Issue 73 (2021)

Aleksandr Proshkin: Back to the Sarmatian Steppe (Nazad v step' k sarmatam, 2020)

reviewed by Zhanna Budenkova © 2021

nazad k sarmatamAleksandr Proshkin is a prolific, award-winning filmmaker whose reputation spans decades and dates back to the Soviet period, especially the 1980s. He is perhaps best known for his famous drama, The Cold Summer of 1953 (Kholodnoe leto piat'desiat tret'ego, 1987), which helped to process the trauma of the Stalinist purges. Many of Proshkin’s films and television productions address historic themes—from the serialized biopics Mikhailo Lomonosov (1984) and Nikolai Vavilov (1990) to history-conscious literary adaptations, including, most notably, The Captain’s Daughter (Russkii bunt, 1999) based on Pushkin’s account of the Pugachev Rebellion (1773-75), and Live and Remember (Zhivi i pomni, 2008) inspired by Valentin Rasputin’s novella about the tragic story of a peasant woman crushed by the Second World War. While his recent film Back to the Sarmatian Steppe focuses on the troublesome realities of present-day Russia, including widespread corruption and abuse of power, it also heavily alludes to the regional history of the Urals where the film was made. This historic backdrop serves as a nostalgic device, helping Proshkin to (re)imagine the “ideal past” of the lost traditional, and it is fair to say, patriarchal reality, which the filmmaker juxtaposes to the corrupt and violently commercialized present moment in Russian history.

nazad k sarmatamAt first glance, Back to the Sarmatian Steppe poses as a feminist and somewhat milder version of Andrei Zviagintsev’s Leviathan released seven years prior. Just like Leviathan, Proshkin’s film focuses on a “small person” in conflict with the corrupt state machine supported by powerful oligarchs. The key difference here is that while Leviathan tells a predominantly “male story,” Proshkin’s film emphasizes female experience. The storyline of Back to the Sarmatian Steppe revolves around two sisters—Anna and Ol’ga—who come to the Ural steppe to visit their father, but discover his dead body instead. The sisters, believing he was murdered, launch their own investigation of the incident. They are confronted by fierce resistance from the police, who are protecting the secrets of the local “oligarch” Anatolii, referred to in the film as “Papa” (played by Viktor Sukhorukov). “Papa” owns an agricultural holding in the area and is interested in appropriating the land that belonged to Anna and Ol’ga’s father. As the film unfolds, we learn that the murder was the result of a coercive episode when Papa’s functionaries tried to make the old man comply with Papa’s demands, but “accidentally” tortured him to death. In the film, Anna and Ol’ga refuse to give in to Papa’s pressure as well—they create a Sarmatian park on the paternal land they inherited, promoting the project online and recruiting thousands of followers, thus ensuring personal safety for themselves.

nazad k sarmatamThe sisters in the film are tough-minded and strong—especially the oldest Anna, the mastermind behind the park project. Anna is an archeologist knowledgeable about the history of the region, which was inhabited by Sarmatians in the distant past. Thanks to her, the park recreates the homes, clothing and rituals of Sarmatian female warriors (who are believed to be the inspiration for the Greek myth of Amazons). The sisters recruit other women on their team, teaching them how to ride horses, the art of combat and archery. They also instill in them certain feminist values—the idea that a strong woman does not need a man to rely on, and is capable of choosing her own mate. And here we encounter the main contradiction of the film. Narratively and visually, Back to the Sarmatian Steppe supports a feminist agenda by presenting Anna, Ol’ga and their female companions as strong and charismatic females. Narratively, they are able to protect their park from Papa, who eventually suffers a heart attack and ends up in the hospital. Visually, we are shown strong and able-bodied women riding horses, using old weapons and assaulting their enemies physically. However, according to Proshkin, feminist empowering was the last thing on his mind when he was making the film. Following the screening at the Moscow International Film Festival, Proshkin observed to Rossiiskaia gazeta, “In the film, [the Amazons] are unhappy women [here, Proshkin uses a derogatory term baby], who haven’t received enough love […] And their ritual songs are a women’s revolt of sorts, a performance of the time when the place of women was much more elevated.” Further in the interview, Proshkin clarified that the “noble female mission” constitutes the “natural” mission of women keeping humankind alive, emphasizing the nurturing, reproductive aspect of female existence, tied to the notion of normative partnering. Due to deficiencies in their psychology, the female characters in Back to the Sarmatian Steppe are incapable of maintaining such partnering, according to Proshkin, “This is a broken, defective life, it holds no space for love. Have you noticed that the film doesn’t have a single love line?” (Kichin 2020) Overall, interpreting the motives of his own heroines in pursuing their project, Proshkin devalues their attempts at self-empowering. He insists that the real mission of women is not war, but nurturing life. The activities of the sisters in the park, including their attempts at Sarmatian fights and prayers, are no more than a carnival, the filmmaker claims.

nazad k sarmatamThe visual techniques used in the film production further highlight the contradictory nature of the film. Along with lower shots of the Amazons, creating more monumental, “powerful” representation of the women, mostly used in the scenes of their martial practice in the park, there are many shots that inscribe the Amazons in the surrounding landscapes of the steppe, revealing a more traditionalist, patriarchal logic. In several episodes, the women are shown bathing horses in the lake predominantly through a series of long shots. In one key episode when Anna is speaking with her husband on the phone, she is shown in a long drone shot essentially coloring her body and the landscape in the same warm hues of the setting sun. Such representation of the protagonists reinforces the notion of the “natural” function of woman in the social system, where she is expected to partake in the cycles of rejuvenation, not war—which is the prerogative of men. The overall depiction of the women as “natural beings” reveals the nostalgic mode of relating to contemporary reality, inhospitable to expressions of overt patriarchal masculinity. While Proshkin feels the pulse of new times and emerging new rules, and is even capable of documenting these phenomena, he obviously is not ready to endorse them publicly.

Zhanna Budenkova
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Kichin, Valerii. 2020. “Peresokhshaia reka vremeni.” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 6 October. 

Back to the Sarmatian Steppe, Russia, 2020
Color, 98 minute
Director: Aleksandr Proshkin
Scriptwriter: Aleksandr Proshkin, Aleksandr Rodionov
DoP: Shandor Berkeshi
Production Design: Oleg Dorichenko
Music: Aleksei Aigi
Editing: Natal'ia Kucherenko
Cast: Karina Andolenko, Marina Vasil'eva, Viktor Sukhorukov
Production: Amkart, Mosfil'm

Aleksandr Proshkin: Back to the Sarmatian Steppe (Nazad v step' k sarmatam, 2020)

reviewed by Zhanna Budenkova © 2021

Updated: 2021