KinoKultura: Issue 33 (2011)
As national identity was being reconstituted after the fall of Communism, in the drive to recover the historical truth of the Soviet past, Russian cinema produced an outpouring of representations of the Stalin years. While there have been arguments in the West about the unrepresentability of the Holocaust, Russian filmmakers felt no qualms about engaging the violent aspects of the period, and almost every major director from Nikita Mikhalkov to Aleksandr Naumov to Aleksei German has made his Stalin era film, though many have remained unknown to broad Russian audiences. Most of these films were released between 1986 and 1999, thus straddling both the enthusiastic spectatorship of early perestroika and the disappearance of audiences during the economic crises of the 1990s that culminated in the financial crash of 1998.
During this decade the distribution system disintegrated, movie theatres became dilapidated and were turned into shops. At the same time, Western films and videos became widely available and audiences abandoned Russian products. In 1996 the industry released only 34 feature films, as compared to 300 in 1990 (Segida and Zemlianukhin 152). A number of historical films, such as Lost in Siberia (1991), Moscow Parade (1992), Hammer and Sickle (1994), and Khrustalev,My Car! (1998), fell victim to the chaos of a transitional period and were given either very limited or no national distribution. Lastly, when the rapid rise in world oil prices during 1999-2000 sparked the beginning of economic recovery and Putin was elected president in March 2000, Russian cinema gradually turned its attention to other concerns. Relatively few films on the Stalin era were made after 2001, and their agendas were changed as well. A recent collection of essays on the cinema of the crisis decade is titled 90-e. Kino, kotoroe my poteriali. The Stalinism and Soviet Cinema collection edited by Richard Taylor and Derek Spring appeared in 1993 with articles by Anna Lawton, Svetlana Boym and Julian Graffy on Perestroika and post-Soviet representations of the Stalin era. Now that the wave of exorcistic-cathartic filmic interest in the topic has passed, it is perhaps time to revisit this substantial cinematic corpus.
There is no single lens through which perestroika and post-Soviet cinema viewed the Stalin era. Instead of such a monovalent approach, I propose a taxonomy of the differing—and overlapping—topics and agendas preoccupying filmmakers as they attempted to negotiate the Stalinist past. In formal terms, historical films are conventionally subdivided into mainstream dramas, experimental or innovative films, and documentaries (Rosenstone, History on Film 14). I will be discussing examples of the first two categories, with the exception of World War II films and biopics, which have differing genre paradigms. Where scholarly writing on individual films exists, I will refer the reader to these publications as a resource for further study on the topic.
Historical dramas construct their world as a supposedly realistic window on the past. However film can only create a past that fits within its practices and traditions as a visual medium. Mainstream dramas on the Stalin era thus follow the classic paradigm, which is governed by verisimilitude rather than documentary-style realism and emphasizes linear plot, cause and effect narrative, clearly defined conflict intensifying to a climax and ending in a resolution with formal closure, continuity editing which serves to further the narrative, classical cutting (the sequence of shots determined by dramatic-emotional emphasis rather than by physical action alone), and a generally functional visual style that does not distract from the action.
Robert Rosenstone offers a number of traits that specifically define mainstream historical drama. Mainstream films offer a closed, complete, simple story without alternative possibilities. They give us the look of the past, the myth of facticity, and it is this historical mimesis that validates their fictional narratives. These dramas place the individual, whether prominent or unknown, at the forefront of the historical process. Even ordinary people as historical heroes perform admirable actions or suffer oppression and exploitation, and the experience of the individual becomes metonymical to that of the nation (Rosenstone, Visions of the Past 55-61). Like other mainstream films, historical films emotionalize and dramatize a situation using the special capabilities of the medium—“the closeup of the human face, the quick juxtaposition of disparate images, the power of music and sound effect—to heighten and intensify the feelings of the audience about the events depicted on the screen” (Rosenstone, “The Historical Film” 56).
The myth of facticity is observed in all the mainstream films about the Stalin era, from the abundance of period material culture in Burnt by the Sun (1994) and Not by Bread Alone (2005) to the authentic post-WWII peasant izba in Harvest Time (2004). But, except for Stalin and his circle, most of the prominent individuals in mainstream Russian historical films are fictional. Serious historical films are defined by the sense of “historical thinking” the works communicate and the degree to which actual historical events have an impact on the plot (Burgoyne 12). These films may vary widely on the reality scale: actual and fictional historical characters may coexist in various iterations of both documentary and imagined narratives. In Vanished Time (1989) the honest and idealistic People’s Commissar Onisimov believes that Stalin saved his life in 1937, after the arrest of his brother and subordinates in metallurgy, and only gradually comes to understand why he was removed from his post after Stalin’s death. In Encore, Another Encore! (1992) an army colonel, a Hero of the Soviet Union, falls into bigamy because of the prohibitions against divorce for highly placed officials and shoots himself after beating up a villainous SMERSH officer. In Burnt by the Sun Mikhalkov generates sympathy for Civil War hero and army commander Kotov, arrested at the conclusion of the film, by initially situating him in an idyllic space of innocence and then counterposing his heroism and unconditional love of country to former White officer and NKVD agent Mitia’s betrayals for the sake of personal happiness.
Rather than focusing on prominent individuals, mainstream Russian films on the Stalin era tend to deal with two groups, in relatively equal numbers: on the one hand, the experience of the intelligentsia (including technical professionals), on the other, the experience of the “little man” (or less frequently, woman), the ordinary Russian citizen, and, least often in this group, the peasant experience. Thematically, a good third of the films deal with arrests and the camp experience, while the rest may touch on these, but mainly engage other aspects of life during the Stalin era.
In Tomorrow was the War (1987), The Cold Summer of ‘53 (1988) and Not by Bread Alone (2005), engineers and a physicist inventor are victims of the purges or life-destroying bureaucratic revenge. In The Law (1989) a prosecutor, terrified into cowardice, signs the arrest order of his colleague and friend. In Defense Counsel Sedov (1988) an attorney who defends a trio of agronomists accused of wrecking is himself conned by the system. The student heroine of Koma (1989) is arrested for reading Tsvetaeva’s poetry at a party. In Not Afraid to Die (1991) a woman from the former gentry refuses to become an informer, thereby choosing imprisonment and death. The writer-heroine of The Manuscript (1990) has lost her husband in the purges and is surrounded by intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals while working at a writers’ rest home.
Among the mainstream dramas about ordinary people who perform heroic deeds or suffer oppression, in Ten Years without the Right to Correspond (1990) a son seeks legal retribution against the informer responsible for his father’s arrest during the purges. The projectionist hero of The Inner Circle (1991) devotes his life to Stalin and loses his wife to Beria. In Freeze, Die, Come to Life (1989) and The Thief (1997) single mothers and their fatherless boys struggle to survive during the hungry post-war years. Bless the Woman (2003) follows the travails of an army wife from 1935 to the early Thaw years. In Papa (2004) a self-sacrificing Jewish father is rejected by his ambitious son pursuing a musical career in anti-Semitic Stalinist society. In From the Life of Fedor Kuz’kin (1989) a wise peasant survives the trials of the Stalin era.
Rosenstone makes two further points about mainstream historical films: because individuals are placed in the foreground of the historical process, “the solution of their personal problems tends to substitute itself for the solution of historical problems. More accurately, the personal becomes a way of avoiding the often difficult or insoluble social problems pointed out by the film.” Rosenstone also argues that the tale told by the mainstream film sends a moral message and usually leaves the audience with a feeling of uplift grounded in the premise of historical progress: the film “tells us things have gotten better” or “aren’t we lucky not to have lived in that terrible time?” Only a few mainstream American films like Radio Bikini or JFK question the possibility of meaningful change or progress (Rosenstone, “The Historical Film” 55).
Russian films on the Stalin era mostly date from the chernukha era and are consequently darkened by the difficult present in which they were made—the economic crises of the nineties—as well as by the prophylactic perestroika and post-Soviet drive to expose the evils of the past, so that in these works uplift is in short supply. The successful resolution of personal problems, which overshadows the larger historical issues raised by the films, occurs in the more conventional of the Russian mainstream dramas, and it is only these films that conclude in the emotional ascendant. In The Inner Circle NKVD projectionist Sanshin resolves the isolation and spiritual paralysis resulting from his association with Stalin and his circle by taking in the daughter of purged neighbors whom Sanshin had earlier forbidden his wife to adopt. As comedy, The Little Giant With a Big Sex Drive (1992) resolves Marat’s various adventures with women that run afoul of Beria and the administration of a secret institute by his making one more conquest in old age. In The Barracks (1999) the problems of individual characters are resolved in two climactic moments: first, in the communal rejoicing over the recovery of their local police officer’s gun from an outhouse septic pit (its loss would have meant his arrest); second, in the two marriages that conclude the serious and comic love plots, while the death of a collaborator is balanced by the arrest—and inevitable execution—of a former German soldier married to a Russian. Final uplift is provided by the birth of a son to the German’s wife, the announcement of Beria’s execution, and a closing photo-postcard of the barracks’ inhabitants holding the sign “Greetings from Satka.”
Vera, the long-suffering, eternal feminine heroine of Bless the Woman, released in 2003, i.e. after the chernukha period, ultimately finds love with a sensitive naval officer and an outlet for her thwarted maternal instincts by taking in the daughter of a deceased friend. In Govorukhin’s melodrama Not by Bread Alone the inventor Dmitrii Lopatkin is persecuted for proposing an innovative engineering project and then arrested for divulging state secrets when his project fails because of the machinations of a Stalinist establishment rival who has lost his wife to Lopatkin. However the film concludes with uplift, as his professional and personal problems promise to be resolved with the help of a sympathetic people’s deputy and the birth of a son.
In a number of mainstream films the audience uplift is limited to satisfaction at the performance of justice or the moral victory of the hero. In the mediocre Not Afraid to Die the patriarch of a former gentry family and his daughter are arrested at the end of the film, but at the same time, one of the NKVD officers involved in their case commits suicide over his failure to save the heroine, thereby passing judgment on himself. The moral uplift of The Manuscript pertains to the present and future. The writer-heroine forgives and is reconciled to a fellow writer and former zek’s authoring a socialist realist novel in order to rehabilitate himself. As the film concludes, she sees a young girl who works at the writers’ rest home and inwardly wishes her well: “Be happy! God be with you.” Uplift thus emanates from her hope for the next generation. In The Cold Summer of ‘53, although a former zek is victorious over a gang of thugs terrorizing a remote village, ultimately he is not recognized for his feat. After the demonstration of the moral failure of the family that disavowed its imprisoned father, the film concludes with symbolic victory: the departing hero stops to share a cigarette with another ex-prisoner, while the film’s heroic “national” motif plays on the soundtrack. As in the western, from which the film borrows motifs and action shots, the righteous, loner hero reluctantly takes it upon himself to bring order, his sidekick (Kopalych) and his love interest (Sasha) die in the process, he survives and departs alone, but moral victory is his. In the final scene of Ten Years without the Right to Correspond, the hero Misha calmly awaits arrest for the murder of a well-connected informer who was responsible for Misha’s father’s death in the purges. The hero’s moral victory lies in meting out the justice guaranteed—but not provided—in the Soviet constitution, the little red book he carries throughout the film. In Iurii Kara’s Tomorrow was the War emotional uplift is artificially elicited by music, the heroic WWII march “Vstavai strana ogromnaia” in the penultimate scenes, and the film then subsumes its purge theme to a declaration of righteous revenge for the war deaths of high school class 9B: “And the underground lived, and beat the bastards, and took revenge for Iskra, for her mother, for all the guys. It revenged itself brutally.” Although Burnt by the Sun makes it clear that the major characters—Kotov, his wife, their daughter Nadia, and former family friend Mitia—either die or spend their lives in exile, the “factual” notices of rehabilitation for the Kotovs on the screen at the conclusion of the film satisfy the audience by implying that life has improved because justice has been publicly performed.
Finally, a number of the mainstream films conclude pessimistically, openly questioning the possibility of historical progress, and instead positing only circularity. The honest lawyer of Defense Counsel Sedov, while doing good—or rather, as he states, only his duty according to Soviet law—unwittingly facilitates the evil perpetrated by the State. His efforts to free three convicted agronomists succeed, but also lead to the arrest of the bureaucrats and NKVD prison official who processed the cases. Sedov is only the unwitting instrument of the next stage of terror—the approaching 1938 purge of the NKVD for lawlessness. The individual thus cannot effect historical progress. In Koma, one of the few films that is directly concerned with the horrors of the camps, the concluding scenes return us to the Perestroika present, where the Stalin era women’s camp now serves as a prison for today’s male criminals. There is no progress, only repetition.
The ending of Petr Todorovskii’s tragicomedy Encore, Another Encore! also denies the possibility of change in Russia. “Gde naidesh’ stranu na svete,” the massovaia pesnia that begins the film optimistically, transforms into an ironic commentary on the Russian land, as it plays over the concluding events. While the good characters die or depart in disgrace, the villains and manipulators remain, and continue with their villainies to the refrain: “Svetit solnyshko na nebe iasnoe / Tsvetut sady, shumiat polia./ Rossiia vol’naia, strana prekrasnaia, / Sovetskii krai, moia zemlia” (“The sun shines in the clear sky / Gardens bloom, the fields rustle. / Free Russia, beautiful country, / Soviet territory, my own land”). The predatory SMERSH woman censor ogles another potential young soldier victim; Vera strokes her pregnant belly through which she manipulates her wandering husband; Captain Kriukov again beats his unfaithful wife; Mikhailov again gallops to pull his love letters to multiple women from the mail. The film concludes with the tiny figures of man and horse in a vast, snowy, typically Russian landscape, opening out and extending meaning to the entire country, where there is no change, only repetition.
Pavel Chukhrai supplied his 1997 hit The Thief with variant endings for Russian and foreign audiences. Western viewers were treated to a familiar coda: adolescent Sasha shoots the thief Tolian, who is literally and symbolically responsible for the boy’s mother’s death, thereby serving up the moral satisfaction of justice performed. Chukhrai’s original ending was more pessimistic and lacked moral closure, commenting instead, as we will see, on the sources of violence in contemporary Russia. Once again, a film questions the possibility of historical progress.
Most of the mainstream Russian films on the Stalin era can further be categorized as melodrama, which Peter Brooks defines as the principal mode for representing the moral universe, for articulating vice and virtue in a post-sacred, secular, post-Enlightenment era lacking moral certainty but grounded in rationality and a belief in progress (Brooks viii). As an expressive code concerned with moral legibility, the melodrama thus serves naturally as an effective vehicle for the representation of the extreme moral-ethical transactions of the Stalin era.
In her work on American film, Linda Williams identifies central features of the melodramatic mode that extend beyond genre and established categories such as the woman’s film or the family melodrama and are equally operative in its Russian permutation. As mainstream film, melodramas focus on victim heroes/heroines, whose virtue is eventually recognized in the course of the narrative. Melodramas often employ an aesthetics of astonishment: when virtue is finally acknowledged, there is a prolongation of emotion. Characters are relatively monopathic, lacking psychological depth, and embody Manichean conflicts of good and evil. Melodramas typically begin in a space of innocence, which the film strives to restore at the end. However the mode is equally preoccupied with the passage of time, displaying a tension between being “just in the nick of time” (the happy ending) and “too late” (the tragic ending). “Too late,” the impossibility of returning to an initial, innocent and idyllic state provokes nostalgia that, in turn, triggers pathos (Williams 62-80).
In Tomorrow was the War, rather than denounce her arrested engineer father at a Komsomol meeting, schoolgirl Vika commits suicide. The victims (both Vika and her father, who is released from prison because of the approaching war) are eventually vindicated, but it is too late for the dead girl and her bereaved father, for it is impossible to recover their idyllic family happiness. Burnt by the Sun initially defines a space of innocence, a paradisiacal blend of bania, dacha, Chekhovian characters, and happy family life. Mikhalkov constructs Kotov as victim, whose virtues are initially obscured and overshadowed by the talents and charm of family friend Mitia. Gradually Kotov’s superiority over Mitia is revealed, as he wins back Marusia’s love, outdances and then outpunches his rival. But it is “too late”: with Kotov’s arrest, the space of innocence is forever destroyed. Kotov’s prolonged farewell to this idyllic existence toward the end of the film produces heightened pathos, due to the tragic knowledge that we possess and the family members do not. In The Barracks the reserved and businesslike local executive committee chairman Vorontsova’s virtue is recognized when she faints at the memory of her experiences during the Leningrad blockade and the hero discovers scars on her palms from the ropes with which she dragged dead family members on sleds to the cemetery. Pathos is prolonged as the hero kisses her mutilated hands. In Papa a successful violinist, the son of an alcoholic Jewish storeman (kladovshchik), acknowledges the sacrifices of his loving father only after the father’s execution by the Nazis. The father’s virtue is recognized in the concluding scenes of the film, but it is too late: Papa is gone forever, triggering prolonged pathos.
Rosenstone argues that the only way to characterize history as experiment is through films of opposition: opposition to mainstream practice, to Hollywood codes of realism and storytelling. Most experimental films include some of the characteristics of mainstream film, but each violates more than one of the conventions . These works may be “analytic, unemotional, distanced, multicausal; historical worlds that are expressionist, surrealist, disjunctive, postmodern […] Rather than opening a window directly onto the past, it [experimental film] opens a window onto a different way of thinking about the past” (Rosenstone, “The Historical Film” 57-8).
Abuladze’s Repentance (1984) is constructed on an alternating poly/monosemantic model, the play between verisimilitude and the surreal-absurd, which both preserves the classic narrative paradigm, evoking audience sympathy, and argues that the only effective way to depict the traumas of the era is through a liminal stylistics of anachronisms, dreams, symbols, parodies and grotesques. The arrest of Varlam’s corpse is patently absurd, but bureaucratically appropriate. The verisimilitude of Nino at the prison window or Nino and Keti searching for Sandro’s name on logs newly arrived from the camps precedes the surrealism of Sandro’s interrogation and the ochnaia stavka in the garden.
Aleksandr Kaidanovskii’s The Kerosene Seller’s Wife (1988) uses the same alternation between verisimilitude and the surreal as Repentance. The realistic crime narrative, a bribery investigation set in 1953 Kaliningrad, is punctuated by surreal episodes: a gypsy cools down a policeman’s anger by making it snow; the heroine’s flutist-lover falls from the ceiling to play Schubert in evening dress; during a concert the heroine’s husband pours kerosene on the flutist, lights a match and burns him to ashes as he performs; the investigating prosecutor sees an angel on the street after a priest tells him “we don’t have them.”
Zakharov’s To Kill a Dragon (1988) comments on Stalinism and human nature via the allegory of St. George (here merged with a modern Lancelot) and the dragon. The film combines a medieval setting with the trappings of Stalinism: period rhetoric, the Stalinist dictator leisure suit, falsification of science and history, grand construction projects, a troika court, and Stalin’s alternating humiliation and rewarding of his subordinates.
Kvirikadze’s Comrade Stalin’s Trip to Africa (1991) and Kanevskii’s Freeze-Die-Come to Life both foreground the artificiality of the cinema medium by inserting the filming process into the diegesis. Comrade Stalin’s Trip is thoroughly self-reflexive—a film about training a double for Stalin, the process of which is also constantly filmed. In an early episode, an offscreen voice announces that we are seeing a “working moment of filming,” and a bouncy, handheld camera breaks the illusion of verisimilitude. The film’s actors appear as themselves, but in period costume, and the voice narrates: “The director took out a revolver, said ‘bang’ and collapsed in the snow.” But the director doesn’t get up and is then carried by the concerned actors into the sanitarium in which the film is being shot. “Then the doctors will say—heart attack. The film remained unfinished,” the voice concludes. Illusion and reality continue to blur as an actress appears to behave in character offscreen as she touches the crotch of her film boyfriend with the comment “iaichki” (“balls”) and the actor tells her to stop it. But the same scene is later repeated within the fictional narrative, casting doubt on the status of this first occurrence. The period narrative of 1953 begins only after these non-diegetic intrusions.
The director (who is alive, it turns out) again destroys filmic illusion at an important juncture of the narrative: the local party boss who has selected the hero, Moisei Pichkhadze as a candidate for Stalin double, takes him to the train station lobby “where Stalin began his heroic journey” and is about to explain the great role Pichkhadze will assume, when the film cuts to black and white handheld filming of the director laughing and making the sign for “a screw loose” with hand at head.
Because the subject of Comrade Stalin’s Trip is, as we will see, cinematic illusion as it pertains to the image of Stalin, Kvirikadze constantly juxtaposes documentary and fictional footage, using color for the 1953 present, and black and white for episodes linking Moisei to the Leader (documentary footage of Stalin, the diegetic cameraman’s footage, Moisei’s speech in the Stalin manner, Moisei’s entering the river as double to prove the Leader’s health, the photo of the group that prepares Moisei for his role), thereby foregrounding both Stalin’s documentary image and the artificiality of Moisei’s imitation. Scenes with the director and actors are also black and white, pointing to the film as a whole as artifice.
An offscreen directorial voice frames Freeze- Die-Come to Life as fiction. In the opening scene, the director both sings a few lines from the hero’s favorite song about his hometown of Suchan, underscoring the autobiographical nature of the film and highlighting the filmmaking process: “Well, gang, ready? Good luck, let’s start!” At the conclusion, the film transitions out of its diegetic world through the rhymed words of the crazed mother of the murdered heroine: “Luk, chesnok, gorokh, malina, nachinaetsia kartina. Potom naoborot. I kto kogo, kto kogo deret, nikto ne poimet” (“Onion, garlic, peas, raspberries, the picture is beginning. Then it goes the other way round. And who thrashes/fleeces/ whom, no one understands.”) The director’s offscreen voice again takes over, reminding us that the naturalistic ending—the mother as naked witch on a broomstick, driven mad by grief—is illusion, as he gives directions to the cameraman and actress: “Where is she going? […] Isn’t it clear what needs to be done? Get the camera on her fast. Do you hear me? Leave the children, it doesn’t matter. [The children fade out.] Throw away the broom and walk away.”
Other experimental films violate the conventions of linear narrative. Repentance begins without an establishing shot, contains multiple anachronisms, such as guards in medieval armor and a 19th c. paddy wagon, and operates with two frame narratives and a flashback that confound easy interpretation. Aleksei German diverges even further, calling his work a “cinema of the background”—in effect his rejection of the narrative and cinematographic practices of mainstream historical drama in My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1984) and Khrustalev, My Car! (German, “Boius’ sniat’plokhoe kino” 10). The central narrative of both films is confusing because episodic and constantly invaded by interpolations from the periphery. There are relatively few establishing shots in Lapshin; the audience is forced to construct filmic space from partially overlapping views; episodes are linked by association (the motorcycle, soup, breathing) as image and soundtrack are desynchronized; color footage of different quality alternates with black and white (Mikhailik). German employs a subjective documentary camera as it follows Lapshin through his police station and Klenskii through hospital labyrinths, as figures cross in front of the camera, as the camera suddenly assumes Klenskii’s claustrophobic point of view out of a car window. Extra-diegetic music is replaced by ambient sound, often amplified: clanging buckets, tire chains, snatches of period songs and, for audiences, unaccustomedly muzzy, incomprehensible dialogue (Condee 205).
Prishvin’s Paper Eyes (1989) eschews verisimilitude, approaching the Stalin era from a postmodern perspective. TV director Pavel Prishvin enters a hallucinatory world of his own creation when he begins to investigate the deaths and disappearances of Soviet live television pioneers in 1949 and simultaneously plays the role of an MGB captain-interrogator in a film about the forties. Linear chronology is violated in Prishvin; for example, we see the bullet hole in the hero’s forehead (twice) before he actually shoots himself at the end of the film. In an interview Ogorodnikov defined Prishvin as a “film-game” of charades and rebuses, and talked about devising a computer game based on the film in the spirit of Laterna Magica (Sergeeva). In the film-game Prishvin must face different versions of himself—as MGB interrogator; as author of a documentary about Soviet television pioneers, whose script is questioned by the characters; as Stalin’s executioner, cutting off his head with pruning shears. Ogorodnikov also weaves verbal and visual pastiche into the film: an Eisenstein double and a group of old men argue about art and politics in Ivan the Terrible, duplicating word for word the “art isn’t what you do, it’s how you do it” argument between Tsezar’ and Kh-123 in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Solzhenitsyn 85-6). Then, in an extended sequence, Ogorodnikov edits together scenes from Ivan the Terrible, Potemkin and documentary footage of Stalin, so that Stalin points to Eisenstein’s massacre on the Odessa steps, and the insistent stamping and clapping from 1930s folk dance footage extends to the entire sequence as a sinister rhythmic accompaniment to the montage of images.
Rustam Khamdamov’s Anna Karamazoff (1991), with its Nabokovian title and Dostoevsky references, painterly mise-en-scènes, embedded silent film, and rejection of cause and effect narrative, is the most unconventional of this cohort of films about the Stalin era. In 1949 a woman returns to Leningrad from the camps with the intention of revenging herself on the man whose denunciation led to her arrest. She searches for her mother, whose grave she eventually locates, visits the crazed children of former friends, strikes up a friendship with an eccentric pianist, murders her wealthy denouncer and his wife, takes their money and jewels, and disappears after leaving her booty in a miniature house for cats in the pianist’s apartment. We never learn much about the mysterious woman, why a man smeared with clay fires an arrow at her passing train, why her former apartment is occupied by Uzbek squatters, why the son of friends empties a frying pan of noodles on his mother’s head, why a child in a rabbit costume crosses her path in the street, or why the events in the silent film she watches correspond to her own actions. The film operates instead by horizontal association on different levels: Anna kills her denouncer with a poisoned apple; in a comic episode of the silent film a hungry actress pursues an apple on a departing truck. A character in the silent film explains Khamdamov’s method: “One can also watch a film like a pattern [in a rug], without sorting out what’s in it. Only the battlements and strips. This strip goes there, and that one—there.”
Aleksei Fedorchenko’s First on the Moon (2005) is a fictional documentary about the Soviet space program that landed a man on the moon in 1938. Partially shot on scrap Soviet “Tasma” film with forty-year old cameras, the film imitates Soviet kinokhroniki and instructional films of the thirties, as well as the modern investigative documentary. As a postmodernist, the director does not parody Soviet myth, nor does he deconstruct its falseness, instead representing the modalities of the Stalin era without comment, and presenting the grand project of conquering the cosmos as sign. This cinematic copy of something that never existed subverts the FSB archivist’s remark on the 1930s space program footage within the film, “Everything that happened was filmed—that means, it happened; and if it happened—that means it was filmed.”
Both mainstream and experimental films on the Stalin era define themselves by the nature of their historical thinking. In considering these works, I suggest several overarching categories: 1) the assessment of the Stalin era from a moral-ethical or related socio-cultural standpoint, consisting of retribution-remorse films, films that deconstruct the myths of the Stalin era, and compensatory films that seek to recover the people of the period; 2) indirect consideration of positive and negative aspects of the present via the Stalinist past and 3) the absence of historical thinking, which is replaced by costume dramas and a collection of consumable images. I list separate categories for purposes of analysis, but also want to underscore their permeability: these categories are not mutually exclusive and several may converge in a single work. For example, Chukhrai’s The Thief both deconstructs the myth of the Great Father and conceptualizes the era via a Freudian approach, while its two endings reference traditional melodrama for the West and, for native consumption, speak to the present about violence in post-Soviet Russia in the original ending.
The evolution of historical thinking on the Stalin era moves, not surprisingly, from early retribution films to critiques of Stalin era myths, which are generally simultaneous with compensatory works. The earliest films on the Stalin era, such as Repentance, already gesture toward their present, but this tendency strengthens during the late nineties and has become dominant during the past decade. Films that eschew historical thinking completely are rare and date from the last decade.
A number of these relatively early (1989-92) mainstream melodramas perhaps have more to do with wishful rather than historical thinking. Not only do these films assign blame; they successfully exact punishment, primarily through the remorse of the guilty parties. In Naumov’s The Law the rehabilitation case of a prominent judge arrested during the purges, being conducted by a young lawyer, brings to light his superior, Deev’s, betrayal of a colleague and friend, whose arrest order Deev had signed out of cowardice. Parallel to the discovery of the betrayal is an account of Beria’s last days in power. Beria’s arrest and execution for his crimes are intercut with Deev’s passing judgment on himself and exacting retribution through suicide. In Kulidzhanov’s Not Afraid to Die, a sentimental defense of the landowning gentry destroyed by the Revolution, the gentry heroine, who refuses to become an informer, and her elderly father are arrested, after a series of peripetias, at the beginning of the purges. Consumed by guilt and remorse, the NKVD interrogator handling her case shoots himself.
In Vasil’kov’s And There are Cursed Days in Russia Again (1990) a camp officer who colludes in the murder of his daughter’s zek lover and the rape of a prisoner’s wife, loses the beloved daughter in childbirth and ends his life in isolation, scorned and rejected by his grandson after he learns the truth about his inmate father’s death. The conclusion of the film shifts into an experimental mode amidst off-screen laughter, the absurdist metaphor of all the actors (both guards and actual convicts) dancing together, and a voiceover comment on Lenin’s “triumfal’noe shestvie”—the triumphant march of the Revolution: “All those tortured to death, those trampled, all those who remained alive, all those who believed, those who were deceived, those with shoulder boards and those without, get ready for the triumphant march backwards, together with my own camp —march!” The coda thus dilutes the film’s accusatory portrayal of the corrupt camp administration by defining both the condemned and their jailers as victims of history.
In The Marriage with Death (1992) Sasha, a young NKVD lieutenant on his first assignment, supervises the execution of several condemned men. The execution is accidentally witnessed by a wedding party taking a shortcut through the forest. According to a secret instruction, all such witnesses must also be shot. After much vacillation, all twenty-one members of the wedding party are executed, with the dirty work performed by an old hand, Starshina Tatarskii. When left by the bodies to guard against further intruders, the tormented Tatarskii shoots himself, asking in a suicide note to be “buried with those I have been shooting for six long years.” The lieutenant goes mad, hallucinating prisoners he must beat and threatening his soldiers with execution as “witnesses.” Once again, these melodramas perform justice as the guilty punish themselves.
Unlike these melodramas that perform justice, several experimental films see retribution as a more complex phenomenon. Repentance depicts Keti’s revenge, Avel’’s repentance and his retributive disinterment of Varlam’s corpse vividly, only to deny them all in the outer frame narrative as Keti’s daydream. There has been no repentance and no retribution. In Balthazar’s Feasts or a Night with Stalin (1989) both the accusatory title of the film and the concluding voiceover that promises God’s judgment on Stalin are abrogated by the final shots showing him waving happily in direct address. In Anna Karamazoff the heroine poisons the man who denounced her to the NKVD. Conversations before and after the murder are framed in Dostoevskian terms as the wealthy victim opines that if he were poor, he would kill someone. Coming upon Anna-Raskol’nikov robbing the apartment, the victim’s wife tells her, “You decided that everything is permitted to you.” Having carried out her plan, Anna realizes that her revenge was pointless: she has only perpetuated the original evil deed by committing another. She gives away a stolen diamond brooch to a cleaning woman, leaves the stolen bonds to an impoverished pianist, and departs. Khamdamov’s film is unique in its treatment of return as complete desolation. There is no place in Soviet society for those released from the camps. Anna has no home, no remaining family and, for much of the film, wanders dark and deserted streets, sleeping in a cemetery and a movie theatre. The trains heard throughout the film foretell Anna’s “Karenina” fate.
DECONSTRUCTING MYTHS OF THE STALIN ERA
Historical films on the Stalin era engage and deconstruct its core myths: the Great Family with Stalin as father-leader, the New Man, historical optimism and the future in the present or millennial thinking, the enemy of the people, and the functional society.
Great Family and Great Father
The myth of the pyramidal Great Family with Stalin as Father-Leader of the nation has been attacked from all sides. Repentance deserves its reputation as the pre-eminent film on the era because of its imaginative and encyclopedic recitation of Stalinist myths, which are simultaneously integrated into a flashback account of Varlam’s deeds that follows the general chronology of Stalin’s activities: an inauguration accompanied by meaningless rhetoric figured as the gushing fountain of a ruptured water main, the destruction of religion with the substitution of scientific materialism and the Soviet utopian project; the courting and subsequent destruction of the intelligentsia; the destruction of Old Bolsheviks; the escalating absurdity of purge rhetoric (Varlam declares that four out of three citizens are enemies of the state); the final stage of the purges--destruction by quota (rounding up the Darbaiselis).
Repentance dismantles the myth of the Leader both via direct representation of his deeds and comic-grotesque-absurd stylistics. (See Woll and Youngblood 75-109.) Varlam remembers an insult and revenges himself on Sandro and Mikhail Korisheli. He toys with his future victims by paying a friendly visit to Sandro and his family before his arrest, by agreeing to Miriam and Moisei’s petition regarding the church before their arrest. In his physical aspect, Varlam is comically universalized as all dictators. At the height of the purges his speeches are absurd and grotesque: “It’s difficult to catch a black cat in a dark room, especially if there’s no cat there. But we will.” Varlam is the monstrous, satanic double to the Christ-like Sandro. According to Varlam, they are relatives, and Varlam is also an (inverted) artistic personality, with grotesque operatic performances and sinister declaiming of Shakespeare. He is a biological father, but when his son Avel’ comes to sort himself out, he asks: “Don’t you recognize me, son? Why do you come to the devil to confess your sins?”
Defense Counsel Sedov engages the pyramidal Great Family in which each citizen has a circumscribed job and is unable to comprehend the larger picture or the ramifications of one’s actions. Since responsibility devolves from the top down and not vice versa, no individual is fully answerable for an action. Sedov discovers that the officials who have condemned his clients are all decent people who simply follow orders and have no understanding of what is actually occurring.
Evtushenko’s semi-autobiographical Stalin’s Funeral (1990) affirms the myth of the Great Family as it defines the unity of the Leader and the People, only to invert its implied beneficial aspect: Stalin’s death causes deaths among his people. The signifying motif is the recurring appearance of a sledge loaded with funeral wreaths, whose peasant driver keeps asking, “Where do they go?” The wreaths pertain to those crushed to death on Pushkin Street, near the Hall of Columns, where Stalin’s body lay in state, to the deranged woman who imagines herself to be Stalin’s secret wife and is run over by the limousine carrying his body, to Prokof’ev who was buried without flowers, all of which had been requisitioned for the Leader’s funeral, and to the hero Zhenia’s girlfriend, who is killed when a tired soldier backs his truck into her.
The Great Father/Leader myth is further explicated—and consequently desacralized—as performance, empty sign, seduction and Freudian process. Balthazar’s Feasts chronicles the events of a 1935 banquet in Gagry, arranged for the vacationing Stalin and his circle by Nestor Lakoba, the Party chief of Abkhazia. The film constructs leadership as performance, which is juxtaposed with the performance of the Abkhazian dance ensemble and its star, Sandro of Chegem. Stalin’s beasts, as he himself calls them, also put on a show during the banquet: Voroshilov is an (implicitly vicious) glutton who bites off the snout of a roast suckling pig; Beria paces back and forth like a tiger stalking his prey and gapes at the beautiful women dancers; Stalin calls the lamebrained all-union starosta Kalinin his “all-union goat,” eliciting compliant bleating. The Abkhazian dances symbolically represent traditional social competition that Stalin’s minions literally enact. Dancers compete in a knife dance that makes the guests uneasy, their paranoia fueled by their own murderous activities. The dancers compete with each other in sliding up to Stalin without touching him, just as Beria, Voroshilov and Kalinin compete for Stalin’s favor. Stalin himself behaves like the chief of the tribal group which the dancers only perform. He tests Beria by asking his wife to dance for them, but rival Lakoba’s wife turns out to be the better dancer. Lakoba, and not Voroshilov, wins the contest for voroshilovskii strelok. After Sandro wins Stalin’s favor by his blindfolded performance, the ensemble head notes that another dancer is now jealous of him; Stalin’s colleagues are similarly jealous of each other. Stalin tests the ability of Sandro and another dancer to down a large quantity of wine and distributes food and wine as rewards to the dancers, tearing apart roast chickens with his hands, all the while railing against “gramotei” (literate people), such as his political rival Bukharin. While decrying the strong family ties in the Caucasus, he inflicts an appropriately tribal punishment by ordering the innocent brother of Beria’s enemy purged, so that the latter would feel eternal responsibility for his brother’s death. Stalin and Sandro’s final performances represent parallel imaginings. Sandro recalls his childhood meeting with Stalin the robber and wonders how history would have been different, had he told his father about the bandit’s whereabouts. Stalin imagines himself (driving an ox-cart and holding a baby goat, but in his usual military jacket) as that Dzhugashvili who didn’t want to become the ruler of Russia and who refused to collectivize the peasants out of pity: “Let them live on their own, let each have his own piece of bread and his own glass of wine.”
Comrade Stalin’s Trip to Africa interrogates myth creation by cinema’s illusionistic power, specifically the figuration of the Leader in its celluloid embodiment. The Soviet mythology of the untouchable and remote body of the Leader is destroyed here, as well as in Khrustalev, by an emphasis on the physicality of Stalin’s body. As early as 1950, in his article “The Stalin Myth in Soviet Cinema,” André Bazin was concerned with the ways Stalin the historical figure was transformed into Stalin the cinematic signifier in fiction films The Oath (Kliatva,1946), The Third Blow (Tretii udar, 1948) and The Battle of Stalingrad (Stalingradskaia bitva, 1949): “the image of Stalin presented as ‘real’ conforms exactly to what a myth of Stalin would have him be—to what would be useful for him to be. […] Stalin’s cinematic mummification is no less symbolic than Lenin’s embalmment” (Bazin 35, 38). Kvirikadze goes one step further, arguing that even documentary footage of Stalin inscribes a signifier that walks, talks, gestures and kisses children in a set way, and can therefore be substituted by other signifiers, hence the filmic narrative of finding a double for the aging leader. The events are prefigured in various ways. As the car of the party official who searches out Moisei Pichkhadze, the candidate for double, passes through a tunnel, the camera lingers on a reflection on its hood that doubles the image of the tunnel. Pichkhadze works in a bottle factory; the empty bottles on the conveyor belt remind us that the concept of “Stalin” can be represented by various signifiers. At the beginning and end of the film we see pieces of a huge Stalin portrait—the construction of the signifier—being carried into the abandoned sanitarium where Moisei is coached for his new role. The ironies of Comrade Stalin’s Trip turn on Pichkhadze’s unsuitability, as a Georgian Jew, for the role; the fact that he is the only true Stalinist of the film, whose panegyric poem to the Leader only bores his establishment handlers; and that the avatar leads a real and more interesting life than the original: he is a religious Jew who takes roosters to his rabbi, sings in an amateur choir, and has both a wife and a girlfriend with the loaded name of Faina Kaplan.
The Inner Circle and Ten Years Without the Right to Correspond subvert the figuration of Stalin as the mythic husband of all mothers in Vertov’s Lullaby (Kolybel’naia, 1937). The Great Father now becomes the villainous seducer of Russia via his much more colorful extension, Lavrentii Beria. If postcolonial theory argues that the violence of imperialism is inscribed on the bodies of women through rape, these films argue that totalitarian power is inscribed through seduction that thoroughly corrupts. Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii’s The Inner Circle narrates the story of Stalin’s projectionist, Ivan Sanshin, his relationship with the Leader and his life with neighbors in his communal apartment. Sanshin’s wife, Anastasiia, perceives Beria as funny rather than frightening, which enables him to succeed with her: “—You know, all the people are scared of you, but you’re kind of funny! –That’s right. Women love me.” Only later, discarded by Beria and in her madness, does she wish to eat mothballs because of the furry (i.e., satanic) baby inside her. Stalin himself carries out a parallel psychological seduction of Sanshin, the Russian Everyman. The director instructed Aleksandr Zbruev (Stalin): “Talk to Ivan as if you were coming on to a woman… Make him fall in love with you. Stalin was good at this” (Mikhalkov-Konchalovskii 140). The film establishes the love triangle Sanshin-Stalin-Anastasiia such that the private conversations the couple used to have in a large standing wardrobe are eventually displaced by a bust of Stalin in the same wardrobe, and the couple remains childless. Mesmerized by Stalin and ambitious for himself, Ivan blinds himself to moral issues--the arrest of innocent neighbors and their small daughter’s inherited guilt. The meta-narrative of the film is thus concretized in the plot: Stalin seduced a gullible but complicit nation. Sanshin’s professor-neighbor speaks the message: “If it were not for such good, naïve and trusting Ivans, as you are, in our world there would never have been a tyrant, a murderer, a devil.” The Inner Circle, which was an American production, but also released in Russia, appears to be one of a few—if not the only—film on the Stalin era to assign blame to the Russian people.
In Ten Years the villain, who needs protection from the avenging hero, brings a gift to Stalin, a funhouse mirror in which the members of the Politburo half-comically, half-seriously recognize their distorted forms as monstrous. Beria is presented as a trickster hero, characterized by sexual excess, who gains his ends through ruses: his aide, “bad cop” Sarkizov, kidnaps a young girl for Beria, presents her to his boss and tears open her dress, while “good cop” Beria sits her on his lap and calms her down. The girl becomes his acquiescent mistress, the process of her assimilation to Beria’s monstrousness conveyed through their dance in front of another funhouse mirror.
The films The Little Giant With a Big Sex Drive, The Thief and Moscow Parade offer a Freudian critique—sometimes comic, sometimes serious—of the Father/Leader and of Stalinism as imperial power. In Little Giant the potency of the Father is displaced onto the more colorful figure of Beria. From the time the hero Marat learns that the protector of his new lady love is the country’s “pervyi chekist,” he becomes impotent with all women, always imagining Beria’s shadow at the critical moment. Marat is cured only after he kills the boa constrictor rival (Beria’s surrogate) for the love of a circus snake dancer.
The Thief operates on two levels: the story of Sania, a fatherless boy, and his mother who love and are ruined by Tolian, a charming criminal, and the allegory of Stalin and the nation. A powerful, potent male disguised in an honorable uniform appropriates the fatherhood of an orphaned boy, deforms his life values, and takes possession of beautiful, passive, helpless mother (Russia), forces her onto the road from the north to south of the entire country (the railroad mise-en-scène continues Chukhrai’s father’s Ballad of a Soldier), and ultimately destroys and forgets her. The mother declares she will never love anyone as much and Sania finally calls Tolian “Pap’ka,” as he is taken away from them (the nation’s emotional dependency on Stalin and fear of losing a strong leader). In the end the boy rejects and kills his false father (the 20th Party Congress), but the father’s legacy continues to the present.
The narrative makes the Tolian-Stalin analogy more than obvious throughout the film. The thief displays traits conventionally associated with the Leader: maintaining power through violence and fear; a quixotic temperament (Tolian suddenly forgives Sania instead of beating him), even anticipatory measures (Tolian carries salt in his pocket in case of attack; why Stalin always wore boots). Tolian convinces the boy that Stalin is his (Tolian’s) secret father. After the thief’s declaration of affection for the inhabitants of his communal apartment, one man rises to make a toast in response (the camera cuts to Tolian), but then toasts good, wise and most humane Stalin. While the apartment dwellers are at the circus, Tolian robs the apartment. A Lezgin tribesman rides in the ring with a red flag bearing Stalin’s image as the crowd cheers, just as the celebration culture of High Stalinism gave the population bread and circuses as a diversion from economic and social problems. Later Tolian convinces the boy to help rob a Jewish doctor’s apartment under the guise of the campaign against cosmopolitanism: “My Dad (“bat’ka”) is fighting enemies.” When Sania hesitates, Tolian invokes the absolutist mentality of the system: “If you don’t help, you’re an accomplice [to the enemies]. Prove that you’re a Soviet boy!”
The Thief interprets the development of the fatherless boy (and the nation) in Freudian terms. Sania witnesses the primal scene, which he interprets as Tolian’s violence against his mother. The initial Oedipal rivalry (Sania refuses to move from his mother’s bed) ultimately resolves itself in transference from the mother to the father figure. Penis and phallic power intersect: Tolian’s “It’s ok boy. Be brave and yours will grow too”; Sania wets his pants when he is unable to use a knife against Tolian. As with everything else, Tolian steals fatherhood from Sania’s dead soldier-father. Standing by the toilet, the boy has a vision of his biological father, who speaks for the first and last time: “Will you avenge me?” Although Sania’s development from mother to father is normal in Freudian terms, the transcendental signifier has been attached to a false signified which must be removed when the boy gains awareness. Nevertheless Sania remains fixated in the phallic stage and has introjected Tolian’s behaviors, developing a personality preoccupied with the exercise of power.
Like The Thief, the more complex Moscow Parade openly fetishizes phallic power and its absence. The film negates the Great Father myth by eliding its individual aspect completely: there is no Stalin, only a trivial figure who dances ineptly to a folk choir and departs the scene at critical moments—a group photo with Nazi officers, the arrest of the heroine’s NKVD husband. The film’s central anecdote about a suitable mount for the commander-in-chief leading the May Day parade elaborates Dykhovichnyi’s view of gender during the Stalin era. Establishment masculinity is constructed as “lack” because unsexed by faceless imperial power, which carries the castrating potential of the Great Father.
The rebellious stallion Rabfak, who throws all riders, cannot be trained to march to the music, and must be removed. Instead, the mare Marseillaise acquires a false penis from the Bolshoi’s props department, so that she can perform docile masculinity. The men within the Stalinist hierarchy, here high-ranking NKVD officers, are either literally impotent (the heroine Ania’s husband) or else displace their powerlessness onto the women they rape—the singing villain Vasilii, who handcuffs his victims like those he arrests in the line of duty. Their women, in turn, are starved for affection (Vasilii’s wife sings a peasant lament about an unloved wife who tolerates a wandering husband, while Ania searches for a potent partner), but at the same time, perverted as they are by the system, function as agents of imperial power, enacting castrating femininity.
The train station porter Gosha, called a stallion (like Rabfak) by Ania’s husband, represents an alternative masculinity, physically strong and potent, yet tender, that exists only outside the hierarchy. (“Beggars aren’t afraid of fires,” he tells the NKVD.) His exposed proletarian torso rhymes with the body of revolutionary sailor Vakulinchuk, stripped to the waist, as he incites shipmates to rebellion. But in the face of the verbal diarrhea of High Stalinism, Gosha is stubbornly silent. In bed, Delilah-Ania cuts a lock of his hair, making explicit her drive to dominate Gosha through sex and then humiliate him via class aspersions. In consequence, Gosha is temporarily unsexed and feminized, assuming the reclining pose of female nudes in Renaissance painting as the camera tracks up his hairless legs, revealing delicate skin and a lacey sheet that hides his genitals. He reasserts himself by breaking his silence to accuse Ania of complicity with the system: “If you like it so much that you were raped, there’s no need to invite others.” It is only after Ania loses an eye (the Biblical “if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out”), cancelling the beauty that both attracts the men around her and is instrumental to her predatory sexuality, that the couple is able to love.
Vasilii’s wife, the deputy minister of culture, drives a writer-former lover to suicide, thereby enacting the sex-power nexus in service to the State. But it is Gorbachevskaia, the serial murderess of men and monstrous-feminine, who most fully embodies what her lawyer Georgii calls “Soviet lust,” the deadly fascination of Prorva. Georgii is first attracted to Gorbachevskaia in a protected place (prison), but later, in her bed, when she turns him over, he covers his genitals in fear. Waking up to see a knife in her hand, he escapes not only her clutches, but the boundaries of Prorva-Moskva itself, swimming Moskva-reka, crossing the type of bridge by which peasants swarmed into the city, hoping for a better life, and heading home to Nizhnii-Tagil. While the Writer escapes prorva through death, Ania and Gosha, though doomed, escape for the moment by dropping out, by moving to the margins of Soviet society. In the concluding scenes of the film, Ania sings in the foyer of a movie theatre about memory and the moment in a politically incorrect foreign language: “Laisse le monde se taire, Vive une illusion cette nuit, Le dernier fois, danse avec moi, amour.” Members of the audience begin to leave and file into the viewing hall to watch more of the 1939 color parade footage that began Moscow Parade. As the audience is sutured into mainstream Stalinist culture through cinema, Gosha and Ania remain behind, marginalized but together.
German’s Lapshin and Khrustalev are little concerned with the myth of the Great Father, each for different reasons. Lapshin presents the still idealistic, pre-purge 1930s. At the end of the film, only the portrait of Stalin mounted on a trolley with a noisy brass band points to coming events. Because of German’s conscious choice of a “cinema of the background,” life as experienced by individuals, the conventional foreground and the myth are either degraded or largely absent. Stalin, who lies in his own excrement, and a hysterical Beria play only bit parts in Khrustalev. The power elite is represented in a metonymical motif—a string of black cars roaring through the night streets of the city. Although Klenskii and his colleagues are fully aware of the Great Father (“When Nero dies, such executions will begin. What little doctors? Who needs us?”), German is instead concerned with the reconstruction of (his own) memory, throwing us a line to the past (Klenskii and his son’s tutor, Varvara Semenovna’s direct address), therefore displacing the historical center to the periphery.
The New Man
Building on the premises of materialist psychology, from its earliest years the Communist state set itself the goal of remaking human nature to accommodate the needs of the system. During the Stalin era the ideal of the New Man-worker was embodied in the Stakhanovite. Three films from the corpus, Lapshin, Hammer and Sickle and Harvest Time take up either the general question of social engineering or the more specific topic of the Stakhanovite.
Apart from German’s larger project of reconstructing the past, Lapshin is primarily concerned with the Bolshevik utopian endeavor to reprogram human personality. While German targets the myth of the New Man in its subcategory of reforging harmful social elements, he goes even further in figuring the world of 1935 as deeply dysfunctional . The reforging motif pervades all aspects of the narrative from the arts to police work. The local theatre production of Pogodin’s The Aristocrats (Aristokraty) deals with the re-education of criminals. German shows the ending of the play, in which the reforging is successful. In contrast, everywhere outside, even in the theatre lobby, the great experiment is negated at every turn. Adashova prepares for her role in the play by talking to the prostitute Katerina, who has been sentenced to the camps for re-education, but the conversation ends badly when Katerina upends Adashova, displaying her underwear, just as Lapshin walks in. The pioneers’ experiment in the theatre lobby, conditioning a fox not to eat a rooster kept in the same cage, ends badly when the hungry fox regresses and devours the bird. The Solov’ev gang, which Lapshin pursues throughout the film, are criminals in the Russian tradition, even inhabiting barracks that were a focus of pre-revolutionary criminal activity. Lapshin’s efforts to erase what cannot be reformed fail utterly when his friend Khanin is knifed by the very murderer Lapshin has been pursuing, yet misses at the critical moment. Neither the sincere and dedicated Lapshin nor anyone else is able to remake chaotic byt, the bandits cannot be reforged and Khanin can barely wait to escape this provincial future paradise.
Hammer and Sickle tells of the making, rise and fall of the New Man, Evdokim Kuznetsov, from the body of a peasant woman, Evdokiia Kuznetsova. The film discredits the myth by parody, concretizing to the point of absurdity the discourse of the New Man in Soviet practice: medical experimentation in service to eugenics (the sex-change operation in which Dr Maria as Dr Frankenstein produces “the creature”); learned performance of gender as Evdokim lifts weights, learns to urinate standing up and make love to a woman; acquisition of Soviet subjectivity (“orphaned” by his doctor-surrogate father’s suicide, Evdokim works to create himself as model Soviet subject, internalizing the ideal of the New Man as Stakhanovite, outstanding student, family man, people’s deputy, model for Mukhina’s Worker and Collective Farm Woman); cinematic production of the New Man (the parodic newsreel footage of Evdokim’s achievements; the journalist and sculptor’s filming of Evdokim’s life). Evdokim’s attempt to reclaim subjectivity ends in the destruction of his masculine New Man identity as Stalin returns him to the feminine by naming him (“Comrade Dusia”). After escaping the stainless steel carcass of Mukhina’s sculpture that constrains his self, Evdokim is re-confined in a secondary iteration of the myth, the paralyzed body of the heroic invalid. The film negates the myth of Korchagin and Meres’ev by replacing their will to reclaim their identities as New Men by Evdokim’s mental and physical appropriation/rape by his masculinized wife and curator, Liza, and his escape into death.
Razbezhkina’s Harvest Time tells the absurd but typically Stalinist tale of Antonina Guseva who maintains her standing as a Stakhanovite of agriculture year after year, while destroying herself and her family in order to hide the fact that mice have eaten away at the red challenge banner in her izba. Harvest Time thus pointedly undermines the Stakhanovite model as Antonina becomes an over-achiever for the wrong reason, hoping to receive a bolt of calico cloth for a dress, and remains one for the wrong reason—fearing exposure of rodent damage to the red challenge banner, which is criminally negligent treatment of a symbol of Soviet power. While Stakhanovites were rewarded with high salaries and access to scarce consumer goods, Antonina receives only a red banner, the coveted calico going to the (male) runner-up.
Harvest Time further makes a strong argument against social engineering, as the heroine regresses from Soviet belief to the Christianity superimposed on the Chuvashes and, ultimately, to the surviving pagan religion. As her family life deteriorates, Stakhanovite Guseva addresses orthodox prayers to the flag fetish and later, in a desperate attempt to save her dying husband’s life, goes out a dawn to sacrifice a pet goose by a sacred tree. Discarding her superficial identity as New Woman, she performs a ritual kamlanie, which allows the shaman to journey to the lower world to obtain the release of the sick man’s soul from evil spirits. If the surface theme of the film is the destruction of individual life by an ideology, the less obvious underlying message is the concomitant eradication of traditional peasant culture, which the film sees as an authentic way of life, by a superimposed stratum of urbanized Soviet culture (Salys “Gleaning Meaning”).
Soviet historical optimism is roundly discredited in My Friend Ivan Lapshin: the birthday party participants look forward to the coming war and Adashova predicts increased production of Abrau-Diurso champagne in 1942, but the audience knows otherwise. As the frozen bodies of the Solov’ev band’s victims are loaded onto a truck, Lapshin opines defensively, “We’ll clear the land of scum, turn it into a blossoming garden, and still have time to stroll in it ourselves.” The heavy mist covering the landscape then lifts, revealing a frozen wasteland on which nothing will ever grow (Mikhailik 39).
Soviet millennial thinking, in which the utopian future invests the present with its significance, is parodied in Repentance as Korisheli’s wife sings Beethoven’s Ode to Joy after her husband and Sandro’s arrests, and the music continues to play over the scenes of Sandro’s trial and execution. In films on the era, the supporting celebration culture of High Stalinism tends to be referenced via period footage of two kinds: May Day and fizkul’tura parades and notoriously—Liubov’ Orlova’s dance on the canon in The Circus (Tsirk). Even though in The Circus the dance artificially stages the happiness masking Marion Dixon’s subaltern position, perestroika and post-Soviet cinema in Koma, The Inner Circle, Defence Counselor Sedov and other films exploit the ethical paradox of chechetka on a cannon against the dark underbelly of the era. Only in Sedov, one of the most perceptive films on our topic, does the hero laugh at Orlova’s performance, clearly finding relief from the burdens of the criminal Raizo case that threatens to destroy him.
In The Thief Tolian, alone of the movie audience, laughs derisively at the optimistic marching scene that opens Grigorii Aleksandrov’s Spring (Vesna). In Moscow Parade Dykhovichnyi gives us the visual pleasure of Stalinist spectacle: the golden statues at the Druzhba narodov fountain have a hyper-real glitter. Nevertheless Ania and the young writer impulsively run through a Dinamo parade, as an overhead shot foregrounds the disruption of the choreographed spectacle, and Ania later laughs contemptuously as prison officials stand at attention, counting down to the beginning of a May Day parade.
The Enemy of the People
The myth of enemies of the people is, of course, deconstructed through every cinematic arrest of innocents in Repentance, Defence Counsel Sedov, Ten Years Without the Right to Correspond, The Cold Summer of ’53, Tomorrow was the War, The Law, Koma, and other films. Sedov provides the most extensive official construction of enemies of the people and deconstructs the logic of widely accepted justifications for arrests. Fictionalized chief prosecutor Vyshinskii’s rabid speech segues into documentary footage of Mikoian’s analogous speech from Slavnye dvadtsat’ let, a history of the security forces, with both mirrored earlier in the language of prison head Matiukhin: mad or vile dogs (poganye sobaki), hardened (materye) enemies, fascist hirelings (fashistkie naimity), Japanese and English spies, Trotsky-Bukharinite saboteurs (diversanty), poisoners of cattle and people and so on. Sedov also parses the response spectrum of differing generations to charges of wrecking. The oldest agronomist attempts to prove innocence through facts: “I gave Seregin money for valenki for Masha, not to destroy a tractor.” The middle-aged brother makes an argument from personal motive: “Would I do such a thing when I have four children and another on the way?” The youngest brother is the least rational and analytical, displaying the mindset of the post-revolutionary generation, simply shouting: “We are Soviet people!” A fourth man verbalizes the myth of treason from below, of which leaders are ignorant: “This is a conspiracy; it’s Iagoda’s recklings (the pejorative “posledyshi Iagody”). And all logic lapses in the pathology of the madman who begs Sedov for help because “they” are preparing to blow up the metro system and assassinate Comrade Kaganovich.
In Repentance Varlam declares that four out of every three citizens are enemies and Muratov’s The Manuscript, set at the beginning of the anti-cosmopolitan campaign, frames all citizens as potentially guilty because the entire population—from the writers to workers at a rest home—have personal ties to enemies of the people. The House on Sand makes a more radical point regarding the arrest of innocents. To the deception plot of Tatiana Tolstaia’s story “Sonia,” with its imaginary love, the film appends the very physical infidelity of the two family members who hoodwink the hapless and naive Sonia. Not only does Sonia’s epistolary romance, concocted by the family, prove to be more enduring and real than the “real” love affair within the extended family, but The House on Sand questions mainstream cinema’s monopathic idealization of intelligentsia purge victims as good people. The cruel jokers, the writer Lera, who dies in the purges, and his sister-in-law/lover Ada are presented as anything but innocents.
In Koma the first film set in the camps, the student Mariia, starving and sexually degraded by both female inmates and male guards, signs a denunciation of her camp officer-lover to avoid an additional sentence and the loss of their baby, and is forced to denounce a driver for bringing alcohol into the women’s camp. The sufferings of this Agambenian homo sacer find no justification as Mariia is put out to die in the night cold by angry criminal inmates.
Aleksandr Mitta’s Lost in Siberia, a Russian-British co-production, set in the GULAG and with a detailed representation of its warring criminal elements (suki vs vory), boasts an unusual foreign hero, whose story is calculated to appeal to Western audiences. In 1945 a British archeologist, Andrew Miller, mistaken by SMERSH for a spy, is kidnapped while working at the Iranian border and sent to the camps, where he manages to survive and even fall in love. At the last moment, he is saved from certain death in Kolyma by a request for his release from his former patroness, the Shah’s wife. Miller also becomes a homo sacer—starving, degraded and suicidal—who develops into a moral man. Completely demoralized by a double degradation, the harsh camp conditions and the dehumanizing of political prisoners by criminal inmates, Miller’s epiphanic moment comes when he fights back, beating up the offending criminal who has put a dead rat in his soup, and declares, “I’m a human being!” Miller refuses to inform on fellow inmates, dares to attempt an escape from the camp, saves the life of an orphan girl, and refuses to stoop to a thieves’ ploy to avoid transfer to the death camps of Kolyma. His transformation is an extreme example (he begins as a free citizen of the West) of Alexander Etkind’s observation about the narrative pattern of citizen to victim to moral citizen in Russian films dealing with the camps as indicative of the workings of recuperative memory, which transforms the historical reality of the victim’s senseless suffering into a moral journey (Etkind).
The Functional Society
The myth of a rationally functioning society under the rule of law is filmically deconstructed both through its most obvious iteration, the randomness of the purges, and at a deeper level—through the representation of a fragmented, dysfunctional, and pervasively criminal world. In Repentance, during the last, most venal stage of the purges, Varlam’s agent Doksopoulo rounds up all individuals in the city with the surname Darbaiseli, as he pushes to increase his arrest rate to gain a new apartment. In attempting to enact justice by saving three men accused of agricultural wrecking, defense attorney Sedov becomes the unwitting instrument of another miscarriage of justice—Stalin’s political move against the bureaucratic establishment that carried out his purges, causing the arrests of the local officials and prison authorities connected to the case in the line of duty. In Ten Years Iura, a young NKVD officer is sent out to fulfill his arrest quota of ten enemies of the people. When the last man turns out to be a corpse, Iura is arrested in his place.
German’s 1976 film Twenty Days Without War (Dvadtsat’ dnei bez voiny), though set during WWII , constructs a world that makes sense. My Friend Ivan Lapshin marked a shift in German’s poetics that was elaborated in his two films on the Stalin era. Even though he called Lapshin his confession of love for the people of that time, and the painstaking camera work argues that the director sees the world of 1935 as worth preserving, this society is also dysfunctional and chaotic. The film polemicizes with the nostalgic image of a lost thirties world of happiness, health and energy, as exemplified by Deineka’s new men and women, among others. All relationships fail and the people around Lapshin are constantly ill. Lapshin is rejected by Adashova, Adashova by Khanin, and Lapshin’s co-worker Okoshkin’s marriage fails. Adashova has constant migraines and is always on the edge of hysteria, Okoshkin obsessively takes his temperature, Lapshin himself suffers from seizures caused by a Civil War wound, Khanin’s wife dies of diphtheria, Lapshin’s commander’s daughter has kidney disease, and a paralyzed boy inhabits the town square. (See Kovalov and Mikhailik.)
The world of 1953 in Khrustalev is fragmented, chaotic and hysterical in its narrative and mise-en-scène. German’s method, the construction of narrative via the emotional-intuitive logic of memory i.e., as subjective history, disrupts the classic paradigm. His conscious emphasis on the background, life as really lived, rather than the foreground of a unified Stalinist celebration culture, defines a sense of splintered reality. In the first half of the film, Klenskii wanders a disorienting and labyrinthine space, beginning with the chaos of his general’s apartment crammed with relatives (including two unregistered Jewish sisters who live in a closet), to the luxurious apartment of a colleague, cluttered with a chaos of excess objects and eccentric personalities, to the corridors, tunnels, and hidden spaces of his hospital, where he discovers his own double, to the cellar room of his son’s tutor, filled with disintegrating objects. The “thingness” of German’s mise-en-scène, whether the expensive furniture and whatnots of elite apartments or the broken-down bathtubs and beds of the poor, exaggerates the sense of disorder and chaos in the film. Space is deformed by reverse perspectives, close-ups of people and large objects of which we see only parts (Berezovchuk 194, 201-02). Klenskii begins his morning by hanging upside down on the rings. The inversion is actualized when he is arrested, raped by urki in the transport van, then plucked from his personal hell and transported to heaven—dressed in clean clothes and sent to attend the dying Stalin—and finally deposited in front of his former apartment.
In both mainstream and experimental films the State and society enact not the Soviet legality of the 1936 constitution, but a pervasive criminality. When, in Ten Years the hero, Misha, with the little red book of the constitution in hand, returns after the war to seek legal recourse against Zav’ialov, his father’s friend whose false accusation led to the father’s arrest and execution in 1937, he is warned by a lawyer that the powerful Zav’ialov might not go to prison even if he had killed someone on the street. Misha enforces the law himself by executing Zav’ialov and then waits to be arrested himself.
A number of films on the Stalin era construct the entire country as a locus of criminality with the People as its victims. In The Thief Russia is both duped and seduced by a metaphorical Stalin-father figure. In Moscow Parade the young writer defines the “prorva” as: “what we really have now, the most important thing that everyone in Russia now fears—it doesn’t exist. It’s a convention. It’s not a person or concept. It’s simply—nothing. But a nothing that pulls you in and destroys you. Scares and cripples you. Like “prorva.” For no reason. By smell. For the hell of it.” “Prorva” is then the black hole of the Stalinist system, coded here in terms of Russian Conceptualism. According to Il’ia Kabakov, Western Conceptualism preserved the two halves of the meaning equation, substituting the real object for its verbal description, but in Russia the object that should have been replaced was missing: “In contrast with the West, the principle of ‘one thing instead of another’ does not exist and is not in force, most of all because in this binomial the definitive, clear second element, this ‘another’ does not exist” (Kabakov 200). The chain of signification is broken because the signifier refers to nothing. The signifiers of the Stalinist system thus refer to empty signifieds, because in that sense—all is façade and non-existent.
While the glittering spectacle of Stalinist Moscow entices and destroys, the concrete representation of “prorva” in the film is the serial murderess Gorbachevskaia. “Prorva” attracts but entraps: Sania is trapped by the scheme to produce a fake stallion and perishes, as do Vasilii and his wife (both agents of the system) and the ballerina who succumbs to Vasilii’s blandishments. Gorbachevskaia fascinates and entraps the lawyer Georgii through her sexualized criminality (sex and then murder). He describes her as the embodiment of Soviet lust (sovetskoe vozhdelenie) and recounts her murder of four men: “She has four crimes and not the least remorse. She’s a gorged monster. My Muse is a monster.” In her ignorance, analogous to that of the undereducated NKVD elite, she hates all Muscovites: “I don’t like Muscovites. They’re sort of—well-brought-up. I would just slaughter all of them.” As Georgii escapes Gorbachevskaia’s apartment the next morning, a falling brick just misses him, one of her gang holds a knife to his throat with the threat, “Keep quiet, bitch, or I’ll kill you,” and he is almost run over by State criminality, a sleepy NKVD driver who complains of exhaustion because they work around the clock.
The Cold Summer of ‘53 folds the bandit takeover of a remote northern Russian village during the summer 1953 amnesty of criminals into the metanarrative of the film: the historical fate of the Russian people as the perennial victims of successive “vlasti.” The legitimate and honest representative of power, the village policeman Mankov, is killed early on, leaving a gang of thieves, newly released under the amnesty, as the lawless, overtly violent replacement for Stalinist authority in the person of the corrupt trading post manager and a foolish old harbormaster, a conservative who keeps Shurpin’s Morning of Our Homeland (Utro nashei rodiny) on his wall. A former zek saves the villagers, and the film foregrounds his heroism by employing the themes and motifs of the American western: the Russian North is framed as Wild West, a site beyond law and civilization; bandits take over a frontier town; the only lawman is sadistically killed; the heroine is threatened with rape, which rouses the reluctant loner; gunbattles are staged with traditional rolls and trick shots, and the hero singlehandedly picks off the bandits one by one; the hero’s sidekick and love interest perish, but he survives; the loner-hero saves the day and then departs, again alone.
In an argument with the harbormaster, the bandit leader parodies Marx’s dictum “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”: “Chto mozhet, Tvoia vlast’—ubit’ menia. I ia mogu ubit’ tebia. Vlast’ dala Tebe groshi. Ia krasivo zhivu. Beru skol’ko nado, i eshche vdvoe, krasivo zhivu” (“What can it do, your government –kill me. And I can kill you too. The government has given you pennies. I live beautifully. I take what I need, and then twice as much, I live beautifully”). Lida, the mute figuration of the Russian people, tries to get help from a passing ship, named for the icebreaker Krasin, famous for saving marooned ships in the Arctic, and eponymous for the Old Bolshevik Leonid Krasin. But this Krasin, like the central government, passes by with its contingent of singing passengers, indifferent to the plight of the villagers assailed by bandits.
The film’s monumental instrumental motif, introduced with the titles, underscores the continuing victimization of the People, playing as the villagers are herded into a barn by the bandits; as they are released after the bandits are wiped out and the former Stalinist authorities (the trading post manager and harbormaster) again take charge; as the former zek who saved the village recognizes a fellow ex-prisoner, both othered victims among the festive Moscow crowds.
The Kerosene Seller’s Wife is set in 1953, in a surreal and impoverished Kaliningrad, metonymical to the country under late Stalinism. The surgeon Pasha Udal’tsov was imprisoned for negligence in the blood transfusion death of a patient and became a street vendor of kerosene after his release. His evil twin, Sergei, who ruined Pasha by switching the containers of blood, becomes the chairman of the city council and at the same time, the head of the local mafia. When a prosecutor is sent to investigate his bribe taking, Pasha plays the part of his twin in a masquerade meant to confuse the prosecutor. Good and evil, as figured in the twin brothers, are thus indistinguishable in Stalinist society, and the city government is allied with the criminal world.
Freeze-Die-Come to Life is a coming of age story set in the post-World War II Russian Far East. Valerka, a fatherless boy who lives with his barmaid mother, runs away to Vladivostok after causing a train wreck and joins a gang of thieves. His Tatar friend Galiia persuades him to leave, but the children are tracked down by the gang members, who fear discovery. Galiia is killed and Valerka badly injured. In post-war Russia, the town, the Zone and thieves’ worlds bleed into one another because all share violence as the normal channel of communication. Opposed is the world of Japanese POWs, distinguished by dignity, peace, care for fellow prisoners and quiet song.
Parallel to the guards, dogs and camp executions is the violence in the civilian zone: Valerka knocks down a small boy without thinking; Galiia knocks down Valerka; newborn kittens are routinely drowned; a thief is beaten in the market; Valerka’s mother beats him; a dance ends in the usual brawl, and so on. Camp, school and civilian space are congruent. At the beginning of the film it is unclear whether the dirty, tired people coming out of a mine are zeks or free workers. The scene repeats later in the film, now with the red star atop the mine, reflected in a puddle. Workers, prisoners and State are one.
The local school principal has close ties to the camp administration: zeks are sent to clean up the overflowing school latrine and he asks for five prisoners to erect poles and barbed wire around the school. A woman teacher casually uses a camp metaphor to describe noise in the school building: “They’ve turned the school into a torture chamber. When will they stop sawing?” The principal orders a cupboard from the Japanese POWs, but they make him a coffin instead (their usual order), to the amusement of a camp guard.
When a thief is caught in the market and beaten by the townspeople, an NKVD agent comes on the scene with the comment, “Is that the way to hit?” and does a professional job on the thief. In the immediately following scene Valerka’s mother beats him for supposedly stealing from her purse. The mother’s boyfriend is a camp executioner who carries photos of the victims in his back pocket. A zek watches through the window as camp guards gobble soup; both are hungry. Valerka runs away because he is convinced his mother will turn him in as an enemy of the people. Both Valerka and a fifteen year old girl inmate attempt to escape on the same freight train. The guard’s “Who are you running from?” addressed to the girl, applies equally to Valerka. In their treatment of the children, the thieves are likened to NKVD interrogators: “He’ll confess to me. Let me have him!” When discussing the murder of the children: “I really like this sort of thing!” Galiia’s mother, crazed by grief, utters the signifying coda to the film: “and who trashes whom, no one can understand.”
In The 101st Kilometer (2001), Leonid Mariagin’s autobiographical film set in the summer of 1953, the teenage hero’s closest ties are to a local gang of thieves and its leader, Kostia Konovalov, who dispenses more home truths about the State and the People than the boy’s parents or teachers. The parallel between the boy and the thieves emerges most forcefully at the end: the hero leaves for Moscow on the night train, abandoning his lover Rita. As he is berated by Rita’s mother, who runs the station snack bar, one of the thieves empties her cash register.
This category strives to recover some aspect of the era from its negative connotations. One of the very earliest films, Iurii Kara’s Tomorrow was the War, set in 1940, is not only compensatory, but conformist in its regression to Thaw era ideals. Although the film advocates the small over the Great Family, it is rigidly patriarchal. The father explains the duties of the sexes: a woman must learn how to love and a man must serve his cause (i.e., emotion vs. intellect, passive vs. active). What is worse is that the film, while rejecting its world of pre-World War II wreckers and informers, is nostalgic for an idealized Civil War era, which supposedly united both apolitical intellectuals and commissars in a just cause.
One group of compensatory films strives to rehabilitate the idealist, patriotic Communists of the Stalin era. With lower-level professionals like the mining engineer father of Mirror for a Hero (1987) or detective chief Ivan Lapshin of the Aleksei German film, recovery is possible because these individuals did their mostly non-political jobs conscientiously, did not take an active role in repressions, but typically suffered nonetheless. The father in Mirror struggles to keep a mine safe in the face of rising production quotas and is finally arrested, as his son later learns. The frame narrator of Lapshin declares his love to the people of his childhood, a past which German seeks to recover as it was known by himself and his parents’ generation. The director shows deep sympathy for the selfless idealism of his father’s generation, sustained by the empty promise of a millenarian future. Lapshin is set in 1935, a time of relative peace and prosperity, just before the purges in which the hero would have perished. In the end, both Lapshin and Khrustalev, My Car! elaborate German’s larger theme of shared cognitive limitation, the fathers’ innocent inability to grasp the significance of events in the present moment, whether the approaching purges or the coming war or the death of Stalin (Condee 186, 212-13).
The problematic film of this group is the famous Burnt by the Sun, which seeks to recover a peasant Civil War hero (a refined Chapaev), who perished in the purges. The film skillfully manipulates the audience via the traditional devices of melodrama, establishing a space of innocence (the dacha and its environs, its eccentric inhabitants, Kotov as ideal family man), which is then lost, giving rise to extended pathos at the end. The film also sets up a loaded opposition between Kotov, the Civil War hero and Stalinist army commander, and Mitia, former White Guard, émigré and now NKVD agent, which favors the former on patriotic grounds: love of motherland and loyalty to one’s cause, right or wrong. The increasingly lopsided opposition can be traced in the evolution of screenplay to film, such that summa summarum, the agent of Stalinist repression turns out to be not the committed Bolshevik, but a former White officer and émigré. In Burnt by the Sun Kotov’s bravery is demonstrated in early scenes when he saves peasants’ fields from tanks, while Mitia’s Civil War service is elided: the depiction of scars on his face and upper body were dropped from the final version of the film. Kotov’s OGPU deeds are downplayed; he is now a national hero and a happy family man, while Mitia is an isolated unknown who serves the NKVD. Kotov essentially convinces Marusia of Mitia’s guilt by overcoming her resistance through sex. In the process he argues that one always has a choice in life, although he himself gave Mitia the choice between espionage abroad and death at home, and Kotov himself has no choice in his arrest. Finally, in historical terms one can argue that there were many Kotovs but few Mitias, as modeled on Sergei Efron, who was moreover arrested and executed several years after his return to the USSR.
The clothing symbolism of the film supports Mikhalkov’s argument. We first see Kotov and family naked in the bania, for they have nothing to hide. By contrast, Mitia wears fashionable clothing that masks his identity: he even jumps into the river fully dressed and slits his wrists in the bathtub fully clothed. Only briefly does he reveal himself to Marusia by throwing off his bathrobe. Mitia projects multiple, mostly performative, identities: the blind old man at the end of a pioneer parade, the magician from Magrib, the Summer Santa, the Mitia we all knew, the sinister man in a gas mask, musician, singer, dancer, storyteller, and NKVD agent. Nevertheless his performative identities contain elements of truth e.g., the circumstances of his service to the State situate him as a belated participant at the end of the Soviet historical parade and as magician from Maghreb, he references his years in France: although “Maghreb” refers to North Africa, the word literally means “the place of sunset or west.” After his grand entrance performance, he plays and sings the “Vesti la giubba” (“Put on the Costume”) aria from I Pagliacci in which Canio discovers his wife’s betrayal, but must nevertheless don his clown costume, for the show must go on—and for Mitia the show is just beginning. Multiple hiding shots in Burnt by the Sun visually support Mitia’s masking: he is hidden behind a glass door from his former tutor Philippe as he plays Russian roulette; he is offscreen as he washes off his old man disguise and tells lies about his personal life; he discards his robe only in offscreen space; as he tells the fairytale about his past, he repeatedly goes behind a lace curtain; his conversation with Kotov about the arrest is hidden from Marusia, who cannot hear behind a glass door.
Burnt by the Sun incorporates a folkloric stratum that comes out of the lines of the “March of Aviators” sung by the parading pioneers at the beginning of the film: “We were born to make fairy tales come true” and continues in Mitia’s created skazka. While he vindictively identifies Kotov as the fairytale monster Kashchei the Immortal, at the beginning of the film he self-identifies performatively to Nadia as an ogre: “Whom do I smell?”. This folkloric code, in its imbrications with the paradoxes of life in Stalinist society, supports the framing of Mitia as villain and Kotov as hero. The surface narrative of Burnt by the Sun is concerned with the purge of a member of the Soviet military elite. In the deep narrative, a stranger arrives in a stable society, destabilizes and destroys it through performances that both deceive and expose the truth. However Mitia’s performances far exceed their official purpose: to forestall suicide or the destruction of evidence, a subject must be ignorant of the approaching arrest and, in any case, Mitia violates procedure by forewarning Kotov. The excessive, gratuitous extravagance of Mitia’s performances identifies him as a trickster – a transgressive folkloric figure, both a malicious destroyer and mischievous prankster, driven by his own desires, who is able to change shapes and adopt disguises, and uses his wits rather than brute force to attain his ends. Through his pranks and violations of convention, the amoral trickster may function as a culture hero, revealing the truth about a society through his anti-social activities. Although he is cunning in laying traps for others, he is often not sufficiently cunning to avoid them himself (Hyde 3-14, Radin xxiii).
Contrary to appearances, Mitia does not return to reclaim Marusia. He has finished with his life, as demonstrated by actual and symbolic suicide attempts and his self-definition as dead victim during the gas attack drill: “What about me? I’ve been killed!” Mitia has agreed to carry out Kotov’s arrest, but he does it according to his own desires and in his own way, driven by the need to return home to the idyllic world of his youth for one day, to achieve the impossible—to have “coffee with jam,” as he tells Nadia. He wants to go out with a grand performance, unlike Marusia’s father, who lived an interesting and creative life, but saw only “trains with geese” in his last hours or Kotov, who talks mundanely about restaurants on his way to the Lubianka.
Like the trickster, Mitia has lived his life under physical and verbal disguises and possibly there is no longer a real self behind the shifting masks or “the real self lies exactly there, in the moving surfaces and not beneath (Hyde 54). Mitia uses his wits to effect both his performance and spirit Kotov away. He plays pranks, grabbing Marusia under water and pulling a chair away from Kirik. His attitude toward Kotov, who sent him out of the country and then married Marusia, is uniformly malicious. Mitia disrupts the status quo by his sudden appearance and his truth-telling: he calls Marusia’s uncle a polygamist, repeats Kotov’s OGPU phone number to him, gropes the phobic spinster Mokhova’s breasts and points out her careless dusting, and calls Kirik a lover of sweet wines and undemanding women. His fairytale tells truths that the family does not wish to revisit. Nevertheless the trickster is often too smart for his own good: Mitia himself falls into the symbolic trap laid for Kotov: at the beach he cuts himself on the broken glass that Kotov had earlier unconsciously avoided.
Rather than focusing on the more common melodrama of victimization, another group of compensatory films stages Stalinism via modes of active and overt resistance to State terror, resistance which is simultaneously figured as comic with the added lift of chanson and light instrumental music. Just as with the vigilante film, audiences reap satisfaction from the successful performance of resistance and justice (however temporary), while transgressive comedy and music serve to distance, to allow the audience to come to terms with, to put away, and, in some cases, remythologize—at least visually—a disturbing, painful era. In Petr Todorovskii’s Encore, Another Encore, the colonel and young lieutenant, who have bonded in homo-social triangulation over a shared woman, get roaring drunk and beat up, in prolonged farcical detail involving displays of long underwear and hysterical wives, the local SMERSH major Skidonenko, the villain who is responsible for the ruin of all the film’s heroes.
In Moscow Parade we’re told from the very beginning that in 1939 the USSR is allied with Germany, Stalin is all powerful after the purges, the only resistance having come from horses and women. What follows is the legend (these films rely on them) of the rebellious stallion Rabfak, who refused to march to May Day parade music and threw all his riders, and the rebellious phallic woman, Ania, who did the same. There’s even a rebellious tropical fish in the film, a species of Ania double. While the mare Marseillaise, equipped with an artificial penis from the prop dept of the Bolshoi, is substituted as a docile mount for the army commander leading the parade, Ania’s resistance is not so easily castrated. The film’s humor is supported by cabaret songs and ironic carousel music throughout—the waltz of life—even at an execution. The ironic, non-diegetic music is appropriate because in the Rabfak story, in parade and Kremlin banquet scenes, the film engages music as the keystone of Stalinist propaganda. One way or another, it’s all about marching to the music.
With the passage of time the need for moral judgment recedes and the filmmaker can contemplate the era from an aesthetic viewpoint. While representing state violence against the individual in its narrative, Moscow Parade remythologizes the Stalin era via a compensatory admiration for its visual culture and music. Dykhovichnyi’s stated aim was to recover the period aesthetically for modern audiences:
I know that we need to change our attitude toward our past. It’s absolutely untrue today , just as it was absolutely untrue several years ago, only with a different sign. In rejecting our past, we doom ourselves to the same end as the generation whose past we took away. […] I inherited from my parents a love for that which is difficult for our children today to love. And this is not false patriotism. It’s the ability to see the beautiful (prekrasnoe) in life. It’s terrible to deprive people of a sense of the full value of past life. It’s absolutely inhumane (Dykhovichnyi, “Bol’shevistskaia ideia” 19, 21).
Dostal’’s The Little Giant With a Big Sex Drive, like Moscow Parade, theorizes the era in Freudian terms, while also arguing comic resistance. From the time Marat learns that the protector of his new girlfriend is “the country’s foremost chekist,” he is rendered impotent with all women because he see Beria’s shadow at the critical moment. The film is concerned with resistance to and triumph over totalitarian phallic power. Marat is cured after he kills the boa constrictor rival (Beria’s surrogate) for the love of a circus snake dancer and goes on to bigger and better things with pornographic photography in a scientific institute, fun with a female dwarf and finally, as an old man in a wheelchair—symbolically thumbing his nose at the system by descending the Odessa staircase of Potemkin with his gorgeous nurse in his lap.
The most extreme of these compensatory films of active resistance is Naumov’s Ten Years Without the Right to Correspond, hardly a humorous title, but again presenting comic resistance, lightened up with cabaret songs, and drawing on legends about the era. The film’s epigraph reads: “filmed to motifs from rumors and gossip which were recounted in a whisper in Moscow gateways after the war. In Ten Years, when Misha returns from the war determined to bring to justice the informer responsible for his father’s arrest and execution during the purges, he soon learns that legal action is fruitless and Ten Years turns into a vigilante film, complete with Kolia, his faithful comic sidekick. In Ten Years every level of resistance is comic: Misha and Kolia, as boys, attempt to kill the informer by dropping a porcelain toilet from the roof of their apartment building onto his official car; the further bit of humor is that the highly placed villain views the falling toilet as an assassination attempt. Kolia’s good-looking wife, Faina, is kidnapped by Beria’s men straight from a skating rink, and then clumps around Beria’s apartments wearing ice skates.
Faina resists Beria with insults and succeeds because he views her first as drunk, then crazy in classic fashion, because she speaks the truth: “We carried you at a demonstration, your portrait was punctured by a nail […] Do you think I don’t know why they brought me here? […] We carried your portrait so many times. And I’m going to love you? You evil man!” When Beria orders her thrown out, Faina demands a car to be driven home, which she gets. Beria orders her bathrobe and slippers burned to avoid infecting future victims with her “madness.”
When Faina is needlessly rescued by Misha and her husband, Kolia, from the MGB agents taking her home, resistance is framed via physical humor: grabbing a wet sheet hung out by a housewife bystander, Misha and Kolia blind the agents by throwing it over their windshield, then beat them up, take their MGB car, and force them to walk back to the office to tell the boss: “we didn’t keep the broad safe and they confiscated our heat.” For all these films, comedy eases the passage through the Stalinist world for the audience and comic-heroic resistance endows the senseless horrors of the purges with compensatory meaning. Nevertheless, in these works (except for the straight comedy, The Little Giant) the resisters ultimately pay for lesé-majesté with their lives or some form of equivocal marginalization.
Another form of compensatory resistance turns on the less heroic idea that it is possible and necessary to escape from the pervasive hegemonic culture. Sometimes it is via the usual route: In Hammer and Sickle the paralyzed hero, monumentalized as his own museum exhibit, tricks his daughter into facilitating his escape into death. The young writer of Moscow Parade escapes through suicide. More interestingly, the lawyer Georgii escapes prorva, the black hole of Stalinism, returning to Nizhnii Tagil, his hometown backwater, via an old railroad bridge, a reversal of an iconic image— the bridges by which peasants streamed into the city after the Revolution, looking for a better life.
The first half of Khrustalev, My Car! deconstructs the myth of a unified culture and rationally functioning society through his use of space and camera angles. Once Klenskii decides upon escape, his previously erratic spatial path, now mostly outdoors, becomes focused and direct in the second half of the film. The closing episode, in which he has escaped by dropping out of the center’s social-professional hierarchy, shows him as a train conductor in an open railroad car, balancing a glass of wine on his head to entertain his circle of drivers and prostitutes. This second escape, the final railroad trip to somewhere (or nowhere), displays, in place of Klenskii’s previously inverted i.e., unbalanced, fate, an equally carnivalized but successful balancing act, signifying an escape from the random and disordered Stalinist universe.
Ten Years Without the Right to Correspond proposes yet another legend of escape. Ever since a friend sealed his apartment door with a five-kopeck coin as a joke, Isai L’vovich has lived underground in the metro system, metamorphosing into the spiritual guru of Moscow. He is protected like a highly placed official by muscular lady metro cleaners, handed sausages through the window by people on passing trains, knows everything happening in the city, and dispenses sage advice about Faina’s kidnapping. He argues that “there are times when disappearing is one of the few ways to preserve oneself both physically and morally. If everyone were to go underground, it would become quiet up there.” He has achieved the ultimate escape from materialism into the spiritual. Furthermore, the liminal underground as the realm of the unconscious opens up a passage to the sacred, conferring special knowledge.
Aleksei Uchitel’’s 2010 blockbuster The Edge engages several themes typical of films on the Stalin era, and also resolves its heroes’ fates in escape. Set after World War II in a remote Siberian camp inhabited by former POWs in Germany, now “traitors to the motherland,” the film recovers the Stalinist hero Ignat, who crashed his locomotive “Joseph Stalin” in a race, thereby demonstrating more “spontaneity” than “consciousness.” Ignat must learn to respect and then love the German enemy in the person of the girl-engineer Elsa, whom he finds literally inside his real love—a locomotive. In its dramatic climax The Edge reenacts seriously—perhaps comically for us— the paradigmatic socialist competition of the Stalin era as Ignat races his German-made locomotive against a native model driven by Fishman, the NKVD villain. Retribution is visited upon Fishman, who is neutralized by Ignat’s blow to the head with his locomotive’s speedometer box, addling Fishman’s mind and degrading him into a harmless comic figure. Nevertheless, to survive, both Ignat and Elsa must escape the hegemonic culture by dropping out, wandering for a year in Siberia, obtaining false documents, and moving to a remote train depot where Ignat can work under the radar. Elsa gives up her Germanic subjectivity and female voice, assuming the persona of a mute, a disabled type traditionally loved and protected by the Russian population.
Finally, several compensatory films recover the people of the era via traditional national traits that exist outside of or predate Soviet era discourse. Rostotskii’s From the Life of Fedor Kuz’kin is an early perestroika film, one of the few that address peasant life during the Stalin era. By the late forties, when the action of the film begins, Kuz’kin has already been through the meatgrinder: he had married and established his household before the Revolution, was arrested in 1937 and had obtained his freedom by volunteering to fight during the war. During the post-war famine years he declares his intention to leave the kolkhoz, which pays him “52 kilos of buckwheat mixed with sparrow droppings” annually, not enough to feed his family, to become a edinolichnik. Guzen’kov, the semi-literate kolkhoz chairman and enemy of Fedor, who is a graduate of the agricultural academy, then attempts to get him expelled from the kolkhoz as a malingerer, without crediting him for 840 earned work days, imposes double taxes and takes away his milk-goat. Using the letter of the law and helped by more enlightened officials, Kuz’kin becomes a forester, guarding logs on the river. But in a storm, Guzen’kov refuses to lend him a tractor to drag the logs on shore. Kuz’kin saves the logs by paying a driver with vodka, but is then charged with plowing his kolkhoz plot illegally. He wins the case, but loses his job with the reorganization of the district and is blocked from working on the river by Guzen’kov. Kuz’kin then turns to weaving baskets and almost freezes to death after breaking his leg while gathering branches, but nevertheless survives, and at the end of the film jokingly offers to pull his son’s truck out of the mud with the tail of his horse.
Over the years Kuz’kin overcomes the envy of fellow villagers, bureaucratic inertia, vindictive administrators, natural disasters, and physical injuries. With his jokes, anecdotes, ironic asides and wry comments addressed to the audience, he is the proverbial clever peasant who outwits a series of stupid and inept Soviet masters. Kuz’kin’s dreams in the form of primitivist paintings visually elaborate his ironic humor and link him to the peasant heroes of Aleksandr Medvedkin. The wise and enterprising peasant, the backbone of the country and a phenomenon existing apart from the Soviet discourse, has survived the depredations of the Stalin era.
In another early film on the post-war era, The Savage (1988), the Russian hero Alik has a pre-revolutionary sense of chivalry and honor (signaled by his amateur theatre group’s staging of a Bunin play) that is opposed to the crude and brutal behavior of the Uzbek bureaucrat Farkhad. Alik does not force his beloved, Maia, into sex when he has the opportunity,and when his sister is shoved and bruised by Farkhad, Alik slaps him to avenge her honor and is immediately arrested by bodyguards. When Alik returns from prison several years later, he finds his family dancing at Farkhad’s son’s wedding. His code of honor is outdated, his sacrifice appears pointless, but he has remained true to himself.
Ogorodnikov’s The Barracks is set in a makeshift wooden building, inhabited by a motley collection of very different types stranded by the war in the remote Urals town of Satka in 1953. As the film progresses, these characters form into either congruent pairs (the blokadshchitsa-technical professional Vorontsova and the policeman/geroi–liubovnik Bolotin; Fogel’man, the photographer/small-time crook and Lipa, the well-endowed widow who performs illegal abortions) or contrasting binaries: the former German POW Fridrich and a Russian collaborator-Polizei. But when Bolotin has too much to drink and loses his service revolver down the hole of the outhouse (the loss is a criminal offense), the entire odd company of the barracks joins in to find it in the septic pit underneath, which then becomes cause for collective rejoicing in the rain. The message one takes away is that even if these very different Russian people spend their days waist-deep in shit, they have not lost the admirable ancestral quality of “sobornost’.” And after the problematic binary, the foreigner Fridrich and the villainous Russian Polizei cancel each other out through a murder, the remaining Russians are united in folk singing over a communal banquet. Fogel’man’s flash-lit photographs freeze characters into stills at critical intervals in the film (including the final photo of the group with the sign “Greetings from Satka,”), a device which enhances the nostalgic tone of the film.
First on the Moon also makes a compensatory argument, but in a much more imaginative and intelligent way. The film chronicles the Soviet space program which sent a man to the moon in 1938, but was discontinued and erased from history, along with its participants, after the pilot, Ivan Kharlamov, disappeared during the maiden flight. But Kharlamov, a folksy type with enormous physical strength who can also step dance with his hands and a vodka glass, crash lands in Chile, sustains brain injuries, but nevertheless crosses the Pacific in a boat, traverses China and Japan on foot, reaching Soviet Mongolia, where he is confined in a psychiatric hospital, from which he escapes. As a non-person from the now non-existent space program, he is outside the system, but successfully eludes the secret police throughout the rest of his life. From 1946-51 he even works in an Ul’ianovsk circus in a strongman act titled “Aleksandr Nevskii,” in which he easily hoists a trio of enemy Teutonic knights. Using sophisticated pastiche of thirties documentary films, First on the Moon makes the argument that Kharlamov, with his superhuman strength, intelligence and will to survive, is a true Russian bogatyr’—a national type that has existed and survived outside the Soviet discourse of the New Man and Stakhanovite.
A Gift for Stalin (2008), set in August 1949 at the time of the first nuclear bomb test in Kazakhstan, makes a compensatory argument through a traditional Kazakh hero who similarly exists outside of any Soviet discourse. Kasym, a railway worker and war invalid, who has lost his wife and children to famine, lives by the old ways, practising Islam but believing in the same God for all. Twice he saves the life of an orphaned Jewish boy exiled from Leningrad, snatching him from the jaws of the Stalinist system. The boy himself actively resists by killing the policeman, rapist and murderer Balgabai, who willingly carries out the orders of the local Soviet military.
ADDRESSING THE PRESENT
Pierre Sorlin argues that historical films invariably address the present in which they were conceived. They refer, if indirectly, to current events and provide historical knowledge mainly about the period in which they were made: “We know that history is a society’s memory of its past, and that the functioning of this memory depends on the situation in which the society finds itself. […] The historical tradition defended by each group and class is of course only an instrument for talking about the present; the conflicts that divide a society, and the goals pursued by opposing forces, are transposed in the semblance of past events” (Sorlin 34-5).
There is no question that a number of Russian films on the Stalin era either overtly or indirectly address their contemporaneity critically or, more recently, argue to support the status quo. In The Swimmer (1981), Kvirikadze’s early film partly devoted to the Stalin era, the grandson of a famous distance swimmer works as culture director for the local tourist bureau, organizing hackneyed events for visitors. After watching the filming of his family’s history of great swimmers, he challenges himself to undertake a distance swim. If to swim is to live, the film dares the people of the late Soviet era to return to the ideals and striving of an earlier time (Graffy 323). The frame narrative of Repentance, which shows Keti’s recounting of her family tragedy and the retribution visited upon the Aravidze family to be merely wishful thinking, warns perestroika audiences that there has been no repentance. After his trip back in time to his parents’ Stalin era youth, the modern day son in Mirror for a Hero concludes that we cannot change the past, but we can understand it. The title of Prishvin’s Paper Eyes refers to a humorous proposition put forth by a TV worker of the 1940s: what if paper eyes glued to the eyelids of a TV news announcer looked at the camera, while the reader’s natural eyes wandered freely? Two parallel plots in Prishvin’s Paper Eyes illustrate this double vision. In an embedded film, a conventional historical melodrama set in 1949, contemporary TV director Pavel Prishvin plays an MGB captain conducting an investigation of a high Party official and simultaneously having an affair with the official’s wife, who wants her husband executed. At the same time, Prishvin is researching a planned documentary on the Soviet live TV pioneers who mysteriously died, disappeared or lost their jobs in 1949. Prishvin suggests merging the two stories to the director of the melodrama, but he refuses, insisting on a simple purge film, to wit: “Stalin was the bloody executioner of Russia.”
As Prishvin delves into the story of the live TV group, he learns that they were not arrested, but were victims of one of their own, the announcer Shutov, a prankster who was jealous of Khrustalev, the group’s brilliant chief, loved by Shutov’s wife, Alisa. As a prank, Shutov seals the apartment of Nekrintsev, another group member, with a coin, causing Nekrintsev to run away from putative arrest and end his days in an insane asylum. In a sinister revenge prank, Shutov gets Khrustalev so drunk that he puts on his coat without noticing the mop stuck in the sleeves and, when thrown out on the street, freezes to death with an open coat. The two plots converge as the MGB lover of the embedded film suffers the same “crucifixion” and the people of St. Petersburg appear on their balconies in the same form, as crucified victims. The conventional arrest and execution plot of films on the Stalin era is displaced by the real story of the live TV group’s demise—a strange tale of tricksterish pranks and personal revenge. Prishvin’s Paper Eyes thus warns perestroika society that it does not necessarily understand the Stalin era.
Both The Thief and To Kill a Dragon reference contemporary ills rooted in the Soviet past. In the version of The Thief intended for western distribution, justice is served as the teenage Sania shoots the thief who ruined his mother and was a false father to the boy. The original Russian version included a coda in which Sania has become the embodiment of what Tolian pretended to be—a professional army officer. Now a colonel in Chechnia, he is tormented by the killing, including his own killings in the line of duty, which he traces back to his first crime, the murder of Tolian. Chukhrai explains Russia’s culture of aggression in the late nineties through the mindset of his own generation, which grew up under late Stalinism and now holds the reins of power, but continues to be corrupted by the code of violence taught to Sania by Tolian.
Mark Zakharov’s To Kill a Dragon, an absurdist allegory based on the legend of St. George and the dragon, narrates the efforts of the wandering knight Lancelot to rid a medieval kingdom of its dragon-tyrant. The film mixes 1980s musical performance with the trappings of Stalinism: the mayor’s stalinka and high boots, period rhetoric, a troika court, toadyism, the falsification of history and science, Stalin’s alternating humiliation and largesse toward his associates-subordinates, popular support for social order. Although the dragon is brought down by Lancelot, the townspeople are soon ready to kneel to him rather than taking responsibility for their lives. The film concludes with a group of fascinated children who follow a dragon-kite, controlled by the former tyrant who remarks to Lancelot, “So, is it everything from the beginning?” To Kill a Dragon adjures 1990s audiences to “kill the dragon in oneself” and warns of the return of totalitarianism in the struggle for the minds and hearts of the next generation.
Stanislav Govorukhin’s Bless the Woman and Not by Bread Alone propagate conservative national and gender myths intended to address the problems of post-Soviet Russia. The film equates the Great and small families, Vera’s husband, Larichev, with Stalin, and thus her personal life to the life of the nation. The Stalinist patriarchy that ultimately crushes her officer husband is nevertheless displaced by him onto his wife, whom he deprives of motherhood, female friendship and the support of her family. Early in their marriage, Larichev spells out the husband’s rights: a washed, fresh and happy wife who always has dinner ready when he comes home. The wife has only one right: to be loved. Like the population which serves the needs of the state and is the beneficiary of Stalin’s love in media slogans, Vera follows orders as the couple moves from one provincial posting to another, and Larichev thwarts her maternal impulses by forcing her to have an abortion and preventing her from taking in his son from an earlier marriage. With the death of Stalin comes Larichev’s death; with the launching of Sputnik and the beginning of the Thaw, Vera’s life begins anew, as she finds love with a sensitive and cultured naval officer and adopts the daughter of her dead friend.
As the Russian version of the eternal feminine, Vera is filmed so as to combine both the sensual and the sacred— for Govorukhin, a Botticelli Venus rising from the sea (Liubarskaia). The film endorses her as the angel in the house, the “source of light” to whom all are drawn and to whom all come home, the model of female fidelity, self-sacrifice, and instinctive motherhood. Vera’s friend, the woman doctor Smolina, with her lovers and illegitimate children “loses” by dying, while Vera begins a new, happier life.
Not By Bread Alone, Govorukhin’s adaptation of the iconic Dudintsev novel, suggests three solutions to contemporary Russia’s problems that come out of its Thaw era narrative: a conventional feminine ideal, service to the Motherland and advocacy of sovereign democracy. The heroine Nadia is an even more saintly variant of Vera from Bless the Woman (played by the same actress, Svetlana Khodchenkova), endowed with moral rectitude, fidelity and a capacity for self-sacrifice. In the novel Nadia bears her husband, the villainous bureaucrat Drozdov’s child; the film simplifies things by making Drozdov impotent or sterile, and the child—Lopatkin’s. In the face of opposition from self-serving Stalinist officials who either reject or steal his ideas, Lopatkin struggles to have his improved tube manufacturing machine approved for general production. Drozdov dismisses the invention because it is the work of an individual, not the collective. Lopatkin sacrifices career and livelihood to the project, thus fulfilling Govorukhin’s revival of the ideal of working selflessly for the good of the Motherland. Lopatkin is also a Russian patriot who is disturbed when he sees people crowding around a shiny foreign automobile. He is saved from hard labor and moved to a sharashka with hopes of release by a “good” Thaw official, a people’s deputy and engineer, played by Aleksandr Rozenbaum, a favorite Putin singer. The Thaw belief in working toward change within the socialist system is thus repackaged for contemporary consumption. Both Govorukhin films, while rejecting the excesses of the Stalin era, hold up the Thaw as a model of a more liberal, but still strongly authoritarian government, which nevertheless allows the self-actualization of the individual.
In Mashkov’s Papa an alcoholic, violent, but devoted Jewish father, Abram Shvartz, raises his son David to become a classical violinist. David escapes the shtetl to begin a successful career in Moscow, rejects his father, who is later executed by the Nazis, and is himself wounded, with his future left in doubt. Like Govorukhin’s films, Papa, which is also based on a Thaw model, Galich’s 1956 play Sailor’s Rest (Matrosskaia tishina), addresses the present in reminding modern Russians of the preceding generation’s virtues, primarily paternal self-sacrifice in the interests of generational progress (Goscilo 148-56). Abram has made a man of his son and his apparition predicts that David’s son, who will become the famous pianist instead of his father, will acknowledge the same, as well as David’s sacrifice during the war: “He will be so proud of you. He will tell people, ‘This is my Papa who made me what I am. My Papa is a hero of the war’.” Whereas Galich’s elevation of small over Great Family would have resonated in the immediate post-Stalin era, Papa addresses the same regressive message of self-sacrifice to supposedly selfish contemporary Russian audiences as do the Govorukhin films.
A secondary message to a resurgent nation-state is the positive treatment of Russianness in the context of family. When the father of David’s Russian friend Slava Lebedev is imprisoned as an enemy of the people, Slava refuses to repudiate him, is expelled from the conservatory, thus relinquishing the prospect of a musical career. David does the opposite, repudiating his father—twice wishing him dead—in order to further his career. In speaking of his father, Slava uses the same words the imaginary Abram later attributes to the repentant David’s future son: “I didn’t simply love him. I was always proud of him.” When driven by external pressures to choose, the Russian acts ethically. David chooses to repudiate his father and his shtetl past out of ambition rather than real necessity, and both father and son have an admitted propensity for telling untruths. The fraught issue of Jewishness and homeland (from family friend Meier Vol’f’s pilgrimage to the Wailing Wall to David’s acknowledgement of the Tul’chin stone wall as the same) is resolved in David’s assimilation (his Russian wife) and then dissolved in the biological primacy of family.
THE ABSENCE OF HISTORICAL THINKING
Several more recent films on the Stalin era, such as Two Drivers (2001), Nanking Landscape (2006) and You Won’t Leave Me (2006), are devoid of serious thinking about the past, instead rendering it as a consumable set of images in the Jamesonian sense. The films are not concerned with historical realities, instead employing stereotypes and “ideas of facts and historical realities” (Jameson 517). Historical images, especially costumes, period artifacts and settings, serve as background or sources of entertainment for modern narratives, such as romantic comedy and melodrama.
Two Drivers, set in the post-World War II era in the remote Altai region, narrates the rocky courtship of two truck drivers, the self-assured Kolia and independent Raika, in screwball comedy fashion: they must each reject inappropriate lovers (a dining hall cook and the pilot of a mail plane) and traverse a series of comic misunderstandings and quarrels before coming together. The film operates by eliding the socialist realist production plot and all accompanying ideology, while preserving period material culture and foregrounding the love story that had traditionally fulfilled a secondary human interest function in socialist realist narratives (Sirivlia). Two Drivers playfully appropriates period artifacts and cultural references (Kolia’s dilapidated Russian truck, Raika’s new Ford from Lend-Lease, a statue of a parachutist, the ubiquitous loudspeaker blaring music and commands, the aviation craze, a cultural performance in the hinterlands), which are served up with a fondness that only rarely shades into irony. The relationship between workers and their instruments in socialist realist narratives and accessorial portraits is here inverted for comic effect, as the metonymical trucks dominate the action as much as the human lovers: racing and chasing each other, rescuing a truck—rather than damsel—in distress, playing tag circling a hayrick, driving side by side as reconciled lovers.
Even the sinister signifier of authority is displaced into comedy. The ubiquitous single loudspeaker mounted on a pole, the voice of state power brilliantly depicted by Kozintsev and Trauberg in Alone (Odna, 1931), and reinforced by the sepulchral Levitan during the war years, in the film becomes a disembodied voice that cantankerously argues with and orders around the young truck driver hero, and even snores at one point, thereby trivializing the voice of the State. The talking loudspeaker is finally revealed to be the commandant of the village airstrip, a legless former aviator on the Meres’ev model, who abandons the gravitas and dedication to duty of a Soviet hero, allowing himself to be carried out to join an exuberant village celebration. Both the sinister disembodied voice and the iconic hero-martyr are thus neutralized and assimilated by comedic displacements, becoming “just folks” who participate in the general merrymaking.
While the older generation of directors who grew up in the post-war Stalin years recreate the era in loving detail ( e.g., German’s Khrustalev, My Car! or Mariagin’s The 101st Kilometer), they cannot be accused of simultaneously applying a purely nostalgic glaze. At worst, films like Petr Todorovskii’s Encore, Another Encore!, give us a happier unhappy time, but end in tragedies that preclude or lessen nostalgia. It is rather the films of much younger directors, like Ogorodnikov and Kott, that offer an uncomplicated return to a better time, one of course not experienced by them. With its romantic comedy narrative and erasure of socialist realist paradigms, Two Drivers seeks to evoke nostalgia for a perceived simpler era of social relations, when love was a more straightforward matter and the population united in local celebrations.
Rubinchik’s Nanking Landscape, set during the 1930s with flashbacks to early 20th c. China, is a melodrama-fantasy , a study of loneliness, fate, betrayal and duality, with pretensions to historical thinking. Two men, opposite in all ways, an expert on Chinese porcelain who quotes Mandel’shtam and a former zek-hoodlum, are twice linked through real or imagined love for the same women—a young Chinese girl and a naïve Russian hairdresser. Both men are imaginative storytellers (the film’s title appears as a typewriter font), making it all but impossible to sort out fact from fiction. Chinese historical-cultural images (traditional clothing, elaborate headdresses, musical instruments, architecture) and scenes from 1937 Moscow are offered for consumption. The film attempts some historical thinking only at its conclusion, possibly suggesting an analogy between repressive but doomed Chinese and Soviet societies. As an enormous stone Buddha, excavated in China, is set up opposite the Kremlin, the scenes are intercut with the geometricized female figures-mandalas of Soviet sports parades. The Buddha can be seen as a placeholder for Stalinist monumental sculpture. (See Larsen, “Valerii Rubinchik”).
Alla Surikova’s You Won’t Leave Me, set in 1951, uses Stalin era images and cultural tropes (period cars and trams, clothing and music, the usual Lenin and Krupskaia actors in a provincial theatre company, a film project modeled on Aleksandrov’s The Radiant Path) as the setting for a melodrama of winter-spring romance. Grigorii Evseevich, an aging theatre artist, has married Vera, a flighty, ambitious and beautiful young actress, the spoiled daughter of a high official. When a postcard arrives from Viktor, a student admirer Vera met on vacation in Crimea, Grigorii Evseevich answers in her name, beginning a secret correspondence that culminates in an epistolary declaration of love on both sides. The deceit is terminated and Grigorii Evseevich saved by the sudden introduction of terror: in his first job Viktor is executed for industrial sabotage. Ultimately the insecure Grigorii Evseevich’s virtues are recognized and we have a happy ending, as his—it turns out—loving wife agrees to his wish for a child, which she had previously resisted for career reasons. You Won’t Leave Me thus employs historical images and events as background and as convenient plot device in a melodramatic narrative.
In the context of socio-political liberalization and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the valorization of the Stalin era in cinema reached its apogee in the late 1980s-early 1990s, but the topic has continued to signify as it gestures toward the present. Given the significance of the Stalin years for Russian culture, there is no question that filmmakers will return to them again and again to reappropriate the era for their own time. Iurii Bogomolov has defined its paradoxical allure: “We’re still going to return to that time, not because it’s so attractive, but because within it is imprisoned a terrible, infernal energy” (Bogomolov).
University of Colorado at Boulder
2] I have not considered films made for TV, such as Beyond the Wolves (Po tu storonu volkov, 2002) or The First Circle (V kruge pervom, 2006), released in an abbreviated version as a feature film To Be Preserved Forever (Khranit’ vechno, 2008). I include most films revisioning the Stalin era, but cannot claim complete coverage, since a few films were inaccessible. I have also not included works like It (Ono,1989) that deal only partially with the era. A number of the films are adapted from literary works, but I consider them as independent works.
7] See Woll and Youngblood 75-87. The stylistics of Repentance are less innovative than they appear. The film is the third, after The Wishing Tree (Drevo zhelaniia) and The Prayer (Mol’ba) in Abuladze’s trilogy about Georgian history. All have the same surreal sensibility, an established tradition in Georgian literature and cinema.
12] The film, which starred Jeanne Moreau, premiered at Cannes in 1991, remained the property of the late French producer Serge Silberman and has rarely been screened. Khamdanov’s Unexpected Joys (Nechaiannye radosti, 1974) was stopped in mid-production, the negative destroyed, and the script rewritten for what became Mikhalkov’s The Slave of Love (Raba liubvi). Khamdamov inserted surviving rough footage from his film into Anna Karamazoff. The title is apparently taken from Nabokov’s anecdote about a girl student who conflated Tolstoi’s heroine with the Dostoevskii brothers in the heat of an exam (Savel’ev).
13] As an example of the level of referentiality in the film, Savel’ev speculates that the child in a rabbit suit appearing out of nowhere may refer to a similar device inserted into Soviet-era plays in order to distract the censor.
14] Fedorchenko defined the film as “documentary fantasy” (dokumental’naia fantastika) . See quotes from Tom Birchenough and Olesia Konstantinova interviews. Although more openly satiric, in formal terms the model is Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983), which employs fabricated black and white 1920s footage along with color footage of contemporary interviews with surviving witnesses. Archival footage makes up approximately 7% of First on the Moon; the director used only newsreel footage that could not be faked: the Red Square parade with Stalin, excerpts from the 1936 film The Space Voyage (Kosmicheskii reis), (See Beiker.) In order to achieve a period effect, Fedorchenko used process shots instead of computer graphics and shot at 8-12 fps, printing at 24 fps (Fedorchenko interview).
15] In a flashback the lieutenant, while still at the academy, is forced to sign a denunciation of his lover’s academician father. When physical stress and a mock execution don’t achieve the desired result, seduction by a sadistic female officer i.e., joining the opposite side in all senses, does. In Mariagin’s Trotskii (1993), one of the few biographical films on famous personages of the Stalin era, the dying Trotskii recalls his conversation with an arrested orthodox priest, who condemns Bolshevik terror: “blood only brings blood.” After Trotskii orders the priest shot in front of a church and in view of Red Army troops, the camera pans up to an image of Christ Pantokrator in the church cupola, the final shot of the film. Thus the suicide of Trotskii’s daughter, the murder of his son by a Soviet agent, and his own assassination by Raymond Jackson, though engineered by Stalin, is ultimately represented as God’s judgment on Trotskii because of his lifelong commitment to expedient violence. In Tsymbal’s Tale of the Unextinguished Moon (Povest’ o nepogashennoi lune, 1990) the army commander modeled on Mikhail Frunze, who is represented as a popular leader, good friend, and loving husband and father, has flashbacks before his fatal surgery of the Belaia Rechka massacre of White Army Junkers ordered by him during the Civil War . His funeral footage is then juxtaposed with shots of the bodies of the drowned officers on the shores of the river, suggesting that Frunze’s death, engineered by a jealous Stalin, is a just punishment for unnecessary killings during the Civil War.
16] The title refers to the dissolute Babylonian king who oppressed the Jews and profaned the Temple’s sacred vessels by using them for his guests. The words “Mene, mene tekel upharsin” appeared on the wall, which Daniel interpreted as “Thou art weighed in the balance and art found wanting.”
18] When asked why he wore high boots, even in hot weather, Stalin responded that they were comfortable and useful: “You can kick someone in the head with them so hard he’ll never find all his teeth” (Antonov-Ovseyenko 251).
19] In an interview Dykhovichnyi explains: “One can see very well in relations between man and woman the instance of what kind of political system is suitable for life, and what kind isn’t. The Bolshevik idea began with the destruction of sex. […] This is a film about imperial consciousness” (Dykhovichnyi, “Bol’shevistskaia ideia” 18-19).
20] The problem here, of course, is the representation of men as victims and women as perpetrators of state violence, which can be read as either castration anxiety or a justificatory displacement of male violence against women.
21] Sidikhin’s physical attributes were crucial to Dykhovichnyi’s conceptualization of Gosha: “I invited Sidikhin because he possesses the surface texture (faktura) necessary for this role: along with all his apparent manliness, he has completely a child’s skin. It’s impossible to deceive in film: good skin will be good on screen, bad will be bad. For this role it was precisely the surface texture that was important: then you believe that this man could be desirable to the heroine. She’s attracted not by his brute strength, not that he’s a station porter, but by the unique physical combination of strength and tenderness. The film is based on a real story; I found it in a 1928 criminal case (at that time Soviet bureaucrats still had aristocratic wives). A woman testified in court that this porter was gentle with her as no man had been in her life. Sidikhin precisely fit this role. But he needs to be filmed correctly.When he begins to play the bogatyr’, everything is lost. He is more attractive in his childlike qualities and defenselessness” (Ivan Dykhovichnyi, “Anketa IK”).
24] Repentance also negates the general Bolshevik educational project in which Varlam initially wishes to enlist Sandro’s art: “We must enlighten the people. Raise their cultural level.” Sandro’s response rejects the efficacy of secular initiatives: “Do you think that I with my paintings, or you, by your efforts, can enlighten the people that created The Knight in a Tiger’s Skin? The people can be enlightened only by a spiritual pastor. A moral hero.”
25] See Kaganovsky and Prokhorov, “I Need Some Life-Assertive Character”) On women as agents of state power in the film, see Larsen 108-115. An irony behind both the fiction of Evdokim and Liza as models for Mukhina’s sculpture and the original sculpture is that a primary source for Mukhina in formal terms was the 5th c. BC Roman copy of The Tyrant-Slayers by Critias and Nesiotes. (See Kostina 101.) Liza is a descendant of Tania Morozova in Aleksandrov’s The Radiant Path (Svetlyi put’). Both women go through the transformation from peasant to Stakhanovite to high-level bureaucrat and agent of state power. (Morozova is a people’s deputy.) The masculinized Liza’s explicit use of violence is present in Tania’s folkloric figuration as sorceress, her violent anger against a successful competitor and her masculinized posture toward the end of the film. See Salys, The Musical Comedy Films of Grigorii Aleksandrov 281-340.
26] In Vasil’kov’s And There are Cursed Days in Russia Again, a former student zek enacts a highly idealized resistance to terror in an altercation with a camp guard who mocks the émigré writer Bunin. (The film’s title derives from Bunin’s anti-Bolshevik diary notes, published in 1925 as Okaiannye dni.) The student dumps water on the guard, earning himself an additional 25 year sentence, and is later killed. Not all films dealing with the camp experience present or posit the evolution of a citizen hero. See for ex., Koma, The Manuscript, Freeze-Die-Come to Life.
27] “Prorva” has various dictionary meanings: a pit in a swamp, a ravine filled with water, a whirlpool, an excessively large amount of something, a human gullet, a branch of a river (Tolkovyi slovar’ russkogo iazyka, vol. 3, 988).
28] Her murderous bent is even more evident in the published script. As Gorbachevskaia thanks Georgii for his help in getting her released from prison, he imagines: “Gorbachevskaia beckoned him with her finger, embraced him quickly and briefly, knifed him, and his head rolled away. He shuddered in disgust and bliss.” (Kozhushanaia 41).
31] See the 1993 script published in Kinostsenarii 4 (1994), available on the menshikov.ru website. In this first script Mitia also saves the Golovin family from intruding ball lightning. In the original version of the film, at the beach Marusia notices the scar under Mitia’s shoulder blade, but this scene was cut from the American release.
32] In his excellent Charms of the Cynical Reason: The Trickster’s Transformations in Soviet and Post-Soviet Culture (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2011) Mark Lipovetsky argues that in creating sympathetic and complex images of tricksters, Soviet culture elevated its pervasive cynicism to the kynic, as the only valid alternative to its destructive practice (55).
33] The story is Mitia’s response to Marusia’s question, “Why did you make up that fairytale?” “Poezda s gusiami” is borrowed from Mikhail Chekhov’s The Actor’s Path (Put’ aktera) and pertains to his father’s last days.
34] Klenskii’s son, Alesha, tells his father’s story, which includes episodes he could not have witnessed, but has imagined, such as his father’s second life on the railroad. The father’s survival thus assuages the son’s guilt for attempting to denounce him (Etkind, 55-57).
35] This conventional reconciliation of former national enemies through love may be contrasted to the nuanced depiction of the ambivalent relationship between a Russian officer and a German woman journalist in Max Färberböcks A Woman in Berlin (2008).
36] Fedorchenko states that the film is about “the attitude of the state to its best people. […] This film is about how genuine heroes, titans, strong, intelligent, honorable people turn out to be expendable material for their Motherland.” (Fedorchenko interview). See also Prokhorov, “The Redemption of Lunar Reality” and Kovalov, “Aleksei Fedorchenko.”
39] Parental and female self-sacrifice are proximate. As Goscilo points out, Abram is both mother and father to David and Mashkov plays the character as a tender-hearted, almost feminized nurturer in the latter part of the film (155).
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Rimgaila Salys © 2011
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