Murad Aliev: Officers: Last Soldiers of the Empire (Ofitsery: poslednie soldaty imperii , 2006)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2007

The title of Aliev's television series is familiar to the last generations of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Rogovoi's 1971 film Officers was one of the last Soviet pictures effectively to revamp socialist mythology. The film told the story of two friends (played by Vasilii Lanovoi and Georgii Iumatov), who meet during the Russian Civil war, become officers in the Soviet Army, and carry their love for the same woman through their lives, and throughout, retain an unflinching devotion to their country. This shamelessly anachronistic film reframed the Russian revolution as part of the Russian imperial project and made the rank of officer, introduced into the Soviet army by Stalin only in 1943, the symbol of both the October Revolution and Russia itself. In 2006 the film celebrated its 35 th anniversary, and the original idea was to create a TV sequel to the story, a win-win project considering both the popularity of the original film and the steady flow of patriotic productions onto Russia's big and small screens. Aliev, who used to work at the Turkmenfil'm Studio, is known to Russian TV viewers by his 2005 TV production Guys of Steel (Parni iz stali), while scriptwriter Elena Karavaeshnikova has written for such TV hits as Kamenskaia (dir. Iurii Moroz, 2000-2003) and Two Fates (Dve sud'by, dirs. Vladimir Krasnopol'skii and Valerii Uskov , 2003).

Rogovoi's film was both blatant propaganda for the Soviet military and an exploitation melodrama of personal losses. The film has but one “ideological” line: “There is such a profession: to defend your Motherland.” The two friends receive this lesson from their Civil War commander, a former officer of the Russian imperial army, who, according to the film, becomes a Red Army officer. Thus, even though the narrative covers several decades of the protagonists' service to and protection of the Soviet state, the message is that there is only one Motherland: the Russian one. Soviet ideology is naturalized and incorporated into the personal story of the heroes.

In contrast, the series all but flaunts its political agenda. Beginning in 1982 during the war in Afghanistan and ending shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the series lives up to its subtitle. It is a post-scriptum not so much to the 1971 film as to the era. The protagonists, Egor Osorgin (Aleksei Makarov) and Sasha Gaidamak (Sergei Gorobchenko), are officers in the KGB special counter-intelligence squad. They begin the series as faithful servants of the Soviet empire and eight episodes later find themselves betrayed by a country that itself no longer exists.

The nostalgic power of Soviet mythology, however, is used to the full. Vasilii Lanovoi, who in the series plays general Osorgin, wakes up his son Egor, a recent graduate from the Institute of Military Interpreters, to the soundtrack from the original film and gives him a Stalin-era ZIM car as a graduation present. From Osorgin's conversation with Ivan, a KGB colonel, we learn that Egor dreams of serving in Ivan's special force squad. Ivan's response introduces the main ideological line of the series: “Our leaders don't like to admit that they need our kind of specialists.”

The series, then, is not about the army or the honor of serving the country. At the center of the narrative is the “war of professionals,” whose heroes are elite intelligence officers. Egor and Sasha are repeatedly referred to as “supermen”—with pride (albeit with a degree of irony) by their KGB bosses; derisively and negatively by army officials. In Rogovoi's film, both the choice of becoming a career officer and the life it entails are cemented by the inner need to “defend the Motherland” and the validity of this choice is never questioned. In the series, professionalism is cast as a unique set of attributes: from resourcefulness, endurance, and knowledge of martial arts to body type. Lanovoi and Iumatov—Rogovoi's heroes—were physically average, even frail if compared to the Stalin-era warrior epitome Boris Andreev; Makarov's and Gorobchenko's characters are giants, their abs and pecs emphasized by (what seems to this reviewer) anachronistically cool clothes of Western, rather than Soviet, style.

"Motherland,” when it does enter the dialogue, is put on its head. The heroes' love for the Motherland is not at issue; it is the Motherland's love for them that is problematized and mulled over again and again. Of course the post-Soviet series does not gloss over the issue of “whose Motherland.” Here we have an official motherland (ruled by the Party, the army, and the KGB), which Egor and Sasha “serve,” and its domesticated (albeit no less problematic) version. As Egor says, “women and motherland exist to provide heroes with rest.”

The filmmakers claim that the series is neither a remake nor a sequel to the film. In his interview Lanovoi says:

My hero has nothing to do with Ivan Varrava. Otherwise I would not have agreed to play him. I think that legends lose a lot at close distance. This film [ Officers ] already has its history, and to get into it amounts to making a sequel to Chapaev , that he did not drown, that a fish pulled him out […] It is a different time, different characters. I hope we made a patriotic film about defenders. [1]

The comment is remarkable both in drawing a parallel between the 1971 film and the legendary 1934 Chapaev by Georgii and Sergei Vasil'ev, and in the conspicuous omission of a noun after “defenders” (of the country? the people? the state?). The actor insisted on using a different title because he was afraid that it might be offensive to war veterans. The producers, however, refused to budge, hopeful that the allusion to the famous film would be beneficial to the series. [2]

One link to the original film is the melodramatic love triangle. Zhenia (El'vira Bolgova) is the only woman with a significant role in the series. In Rogovoi's film, the two friends' love for one woman is played out safely: she is already Aleksei's wife when they meet Ivan Varrava and there is never any hint that it can be otherwise. In that narrative, which spans thirty years, Liuba's waiting for her husband and raising their son alone is not an issue of faithfulness, which is never questioned, but of love and patience. In the TV series, Egor's and Sasha's vying for Zhenia's attention offers something to the female audience in this male-dominated series. Zhenia's rescue from mujahideens by two Russian knights in shining armor provides both the love plot and the patriotic line with a fairytale motif. The picture of the three of them next to a tank—a peculiar variation of an archetypal image of three war buddies—cements this ménage-a-trois . But a healthy portion of Soviet myth is never redundant, and before going away on their three-year-long African mission, Egor and Sasha remind Zhenia that she must “wait for them.” Never mind that this request comes soon after Zhenia catches Egor with another woman. To make sure the message gets home, the series includes another iconic scene: at the hospital, Zhenia consoles a wounded soldier, whose girl broke her oath, and hears from him another plea to “just wait” for her guy(s). Last but not least, Zhenia is a native of Omsk and enlisted to serve as a nurse in Afghanistan in order to get into a medical school in Moscow. Her Siberian roots add one more drop of the “Russian land” mythology to the narrative.

Osorgin's family history is the other link to the film. Egor gives Sasha a brief summary of the story with a follow-up: Osorgin met Egor's mother when he was in his 50s, still virile and potent, while she was 25; she was killed in a car accident when Egor was a still a child. The only other time Osorgin's family is mentioned is after Egor cheats on his newly found love and she is almost killed by a car. Angry at Egor, Osorgin reminds him of his mother's death and blames himself for failing to defend his young wife “from herself.” The equation of weak, confused, and fickle women to the Motherland, which similarly needs protection “from itself,” hits a jackpot in the episode of Egor's and Sasha's rescue of three Russian girls from white slavery in Africa. The girls, promised a job in Europe, are instead brought to Central Africa as new additions to the harem of a local warlord. The three platinum blond beauties cannot tell Africa from Switzerland and resist the heroes' help until a gang of black men with guns appear to take possession of their white property.

The other part of Osorgins' heritage is much more central to the series' agenda. On the eve of the 1991 coup, an army bigwig tries to convince Osorgin to use his influence to support the Party hardliners: after all, his career, his material possessions, and even his son “belong” to the Party. Osorgin responds that his allegiance is not only to the army but to the people (whom his guest refers to as “the mob”), and the last thing he wants to see are tanks on the streets of Moscow. Osorgin/Varrava's screen myth thus functions to separate the bad “fathers” of the country from the good ones.

In alternating between Africa (exotic, full of adventures, dangerous) and Moscow (controlled, peaceful, familiar) and the focus on intelligence officers rather than the army, Aliev's series is closer to Vladimir Fokin's 1984 production TASS Is Authorized to Announce (TASS upolnomochen zaiavit') than to Rogovoi's film. This similarity comes with two significant exceptions. The first one is action, which is lacking in the 1984 series and abounding in Officers : shootouts, hand-to-hand combat, explosions, chase scenes, and countless stunts, including transferring three girls from a moving car to a moving airplane and Egor falling from a helicopter and surviving in the desert of a diet of snakes. The second one is the notorious “image of the enemy.” Scripted by Iulian Semenov, TASS brims with Cold War rhetoric and anti-American sentiment. Granted, a line is drawn between misguided American journalists and honest CIA professionals, on the one hand, and corrupt and immoral political adventurists, on the other. As a unified enemy, however, working both in a progressive African republic and in Moscow, American imperialism rules supreme.

Yet intelligence officers in TASS are depersonalized, and this is one reason that the series failed to repeat the success of Tat'iana Lioznova's Seventeen Moments of Spring (Semnadtsat' mgnovenii vesny, 1973), despite Semenov's script and the participation of iconic screen “agents”: Iurii Solomin (captain Kol'tsov in His Majesty's Aide [Ad"iutant ego prevoskhoditel'stva; dir. Evgenii Tashkov, 1969]) and Viacheslav Tikhonov (colonel Isaev/Stirlitz in Seventeen Moments of Spring). Their words and actions were circumscribed by the political agenda of late Cold War confrontations. In 1984, the tribulations of an African nation could not compete with economic and social problems at home, and the war of wit between Soviet and American intelligence agencies seemed nothing more than empty rhetoric.

Officers may follow the same basic script: Egor and Sasha train young defenders of the Republic of Santillano, while CIA specialists support the rebels. But this is a cursory remark at best. There are a few bad Americans (military police) and one stereotypical American businessman who happens to be an arms dealer—but so is the Soviet military attaché Shiriaev, who apparently does it with the knowledge of the Soviet Ministry of Defense. The real difference is that post-Soviet production makes its formulaic heroes quite attractive, poster-children for the new Russian agenda. If there is a unified antagonist in the series, it is the corrupt Russian military, and if there is a benevolent force that really cares for the protagonists—and the country—it is the KGB. In fact, the army and the KGB are in constant competition with each other, and Egor and Sasha's assignments—and often life itself—depends on the games between the two. In the second episode, for instance, the two young officers are assigned to check the security of a secret military installation (strategic cruise missiles) masked as a train. Their success means not so much the weakness of Soviet defense as the failure and humiliation of the army bosses, who from this moment on will harbor ill feelings toward the heroes.

As representatives of the late Soviet regime, Egor and Sasha are dopes or victims; most of the time they are ignorant of the true purpose of their mission or act impulsively and in defiance of instructions and military discipline. They are constantly on the brink of being dismissed from the force or even put on trial. Their first action in Afghanistan is an unauthorized raid into a mujahideen settlement to rescue a kidnapped Russian doctor and a nurse. Yet their KGB bosses always come to their defense. Egor's and Sasha's martial arts coach does not hurry to break up their brutal fighting over the nurse, Zhenia, calling it a "moral-ethical face-bashing” (moral'no-eticheskii mordoboi).

The collapse of the USSR coincides with the destruction of the Osorgin household. Egor is missing in action and his memory vilified; General Osorgin is denounced as a traitor by the army and dies of a heart attack at the (false) news of Egor's death; his summer house and the apartment (both belonging to the Party) are confiscated. Sasha is under investigation for allegedly profiting from Shiriaev's corrupt schemes, and undergoes an injection of psychotropic drugs. Like Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible (dir. Brian de Palma, 1996), the heroes are disavowed by their own country. This “homelessness” constructs the protagonists as orphans, central heroes of post-Soviet cinema and especially male-oriented genres (war film and crime thriller), and redefines the patriotic action thriller as a buddy film. Egor and Sasha's only allegiance is to each other. Even when hallucinating in the Sahara, Egor only sees Sasha and Osorgin-senior; Zhenia is not part of his dreams.

Yet, even if lacking a Motherland the heroes do not lack a home. Their home is the KGB/FSB training center and their fathers are their immediate KGB/FSB superiors, who are all former field officers. They, too, are part of the male brotherhood, and thus a part of a new Russian mythology.

The only private space in the series is a forester's hut, where Zhenia first chooses Egor and where later Sasha and Zhenia live after they get married. Yet as soon as Egor rises from the dead, Sasha abandons his pregnant wife and follows his buddy back to Africa. Egor's and Sasha's last (or perhaps latest) mission—to capture Shiriaev and deliver him to a meeting with the KGB—has no clear motivation.

Two possible explanations come to mind. “Boys will be boys” is the more innocuous one. The other is that, in the view of the filmmakers, perestroika was a national humiliation and the only organization that came out of it unscathed—and unblemished—was the KGB/FSB. With the Soviet empire gone, the boys can now continue serving their country under the benevolent rule of their honest and patriotic FSB supervisors. The final shot of the series, as Egor and Sasha celebrate another mission completed and with testosterone run amok, is accompanied by the song “Two Eagles,” performed by the bard of new Russian patriotism Oleg Gazmanov.


Notes

1] “Serial ‘Ofitsery': Aleksei Makarov i Sergei Gorobchenko vliubilis' na s"emkakh,” Komsomol'skaia Pravda (20 June 2006). Lanovoi is the most renowned member of the cast. His portrayal of Varrava endeared him to the military. For the last decade Lanovoi has been the head of the public foundation “Army and Culture.”

2] “Lanovoi boialsia obidet' veteranov,” Zhizn' (12 July 2006).

Elena Prokhorova, College of William and Mary


Officers, Russia, 2006
Color, 8 episodes, 50 minutes each
Director: Murad Aliev
Scriptwriter: Elena Karavaeshnikova
Cinematography: Vadim Alisov
Art Director: Iurii Ustinov
Music: Aleksei Shelygin; song by Oleg Gazmanov
Starring: Vasilii Lanovoi, Aleksei Makarov, Sergei Gorobchenko, El'vira Bolgova, Aleksandr Dediushko, Aleksandr Baluev, Mikhail Efremov
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian, Sergei Danielian, Aram Movsesian, Iurii Moroz
Production: Elegiia Studio and Central Partnership

Murad Aliev: Officers: Last Soldiers of the Empire (Ofitsery: poslednie soldaty imperii , 2006)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova© 2007

Updated: 19 Jun 07