Karen Shakhnazarov: The Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaia imperiia, 2008)

reviewed by Lilya Kaganovsky © 2008

The attention is focused on a classical love triangle two boys and a girl. This is a memoir of my youth. Today I wonder at the fact that back then we all fell in love, got married, and divorced, and it did not occur to us, that the country in which we were living was already condemned and would soon vanish from the world map, that our life was going on against the background of global historic events. (Shakhnazarov cited in “Shakhnazarov Creates His First Film about Love”)

Set in Moscow in the fall/winter of 1973-74, Karen Shakhnazarov's film The Vanished Empire tells the story of three friends, or perhaps of first love, or better still, a story of growing up. Sergei Narbekov (Aleksandr Liapin) is the grandson of a famous archeologist (Armen Dzhigarkhanian), who had discovered the “vanished empire” of Khoresm and the City of the Winds. A first-year student at the pedagogical institute, Sergei makes money (mani) by selling off his grandfather's books to an antique book dealer, so that he can buy Wrangler jeans and Rolling Stones albums (plast rollingov) on the black market, and hang out in restaurants with his two friends, Kostia Denisov (Ivan Kupreenko) and Stepan Molodtsov (Egor Baranovskii). The three young men represent the spectrum of possibility of the “last Soviet generation”: Kostia, who has traveled abroad and comes from a family of diplomats wants to emigrate, to get out of Soviet Russia with its censorship, lack of freedom, and lines for beer, which he refers to as "Soviet servis." Sergei, a member of the intelligentsia, whose mother, father, and grandfather are all archeologists and specialist in the Near East, dreams of the “Imaginary West,” while concluding that in Russia, too, there may be some nice things, like girls. Stepan (whose last name points us to folkloric Russian nationalism) cannot understand either their desire or their dissatisfaction: perfectly pleased with how his life is turning out, with his round face and piggish eyes, he might easily become a Komsomol leader or a future agent of the KGB, but mostly spends his time courting Sergei's girls.

At the press conference following the premiere of The Vanished Empire, Shakhnazarov was asked if slogans such as “Slava KPSS,” rock groups like “The Rolling Stones,” and Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky—all of which have equal status in the film—did not at one time exist in some kind of antipathy to each other, or belong to different universes. “They didn't,” answered the director, “and besides, these are the kinds of questions that used to be asked at Komsomol meetings.” The questions may be Soviet and naïve, but for those viewers who have not read Alexei Yurchak's Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More (as Shakhnazarov clearly has),[1] they are not illegitimate: Shakhnazarov's latest film takes us back to the early seventies, to the Moscow we remember from Brezhnev-era cinema, before 1984 and before the “golden light” of late socialism faded and was replaced by the darkness of chernukha. 1974 was a time when Komsomol meetings and mandatory Party history courses lived side by side with American and British rock, with jeans and denim jackets purchased on the black market, a time when political “dissidence” could mean merely reading samizdat, or owning a volume of Bulgakov. Yet, for anyone who has not read Yurchak, the combination of these seemingly disparate elements may still appear incomprehensible, or at the very least, schizophrenic: these are the “internal paradoxes of life under socialism,” (Yurchak 2006: 8) that Shakhnazarov's film restages for us in overly precise details.

The film is clearly a product of “post-Soviet nostalgia,” which re-imagines the crash of Communism, as “the crash of something very personal, innocent, and full of hope, of the ‘passionate sincerity and genuineness' that marked childhood and youth” (Yurchak 2006: 8-9). “That time had a completely different color, than ours,” says the director in an interview with Izvestiia. “I am convinced that empires crumble at the level of the personal… It wasn't the deployment of soldiers to Afganistan in December that was responsible for the Soviet empire falling apart, but Beatles and Rolling Stones records” (Shakhnazarov in Ramm). In The Vanished Empire, Shakhnazarov tries to capture precisely this feeling of the personal, innocent, hopeful, and sincere—but what he produces instead is a simulacrum, a copy without an original. Everything about the film's mise-en-scène—the obsessive attention to period detail, the de-saturated color—appears bathed in the glowing light of nostalgia for late socialism, for childhood and youth. The period details are excessive, the clothes overly fashionable, the Soviet objects of everyday life don't fade into the background but remain insistently “present,” as if we are looking at a Mosfil'm studio lot rather than an actual Moscow street. We are painfully aware that the spectacle, as the narrator of Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002) suggests, “is being staged for us” and we are “expected to play a role.” Or, as one reviewer puts it, the exhibitionist character of the film, with its almost archeological reconstructions of the epoch, never forgets that on the other side of the screen, the audience is watching, full of nostalgia (s toi storony ekrana … smotriat – i nostalgiruiut) (Sapozhnikova).

In Looking Awry, Slavoj Zizek positions nostalgia as the opposite of pornography. Pornography is the genre supposed to “show everything,” to hide nothing, to register “all” with an objective camera and offer it to our view (Zizek 524). In pornography, writes Zizek, “the gaze qua object falls onto the subject-spectator.” The events unfolding before us speak to us directly from the screen. We don't need to wonder if they have been staged for us—we know that they have precisely us in mind, are there to elicit our enjoyment. This is what makes pornography perverse: not what is being shown on the screen, but the fact that it knows we are watching. The gaze qua object (that is to say, the object that looks back at us, that sees us seeing, that knows about our pleasures and desires), this gaze constitutes pornography's perversion. In order to extract the gaze-object in its pure, formal status—that is to say, to separate it from us, to make is look elsewhere—we must turn toward pornography's opposite: nostalgia. In nostalgia, instead of the object-gaze turned ruthlessly toward us (and forcing us to “see everything”), we have a gaze that is looking away, toward some distant and removed past, a past that is coded as its own hermetically sealed and private world that does not require our direct participation. The viewer of nostalgia is voyeuristic, invisible to the characters in the film, unseen but all-seeing, able to follow their every move, watch their every action. Distant and distinct from the eye of the spectator, the “gaze as object” remains “other,” separated and de-sutured from the spectating subject, looking in on the world “with the eyes of a mythical past” (Zizek 528). Costuming, lighting, slang, bits of realia—all these are used in The Vanished Empire to separate the viewer from the action on the screen, to create a sense of distance and an unexamined longing for the past.

The pleasure in this case appears “guilt-free”: we indulge our desire to wallow in the past, our nostalgia for the lost world not only of our youth, but of the whole country, a place that disappeared from world maps on or around 1991. The fact that this nostalgic gaze erases all other aspects of the Soviet system with its repressions, suffering, fear, and a profound sense of hopelessness, should not surprise us, and we may forgive Shakhnazarov this moment of retrospective myth-making. But in the broader context of post-Soviet cinema, particularly in light of his own 1988 City Zero (Gorod zero, 1988) which understood something about the system's collapse;[2] or recent films such as Aleksei Balabanov's Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007)—nostalgia as pornography (see Tony Anemone's review in KinoKultura 18, 2007)—or Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile, 2007), it is perhaps less forgivable to have a film that pretends that the personal was not corrupted by the political, that there was room for real intimacy in a system bent entirely on the destruction of the lichnoe (personal). Even the lyrics to “Moi adres—Sovetskii Soiuz,” referred to by the older Stepan at the end of the film, undermine that message: “Today, it's not the personal that matters,” wrote Vladimir Kharitonov in 1971, “but work-day reports.”[3]

In The Vanished Empire, Sergei calls himself a “dissident,” borrows Bulgakov's Master and Margarita from his girlfriend's mother, sells of copies of Fedor Gladkov's Cement (Tsement, 1924) and Marietta Shaginian's Hydrocentral (Gidrotsentral', 1929) in order to buy jeans and rock albums from scalpers, uses connections to get tickets to the Taganka theater to see Vladimir Vysotskii play Hamlet, and disrupts lessons in Party history with a-political flirting. Though the film has been mostly positively received, with almost all the emphasis placed on the love story and Bildungsroman,[4] and a general insistence (both on the part of Shakhnazarov and film reviewers) that the film has no political message, I don't think it is an exaggeration to suggest that this film is yet another of the many current examples of the “Russian idea” writ large on the screen. Like his love for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, or perhaps more accurately, like his Wrangler jeans and “Super Rifle” denim jacket, we must come to see Sergei's actions as merely outward trappings that don't actually represent or speak to the “true” character within. When, in the last scene, Sergei trades the denim jacket in for a ride out to Khoresm (the nominal “Vanished Empire” of the title), we understand that a transformation has taken place: Sergei has finally shed the false identity under which he has been living throughout the film. That false identity is formed by Western objects—Wrangler jeans, Marlboro cigarettes, Rolling Stones albums, English words inserted into Russian speech—the symbols of the “Imaginary West,” emptied of content but filled with a desire for an “elsewhere,” a path to a different, non-Soviet existence.[5] What Sergei must come to understand (what Stepan already knows, and what Kostia will never learn) is that these are false objects that detract from seeing the beauty of “real” Russia, hidden within. Two moments in the film confirm this symbolic logic: the Rolling Stones album that Sergei buys for Liuda (Lidiia Miliuzina) turns out to contain instead a recording of Tchaikovsky's “Swan Lake”—which she, of course, prefers to the British rockers; while Deep Purple's “Smoke on the Water” and Shocking Blue's “Venus” are performed by a Russian band, whose accented singing reminds us that we are hearing a “cover.”

The “Vanished Empire” of the title is not Khoresm or the City of the Winds, nor even the Soviet Union, though the 1974 setting, with its overly conscientious attention to period detail makes it at first appear that way. The “Vanished Empire” alluded to in the film is the West, in its imagined, fantastical form. The film's coda, set forward 30 years into the future, makes legible this nationalist, anti-West leaning. From the picturesque Moscow of the early seventies (where all women are dressed in the very latest fashions—sexy enough for even contemporary bloggers/reviewers to find them appealing: see Perematin) and its autumnal environs, we are transported inside Sheremetyevo 2, Russia's main “window to the West,” and one of the most depressing places on earth. A much older Stepan explains to an unseen narrator (presumably, Sergei, 30 years later) that he now works in Finland, and is unhappy: “Our address is the Soviet Union,” he says, “And what's this? Where's Moscow? I look around, and I don't recognize anything—everything is foreign, evil” (Nash adres—Sovetskii Soiuz. A eto chto? Gde Moskva? Ia ee ne uznaiu, vse chuzhoe, zloe kakoe-to). We also find out that Kostia, the most “Westward-looking” of the three, passed away, having failed to make a life for himself in the new Russia (ne vpisalsia on kak-to v nashu zhizn', Sergei tells Stepan). Sergei, however, has followed in his family's footsteps and become a translator from Farsi. The dream of the West, with its clothing, its music, its porn, and its freedom of movement, when finally available to Russia's citizens, dissolves in the reality of displacement and dislocation, signified by the final airport scene. The only character who ostensibly “makes it” is Sergei, who looks East instead of West, shedding his false Western wear and his put-on identity, now able to recognize the value of Tchaikovsky hidden beneath the covers of the Rolling Stones, and devote himself to an exploration of a vanished, forgotten world.

Shakhnazarov's The Vanished Empire has been dubbed “the anti-Cargo 200 ” because it stages, with loving details, “only the good things” about the Soviet past. The fact that this picture is made up of objects as equally “emptied” of meaning as the objects of the Imaginary West used to be, only heightens the awareness of spectacle and simulacrum, of the distancing effects of nostalgia. As Yurchak has suggested, in the nineties “the Imaginary West was no longer to be found anywhere and was lost forever … [but] the greatest discovery of all was that one could now turn back to the Soviet past with an equally astonished glance” (Yurchak 206). Shakhnazarov's film offers us just such an “astonished glance,” looking to the Soviet past for an “elsewhere” to the foreignness and evil of present-day Russia.

Lilya Kaganovsky
University of Illinois

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Notes

1] I am being facetious, of course, in making this claim; however, Shakhnazarov's film restages, in chapter and verse, all the cultural elements of “late socialism.” See Yurchak.

2] This was of course before Shakhnazarov was named the general director of the Mosfil'm studio and oversaw its non-privatization. “The state should be involved in its cinema,” declared Shakhnazarov in a recent interview with Izvestiia (Ramm 2008)

3] «Мой адрес—Советский Союз», music by D. Tukhmanov, lyrics by V. Kharitonov, 1971:
Колёса диктуют вагонные, // Где срочно увидеться нам... // Мои номера телефонные // Разбросаны по городам.
Заботится сердце, волнуется, // Почтовый пакуется груз. // Мой адрес не дом и не улица, // Мой адрес - Советский Союз.
Вы, точки-тире телеграфные, // Ищите на стройках меня. // Сегодня не личное главное, //А сводки рабочего дня.
Мы там, где ребята толковые, // Мы там, где плакаты «Вперёд!», // Где песни рабочие, новые // Страна трудовая поёт.
Заботится сердце, волнуется, // Почтовый пакуется груз. // Мой адрес не дом и не улица, // Мой адрес - Советский Союз.

4] As Ivan Kulikov puts it in his review, “The Russian screens are about show The Vanished Empire of Karen Shakhnazarov—a romantic prequel to The Messenger [Kur'er], made in the fashionable style of “classmates.com” (Odnoklassniki.Ru)”.

5] “Zagranitsa lay at the intersection of these two attitudes toward the wider world, signifying an imaginary place that was simultaneously knowable and unattainable, tangible and abstract, mundane and exotic … zagranitsa as a Soviet imaginary “elsewhere” … was not necessarily about any real place. The “West” (zapad) was its archetypal manifestation. It was produced locally and existed only at the time when the real West could not be encountered. We will call this version of the elsewhere, the Imaginary West (Yurchak, 159).


Works Cited

Kulikov, Ivan.“Imperiiu ne teriali?” Film.ru 14 February 2008,

Perematin, Adolf [review] Afisha.ru 17 Feb. 2008.

Ramm, Vita. “Kinorezhisser Karen Shakhnazarov: ‘V raspade sovetskoi imperii kliuchevaia rol' sygrali ‘bitly' i ‘rollingi'. Izvestiia 11 February 2008.

Sapozhnikova, Sofia. [review], Afisha.ru 18 February 2008.

“Shakhnazarov Creates His First Film about Love,” IC Russia, 22 January 2008

Yurchak, Alexei. Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006.

Zizek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1991.


The Vanished Empire, Russia, 2008
Color, 105 minutes
Director: Karen Shakhnazarov
Scriptwriter: Sergei Rokotov, Evgenii Nikishov
Cinematography: Shandor Berkeshi
Art Director: Liudmila Kusakova
Sound: Gul’sara Mukataeva
Music: Konstantin Shevelev
Cast: Aleksandr Liapin, Lidiia Miliuzina, Egor Baranovskii, Vladimir Il’in, Ivan Kupreenko, Armen Dzhigarkhanian, Ol’ga Tumaikina, Tat’iana Iakovenko, Ianina Kalganova, Vasia Shakhnazarov
Producer: Karen Shakhnazarov
Production: Mosfil’m

Karen Shakhnazarov: The Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaia imperiia, 2008)

reviewed by Lilya Kaganovsky © 2008

Updated: 27 Sep 08