and forever,” Robinson said.

He later said the image of Russians in “Dr. Zhivago” turned out to be inaccurate, and said the stereotype underwent various changes as the world’s political climate changed.

Robinson said the pre-revolutionary Russian elite were romanticized in films like the 1956 drama “Anastasia.”

“[These films] represented a search for identity and the audience could respond,” Robinson said.

During the Cold War, Robinson said Russians became “enemy No. 1,” and American movie studios came under attack from government agencies like the House Committee for Un-American Activities.

Robinson said the Anti-Russian sentiment endured in films like The Bourne Identity and Air Force One, where Russians are portrayed as “dangerous terrorists.”

Robinson concluded his lecture by explaining another trend in Russian stereotypes, the so-called “conversion narrative” in which stringent Russian Communists come to the West and discover the livelier and more exciting Capitalist lifestyle.

“Steak, swimsuits and sex prevail over socialism,” Robinson said.

The lecture was followed by a question and answer session where listeners were given the opportunity to ask Robinson questions. One student asked if Robinson thought the image of Russians was moving forward in American cinema today.

“As we get further away from Communism hopefully [the image] will change,” Robinson said.

Provost Ahmed Abdelal then took the floor and introduced the 2006 Matthews Distinguished Professor Robert Hanson, of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.

Hanson expressed his gratitude to the Northeastern community and said he was “deeply honored” to receive the award.

Junior political science major Kate Wilson, who is in one of Robinson’s film classes, said she enjoyed the presentation.

“It was really good to see how [stereotypes] evolved because of political reasons,” Wilson said.

Robinson’s work includes three major books, “Sergei Prokofiev: a Biography,” “Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev” and “The Last Impresario: the Life, Times and Legacy of Sol Hurok.” A fourth book, “Russians in Hollywood,” is due out next fall. Robinson is also a prominent translator of plays, operas and songs.

Sophomore communications and cinema studies major Christine Fitzpatrick said she found the lecture interesting.

“The work that he’s done has been really eye-opening to Americans,” Fitzpatrick said. “It gives another taste of how the American media portrays other cultures.”

Provost Abdelal introduced Robinson and said he was an outstanding choice for the award.

Leave a Reply