Kirill Serebrennikov: Yuriev Day (Iur'ev Den', 2008)

reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky© 2008

Living through a Loss

The reactions of critics to Kirill Serebrennikov's latest film Yuriev Day radically exclude a middle ground: critics are either completely disgusted by the film's cynicism and gore, but most of all by its glorification of self-humiliation of the intelligent in lieu of the age-old tradition of “going to the people” (see, for instance Zintsov, Tarkhanova, Barabash, or Dolin) or else they praise Serebrennikov's work in exalted terms as a unique manifestation of the Russian soul and the spiritual quest typical for Russian cultural tradition (see Plakhov, Gorelova, Popov, Milan). Although I definitely like the film, when reading these reviews I felt more solidarity with the first group of critics than with the latter. Yet, at the same time, my liking of Yuriev Day has nothing to do with Russian spirituality and the much-emphasized “Russianness”. According to FIPRESCI's General Secretary Klaus Eder, such “Russianness” is responsible for the film's international success.[1] If this suggestion is correct, then the film's success is based on the use of kitschy clichés and stereotypes, which depict Russia as a permanently snow-covered place inhabited by people who are poor, long-suffering, but so-oooo spiritual! I suspect that the possibility of such a perception is also responsible for the irritation of many Russian film critics who speak out against the film.

In my view, this is the most contradictory of Serebrennikov's films, and the contradictions penetrate the visual plane and the storyline as well as characters' representation. In fact, these contradictions are already hidden in the film's title. The plot unfolds—and the film was shot—in a small provincial town 150 miles from Moscow, called Yuriev-Pol'skii (St. George the Polish); tellingly, this town does not even have a hotel, and when the film was in production the entire crew had to drive there every day from nearby Suzdal. The film's protagonist, the international opera diva Liuba, or Liubov' Pavlovna (Kseniia Rappoport), arrives here with her 20-year old son Andrei (Roman Shmakov) before their departure to Europe for a long stay, if not permanent residence. The purpose of this pilgrimage is purely symbolic: to visit the place where the family came from, to absorb the motherland before leaving it. Having arrived in Yuriev, Liuba pretends (unnaturally) to be excited. She recites Blok's verse and exclaims “What a beauty!” while looking at the desolated and foggy landscape. The son, on the contrary, is irritated and angry. He feels the artificial and forced nature of this way-too-bookish “return to the roots.” But after a few hours spent in Yuriev, Andrei disappears in the cold air, as if following his mother's pathetic suggestion: “Dissolve in the air of the motherland!” He does just that, and the day in Yuriev turns Liuba's entire life upside down. After Andrei's disappearance she abandons her opera career, forgets about Europe, and stays in Yuriev to find her son, while at the same time immersing herself deeper and deeper in the everyday horror of Russian life. The film draws on symbols such as fog and blizzard, yet at the same time it presents an entirely prosaic image of Russia stretching out for thousands of miles beyond urban centers and beyond (more or less) modern civilization, or, as Liuba puts it, “twenty years backwards”: a life surrounded by filth, spilled blood, drunkenness, extreme poverty, and the constant terror where everyone fight against everyone else—the almost reflective, frequently self-destructive, but customary, and even comfortable brand of psychological and physical violence. Thus the day in Yuriev (which is one meaning of Yuriev Day) defines both a turning point in Liuba's life and what happens with her after Andrei's disappearance.

At the same time, Yuriev Day stands for Yuri's Day, or St. George's Day (26 November), the day when in medieval Russia serfs were permitted to change their masters—the day of freedom, albeit limited. This meaning of the title suggests the “spiritual” interpretation of the film as a story of the liberation of Liuba's spirit from pride and individualism, a story of finding peace through tragedy and through her newly acquired sense of belonging to the collective “people's” body.

Such an interpretation is most emphatically manifested in the final part of the film, when Rappoport's performance reaches truly virtuoso power. The final twenty minutes show Liuba, who continues to live in Yuriev despite the fact that she has almost given up the hope to find her son, dead or alive. She wears the same clothes as the other women, having long ago changed her stiletto boots for felt boots (valenki) and her expensive fur-coat for a padded jacket (vatnik); she colors her graying hair with the same horrendous dye that the others use (“intimate minium”), so it blends with the hair color of her newly-found friend Tania (Evgeniia Kuznetsova, a non-professional actress, head of the literary department in Moscow's Sovremennik Theatre, where Serebrennikov had directed two productions). She finds herself a job as a cleaning lady at the prison hospital and there takes on the role of a symbolic mother for one prisoner, the name-sake of her son Andrei (Oleg Khripunov), who also claims to belong to those five per cent of people who will never learn how to drive a car. When Liuba finds this young, yet seasoned criminal, in a pool of his own blood after he had been slain by his cell-mates, she cries and washes his body. At this point Oleg Lukichev, whose camerawork is truly impressive, diligently reproduces the classical composition of the Pietà, leaving no doubt that by her humility, compassion, and self-abnegation Liuba has been elevated to the status of the Mother of God. This scene is followed by a finale, when Liuba—after months of non-singing—attends choir practice in the church and, after being scolded by the chorus-master for individual self-expression (“Do you not know musical notes at all?”), she joins the unified and depersonalized chorus of angelic voices. The camera, in the meantime, focuses on the chorus master (Tania Kuznetsova). Despite her hair color, she looks like a replica of the Ivan Surikov's classical painting “Boyarynia Morozova” (1887), depicting a historical character and fierce Old Believer, at the moment of her forced departure from Moscow.

To the credit of the filmmakers, they do not follow popular excitement for the Russian Orthodox Church, and the priest, father Arsenii (Robert Vaab), is depicted quite sarcastically: as one who is much more concerned by the church walls subsiding than by faith or similar subjects. The association between Yuriev's church choir, consisting of women only and Old Believers, suggests that the path taken by Liuba and the other women is very different from the “official,” or rather mainstream, interpretation of faith. For Liuba faith suggests neither self-admiration not power (unlike, for instance, in Pavel Lungin's The Island [Ostrov, 2007]); it merely helps to survive in the “heart of darkness”, in the cold and unfriendly world. Although in this final scene Liuba's stunning voice (we hear the Bolshoi Theatre's mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina when Liuba sings in the beginning) is indistinctive from the others, the singers' common breath fills the cold space of the church with little clouds—self-made heavens, in other words. And this is the last take of the film.

Yet even with these accents in mind, the logic implied in these episodes is, in my view, quite appalling. It stems clearly from Tolstoi's and Dostoevskii's anti-individualism (it is worth noting that Iurii Arabov, the constant co-author of Aleksandr Sokurov, suggested this script in response to Serebrennikov asking him to write a screenplay about Dostoevskii [Shigareva]).[2] Despite a venerable tradition, this looks particularly irrelevant in the socio-political context of today's Russia and in the context of Yuriev as we see it in the film. In short, observing the debilitating effects of the “little terror” (to use Tat'iana Tolstaia's expression) in contemporary provincial Russian life, the film praises the virtues of self-abnegation which implies that only such virtue can sustain the harsh tests of this life. Yuriev Day may very well be interpreted as an enthusiastic suggestion to purge individual pride and dignity and seek ways of dissolving the self in the life of the “collective” national body and soul (and many critics readily picked up these cues). This is why Liuba is so irritating and artificial at the beginning of the film; she is playing a person out of place, pathetic and ridiculous with her nostalgia, arrogance, expensive outfit and concert-like singing from the top of the bell-tower. In these scenes Rappoport delivers a caricature of the individual in a world where any individualism is irrelevant. This is why Liuba becomes strong and resolute when she abandons hope: so strong that even criminals and the cynical cop admit her organic authority.

This logic is also responsible for the binary structure of the film's space which is almost evenly divided between the two manifestations of collective identities (a church and a prison), while the personal space is completely devalued and depersonalized. Thus, Tania's home where Liuba stays in Yuriev is constantly violated by an invader, Tania's permanently drunken cousin Kol'ka (the Satirikon Theatre's actor Timofei Tribuntsev). Another character, Seryi (literally – the gray), brilliantly played by the theatre actor Sergei Sosnovskii in his screen debut—is a former con, now cop, who becomes Liuba's lover, protector and mediator between different areas of this terrifying world; he lives in a dorm, with a neighbor (played by the famous poet Andrei Rodionov), and sleeps in his clothes, which is fitting since his room looks like a public hallway at best.

These images serve as visual evidence for the depersonalization that is already present in Yuriev. However, this achievement did not bring any peace, let alone happiness, to the town's inhabitants. The argument that they lived (and survived!) “like this” for centuries is supported by the view of medieval churches and Yuriev's ancient citadel. Yet this still does not make the suggested solution more acceptable: perhaps the debilitating lack of individual values can explain why the churches are on the brink of destruction with their walls covered in a disgusting mixture of dirt and paint, and why the entire town looks as if the war had just ended here. The interiors of all spaces inhabited by the characters have no face and no individuality; in fact, the church looks like the prison, and vice versa. Distinctions are lost entirely: this is the first sign of chaos, and not of a carnival one (production design Iurii Grigorovich).

Besides, the film's authors offer quite a sober outlook on the life of Yuriev's collective body. We see Kol'ka who regularly beats and mutilates his cousin Tanya demanding the money for alcohol, yet the victim never reports him to the police – we are relatives! The suffering and dying prisoners in the cell for those infected with tuberculosis—a literal hell—do not think twice before attempting to rape Liuba after she, the good Samaritan woman, brought them food purchased from her own money. Even “normal” women, let alone cops, do not want to hear about Liuba's tragedy; they prefer to pour their mundane problems onto to her, probably because they want to make her feel guilty (a perfect example of “little terror”)—for their poor and empty lives, as if the loss of her son was a punishment for living too well, as if she had not earned her life through her talent and work.

Thus, the values and virtues superimposed by the “anti-individualist” logic are nowhere to be found: they are not lost, since it is doubtful that the idyllic collective body and mutual love and solidarity were ever present in the first place in Yuriev, or elsewhere, for that matter. Rather, they were invented by Russian classics as manifestation of their romantic, yet anti-individualist, strivings. Indeed, this set of romantic simulacra has outlived wars and revolutions, and become a symbol of “Russianness” that still seduces those who want to be seduced—in the form of “Russian Russian” kitsch or in the form of nationalist populism. Even in the film, let alone in contemporary Russian culture, these values and virtues are absent, and this is why the attempt to elevate them once again generates a nauseous effect. Been there, done that.

However, at the same time Yuriev Day contains a different logic, no less grounded in the film's visual images and plot-line, yet much less obvious for the viewers and critics. Serebrennikov's film is about loss as a necessary foundation for existence. This motif is clearly detectable in his previous works in cinema, in Ragin (2004) and Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zhertvu, 2006) but it was never as pronounced as in Yuriev Day. This loss is, certainly, represented by the disappearance of Andrei, but the territory of Yuriev is also the territory of total loss. The house where Liuba's grandfather lived is no longer; the name of the river has been forgotten; everything of Liuba's “other” life vanished in the blizzard. In Yuriev she even looses her beautiful voice—at least for a significant part of the film's action. In this state Liuba hears herself singing on TV, she enters a prison-like building, but the reflection of a fire overshadows her image on the TV screen.

This sensation is foreshadowed in the first scene in the town, before Andrei's disappearance, when she stands on the bridge across a river with a forgotten name. Liuba in vain addresses passing locals: they turn away or even run from her without saying a word. The entire setting bears the impression of the heroine's intrusion into the world of shadows—those for whom loss has already become a permanent state of (non)-being. Liuba has yet to become one part of that world.

At the beginning of the film Tania tells Liuba a story about a newly-wed couple who lived happily without knowing that their house stood on a heap of unexploded wartime shells. After they learned about this, and despite the fact that these shells were successfully removed, their happiness was over. “What's the meaning of this tale?”—asks a puzzled Liuba. “Life is happier when you live on shells,”—paradoxically responds Tania.

Happier? Hardly. More honest, perhaps. Since loss is a fundamental truth, or rather a fundamental horror of Russian (and not only Russian) life. Consciously living on this foundation requires courage and strength. Liuba learns to live with and within her loss, but this has nothing to do with joining to the collective body. She remains alone, distinguished by her loss, yet she learns to transform her loss into solid ground, into the source of her—far too personal!—strength and tragic freedom. This is Liuba's negative epiphany.

She is aware that this loss—and this town as the epitome of loss—has absorbed her entire life. When asked whether she is going to leave Yuriev, she responds: “How can I? Everything that I have is here.” Yet when we think what she has, especially in comparison with what she used to have as an internationally acclaimed diva, we understand that she has only one value left: her loss. The loss is imprinted in the whiteness of the snow-covered landscape: despite expectations, there is nothing beautiful about it, only the absence of a presence.

This loss is inseparable from disappearance as a philosophic theme. As Seryi explains, according to official statistics, every year some 30,000-40,000 people disappear in Russia without a trace. The loss swallows them—Russia thus becomes a foggy territory where any positive foundation of existence are blurred and anyone can be lost in its routinized chaos. Arabov admits that the fear of being lost lies at the core of his screenplay:

As any intelligent man living in Russia, I am concerned with an obsessive idea. This is the idea that we can disappear, dissolve in a country which is older and greater than we are. Sometimes Russia seems to be a mother and sometimes a stepmother. In fact, I was writing about the disappearance of a man, about his/her complete metamorphosis. This is my personal chimera that has chased me for a long time… I always had a sensation that everything I am used to can vanish at any given moment. Either I can change my destiny, or circumstances can change my life entirely. This story [of Yuriev Day ] is about such a fear and temptation. (Arabov, Press release)

The paradox and originality of Yuriev Day lays in the fact that the film—not in the most consistent way, frequently slipping into convenient banalities—nevertheless suggests a life with the loss as the only accessible and tangible reality. In this respect we may notice that only loss is able to connect the fragments of the distorted and shattered world—this is why Liuba finds reflections of her son and his features in several unrelated characters: in a young monk who arrived at the monastery in a pair of non-matching shoes; in a prisoner who cannot drive a car; even in the body of a drowned stranger. Having accepted his loss as the irreplaceable foundation of her life, Liuba acquires a tragic freedom—she has nothing to loose any more and therefore she is not afraid of anybody or anything. If her first encounter with Tanya's drunken cousin ends with Liuba paying him off, during his last visit she, without much ado, throws boiling water into his face and returns to dying her hair. She scolds the prisoners who try to rape her with such force that they accept her authority: “You are a brave one!” In fact by the end of the film, she becomes much more individual and self-sufficient than at the film's beginning. Yet coupled with the aforementioned scenes of her “belonging,” this produces a puzzling effect.

The acceptance of loss as the foundation of existence is the philosophical response to today's nostalgia for the “great” (Soviet, imperial) past and for the neo-traditionalist turn of the political and cultural mainstream of Putin's Russia. Serebrennikov's film puts forward a cultural strategy adequate to the historical trauma—of the Soviet past, the Soviet catastrophe. In this respect, the inner logic of Yuriev Day may be compared with the great texts of the 1920s about the tragedy of a culture lost in the catastrophe of the Revolution and re-discovered in its loss, such as Osip Mandel'shtam's Egyptian Stamp (Egipetskaia marka, 1928) or Konstantin Vaginov's The Goat Song (Kozlinaia pesn', 1928). It also reminds of Tarkovskii's Andrei Rublev (1969) and Venedikt Erofeev's Moscow to the End of the Line (Moskva-Petushki, 1970), both of which also treat the philosophical loss—of God no less—through a mixture of naturalism and subverted spiritual motifs.

But unlike these authors, Serebrennikov and Arabov do not subscribe entirely to the philosophy of loss. The film endlessly fluctuates between the pathos of belonging to the collective and depersonalized body of the “people” and the tragic, yet sober philosophy of existential loss. These two logics are, alas, incompatible, and their incompatibility is responsible for the film's contradictory nature. Furthermore, the discourse of self-abnegation for the sake of collective belonging is kitschy, and hence much more recognizable both through its visual and verbal signifiers. Therefore it is likely to dominate the perception of Yuriev Day, which is unfortunate, because such a perception overshadows the film's actual depth and artistry.

Mark Lipovetskii
University of Boulder, Colorado

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Notes

1] The film screened at Locarno IFF in August 2008, where it garnered three minor and non-official awards, viz Youth Jury Prize, Ecumenical Jury Prize—Special Mention, and International Cine-Club Federation Award. Kseniia Rappoport was also awarded by the Best Actress prize for the role of Liuba at Kinotavr 2008.

2] Arabov himself comments further that Serebrennikov wanted a script about how Dostoevskii lost his money and his wife's earrings at the gambling table of German casinos, and that Arabov, after getting acquainted with Serebrennikov's work, proposed Yuriev Day (Popov).


Works Cited

“[Press Release]”

“Programma ‘sem' posviashchenii XXI veka' na festivale ‘Moskovskaia prem'era'. Iurii Arabov”, ProfiCinema 2008

Barabash, Ekaterina. “Skazka strashnaia, ledianaia a lubianaia,” Nezavisimaia gazeta 18 September 2008.

Dolin, Anton. “Mal'chika i ne bylo, “ Expert 37, 22 September 2008.

Gorelova, Viktoria. “Russkii treugol'nik,” Moskovskii komsomolets 19 September 2008.

Milian, Maks. “ Yuriev Den' —kino dlia izbrannykh” Kino-Teatr, 19 September 2008.

Plakhov, Andrei “Iur'ev den'”, 18 August 2008, cited from Kommersant.

Popov, Aleksei. “Novyi fil'm Kirilla Serebrennikova vykhodit v prokat 18 sentiabria. ProfiCinema 10 September 2008.

Shigareva, Iuliia, “Kino ia snimal ne dlia vlastei”, AiF online 13 June 2008.

Tarkhanova, Katia. “Kinotavr 2008,” Kinokadr.ru 15 June 2008,

Zintsov, Oleg. “Ee krepost',” Vedomosti 19 September 2008.


Yuriev Day, (alternative titles Yuri’s Day, St George’s Day) Russia, 2008.
Color, 135 min.
Director Kirill Serebrennikov
Scriptwriter Iurii Arabov
Director of Photography Oleg Lukichev
Production Design Iurii Grigorovich
Costume Design Irina Grazhdankina
Composer Sergei Nevskii
Sound Tilo Feinermann
Editing Olga Grinshpun
Cast: Kseniia Rappoport, Evgeniia Kuznetsova, Sergei Sosnovskii, Roman Shmakov, Sergei Medvedev, Igor Khripunov,
General Producer Natalia Mokritskaia
Producer Ul’iana Savel’eva
Co-Producers Mila Rozanova, Karsten Stoeter, Benny Drechsel
Production: Film Company “New People”, with participation of Rohfilm (Germany), “National Reserve Corporation”
Financial support from the Federal Agency of Culture and Cinematography of the Russian Federation, Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung (MDM)

Kirill Serebrennikov: Yuriev Day (Iur'ev Den', 2008)

reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky© 2008

Updated: 15 Oct 08