Issue 54 (2016)

Alena Semenova: The Red Queen (Krasnaia koroleva, 2015)

reviewed by Sergei Toymentsev © 2016

krasnaia korolevaThe Red Queen is a Ukrainian and Russian biographical television series co-produced by the film companies FILM.UA and Shpil, which premiered on 5 October 2015 on the Ukrainian TV channel Inter and on 15 March 2016 on Channel One Russia. The series consists of 12 episodes and is loosely based on the life of Regina Zbarskaia (in the show, she is featured as Barskaia), the first Soviet fashion model who gained fame in the West, lauded as “the most beautiful Kremlin weapon” and a “Soviet Sophia Loren” by the Western press. Even though the show was mainly sponsored by Ukraine, its target audience is nevertheless Russian. As FILM.UA’s general producer Viktor Mirskii explains, “without a doubt we operate within the context of the whole Russian-speaking content market. We produce, keeping in mind all the markets that speak Russian and, of course, Russia comes first on the list” (Ruban 2012).

Despite being the subject of TV biopic, Zbarskaia’s actual life (1935–1987) is clouded in utter mystery, which undoubtedly added a legendary flavor to her story. No one knows exactly where she came from. By one account, she is originally from Vologda where her mother worked as a clerk or a school teacher and father was a former military officer. By another, she is the daughter of circus gymnasts from Leningrad who perished while performing a stunt under the circus dome. The same goes with the circumstances of her death.  She is said to have killed herself at home by taking an overdose of sleeping pills or, according to others, she did this at a psychiatric clinic where she was put after two failed suicide attempts with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The place of her burial is similarly unknown, either because she was cremated or because the KGB covered up all the traces. Zbarskaia is also said to have had a diary where she used to diligently note all the details of her life. Yet no one actually showed that mythical diary so far. All in all, her official biographical record begins in 1953 when she, by the maiden name of Kolesnikova, successfully passed the Film Institute’s (VGIK) entrance exams to study at the department of economics. According to a documentary dedicated to her life A Body of State Importance. The True History of the Red Queen (Telo gosudarstvennoi vazhnosti. Podlinnaia istoriia krasnoi korolevy dir. Petr Pchelkin, 2016), she always wanted to become a movie star but all the auditions she tried brought her no luck. As a VGIK student in post-Stalinist Moscow, she frequented many parties quite popular among the elite artistic intelligentsia of the time. At one of such bohemian gatherings she was spotted by the famous fashion designer Vera Aralova, who invited her to work as a model (or “mannequin”) at the All-Union Fashion House [Obshchesoiuznyi dom modelei] on Kuznetskii Most. Thanks to Khrushchev’s liberal politics of Socialist consumerism in the late 1950s–early 1960s, Soviet fashion became more open to Western influences, just as the West expressed much interest in the phenomenon of Soviet fashion at that time. International fashion shows, contests and fairs became, therefore, an opportunity for the Soviet Union to demonstrate its achievements in the area of textile industry, in addition to the conquest of the outer space. It is in this Cold War context, where Soviet fashion acquired a highly politicized significance after having been assigned a role of representative of Soviet style and living standard before the eyes of Western critics, that a catwalk career became akin to that of a diplomat, since models could travel abroad as the nation's prime fashion delegates. Zbarskaia was fluent in French and English and was said to be friends with a number of European celebrities, such as Yves Montand, Pierre Cardin and Federico Fellini. One of her biggest achievements in high society was, of course, her husband, Lev Zbarskii, the fashionable Moscow painter and the son of famous scientist Boris Zbarskii who embalmed Lenin. Her marriage, however, proved to be unhappy since, as rumor has it, her husband was reluctant to have children and even insisted on her having an abortion. After seven years, their marriage fell apart (Zbarskii left his wife for another beauty and soon immigrated to the US), which triggered the model's sliding into severe depression. Another important factor of Zbarskaia’s mental instability was the KGB’s oppressive monitoring of the Soviet podium. Since almost all fashion models traveling abroad mingled with foreign diplomats, each of them could serve their country as a spy by teasing out all sorts of information through private conversations. Only classified archives could disclose who among them worked part-time as KGB agents. Yet again, it is rumored that Barskaia was one of such victims forced to both snitch on her colleagues in Moscow’s Fashion House as well as gathering intelligence from her high-ranking Western admirers. As many speculate, it is most likely the KGB’s pressure for collaboration (with its methods of blackmail and subtle torture) that caused Zbarskaia’s nervous breakdown and pushed her toward suicide.

krasnaia korolevaWith no access to archives or even relatives to confirm the facts of her life, Zbarskaia’s biography, therefore, presents itself as no more than a palimpsest of rumors and hypothetical speculations. She is also said to have had a continuous love affair with some Yugoslavian journalist in the late 1970s who published a sensational semi-pornographic book about her in Germany afterwards, titled Hundred Nights with Regina Zbarskaia (Hundert Nächte mit Regina Sbarskaja). Yet neither the name of that journalist nor the location of his book can be known for sure, which makes the probability of such a liaison highly suspect. As the series’ producer Viktor Mirskii admits, “there are plenty of rumors yet very few verifiable facts about Regina Zbarskaia... It’s not a documentary project. In this film we are interested more in the epoch itself, the world of fashion in the Soviet Union in the 1960s–1970s, rather than in a life of specific individual” (Naumova 2013). The series' genre, indeed, could be categorized as more a costume melodrama than a biopic in the strict sense of the term, as it puts much more emphasis on the costume design and the visual reconstruction of the historical epoch rather than on the documentary veracity of the biographical material. Over a thousand costumes have been sewn for the show, 160 of which for the lead actress only. It is partly for this reason that the director Alena Semenova dedicated so much time to finding a right actress for the main part since the heroine's visual resemblance with the prototype could significantly compensate for the lack of documentary support for the show. As she comments, “We searched, probably, throughout the entire country as well as adjacent states for the actress with articulation, diction and tonality that would suit us most. Then we turned to French, checked out all the runners-up of the Miss World and Miss Russia pageants as well as models and ballerinas. We were desperate, none of the candidates we had fully satisfied us... All other actors already got their parts, while the heroine was still missing” (Aref’ev 2016).  Eventually, the lead role went to the 21-year old debutant Kseniia Luki’anchikova, whom the director run into by accident in the corridor of the local theater school in Saint Petersburg. As many TV bloggers point out, Luk’ianchikova does look a lot like Zbarskaia and the fact that she is a total newcomer in film made her more authentic and likable for the audience.

As Semenova admits, “We try to stick to the historical truth but, of course, creative diversions also take place... The story is to a large extent exaggerated, embellished, made more fairytale-like.” As she further elaborates the moral message of her show, “Nowadays there flourishes the cult of beauty, glamour, the cult of Cinderella... Hence, our task was to move away from glorifying all this. Women in pursuit of beauty and youth are ready to sell out their soul. Our series, I think, is quite topical in this context because each crown and each success have their own dark side, payback and sacrifices” (Aref’ev 2016). That is to say, the series frames Zbarskaia’s biography within the anti-Cinderella narrative in which a character moves from “rags to riches” yet, unlike in traditional tales, has to pay a bitter price for a miraculous career. Whether consciously or not, by retelling the model’s life in terms of suffering and failure, Semenova and Ukrainian scriptwriters Elena Boiko and Maria Bek (mainly specialized in Soviet-based melodramas) thus follow the well-known Hollywood formula of female biopics that are consistently characterized by all kinds of female victimization and came to dominate the genre after World War II. As Dennis Bingham nicely puts it, “madness, hysteria, sexual dependency, the male gaze, and patriarchal authorship: that is the classical female biopic” (Bingham 2010, 310). The Red Queen, in this regard, fabulously succeeds in adopting all the conventional elements of this genre. In fact, the victimization narrative regulates all the key events of the heroine's life. The series begins with the emphatic dramatization of the heroine’s extreme poverty during her teenage years in the Vologda family house: she has no dress to wear to prom, all the money her mother earns as a cleaner is wasted by her abusive alcoholic father. When the father violently attacks her mother by demanding more money for booze, she hits him with an iron and accidentally kills him. While the saved mother goes to prison by taking responsibility for the daughter’s patricide, the future model changes her name from Zoia to Regina (suggested by a mysterious fortune-teller since “Regina,” she says, means “queen” from the Latin) and leaves for Moscow. There blows of fate continue to intermingle with miracles. Having no place to stay in the city, she is given a shelter by an elderly lady, a pre-revolutionary aristocrat who used to be friends with the private couturier of the Tsar’s family and who now plays the role of her fairy godmother by teaching her French and manners. The noble godmother happens to have a grandson Vladimir (Anatolii Rudenko), an exemplary KGB officer, who could be a prince for Regina had he got permission from his insensitive father, another KGB officer of higher rank. Such an imaginary account of Zbarskaia’s earlier undocumented years symbolically sums up the source of her future sufferings: that is, men and the KGB.  

krasnaia korolevaOnce being admitted to Moscow’s Fashion House by another fairy godmother, the fashion designer Vera Aralova (thanks to a miraculous encounter with her son James Patterson, who is well known as Marion’s baby in Circus (Tsirk, dir. Grigorii Aleksandrov, 1936)), the heroine almost instantly becomes a legitimate princess, or "red queen," of the Soviet catwalk by being approved by Nikita Khrushchev himself and thus being able to participate in fashion exhibitions abroad. The magic helper motif similarly organizes the model's love life: this time it is no other than Lilia Brik who instructs her how to properly seduce the Moscow dandy Lev Barskii (modeled after Lev Zbarskii). The flamboyant prince, however, turns out to be a veritable monster soon after he marries Regina: after being caught in possession of American dollars, he is blackmailed by a KGB officer to talk his wife into sleeping with a British diplomat to obtain confidential information. Saved from prison by his wife this way, Barskii nevertheless leaves her for another woman. The omnipotence of the KGB is demonized throughout the series, yet it truly achieves its climax in the sadist figure of Oleg Vasil’kov’s “collective” character (with no name given despite his frequent appearance) who, besides controlling each and every step of fashion models, drives one of them, Marina, to suicide after raping her during interrogation. Marina's suicide reinforces the downward trajectory of the series’ victimization narrative and foreshadows the heroine’s attempts to take her own life. The final episodes, in this regard, are the darkest since the heroine’s misfortunes keep piling up one after another: her abortion, depression, hysterical outbursts, nightmares, mother's death, retirement, abandonment and, at close, her suicide in a mental asylum.

krasnaia korolevaZbarskaia’s tormented life presented in the series as that of a martyr strangely resonates with the fate of Soviet fashion in the 1950s–1970s: both occupy a paradoxical, trickster-like position in the context of developed Socialism, with obscure origins, unclear prospects for successful development and under vigilant control of authorities. Given that the phenomenon of modern fashion is, according to Elisabeth Wilson, “the child of capitalism” (Wilson 2003, 13)—that is, ephemeral, irrational, spontaneous, individualist and unstoppably creative, any post-Stalinist endeavors to compete with the West in terms of fashion in an essentially hostile context where all the clothing was uniform, egalitarian, functional, asexual and prescriptive, could hardly result in anything other than a lamentable contradiction. Torn between two opposite kinds of economy (one central planning and oriented towards scarcity, the other free market and oriented towards abundance), Moscow’s Fashion House designers of the time could neither put their projects into mass production at home, because of their excessive sartorial elegance, nor catch up with the latest trends of Western fashion. International fashion exhibitions intended to demonstrate the nation’s power and prestige were the only venue where they could realize their designer’s talent. The Red Queen’s creators are certainly aware of this situation, as one episode dramatizes Vera Aralova’s desperate failure to convince the communist officials to implement her new design of low-heel, high boots for women (which were nonetheless put into mass production in Europe after she demonstrated them in a Paris catwalk show in 1962). Yet the abundant variety of bright and colorful dresses, beautiful models involved, the extravagant luxury of their lovers and the show’s overall emphasis on the visual aesthetics of the 1960s are all intended to induce viewers’ mindless pleasures rather than their critical analysis of the period. Furthermore, the show’s artful reanimation of the world of Soviet fashion, no matter how bizarre and contradictory it was, seems to instill a belated sense of pride and patriotism in the audience for the fact that such a phenomenon indeed existed in USSR, and it was only the unfortunate obstacle of KGB villains and communist officials that prevented it from flourishing worldwide.

By foregrounding the exemplary heroine from the Soviet past (i.e. “the most beautiful Kremlin weapon”) who was nonetheless the most pro-Western at the time (i.e. the “Soviet Sophia Loren”), The Red Queen therefore accomplishes an important collective memory work regarding the way in which the Soviet Union should be remembered now. By doing so, the show joins a legion of similar biopics on exceptional personalities of the Soviet Era (such as Vasilii Chapaev, Georgii Zhukov, Valerii Chkalov, Ekaterina Furtseva, Sergei Korolev, Grigorii Kotovskii, Zoia Fedorova, Galina Brezhneva, etc.) that have been rather aggressively airing on Russian television for the past few years. Such a persistent focus on the private lives of former (anti-) heroes of the Soviet pantheon may even be considered as the emergence of a new genre, that of the post-Soviet biopic of a Soviet hero, characterized by a number of narrative conventions. First of all, none of these biopics are historically accurate, according to professional historians or relatives themselves. Furthermore, as many directors admit, the documentary truth is not their priority at all. What they try to show, they say, is precisely a human being behind the official ideological façade. Second, in such shows the psychological truth of Soviet demigods is always reduced to a detailed portrayal of their romantic relations. Finally, the protagonists are shown in constant confrontation with the Soviet authorities and thus represented as implicit or potential dissidents or liberals. Taken separately, each biographical series can hardly be suspected of any kind of propaganda, since the Soviet hero there is systematically de-ideologized and de-heroized in both political and melodramatic contexts. And yet, taken together, such TV biopics seem to offer a rather effective scenario of how the Soviet legacy could be rehabilitated and remembered in public memory in Putin’s Russia: first, through the emphasis on the most subversive anti-Soviet tendencies in the most representative Soviet figures and, second, through the tabloid trivialization of their private lives.

krasnaia korolevaFor example, in Soviet times the figure of Georgii Zhukov was mythologized as the Marshal of Victory, who saved Russia and Europe from the Nazis. But the series Zhukov (dir. Aleksei Muradov, 2012) focuses instead on the post-war period of Zhukov’s career, during which the Marshal proved a spontaneous and independent-minded opponent of Stalin's regime, an ardent yet betrayed supporter of Khrushchev’s Thaw and a peacefully retired national hero during Brezhnev’s stagnation. No matter what political and ideological context Marshal Zhukov is placed into, he always remains a patriot, faithful not only to his country but also to his own moral code. It is precisely this double fidelity—to the homeland and to oneself, regardless of any regime—that becomes a new basis of Russian heroism, which helps smoothly assimilate such ideologically contrasting figures as Admiral Kolchak and Chapaev: both stubbornly independent, they are equally renowned patriots who sacrificed themselves for their nation, regardless of their ideological motivation. Both, therefore, have become the subjects of hagiographic narrative under Putin’s regime (Admiral, dir. Andrei Kravchuk, 2010; and Passion for Chapai/Strasti po Chapau, dir. Sergei Shcherbin, 2012). It is for the same reason that the series Chkalov (dir. Igor Zaitsev, 2012) also emphasizes the protagonist’s essentially anarchic character, defying and violating all kinds of rules. Nevertheless, despite being a Soviet “rebel without cause” and a reckless, adrenaline-hungry maverick (which manifests itself in unreasonably risky flights, countless love affairs and enormous consumption of alcohol), Chkalov is shown as an exemplary patriot intimately close to Stalin himself. Similarly, the series Furtseva. Legend about Catherine (Furtseva. Legenda o Ekaterine, dir. Sergei Popov, 2011), based on the life of the first woman admitted into the Politburo, portrays how the unrestrained vitality of her strong character and violent temper becomes the reason both for her skyrocketing political career as well as her imminent  downfall. Furthermore, given that Furtseva allegedly committed suicide because of her unfair demotion, her figure is strongly victimized to a martyr of the Soviet regime, despite her being one of its founders, a contradictory feature which once again fully meets the paradoxical nature of the memory politics in Putin’s Russia.

The biopic on Vasilii Stalin, the son of Joseph Stalin, seems to be the most exemplary show in this regard. Unlike other Soviet heroes, he caught the interest of filmmakers only during perestroika and only as a satirical character, a caricature even, symbolically representing the hedonistic excess in Stalinist circles. In the series titled Son of the Father of Nations (Syn ottsa narodov, dir. Sergei Shcherbin, 2013), also a Russian-Ukrainian co-production, Vasilii continues to be the same spoiled anti-hero, yet his personality acquires a truly tragic character, which made some reviewers comment on his affinity with Sergei Esenin, where the same combination of chaos and melancholia takes place. Becoming a General at 26, he is shown as a dedicated patriot who truly cares about his soldiers, treating them as equals even and defending them from emphatically vicious NKVD agents. After Stalin’s death, however, he was sentenced to eight years in prison. The series does not offer any historical details on what legal grounds he was arrested., yet the sense of immense injustice permeates these scenes, representing Vasilii as the unfortunate scapegoat of Khrushchev’s new policy of de-Stalinization. All in all, the deeply empathetic character of Vasilii seems to effectively counterbalance the emotional coldness of his father; the same could be said about the unrestrained anarchy of the former in relation to the totalitarian control of the latter. What the series suggests is that neither tendency should be rejected, but they have to find the right balance between each other. Needless to say, the series functions as a carefully disguised rehabilitation of Stalinism, not in its initial hardcore edition, but rather in its revised, extremely infantilized and softened version. Characteristically enough, another biopic series titled Galina (dir. Vitalii Pavlov, 2008) focuses on Brezhnev’s daughter, who similarly squanders her life in numerous love affairs and alcoholism and, like a martyr, ends up in a mental asylum. Her story is told with the same fascination for her vitality as well as sentimental compassion towards her tragic fate.

As Aleksandr Lukin argues in his article “Russia’s New Authoritarianism and the Post-Soviet Political Ideal”, a great number of anti-Soviet dissidents never fully embraced the political ideals of Western democracy after immigrating to the West. What they always wanted, he contends, is the same Communist ideology minus violence and poverty. The same could be said about contemporary Russian citizens who can’t quite accept democratic ideals from the West and continue to respect the necessity of authoritarian rule—yet again, with no violence and poverty involved as in earlier Soviet eras. The Soviet hero in the new Russian biopic, therefore, reflects the current political fantasy about the neutralized version of authoritarianism (“authoritarianism with a human face”?), where extreme tendencies of control and anarchy, patriotism and cosmopolitanism, individualism and collectivism, socialism and capitalism are expected to somehow dialectically balance each other. It is in this context that The Red Queen appears to stand out as the highest achievement in this genre to date, as it offers the most attractive version of the Soviet Union upgraded from the perspective of capitalist Russia. That is, it selectively accentuates only those values in everyday Soviet life which resonate most with contemporary viewers: namely, consumerism, glamour, fashion, beauty, money, tourism and ethical nihilism. Regina Zbarskaia, in this regard, is not a historical figure who was resurrected for us from Khrushchev’s Thaw; she is truly a heroine of Putin’s time.

Sergei Toymentsev
Florida State University

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Works Cited

Aref’ev, Egor. 2016. “Rezhisser ‘Krasnoi korolevy’: ‘Nash film—preduprezhdenie. Za koronu vsegda prikhoditsia platit’,’” March 15.

Bingham, Dennis.2010. Whose Lives Are They Anyway?  The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre. Rutgers University Press.

Lukin, Alexander. 2009. “Russia’s New Authoritarianism and the Post-Soviet Political Ideal.” Post-Soviet Affairs 25.1: 66–92.

Naumova, Iaroslava. 2013. “Viktor Mirskii: ‘Ia veriu v intuitsiiu i orientiruius’ na sobstvennye oshchushcheniia’,” FILM. UA Group, June 26.

Ruban, Maria. 2012. “Victor Mirsky, General Producer, FILM.UA Group: Now is the time for experiments,” FILM. UA Group, June 8.

Wilson, Elizabeth. 2003. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, Rutgers University Press.

The Red Queen; Russia, Ukraine, 2015.
12 episodes, 629 min.
Director: Alena Semenova
Scriptwriters: Elena Boiko, Mariia Bek
Cinematography: Aleksandr Smirnov
Music: Aleksei Aigi
Production Design: Iurii Grigorovich, Aleksandr Tolkachev
Cast: Kseniia Luk’ianchikova, Artem Tkachenko, Anatolii Rudenko, Ada Rogovtseva, Boris Shcherbakov, Natal’ia Vysochanskaia 
Producers: Viktor Mirskii, Maksim Asadchii, Maksim Ukhanov
Production: FILM.UA Group, Shpil, Pronto Film

Alena Semenova: The Red Queen (Krasnaia koroleva, 2015)

reviewed by Sergei Toymentsev © 2016

Updated: 12 Oct 16