In the Gloom: The Political Lives of Undead Bodies in Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch

By Stephen M. Norris (Miami U, Ohio)


The Political Lives of Undead Bodies in Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch ( Nochnoi dozor ), 2004 [1]

On 25 May 2005, a massive blackout plunged large sections of Moscow into darkness. A short circuit caused an explosion at the Chagino power plant, which, in turn, led to thousands of residents losing electricity, shut down the metro system and the internet, and caused numerous traffic accidents (“Moscow”). Early reports about the Moscow blackout suggested that it was the work of Shamil Basaev, the Chechen rebel responsible for Beslan and other horrific tragedies. Several media outlets quoted Basaev stating that he had “struck a blow at the heart of the Russian Empire.” President Vladimir Putin, however, had a different adversary in mind and eventually placed the blame on Anatoly Chubais, the head of Unified Energy Systems (UES) and a long-time political opponent. By late evening on 26 May, Chubais had faced questions from Moscow prosecutors. Eventually Putin led an inquest into UES's monopoly and Chubais publicly apologized for his role in the blackout while affirming his support for Putin's policies.

Before Chubais answered the questions of prosecutors, however, Muscovites had formed answers of their own about the cause of the blackout. In addition to those who believed it to be the work of Chechens, some subscribed to the view that the Kremlin had orchestrated the entire explosion for a number of sinister reasons. At the same time, though, as soon as news of the blackout traveled, anecdotes started circulating that connected the events to the 2004 Russian blockbuster film Night Watch , which featured a scene of a Moscow blackout eerily similar to the actual one (“Novye anekdoty”). On 27 May, jokes posed the following exchange:

Putin calls Chubais:
"What happened?"
"Well, the Night Watch blew through the map of daytime Moscow!"

This article begins with this joke and expands on how Night Watch became a reference point in Russian popular culture, everyday discourse, and even politics. The connections between Chubais, Putin, and a vampire movie do not seem obvious at first, but events such as those of May 2005 point to the ways in which history, politics, and popular culture frequently collide. As Katherine Verdery has argued, politics is “a form of concerted activity among social actors, often involving stakes in particular goals.” Political actors, meanwhile, “pursue their activities in arenas both large and small, public and private,” while ultimately politics is a “realm of continual struggles over meaning or signification” (23-24). Verdery, of course, explored these definitions by studying the “political lives of dead bodies,” those of former communist leaders or important national figures whose remains were transferred to their homelands after 1989. The anecdote about Night Watch suggests that we should extend our understanding to the political lives of undead bodies, too.

This blockbuster film, as the joke illustrates, served as a reference point to interpret political events, post-socialist identities, and even post-communist philosophical questions. Monsters, therefore, have political meanings in present-day Russia and the vampires of Night Watch served as more than merely entertaining characters; they also functioned as a mode of cultural discourse. The film features a nether-region called the “gloom” (sumrak), a dimension of reality available only to those with special powers—the “others.” In the gloom, the forces of good and evil can escape from humans and operate in a hyperreality, a place where “the threads of reality that lead into the future all come together (Lukyanenko 316).” The gloom, as Mikhail Zolotonov has written, is a place where others “can conveniently influence the usual consciousness and memory.” It is in the gloom that we should search for the hyperreal intersections between cinematic vampires and politics in post-Soviet Russia and for a site where we can study the afterlife of a film such as Night Watch, an afterlife that involves debates about politics, globalization, patriotism, and racism.

The Vampire Movie: Special Effects, Russian Souls, and Two Kazakhs

In many regards, a lengthy exposition of Night Watch's plot is irrelevant—whether you have seen it or not, the film is widely known as “the vampire movie,” “the first Russian blockbuster,” or a “Hollywood-like, special effects laden film with vampires.” The very fact that the film appeared with a media blitz and with discussions about how it defined a “new Russian cinema” that combined high-tech special effects with a "Russian soul" ensured that it had an afterlife far beyond its plot. “The Russian vampire film” became a means to renew debates over cultural adaptations, the influence of the West, and monstrous thoughts that may reside within.

Night Watch is based on the best-selling novels of the late 1990s by Sergei Luk'ianenko, a Ukrainian born in Kazakhstan. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (an Uzbek also from Kazakhstan), the film follows the plot of the first novel in a trilogy. It opens with a battle between good and evil fought in Languedoc in 1342 (during the Hundred Years' War): as Gesser, the Lord of the Light, watches the slaughter, he appeals to Zavulon, the Lord of the Dark, for a truce. The two agree to establish boundaries in the age-old conflict—a Night Watch made up of the forces of the Light would ensure that the forces of Dark obeyed the truce, while a Day Watch would do the same for the forces of Light. The truce also acknowledged that “others” (vampires, witches, and other monsters) always live among us and that these others have the power to choose a side in the struggle between light and dark.

After the opening scene, the film jumps first to 19 August 1992, one year exactly after the failed coup against Gorbachev that signaled the end of the USSR. Anton Gordetskii, desperate to win back his fiancée after she leaves him for a New Russian, seeks the help of a Muscovite witch. When the members of the Night Watch appear to put an end to the use of black magic, Anton discovers that he too is an “other.” After this discovery, Night Watch leaps to the “present” (either 2004, when the film appeared, or 1998, when the novel hit stores) and follows Anton and his fellow Night Watchmen in their attempts to find the “Great One,” a boy with powers whose eventual choice between good and evil will signal the final triumph of one side. They are guided in their quest by Gesser, who runs the Night Watch operation from the safety of the Moscow City Power Company, while Zavulon marshals his forces to oppose them. The culminating sequence of the film on top of a Moscow apartment rooftop, as David MacFadyen has argued, mixes a light-saber fight from Star Wars , the special effects from The Matrix , Rembrandt's painting Abraham and Isaac , and notions of “evil as good and good as evil” borrowed from Dostoevskii and Bulgakov.

A combination of slick special effects, a plot that used monsters to tap into philosophical questions, and a sophisticated marketing campaign made sure that Night Watch became a sensation. It shattered box-office records and, more importantly, bested the receipts from Western blockbusters such as Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (dir. Peter Jackson, 2003) and Spider-Man 2 (dir. Sami Raimi, 2004). In this “battle,” the monsters created by two Kazakhs bested Hollywood through a film that “spoke to the Russian soul.” Its success generated a host of debates just as its clever use of stars and cultural icons made it both a cult film and a commercial one—the film features popular contemporary actors and Soviet-era stars in major and minor roles (Konstantin Khabenskii plays Anton and Aleksei Chadov plays Anton's young vampire neighbor Kostia, while Vladimir Men'shov plays Gesser and Valerii Zolotukhin plays Kostia's father), as well as pop stars such as Zhanna Friske and Gosha Kutsenko (a member of the girl group Blestiashchie and an MTV presenter turned actor, respectively). In his review of the film, MacFadyen accurately characterized it as “big cinema” that “makes the odd (or unreal) patently real.” Or, to use the words of Nikita Mikhalkov at the premiere of the film at the Moscow International Film Festival: “this is our answer to Tarantino.”

“Our Vampires are Better than Yours”: The Monsters of Global Nationhood

This “big cinema” appeared at a time when the Russian film industry had begun to revive and the film soon established itself as an important signifier in discussions of Russia's “triumph” over Hollywood. Boiled down to its essence, the argument in Russia went something like “our vampires are better than yours.” For many moviegoers (and some critics), Night Watch used the commercial and technical aspects of Hollywood to offer a more satisfying, more “Russian” film, therefore beating Hollywood at its own game—the fact that the film cost only $4 million to make was often cited as “proof” of this “victory.” In effect, this aspect of the Night Watch phenomenon is part of a larger debate over what is “Russian” amidst "American" products.

The culture of the post-Soviet transition has generated numerous myths, fears, and political symbols. A very important one was that of Hollywood, the slick cultural other (or perhaps monstrous other) that threatened Russian national values. In this view “Hollywood” served as a signifier for the cultural invasion of the West throughout the 1990s, when Coca-Cola, Snickers, Gillette, et al saturated Russian shops and kiosks and blazoned their names across the newly created billboards in Russia's major cities. One very significant aspect of globalization in post-socialist Russia was the influx of Hollywood films and American television programs. For many viewers, serials such as Santa Barbara offered up not only a post-communist vision of the imagined West, but also had a more sinister context; for many politicians and critics, soaps such as this one endangered Russian values and corrupted Russia's youth. Similarly, the near collapse of the Russian film industry and the saturation of cinemas with American films threatened to overtake Russian culture (see Beumers).

The Hollywood invasion served as an important political reference point throughout the El'tsin era. Nikita Mikhalkov's inaugural speech as President of the Russian Union of Filmmakers characterized the Russian film industry in a competition against Hollywood and he exhorted his fellow directors to create Russian heroes to compete against Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone (51). When Vladimir Putin became President of Russia, he approved of the “Culture of Russia, 2001-2005” program, a plan to provide twenty billion rubles to fund cultural products that helped to articulate Russian values. Even mythic aspects of the past seemed to be threatened by Hollywood: Karen Shakhnazarov, the head of Mosfilm, openly despaired that young Russians increasingly remembered the Second World War as “Hollywood's War” because of the success of films such as Steven Spielberg's 1998 Saving Private Ryan (see Norris).

Night Watch premiered in the wake of these debates and soon became a metaphor for a revived, strong, nationalist film industry. The film took on a significance that far exceeded its plot about “others,” vampires, and creatures who lived in present-day Moscow and waged an age-old conflict between good and evil. Bekmambetov himself provided one of the contexts for understanding the film when he stated upon its release that “cinema can be a catalyst of political processes” (qtd. “Dozor natsii”). The vampires in the film, therefore, served as a “cultural body,” inhabiting the “time of upheaval that created it and the moment into which it was received,” as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has written. The use of monsters, and particularly vampires—first by Luk'ianenko and then Bekmambetov—makes sense given the economic and political context of Russia in the 1990s. Monsters such as those in Night Watch are “always an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place,” while the monsters themselves embody the fears, desires, anxieties, and fantasies of that time and place (Cohen 4). The film uses “others” to ask questions about good versus evil and to posit that perhaps those representing the “good guys” (in the film, the Light) may be more evil than those on the Dark Side. In the chaotic, tumultuous world of Post-Soviet Russia, where bad buys could be cops and good guys criminals, the vampires of Night Watch served as ideal cultural bodies.

Monsters perform significant cultural and political roles “at times of crisis as a kind of third term that problematizes the clash of extremes,” and tend to exist within “contested cultural spaces” (Cohen 6-7). Part of the manifold crises that gripped Russia after the end of the Soviet era, the fear that Russian culture would be overrun by Western culture and, in turn, that the Russian film industry would be overwhelmed by "Hollywood," created (or recreated) the use of vampires in Night Watch . They also became a test case in what Tyler Cowen (echoing Joseph Schumpeter) has perceptively termed “creative destruction”—in this instance, the influx of Hollywood films forced Russian filmmakers to adapt, to think about the market, and to develop cinematic techniques that borrowed from American styles but simultaneously appealed to Russian audiences (Cowen, especially 73-101). Trade, as Cowen argues, is an emotional issue because of the questions it raises about cultural senses of self. While many theorists and cultural commentators have decried the destructive aspects of global markets, Cowen examines the process by which creative products stimulate changes.

Because of the export success of Hollywood, cinema has become one of the most politicized cultural forms on the planet—numerous states have adopted policies restricting the number of American films imported in a given year and generously subsidize national cinemas to combat Hollywood's perceived influence. In fact, “Hollywood” exists as a metaphor for globalization itself and as shorthand for its baleful effects Hollywood films are often exhibit A in the case against American cultural imperialism and world trade. Part of the fear of Hollywood is the fact that the formula for its films tend to make them easily translatable for worldwide audiences: they focus on entertainment, are highly visible, and have plots that aim at broad global appeal. Combined with the overwhelming economic advantages enjoyed by American filmmakers, the resulting products have led to charges of cultural imperialism. Horror films, which fit the Hollywood formula perfectly, can be seen as the ultimate proof of this theory. Moreover, as Josephine Woll has demonstrated, horror films simply did not exist in the Soviet Union—vampires and werewolves and the genre they belong to “contradict almost every major tenet of Marxist historical materialism, of Soviet doctrine, and of Socialist Realist dogma.” To make a blockbuster film that used vampires may be a political catalyst as Bekmambetov claimed, but it also appeared to be very Hollywood-like and un-Russian.

Given these prevailing beliefs, it should come as no surprise that Konstantin Ernst, the producer of Night Watch, attempted to separate “our monsters” from “theirs.” He proclaimed at the premiere that “this is our cinema, and whoever isn't with us is against us” (“Zhazhda”). From the outset, Night Watch was cast in a very broad role, performing as nothing less than a national epic designed to take on the evils of Hollywood. Its plot about good and evil, and the means employed by each, had much deeper societal meanings connected to post-Soviet values and anxieties. Ernst's comments established a context for all audiences to view the film and its monsters—it was “ours” (that is, Russian) and not “theirs” (Hollywood's), or at least it was “ours among them.”

Russian audiences filled in the specifics to this context, but most viewers debated the film as either “ours” or "theirs" (thus replicating Ernst's characterizations). On one of the largest internet chatrooms devoted to debating the film, audience members disagreed about whether or not the commercialized, technologically savvy film could be classified as “Russian.” For some, the film represented a “cheap version of Lord of the Rings ” that “borrowed too much from American sentiments and Russian attempts to restructure cinema.” Others took issue with Ernst and the marketing of the film, which declared that it was “Russia's first blockbuster” and had beaten American special effects at its own game. “Stan” posted a response online on 1 July 2004 that stated: “First Blockbuster? Special Effects at the level of American films? WHERE? In this pitiful and incomprehensible spectacle by the name of Night Watch? Ha!” “Dakota” similarly took issue with the proclamations about the film, for as she watched it she could only “see the smiling, great, and terrible Ernst (even thinking about him makes me disgusted).” [2]

Yet the overwhelming popular response to the film was to accept Ernst's vision. One viewer posted a reaction to the negative views above: “I do not love fantasy, but this film is cool.” For him, the use of Moscow and its symbolic meanings makes the film “appear much better than any similar Hollywood one (especially because I live not far from the Sviblovo metro [a setting used in the film]).” “Gunzel” expressed a related view, stating that “in spite of the size and special effects it is clear that this is a RUSSIAN film. Gorsvetovtsy [city light company (gorodskoi svet) workers] smoking in the halls, flea markets in the metros, even the simple act of scratching an eyebrow with an absurd grimace create such an atmosphere!” Audience members debated the “national meanings” of the film and the vampires on-screen became symbols used to discuss the state of Russian culture, the mixing of “American-style” methods with "Russian philosophies" and the grandiose claims made by the moviemakers and its marketing campaign. Interestingly, the online response to Night Watch debated the film as either a sign of “victory” against "Hollywood" or a sign of “defeat” by caving into the moral decay offered by Western films. One viewer even mused that “vampire films about good and evil” are not “Russian,” and if one wanted a national epic set in Moscow that discussed these issues, one should read Master and Margarita . Among audiences, Night Watch emerged as a hybrid of culture and a monster of sorts in its own right. For some, it represented a breakthrough, while others saw the hybrid as the creation of a monstrous Russian Hollywood. [3]

Even critics of the film and its “national epic” aspirations offered their views within the framework established by Ernst. Georgii Darakhvelidze's review of the 2004 Moscow International Film Festival, where Night Watch debuted, titled his piece “Our Own among Others, Others among Our Own” [Svoi sredi chuzhikh, chuzhie sredi svoikh], employing a variation on Mikhalkov's Soviet-era film title as a means of updating its issues for contemporary readers. Darakhvelidze ridiculed Ernst's declarations but then engaged with them, particularly the producer's claim that the film was not about “the history of vampires and werewolves, but a metaphor for contemporary life.” Although he dismissed these views as “arrogant claims for pure light entertainment,” Darakhvelidze admitted that Night Watch represented a milestone in Russian cinematic history because of its commercial appeal and use of technology.

So much had the discussions about Night Watch become tinged with nationalistic (and, therefore, political) overtones, one journalist opined that one might believe “that the country is actually governed now by some vampires (Novoprudskii).” Nakanune , a Russian journal, asked similar questions in an online article and response page entitled “Night Watch: Cinema for Patriots?” The author of the discussion criticized the commercialization of the film and warned Russian cinema not to prostitute itself solely for profits, but also concluded that the film could give rise to patriotic feelings and declarations of “we too can make such films!” Online responses to the question posed by the journal ran the gamut—some declared that the film was “exactly like the USA,” “designed only for collective farm workers and teenage worshippers,” while others praised this “Russian film with staggering effects and a gripping subject” (“‘Nochnoi dozor': kino”).

The final word in this Hollywood debate (or at least one more chance to debate this topic) came when the Russian Oscar Committee selected Night Watch for the American Academy's consideration, a decision made not long after news that Sony Pictures had purchased rights for the entire trilogy. Konstantin Ernst, though claiming that “there is nothing more foolish than to calculate the predilections of the Americans,” naturally believed that the choice was a good one. For him, “it is the most noticeable Russian picture of the past year—4.5 million spectators saw it and another million bought it on DVD. This film, bought by an American studio, has the possibility to draw American attention and to become known to their Academy.” In other words, Night Watch should win because it was the most Hollywood-like of all the foreign films—“our” vampires were like “theirs” (Ernst even declared “ they know this film”). Ernst, however, went on to claim that the film was not just a Hollywood epic filmed in Russia because it did not conform either to Hollywood stereotypes or stereotypes about Russian films held in the West. His monstrous response to why it should win ran as follows: “there is an old joke: in order to win the Oscar, the main hero should be half Jew, half Negro, and suffer from AIDS. These are their problems, and we always want to offer them some sort of Russian specific character—the eternal ‘accordion playing' [apparently a reference to Russian films that used Western perceptions of Russia to define “Russianness” in their films].” Instead of playing to Hollywood demands, as Ernst believed previous nominees had, Night Watch beat Hollywood at its own game. At the same time, he reminded readers that “this is a very Russian film. If it was not dear to our audiences, then several million of them would not have seen it” (Nechaeva).

“Such Films do Nothing Good for the Spiritual Health of the Nation”: Night Watch as Cultural and Political Phenomenon

Ernst's remarks over the Oscar serve as the perfect means to explore the other side of the “our own among others” coin—“theirs as ours,” or “the monsters within us.” If the film served as an important political signifier against globalization in general and Hollywood (with all of its contexts) in particular, Night Watch also generated wide-ranging discussions, provided catch phrases, and even prompted political debates about such topics as good and evil in modern society and contemporary Russian racism. As a cultural phenomenon, therefore, Night Watch and its vampires fleshed out politics in the ways Verdery describes.

One of the first reviews of Night Watch even generated discussions about anti-Semitism and racism in Russian political culture. The film critic Mikhail Zolotonov posited that Night Watch bears a strong resemblance to the anti-Semitic tracts The Talmud and the Jews (by I.K. Liutostanskii) and Satan's Synagogues (a 1909 screed by Stanislav Pshibyshevskii). These works respectively describe the ways in which a young antichrist will appear to “teach everyone to be good and human before all of humanity” and how children are supposedly used as sacrificial lambs in synagogues. With minor changes, these visions, Zolotonov argues, “are practically Night Watch 's program” and the film inadvertently reinforced anti-Semitic narratives in Russian culture.

Russian nationalists echoed (and eerily subscribed) to Zolotonov's views. Articles in the nationalist press and internet sites debated the “racial sense” of Night Watch and whether or not the film truly was “cinema for patriots.” Den' , the ultra-nationalist daily, published an examination of “the racial sense of Night Watch ”under the title “The Nation's Watch” (“Dozor natsii”). Ultimately, the article concluded that the separation of "light" and "dark" into biologically determined categories may in fact be the way to interpret Bekmambetov's claim that “cinema can be a catalyst for political processes.”

If the film became a politically charged means to discuss contemporary Russian anti-Semitism and racism, so too did it become for some critics a death blow for the Russian nation itself. The question of whether or not “patriots” could watch the film informed Vadim Nestorov's article, entitled “Vampires Will Ruin the Russians” (“Upyri pogubiat russkikh”). Nestorov jokingly notes that Kazakhs have embraced Bekmambetov and Luk'ianenko as “their two Stephens” (a reference to Speilberg and King), an acceptance that makes the claim of Night Watch 's Russianness laughable. He concludes that both the film and its debates about its alleged triumph of Russian cinema are “empty” and “poor” for the film ultimately is Hollywood-like and un-Russian. Because of the excessive tendency to discuss the nationalist implications of the film, the writer asserts, “Russian cinema [and by extension, Russia itself] loved itself to death.”

If the self-love did not lead to eventual disintegration of the Russian nation, in other pages the film's popularity prompted musings about the Russian soul. The highbrow journal Art of Cinema (Iskusstvo kino) ran an interview with Boris Polozhii, a Russian psychiatrist, to explain the phenomenal mass success of Night Watch . Polozhii agrees with the film's “apologists” who state that “finally we have a blockbuster that is not inferior to Hollywood.” However, “as a specialist in psychiatry,” he decisively states that “such films do nothing good for the spiritual health of the nation.” Polozhii particularly worries about the effects of the violence in Night Watch on children, “the basic audience of the film”: “Already an entire generation has appeared that will grow up not on tales and folklore [skazky i fol'klor], but on cyborgs [kiborgy]. Then we will be surprised why human life depreciates for this generation.” Polozhii believes that the very reason that audiences responded to the film, the idea that it is spiritually ”deep” because it does not offer an easy answer to the question of good and evil, is a particularly harmful message to send to young Russians. Moreover, he argues that fans of the film will apply its ideas of “light” and ”dark” to social groups: “‘dark' will be appointed to others [drugie]—Caucasians, Jews, and blacks.” In this psychological reading of how popular cinema creates and recreates mythologies, Night Watch as national epic is not a vampire movie but a potential catalyst for the monsters within all Russians. Polozhii suggests that Russians, who did not receive clear answers about good and evil under the “totalitarian ideology” of the 20 th century, will also not get clear answers in this century from mass cultural phenomena such as Night Watch .

Polozhii had diagnosed a new Russian disease, a “sickness of the soul,” that connected popular films to monstrous beliefs within Russian society. In 2006, spurred by the continued popularity of Night Watch and its successor Day Watch , Russian intellectuals and cultural critics attempted to define the symptoms of this disease. In a collection of essays entitled Watch as Symptom (Dozor kak symptom), a wide range of writers debated the meanings of the film and its political significance. Just as the film broke barriers, so too did this publication—as Vladimir Kozlov noted, “books of this kind are rarely seen in Russia, not least because ‘serious' writers tend to dismiss films like the Dozors , seeing them as purely commercial mass culture phenomena not worthy of any serious analysis.” However, the two editors of the volume claim that the films are an important part of “the intellectual life of Russia” and should be analyzed and understood by intellectuals (Kupriianov and Surkov 4).

As far as the “symptoms” of the new disease first described by Polozhii, the contributors to Watch as Symptom offered a number of explanations. Irina Antanasievich, a folklorist and culturologist, argued that the main symptom of the film was “hunger” (58). For her, the film's mix of styles, genres, and ideas “completely corresponds to the culturological vinaigrette of post-Soviet Russia.” Her prognosis of this cultural mixing is not good, for she argues that audiences will see the film not as a call to arms to delineate the meanings of good and evil, but only as a vampire movie. Ultimately, Antanasievich sees this reaction as further proof that political activism will not work in a contemporary Russia that loves culture such as Night Watch and concludes that idealists will “not be able to quench their hunger” (58). Konstantin Krylov, a young philosopher at Moscow State University, entitled his article “Investigating the Gloom.” After thoroughly exploring the meanings of this fantasy nether region and what he identifies as its seven layers necessary for evaluating it, Krylov concluded that “investigating the gloom completely pulls us to a political program,” for it is in the gloom that one can escape evil and “do everything in a human manner” (147). The undead bodies on screen, in Krylov's view, provide political messages to viewers who might need to go “into the gloom,” too. Extending Antanasievich's view, the anthropologist Elena Petrovskaia writes that Night Watch defines a number of cultural diseases and argues that “the vampire world is part of the 1990s emptiness—an era of a different experiment, this time a democratic one, and the complete loss of values” (268). This disease is one that originated in the first post-Soviet decade, when Luk'ianenko wrote his novel, and one that manifests itself through symptoms such as “emptiness, trauma, and loss.” Aleksandr Tarasov, a prominent sociologist, viewed the symptoms in a fashion similar to Polozhii's—for him, “there is no good and evil in the Dozors ,” but “a competition between two similar forces—the Light (our special forces) and Dark (those who fight against our special forces)” (333; emphasis in original). In other words, the meanings of Night Watch are a symptom of a larger disease, that of submission to governmental control—the ultimate message it sends to audience is “sit quietly and trust power [tikho sidi i ver' vlasti]” (335). In total, 25 intellectuals attempted to define the films and their meanings, and they found that the ”diseases” Night Watch causes are all politically-oriented ones, ranging from submissiveness to lingering political traumas inflicted by the Soviet era.

The immense popularity of the film did more than lead intellectuals to define cultural diseases; it also ensured that the phrase “night watch” would be taken up to interpret other current events. Ernst arrogantly declared that “if you miss Night Watch , you're already out of fashion; you can't hold up your end of a conversation with the in-crowd” (“Zhazhda”). The media and audiences alike took note. Rossiskaia gazeta reprinted the April 2005 editorial of Belarussian reporter, Aleksandr Batygin, on the need for nighttime work to help strengthen the union between Belarus and Russia under the headline “Night Watch.” In Estonia, when the government announced it might remove a popular statue called “the bronze soldier” honoring the dead of World War II, many took offense. A group of twelve organized itself to “ensure the proper protection” for the soldier against vandals and attempts to take down the symbol of “the feelings, merits, and memories of a large number of Estonians.” The group named itself ”the night watch” (“‘Nochnoi dozor': Vlasti”). Across the former Soviet empire, a June 2005 story from the Birobidzhan Star that discussed the rise in juvenile crime within the former Jewish autonomous republic attributed a doubling in crimes to the appeal of computer and game salons. According to officials, more and more children leave home at night in Birobidzhan to play games that contain violence and then turn violent themselves. The paper referred to this phenomenon as “the night watch” (“‘Kommercheskii dukh'”).

These examples, drawn from any number of similar reports, point to the same conclusion— Night Watch, as Ernst predicted, became a sign that you were “in.” From juvenile crime in Birobidzhan to statues in Estonia to intellectuals taking mass culture seriously, invoking monsters became a way to debate any number of political issues and to prove that you too could take part in a cultural discourse about the spiritual health of the nation.

Conclusion: Night Watch as History, or, the Political Lives of Undead Bodies

The above discussions—ranging from arguments over globalization to debates about the racial makeup of Russian society—are linked by one common thread: Bekmambetov's blockbuster film. The monsters of Night Watch not only symbolized the divide between “Russian” and “non-Russian” for all those who debated the film and its meanings, they also served as a catalyst for thinking about the anxieties of post-Soviet life. Night Watch and its reception are far more than a vampire movie and popular support for flashy films. The film has served as an important window into the major cultural and even political debates of the Putin era, ensuring that the undead bodies on-screen have lived an interesting afterlife off of it “in the gloom.” Boris Berezovskii once claimed that if you want to understand the 1990s, you only need to watch Brother (Brat; dir. Aleksei Balabanov, 1997). Perhaps it's time to assert that if you want to understand the new millennium in Russia, you should first watch Night Watch .

One year after the 2005 Moscow blackout, the TV station Rossiia ran a follow-up report about the events. The correspondent noted that “today the majority of Muscovites remember the blackout as an amusing incident that left the light on in the north and plunged the south into darkness.” After recounting the seriousness of the events of 25 May 2005, the report then commented upon the source of the humor that now formed the major part of the memory of the blackout:

Generally, and literally, on the very next day, anecdotes appeared about the blackout that compared it with the film Night Watch. [One such anecdote]: “And Moscow was divided into two. And light remained in the north while the south was plunged into darkness. And while in the north the people rode the metro, educated their children, and watched television, in the south they heated water on bonfires, walked great distances on foot, and hunted electricians. Thus arose the warriors of the light and the warriors of the dark. And this lasted for a thousand years.”

Night Watch and its monsters, therefore, not only became a reference for the battle against cultural imperialism and the revived sense of Russian nationhood under Vladimir Putin, it also served as a reference point for interpreting contemporary history. As the years pass, the Moscow blackout of 2005 might even become remembered, the Rossiia report notes, as a mass scene shot for Night Watch 2.

Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (Ohio)



1] I thank Doug Rogers and Serguei Oushakine for their helpful comments and suggestions on an early draft of this paper.

2] Here and below, the citations refer to responses on the forum.

3] I should add here that this discussion is part of a longer historic debate about Russian culture and its place at home and abroad. Within Russian cinematic history alone, “Russian” films have adapted French techniques, battled against 1920s Hollywood productions, assimilated musicals, slapstick comedies, and rock operas, and gangster movies. In short, the debate over hybrid cultures and cultural borrowings that Night Watch engendered is part of a longer discourse about the nature of Russian culture and Russian nationhood. For more on these subjects, see the two works by Youngblood, The Magic Mirror and Movies for the Masses, as well as the essays in Norris (ed)., Ours and Theirs .

Works Cited

Batygin, Aleksandr. “Nochnoi dozor.” Rossiiskaia gazeta (21 April 2005)

Beumers, Birgit. “Cinemarket, or the Russian Film Industry in ‘Mission Possible'.” Europe-Asia Studies 51.5 (1999): 871-896.

Campbell, Thomas H. “Five Theses About Day Watch .” KinoKultura 12 (April 2006).

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Stephen M. Norris© 2007

Updated: 16 Apr 07