Orphans of the Storm: Economic Destitution, Physical Lack, and Social Alienation in the Contemporary Russian Melodrama

By Dawn Seckler (U of Pittsburgh )

There is a scene toward the end of Ekaterina Grokhovskaia's The Man of No Return (Chelovek bezvozvratnyi, 2006) in which a father, holding a rifle, approaches his son, whose back is turned. Disappointed with his son's lack of discipline at the military academy and under the impression that he is involved in criminal activity, the father has lost all patience. The son turns around and faces his father, but the two are incapable of seeing eye-to-eye. In measured shot/countershot succession that feels remarkably slow owing to an eerie silence, the two men alternately fill the frame, but never occupy it at the same time. According to the logic of the narrative, they inhabit the same cramped room; however, the symbolic effect of Aleksei Andrianov's camerawork separates father and son in such a way as to not only augment their profound inability to understand one another, but also to create a sense of physical distance between them. The episode ends with the son leaving the home, presumably with no intention to return.

In as similar way—though resulting in various significations—many of the films featured in the 2007 Russian Film Symposium, “Melodrama and Kino-Ideology,” tragically divide children from their parents. Iurii Moroz's The Spot (Tochka, 2006) about three prostitutes employs flashbacks to depict the women's tortured childhoods in the Russian provinces. Whether owing to psychological abuse, economic destitution, or both, each of the girls abandons her family and moves to Moscow. Conversely, Vania Solntsev (Kolia Spiridonov) of Andrei Kravchuk's The Italian (Ital'ianets, 2005) is abandoned: orphaned as an infant, the now six-year old protagonist searches for his biological mother. In the films Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie; dir. Boris Khlebnikov, 2006) and Alive (Zhivoi; dir. Aleksandr Veledinskii, 2006) unemployment and war respectively take the young male protagonists away from their single mothers. Although the hero of Free Floating, Lenia (Aleksandr Iatsenko) lives at home with his mother, work responsibilities and rare evenings cavorting with friends often keep him out all night. [1] Furthermore, during the few scenes that feature Lenia at home, his mother never appears on-screen. Always located in another room—the kitchen, perhaps—her voice bespeaks her presence despite her near absence from the film's visual composition. Her physical non-existence coincides with Khlebnikov's depiction of post-Soviet society as a ghost town. The three heroes of Veledinskii's Alive also free float, but in a phantasmagoric indeterminate space in which living and dead Chechen war veterans meet. Deployment in the Caucasus and the resulting fatal casualties prevent the young men from ever returning home.

The screening of parent/child tension, antagonism, and separation in these films is not simply another instance of Russian culture's predilection to use generational conflict as a compositional and ideological framework to express contrasting worldviews à la Turgenev or Belyi. While it is tempting to read these films as resuscitating the family melodrama popular in both American and Soviet filmmaking of the 1950s, the comparison ultimately comes up lacking. For Thomas Schatz, who writes on the American family melodrama, the middle-class family's ability to reflect symbolically “America's patriarchal and bourgeois social order” makes it an ideal trope (152). During melodrama's heyday in the 1950s post-War period, the formerly stable family structure—a synecdoche for social order—begins to splinter, and thus becomes a locus of conflict and a barometer of changing social mores. Schatz finds a relationship between “the traditional image of marriage, the home, and the family” that underwent “more self-critical reflection” following the war and the emergence of the melodrama in the 1950s. Of the period in American cinema history he writes: “films no longer simply used familial conflicts and interrelationships to enhance some external complication (a crime, the war, some social event) but focused on the social institution of the family itself as the basis for conflict” (154).

Grokhovskaia's omnibus The Man of No Return, with its multiple narrative threads that radiate out from a single nuclear family comprised of father, mother, and three adult children—and that draws in a total of fifteen characters—does precisely what Schatz describes family melodrama as not doing. That is to say, her film uses familial conflicts and interrelationships to enhance an external complication: namely, the alienated status of the individual in contemporary Russian society. By pulling in characters completely unrelated to the central family—a tour guide and her paraplegic daughter, who suffers a lonely existence confined to her bedroom, for example—Grokhovskaia reinforces the pervasive aspect of this social condition. Moreover, the central family that functions as an organizing linchpin for the film's web-like narrative appears on screen together only once at the mother's funeral. Their separation one from another throughout the film, coupled with the mother's death, underscores a central problem: the nuclear family already does not exist.

Euphoria (Eiforiia, 2006), Vyrypaev's Brechtian foray into cinema, though quite different from Grokhovskaia's film in terms of visual style and narrative, similarly presents a nuclear family in the process of disintegration. [2] Like Man of No Return, the nuclear family of Euphoria appears together on screen only once. Toward the beginning of the film, mother, father, and baby daughter sit together at a table. The scene lasts less than one minute and is shot from an awkward perspective behind the table. Although the family is within the frame, the focus of the scene is on a lone man—Pakha (Maksim Ushakov)—who stands outside the house, and is glimpsed through the window directly opposite the camera. Visually and narratively, the family is secondary to the man outside, who holds the family's attention: the wife, Vera (Polina Agureeva), has fallen in love with the mysterious man; her husband, Valerii (Mikhail Okunev), stares outside curious to understand what the man is doing in their yard. Soon after this scene, the family's dog bites off the couple's daughter's finger. The physical fracturing of the child's body sets the fracturing of the family into motion: the daughter spends the remainder of the film off-screen at a distant hospital, Valerii descends into drunken psychosis, and Vera leaves her home, preferring to spend days and nights with Pakha.

In his article “Soviet Family Melodrama of the 1940s and 1950s” Alexander Prokhorov identifies the family melodrama as “the main genre to reenact the crisis and reconstitute the nuclear family” during the Great Patriotic War—as the Soviets call World War Two—and following, during Khrushchev's Thaw (209). According to Prokhorov, during Stalinism “the preservation of the nuclear family signifies the survival of the [S]oviet big family” (212). [3] The blurring between the nuclear and the national family provides for a metaphorical equivalence that allows the war to be represented as a “personal drama of separation, of extreme violence and emotions, and, most important, the moral polarization of characters, objects, and events into ‘us' and ‘the enemies'” (209). Using Mikhail Kalatozov's The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957) as a seminal example of Thaw-era melodrama, Prokhorov argues that the dominant us/them binary of war-era Stalinist culture becomes ambiguous as the pernicious war begins to victimize the former sanctity of the family. He writes:

Thaw-era culture made family melodrama its key cinematic genre. It was an ideal visual narrative form for redefining the major tropes of Stalinist culture and for articulating the new values: antimonumentalism, the cult of the small family, and the individual, whose personal experience is as valid as the communal experience. […] Soviet family melodrama of the 1950s turned the Stalinist war trope inward by representing the sadistic treatment by the domestic ‘us' of the weakest and most vulnerable among the ‘us.' In turn, the family trope ceased functioning as the locus of social and ideological security and became the site of loss and victimization. (227-28)

The trope of the family remains important to the discussion of melodrama today, but nuclear families as such are no longer a primary semantic feature of the genre. That is to say, such films as Euphoria, The Italian, Man of No Return, Alive, Free Floating, and The Spot use literal and symbolic familial imagery (often replacing the nuclear with a surrogate family) in order to project social crisis on the screen. However, the contemporary Russian melodrama rarely presents a nuclear family unit. Continuing to function as a synecdoche of society, the family can only be represented in a state of disintegration, because the main issue at the pathos-soaked heart of these films is the destitution and general void left in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. In short, if the trope of the family once symbolically represented Soviet society in miniature, then the current inability to represent the family coincides with melodrama's criticism of post-Soviet society and the pervasive sense of lack associated with it.

The determining presence of the absent family is just one way these films represent lack. Visually, bare expansive landscapes suggest emptiness and scarcity. Euphoria, Free Floating, and The Italian portray the provincial Russian landscape as oppressive, profoundly isolated, economically impoverished, and generally uninhabitable. The barren, god-forsaken, and far-flung locales where these films take place use this rural space as an aspect of the characters' victimization.

Euphoria lyrically screens movement across Russia's great expanse in the film's opening scenes. First, Vyrypaev presents a group of boys sending a mentally retarded man out on a motorcycle ride across a vast field. In a non sequitur second scene, Pakha and another man argue and pace back and forth across a wide grassy meadow. In a subsequent scene, Pakha drives through the seemingly boundless space of the Russian steppe. The panoramic sweep of the land, endless sky, and infinitely long roads captured in these opening scenes establish the mise-en-scène for the film's entirety. The sense of open, endless space that Vyrypaev creates dominates the film's visual regime. In her review of Euphoria, Fiona Björling describes the film's setting in the following way:

The human drama is interspersed rhythmically by long takes of the natural surroundings: particularly effective are the long sweeping shots of the green grassy steppe, with natural chalk paths and roads criss-crossing in all directions; the camera may sweep up to the sky, follow a chalk road as though by car, and then rise to take off like a low flying plane to sweep further afield and finally embrace the enormous waterways that frame the steppe.

Björling's poetic rendering fairly describes cameraman Andrei Naidenov's method of aggrandizing the rural locale via grandiose camera movement. It is necessary to add, however, that the natural surroundings do not simply punctuate the film's narrative about a woman finding true love outside of marriage, but participates in creating the amorous couple's victimization. The enormous sense of space dwarfs the film's characters. Often shot from above or from a great distance, the characters become minimized nomads in this wind-swept setting.

Furthermore, Vyrypaev creates a disjunctive relationship between movement and spatial progression so as to suggest confinement and lack of mobility. Vera and Valerii live in an isolated corner of the Russian steppe and are completely alienated from society. They have no means of communication, no telephone; they have no means of transportation, no car; when tragedy strikes, they have no access to social welfare, doctors and firemen exist two to three hours away. Even when transportation exists—the search for it is a reoccurring theme throughout the film—Russia's boundless expanse prohibits actual progression. For example, Pakha drives his car further and further, but the scenery never changes. At one moment his car quickly passes a woman sitting on the side of the road, and because the camera moves concomitant with the car, she flashes by. Proceeding straight past her, it would seem that she should now be behind the car, but in the next moment the car, still traveling forward, pulls up right next to her. There is no sense of circular movement; the car always advances along a straight road that runs horizontally through the frame. Within Vyrypaev's representation of endless space, movement cannot propel one forward: the excess of space confines the film's characters by continually bringing them back to one and the same spot.

Unlike the bourgeois apartments of 1950s melodrama where bric-a-brac clutter creates a sense of claustrophobia, these films use the excess of emptiness—expressed visually in vast open spaces—to depict the characters' alienated existence, the failure of the Motherland to support its kin, and the economic ruin that plagues the majority of the Russian landmass. [4] The Italian, for example, opens as a lone SUV drives through an empty snow-covered field on muddy, pot-hole-filled streets. Inside sit an Italian couple (on their way to an orphanage), an adoption broker, and her assistant-driver. When the truck runs out of gas in this wintry Siberian landscape, the Italian couple steps outside and comments, “this is the real Russia.” This moment, which sets the plot in motion and marks the film's first dialogue, can be thought of as an establishing shot of Russia. Instead of bountiful fields of wheat, Kravchuk selects an image completely devoid of life. The gray tones reflected in the muddy provincial surroundings are then repeated in subsequent shots of peeling paint on ramshackle buildings, the orphan children's ragged clothing, and the shadows that obscure our view. The inhospitable, barren land that penetrates into the quotidian existence of rural Russia finds a parallel in the film's condemnation of Russian women.

Mythologies deriving from Russia's agricultural and peasant past create a link between the earth's generative capabilities and maternity. Joanna Hubbs's book, Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture, explains: “in the peasant tradition […] all things are borne by the earth and derive from her fertility. The soil is the great baba (woman), the great Matrioshka who enfolds the historical Mother Russia” (xiii-xiv). The linking of the earth with generative powers and fecundity find idiomatic expression in such epithets as Mother Earth (Matushka Zemlia), Mother Russia (Matushka Rus' ), and motherland (rodina-mat' ). Thus, if the bountiful earth is likened to maternity, Kravchuk uses a desolate landscape as a visual metaphor for Russian women's rejection of their fecundity and of their alleged maternal instincts that result in the large number of abandoned, orphaned children—the tragic, innocent victims portrayed in the film. Ironically—or perhaps even hypocritically—while the film does not hesitate to place blame on these women, going so far as to suggest that they deserve a fate comparable to Anna Karenina, it does not similarly condemn Russia. For the eponymous hero, whom the Italian couple hopes to adopt, Mother Russia, not Italy, continues to hold the promise of a happier, more joyous life, as the Soviet slogan goes. Vania's unwillingness to give up on his birth mother (rodnaia mat' ) who abandoned him finds a parallel at the national level. Despite contemporary Russia's unresolved social problems—poverty, corruption, alcoholism, violence, which Kravchuk depicts as omnipresent forces—Vania refuses to chose a better future and emigrate from his motherland (rodina-mat' ).

But the film could not work any other way. Embedded into Kravchuk's condemnation of Russian women is a general criticism of moral corruption endemic in capitalist post-Soviet society. Vania's naïve innocence operates in opposition to the villainy of adoption, presented in the film as a nation's failure to protect its children and as the morally dubious mercenary venture of greedy adoption brokers. Christine Gledhill reminds her reader that the staging of melodramatic polarities of innocence and villainy aspire not to confront “how things are, but rather in asserting how they ought to be. But since [melodrama] operates within the frameworks of the present social order, [it] conceives ‘the promise of human life' [Grimstead 28, qtd. in Gledhill] not as a revolutionary future, but rather as a return to a ‘golden past'” (21). In the film's final scene, Vania Solntsev makes his way to Frunze St., named in honor of the Russian Civil War hero; dressed in a new red coat, there is the sense that he'll lead the next revolution—a revolution back in time to a nostalgically remembered Soviet past. Kravchuk's idealized six-year old protagonist thus turns his unfaltering belief in the goodness of his mother into a pathos-inspired unfaltering belief in the nation, represented here as Mother Russia.

The empty expanse of Mother Russia also acquires significance in Free Floating, Khlebnikov's film about a young male protagonist—Lenia—who, like Vania Solnstev, sets out on a fruitless search. Here the search is not for a mother, but for a different Soviet virtue—labor. Khlebnikov's visual depiction of life in provincial Russian begins with an approximately two-minute wide-angle shot of a lone man sitting outside a factory; he waits for the workers to arrive, not to join them at work, but in order to bum a cigarette before setting off alone on a fishing trip. After the workers have filed into the factory, moving diagonally up the frame, through two enormous iron gates, the man exits the scene alone, heading in the opposite direction. The combination of the initial distanced perspective, which dwarfs the unemployed man, making his features indistinct, and his solitary exit from the frame, underscores his inconsequential and alienated position. Furthermore, despite this being the film's opening episode, there is a sense of monotony created by the rhythmic sequence of events: the man knows to expect the bus of workers, the bus arrives, the workers file out of the bus, walk past and ignore the man, and both parties proceed as usual.

When, in a subsequent episode, the workers learn that American businessmen bought the factory and that they, therefore, are all unemployed, a connection is forged: now they too will become inconsequential and alienated from modes of production. Lenia had modeled himself after an older, male co-worker imitating everything from the man's metallurgic welding skills to his lunch selection, had belonged to the collective of workers, and had spent his free time with two buddies. With the closing of the factory, Lenia is, in effect, orphaned: unemployment ends his access to these communities. Forced into solitary existence, Lenia diligently looks for work and takes posts where he can find them in order to support himself and his mother.

Khlebnikov, like Vyrypaev, also recycles his protagonist back to one and the same spot in order to suggest lack of progress. However, whereas Vyrypaev's characters' inability to move through space suggests a kind of metaphysical alienated position, Khlebnikov's use of repetition has a more quotidian meaning. Lenia's recurrent visits to an unemployment office—four in total—punctuate the film's repetitive narrative and bring Lenia face to face with a severe woman, who has few job openings to offer. With each successive visit, the woman's frustration with Lenia builds until eventually she explodes. With both the look and tone of a Soviet schoolmarm, she yells: “Nobody has work and you hop from job to job like a flea”; and "people work thirty years for their pensions! Do you understand? But you, you get bored after just a month.” Two points need to be made. First, the film's melodramatic aspect derives, in part, from the cumulative effect of repetition. Thomas Elsaesser cites visual rhythm as one of the stylistic features of creating drama. He explains that “this type of cinema depends on the way ‘melos' is given to ‘drama' by means of lighting, montage, visual rhythm, décor, style of acting, music—that is, on the ways the mise-en scène translates character into action […] and action into gesture and dynamic space (363). Secondly, it is precisely the repetitive aspect that leads to this moment of a verbalized articulation of the moral universe within which the protagonist is trapped. On the one hand, he lives by the expectation to work, to labor, and to support his mother. On the other, as a victim of post-Soviet reality, he has no access to honest work. Lenia is hardly to blame for his inability to find work. Unlike his friends, who remain unemployed throughout the film and spend their days strolling the town's streets and drinking beers, Lenia dutifully searches for work, and when he finds it, he does not shy away from hard physical labor. He leaves his job, not out of laziness as the woman at the unemployment office suggests, but because he does not want to be complicit in his boss's morally questionable behavior. Khlebnikov visually depicts the unemployment office worker's limited perspective by trapping her in a confined space behind a small window that diminishes her view and that encroaches on the film's frame in such a way as to suggest tunnel vision. Rehearsing a work ethic that no longer applies, the unemployment office worker misjudges the innocent Lenia. The economically destitute post-Soviet provincial village, not Lenia, is to blame.

Visual repetition creates a sense of Lenia's powerlessness and alienated status within the post-Soviet provincial economy, the key aspects of his victimization. His lone existence becomes clear the day following the closing of the factory. Having agreed to meet with former co-workers at the unemployment office, Lenia alone shows up. Later, he finds a job, but when he realizes that he will be the only guy working with a group of middle-aged women, he ditches the bus taking them to their worksite, only to walk back past empty fields to his town, alone and again jobless. A third attempt to join a work force leads Lenia to a construction job, where he works with two freaks with whom he rarely speaks, thereby continuing his isolated status. Their physically debilitating work—smashing bricks into pebble-size pieces with an enormous pestle in order to fill potholes on long village roads—becomes a metaphor for the debilitating aspect of Russia's great expanse. Khlebnikov charts the monotony of their labor by punctuating the men's work with images of street signs, on which the increasing numbers refer to addresses, and thus suggest the slow progression up a single street as a way to highlight the extraordinarily slow spatial and temporal duration.

The rural, outlying area in the Iaroslavl' region where the film takes place continues to suffer growing pains as it struggles with the transition from its socialist Soviet past to its capitalist post-Soviet present. Vsevolod Brodskii optimistically describes the small town ethos when he writes: “Khlebnikov decided to dive completely into the provinces, to dwell in their slow-moving nature, devoid of a distinct sense of time or existence. Life here doesn't even try to get out of its pleasant slumber.” However, i t is not that life does not try to get out of its pleasant slumber, but that it cannot revive itself out of its nearly comatose state, expressed symbolically in the many images of the film's characters either sleeping or sitting motionlessly, insensately. Therefore, Brodskii's comment overstates a sense of Chekhovian rural bliss, when in fact the area is arrested in a state of such inactivity and immobility that bodies—like the factories—slow so as to seem lifeless.

Lifelessness as an expression of victimization and powerlessness is conveyed by yet another aspect of lack: silence. Peter Brooks, in his seminal text The Melodramatic Imagination, links specific sensory disabilities to different genres:

One is tempted to speculate that the different kinds of drama have their corresponding sense deprivations: for tragedy, blindness, since tragedy is about insight and illumination; for comedy, deafness, since comedy is concerned with problems in communication, misunderstandings and their consequences; and for melodrama, muteness, since melodrama is about expression. (56-7)

A remarkable economy of language diminishes verbal expression in both Euphoria and Free Floating and contributes to the characters' somnolent wanderings through space and time. Vera's most common retort throughout Euphoria —“I don't know”—suggests her complete inability to respond to her growing love in logical or rational terms. Her and Pakha's romance happens of its own accord; their inability to resist one another relates to their helplessness. In Free Floating Lenia, significantly, also has a tendency to deflect questions with the response “I don't know.” His resistance to use language corresponds first and foremost to his solitary existence, but also functions as a way to differentiate the blameless Lenia from his shady boss on the construction site, who speaks incessantly.

While lack of language, at least in Lacanian terms, signifies one's inability to access the symbolic order, silence in these films portends an even graver dilemma: the absence of a symbolic order. The disintegration of the family, orphaned existence of contemporary youth, economic destitution, and alienated positions distanced from any remnant of a functioning civilization do not simply suggest a lack of access to social structures beyond our reach, but, rather function as evidence of a general lack. Representations of victimization in contemporary Russian examples of the melodrama result less from a struggle with the moral occult constructed of binary structures that define Manichean notions of right and wrong—as Robert Lang claims is typical of the genre—and more from the absence of not only binary structures, but structures of any sort. How can one act according to a socially prescribed set of rules, when society as such barely exists? Rather than attempt to accede to the moral occult, because as Brooks insists, “it is the realm of meaning and value” (5), characters of the Russian melodrama eschew interdictions from a sacred past, capable only of silence and the constant reiteration of “I don't know,” because they are orphaned and alienated from any such realm.

Dawn Seckler
University of Pittsburgh


1] Incidentally, Aleksandr Iatsenko also stars in Aleksei Balabanov's It Doesn't Hurt ( Mne ne bol'no , 2006), which will also be screened at the 2007 Russian Film Symposium.

2] Euphoria marks Ivan Vyrypaev's entry into cinema. He is best known for his critically acclaimed work in the theater. He is the author of six celebrated plays, including July ( Iiul' ) and Oxygen ( Kislorod ), one book Thirteen Texts Written in Autumn ( 13 tekctov napissanykh osen'iu ), and several screenplays.

3] Prokorov is referencing Katerina Clark's notion of the big or great family [ bol'shaia sem'ia ] in Stalinist culture. Clark interprets Stalin as a metaphorical father of a great family, in which production, military, and sporting heroes of the 1930s become anointed as the patriarch's privileged sons. To read Clark's argument in full, see The Soviet Novel pgs 114-135.

4] For an explanation of the sublimation of dramatic conflict into décor in the American melodrama of the 1950s, see Thomas Elsaesser's seminal article “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama.”

Works Cited

Björling, Fiona. Rev. of Eiforiia , dir. Ivan Vyrypaev. KinoKultura 15 (Jan 2007).

Brodskii, Vsevolod. “Simvolicheskoe byl'kan'e.” Ekspert (20 November 2006).

Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

Clark, Katerina. The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual. 3 rd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000.

Elsaesser, Thomas. “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama.” In Film Genre Reader II. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: Texas UP, 1995. 350-380.

Gledhill, Christine. “The Melodramatic Field: An Investigation.” In Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film. Ed. Christine Gledhill. London: BFI Publishing, 1987. 5-43.

Hubbs, Joanna. Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture . Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

Lang, Robert. “Tragedy, Melodrama, and the ‘Moral Occult'.” American Film Melodrama: Griffith, Vidor, Minnelli . Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989. 14-21.

Prokhorov, Alexander. “Soviet Family Melodrama of the 1940s and 1950s: From Wait for Me to The Cranes are Flying.” In Imitations of Life: Two Centuries of Melodrama in Russia. Eds. Louise McReynolds and Joan Neuberger. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. 208-231.

Schatz, Thomas. “Family Melodrama.” In Imitations of Life. Ed. Marcia Landy. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1991. 148-167.

Dawn Seckler© 2007

Updated: 16 Jul 07