Stanislav Govorukhin: Not by Bread Alone (Ne khlebom edinym, 2005)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2006

 

In a recent interview, Stanislav Govorukhin described the excitement with which he read Vladimir Dudintsev’s 1956 literary sensation. Appearing in Novyi mir, the Bible of the Thaw, Not by Bread Alone became the most important literary text of de-Stalinization’s early stages. As a twenty-year old, Govorukhin waited impatiently for a library copy and devoured it. He has stated that he took it in “as a fresh wind, as the sweet word of freedom.” [1] For Govorukhin and other Soviet citizens who came of age during the Thaw, reading Not by Bread Alone became a defining moment in their lives, a cultural text that claimed a hallowed place alongside films such as Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957).

Now Govorukhin has updated Dudintsev’s novel for contemporary audiences. As a film, Not be Bread Alone can be read on multiple levels. It represents another installment in Govorukhin’s personal attempt to explore Russia’s past, following his 2003 film Bless the Woman (Blagoslovite zhenshchinu) as well as his three non-fiction films of the early 1990s. It can also be placed as a third part of a loose trilogy—alongside Sharpshooter of the Voroshilov Regiment (Voroshilovskii strelok, 1999) and Bless the Woman—about Russian women and their symbolic role as bearers of Russian-ness. In addition, the film follows Govorukhin’s reliance on genre cinema drawn from literary roots. Finally and more broadly, Not by Bread Alone represents one of the increasing numbers of Putin-era films that wrestle with the Soviet past. It can therefore be compared to Pavel Chukhrai’s A Driver for Vera (Voditel' dlia Very, 2004), Sergei Ursuliak’s Long Farewell (Dolgoe proshchanie, 2004), Aleksandr Veledinskii’s Russian (Russkoe, 2004), and Aleksei Uchitel'’s Dreaming of Space (Kosmos kak predchuvstvie, 2005), just to name the most recent examples of this exploration.

Not by Bread Alone follows the basic plot of Dudintsev’s novel about the postwar Stalin era, though Govorukhin gives the tale a new ending (more on this below). Its hero, Lopatkin (Mikhail Eliseev), attempts (first in the industrial city of Muzga and later in Moscow) to invent a new tube-casting machine that will benefit Soviet industry. As a former war hero who has not joined the Communist Party and who holds individualistic ideas, Lopatkin runs afoul of Soviet bureaucracies at every level. His particular enemy, Drozdov (Viktor Sukhorukov), personifies the entrenched structures of Soviet power and the Stalinist values that governed this nomenklatura. In the middle of both the personal and political struggle between these two men is Drozdov’s wife, Nadezhda (Svetlana Khodchenkova, the “blessed woman” of Govorukhin’s previous film). Nadia has married Drozdov as a means to escape poverty and to obtain the lifestyle that only a wife of a connected bureaucrat can enjoy. She is, however, drawn to the younger, more attractive, more Russian, idealistic Lopatkin. Eventually she chooses him—and, thus, the proper morals—over her husband. As a result of this decision, Drozdov and his mother (played by veteran actress Valentina Berezutskaia) throw Nadia out of their luxurious Moscow apartment and brand her a whore. Drozdov and his cronies successfully steal Lopatkin’s inventions and have him arrested for crimes against the state. This ominous Stalin-era charge is “proven” because Nadia worked with Lopatkin on his latest project without proper security clearance. Thus, the personal and the political collide and have devastating costs. True to Thaw-era culture, which Govorukhin painstakingly recreates and evokes in the film, the end offers some hope. Nadia saves Lopatkin’s notebook from the attempt to burn his ideas, enlists the help of a sympathetic Soviet minister (played by Putin’s favorite singer, Aleksandr Rozenbaum), and bears Lopatkin’s child (whom she names for her lover). By making good on an earlier promise not to abandon Lopatkin and the ideas he stands for, Nadia has preserved not only a sense of morality that contrasts with Stalinist ideals, she also has ensured that these qualities will survive in future generations.

Govorukhin’s film, therefore, evokes the emotions he depicted much more explicitly in his documentaries, such as The Russia That We Lost (Rossiia, kotoruiu my poteriali, 1992). Not by Bread Alone, shot in black-and-white, contains equally black and white characters. As Drozdov, Sukhorukov has created a vengeful, creepy Soviet bureaucrat who is more concerned with career advancement than building communism. Khodchenkova’s Nadia is even saintlier than her literary counterpart, becoming, as Irina Liubarskaia has suggestively offered, a Soviet-style version of Botticelli’s Venus [2] (a characterization Seth Graham noted in his review of Bless the Woman).[3] Similarly, Mikhail Eliseev’s Lopatkin is the quintessential Russian positive hero—hard-working, handsome, noble, and patriotic. Their ideals, which the Drozdovs of the USSR tried to eradicate, represent a “Russia we nearly lost.” The film’s revised ending reinforces this characterization. Dudinstev’s literary Lopatkin wrestles with his love for Jeanne, a chemistry student who remains an important secondary character throughout the novel. Similarly, Nadia’s religious sainthood is not part of the Soviet novel. Instead, she represents much more a Soviet saint, one who achieves consciousness through her interactions with the men in her life—first Drozdov, who castigates her for having nineteenth-century morals, and then Lopatkin, who teaches her about the glory of working toward “true” communism. These Thaw-specific details are cut in favor of a focus on the archetypes of good versus evil and the values each side possesses (hard work, personal responsibility, idealism, and patriotism versus laziness, connivance, cynicism, and careerism). Nadia’s persistence ensures that these positive values may not be lost after all.

Many of these themes are also present in Govorukhin’s previous two films, making Not by Bread Alone the third part of a trilogy of sorts. Sharpshooter of the Voroshilov Regiment has three young men lure a young woman, Katia, into an apartment and rape her. Katia’s grandfather, Ivan Feodorovich, attempts to gain justice but runs up against the sort of bureaucratic structures that Lopatkin faces, a sign that Soviet practices have adapted to the “new Russia.” Unable to pursue justice through corrupt legal channels, Ivan takes matters into his own hands: he buys a rifle with a scope and castrates one of his granddaughter’s molesters with his first shot; he blows up the brand-new car of the second (a BMW, just to drive home Govorukhin’s point about “Western” values); and the third loses his mind. Katia, therefore, stands for the “feminine ideal” that Seth Graham has also identified as central to Govorukhin’s next project, Bless the Woman. [4] In this film, Govorukhin follows the life of Vera and her experiences in the tumultuous years between 1935 and 1957. Vera falls in love with an older Red Army colonel and sticks with him throughout the remainder of his life. Vera, or “faith,” is a similar character to Nadezhda, or “hope,” the heroine of Not by Bread Alone. Like Vera, Nadia embodies the values of self-sacrifice and loyalty. Unlike Vera, whose faith in the colonel is rewarded by suffering, a pregnancy that he forces her to terminate, and tears, Nadia’s hope for Lopatkin is well placed.

Govorukhin’s changed ending again takes on added significance in this reading. Dudintsev had his hero return from the camps and triumph over Drozdov at a public celebration of his inventions. The novel closes with Lopatkin acknowledging his personal victory while recognizing that a long road lies ahead of him in order to defeat Stalinist morals completely (thus, the public aspects of reforming the Soviet system win out over the personal attacks leveled by Drozdov). By contrast, the film focuses on the personal—Nadia becomes pregnant with Lopatkin’s child just before she saves both his notebook from destruction and him from hard labor. Dudintsev has his literary heroine bear Drozdov’s child, a detail Govorukhin reworks in order to preserve Nadia as a saint-like figure. In fact, Govorukhin includes an argument between Nadia and Drozdov’s mother, in which Nadia alludes to the fact that Drozdov is infertile, thereby reinforcing his mental infertility with a physical one. The film’s end has Lopatkin, now working in “freedom” in a converted monastery, looking out a window as Nadia waves to him, revealing that she has had a child. In the cinematic version, this personal optimism triumphs over the state and its attempt to shackle Lopatkin’s creativity. Collectively, Govorukhin’s three films ultimately cast their heroines as symbolic embodiments of Mother Russia. Katia’s rape is thus the rape of post-communist Russia by Western values, while Vera’s actions are representative of Russia’s endurance. Nadia’s decisions reflect the belief that Russian women have preserved Russian values throughout its history. The son she bears Lopatkin signifies the survival of the family amidst the upheavals of Soviet history.

As a genre piece, Not by Bread Alone looks like a product of the Thaw era it evokes. Dudintsev’s messages, which created a sensation in the 1950s more for their historic significance than their literary merits, form the essence of Govorukhin’s film as well. Although the theme of fighting against entrenched power resonates with Sharpshooter’s message, here it appears almost quaint, as a relic of the Soviet past. Not by Bread Alone, as Russian critics have noted, has the feel of films made during the Thaw such as The Cranes are Flying and even Girl without an Address (Devushka bez adresa; dir. El'dar Riazanov, 1957). Govorukhin’s melodramatic style is as impeccable here as in his previous films, and his attention to detail is equally striking. When Nadia helps Lopatkin conduct research at the Lenin Library, for example, Govorukhin makes sure not to include shots of the statue to Dostoevskii located outside the present-day building but not there in the late Stalin era. The black-and-white look of the film and the black and white characterizations it presents are further reinforced by the careful placement of portraits and images on the walls. A Soviet minister (played by Govorukhin) has the requisite images of power in his office (Lenin’s portrait, Stalin’s bust); Lopatkin’s office has a portrait of Marx (symbolizing the ideals Lopatkin stands for); while Nadia’s redecoration of Lopatkin’s shared apartment with a like-minded, older, inventor (Aleksei Petrenko), contains the domestic images one would expect.

Govorukhin’s melodrama, much like Bless the Woman, therefore, continues to employ this genre as a means of offering Russian audiences “a world of feeling, sensation, and private moral dilemmas,” one that also explores the public and private to “negotiate boundaries in social life.”[5] Govorukhin attempts to transfer melodrama’s traditional role across time, using a plot set in the past as a means of demonstrating that the “world of feeling” experienced by Russians in the Soviet era still has some meaning today.

The importance of Govorukhin’s film ultimately rests in its evocation of the past, one of many recent films set in the postwar USSR. Like films such as A Driver for Vera and Dreaming of Space, Not by Bread Alone offers a multilayered, personal exploration of the past that mixes reflective nostalgia with politics. Govorukhin, as also do the directors of the above films, focuses on the intimate experiences of the past to reveal the contradictions and ambiguities faced by those who lived through the Stalin era. At the same time, much like the films mentioned above, Not by Bread Alone uses the past and the values of the past for present-day purposes. In an interview with Izvestiia, Govorukhin made this aim explicit when he claimed that he filmed his adaptation because Dudintsev’s novel contained “some concepts that have already been forgotten today that would not be bad to remember,” namely, “to work for the good of the motherland.” [6] This attempt to revive imagined values of the past has prompted critics such as Liubarskaia to write that Govorukhin has successfully revived “socialist realism with a human face.” [7] According to this line of thought, Govorukhin’s changed endings and sanctified heroes represent a post-Soviet version of socialist realism.

Nadia emerges as a latter-day Marion Dixon from Circus (Tsirk; dir. Grigorii Aleksandrov, 1936), the film she goes to see after she arrives in Moscow, while Lopatkin looks enough like Martynov—the hero of the film—to reinforce this reading. All the same, Lopatkin and Nadia do not parade for Stalin at the end. Instead, Govorukhin’s “socialist realism” (a charge he vehemently denies, seeing his film more as a work of “sots art”),[8] can more usefully be viewed as part of a larger cinematic project to analyze and (in part) resuscitate certain aspects of life under socialism. Dudintsev’s novel attempted to articulate socialist values that could be revived after Stalin; Govorukhin’s update attempts to do the same for Russian national ideals after communism.

Stephen M. Norris
Miami University of Ohio


Notes

1] Igor Potapov, “Stanislav Govorukhin: ‘Amerikanskoe kino liubliu do otvrashcheniia’,” Izvestiia (25 November 2005).

2] Irina Liubarskaia, “Korki ot apel'sinov,” Iskusstvo kino 11 (2005).

3] Seth Graham, Review of Bless the Woman. Kinokultura 4 (2004).

4] ibid.

5] Louise McReynolds and Joan Neuberger, Introduction to their edited volume, Imitations of Life: Two Centuries of Melodrama in Russia (Durham: Duke UP, 2002): 3.

6] Potapov.

7] Liubarskaia.

8] Potapov.


Not by Bread Alone, Russia, 2005
Black-and-white, 112 minutes
Director: Stanislav Govorukhin
Screenplay: Vladimir Valutskii, based on the novel Ne khlebom edinym [Not by Bread Alone] by Vladimir Dudintsev.
Cinematography: Iurii Klimenko
Art Direction: Valentin Gidulianov
Costumes: Marina Zdornova
Music: Johannes Brahms
Starring: Mikhail Evseev, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Viktor Sukhorukov, Aleksei Petrenko, Aleksandr Rozenbaum, Varvara Shuliat'eva, Valentina Berezutskaia, Evgenii Grishkovets, Vladimir Semago.
Production: Ekaterina Maskina, Mosfil'm

Stanislav Govorukhin: Not by Bread Alone (Ne khlebom edinym, 2005)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2006

Updated: 05 Jul 06