Faculty Q&A: Harlow Robinson on Doctor Zhivago, Cultural Connections, and Russians in Hollywood

Nancy Murr

Photos of Harlow over the years in Russia

From top right: Harlow in front of the Kremlin (2017), with friend in Moscow (1978), and on TransSiberian railroad (1972).

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and the Matthews Distinguished University Professor (emeritus) of History at Northeastern University. The author of Russians in Hollywood and other books, Robinson received two Fulbright Fellowships for study in Russia and an Academy Film Scholar Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He is teaching “Russians in Hollywood: Emigres, Politics, Movies” with us this spring.

What sparked your interest in Russia?

It started with seeing Doctor Zhivago when I was in high school. This was in 1965. It made such a huge impression on me. I was already interested in history and languages, and was transfixed by the story — the Russian Revolution, communism, Bolshevism. All of it completely got to me in a very emotional way. This was the height of the Cold War, and Russia, the Soviet Union, was ever-present. By the time I got to Yale in ‘68, I had decided to major in Russian.

After my sophomore year, I went to a summer program at the University of Leningrad. I lived in a dormitory that was directly across the river from the Winter Palace. The dorm was old and rundown, but every morning we'd go out the front door, look across the river and there was the Winter Palace, the Hermitage. That experience was both transformative and quite difficult.

Difficult in what way?

I was surprised by the standard of living. I’d grown up thinking of Russia as this great power, a “Super Power” as it were. Then I go there, and people are standing in line for basic goods like bread or milk. It was just kind of shocking. And also we were under surveillance. We had somebody who was assigned to be part of our group and follow us around the entire time. That was very clear.

I also made wonderful friendships over that summer, some of them with Russian students. I spent time in their apartments, drinking vodka, sharing stories. It was great. And the teachers were kind and excited that we were there. We went on excursions all over Leningrad to the great museums, to the opera, to the ballet. We were fully immersed in the cultural richness of Leningrad which was still recovering from World War II.

I went back the next year as part of a singing group. We toured the country singing Russian folk songs and liturgical music for Russian audiences. It was an absolutely incredible experience and deepend my understanding of how cultural exchanges can forge connections between people. I’ve been back many, many times.

What led you to films as a way to further your understanding of Russian culture?

I’ve always been interested in films and in film history. I would see any Russian film I could find. Doctor Zhivago started it all, but one of the first Russian films I saw — a Soviet film — is this incredible World War II film called The Cranes are Flying. It's one of the greatest war films ever made. I saw Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, those great Eisenstein films. They really deepened my understanding of Russia and the experiences of the Soviet people.

What Hollywood films do you think have depicted Russia and the Soviet Union the most realistically?

Well, let’s start with the Russian Revolution. Realistic films about that period are extremely few and far between with the exception of Warren Beatty’s Reds.

In fact, the revolution was a subject Hollywood didn't really want to touch. In doing archival research for my books on the Russians in Hollywood, I came across so many projects that were proposed to the major studios of films about the Soviet Union. They would be considered and then never made, because the political aspects were a little too dicey for the studios. And it was also because the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States was, and has always been, somewhat fluid.

For example, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies during World War II. There’s this really fascinating little chapter of history where FDR actually told studio heads, “you need to make some feature films that are positive about the Soviet Union.” And so during the war — this four year period from ‘41 to ‘45 — all of the major studios did produce some films about the Soviet Union that were very positive and actually very false.

A really good example is North Star which was written by Lillian Hellman and had a lot of A-list stars. It also had a totally unrealistic view of Soviet life in a Ukrainian town that's then overrun by the Nazis. Another one is called Song of Russia, which is about an American musician who goes to Russia and ends up there when the war happens.

Again, these are very unrealistic pictures. What's so interesting historically is that these are the very same films targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy period. Suddenly, the accusations were flying about, you know, why is Hollywood making these “pro-communist” films?

A number of the films you're going to discuss feature female leads. Why do you think Hollywood focused on women protagonists?

I think it was more palatable for Hollywood and its audiences to feature a woman in a major role as a Russian than a man which may have been perceived as more threatening, particularly during the Cold War. And, of course, there are all these wonderful Russian literary sources like Catherine the Great and Anna Karenina, which provide a more romantic, historical view of Russia. Marlena Dietrich was a great Catherine the Great. Greta Garbo, too, played a number of Russian characters. Interestingly, there were virtually no Russian women who played these roles. They were mostly Swedish or German or even French. Of the Russian actors who came to Hollywood, only one became a leading man, and that was Yul Brynner.