Issue 66 (2019)

Aleksandr Novikov-Ianginov: Stars (Zvezdy, 2018)

reviewed by Anastasia Kriachko Røren © 2019

zvezdyStars is a tragicomedy with elements of criminal drama. It is an adaption of Mikhail Lermontov’s poem “I Walk Out Alone My Way…”, a story of a pilgrim, a foreigner, a Russian who becomes a stranger among other Russians. But Aleksandr Novikov-Ianginov’s debut film resembles more an adaptation of Putin’s 2005 Annual Address to the Federal Assembly with the famous phrase: “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century”.

Iurii Aleksandrovich Derbenev, nicknamed Gagarin, is the film’s protagonist. He is an ethnic Russian, but with a passport from Uzbekistan. Iurii was born in 1961, when Gagarin went into space, and his name and patronymic are exactly the same as his famous namesake. This is one of many post-Soviet nostalgic lines in the film. All the immigrants Derbenev meets in this story express very warm feelings about the cosmonaut as a symbol of the shared Soviet past: “Everything was different before. We did not have money either. But we had happiness. There was space. There was a harvest. Children were smiling. And now, there is no money, no happiness. Different times…”. At a typical Uzbek table with pilaf, fruit, salads, spring onion and flat bread, an old Uzbek tells his younger compatriots: “I remember the real Gagarin. He was tall and fit. Guys, when Gagarin flew into the space, we were celebrating for three days in our kishlak. Nobody was working!”

Derbenev-Gagarin is trapped in a difficult life situation. He is in his late 50s, working as a teacher of Russian at a secondary school in Tashkent. His daughter has fallen ill and his family has no money to help her. He sells his car and buys a ticket to Moscow to find a job, as many other Uzbeks do. He envisioned his wife’s cousin would help him settle in Moscow, but he is himself bundled in troubles: he has debts and is on the run. Gagarin, now an illegal Uzbek worker and ethnic Russian, has to overcome major obstacles. He works at a construction site where the manager turns the workers over to the police and where they are sent home without any payment. Gagarin is lucky enough to escape the police raid, but he has not received his payment either and still needs to send money to his family in Uzbekistan.

zvezdyThe characters are dichotomously caricatured as good guys and bad guys. The good ones are hardworking illegal Uzbek workers; the bad ones are practically all Russians whom Gagarin meets in his attempts to earn money in Moscow. Uzbeks are hospitable, respectful to elder people and supportive of their compatriots, even if they are ethnically different. They are victims of a majority culture. In contrast, policemen and border guards are rude and dangerous, ready to target their power at the weak. Most of the Russians he meets are intolerant, even toward their ethnical compatriot. Even the flamboyant workers at the migration service are ignorant: “We are not in a hurry,” they say, suggesting that Gagarin should pay for a Russian-language test to legalize his stay in Russia. The professional Russian teacher Gagarin is humiliated. He finds another job where he works together with other immigrants as maintenance technician for a rich Russian and his cranky wife. But he quickly loses it once his employers catch him taking a bath in their apartment. This scene adds to the comedic components of the film; at the same time, it shows the dismal side of gastarbeiter’s life in Russia, living in small apartments with little or no comfort. Only in the very end of the film are the Russians avenged when the Slavic driver who saved Gagarin says “Yurchik, we will help you! Our people are companionable—we should help each other.”

zvezdyMoscow’s migrants are in confrontation with each other throughout the film (e.g., competing interests at the market between Caucasians and Central Asians). However, they show deep solidarity within their own group. For instance, Gagarin is hired as a porter at the market on recommendation of an Uzbek selling mandarins. The same person offers Gagarin to stay with his family in an old trailer in exchange for Russian lessons for his son.

The manager at the market is a Kazakh, who occasionally mentions that he holds a PhD in chemistry. This is an important detail—a reminder of the immigrants, who come to Russia for unqualified jobs, who often stay illegally, due to the difficult circumstances in their home country. These people are often regarded as provincials, perceived as voiceless strangers, or even more often people do not even bother to think about migrants as personalities. But in Stars, Gagarin meets teachers, poets, musicians, and scientists working in Moscow at construction sites and markets.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the former friendship of peoples is the main thread of the film. This is expressed through the characters’ narrative and turn of events. There is also a poetic thread in the film: Gagarin has dreams throughout the film where he relives Lermontov’s poem. The dreams allow Gagarin to escape from the unfortunate reality where he has to turn into an unskilled worker. These dreams are a mix of images of post-Soviet nostalgia, an adaptation of Lermontov’s poem and Gagarin’s homesickness. Gagarin’s dreams contain images of Lermontov’s duel, a rocket launch, and his wife and daughter in the mountains. Lermontov’s poem and his portrait appear on the screen every now and then: the portrait features in the very end of the film on the front panel of the truck, where usually one can find icons, family photos and pictures with naked girls.

zvezdyThe dramaturgy of the story is built on the contrast between the seamy side of reality and social realism with the tearful details, the friendship of the Uzbeks and the indifference of ethnic Russians. This tendency is especially notable in the climax of the film. On New Year’s Eve, Gagarin goes for a drink with his former co-workers; a young Uzbek makes a compliment to some passing Russian girls, who in return call him a gook. A fight breaks out with some Slav guys hanging out in the same park. Beaten and broken, Gagarin finds himself later at the police station, where he learns that his Uzbek host family died in a fire in their old trailer. Their son Yusuf, who was learning to read Lermontov, also died.

Stars has many commonalities with Brother (Brat, 1997) by Aleksei Balabanov, thanks to the main character being played by Viktor Sukhorukov. Similar to Brother, there is also an atmosphere of unbearable loneliness of a stranger in a big city, who must overcome a series of obstacles in his life.

zvezdySimilarly to Gagarin, director Novikov-Ianginov was also born in Uzbekistan, then moved to Russia with his Uzbek passport. He obviously understands the background of this story better than many others. The intention was to create a story about people, not about nationalities (Burgrova 2017). But during the course of producing the film, the original idea changed. The film was made with financial support from the Ministry of Culture and produced by Fedor Popov of VGIK-Debut, who influenced not only during post-production, but also dirung script development and production. Even though the producer repeats the words of the director about the film showing people’s stories and not Soviet nostalgia, the result looks different (Kruze 2018). This is a story told through nationalities and not the people embodying them.

The choice of the famous actor Viktor Sukhorukov as a main character is key to the narrative. He is apparently very much emotionally involved with post-Soviet nostalgia. In an interview, Sukhorukov claimed:

I am the child of a huge country, which I didn’t have time to travel through, to fly over, to discern... There were people, there was society, there were human worlds, there was territory, there was the history of culture, the history of birth, there were own Gods- everything was our own. There were 15 republics, and there were over 140 nationalities, and they all existed on one ground, which was called Soviet Union (Burgrova 2017).

Sukhorukov’s emotional speech in his interview about Stars to Sputnik radio station shows not only his personal attachment to the topic, but the film’s message: nostalgia for the Soviet Union and the confusion of many people about territories and identities after the dissolution.

zvezdyStars addresses the interesting theme of people with different national identities, both in their passports and in their mindsets. But the production turned the film in a different direction. There is a thin line between nostalgia and political statement in this kind of films. The intentions of the filmmakers could be sincere, and the life of immigrants is indeed shown quite realistically. Even if the scriptwriter has never been to Central Asia, he has observed immigrants from Central Asia quite closely in Nizhnevartovsk, where he was working at the local television (Ivashchenko 2018). But the way the scriptwriter presents the story is closer to a political statement, to a filmic adaptation of Putin’s sorrow for the collapse of the Soviet Union—and not about a story of people with mixed identities.

The film touches upon important and overlooked topics of intolerance in Russian society, particularly towards friendly nations and former peoples of the Soviet Union. Stars received the Special Prize for “protecting the rights of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers” from the international charity Oxfam and the debut prize at the International Film Festival Stalker in 2018. However, the political messages permeating the film unfortunately leave the full commercial potential of Stars unrealized. People’s stories are covered under unnecessary dramatic exaggerations. Real people stories are far more dramatic.

Anastasia Kriachko Røren
University of Oslo

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Works Cited

Ivashchenko, Ekaterina. 2018. “V chem sila, aka? Fil’m o migrantakh iz Srednei Azii vzial spetspriz na festivale ‘Stalker’.”Fergana.ru 18 Dec.

Mortensen, Stehn. 2019. “Sergei Dvortsevoi: Ayka (aka My Little One, 2018). KinoKultura 63.

Burgrova, O. 2017. “Sozdateli fil’ma ‘Zvezdy: vazhna ne natsionalnost’, a chelovecheskie kachestva.” Interview with A. Novikov-Ianginov and V. Sukhorukov. Radio Sputnik 5 June. 

Kruze, M. 2018. “Fedor Popov o debutnom fil’me ‘Zvezdy’ molodogo rezhissera Aleksandra Novikova-Ianginova.” Radio Sputnik 14 August.


Stars, Russia, 2018
Color, 97 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Novikov-Ianginov
Scriptwriter: Aleksei Zhitkovskii
DoP: Andrei Fedotov
Composer: Aleksei Poliakov
Sound director: Lola Bukaeva
Costume design: Tat’iana Shapovalova, Vladimir Nikoforov
Editing: Viktor Saprinskii, Leonid Melman
Cast: Viktor Sukhorukov, Seidulla Moldakhanov, Amadu Mamadakov, Georgii Pitshelauri, Igor Gasparyan, Elena Sachuk, Ales’ia Guzko, Maruf Atadgonov
Producers: Fedor Popov, Viktoria Leshchenko, Lala Rustamova
Production: Producers’ Center VGIK Debut, with financial support of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation

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Aleksandr Novikov-Ianginov: Stars (Zvezdy, 2018)

reviewed by Anastasia Kriachko Røren © 2019

Updated: 2019