Packaging the Past: Cinema and Nationhood in the Putin Era

By Stephen M. Norris (Miami U)

Putin-era patriotic culture has a surprising sense of déjà vu about it. Despite Russia's seeming inability to build a civic nationhood, older and more successful attempts to articulate an ethnic version are being reinvented and recaptured in all sorts of arenas. Walking through Moscow is like walking through a partial museum and partial theme park of the Russian national past—a view captured by Iulii Gusman in his Soviet Period Park (Park sovetskogo perioda, 2006). Rebuilt churches, sculpture gardens with Stalin next to memorials to his victims, nationalist food chains, red stars hung next to double-headed eagles: Russia's pasts confront the visitor everywhere as a mixed-up package.

Around Red Square alone the visible sites of identity include the name “Stalingrad.” restored at Putin's behest to the list of Hero Cities at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which stands near Zurab Tsereteli's kitschy folk statues that play in the fountains above the Manege Shopping Center. Turning toward Red Square brings you to the rebuilt Resurrection Gates and Kazan Cathedral, both torn down under Stalin's orders to make way for the missiles that frequently paraded through Moscow. And if the eternal flame burning at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier represents one leftover of the Soviet past, within a stone's throw of this sacred tomb rests another containing Vladimir Lenin's mummified remains. Looking upward, one could see the shining new double-headed eagles restored atop the Historical Museum competing for your visual attention with the Kremlin's Red Stars. Fleeing from this amalgamation of the past, you could descend into the downstairs food court of the Manege mall to eat at any number of the “Russian brand” fast food places that are meant to compete with the McDonalds above. In central Moscow, ground zero of Russianness, history and ideology appear as a sort of goulash, all mixed up and waiting to be consumed, an à la carte menu of nationhood as Anthony D. Smith has defined it.

Needless to say, this commercialized past has not gone uncontested. One of the most hotly debated of these arenas is the cinema hall, and more specifically the new multiplex, for it represents one tangible place where post-socialist economic, cultural, political, and social issues collide. The multiplexes that now dot Russia's major urban landscapes—cinema's counterpart to the Manege mall—were built according to American models and have played a significant role in revitalizing the Russian film industry and with it Russian nationhood. Places such as the four screen suburban Cineplex located near the Moscow Ramstore are sites where commercial culture in the form of a hypermarket becomes a stepping stone to articulating hyper-nationalism, and where, amidst deals done with Kodak and Warner Brothers, very old ideas about Russian nationhood are sold along with your Coke and popcorn.

For all the newness that the Russian blockbuster and the multiplex that screens it present, the contents they contain use old ideas about Russian identity. It has become widely accepted to argue that Russian national identity did not exist before the Soviet era (see Tolz), that it was subsumed under the building of an imperial identity (Hosking), that it was “inarticulate” and weak before Stalin (Brandenberger), or that it was too fragmented (Jahn). This scholarly debate posits that Russia has not built a nation and with it a unifying identity; instead Russians have a jumbled-up hodgepodge of competing discourses and identities. The dominant paradigm developed from this debate tends to take Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, and Ernest Gellner at their word: no literacy, no civic modernization, no unifying invented traditions that stick, and therefore no imagined nation.

Although certainly seductive, this view of weak identity is misguided. Russia and Russians did not build a modern sense of nationhood around civic components, but ethnic ones, fitting into the pattern set up by Rogers Brubaker. Russianness as it developed under the tsars was not one constructed by above, but from the side, by artists and commercial figures who vociferously debated the meanings of Russia or who branded their 19th-century products with the stamp of nationhood. From lubok prints to long novels to religious icons and pictures of monasteries to commercial advertising that used familiar landmarks or folk heroes to sell virtually everything, late 19th century Russia packaged the past and with it a consumable nationhood. To pick just one example: Ermak, as the Omsk-based Randrup Company realized in its 1909 ads, could be used to sell plows and steam engines. Taken together, this cacophony of visual and vocal elements to tsarist commercial culture can be viewed, as Simon Franklin and Emma Widdis have seen it, as part of “the varied, contrasting, perhaps contradictory ways in which Russia and Russianness have been imagined and represented over the centuries” (218).

A walk around Red Square and Okhotnyi riad in 1900 would bring you face to face with Ivan III's Kremlin with its more recent Grand Kremlin Palace, past the newly opened Historical Museum built in the Russian revival style favored by Alexander III, and down the bustling Nikolskii Street where one would pass shops selling icons, lubok prints, household goods designed in the “Russian style,” tea branded with bogatyrs, and bulochnaias offering “Russian food” (see Potkina). If we were to stop at a lubok shop run by the king of the genre, Ivan Sytin (or even stop one of the 2,000 peddlers employed by him), you could purchase prints that illustrated folk songs or folk heroes such as Il'ia Muromets, depicted the Russian land, represented saints and holy sites, reminded purchasers of past events ranging from the Time of Troubles to Peter I's policies to the Napoleonic invasion, or buy prints that captured more recent events such as the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. As to their contents, Sytin himself attributed his success to his years spent as a peddler, conducting early market research into the commercial potential of Russian patriotism, claiming “I followed the market and with the greatest effort studied people's preferences” (37). The mix of nationhood available to consumers in 1900 presented the past as pastiche, mixing up a number of memories, symbols, and images that packaged appealing forms of Russianness.

This packaged nationhood did not end in 1917, for Soviet appeals to Russianness exploded in the Stalin era, when the previous Bolshevik flirtation with internationalism returned to appeals to nationalism. Soviet artists and officials who took part in this “epic revisionism” may have branded it “Soviet,” but this patriotic culture built on and even used earlier appeals to Russianness: bogatyrs, tsarist leaders and generals, “national” artists, Soviet achievements, and the cult of the leader all made up the evolving, contrasting ways nationhood got articulated (see Platt and Brandenberger). The confusing and often contradictory ways that Russians have historically defined themselves, therefore, developed as national identities tend to do, making Alon Confino's words about “the failure of theory to encompass the malleability of nationhood” ring true (3).

Perhaps the one unique aspect to this Russian nation-building process is the belief that nationhood has not been built at all. Symptomatic of this view is the 1996 Yeltsin-era project to define the “new Russian idea,” an attempt that went out with a whimper, failing to locate a useful identity. The surprising aspect of this effort is the belief that only one Russian identity could be articulated, for how could any singular definition capture the multiple historical memories, appropriations, symbolic appeals, myths, and evolving arguments about what makes Russia “Russia”? As Franklin and Widdis usefully put it, “much discussion of Russian identity is driven by the belief … that the question has an answer, that Russianness is a ‘thing' to be located, described, and explained.” Instead, they argue that “Russia ‘is' precisely that multiplicity of imagined and often competing Russias” that artists and others have imagined over the centuries (217).

Let's return then to the multiplex, one of the most intriguing locales where this process of Russianness gets presented today. Founded in 1997, Karo Film has established itself as the most successful multiplexer in Russian cinema and the most important site where the battle against Hollywood influences gets waged. In the same year that Nikita Mikhalkov thundered that Russian cinema needed its own heroes and its own blockbusters, Karo's renovation of the Pushkin Cinema Hall spelled the way to make Mikhalkov's dreams a reality, for in 1998 box office receipts at the Pushkin equaled those from all other theaters in Russia combined. The key to reviving the Russian film industry and ultimately the first step toward asserting Russian cultural might, as Karo's success indicated, was to be more like Hollywood in an effort to defeat it. Similarly, the path out of the economic malaise gripping the Russian film industry, at least as Mikhalkov saw it, was to make heroes and make movies that used American-style marketing with blockbuster special effects. This economic and cultural appropriation came as a response to the influx of Hollywood films and other forms of American popular culture that saturated Russian markets in the 1990s. Just as the response to fast food led to what Melissa Caldwell has termed “food nationalism” in Russia in the form of new fast food chains that marketed themselves as “Russian,” so too did the perceived cultural threat posed by Hollywood lead to the creation of multiplexes and blockbusters to screen in them that billed themselves as “ours.”

Nikita Mikhalkov's Barber of Siberia (Sibirskii tsiriul'nik, 1999) provided the model for Putin-era historical blockbusters that would package the past. Set in Alexander III's Moscow and filmed using the renovated or rebuilt sites around Red Square mentioned above, Barber is more about using the past for present concerns than representing it faithfully, for Mikhalkov's movie explicitly announced that it wanted to make viewers feel good about themselves, a hefty task in February 1999 for Russians still dealing with the ramifications of the August 1997 ruble collapse. As the director stated: “I hope that our film will help the spectator to feel pride again in the genuine merit of his Fatherland” (qtd. Beumers 201). And yet, despite nearly universal negative reviews that called the film a commercial for the “product Russia,” Barber set box office records and sent audiences reaching for their remaining rubles and superlatives: according to a poll conducted by Itogi , 95 percent of viewers stated they loved the film, a response that led the journalists to dub Mikhalkov “the people's favorite” [narodnyi liubimets] (Goluboevskii and Dmitrievskoi 46). Mikhalkov himself appeared as Alexander III, a move that led many critics to lambaste the director's political pretensions. This role-playing took a page from Alexander's own playbook, for the tsar frequently presented himself as a family man and a latter-day bogatyr (see Wortman 204-206), a potent combination that tapped into past symbolic meanings of the nation. Packaged correctly, Barber suggested, the past could be extremely profitable.

The explosion of blockbusters once Putin became President borrowed from Mikhalkov's formula and from other selected versions of the past. Nikolai Lebedev's Star (Zvezda, 2002), for example, adapted a 1947 novella made into a 1949 film and updated the importance of the Great Patriotic War for Putin-era audiences. While the film's producer and driving force, Karen Shakhnazarov, hoped that Star would “make a direct hit on the soul,” critics divided over whether the patriotic appeals of the film and the wave of World War II productions that followed were “our accurate response to Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Pearl Harbor, etc.” (in the words of Ekaterina Barabash) or packaged “a new Russian ‘patriotism' that deliberately acts on young audiences to make them feel a romantic patriotism toward the war and the Soviet past” (as Iurii Gladil'shchikov believed). Regardless (and much like the case of Barber ), audiences have by and large responded positively to the saturation of the cinema market with films about the war. Although it is hard to make generalizations about the 30 or so feature films and television series about World War II made since Star hit screens, they all at least continue to recall accumulated cultural memories about the war's significance and make them useful for contemporary Russian viewers. Moreover, the most popular films in terms of box office numbers and television ratings are quite extraordinary in their efforts to revisit darker aspects of the war. Nikolai Dostal''s Penal Battalion (Shtrafbat, 2005), which examines the rampant brutality of Stalin's wartime usage of criminals as cannon fodder, was the number one television program in Russia when it first aired. Aleksandr Atanesian's Bastards (Svolochi, 2006) stirred up controversy for its apparent historical malfeasance by suggesting that the Stalinist state also used juvenile criminals as cannon fodder despite the lack of solid evidence proving the cinematic claim. Despite the Duma denunciations that ensued, the film earned $9.66 million at the box office, proving that even falsified history about the war could sell (Norris).

The union of blockbuster cinema, patriotic appeals, and new multiplexes also explain the remarkable success of the Night Watch series. Based on the best-selling novels by Sergei Luk'ianenko, Timur Bekmambetov's Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor) exploded onto screens in late 2004 and shattered box office records, earning $16 million. Its sequel, Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor), marketed as “the first movie of the year” when it appeared on 1 January 2006, earned an extraordinary $34 million. The Watch films ostensibly explore the relationship between good and evil and deliberately cast present-day Manichean struggles in Moscow as part of an ancient battle between the forces of light and the forces of dark (the first film has a prologue from the 1342 Battle of Languedoc, the second opens with Tamerlane's conquests in Central Asia). Bekmambetov, who first garnered attention for his uses of tsarist history in his Bank Imperial commercials, borrows liberally from the past and from its cultural memories, a usage that had audiences and critics comparing the films to artists ranging from Dostoevskii to Bulgakov. For most Russian audiences members, the two films offered a chance to see “our cinema” (as the film's producer, Konstantin Ernst, called it) triumph over Hollywood blockbusters. The reason for the victory, as many claimed, was that the Watch films spoke to “the Russian soul,” a dialogue Bekmambetov profited from again with his remake of the Soviet comedy classic, Irony of Fate (Ironiia sud'by 2, 2008). Bekmambetov's Irony became the “first film of 2008” (a marketing ploy that had worked so successfully for Day Watch) and earned nearly $50 million.

The Night Watch phenomenon, which built upon the marketing methods and uses of historical memories first seen in Mikhalkov's film and again in the successful World War II franchise, led to a host of other blockbusters that attempted to make “our cinema” recapture “our history.” The first animated film that used Disney-style production and musical numbers, Prince Vladimir (Kniaz' Vladimir ; dir. Iurii Kulakov, 2006), used the slogan “it's your history” to entice parents and children alike to see its schmaltzy version of the Novgorod Prince who resists the sorcerer Krivzha in order to bring Orthodoxy and unity to the Russian lands. Blessed by Patriarch Aleksei II and granted the status of a “national film,” Prince Vladimir earned $5.6 million, a successful combination of marketing and history that has produced a sequel of sorts in the next animated feature, this time about the folk hero (and also an Orthodox saint) Il'ia Muromets.

The past and the manufactured past have proven even more profitable in recent feature-length films. Aside from Bekmambetov's blockbusters, the next highest-grossing films in Russian history all use various aspects of the past to offer commentary on contemporary patriotism and “our history.” Fedor Bondarchuk's Company 9 (Deviataia rota, 2005) is set during the 1988 Afghanistan War and, as Dawn Seckler notes, “abounds with sentimental regard for the war, maudlin emotionality, nationalistic fervor, and nostalgia for the fallen empire.” Company 9 earned $25.6 million at the box office, breaking the record set earlier in the year by the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War blockbuster, The Turkish Gambit (Turketskii gambit; dir. Dzhanik Faiziev), which earned $19.25 million. Falling in between these films on Russia's all-time box office list is the fantasy history, The Wolfhound (Volkodav; dir. Nikolia Lebedev, 2007), which is based on Maria Semenova's 1990s best-selling novels and conjures up a pre-Kievan past where cosmopolitanism and masculinity can out-duel evil. Filmed on an expensive outdoor Mosfil'm set and by the director of Star , Wolfhound earned critical scorn alongside its $20.8 million at the box office.

Taken together, these extraordinarily popular blockbusters all employed a similar formula for success. All the films mentioned above sifted through cultural memories of the past in an effort to package themselves as “our history,” “our cinema,” or “our answer to Hollywood.” The “our” speaks volumes, for the marketing of these movies successfully articulated a sense of Russian ethnic nationhood and sold their products in these terms. In the last four years, Russian cinema-goers could see blockbusters about good and evil in Moscow that evoked memories from Tamerlane to Bulgakov, an adventure set in the heady days of 1878 (when Russian troops were nearing Constantinople), an Afghan War buddy film where soldiers fought for their motherland like their forefathers did, a television series and feature film that exposed the seedier sides of the earlier fight for the motherland, an animated film that cast Prince Vladimir as a superhero who achieved “Russian unity,” and an imaginary past where tolerant heroes could defeat sorcerers. Rounding out this hodgepodge history is Bekmambetov's Irony of Fate 2 , which uses the Brezhnev-era classic to clean up at the box office largely on the basis of contemporary nostalgia for the Brezhnev era.

All of these forms of blockbuster history had screenings at the slick new multiplexes of Karo and other companies, earning significant portions of their returns in these halls. Borrowing from Hollywood, these films suggest, works if the cinematic appropriations can be packaged as “ours.” Moreover, this packaging of the past and of the Russian blockbuster will no doubt continue, particularly after the creation of the Foundation for the Support of Patriotic Film. Founded in 2005 by veterans associations of the military and FSB, the organization is currently headed by Sergei Bazhenov. The first product of the foundation's funding was 2007's The Apocalypse Code (Kod apokalipsisa; dir. Vadim Shmelev), which stars a female FSB agent named Dar'ia who saves the world from terrorists. The Foundation got its start after the success of Night Watch and its ability to defeat Hollywood at the box office, a triumph that Bazhenov and his group wanted to extend to the content on-screen, for they saw Hollywood films as products “that were simply anti-Russian” (qtd. Osipovich). In order to figure out what sorts of films to make, Bazhenov met with Mikhalkov, Konstantin Ernst, and Mikhail Shvydkoi (who joined the Foundation) to figure out how to package a patriotic film. Just as importantly, as Bazhenov claims, “we analyzed the market, we analyzed the production system, but the main thing we analyzed was what ‘patriotic' means and how to make it attractive for the spectator” (qtd. Stravinskaia). Ivan Sytin, the king of the lubok, couldn't have said it better. The Apocalypse Code seemed to be a success despite scathing reviews, for the film earned over $8 million after its premiere at the Pushkin Cinema. For Bazhenov this return proved that his formula, the state support he received for the film, and his Foundation was a success, for, “the viewer votes with his rubles. That's the most important thing, and we understand it. Today you can't force people into movie theaters” (qtd. Osipovich).

The question, of course, is what all this packaging of the past means. Is it, as Gladil'shchikov and other critics see it, some sort of insidious patriotism meant to brainwash “in a clear Soviet way”? Is it, in other words, an ideological occult that seduces its adherents to a national ideology that never has been? If one takes the view that a single sense of Russianness exists or that this Russian nationhood needs to be civic in its form, then the answer is certainly a resounding “yes.” And yet, if one takes the view that Russian nationhood has been articulated over the centuries and that this sense of Russianness is not a thing to be objectively described, but a field of cultural discourse that involves “continual argument, conflicting claims, competing images, and contradictory criteria,” then the multiple forms of Russianness marketed at the multiplex continues an ongoing historical process (Franklin and Widdis xii). The à la carte menu of national symbols, emotions, and memories that make up the recipes for blockbuster histories today take up where the lubok of 1900 and Soviet uses of the tsarist past left off. In his assessment of Richard Stites's article on Russian national symbols, Michael Geisler writes that Stites “takes the sheer wealth and diversity of Russian national symbols as a cue to remind us of the importance of considering the entire register of national symbols as a system of signification working in concert to maintain, stabilize, and reinforce the dominating construction of collective memory” (xxxiii). Putin-era films, in other words, represent just one of the many products where “a whole complex of beliefs, assumptions, habits, representations, and practices” are reproduced in a “banally mundane way, for the world of nations is the everyday world, the familiar terrain of contemporary times” (Billig 6). The journey into Putin-era patriotic culture, whether it takes the form of a stroll around the heart of Moscow or a visit to the multiplex to see the latest Russian blockbuster, is also a trip through familiar national symbols repackaged for convenient consumption. .

Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (OH)


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Stephen M. Norris© 2008

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Updated: 13 Jul 08