The Significance of Brezhnev for Russian TV Drama Today

By David MacFadyen (University of California, Los Angeles)


Recently, at least ten major drama series have appeared on Russia’s national television networks that draw upon the Soviet experience: World War Two and the Stagnation appear most often. I would like to outline the staging of what the Washington Post has called the “end of any revolution,” [1] Putin’s Brezhnevian rhetoric of stability. Virtually all drama nowadays with thirty-something protagonists involves psychologically consequential flashbacks to the 1970s, which is perhaps unsurprising when more than 70% of employees in the Russian media today graduated from Soviet universities or once worked for the Soviet media.

The most obvious of retrospections has been the ORT series Brezhnev (Sergei Snezhkin, 2005). It does much to humanize the politician (played by Sergei Shakurov), to remove him from specific policies or their consequences. We see a dacha-bound Gensek hunting for boar, picnicking, watching movies, enjoying jokes about himself and—most importantly—flirting endlessly with his nurse (played by Mariia Shukshina). One such scene was excised, though, in which Shakurov and Shukshina climb into bed; this absence was well assessed by Brezhnev’s granddaughter: “Viewers were probably supposed to start applauding at that point. ‘Oh, Brezhnev! Oh, you son of a bitch!’ And then in a wave of nostalgia they’d be filled with patriotism. ‘He’s an old man, but he can still get it done!’” [2]

In order to make this privacy patriotic, it still had to be shown in (or as) public. Thus, we step further into the past; the younger Brezhnev (played by Artur Vakhi) also lost a few scenes to the cutting room floor. The awkward post-war rediscovery of his wife’s sensuality was chopped, as were some premonitions of his own funeral. The extremes of sexual release and death are filmed, but they don’t make it to the TV screen. Something remains unfinished. Shakurov, when interviewed about Brezhnev, likewise saw his hero and period in office in terms of the 1970s’ ongoing, personal and potential happiness—rather than as a documented realization.


This slight elusiveness has led elsewhere in recent months to TV films like December 32nd (Aleksandr Muratov, 2004), in which Andrei Miagkov, Armen Dzhigarkhanian, and Ada Rogovtseva play three pensioners made magically “thirty to forty” years younger. They relive their own “wonderful” past of the mid-1970s, yearning for absent people and places such that even the closing credits dedicate the film “with love” to J.B. Priestley, Evgenii Shvarts, and Èl'dar Riazanov. Absence here starts to shape a stubborn thematic presence.

The “civilizing” binarisms of Cold War détente under Brezhnev recycled core oppositions of Stalinist culturology, often forcing self-definition by negative example. Moneyed America, for example, lacked the superior, albeit impoverished workings of Soviet culture. Today these configurations are used to criticize one delegate of a suspect assemblage, such as Khodorkovskii, implicitly, in last year’s series Maker of More Misery (Umnozhaiushchii pechal'; dir. Oleg Fesenko, 2005) without damaging any overall harmony between the State and business per se. Individuals are held up as negative examples, whilst the grander groups they come from, in this case business as a whole, are left fundamentally alone, giving an impression of stability policed only on occasion—and with commendable reason.

This almost Manichean worldview has allowed for tales of rectification, of social betterment, but unavoidably leaves some socially negative forces (the very embodiment of something missing) still in place. The editor of Iskusstvo kino believes criticism from radio station Èkho Moskvy actually give the President something useful from which to “defend the people”; by extension, the director of STS has even compared the kindly police drama The District (Uchastok; dir. Aleksandr Baranov, 2003) to calumny surrounding Beslan. [3] In proffering any fresh, neo-democratic narrative, TV’s struggles with absence evoke Derridean problems of originary delay, so how far into the past will primetime shows go in order to plug this growing hole?

Serials are unavoidably intermittent, more off screen than on. With big gaps between segments, cliff-hanging serializations hope to increase their audience’s role in collaboratively creating narrative cohesion. If extended over a long period of time, punctuated storylines may move in the direction of soap operas—where desire is never satisfied and nothing ever ends. Serials are the norm in Russia and they do end (eventually), thus operating between coherence and diffusion, between satisfying a hope or desire and the more aimless, useless business of desiring, pure and simple.

This tension was certainly evident in American TV drama of the 1970s, when it became hard to distinguish between bona fide, theoretically endless soap operas and story arcs, first adopted by Port Charles and then Peyton Place. Nonetheless, even the busiest, most rambling soaps are frequently, conclusively distilled in the public’s mind by a “supercouple” or rock-solid pair of protagonists—like Days of Our Lives’ (1965- ) Bill Hayes and Susan Seaforth Hayes, deemed worthy of Time magazine’s front cover in January 1974.

Through such couplings, formulaic plots, and a melodramatic, ever-relevant “presentism,” serials are constant repair jobs, mulling an ongoing “now” that is born of the past, of enduring (that is, future) social failures. Yet even this thematic or structural conservatism, anchored in the equally conformist 1970s, is slipping beyond anything that policy can make use of. It has already drifted out to the middle of nowhere in Taiga: Survival Course (Taiga: kurs vyzhivaniia; dir. Aleksandr Aravin, 2002), where victims of a Siberian plane crash are accused by sulky teenage passengers of redoing (that is, realizing) socialist daydreams whenever rations and toiletries have to be shared. From a Deleuzian point of view, each of these woefully repetitious socialist story-arcs actually changes the neo-socialist genre or the “whole”; each repetition has a new predecessor—and, thus, a different history, context, and meaning each time. Putinesque or soapy repetitions, supposedly the backbone of a singular policy, actually prompt increasing, flourishing differences. They instigate a dreamy plenitude or “eventful” Badiouian excess that dogmatic narratives need—but can never handle.

The tension between an effable conservatism and some traumatic, ongoing excess distinguishes the supercouples of many TV series. Just as the scheming between Andropov and Brezhnev is explained through the anonymous, tragic couple of Andrei Sokolov and Elena Poliakova in Red Square (Krasnaia ploshchad'; dir. Rauf Kubaev, 2004) for the Rossiia channel, so the simultaneous RenTV spy adventure KGB in a Tuxedo (KGB v smokinge; dir. Oleg Fomin, 2005) employs a beautiful female spy (Valentina Mal'tseva) in 1977 to embody the Byzantine workings of the KGB, CIA, and Mossad. The political justification for Mal'tseva’s espionage work comes from her superior, a man she once spurned in school (Mishin). An earlier, superior form of social interaction is under threat from current cruelty; in fact at one point the KGB’s very modus operandi is termed mere “provocation” by Mal'tseva, when compared to the better, prior patriotism of those who fought in WWII. Here the conservatism of Brezhnev’s years, threatened by Andropov, invokes a desire for even greater historical security—and Stalinist culture steps forth. This slow backwards movement is significant.

The healthier social harmonies Mal'tseva investigates are often associated with older music and song. When stuck in borderland forests between Chile and Argentina, she sings to herself to stop the loneliness; she chooses the opening song to the 1934 musical The Jolly Fellows (Veselye rebiata; dir. Grigorii Aleksandrov). Later—with faint irony—she also employs the patriotic Soviet number “Boldly into Battle We’ll Go / And Die as One...” When this fragile jollity is under potentially fatal pressure, Mal'tseva even admits she’d rather die in the arms of a pop singer than a spy. These long-gone lullabies structure the entire series of 2004’s On Unnamed Heights (Na bezymiannoi vysote; dir. Viacheslav Nikiforov, 2004), too, with the waltzing 1940s’ melodies of its own couple, a cocky conscript (Aleksei Chadov) and a detached female sniper (Viktoriia Tolstoganova).

The NTV detective series The Lawyer (Advokat; dir. Dmitrii Fiks, 2004) tells us “we get the power structures we deserve,” but they are not circumscribed from the Duma’s podia; they are closer to a Žižekian Romanticism, the purported past loss of something that was never owned in the first place. If viewers rely on state-funded melodrama for resting places or ontological security, they’ll get even more security from looking (or yearning) further still into the past. Hence, the received dualities of both today’s detective series and family melodramas. In fact melodramatic structures per se require story arcs of some major loss before the upswing of any triumphant denouement. Brezhnevian drama sought a soft conservatism, a managed multiplicity as “cozy” detective or Holmesian tales, and after police series like The District—which redoes (or outdoes) the long-lost 1970s Aniskin shows—any juste milieu is soon outrun by the desire for even greater conservatism; for even older, clearer oppositions which have perhaps led to the unnerving success of political parties like "Rodina". Purportedly created by the Kremlin in 2003 to suck support from the Communists, it is now busy heckling Putin for his feeble defense of the down-trodden heroines of Soviet history, the TV-hugging pensioners who have stood to lose so much from the recent social benefits reform.

"Rodina" has been called a party of “Orthodox chekists.” [4] This antique conflation is increasingly visible on screen, too, as in 2004’s Penal Battalion (Shtrafbat; dir. Nikolai Dostal'). Outraged by the destruction of his church, a priest joins the ranks of a WWII penal battalion. He, not an officer, teaches the soldiers some of their most patriotic lessons, that—“as hagiography tells us”—even the worst criminal can become a saint. He declares that God sent him to fight in a war that has now become a “divine concern” and reads the soldiers the Sermon on the Mount, insisting that the Bible is not “propaganda against the Soviet people.” Music once again holds characters together under geopolitical duress, but in this case, rather than Stalinist ditties, the priest leads the battalion in even older, choral renditions of loss and nomadic yearning—the gypsy romance Gori, gori, moia zvezda. In the Rossiia series The Icon Hunters (Okhotniki za ikonami; dir Sergei Popov, 2004), the Orthodox rural harmonies of backwater Siberia shock a couple of modern con-men as so anachronistically successful that they joke about hunting for mammoths.

Straddling two epochs with an equally impressive span is Savior Under the Birch-Trees (Spas pod berezami; dir. Leonid Eidlin, 2003), also broadcast on Rossiia. In Moscow’s outskirts where birches once stood, a small church, once a Soviet prison, goes back to what it always did: helping people. Numerous references are made to the sentimental, social goals of Soviet culture, though the charm of Liubov' Orlova and her musicals of the 1930s are here enjoyed by a mentally retarded man, unfit for modern interaction. Simple ideals do not come easily to an adult world; even the final frames leave the narrator yearning “for some kind of [shared] happy ending” in a direct address to the audience. In one scene, an Oscar-blessed star of Brezhnev’s silver screen, Irina Murav'eva, tells the priest (Iurii Belaev) she’s upset that her chaotic life has become “like some kind of Mexican series”; she’s equally unnerved that prayers are said in church to help the happiness of Brazilian soap characters. The priest sends her off to a similar story of similar desire: he tells her to stop watching the Mexican stuff, to “go home and watch Chapaev.”

This yearning backwards for the traditional tools of melodrama, making sense of the present through ineffable, ahistorical oppositions of affective clarity, has, like Riazanov’s Key to the Bedroom (Kliuch ot spal'ni, 2003), brought that melodrama back to where it began; a pre-Revolutionary opposition in critiques of materialist excess and/or idealist maximalism. One of the most interesting developments of late has been ORT’s lavish, ten-series drama Death of an Empire (Gibel' imperii; dir. Vladimir Khotinenko, 2005) starring absolutely everybody: Sergei Makovetskii, Chulpan Khamatova, Aleksandr Baluev, Mariia Mironova, Andrei Krasko, Marat Basharov, Dmitrii Pevtsov, Vladislav Galkin, Fedor Bondarchuk, Konstantin Khabenskii, Iurii Goshchenko, Mariia Poroshina, and many others. Here, in the adventures of imperial investigators on the trail of political, dangerous subversion, we see some of the values endorsed by Putinesque, Soviet-inspired series; they are, however, now virtues that have application or origin before anything Soviet. They often come from art more than artful policy, too: Lermontov’s Demon is used here as a key text for deciphering secret messages; Dostoevskii’s Devils (Besy) and Blok’s The Puppet Show (Balaganchik) are deemed socially relevant.

The canon is nearing a story that never changes; both Pevtsov and Makovetskii—in positive roles—say on different occasions that their characters “do what they must,” although “what will be will be,” an aphorism frequently used in modern police series. “The Revolution,” says one of them, “has no dignity or principles or tradition”; even Chapaev is now sidelined with the Golgothic imagery of our apolitical hero held high on socialists’ bayonets. Towards the series’ end, Makovetskii—safe in exile—even suggests that after the Revolution, “there will be nothing.” The empty object of desire that has driven Putin’s narratives may be swallowing itself as it looks further into the past, designating socialism itself as the negative by which it has defined anything “positive.”

David MacFadyen (University of California, Los Angeles)


1] "Konets revoliutsii," Segodniashniaia gazeta (16 June 2005).

2] Orlova, S. “Leonid Il'ich ne byl seksual'no ozabochen!” Èkspress gazeta (15 April 2005).

3] Dondurei, D., Rodnianskii, A. and Radzikhovskii, L. “Voina za smysl,” Kinoart 9 (2004).

4] Stroyev, V. “The Tortuous Tale of the Genesis of Rodina,” Moscow Times (17 December 2003).


David MacFadyen© 2006

Updated: 30 Mar 06