Petr Shtein: The Zone (Zona, 2005)

reviewed by David MacFadyen © 2007


Your series has absolutely everything! There's cruelty, deceit, and hatred, too… Then there's love, faithfulness, and tears… together with some mistakes in the plot, of course. The series is amazing, but it is incomplete… So what's the main thing in all this? What exactly are you trying to say here? Please give me an answer…

—One viewer's online question for the chief screenwriter, Asia Karaeva (September 2006)

What's it All About? The Show's Initial Shock Value amid All Kinds of Confusion

No television series has caused more fuss in recent memory than Petr Shtein's NTV prison drama The Zone, broadcast during 2006 over fifty episodes. Brazen plans for a sequel, even after the director's tragic death in February 2007, have only worsened this squabbling. Scandal and sympathy for its maker or his incarcerated devils aside, part of the show's (dubious) reputation has resulted from its generic messiness. The Zone mixes and muddles all the tendencies listed in our epigraph, leaving many Russian viewers confused. In an attempt to sort things out, this article will examine the constituent elements of “what exactly is going on” in four sections. The first examines the degrees of shock and bewilderment caused by this unprecedented TV show; the second and third sections outline the relationship of any such confusion to how The Zone was shot and how its core narrative develops. In closing, I highlight a few ways in which the paradoxical nature of “life itself” is used by the producers of The Zone to justify a very shaggy, open-ended format.

First of all, it goes without saying that any grand pretense towards the “reality” of prison life will probably upset people in high places. This time was no exception. The Zone was reportedly shoved into an unprofitable 11:30pm timeslot at the behest of Putin, outraged by its forthright depiction of penitentiary "lifestyles" (Èkho Moskvy]). This decree, somewhat ironically, came when the show was outpacing the audience share of presidential press conferences (Kommersant" ). Prisoners in several provincial cities, giving radical voice to their objection, threatened to harm themselves or even commit suicide if denied the one storyline on national media that treated their plight with compassion.

The Zone explained this social resonance with its claim to be the most “documentary drama” ever screened in Russia, some kind of “reality show” even (Kostenko]; “Serial”), based as it was upon stories from real prisoners. The tales had been recorded by journalists and snuck past prison censors (Sterkhova). This “transgression” would be the first of many others, be they legal, thematic, or structural. No self-evident or received binary is left untouched here.

For example, The Zone begins with the suspicious suicide of a prison officer, and in every episode the line between law and order, criminals and lawmakers becomes vaguer. One might even claim that the inmates are portrayed with more compassion than the backstabbing, malicious representatives of the justice system (Lenevskaia). Shtein himself had certainly spoken on many occasions of the prison colony or “zone” as a barely-visible state in between right and wrong, a borderland that can be transgressed with no warning whatsoever—even unconsciously (“Televidenie”). These dramatic, endless destabilizations are embodied by the series' title-sequence, quoting some lines about the liminal, lawless “zone” of Tarkovskii's Stalker (1979). That reference might help to satisfy certain artistic criteria, but it fails horribly in terms of social responsibility. Senior representatives of Russia's Prison Officers' Union have lodged official complaints that Shtein's artistic whims were grossly irresponsible, a dangerous blurring of the patently clear division between right and wrong (“Blatnye”).

Perhaps the Officers' Union had good cause to be worried. The audience of The Zone extended far beyond the boundaries of prisoners (past, present, or future) and their families. Age, education, and address-related statistics from the series' peak popularity show no bias in favor of a socially specific audience group. Lots of people have watched The Zone in lots of places. Continuing that “democratic” process, the entire series is available online for free.

More newcomers to the story are attracted into the fold with a multitude of bells and whistles, distorting the line between reality and fiction further still. The show's website recently added some miniature video files that sweep 360 degrees around each of the core characters, introducing them to us wordlessly as if in preparation for a first-person shooter (FPS) game. These 3D representations are available for both male villains and members of the female police force. Choose the morally troubled reprobate for whom you feel most sympathy.

Over and above more typical offerings, such as theme-based wallpapers, audience members can download a series of ringtones, too. Based on various “criminal” (blatnye) motifs of the show's instrumental music, they give voice to an endearing shoddiness, as if inexpensive, karaoke-like production standards make it easier to empathize with far-flung, penniless prisoners [AUDIO fragment]. Indeed audience members now express that empathy by uploading their own ditties of enduring, under-funded misery. These audio files build upon the style of The Zone's theme song by Viktor Tiumenskii, a relatively well-known representative of Russia's “criminal” [VIDEO clip] aesthetic.

Shtein's choice of Tiumenskii was very telling, again as a potentially attractive model, beyond any obvious sexiness in songs of broken laws and broken hearts. Tiumenskii is from the godforsaken town of Zavodoukovsk , where—at least in his youth, if not today—“every second person” had done a prison term. The singer eventually escaped by moving to Moscow. Here he made his first album at the age of forty, based on the credo that “by that age every man must have built a house, planted a tree, fathered a son… in other words, reached a few conclusions in his life.” Tiumenskii, thus, presents himself as a figure of barrel-chested, time-honored devotion, tinged with the spirit of neo-Orthodoxy. Yet he emigrated to Germany in 2002… Once more, values are muddled, even among the very people who are supposed to make The Zone singularly attractive (and understandable!).

This thematic bewilderment is unmistakably mirrored on a structural level, as I explain later on. Even when the fiftieth episode ends, it's not entirely clear where a lot of the characters stand. The final scenes are fantastically open-ended. Many viewers complained that the show left them hanging, that it lacked a “logical” finale. One of the first crew members to face this critique was head screenwriter Asia Karaeva. She held an online conference with viewers in December 2006 in order to sort matters out; our epigraph comes from that conference and is very representative (“On-line”). In the boldest expression of confusion over a story of Russian “reality,” several participants were glad to hear that Karaeva even exists , given recent scandals surrounding a number of modern authors, such as Akulina Parfenova , who is often accused of being a mere pseudonym created to hide a series of team-written novels.

Karaeva, declaring her “inability” to write about the “even greater” cruelty in women's prisons, reiterated the studio's desire to further (and perhaps end!) The Zone with more stories based on the experiences of real-life prisoners. In other words, the studio's response to structural concerns is… to keep going in the same manner. Before it even does so, however, Karaeva's remark about women's prisons creates another contradiction: NTV declares the need for complete transparency and a documentary aesthetic, yet draws the line at anything “too” real, such as the (presumption of) even worse cruelty among female inmates. And so this dance continues, back and forth between the probably real and the possibly unimaginable, even in ongoing news stories from detention centers around Russia, regularly reported on the show's website. Fact and fiction are incessantly confused, perhaps no more so than in viewers' collected stories and poetry, documenting the awful experiences of people forced to wait for one another—occasionally beyond the limits of what's “really” possible.

These stories and poems mix high and low, in all possible senses. Similarly, the news stories tell of officials in Tver that find themselves in prison after “unofficial” activities, of high-flyers brought to earth (Petrov). Elsewhere we read that prison officers in Kazan are making unfair profits by forcing visitors to use their own, “internal” shops (“Pravozashchitniki”). The boundaries of fair trade are blurred by fallen politicians (who now flirt through the barbed wire with lowly local girls), by profit moving in the wrong direction, and—most dramatically—by inmates who nowadays use cellphones and radio transmitters to conduct their “business” as though they're not even incarcerated (“Zhestokost'”; “Zeki”).

Many visitors to the site leave legal questions regarding their real-life dilemmas because they clearly see the show's lack of clarity in their own experiences. One mother wrote asking what to do with her son: recently freed from prison, he had been robbed of cash and paperwork at the railway station— en route to his mother. He could no longer prove he was even legally free. The site's lawyer suggested that the young man turn to the local police for help, since new paperwork could be provided by the prison where he served his time. In addition, said the lawyer, “you should probably go and pick him up ASAP.” The unintended humor here comes only from the fact that serious logic has no place.

Finally, stuck between the biggest narrative signposts of all (Series One and Series Two), quite a few celebrities from the worlds of TV, music, sport, and politics have regularly been asked for their opinion of the show. The stunning banality of their answers about Law and Order throws two immediate, additional conundrums into the ring: Did these people trying to advertise The Zone even watch it? Do they have any idea what they're talking about? The apparent answer to both would be negative. [1]

What Are We Filming and How Do We Do It? Fiction, Fantasy, Reality Shows, and a “Documentary” Style… on the Heels of a Costume Drama

Many people were surprised by Shtein's directorial role here, producing a contemporary prison drama after his famous involvement with Poor Nastia (Bednaia Nastia, 2003). He jumped from costume drama to cellblock intrigue, consciously bypassing the recent, lucrative phenomenon of action series altogether. Shtein said he could discern themes of self-determination and social constraint that might link a well-moneyed past to an impoverished, incarcerated present—yet to some viewers this rationale seemed strange enough to be laughable. Several cruel individuals even drew parallels between The Zone and the American Police Academy franchise (Saburova). Consequently, in some interviews Shtein seemed to denounce his former romantic project, claiming that the American sponsors had “loathed him for struggling against the idiotism of their foreign subject-matter” (Cherniaeva). Now he was busy with something “really” Russian.

There was little to laugh about in the work schedule for The Zone ; filming ran only slightly ahead of broadcast dates. Ideally, once again in avoidance of openly-admitted financial issues, the studio claimed that this double progression allowed them to alter both the series' “accents” and its actors according to audience reaction. All in all, a marriage of viewers and thespians would allow increased sympathy for the inmates:

Compassion and the ability to forgive have always been inherent to Russians. There's a good reason why people used to bring presents to the prison gates on holidays, including those who had nothing to do with the inmates. We're not trying to whitewash our prisoners, to romanticize their portrayal on screen. We just want to let people know what still goes on behind those walls; we want to show them peoples' lives, the laws and concepts of honor and fairness according to which prisoners live. Yes, they've committed crimes and get punished according to the law. That's the price they pay. But in prison they run up against other kinds of cruelty and injustice, too, often from the very people who're supposed to uphold the law. (“Vek”)

The newspaper Trud even maintained that Shtein—despite his desire for “compassion and forgiveness”—had actively summoned hatred for the forces of law and order, a subversive gesture for which he should be incarcerated: “We ask ourselves—what was the point of making this series? To scare us, to provoke or spread chaos, to divide further this derelict society of ours? Or is it to popularize some kind of criminal idea, that all policemen are bastards and then… ‘Arise Mighty Nation'?! We've been through all that several times before, so why pour oil on the fire? Maybe that kind of thing will make somebody feel a bit better. Who, exactly, we can only guess…” (Andronov).

This rhetorical question was answered by the newspaper Komsomol'skaia Pravda ; bearing in mind that adults know prison life “isn't exactly a rest home,” only adolescents would watch The Zone with any devotion, learning as a result how to use prison slang—and many other forms of nastiness (Lobanova). Aiming to calm these increasingly angry voices, Shtein responded elsewhere that a degree of self-censorship was always applied by the crew, since (for example) we do not see the prisoners using the cell's toilet, nor do we hear that much swearing. The director was simply trying to reveal a massive, hidden cross-section of Russian society. A million people are imprisoned each year nationwide; an additional 300,000 are hired by the State to watch over them (“O proekte”).

In essence, the most telling and typical responses came from two groups: ex-prisoners praising the accuracy of the series, and other viewers who felt sorry for the heroes of The Zone, especially when they had heard that only 10-15% of people incarcerated in Russia are of actual danger to the outside world. This snowballing sympathy led to a great deal of viewer mail, in fact “tons of it,” because despite any enduring, “criminal romanticism” (blatnaia romantika), the general public remains in complete ignorance of real prison life (Varshavchik; “Zona”). A lengthy interview on Radio Svoboda addressed this issue; it came to the conclusion that there is a big difference between “entertaining people with nastiness, fear, and aggression,” and talking of their causes. The latter activity would be much more alarming for any government (Kachaeva).

Where Exactly Are We Going with This? The Shambling Development of a Fifty-Episode Plot

The establishing shot of each episode moves in from open countryside to this enclosed, dangerous multiplicity. This documentary air is enhanced by the fact that episodes are neither named nor numbered, as if an ongoing flow overshadows any episodic compartmentalization. Likewise there is no ADR work here; the entire dialog is recorded live. This naturalism is immediately underscored by the cruelty of prison officers in the opening scenes, beating recently transported inmates in order to establish their insignificance: “I am Lord God—and you are shit!” One of these officers is quickly so drunk (after being abandoned by his wife) that he must be tied to a radiator: “Welcome to Hell!” Only the care and attention given to an abandoned kitten make him forget a world so vindictive; even the woman who handles inmates' packages from relatives (the sole bearer of happiness) has herself to drink heavily. These people have good reason to hate humanity: the drunk officer is told to drown his kitten.

The fundamental event that brings narrative progression into this unending misery is the suspicious suicide of an officer. Tensions surrounding the crime dictate shifting relations among the prison staff. With regard to the prisoners' interaction, a constant (albeit slow) movement of new inmates back and forth through the space of one cell shapes the drama therein. Status in the outside world is of occasional importance “inside,” especially if a character was once a major criminal figure, but in essence the most intelligent of detainees eventually finds common ground with the most physically dangerous. This harmony is a necessity, for—in the words of one character to a novice: “If I were in your position, I wouldn't go around looking for enemies.”

In this unnaturally peopled environment, it is almost impossible to hold onto private belongings (watches, jackets, and wedding rings all go missing), but since so much is stolen so often, ownership per se is undermined and this, paradoxically, leads to the confusing designs of another leveling force. These illogical, yet genuine bonds of friendship and consolation can rarely be expressed out loud, however; the series often cuts to an overhead shot, as seen on CCTV. Somebody is always watching and waiting to ruin any camaraderie—though we are not told who. Once again the actual source of power (and violence) is unnamed.

Two forces, official and unofficial, visible and hidden, battle one another for fifty episodes, often according to an awkward pun invoked by one inmate: the struggle between “Law and Justice.” The former is in uniform, and given that “Fate” is mentioned so often by detainees, The Zone leaves an overriding impression that retribution will come, sooner or later. Hence the worries noted above among both viewers and commentators that The Zone is deliberately, dangerously seditious.

Its rebellious atmosphere is fueled by several outrageous scenes of injustice , the first of which involves a prisoner refusing to sing at an officers' function. He undergoes a forced rehearsal of Mark Bernes' WWII classic about a soldier's fidelity, “A Dark Night” (Temnaia noch' ), but the staff's requests soon lapse into the famous criminal ditty “Thieves' Love” (Vorovskaia liubov' ). The officers assume they can bribe the singing inmate with a better cell, microwave and fridge, but it all goes horribly wrong. The singer is punished for his pigheaded nature by being thrown into an unfamiliar cell, where he is raped. He barely maintains his sanity, whereas the wife of one upper-level official has already lost her mind. Her husband is left pondering the tragic irony that she may herself need to be “incarcerated.”

Against the background of these grim events there develops perhaps the most important plot line. An American in his early twenties (Dennis) is thrown into prison and himself charged with rape; he is stripped naked, hosed down with freezing water, and stuck in a one-man cell so narrow (the so-called kishka ) that he can only stand. Close to despair, he still sings “America, the Beautiful” as loud as hazardous pluck will allow. Once released into a common cell, he maintains a naïve faith in the court system, but occasionally breaks into fits of incredible profanity (which are not translated into Russian). He is quickly accepted by the prisoners, who try to educate him regarding his real “legal” status: “There's none of your American law here in Russia. And there never was, either.” By this stage, the claustrophobic sets and consistently low lighting have already persuaded us of the general hopelessness. It is so divorced from anything natural that when, in one rare instance, a prisoner is released for good, he stares at the boundlessness of the sky and then joyfully buries his face in unpolluted, “pure snow.”

The American is told by his antagonistic lawyer that an unnaturally long sentence can be avoided if $200,000 is wired to a Russian account from a wealthy uncle in Detroit. Not only, however, has this relative been estranged from Dennis' family for twenty years; it later transpires in the series that there is no pending case against him (and that the uncle has long since died, anyway). Dennis is denied any chance to read the Russian legal codex in his cell; the copies in the prison library are deliberately torn and soiled, making the text illegible: “This isn't justice; it's a farce!”

The bonds he forms with cellmates henceforth get stronger. He is given the nickname “Raven” as a sign of courteous empathy and is sung the time-honored dirge “Black Raven” (Chernyi voron ). This is an important gesture of acceptance. It leads another prisoner to sulk childishly when he gets an unwanted nickname; he is called “Dope” (or “ram”; baran) instead of “Baron.” Dennis and another man in the same cell (framed for a commercially-driven murder) are afforded a special status in that their innocence and honesty is assumed by other inmates. The elders help to educate, raise, and protect Dennis, who subsequently admits to being a virgin. The senior inmates arrange for him to be visited by two prostitutes, as “nobody ever gets out of the zone, believe me.” Even if physical release is possible, mental and emotional escape is often not, because (in a related aphorism), “if you ever deal with the cops, you'll never break free.”

One of the nastiest figures embodying this stalemate is a female prosecutor, who in later episodes is promoted to Chief Officer. She is more than happy to manipulate friendships, conjugal visits, and even drug addictions in order to get the results she desires. She is the quintessence of the death and destruction that pervade her ranks; this thanatic association is so strong that when another officer is persuaded (with difficulty) to give a blood transfusion to an elderly, hardcore criminal, the latter undergoes a religious conversion! He calls the officer's kindness “amazing, unbelievable” or even “cruel punishment” that goes beyond anything resembling a comprehensible norm (bespredel). Any risky removal of an established binarism in the world is painfully incomprehensible to him—and indeed, when he reads biblical passages to his cellmates, the only one they want to hear about is “An eye for an eye.”

There's a Plan Here? The Tardy Introduction of “Divine” Logic

One major character who appears in later episodes to mollify this violent recourse to biblical “clarity” is a priest, Father Mikhail. He was once a soldier and saw active service in Afghanistan. Although a human, finite representative of a ubiquitous, eternal God, he is amazed that the female prosecutor knows so much about what happens in the prison—the realm where she acts as a bitter, omniscient deity. Many of those in uniform are called “petty demons.” Yet another official, giving voice to this demonic trait, tells the priest that he, too, “speaks about goodness, but he does so with different words.” Life in the prison, he adds, is like a “war zone,” but Father Mikhail insists it is “too early” for the officer to give up on himself. With this and other statements, the priest becomes a sorely needed representative of some ineffable, chancy excess beyond the limits of a dual structure.

This risk is given voice only by the mentally ill spouse mentioned above; she tells her husband that all the prisoners should be freed, for then “we'll all be free,” inmates and staff alike. She runs to one cell in order to inform the prisoners. Even though they know of her husband's lofty rank, they dismiss her idea as hazardous. It could not possibly be true: “There aren't any fools here.” The newly-Christian prisoner says that spiritually “we're all free already”; his clever concept is handed over to irony because it is potentially, dangerously true .

It is, eventually, the American Dennis who takes this leap of faith; he asks Father Mikhail to christen him. Dennis now acts as something of a litmus test for the other prisoners. He must endure the greatest degree of transformation, because he arrived as far from the zone as possible. He does so and finds a solution to the claustrophobia, a way both to build upon and outshoot the friendship of his cellmates. Verbalizing this step for us, he says that his adventure was supposed to happen for a reason, so that he could escape living to “a strict plan.” This inflexible plan was made of commonly acknowledged, “progressive” stages: college, a good job, and the unavoidable need to define further success in monetary terms alone. “Only here do I understand what it means to be free.”

As Dennis manages a degree of liberty, the noose tightens around several of the officers when investigation of the opening “suicide” intensifies. At a party to celebrate the lead investigator's promotion, a congratulatory package explodes, killing a female colleague; earlier a friend of the dead officer had died after a glass of poisoned cognac. Simultaneously, the prison's female doctor is under great pressure from her violent husband (also a guard) both to stop talking about the investigation and “flirting” with her criminal patients. His violence, in fact, forces her to look for solace and she falls desperately in love with one of the prisoners. The contact between them is formed at a moment of maximum jeopardy—and as a result pays the greatest rewards. The inmate came from a family of circus performers, which is a world maximally distant from the prison, as the doctor herself points out during one of their clandestine meetings. The circus is made of “laughter, applause, and bright lights. The only things here are misery and fear.”

The fact that these two people come together is even more astonishing when we consider how they met; in an earlier fit of unjustified jealousy, the doctor's husband stripped his wife half-naked and threw her into the prisoners' cell. It was the circus performer who showed her the greatest kindness, shielding her from the possibility of rape with care, compassion, cups of tea, and candy.

Conclusion: A “Very Russian” Type of Structure

A man who has nothing and is kept permanently away from society offers, ironically, a solution applicable to one and all. This is because, as we're told in one of the very last episodes in a comparison of prisons and the outside world: “There's more truth in here than there is outside.” Whether that truth lends itself to the structural rigors of a TV narrative is another matter altogether. The director tells us—in an above quote—that what's “really” Russian is “compassion and the ability to forgive.” This principle, taken to an extreme, will unravel all manner of causal, linear systems, including a sensible story. If the moral failings of past deeds are forgiven, they lose consequence and are undone. So, as Shtein would undoubtedly have concurred, if we are charitably open to the potential truth and validity of all acts and all times, then even history (itself a process of enduring judgment and selection) dissolves with us in it. That's either a superb way to engage reality or a terrible way to tell a story.

David MacFadyen
University of California, Los Angeles

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Images from the serial's website


1] Some of the strangest come from singer Vavara, TV presenter and actress Ekaterina Strizhenova, and the press attaché of a government agency.


Works Cited

Andronov, B. “Pozhaleite nashikh rodnykh,” Trud (26 January 2006).

“Blatnye kartinki.” Trud (10 February 2006).

Cherniaeva, Anna. “Zona nesvobody.” Èkspress gazeta online (27 January 2006).

Kachkaeva, Anna. “Moda na kriminal i zhestokost' na rossiiskom televidenii.” Radio Svoboda (23 March 2006).

Kostenko, Ol'ga. “Chtoby ne brosalo ten'.” Argument i fakty (11 January 2006).

Lenevskaia, Irina. “Aleksandr Sidorov: ‘Zona': Ètot film—smes' militseiskikh i zekovskikh istorii.” Komsomol'skaia pravda [Rostov] (2 February 2006).

Lobanova, Zinaida. “Na televizionnoi zone i nakolki risuiut sharikovoi ruchkoi.” Komsomol'skaia pravda (26 January 2006).

"O proekte." introductory page.

"On-line konferentsiia s glavnym avtorom seriala" (27 December 2006).

Petrov, Sergei. “Kak ‘dumtsy' sidiat v SIZO.” Karavan + Ia (19 January 2006).

"Pravozashchitniki Kazani obviniaiut sotrudnikov kolonii v spekuliatsiiakh." Agentstvo natsional'nykh novostei (9 January 2006).

Saburova, Ol'ga. “Ot ‘Nasti' Shteina brosilo na nary. NTV pokazhet ‘Zonu'.” Sobesednik (18 January 2006).

"Serial o t'iurme… nachinaet pokazyvat' kanal NTV." Èkspress gazeta 3 (January 2006).

Sterkhova, Ol'ga. “O t'iurme i o sume.” Moskovskii komsomolets (12 January 2006).

"Telelidery." Kommersant" (8 February 2006).

"Televidenie chasto kritikuiut za pokaz nasiliia." Èkho Moskvy (8 February 2006).

Varshavchik, Sergei. “Zona NTV.” Nezavisimaia gazeta (8 February 2006).

"Vek voli ne vidat'!" Trud (19 January 2006).

"Zeki, otbyvaia nakazanie v surgutskoi kolonii, prodolzhali prodavat' narkotiki.” Nakanune (18 December 2006).

"Zhestokost' FM.” VSLUKH.RU (25 December 2006).

"Zona v tebe i vo mne.” Gazeta (24 January 2006).

The Zone, Russia, 2005
Color, 50 episodes, 45 minutes each
Director: Petr Shtein
Scriptwriters: Rafael Airapetian, Aleksei Alekseev, Aleksei Birger, Asia Kareva, Arsenii Konetskii, Anna Lur'e, Liudmila Pivovarova
Cinematography: Boris Lazarev
Art Directors: Sergei Vorob'ev, Lev Grudev
Music Producer: Andrei Feofanov
Cast: Daniil Gretsov, Aleksandr Batrak, Aleksandr Taranzhin, Tomas Moskus, Fedor Malyshev, Andrei Filippak, Igor' Artashov, Oleg Protasov, Igor' Filippov, Viktor Konoshenkov, Oleg Geras'kin, Georgii Shakhet, Pavel Poimalov
Producers: Iurii Sapronov, Andrei Smirnov, Andrei Prokop'ev
Production: Russian World Studios

Petr Shtein: The Zone (Zona, 2005)

reviewed by David MacFadyen © 2007

Updated: 02 Oct 07