Issue 50 (2015)
Natal’ia Kudriashova: Pioneer-Heroes (Pionery-Geroi, 2015)
reviewed by Dasha Ezerova© 2015
Natal’ia Kudriashova’s directorial debut with Sergei Selianov’s CTB studio, Pioneer-Heroes, offers an exploration of the trauma of growing up in the Soviet Union for the generation born in the late 1970s. The film follows the story of Olia, Katia, and Andrei, all in their early thirties, living in Moscow in the mid-2000s, interspersed with frequent flashbacks to their late Soviet childhood. Olia is a struggling actress, battling panic attacks with whiskey and a psychiatrist of questionable competence. Katia, a successful PR manager and arguably the film’s central character, deals with stress in the same way and is killed during the 2004 suicide bomber attack at Rizhskaia metro station. Andrei, surly and irritable, is deeply absorbed either in his work or in video games. He is consistently rude to his girlfriend, and during one of their fights spontaneously decides to drive to Nizhny Novgorod where he unsuccessfully tries to rescue a drowning man. After the incident, as we later learn, he decides to enter a monastery and become a monk. All three were friends since middle school and moved to Moscow from Nizhny Novgorod. Though Kudriashova doesn’t specify the exact dates of the action, the childhood flashbacks are likely set in the late 1980s: the news report that little Katia is listening to mentions Gorbachev’s visit to the USA in 1987, the anti-drinking campaign, and—a true marker of the era—the homemade moonshine still.
Except for three brief exchanges, the three protagonists do not appear on screen together. The film is thus segmented into a series of episodes that zoom in on each of the characters, and these sections are usually framed by flashbacks to childhood. All three of the protagonists are as adults plagued by emotional distress. In juxtaposing scenes from their adult lives with flashbacks to childhood, inevitably the viewer looks for the seeds of this apparent trauma in the depictions of their childhood. Yet, despite the bleak geometry of late Soviet architecture, the shabby interiors of tiny apartments, the dull uniforms, and the scolding of schoolteachers, Kudriashova’s actual take on the cause of the repercussions of Soviet upbringing for the generation born in the late 1970s is open to criticism. Her painstaking attempts to recreate the atmosphere of her generation’s childhood with maximum verisimilitude never become naturalistic. Meticulous attention to everyday details—the endearing, kitschy wall rugs with Shishkin’s bears, the dodgy blood pressure monitors with stethoscopes, the tiny icon, stealthily fished out of a child’s pocket— reconstruct an ordinary atmosphere of late Soviet childhood, rather than a grisly environment in which emotional trauma is bound to happen. Even the notorious scene with the fecal samples in the matchboxes elicits laughter rather than any kind of visceral reaction that would have contributed to the impression of a disturbing childhood experience. Ironically, it is the only scene in which we see the portraits of Pioneer-Heroes outside Katia’s dreams—hanging on the walls of the classroom, overlooking the children who are handing their samples to the nurse.
Midway through the film, the clue to what stands behind the characters’ alienation and disconnection is given by the director herself, who plays Olia in the film: “I’m done with this cycle of shit […] I want to do something meaningful, I think. But it seems to me that I forgot what I was supposed to do”— Olia says to her psychiatrist. Paired with the film’s title and the recurring evocation of the word “feat” [podvig] this essentially finds the cause of Kudriashova’s protagonists’ distress (and, by extension, the trauma of her generation in general) in the fact that all three of them are still haunted by the idea of a podvig that was inculcated in every Soviet child as part of the everlasting ideals of heroism. But as adults they have to live in a society where none of this is possible: “Not gonna fly” [Ne prokanaet], responds Andrei to Katia’s half-ironic suggestion to commit a podvig. To really drive the message home, Kudriashova makes all three of her characters attempt a podvig and fail at it for various reasons. Katia tries to rescue a child during a terrorist attack but both get killed. Andrei jumps into the river to save a drowning man, but is too late. Olia attempts to take the metro train only to succumb to another panic attack.
Kudriashova carries out a deeper exploration of the mechanics of her generation’s trauma through the character of Katia, portrayed by Varia Shablakova (as a child) with a mastery that surpasses her age. An affluent businesswoman now, Katia is shown as a nine-year old schoolgirl whose biggest fear is not being accepted into the Pioneer Organization—a milestone in the life of every Soviet child. However, one of the ambiguities of Kudriashova’s approach lies in the source of little Katia’s fears on the eve of becoming a pioneer: the fact that her grandfather distills moonshine and that, in order to become a pioneer, she needs to report him to the militia. Her growing anxiety is reflected in a surreal sequence of dreams—in one of which she actually shoots her grandfather—and a near-confession to the militia. Consequently, on the big day of becoming a pioneer she cannot recite the oath straight away, breaks into sobs, and only gets through it on the fourth attempt.
In constructing the childhood flashback Kudriashova makes outstanding use of late Soviet architecture, whose lifeless verticals and symmetries become truly dwarfing in Katia’s dreams. The meaning of her dreams is unambiguous—she can only become a pioneer if she “kills” (i.e. reports) her grandfather. In a straightforward manner typical for this film, one of Katia’s dreams features the ceremony of initiation into pioneers. While the rest of the children are presented with a staple red neckerchief, Katia is handed a gun with which she has to shoot her grandfather. Resistant at first, Katia caves in under the steely gazes of older peers and fires. As her grandfather collapses, a red neckerchief is finally tied around Katia’s neck. The combination of the dream sequence with Katia’s near-confession unequivocally evoke associations not with Pioneer-Heroes, but rather with Pavlik Morozov, who had been deposed from the pantheon of young heroes long before, making Kudriashova’s extended allusion not only somewhat heavy-handed but also historically inaccurate for the mid-1980s.
Kudriashova’s vision is further problematized by her treatment of Soviet mythology and ideological education in mid-1980s. While her little protagonists’ naïve childhood faith in the heroic ideals of the Pioneer organization is in no way an exaggeration, the fact that the attitudes to Soviet mythology were changing at the time and that the crumbling faith in the Communist ideals, abetted by glasnost’ and perestroika, led to the diminishing ritualization of the Pioneer experience seems to have been disregarded entirely. Kudriashova chooses to focus on the “trauma” of her own generation—perhaps the most sheltered cohort of Soviet children, which did not undergo the trials that previous generations did endure (hunger during collectivization, arrest of the parents, life in an orphanage, the deprivations of war), complicating the task of convincingly explaining what exactly in the childhood of present-day thirty-five-year-olds caused their ongoing emotional distress. She also appears to ignore the fact that her characters’ adolescence took place after the fall of the eternal state, during a time that likely was equally important and formative for them.
As all of her three protagonists fail at an attempted podvig, Kudriashova adds another fantastic, dreamlike sequence to her film. The penultimate scene of Pioneer-Heroes features an adult Katia going to what can only be described as Pioneer heaven: her portrait is finally engraved next to Zina Portnova and Valia Kotik, and she ascends a stairway to heaven, flanked by bewinged pioneers who salute her. Kudriashova wisely avoids ending her film here, so she offers her viewers an epilogue – the last conversation between Andrei, now a monk, and Olia, still struggling with panic attacks. However, since it seems like all questions have already been answered, the film’s ending is rather underwhelming. Any expectation for an open-ended finale is subverted by the closing theme, “We are walking in silence” (My idem v tishine) by the rock band Grazhdanskaia Oborona:
We are walking in silence over the murdered spring,
Over destroyed houses, over grey heads,
Over green earth, over black grass,
Over dead bodies, over great deeds,
Over broken glasses, over Komsomol badges […]
Thus, while presenting a bona fide visual reconstruction of late Soviet childhood, oftentimes more nostalgic than shockingly traumatizing, Kudriashova’s film comes dangerously close to being a parody of itself. In her interview to Seance, Kudriashova offers a much-anticipated comment about the scene in which Olia tells her psychiatrist about her first sexual fantasy at the age of four—coming to her kindergarten as a young hero who was tortured and maimed by the fascists. The explanation is surprisingly anti-climactic: “When we try to fit our paradoxical Soviet childhood in the framework of psychoanalysis, everything becomes pathological, dark. The cliché is imposed by the psychoanalyst, not the heroine. The less we try to fit this film in any kind of framework, the better.” (Kudriashova 2015). Ironically, while staunchly negating any possibility for a psychoanalytical reading or an in-depth exploration of a potential psycho-sexual trauma, Kudriashova reduces the explanation of her protagonists’ life trajectories to clichés much more simple and simplistic than the ones imposed by the psychiatrist, blaming all of the anxieties of her generation on the failed promises of late Soviet childhood.
1] In this respect, a comparative analysis of Pioneer-Heroes and Andreas Dresen’s As We Were Dreaming (Als wir träumten) that premiered in Berlin alongside Kudriashova’s film could be very productive.
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Kudriashova, Natal’ia. 2015. “Natal’ia Kudriashova: “Moe detstvo prokhodilo v ogromnom, serom.” Interview by Mariia Kuvshinova. Seans, 22 June.
Pioneer-Heroes, Russia, 2015.
Color, 116 minutes.
Director: Natal’ia Kudriashova
Scriptwriter: Natal’ia Kudriashova
Producer: Sergei Selianov
Executive Producer: Andrei Rydanov
Production Design: Asya Davydova
Costume Design: Elena Lukianova
Cast: Natal’ia Kudriashova, Dar’ia Moroz, Aleksei Mitin, Sirafima Vybornova, Nikita Iakovev, Varvara Shablakova, Svetlana Pismichenko, Iurii Kuznetsov
Production Company: CTB, Masterskaia SEANS
Natal’ia Kudriashova: Pioneer-Heroes (Pionery-Geroi, 2015)
reviewed by Dasha Ezerova© 2015