KinoKultura: Issue 73 (2021)

Retro-futurism and the feminine carnivalesque. The cinematic spaces of Uldus Bakhtiozina’s Tzarevna Scaling and Renata Litvinova’s The North Wind

By Heleen Gerritsen

2021 saw the premieres of two daring films in the Russian cinematic landscape: filmmakers Uldus Bakhtiozina (b. 1986) and Renata Litvinova (b. 1967) can be called reluctant feminists at best, but their retro-futurist works Tzarevna Scaling and The North Wind present an interesting view on femininity in Russian film, as well as unique aesthetic concepts. Why were these films made now? How do they fit within the filmmakers’ oeuvres and within the context of Russian contemporary (patriarchic) society and Eastern European culture at large? The concept of Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque as well as the various—for lack of a better word—neo-futurist movements en vogue in Central and Eastern Europe at present were helpful in my attempt to define the cinematic spaces created within these two films.

Tzarevna Scaling (Doch’ rybaka) celebrated its world premiere during the online edition of the Berlinale in March 2021, where it screened in the Forum section. Renata Litvinova’s film The North Wind (Severnyi veter) had its online premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Both films have had a limited cinema run in Russia because of Covid-19. Already on the surface, the two works have a lot in common: an emphasis on highly specific and detailed aesthetics, fashion, a predominance of female roles, and a challenge to traditional gender stereotypes (but also the absence of an explicit feminist narrative); furthermore, the use of Russian folklore and retro-futurist settings. Peculiarly, both directors are also of mixed Tatar-Russian descent.

Whereas Tzarevna Scaling has a rather straightforward narrative and the action takes place within the span of a few days, Litvinova chose a more elaborate dramaturgic structure, based on her own theatre play with the same title that preceded the film (and which premiered at the Moscow Arts Theater in May 2017), showing the decline of a family clan over the course of decades and making large jumps in time between scenes. It is noticeable that, unlike Litvinova, Bakhtiozina is not a trained scriptwriter. Her film is less concerned with storytelling and relationships between the characters, but instead choses a folktale-like narrative using a plethora of visual symbols.

north windIn The North Wind, Litvinova herself plays Margarita, the larger-than-life head of the Northern Clan, a family of manufacturers living amidst the Northern Fields in the fictional era of the “great matriarchy.” The continuum in the film is the family’s celebration of New Year’s Eve, which is depicted to be set in different times, years, decades apart—from the last century to what looks like the present day. Margarita’s beloved son Benedikt (Anton Shagin) is engaged to Fanny (Litvinova’s daughter Uliana Dobrovskaia). The engagement is solemnly announced at the first traditional New Year s family dinner table, after which Fanny needs to leave immediately for her work as a stewardess. The next day brings terrible news: Fanny has died in a plane crash. From then on, everything goes awry: Benedikt is inconsolable, but gets married to Fanny’s sister Faina, for whom he feels increasing resentment. Chaos comes to the territory of the Northern Fields. The fields, where the family’s riches are buried, rot and a connection between the general decay and Fanny’s death is insinuated. When watching the film I was reminded of Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (La caduta degli dei, 1969), where the wealthy Essenbeck family of weapons manufacturers sells out to the Nazis and breaks up as a consequence. The decadence of the family and perversions of every sort symbolize the conflicts at the heart of German society. One could read Litvinova’s film in a similar fashion: various forms of “depravity” (or not socially accepted behavior, like alcoholism, homosexuality, fetishism, etc.) run in the family, but no matter who is in power, they insist on continuing their decadent lifestyle and (hopeless) pursuits of love in all its forms. Litvinova’s play, on which The North Wind was based, was originally set in the Soviet Union, where an aristocratic family had to come to terms with the new regime, burying their wealth in the garden. The less realistic, less ideology-burdened retro-futurist setting in the film version of The North Wind possibly offered the director more artistic freedom and allowed her to play more with phantasmagoric aesthetic concepts. Apart from the decaying manufacturers’ family, The Damned and The North Wind have the (Wagnerian) theme of love beyond the grave in common. It is a trope often used by Litvinova, usually in a melodramatic context. In The North Wind, on New Year’s Eve, the Northern Clan has an extra hour, the Thirteenth Hour when, as legend has it, “they are stronger than death.” The North Wind is a logical continuation of Litvinova’s previous works, both as director and actress. Her persona, on which I shall elaborate further down, but also parts of other characters reference her own earlier films and iconic roles as an actress. Fanny, for example, played by Litvinova’s own daughter, plays a stewardess, continuing the role Litvinova played in Sky. Plane. Girl (Nebo. Samolet. Devushka, dir. Vera Storozheva, 2002; see also Mukhortova 2021).

Tzarevna scalingIn Tzarevna Scaling, the fisherman’s daughter Polina works in a not very well-selling fish stall at an unidentified Russian harbor. One day an eccentric old woman, dressed all in pink, buys fish heads for her cats, and instead of paying with hard currency she hands Polina a box of magic “Tzarevna tea.” After drinking the tea, Polina enters another dimension from her Saint-Petersburg living room and receives access to the fast-track Tzarevna program in a parallel world, ruled by its own (aesthetic) laws—a mixture of Slavic fairy-tale motifs, Soviet bureaucracy, and TV reality shows. This world is ruled by women of all ages—men figure only in the background, by their absence or literally in goats’ costumes. Polina has to pass various mysterious tests: the goal is for her to find her own “plotline” and see whether she has what it takes to become a “Tzar’s Daughter,” or whether she is, after all, only a “fisherman’s daughter.” One of the tests is overcoming death. The storyline can be compared to a traditional Slavic folktale, to Alice in Wonderland or, on a more prosaic pop-culture note—video games, where one has to enter different dimensions in which the main characters meet challenges they have to accomplish in order to get to “the next level.”

Fashion
Costumes, make-up and extravagant accessories are more than mere props in these films. They are at the heart of the story, more specifically—at the heart of the visual storytelling. This fits the backgrounds of both filmmakers: fashion, looks, appearances—for both directors they are ways of expressing themselves in public; in the case of Litvinova also to create a well-known public persona. Bakhtiozina does the same, but for a different generation, using Instagram and other social media platforms as her stage.

tzarevna scalingUldus Bakhtioziona is an internationally renowned fashion photographer and costume artist. She is known for meticulously creating her images, in which she uses and re-appropriates folkloric elements. She describes her own style as “Tatar baroque,” and indeed she mixes a lot of ethnic styles, from the omnipresent traditional Russian kokoshnik (female headdress), to Slavic patterns and other attributes of traditional folkloric costumes worn by the various ethnicities living in Russia. For her work as a costume designer, she did a year’s training in orthodox ecclesiastical gold embroidery. Nowadays the artist works internationally, mainly as a photographer and costume designer for theatre, but remains based in Russia. For her debut feature film Bakhtiozina once again made most costumes herself, but also worked together with various (mostly local St Petersburg) brands, combining pop culture and folklore. The shoes and grills (metal front teeth) for example, were made especially for the film.

In the past decade, influenced by #metoo, Black Lives Matter and the body positivity movement, which gained massive popularity on social media, high fashion has begun to hire models with non-traditional looks, which has led to the acceptance of “outsider” models on catwalks and in magazines. Bakhtiozina’s models are mostly white and Slavic, but we see different ages and body types in her work as well. In interviews she expressed her preference for non-professional actors and her reliance on type-casting, à la Fellini.

The fairy tale at the center of her film not only draws on traditional Russian folk tales, but also re-appropriates the ubiquitous female Eastern European contemporary narrative of becoming a fashion model as a way to get out of drab provincial life. It mirrors the reality of a part of Russia’s post-Soviet fashion world, where model scouts travel the Russian provinces in search of new talent. The classical fairy-tale narrative structure and contemporary talent shows (from America’s Next Top Model to RuPaul’s Drag Race) actually have quite similar dramaturgic structures, with tests and fierce competition. Bakhtiozina’s film brings these elements together.

Renata Litvinova has no need to participate in any drag race: she is a self-created screen legend. Olga Mukhortova describes it thus:

[Litvinova s] type of feminine appearance momentarily absorbs the audience s attention and thus overpowers all ideological layers that Russian culture inherited from the Soviet past. Litvinova s feminine sign-set includes purposely artificial characteristics, such as bleachblonde hair, a white-powdered face and coral red lipstick. The actress also incorporates natural components, immanent only for her individuality as gestures: the manner of speaking, walking, the gaze and the high-pitched tone of her voice. These features form the visual basis of Litvinova s persona, which is fused into her appearance. (Mukhortova 2017, 4)

Litivinova’s public persona is very much constructed with the help of fashion. Apart from working as an actress and screenwriter, her television career has also been fruitful and often revolves around fashion and style: she began with her own fashion program, “Style from… Renata Litvinova” (Stil' ot… Renaty Litvinovoi, 2004) on the channel NTV, and later hosted a documentary series, Beauty of the Hidden (Krasota skrytogo, 2011), about the history of lingerie, as well as a series about the history of shoes, Beauty Pedestal (P'edestal krasoty, 2013), which was commissioned by the television channel Kul’tura.

tsarevna scalingWhere the two films discussed here definitely diverge is in the relationship of the actors with their costumes. In Bakhtiozina’s case, one could claim that the costumes replace the personalities of the characters, which all remain relatively shallow, and are looking for their identity—or “their plot line,” as it is called in the film. Just as in traditional folklore, the fairy-tale characters can often be determined by their costume, headdress and hairstyle, or physical attributes. The costumes thus in a way define the characters’ characteristics. In Tzarevna Scaling the protagonist Polina transforms and becomes part of the Tzarevna Dream Factory. She is often reminded of the fact that her own face “is boring” and gets a new image literally stamped on.

Although extravagant and individualistic, the color patterns, kokoshniki and distinctive make-up turn the Tzarevna dresses into high fashion uniforms. During an obligatory exercise session outdoors the tzarevnas-in-training all wear similar yellow balaclavas (in all likelihood a nod to Pussy Riot), fur coats, and—once again—distinctive headdresses.

North WindIn Litvinova’s case, the costumes are custom-made for the heroine: time- and ageless matriarch Margarita. She is the one who shines, while all the other costumes are in more subdued colors. The “Diva”-cult, which Litvinova holds dear in her everyday life as well, features prominently in The North Wind. During one of the New Year’s Eve celebrations in the film, Margarita organizes a gift for her mother and hires “The Diva,” an elegant opera singer with an extravagant dress that is wheeled into the “salon” on a cart. When cousin Boris cannot control his passions and rips off a piece of The Diva’s gown, Margarita is beside herself with indignation. In this world, the woman, the Diva, the “goddess”—Litvinova’s alter ego, is one with her wardrobe and both deserve outmost respect.

The importance of wardrobe is also seen in the storyline of Faina and Fanny: the remarried widower allegedly forbids his new wife Faina to wear Fanny’s clothes (while later on in the film, Faina insinuates he actually wants her to wear the clothes of the deceased and become his late beloved fiancée—in a Hitchcockian plot twist).

Russian folklore vs pop culture
Uldus Bakhtiozina re-appropriates Russian and Slavic folk tales by taking out individual characters and placing them in her own world. Renata Litvinova basically uses a similar approach, re-appropriating classical Russian literature. The plays of Anton Chekhov come to mind, obviously, but only certain elements have been taken and mixed with classical Hollywood tropes.

Neither of the films strive to be psychological dramas: the characters are all either flat and only there to fulfill a function, or—on the contrary—larger than life in a melodramatic way. Even the suffering of feelings becomes a function. In both films Love and Death—favorite topics of Litvinova’s—are used in a melodramatic sense.

Bakthiozina indicates that the work of 20th-century folklorist Vladimir Propp has been important to her, and indeed, the cast of characters follows the types and patterns explained in his Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928). “Modernized” versions and remakes of fairy tales have often been used in pop culture, but what is interesting here is the fact that Bakhtiozina relies less on language and more on visual objects, colors, and attributes. The “tests” typical for fairy tales like “Vasilisa the Wise” are replaced with challenges from Soviet life: fairground attractions, soda machines, a Soviet swimming pool. In the press kit, Bakhtiozina also refers to the use of color “as language”—the color green could be mentioned here, which is omnipresent not only in the costumes, but also in a ritual drink (which looks like estragon-based Soviet-Caucasian fizzy drink Tarkhun) and other ritual settings.

Olga Mukhortova points out that Litvinova’s films are “anti-logocentric,” following the thought of Mikhail Yampolsky (1994, 12), who coined the phrase “logocentrism” to describe “Soviet film mentality . ” In his article, he argues:

Our films traditionally focus on the problems of the hero s psychology, the nature of social conflicts or narrative collisions—aspects that belong to the literary bases of the film. […] Here the influence of our word-focused cultural tradition is felt. Russian culture is verbal rather than visual.

Not only Renata Litvinova’s oeuvre can be put in opposition to that, but also Uldus Bakhtiozina’s work, which relies heavily on visual storytelling and where language often breaks the traditional flow of dialogues. Instead, slogan- and advertising-like phrases are repeated.

However, Bakhtiozina not only works with traditional Russian folklore, but she also takes on elements of other subcultures—the modern folklore of our time, so to speak; I mentioned earlier the balaclavas referencing, among other things, to Pussy Riot. Another remarkable piece of the costumes are the grills: in our times, this tooth jewelry was made popular through hip-hop culture, using precious metals, rhinestones and even real jewels. The grills (or grillz) in Tzarevna Scaling were made especially by the St Petersburg brand G’glaze_grillz and are used as a form of insignia: after passing a test, Polina receives her own small tooth cover, implying that more sophisticated models, like those worn by the other women, still lie ahead for her. Once again, fashion items stand for individuality and become part of the uniform in this bizarre world.

It is also interesting that it is not always clear if the precious teeth are grills, or dentures—a sign of old age, but also wealth; this element of the costumes thus connects hip-hop culture with Soviet times and even older days, where golden teeth were still a status symbol. Here, both the young and old women wear the grills and smile all kinds of smiles—rarely as a sign of spontaneous joy: these are calculated, costly smiles.

Feminism/femininity, gender, and the grotesque body
Even though these works are no feminist (or queer) pamphlets, as Maria Kuvshinova criticized in her review (2021) of The North Wind, they re-define Russian femininity and re-appropriate the male gaze. Neither Litvinova nor Bakhtiozina call themselves feminists. Yet both filmmakers assert full creative control over their works, by determining the main creative processes themselves, as directors, writers, and actresses; and in Bakhtiozina’s case also as a costume maker and cinematographer.

The interesting gender-related aspects of both films, in my opinion, mostly lie in the absence (or weakness) of the men portrayed, in the re-defining of femininity, and in the rebelliousness of the female body (or the grotesque body, to use Bakhtin’s term).

So where are the men? In the case of The North Wind, they are right there: in the house, at the dinner table, and in the outside world, fighting undefined battles. They are the unattainable object of desire: Margarita has been waiting for a mystery man for years (or is it a woman after all?). He never shows up and the men at hand—her own son, her grandson, cousin Boris—all disappoint, because they either do not grow up or are “not cultured,” as attested in cousin Boris’ interaction with The Diva and many other instances. Margarita’s homosexual assistant Misha is disappointed by men as well. “He never even called?” Margarita asks him empathically, while drinking champagne in the bathtub.

tzarevna scalingIn Tzarevna Scaling Polina’s brother Sasha is mentioned, and it is implied that he is in the army and something might have happened to him. The film is dedicated to Bakhtiozina’s father. The only scenes with truly active men are as a carpet-wearing tzarevich and as a herd of men wearing goats’ costumes and dancing to a techno song; amidst them, Polina imagines to recognize her brother Sasha. However, her “fairy godmother” assures her that they only have “Ivanushki” here. Ivanushka, or Ivan Durachok (Ivan the Fool) is the fairy-tale character who achieves his goals despite his passivity or, paradoxically, precisely because of it. Ivan the Fool is a stock character, a lucky fool who appears in Russian folklore, a simple-minded, but nevertheless lucky young man. When he appears in fairy tales, he is usually portrayed as a peasant or the son of a poor family. The goats’ costumes clearly allude to the expression kozel—as used in “stupid goat” (or ass).

Of course, in Litvinova’s work the word “matriarchy” is mentioned. But is her world a matriarchy? The roles have been reversed in a way, and the bloodline of the family goes through the woman, but other than that, the outside world seems to suggest that Margarita and her clan only have power on their own estate and the question is for how long that will last. Maria Kuvshinova wrote an interesting analysis of Renata Litivinova’s (non-)feminism:

Renata Litvinova as an active character artist appeared in the mid-1990s, when the old gender order, with its declarative equality of the sexes, gave way to a new, in many ways more rigid, reduction of a woman to a) the lover of a rich man; b) a mother; c) a creature falling out of these two categories and without need for representation (a microscopic minority has achieved success, demonstratively abandoning their subject-ness as women). Appearing on this political scene as a woman-woman, lethal and at the same time adoring, who comes from the distant past, from the world of veils and shadows, Litvinova in a sense deceived the casino: her hyperfeminine image, which allows talking about women without shame and apparently designed for men, turned out to be in demand in the Russian lesbian environment, which is entirely deprived of role models. The long-standing partnership with the singer Zemfira, officially formalized as a creative union, is a unique phenomenon for our artistic scene and one of the most noticeable winks to those who catch every such wink. (Kuvshinova 2021)

The concept of beauty is important in both films, and enforced mostly by the women themselves, but the body rebels! The grotesque body is a concept, or literary trope, put forward by Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin in his study of François Rabelais’ work. The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, the lowering of everything that is abstract, spiritual, noble, and ideal to the material level. Through the use of the grotesque body in his novels, Rabelais related political conflicts to human anatomy. In this way, Rabelais used the concept as “a figure of unruly biological and social exchange” (Bakhtin 1984, 122-23; 130). Both films offer plenty of examples.

North WindIn The North Wind there is endless drinking—to the point of intravenous consumption of vodka. Faina smells (“she is rotting”) like a sign of silent protest and decay in the oppressive environment. Margarita’s stepsister Ada is introduced as an unattractive, overweight woman with a caricature-like large nose who lets herself go, despite Margarita’s severe reprimands. One day, however, Ada marries a cosmetic surgeon who embarks on a journey to turn Ada into the perfect woman. First, he operates on her nose, then the excess weight is being “taken care of.” Ada, however, starts going out on her own more and more often, the surgeon takes to drinking—his ideal woman finally reveals that she has fallen in love with a woman, after which, in an act of revenge, the surgeon sows her old nose back on when she is asleep. Ada leaves him and stays with her lover, big nose and all.

This Pygmalion-like motif can be seen with Bakhtiozina too: here, however, the entire Tzarevna world is intent on creating a young woman in its perfect image. It is not just a make-over: it is about finding the right narrative for her, too. Women perpetuate this pattern themselves. However, the heroines in both films—in this case Polina and Ada—are not having it.

(Retro-) futurism and the carnivalesque
Both films at the center of this article were shot and produced in Russia during a time in which the country continues to isolate itself both politically and culturally, not only from the rest of Europe, but increasingly on a global scale. The past decade has seen the closing-off of parts of the Internet, legislation against propaganda for non-traditional relationships, and attempts to control the public space and the media. Both filmmakers, however, belong to a (cultural) elite that is able to freely travel and work abroad, mostly in Western Europe.

It is interesting that these two women who belong to different generations both chose a post-Soviet retrospective future—an unidentified time-space continuum with its own rules, governments and regimes—as a setting for their films. The worlds created are neither free, nor democratic.

This sort of (dystopian) retro-futurism is often found in post-Soviet Russian literature, and in itself might be seen as a continuation of dystopian novels from the Soviet era, like Evgeni Zamyatin’s We (My, 1924) and Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (Kotlovan, 1938). Also, Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik (Den’ oprichnika, 2006) comes to mind, which paints a dystopian picture of future Russia. Tzarevna Scaling and The North Wind are not specifically set in the Russian Federation, but the spoken language and the use of folkloric and cultural elements make the “Russosphere” undeniable.

In Sorokin’s play Shchi (1995), Russia has become an ecofascist dictatorship, where the consumption of meat and animal products is strictly forbidden, and where vory v zakone and mafia-like structures preserve Russian cuisine and exchange traditional recipes. The tundra with its permafrost is an important trope here as well, used to preserve treasures and culture for future generations. (Much like in Litvinova’s film where the inherited wealth is buried in the “Northern Fields”). In Shchi, blocs of frozen cabbage soup are buried in the tundra and thus preserved. In his paper “Retro-Future in Post-Soviet Dystopia,” Sergey Toymentsev notes that

The post-Soviet dystopian novels […] are characterized by a perplexing mix of different temporalities: anchored in the actuality of the country s present, they see it as reenacting its past which they in turn project into the future. By muddling boundaries between Russia s past, present and future, such narratives unequivocally deny the nation s history any sense of historical progression by enclosing it into the vicious circle of mythological repetition. In its dystopian future, Russia either slides back into the autocratic dictatorship of its pre-modern past or keeps getting out of it though a cycle of bloody civil wars and revolutions. (Toymentsev 2019, 9)

Much of this can be said about both films discussed here.

Appropriating symbols of the past, putting them in a new context: we definitely see this in both retro-futurist works of Bakhtiozina and Litvinova. Bakhtiozina re-interprets Slavic fairy tales, Soviet popular culture and folklore. As I mentioned above, Litvinova leans heavily on the classics, like Anton Chekhov and classic Hollywood.

One could theoretically interpret this as a helpless attempt to rewrite the country’s narrative—in this case from a female perspective. There is no political ideology behind it, there is no “feminist agenda,” and yet, there is the will to re-appropriate, re-interpret, re-shape. In respect to literature, Toymentsev described the process thus:

And yet, despite the hopelessness and desperation of their prognoses for Russia s uncertain political future, we should not forget that all these novels are phenomenal bestsellers and the recipients of prestigious literary awards, just as their authors themselves are flamboyant media celebrities with a massive fanbase of readers, which symptomatically reflects an unprecedented rise of civic consciousness in Russian intelligentsia since the mid-2000s. (Toymentsev 2019, 9)

It is the same here: both Bakhtiozina and Litvinova are successful in their fields, they work internationally, and they have the right contacts and means to produce their films: in Bakthiozina’s case, with her own money and the help of brands she works with (Karpova 2020); in Litvinova’s case the financing is a bit more tricky, as we can see in the credits, where she personally thanks oligarch Roman Abramovich and other politically and economically influential figures, and was harshly criticized—again—by Maria Kuvshinova in her review of the film.[1]

One could argue that both films, as well as many of the retro-futurist works of literature mentioned, celebrate a sense of the carnivalesque, in the strictest Bakhtinian sense of the word: a common characteristic of the eastern European futurist movements as well. With Bakhtin (1984), this stands for a “dualistic ambivalent ritual” that typifies the inside-out world of carnival and the “joyful relativity of all structure and order”—characteristics of the closed-off worlds which suggest the world “out there” adheres to completely different rules.

Continuing the thought of retro-futurism in an Eastern European context, there is more to be said. The rise (or strengthening) of authoritarian state structures in Eastern Europe seems to have led to a renewed interest in futurist movements across the board, not only in Russia. These movements re-imagine the future and re-appropriate the past in order to emancipate the marginalized. Rather than comparing them with the Italian or Russian futurists of the early twentieth century, these movements are rather inspired by Afrofuturism.[2]

Compare for example the Roma futurist manifesto, written by Romanian actress and Roma activist Mihaela Drăgan, and the Hungarofuturist Manifesto, written by Mario Z. Nemes, which has been influential in the visual arts, literature and film:

Roma Futurism is an artistic movement that […] combines science fiction elements, the history of Roma people, fantasy, Roma subjectivity, magical realism, [and] creative technology with magical practices and healing rituals. Roma Futurism is [a] radical practice that creates performative healing rituals with the purpose of reaching the next level, the level in which we are able to imagine a future where we stop the historical cycle of oppression against us. (Drăgan 2019)

Hungarofuturism (HUF) is a mythofiction and aesthetic strategy designed to condition cultural memory. Nationalist ideology has occupied and co-opted our national and historical myths, therefore we must take them back, so as to rebuild the progressive forms of thinking Hungarianness. The goal of HUF is the transformation of imagination in both a spatial and a temporal sense. This can be achieved through the creative rechanneling of narratives of origin and a restoration of hope in futures past, or even speculative utopian futures that never have been or never will be. (Miklósvölgyi and Nemes 2018)

Re-appropriating fits the bill of new futurist movements in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the post-Soviet space. Bakhtiozina and Litvinova create their own, parallel universes, where queer culture and the female sex are the norm and determine the rules—without necessarily offering direct links to contemporary Russian reality or making a political statement.

Two Russian films hardly make a phenomenon or movement. Still, the parallels between these works are striking, and apart from the questions posed at the beginning of this article, I think the issue about how they were (and will be) received in Russia, by critics and audiences alike, merits some further research that lies beyond the scope of this article. The last two to three years saw a rift in Russian film criticism, between the more traditional cinephile critics who strive for objectivism, and a younger generation that brings questions of identity into the discussion. This novaia etika is seen by many as a Western import product.[3] Indeed, neither Tzarevna Scaling nor The North Wind are queer-feminist manifestos. However, even in 2021 in the traditional cinema world, unapologetically expressing oneself as an individual artist, is for many women a subversive act in itself. Through the use of the carnivalesque and an insistence on individualism, through their refusal to follow traditional dramaturgical means and moving away from the logocentric traditional Russian (Soviet) narrative cinema, both films have their own way of subversion and viewer disruption, rather than supporting and confirming comforting images of (Russian) femininity and traditional values. Both works are “Gesamtkunstwerke” created by original, female masterminds.

 Heleen Gerritsen
goEast festival Wiesbaden


1] “The point is not only that Litvinova is not going to shoot the queer manifesto which she could have shot. The North Wind, produced by the wife of Vladislav Surkov and played by the wife of Konstantin Ernst, is a cast of the attitude on the upper floors of society, which has set itself the goal of reliably sheltering from the wind of history, locking itself in a closet, and betting on refusing to move in time. But unlike the older generation, who has political power, created an ideology of rejection of the future, and is firmly confident in their ability to never catch up with the turtle, Litvinova’s peers deep down understand that it will not work to hide in the closet. However, they are afraid to go out and do not know how to behave outside. The rot and decay, which permeates the world of North Wind closer to the end, is the smell of apoliticality, an innocent attempt to isolate oneself from time with an abstract construction called “love.” We do not know with what motivation Zemfira wrote the song “Crimea,” which sounded for the final credits of the film; perhaps, in her understanding, this is a piercing political gesture with a wink, but Litvinova’s cinema does not have such superhuman strength to tear the viewer out of reality and make him pretend that Crimea is just a resort area where people, following Chekhov, are treated for respiratory diseases. Renata Litvinova can devote her film to Kira Muratova as much as she likes, filmed with the participation of the wife of the architect of the “people’s republics” of Donbass, but Muratova supported the Maidan and asked the oppressor, Russia, to leave the oppressed, Ukraine, alone. How would she react to the names of Surkov and Ernst attached to this film dedicated to her if she were alive? Directly from within the political context to pretend that there is no politics, but only art—here you need to have a special ability to ignore all that; Muratova’s posthumous appropriation looks creepy, and repressed politics always return and strike back” (Kuvshinova 2021).

2] The Hungarofuturist Manifesto describes Afrofuturism and its influence on Hungarofuturism thus: “Afrofuturism is a much more political movement with more serious stakes that, by carrying out a two-way time travel, formulates a fundamental critique of the present. Hungarofuturism is a political art movement that applies Afrofuturist strategies, formulating a kind of counter-narrative but in a different cultural context, directing attention to different current problems.” (Miklósvölgyi and Nemes 2018)

3] novaia etika, or new ethics, was fiercely criticized by theatre director Konstantin Bogomolov, who wrote a controversial manifesto in 2021, called “The Rape of Europe 2.0.”

Images courtesy of All Media Group (North Wind) and reelsuspects (Tzarevna Scaling)


Works Cited
Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Drăgan, Mihaela. 2019. “Tehno-vrăjitoarea e viitorul. Manifest pentru Roma Futurism.” Cutra 2 (29 November). In English translation as “Roma Futurism Manifesto” at Giuvlipen Theatre Company website

Karpova, Sasha. 2020. “Kak tsarevna sovremennogo iskusstva Iuldus Bakhtiozina sniala fil’m ‘Doch’ rybaka’ s muzykoi Shortparis i khoreografiei Vladimira Varnavy.” Interview with Uldus Bakhtiozina. Sobaka 6 October.

Kuvshinova, Maria. 2021. “Severnyi veter: allegoriia chulana.” Kimkibabaduk 9 March.

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Heleen Gerritsen © 2021

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Updated: 2021