Issue 27 (2010)

Iurii Moroz: Pelagiia and the White Bulldog (Pelagiia i belyi bul'dog, 2009)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2010

pelagiya Of particular interest in the aftermath of the collapse of large states, even allowing for social, political and cultural continuities between the old and the new, are the crises of identity that ensue. These crises take many forms, not least the new state’s efforts to legitimize the present and articulate its often contradictory relationship to the recently—and not so recently—departed past(s). As revolutionary leaders after 1917 sought to recast Tsarist Russia as the Old Regime to Soviet Russia's New Order, so post-Soviet Russia has found itself in a protracted twenty-year crisis about its past that has included sins of omission and commission. In both cases, the successful resolution or pernicious persistence of these internal crises depended and depends on the mass media and popular culture, and their ability to implicate large parts of the population in the construction of these new identities. In the postwar era, television has played a seminal role in this process. To give one example, the seemingly ubiquitous period miniseries on British television in the 1970s and 1980s (including Oliver Twist, Brideshead Revisited, Persuasion, The Far Pavilions, and Edward and Mrs. Simpson, to name a few) evoked a broad popular nostalgia that was the product both of a vanishing imperial identity and a still emerging post-imperial British (or perhaps English) identity. In a similar vein, Russia’s recent television miniseries (including The Idiot, Anna Karenina, The Master and Margarita, and The First Circle) evoke contradictory nostalgias perhaps, simultaneously heroicizing and condemning Russia's pasts. In both examples, these miniseries capture post-decline identities in flux. 

pelagiya The detective genre in Soviet and post-Soviet television has been profitably examined for, among other things, its ability to help negotiate the challenges for Soviet and post-Soviet culture at critical times of decline and renewal (see Theimer Nepomnyashchy, 164-77; Baraban, 91-104; Sobolev, 63-85). Elena Prokhorova has argued that while Brezhnev-era television series epitomized the culture of stagnation, privileging “stable structures and recycled narratives,” and serving as a hedge against the fear of change, the rise of crime and detective series on television in the 1990s reflected both the rise in actual crime and the uneasy search for a particularly Russian form of escapism from present-day realities (Prokhorova 516). Iurii Moroz’s faithful television adaptation of Boris Akunin’s novel Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog may well represent a director's response to this dilemma.

Neither Moroz nor Akunin have been shy about commenting on Russia's current political and social ills, viz. Moroz's frank treatment of prostitution in his earlier film The Spot (Tochka, 2006), and the Georgian Grigorii Chkhartishvili’s (Akunin's real name) assertion that Russia now stands at "a similar crossroads" to the one she faced a century earlier when she chose a road that led to "the tragedies of the twentieth century" (interview with Akunin in 2003, in Akunin, 271). Pelagiia, in both content and form, is designed to evoke a simpler time with fewer real-life consequences to actions. Unlike the hardboiled detective fiction of the 1990s, this detective series is frozen in a mythic past, with conscious nods to earlier detective and literary genres, channeling Father Brown, Miss Marples, Hercule Poirot, and Sherlock Holmes, and invoking Chekhov, Lermontov, Derzhavin, and Dostoevskii . The eight installments of this series (a total of 336 minutes of play-time) allow for an extremely slow unfolding of the plot, mirroring the unhurried pace of life in the idealized bucolic setting of provincial Russia created by the director.


When wealthy widow Tatishcheva (Nina Usatova), in Zavolzhsk, writes to her nephew—and parish bishop—Mitrofanii (Aleksandr Feklistov) that her prized pedigree white bulldog has been poisoned, the bishop sends Sister Pelagiia (Polina Kutepova), a benign, freckled nun with fine sleuthing skills, to investigate the matter. On her travels to the estate, she comes across local police with two headless bodies that have washed up on the banks of a local river.

pelagiyaSoon after her arrival, another of Tatishcheva's bulldogs is killed. The region is already being investigated by a malignant synodal inspector, Bubentsov (Timofei Tribuntsev), sent from St. Petersburg and accompanied by a sinister aide Spasennyi (Aleksandr Golubev) and a brute Circassian footman Murad (Sergei Legostaev). Bubentsov and Pelagiia investigate these local events separately, he officiously and publicly, she unobtrusively and privately. Bubentsov is convinced that the beheadings are the doings of local heathens who engage in pagan rituals that have no place in modern Russia and that the animal killings are a separate matter, designed to force their owner into an early grave for the purposes of her inheritance. Pelagiia is convinced the answers lie elsewhere. As in all detective stories of this kind, Bubentsov and Pelagiia encounter a range of possible suspects: the manager of Tatishcheva's estate, Stepan (Sergei Igriumov); a photographer Poggio (Maksim Matveev); Tatishcheva's granddaughter, Naina (Viktoriia Isakova) and grandson, Petia (Aleksei Vertkov); a maid Tania (Elena Plaksina); a merchant, Sytnikov (Leonid Okunev); a landowner Krasnov (Sergei Koltakov) and a variety of local officials and dignitaries. As various of these in turn are murdered in brutal fashion (one by a photo tripod through the chest), Pelagiia finds herself in mortal peril from the perpetrator, narrowly escaping with her life. Her deduction that Bubentsov is the killer leads to a shootout with local police in which Bubentsov is arrested and Murad shot dead. The final episode of the series is devoted to Bubentsov's trial, where Pelagiia realizes that she has misidentified the killer, and, in a dramatic Perry Mason moment, identifies the actual murderer.

pelagiyaAt one level, this is a comedy of provincial manners and mores. The intertwined permutations of these characters’ platonic and carnal designs on each other approach farce at times: Naina's hopeless and self-destructive infatuation with Bubentsov contrasts with Stepan and Poggio's unrequited love for her and with Sytnikov's more formal courtship; Krasnov’s priapic interest in and Petia's innocent devotion to the maid Tania contrast with her carnal consummation with the Circassian Murad; minor flirtations abound between the governor's wife and Bubentsov, between Krasnov and Tatishcheva; even Pelagiia’s alter- ego Polina Lisitsina flirts, to specific ends, with Poggio and Police Chief Lagrange in turn; Tatishcheva’s love of her dogs is deep enough to cause her to languish at death's door when they are killed. Yet love hides much as well, and as Naina cryptically tells her family over afternoon tea: “Love is also a crime [zlodeistvo].” Even the main protagonists are not well-drawn, however, and barely develop in the course of the production. Pelagiia has an ethereal quality, often placed in the background of the scenes, watching and listening to those around her, to whom she is often invisible. Mitrofanii is her antithesis: substantial and solid in his black robes and klobuk. Bubentsov is a caricature of arrogance and malign intent.

pelagiyaIn the spirit of the detective genre, this is a tale of maskings and unmaskings, of deceptions and revelations. The murderer always appears robed and grotesquely masked, until his final “unmasking” in court. Naina’s identity (and intent) are masked when she wears the same robe and mask on one occasion. The first two murder victims are unidentifiable, their heads having been removed. Literary allusions and metaphorical language define this polite society, obscuring the real meanings behind the words spoken. Bubentsov, for example, has come to Zavolzhsk not to investigate paganism in the parish as he claims, but rather to impose the Sovereign’s will from the center.  Even a masked ball in one scene seems a bawdy and rather shoddy provincial act of self-delusion, aping the sumptuous masked balls of St. Petersburg. Pelagiia herself undergoes repeated unmaskings.  Her habit and wimpole render her pale face into a mask of sorts, as she ghosts through many scenes. In the course of the film, the naive, clumsy nun is “unmasked” as an astute sleuth; she sloughs off her clothing (her monastic masking) in order to survive drowning; she also 'unmasks' to emerge as the social butterfly, Polina, in order to better interact with society; in the final scenes, she masks again, donning her habit and wimpole to return to the courtroom as sleuth for the revelation of the final truth. 

pelagiyaThese characters and their machinations are always subordinated to the lead actor in this drama: provincial Russia.  Panoramic shots of the sylvan Russian countryside, and close-ups of butterflies, dragonflies, and flowers, and rivers wraithed in morning mist, convey the ineffable and indomitable character of provincial Russia, for which the murders and mayhem are but a mosquito’s bite.  The true threat here, Moroz (and Akunin) seem to be saying, is not to man or dog, but to “real” (i.e. provincial) Russia. The threat comes from modernity in its many forms, as the modern center (St. Petersburg) intrudes into the Russian periphery (Zavolzhsk). The threat from the center is personified in the figure of cynical inspector Bubentsov, who surveills local life, condescends to local elites, and persecutes local villagers for their “pagan” beliefs, in an effort to aggrandize himself and to extend the Sovereign's reach to this region (“The Sovereign is dissatisfied with all of your provinces,” Bubentsov tells the local governor’s wife). Smaller signs of modernity’s incursions portend badly. Krasnov's bicycle is contrasted with shots of horses and carts. The governor’s wife covets the latest fashions from the capital, replacing the faces of the models on the fashion plates with her own face, until she is hauled back to provincial reality by the mooing of cows outside her window. The camera, the eye of modernity, is perhaps the most ubiquitous portent of the future in this film. In the hands of the photographer Poggio, modern portraiture eclipses the art of painting and eventually opens the way for modern pornography. A photograph provides Pelagiia with the crucial clue that helps her solve the crimes. The first murders turn out to be have been committed over money, another sign of the incursion of corrupt modern graft and greed into a region that prides itself on being above petty bribe-taking and corruption.

pelagiyaStill, if Moroz's (and Akunin's) message here is that “real” Russia should be left to its own devices, it is not a simple message. A variety of cinematographic techniques convey the confected nature of this past and hold the audience at bay: camera shots through a telescope and a spy-hole, and intermittent use of iris shots, convey to the audience the closed and ultimately unreal nature of this provincial world. The static black and white photographs used for the scene-breaks, bleeding into technicolor as they give way to moving images, provide another clear marker of past realities and present imaginings. These techniques produce a highly theatricalized impression, as scene after scene are played as if on the stage of a provincial theater. This production does not draw the viewer into the action, as the best movies are able to do. Pelagiia and the White Bulldog is telling us simultaneously about the Russia We Have Lost and the Way We Never Were.[1]

Frederick C. Corney
The College of William & Mary

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1] For the demagogic nostalgification of the Russian past, see Stanislav Govorukhin's film, The Russia we Lost (Rossiia, kotoruiu my poteriali 1992). On the self-deluding tendencies of nostalgia in American culture, see Coontz.

Works Cited

Akunin, Boris Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog (New York: Random House, 2007), 271.

Baraban, Elena, "A Little Nostalgia: The Detective Novels of Alexandra Marinina," International Fiction Review 32, no. 1-2 (2005): 91-104;

Coontz, Stephanie, The Way We Never Were. American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992).

Nepomnyashchy, Catharine Theimer. "'Imperially, My Dear Watson': Sherlock Holmes and the Decline of the Soviet Empire," in Russian and Soviet Film Adaptations of Literature, 1900-2001: Screening the Word (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005), 164-77.

Prokhorova, Elena. “Can the Meeting Place Be Changed? Crime and Identity Discourse in Russian Television Series of the 1990s,” Slavic Review 62, no. 3 (2003), 516.

Sobolev, Olga, "Boris Akunin and the Rise of the Russian Detective Genre," Australian Slavonic & East European Studies 18, no. 1-2 (2004): 63-85.

Pelagiia and the White Bulldog, Russia, 2009
Color, 8 parts (42 min. each part)
Director: Iurii Moroz
Scriptwriter: Zoia Kudria
Cinematography: Anatolii Petriga
Art Direction: Ekaterina Kozhevnikova
Sound: Pavel Stasenko
Editing: Alla Urazbaeva
Cast: Aleksandr Feklistov, Polina Kutepova, Maksim Vazhov, Dar'ia Moroz, Aleksandr Sirin, Andrei Mezhulis, Timofei Tribuntsev, Nina Usatova
General Producer: Ruben Dishdishian
Producers: Sergei Danielian, Aram Movsesian, Iurii Moroz 
Production: Morozfil'm

Iurii Moroz: Pelagiia and the White Bulldog (Pelagiia i belyi bul'dog, 2009)

reviewed by Frederick C. Corney © 2010

Updated: 11 Jan 10