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Sonia The Movie: Don’t Miss it!
By Irina Axelrod. Russian Forward, Dec. 22–28, 2006, No. 578, p. 28

New York – Let me begin in a roundabout way, with the rather scandalous story of the marriage of Sofia, one of the daughters of my great great grandmother Bella and great great grandfather Isaak. Her parents didn’t like the man she had chosen from the very outset: a young good-for-nothing “with no specific occupation.” My great great granddad Isaak, a merchant who belonged to the first guild, rightly felt that being a count was not an occupation, and the young man’s early experiments in painting and literature offered absolutely no grounds to suspect that a great future awaited him. Sonia, on the other hand, was a “young lady from a good family” and talented beginning artist who clearly merited a more fitting spouse. As luck would have it, their different faiths posed an obstacle to a lawful wedding. It wasn’t that Sonia was “strong in the Jewish faith”; she, like most students in St. Petersburg at the time, was in all likelihood an atheist. But she did not want to make the sign of the cross. Orthodoxy was the state religion, and converting to it held out many benefits, but – . How best to put it? Well, it would have been like joining the Soviet Communist Party in the Brezhnev era: useful for one’s career, but afterward you wouldn’t be welcome in every proper household. Then the flippant count (who, I suspect, cared very little about any religion) announced that he would convert to Judaism. I don’t know if he was aware of the surgical implications of that conversion, but even if he was not, it was a bold decision nonetheless. And so great great grandfather Isaak received a visit at his home from a delegation from the Holy Synod; the delegation asked him to prevent such a scandal as the conversion of the scion of a well-known aristocratic clan to Judaism. He promised to “prevent” it, giving his word of honor as a merchant. In those days, a person’s word was a very valuable thing, and the priests went away quite reassured. And Sonia was confined to her room (in the most primitive manner – behind a locked door).

And so we come to the most romantic episode in the whole story: She escaped through a window using a rope ladder and slipped away with her lover to democratic Paris. Fortunately, there weren’t any Mexican soap operas in those days, and young Sonia had never read any of the “true romance novels” that describe such escapes, so she didn’t
consider her action vulgar or tasteless. But the entire family was terribly angry. For it, this was a very serious matter: The daughter was living in sin with some gentile – that loose woman! For a long time, they literally refused to have anything to do with her. But 1917 soon came along, and Russia did away not only with church weddings, but with
God as well, and with religious and class distinctions too. So under the new order Sonia was an entirely respectable married woman, and her relationships with her relatives were mended. If, based on this true romantic “love story,” the film had been shot in Hollywood, the movie would no doubt end on that note. Only the credits and actors’ names would follow...

Sonia the movie does indeed exist, but it is by no means a Hollywood film. Rather, it is a documentary. It was made by Sonia’s grandniece, Lucy Kostelanetz, who lives in New York. The film was more than 10 years in the making, and the story of how it came to be merits a separate account. Every year Lucy traveled to Russia, where she met with Sonia’s relatives in Moscow and St. Petersburg and worked in the archives,
piecing together the unusual story of the life of her great aunt, the artist Sofia Dymshitz- Tolstoy. It is a dramatic story that isn’t particularly suited to the Hollywood genre. The romantic story of the love between Sonia and Aleksei Tolstoy (yes, that Tolstoy, the
well-known Soviet writer and author of “Buratino”) ended in divorce. The father was able to gain custody of their young daughter, against her mother’s will and under circumstances that would be regarded today as kidnapping. Sonia’s second husband, a Bavarian artist by the name of Pessatti, was repressed; by the time he was released from
incarceration shortly before the war, he was a very sick man, and he died during the siege of Leningrad. Their son Shurik died at the front near Stalingrad. Sonia spent the final years of her life in a big communal apartment in Leningrad, by no means comfortably off (if not to say in poverty)...

Sonia Dymshitz was indeed a very talented artist, but her gift was in many respects wasted: Forced to abandon the creative searchings of her youth in favor of the dominant method of socialist realism, she remained a “second-tier artist” known only to serious connoisseurs of art. Her paintings are preserved in the repositories of the Russian
Museum and other museums in Russia and are exhibited only when large general exhibits are organized. Her name would doubtless remain known only to a narrow circle of art critics if not for Lucy Kostelanetz and her magnificent documentary film Sonia. The film doesn’t just tell the story of one artist; it tells the story of a country. I would even say it tells the history of 20th century as reflected in the life of one individual. Sonia is above all a documentary, and all the most unusual artistic techniques employed by director Lucy Kostelanetz, up to and including the active use of animation, serve a primary purpose: to try as accurately as possible to bring the historical truth to viewers. Making this film was quite a challenge for Lucy, who was born in New York and has lived her whole life there, does not speak Russian, and before starting work on the film knew about Russia only from history class in school and from the stories of her father, the well-known New York attorney Boris Kostelanetz (who left St. Petersburg with his family in 1917 as a six-year-old child and, via the Crimea and Turkey, ended up in New York; all he remembered was the nursery rhyme “Chizhik-Pyzhik” and St. Petersburg’s Chinizelli Circus, which was visible from the window of his childhood room in an apartment building on Karavannaya Street)!

So if you’re interested in 20th-century history, or if you’re interested in the art of film, or … let me put it this way: Every viewer will find his or her own reason not to miss the screening of this picture. As for myself, I would just recommend this film to you as one human being to another, as one viewer to another. Because I personally enjoyed it.

Photo: Sonia standing in the middle of her siblings, above her brother and mother, 1903.







© 2010 Lucy Kostelanetz Productions, LLC

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