Issue 39 (2013)

Maria Yatskova: Miss Gulag (2007)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks © 2013

miss gulagThe theme of women’s experience in the Gulag was most memorably explored by Evgeniia Ginzburg’s 1967 memoir, Journey into the Whirlwind (Krutoi marshrut), a political prisoner’s denunciation of the Stalin-era labor camp system, addressed by one Communist intellectual to other like-minded people. By contrast, Miss Gulag, follows the experiences at a post-Communist Russian prison, of three women prisoners sentenced for criminal and not political offences. Given the Stalin-era associations of the notion of the ‘gulag,’ it does not seem entirely right to use the term for the contemporary Russian penal system. Thus, while the prisoners work, this is not the murderously physical toil involved in building the White-Sea-Baltic Canal on starvation rations, but the less hazardous and less arduous sewing of uniforms for the Russian military. Indeed, Miss Gulag appears to be criticizing not so much the Russian penal system, so much as Russia’s wider social problems of substance abuse, violent crime, and high youth unemployment, which have led to high rates of female offending. It may be that the Russian film-going public does not know about these problems, but whether or not this is the case, Miss Gulag’s criticisms of Russian society are not really addressed to a Russian audience, but more to international film viewers, an orientation that shapes the film.

miss gulagMiss Gulag follows the fates of three characters from Siberian prison UF-91/9: Iuliia, serving four years for drug dealing; Tatiana serving eight years for armed robbery; and Natasha, who has just completed her 14-year sentence for armed assault. Despite their crimes, the film succeeds in eliciting sympathy for the characters and engaging the spectator in their stories and fates. Thus, it turns out that Natasha’s conviction for violent assault was for a revenge attack on a drug dealer who had sold her boyfriend a fatally toxic dose. Collectively the women’s experiences add up to a bleak survey of Russian youth in general, and the position of women in particular. The film counterbalances this grim vista with the prisoners’ preparations towards and Natasha’s return for, the fashion-cum-beauty pageant evoked in the title. This event is presented as something that the inmates look forward to, a morale boost, but also a means of rehabilitation, since participation in this kind of activity demonstrates a public spiritedness that enables Tatiana, and presumably others, to gain parole. At the same time the filmmakers use the pageant to humanize the inmates by emphasizing their femininity, endowing them with the presumed normality of a concern over their appearance. However, the rather traditional view of femininity as presented by the pageant is counterbalanced by the film’s more daring discussion of same-sex relations in the camp. Whereas many accounts of the gulag, such as Ginzburg, treated this as repugnant and a threat to the prisoner’s identity as a woman, a mother, and a member of the intelligentsia, Miss Gulag ‘s characters discuss the issue non-judgmentally, and we see Natasha returning to see the lover, Katia, she had been missing since her release.

miss gulagThere is certainly an ethnographic fascination in seeing images of the inside of a contemporary Russian prison, and the interviews’ prison surroundings add to their interest. Indeed, the film’s overwhelming reliance on talking-head interviews with the main characters, as well as with friends, relations, and the prison authorities is its most fascinating dimension. Certainly this enables a more intimate, subtle and nuanced analysis of the characters’ fates than a voice-over narration would have. The subjects’ candor about many aspects of their lives, is evidently the consequence of an empathy with the director, Maria Yatskova, a US- and French-educated Russian émigrée, and first-time director, whom Tatiana thanks by name, to camera, as she leaves the prison on parole in the film’s uplifting final scene. While the film’s optimism, like the organizing metaphor of the pageant, is an understandable way of packaging its essentially dark subject matter, its failings are less in its narrative organization as in stylistic choices. Despite the strength of the interviews, Yatskova appears to have lacked faith in her subjects’ or her own abilities to engage spectators with their stories, instead inserting illustrative material such as a reconstruction of the incident which led to Natasha’s incarceration. The style of this reconstruction is reminiscent of the worst and cheapest TV crime serials: it visually spells out Natasha’s every word with an image, such as someone opening a packet of white powder as she mentions that her boyfriend died of an overdose, as if the viewer lacks any vestige of an imagination. What is worse, we do not have a chance to see the subject’s face at the moment she recounts this experience.

miss gulagMiss Gulag does not only assume that its audience lacks imagination, but also any knowledge about Russia, so that in order to communicate to an international audience, it employs stock archive footage recounting the fall of the Soviet Union with tumbling statues of Lenin and Boris Yeltsin waving the Russian flag in 1991. It also uses intertitles that explain the social consequences of the post-communist era, such as the rise in violent crime and greater proportion of women criminals. In all of this there is no differentiation in the 20-year period of post-Soviet Russia. This broad-brush approach presumably means that it would be almost impossible to show the film in Russia, where a greater starting point of knowledge and more historical nuances might be demanded. Nevertheless, the pretentions to historical and social contextualization of the three women’s stories lent the film a certain journalistic animus, suggesting a commitment to inform the English-speaking public about post-Communist Russia and the fate of women in its penal system. This is an ambitious agenda that Miss Gulag was not really able to deliver on, and thus it comes as no surprise that the film grew from an article in the glossy magazine, Marie Claire, not known for its in-depth reporting. Instead of any real insight, we are left with a human-interest film that appropriates and exploits the word ‘gulag’ in order to attract an attention that it lacks the analytical acumen to sustain.

Jeremy Hicks
Queen Mary University London

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Neihausen-Yatskova and Vodar Films
Writer/Co-Producer: Irina Vodar
Co-Producer: Raphaela Neihausen
Director: Maria Yatskova
Cinematographer: Grigori Rudakov
Editors: Peter Kinoy, Stephen Ovenden

Maria Yatskova: Miss Gulag (2007)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks © 2013

Updated: 03 Jan 13