Issue 47 (2015)
Ivan I. Tverdovskii: Corrections Class (Klass korrektsii, 2014)
reviewed by José Alaniz© 2015
Late in Ivan Tverdovskii’s Corrections Class, Svetlana Viktorovna (Natalia Pavlenkova) pushes her wheelchair-using teenage daughter Lena (Maria Poezhaeva) up to a freshly-installed two-track ramp at the entrance to Lena’s high school. (The structure, scaling some concrete stairs, has been a topic of discussion throughout the film; earlier we observed it being built.)
But this mother’s delight at the school’s improved infrastructure—a sign of more inclusive times—soon dissolves into fury: between the tracks and sidewalk pavement there still yawns a wide gap. Struggle and reorient the chair as she might, Svetlana Viktorovna cannot pull her daughter up the ramp: “Was it so hard to make it so that it reached another 10 centimeters…?” she cries. “It’s okay, Mom,” Lena breathes out, “I’ll pull myself up.”
And so the two negotiate the entrance stairs as they always have. “Thank you very much, my dears… Great job,” Svetlana Viktorovna grumbles, dragging the chair up step by step, while her daughter dangles from the railing.
The scene—told in an improvised documentary style, with hand-held shots and jump cuts—functions as both true-to-life metaphor (reflecting the experience of millions in Russia)  and acrid, cringing comedy (particularly when coming immediately after a brutal gang rape scene). Tverdovskii often treads this thin line between exploitation and outrage, diving deep into subject matter which most other directors (and audiences) would prefer not to even countenance. As a result, Corrections Class is the most insightful, unflinching and hell-raising feature ever made about disability in Russia. Its message: the disabled—despite much lip-service to “inclusivity” and enlightened educational practice—rise to the top of no one’s priority list (to put it mildly).
Disability in Russia Today
Indeed, 21st-century Russians with disabilities, especially outside the country’s major population centers, continue to live a second-class existence that would be recognizable to their counterparts from a generation ago—and in some ways to their early Soviet ones as well. Lena’s plight, for example, recalls both Ksenia Klimova’s reality-based short story “Steps” from the early 1990s—“Anyone who has ever seen a person in a wheelchair climbing a staircase by pulling themselves up along a handrail, will never forget it” (Klimova 1996: 143)—and post-WWII reports that Red Army veterans in need of prosthetic limbs often had trouble entering the very facilities designated for their fittings.
Problems with physical access, of course, are merely a reified symptom of this population’s social derogation; Human Rights Watch recently reported that the overwhelming majority of children with disabilities in Russian orphanages have at least one living parent who has abandoned them due to prejudice, medical advice and/or financial pressures (HRW 2014: 5). Many languish in inadequately supported state institutions. For much of Russia, the disabled remain a forgotten population, an afterthought. When the subject cannot be avoided, too often it comes garlanded with strong cultural links to tragedy, pity, charity, sacrifice (especially in the case of veterans) and religious dogma. 
As I wrote in KinoKultura previously (Alaniz 2007), the mainstream Russian media do precious little to combat such public attitudes; as noted by Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova and Pavel Romanov, they often “see their mission as arousing public pity and sympathy for the disabled, and to censure the actions of the state” (2006: 217), leaving activists and artists to craft more well-rounded depictions in the independent sphere. Rubén González-Gallego’s semi-autobiographical novel White on Black (Beloe na chernom, 2002)—on the execrable conditions for disabled people in Soviet-era orphanages—and the controversy surrounding its Russian Booker Prize in 2003; the novel Petroleum Venus (Neftianaia venera, 2008) by Aleksandr Snegirev, which deals with Down Syndrome; and the wheelchair-using activist Irina Iasina’s  memoir History of an Illness: In Search of Happiness (Istoriia bolezni: V popytkakh byt’ schastlivoi, 2013) represent some recent moves towards placing an alternative, more empowering vision of disability before the public.
Denise Roza, director of the Moscow-based disability rights NGO Perspektiva, reported in 2005:
[D]isabled people in Russia still face daily discrimination, as well as physical barriers to education, employment, recreational activities, family life and participation in community life. Although disability legislation has been passed on the federal and local levels, implementation mechanisms, such as procedures for fining inaccessible public places, have not been codified, rendering legislation largely symbolic and ineffectual. (Roza 2004/2005)
Since then, Russia has yet to translate its 2012 ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and other progressive legislation into widespread, sustained change. More than any recent film on this subject, Corrections Class articulates the palpable, daily disgrace of such dehumanization. As Koretskii (2014) puts it: “Tverdovskii very precisely and lucidly conveys the atmosphere of general shame that prevails in a repressed society (not necessarily Russian—the film exhibits a Kafkaesque universalism), when the very basis of your existence becomes obscene, when the piece of repulsive filth—is you.”
Disabled children and young people face enormous barriers to their Constitutional right to education: the ‘diagnosis’ of ‘uneducable’ given to children after a brief examination; the lack of trained specialists; physically inaccessible schools; teachers and school/university directors who are unaware or misinformed about disability issues; lack of accessible public transportation in cities; lack of facilities, equipment and services for students with disabilities; and the prevailing societal misconceptions, stereotypes and discriminatory practices. (Roza 2004/2005) 
Tverdovskii’s film bursts from this context of segregation and second-class status, along with its attendant layers of hypocrisy—in which a useless ramp betokens a school administration more concerned with seeming than actual inclusivity—so as to condemn it all. Corrections Class bears all the hallmarks of the late-Soviet “troubled youth” films, such as Is It Easy to Be Young? (Vai viegli būt jaunam? dir Juris Podnieks, Latvia, 1986) and Little Vera (Malen’kaia Vera, dir. Vasilii Pichul, 1988), its tropes seen more recently in The Stroll (Progulka, dir. Aleksei Uchitel’, 2003), Manga (dir. Petr Khazizov, 2005), The Mermaid (Rusalka, dir. Anna Melikian, 2007) and The Geographer Drank His Globe Away (Geograf globus propil, dir. Aleksandr Veledinskii, 2013). The critic Il’ia Miller (2014) identifies the closest antecedent of Corrections Class, Rolan Bykov’s Scarecrow (Chuchelo, 1983), with its similar atmosphere of metastasizing horror. Ol’ga Kasianova (2014) sees “something truly cruel” in the film, calling its 25-year-old director a “baby [Lars] von Trier.”
Tverdovskii’s film stands out from previous representations of disability nearly from its first frame. His chief innovations: to depict the “troubled youth” milieu as never before, from the perspective of the disabled themselves; to improvise with his young actors—some of whom trained at Kirill Serebrennikov’s Gogol Center, while others are non-professionals with real disabilities—for heightened naturalism; and, critically, to refuse to depict the disabled as either heroes or objects of pity.
The film opens, in Miller’s words, as “another socially-conscious chernukha sob story”: we see Svetlana Viktorovna pushing her daughter Lena in her wheelchair, on their way for Lena’s first day of “real” school, when they come upon an accident. A young man has died, run over by a commuter train, one of which even now fills the background and soundtrack with its loud reverberations. “Don’t look!” mother commands daughter, but with the train blocking the way forward there’s nothing to do but look. Similarly, Tverdovskii throws down a gauntlet before his viewers: I will show you things you will not want to see.
Taking place in what appears the greater Moscow suburban area (those trains run often, never stopping), the film spends its first half-hour setting the stage: a special “corrections class” in which kids with various disabilities—some obvious, some not—learn together, awaiting the day when a special commission will determine whether they can be placed in “normal” classes. But as Kasianova (2014) points out, though the teachers all speak in gushy tones about “inclusive” rights to education, the corrections class itself is physically set apart from the able-bodied students by a prison-like, barred gate. Moreover, Lena is berated for arriving late—though the absence of ramps or lifts make getting to the upper-floor classroom no easy task for a wheelchair-user.
The film then settles into its main plotlines, deriving much humor from student/staff interactions  (made more poignant by the fact that most teachers, who have not been trained to work with disabled students, do not believe they belong in regular classrooms at all); the various forms of petty malfeasance in which the students engage; and the ingénue Lena learning about the world beyond her home-study roots: being inducted into her clique’s “train” fetish (they lie flat on the rails, tempting death as the commuter trains pass overhead), and starting a romance with Anton (Filipp Avdeev), a boy revealed to have epilepsy. But nothing, Lena comes to realize, is as simple as it seems.
The film’s most potent scenes revel in such complexity, radically treating its subjects as flawed, even cynical human beings rather than mere moral paragons of suffering. Nothing quite like them has ever appeared in Russian cinema before; they seem determined to flout audience preconceptions. An early scene in fact mocks the tired notion of the “pathetic” cripple: Lena and her new friends from class beg for alms on the street—and use the money for party supplies (they exploit Lena’s wheelchair to cut in line at the cashier for good measure).
Of such scenes, the most ground-breaking are those most committed to smashing taboos (again recalling chernukha cinema). The sexuality of the disabled remains one of the most stubborn taboos. And so here we are, at the film’s halfway point: Lena has asked Anton to the girl’s bathroom, to help her with some aspect of personal care. She needs him to “please” apply some lotion. (“My poor leggies hurt,” she coos.) Her skirt lifted up quite high, she observes, “These are legs after all.” As Anton, breathing heavily, does as she commands, Lena lets down her hair. The scene is all close-ups, nearly pornographic in its sexualization of Lena’s body in the wheelchair. Their lips nearly meeting, she suggests, “You can put some here too. Only there it doesn’t hurt.”
Nothing about the encounter suggests monstrosity or grotesquerie—terms often applied to “freak” sex (see, for example, the nude disabled bodies in Aleksei Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men [Pro urodov i liudei, 1998]); we see a young woman on the verge of sexual awakening, confident and expressing desire.
It is only what happens next that casts the episode in an unseemly light: the custodian Olga Nikolaevna (Zhanetta Demikhova) stumbles upon the pair and loudly vents her displeasure to a room full of school administrators and teachers: “Just now I walked into your corrections toilet, and in there, by the way, your rolling crip girl (koliasochnitsa) is screwing with her pretty boy, and not just screwing, not just screwing, by the way, but also with perversions!”
Tverdovskii does incline to Dostoevskian scandal: another tryst between Lena and Anton at the latter’s home ends similarly, with the couple interrupted by Anton’s horrified mother Polina Grigorevna (Ol’ga Lapshina). Disability and teen sex: two things guaranteed to send adults in this film into hysterics. And certainly Correction Class’s most flagrantly exploitational scene—the gang rape—will go too far for some viewers. Why show the disabled in such a contemptible, inhuman light, tormenting one of their own? Might not such imagery undo the film’s attempts to cast them as fully-fledged people rather than monsters?
Here I find useful Koretskii’s comparison of the film to Tod Browning’s notorious horror masterpiece Freaks (1932), whose disabled cast, too, forced the audience to confront its innate prejudices, to “see through the monsters’ eyes.” The rape scene compels us to reconsider our feelings not only for the psychotic ringleader Misha (Nikita Kukushkin), but for the heretofore decent Masha (the short-statured, non-professional actress Maria Uriadova) as well. The docile stutterer Mitka (Artem Markar’ian) seems not quite so sweet as he leers and takes his turn while his friends hold his victim down. The disabled can do terrible things too, just like “normal” people.
The film’s rawness and brutality, its unalloyed hatred of that selfsame “normal,” burns nowhere more fiercely than in the rape scene; its uncanny “return of the repressed” quality, as Koretskii calls it, makes the film “a naturalistic social horror story” whose “punk raptures” indeed recall Lars von Trier or Larry Clark. Its chief tone is rage—including misdirected, self-destructive rage—a plausible response to the world as these kids find it.
Besides, horrific as that scene may be, I found it not so scandalous, ultimately, as the disappointing magical-realist ending. While perhaps intended by Tverdovskii as a final stab in the eye to the viewer, a Larsian foiling of preconceptions, the “cure” ending instead participates in an age-old quasi-eugenicist “wishing away” of disability. The “real world”—which this film professes to care so much about—does not work that way; to paraphrase an ableist metaphor, the ending makes this film “two spins forward and one spin back” for disability representation.
Nonetheless, Tverdovskii breaks ground that needed breaking. Judging from positive reaction among critics and viewers, as well as its film festival performance—Best Debut and the Distributors’ Jury Prize at Kinotavr; and Main Prize in “East of the West” competition at Karlovy Vary 2014—Corrections Class will to some extent shape future cinematic depictions of disability in Russia. It joins a list of recent disability-themed works from the region—among them My Stepbrother Frankenstein (Moi svodnyi brat Frankenshtein, dir. Valerii Todorovskii, 2004); Nika (dir. Anna Beliankina, 2010); Anton’s Right Here (Anton tut riadom, dir. Liubov’ Arkus, 2012); Thirst (Zhazhda, dir. Dmitrii Tiurin, 2013); and Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe (Plemia, Ukraine, 2014)—to delve beyond the superficial.
As Iarskaia-Smirnova and Romanov note, it may be no coincidence these works are coming out in this cultural moment:
Today among people with disabilities there is a growing resistance to the negative cultural image of disability in the mass media and art, in which disability is shown as an object of charity and philanthropy. The disabled are becoming more actively functioning social subjects, they are raising demands not only for equal opportunities in the areas of education and employment, but also for the right to self-determination (Romanov and Iarskaia-Smirnova 2006: 220-221).
We may in fact recall this as the era when Russian cinema began to turn towards routinely depicting the disabled not as freaks or “inspirational” figures (the two traditional options), but as nothing more or less than people with incidental physical/cognitive differences.
1] The Ministry of Health reports some 13 million Russians with a disability (about 9 percent of the total population). Of these, at least two million are children (Alehina and Cote 2014: 99). See also Bernstein 2014 for developments in the wake of Russia hosting the 2014 Winter Paralympics.
3] “The medical division of the Kirov Prosthetic Factory was […] located in a basement; getting to this room required taking the stairs to the second floor, going down a corridor and descending yet another staircase, this one narrow and steep” (Bernstein 2014b: 56).
4] And not only in Russia. Progressive movements for liberation in the West have historically defined themselves against disability, what David T. Mitchell and Sharon Snyder call the “master trope of human disqualification” (2000: 3): “Th[e] common strategy for attaining equal rights, which seeks to distance one’s own group from imputations of disability and therefore tacitly accepts the idea that disability is a legitimate reason for inequality, is perhaps one of the factors responsible for making discrimination against people with disabilities so persistent and the struggle for disability rights so difficult” (Baynton 2001: 51).
5] They also note: “Literature, cinema and popular mass media traditionally presented ‘disabling’ images, exhibited people either as fantastical freaks or else helpless or heroic cripples, which only reinforced stereotypes” (Romanov and Iarskaia-Smirnova 2006: 220).
6] Iasina, a former member of the President’s Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, went public with her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 2011. She has used her political pedigree and government connections to tenaciously fight for disability-related causes.
7] Of the approximately two million children with disabilities in Russia, 142,000 learn in state educational institutions alongside able-bodied peers; 132,000 attend segregated special education classes; 44,000 study at home; and 35,000 receive no education at all. In 2012 the Ministry of Education developed a plan for 20 per cent of children with disabilities to enroll in general education classes by 2015, with 10,000 educational institutions to become accessible (Alehina and Cote 2014: 99).
8] The son of a noted documentarian, Tverdovskii has previously directed Pianism (2012), the short Space Dogs (Sobachii kaif, 2013) and other documentaries. Corrections Class is his feature-length debut.
9] Andrei Konchalovsky in House of Fools (Dom durakov, 2002) and Karen Shakhnazarov in his Ward No. 6 (Palata No. 6, 2009) had tried some of these techniques, including the use of non-professional disabled actors, to rather mixed results in their depictions of mental asylums.
11] Many of these classroom scenes resemble, down to their camera set-ups, the Soviet-era film When I Become a Giant (Kogda ia stanu velikanom, dir. Inna Tumanian, 1978)—with, of course, the twist of the very different bodies on display.
12] Recalling reactions to the first Soviet cinematic sex scene—Vera’s (Natal’ia Negoda) romp with Sergei (Andrei Sokolov) in Little Vera—expressed in angry letters to Soviet Screen and other publications (see Gliaissner 2014).
13] Kasianova identifies another important influence: the “freak” photography of Diane Arbus, who “having freed herself from the spiritual crypt of a normality alien to her […] inscribed herself into the abject.” Arbus’ colonializing injection of the “freakish” into the space of “normality” has undergone heavy critique by Disability Studies scholars (see Hevey 1997).
14] Other media have started doing this. See the Izhevsk artist Tat’iana Faskhudtinova’s comics collaboration with the wheelchair-user Lenia Rodin, to produce an account of the latter’s life and difficulties with inaccessible spaces.
University of Washington, Seattle
|Comment on this article on Facebook|
Alehina, S.V. and Debra Cote. 2014. “Trends Towards the Integration and Inclusion of Students With Disabilities in Russia,” Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal 1.1-2: 95-104.
Alaniz, José. 2007. “Cinema Without Barriers.” KinoKultura 16.
Bernstein, Frances. 2014a. “The Ramp to Nowhere? Disability in Contemporary Russia,” All The Russias Blog (8 December).
Bernstein, Frances. 2014b. “Prosthetic Promise and Potemkin Limbs in Late-Stalinist Russia,” in Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova and Michael Rasell (eds.), Disability in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, London: Routledge, pp. 42-61.
Baynton, Douglas C. 2001. “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” in Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky (eds), The New Disability History: American Perspectives, NYU Press, pp. 33-56.
Faskhudtinova, Tat’iana and Lenia Rodin. 2012. “Neizvestnie istorii iz zhizni Leni Rodina.” LiveJournal, 16 October.
Gliaissner, Filip. 2014. “‘Budto golaia ia, a ne geroinia vashego fil’ma’: Skandaly ‘pornonovatorstva’ vremen perestroika,” Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie 129.
Hevey, David. 1997. “The Enfreakment of Photography,” in Lennard Davis (ed.), The Disability Studies Reader, New York: Routledge, pp. 332-347.
Human Rights Watch. 2014. Abandoned by the State: Violence, Neglect, and Isolation for Children with Disabilities in Russian Orphanages.
Human Rights Watch. 2013. Barriers Everywhere: Lack of Accessibility for People with Disabilities in Russia.
Iarskaia,-Smirnova, Elena and Pavel Romanov. 2014. “Heroes and Spongers: The Iconography of Disability in Soviet Posters and Film,” in Iarskaia-Smirnova and Michael Rasell (eds), Disability in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union: History, Policy and Everyday Life, London: Routledge, pp. 67-96.
Kasianova, Ol’ga. “Kinotavr-2014: Detskii khor imeni Diani Arbus.” Seans (6 June).
Klimova, Ksenia. 1996. “Steps,” in Ayesha Kagal, Natalia Perova and Helena Goscilo (eds), Present Imperfect: Stories by Russian Women, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 141-144.
Koretskii, Vasilii. 2014. “Chulochki v koliasochku: Styd, sram i bardovskaia pesnia na ‘Kinotavre’,” Colta.ru (6 June).
Miller, Il’ia. 2014. “Kinotavr: Klass korrektsii i Kino pro Alekseeva.” The Hollywood Reporter (5 June).
Mitchell, David and Sharon Snyder. 2000. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Iasina, Irina. 2013. Istoriia bolezni: v popytkakh byt’ schastlivoi. Moscow: Astrel’.
Romanov, Pavel and Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova. 2006. Politiki invalidnosti: sotsial’noe grazhdanstvo invalidov v sovremennoi Rossii. Saratov: Nauchnaia kniga.
Roza, Denise. 2004/2005. “Inclusive Education in Russia: A Status Report.” DisabilityWorld 26.
Corrections Class, Russia, 2014
85 minutes, DCP, color
Director Ivan Tverdovskii
Scriptwriters Dmitrii Lanchikhin, Mariia Borodianskaia, Ivan Tverdovskii (based on the novella by Ekaterina Murashova)
Director of Photography Fedor Struchev
Production Design Ivan Tverdovskii, Fedor Struchev, Renat Gonibov
Costume Design Anna Chistova
Music Sedmaia Studiia
Sound Moritz Hoffmeister
Editing Ivan Tverdovskii
Cast Mariia Poezhaeva, Natal’ia Pavlenkova, Filipp Avdeev, Nikita Kukushkin, Zhanetta Demikhova, Ol’ga Lapshina,
Producers Natal’ia Mokritskaia, Ul’iana Savel’eva, Mila Rozanova
Production Novye Liudi (New People), Jomani Film Production, with support of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Ivan I. Tverdovskii: Corrections Class (Klass korrektsii, 2014)
reviewed by José Alaniz© 2015