This paper explores the status of history and historicity in Thaw culture through the medium of film. It analyzes several cinematic texts from the Thaw period (1956-1967), focusing, specifically, on the interaction between the primary phenomenological categories of space and time. I will attempt to demonstrate how the co-articulation of space and time in the plane of representation distinguishes the Thaw from its historical predecessor, Stalinist culture.
It is impossible to speak about the Thaw without speaking about Soviet history. Socio-political events mark the Thaw’s limits of being and conditions of existence, and so it is always to history that we first turn when we want to locate the culture of this period. The film industry is no exception. The most recent study of Thaw cinema, Josephine Woll’s Real Images: The Soviet Cinema and the Thaw, follows well-trodden paths, as it “locks” its subject to a determining background of historical meteorology, a succession of “thaws” and “freezes” in Soviet political life, to which the film industry responds and, thus, measures its own life cycle. Such an approach is not only valid, but, in the case of cinema, more than invited by the very nature of this cultural field. Wholly dependent on the state for its financing, means of production, and circulation, cinema—taken as a whole, and not in its individual texts—is the art most closely synchronized with the historical being of the Soviet state.
At the same time, the tight embrace in which history holds Thaw film is, perhaps, what has prevented us from seeing the being of history during the Thaw on a much more basic, gnoseological level. Because what changes in the period 1953-1956 is not only the course of Soviet social and political life—that is, history as exterior to the text,—but also the way in which homo Sovieticus relates to history; this changed relationship is the principal interior condition for the production of meaning in the texts of Thaw culture. The revelation, at the twentieth Party congress in February of 1956, of the crimes committed by Stalin and his administration does not simply create a traumatic past in the memory of Soviet society. Neither is it simply a matter of atoning for sins, locating guilt, etc. The consequences reach much deeper.
What happens to a culture which, like that of the Thaw, has witnessed the sudden separation of past from present, but which continues to find in the past its origins and its raison d’ętre? The connection can no longer be established along the lines of historical causation and necessity, since this would amount to recognizing the necessity of the more recent, “chaotic” past. The perfect solution would be somehow to bring closer to the present certain pasts, while pushing off certain others:
Я цeлыe гoды свoи забыл:
чтo дeлал, гдe был.
Кoнeчнo, eсли пoдумаю—вспoмню,
Да тoлькo нe хoчeтся вoспoминать,
приятнee пeрeскoчить чeрeз этo,
а старыe гoды скoрee сминать
как старыe газeты. (Slutskii 152)
In this excerpt from a poem by Boris Slutskii we are given the most basic historical intuition of Thaw culture. It is the sheet of history itself that the Thaw needs to crumple (sminat'/smiat') like the newspapers in the last line, so that pieces of this sheet that are, otherwise, non-contiguous can touch each other. This would, of course, amount to an anachronism, but who says that History should be a slave of Chronos? In text after text, the Thaw will fight against this “prejudice,” unraveling the fabric of time in order to weave its narrative of history in another dimension: not of Chronos, but of Anthropos.
If, for Marx, human being had been a thing interior to history and its laws, always determined and incessantly shaped by it (and only subsequently acquiring agency of its own), Thaw culture reverses the relation by making history interior to human being. Historical events are no longer to be arranged along a line of temporal progression (this arrangement has lost the potency to confer any unifying meaning on them); instead, they are now “stacked” along a vertical axis that pierces every present and measures the depths and heights of humanity. Time matters only inasmuch as it feeds into this synchronic structure of being, subjecting man to cataclysms through which he will be tested, giving him opportunity to reach and overreach himself. The reversal of coordinates is so complete that it might remain unnoticed: before, man was permeated through and through by historical becoming, so that his very image was that of flow and transience; now history abandons its bed on the horizontal plane of time and stands upright alongside homo rectum.
To illustrate this somewhat abstract epistemological arrangement, let us consider the ways in which Thaw cinema celebrates historical events, and, specifically, the greatest of them all—the Revolution. Its first big anniversary comes in 1957 and is greeted by two significant filmic events: Aleksandr Alov and Vladimir Naumov’s Pavel Korchagin (appearing a year earlier) and Iulii Raizman’s The Communist (1957).
Pavel Korchagin is a cinematic rendition of Nikolai Ostrovskii’s socialist-realist classic, How the Steel Was Tempered (1934). The entire narrative of the film is delivered as a flashback of the blind and paralyzed hero—identified with both Ostrovskii and his fictional image—who has recently completed his novel-memoir about the Revolution and who has just learnt that the only manuscript of the book has been lost in the mail. Thus, the meta-diegetic frame opens with despair and, after the mnemonic journey of the film’s main part, closes at the end with Korchagin-Ostrovskii’s resolution to begin writing the novel anew. The addition of the Ostrovskii plot to the Korchagin plot of the novel produces a completely new textual structure—a circular line of a potentially eternal return: the reenactment of Pavel’s life narrative in memory (and on screen) justifies and triggers a return to writing, so that after Pavel’s story ends on the screen, it begins on the page (but when all pages are written, they will be lost again, and the reel of reminiscence will have to be spun anew). The relation between past and present is one in which the past restores identity that, in the present, is threatened by disintegration (this is a relation essential to Thaw culture as a whole). But this operation would have been impossible if the past told a story of how Pavel came to be what he is, if it offered him nothing but a succession of earlier, transcended “selves” (as do the vitae of all typical socialist-realist heroes). Instead, Pavel searches in the past for one constant self that needs to be reaffirmed in the present, and it is this fixity of self—not its dialectic historicity—that unites the two temporal planes.
Lodged within the hero’s personal past, the Revolution loses its status as a socio-political event, a kernel in an ongoing historical narrative. It designates, rather, a plateau of experience that displays the highest manifestations of human self, a realm of ultimate being. There is nothing historical about this realm, nothing in it that is subject to “pastness.” The panorama of social change, the antagonism of classes and ideologies characteristic of a given stage of historical development are marginalized in Alov and Naumov’s film. The Revolution is deliberately “localized” in a singular, isolated enterprise: the building of a narrow railroad siding to a storage area for firewood somewhere in the Ukrainian countryside. This construction project has no connection whatsoever to the main course of events associated with the Revolution; it does not participate in a larger, overarching social project. The railroad that is its result is also its emblem: after it fulfills its singular mission, it becomes obsolete; once the supply of wood is exhausted, the road ceases to lead anywhere; it remains suspended in emptiness, outside the organized traffic of society and history. But it is precisely this dead-end road that leads Pavel Korchagin back to himself. Returning home, where, within a year, complete paralysis and blindness await him, Pavel gets off the train intent on putting an end to his life. It turns out that the place he has chosen for his suicide is none other than the Boiarka train station—the site of that same railroad construction in which Pavel had taken an active part and which is, to a large extent, responsible for his present physical decrepitude. The encounter with the landmarks of the past has the effect of spiritual rebirth (thus duplicating the narrative movement of the film as a whole): it is a return to a former, yet perennially valid, sense of self.
It is precisely the traditional Marxist reading of history that had led Pavel to disorientation and thoughts of suicide: minutes earlier (while still on the train), he had seen himself as an outsider, an obsolete presence in the new society engendered by the Revolution. His interrupted train ride is, in this sense, a symbolic act: Pavel steps aside from the future-oriented movement of history, acknowledging his inability to be a part of it. But in Alov and Naumov’s film, the main railroad, on which the train of historical events takes the individual and society through time, moving according to a (supposedly) reliable schedule, is the road that leads to confusion.[ii] The real road of history in the Thaw is the road that does not move toward any destination: it is a blind alley that, instead of leading man to ever higher forms of social consciousness and interaction, displays to him the ever same essentials of his existence.
In Iulii Raizman’s film The Communist the same understanding of history is communicated in a very similar form: the narrative of the Revolution is cast as a personal reminiscence, a story about the narrator’s father, passed on to him by his mother. In this sense, the beginning of the film sends out mixed signals. It opens with the narrator’s voice-over, which oscillates between two types of history:
This story, which I want to tell, I heard from my mother. She told it to me many times. Much of it has disappeared from my memory, but I will tell it all as I remember it.
The year was 1918. The whole world, with abated breath, was listening to the cannon blasts of our young revolution.... In that same year, when all thoughts were directed toward the frontlines, Lenin decided to begin the construction of several electric plants. One was being built near a village that I will call, here, Zagory...
It is with these days that my mother usually began her story.[iii]
This is a desperate attempt on the part of Raizman’s screenwriter, Evgenii Gabrilovich, to “have it both ways”: narrating the Revolution both as a part of an individual myth of identity and as an event in a supra-individual, indeed, universal, history. Only the first of these narratives receives validation in the subsequent unfolding of the filmic text.
One may choose to read the story of Vasilii Gubanov as a collision between the new social order, identified with communism and the Revolution, and the “old,” “doomed,” Russia, represented by several degenerate types (Aniuta’s husband Fedor and his friends). Such a reading, apart from failing to elucidate the narrator’s relationship to the story, will make for a pretty gloomy picture of the Revolution and of Raizman’s abilities to capture it on screen. At the end of the film, the representatives of old Russia are all but triumphant, having killed Vasilii and set fire to the electric plant. In the final sequence, Aniuta, carrying Vasilii’s child, leaves behind her husband’s grave, her native village, and, with the latter, the subplot of socialist construction (the electric plant is destroyed and must be built anew). One cannot help asking, “Where is the Revolution in all this?”
As in Pavel Korchagin, we witness here the Thaw’s refusal to see the Revolution as a thing external to man. It is not to be sought in the resolution of a social conflict or in the victory of one ideological worldview over another (in both Pavel Korchagin and The Communist ideological discourse exists exclusively as praxis, and has almost no verbal implementation). The Revolution is not an event in a process of universal historical becoming; it is, rather, a salient point in the ontological matrix of humanity. It is the environment in which a new species of the human kind, a new race of men springs into being. The title of the film must be understood exactly in these terms. “Communist” in Raizman’s text does not refer to a set of ideological convictions defining one’s conscious identity (the barely literate Vasilii Gubanov has only recently begun reading the primers of Marxism, which does not prevent him from rebelling against its ethical code);[iv] it designates a human condition whose definition is its enactment in life. And it is this human condition that the narrator in The Communist symbolically inherits through the agency of memory and narration, making it a standard of his own present.
At the very end of the Thaw, two of the most controversial cinematic texts of the period, Andrei Smirnov’s short “film-novella” Angel (part of the almanac-trilogy The Beginning of an Unknown Era [Nachalo nevedomogo veka; 1967])[v] and Aleksandr Askol'dov’s acclaimed Commissar [Komissar; 1967],[vi] pay tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolution by bringing to a radical extreme the tendencies operative in Pavel Korchagin and The Communist.
The blind railroad track of history from Pavel Korchagin makes its reappearance in Angel, and on it we again encounter the individual who carries the Revolution within himself (the commissar Parfenov). But while Pavel’s Revolution is a realm of experience he shares with others, the hero of Smirnov’s film is cosmically alone on his mission. Pavel’s is the loneliness of the individual crippled by history; but in that corner of history where he finds the standard of his own being, he also finds communal validation of this standard. Through Parfenov, it is the Revolution itself that is seen as isolated and lonely. In Raizman’s and Alov and Naumov’s films, the embodied Revolution possesses a certain magnetism through which it is able to draw into its orbit even the most indifferent.[vii] In Smirnov’s text this magnetism is absent: Parfenov’s fellow travelers—a symbolic “ship of fools” featuring representatives of all layers of society—are shown as profoundly alien to the ethos the commissar embodies.
Among many other controversial aspects,[viii] Askol'dov’s Commissar is a disturbing answer to the question of the Revolution’s genealogy raised in The Communist. If the Revolution is a manifestation of an absolute and eternally valid modus vivendi of the Soviet man, how is the contact with this ontological dimension maintained in subsequent times? Raizman’s answer had been the individual and his private (familial) memory. In Commissar, such an option is no longer viable. Abandoned by his mother, Klavdia Vavilova’s biological son could have no vital connection to the revolutionary spirit she carries (for his substitute Jewish parents, Mariia and Efim, the Revolution is, at best, a cruel, rejecting mother).[ix] Klavdiia’s symbolic children—the platoon of young cadets defending the Red Army withdrawal (they are the only true embodiment of the Revolution in the film, their spotless white uniforms signifying the purity of its ideals)—are all killed in the battle in which Klavdiia herself dies. The extermination of the platoon closes the narrative and opens the caustic suspicion that the connection with the semi-transcendental realm of the Revolution has been irredeemably severed.
The question of how the Thaw understands history would, probably, not have been worth pursuing if this question were only relevant to the representation of history itself in the works of the period, if it were simply a matter of realizing that, in its fictional journeys through time, the Thaw is invariably in search of the “human.” As I suggested earlier, the so-called humanness (chelovechnost') of the Thaw is only a secondary effect of a new epistemological arrangement whose fundamental tenet is that time is no longer a maker of meaning.[x] The ultimate result of the Thaw’s rethinking of history is that the very principle of historicity is withdrawn from the field of knowledge. Far from being confined merely to the representation of history, the sapping of historicity influences the entire system of representation during the Thaw, producing a generic text that is structurally very different from its Stalinist socialist-realist predecessor.
The Marxist philosophy of history, which informs the earlier works of socialist realism, is characterized by a peculiar double vision: as it moves through the ages, the world is a site of both permanence and change. Forever same are the laws operative in society at any given moment in time, and also the laws of causation determining the succession of modes of production. Always different in relation to itself is man’s being through history, as it progresses toward an ever firmer control over the physical world and ever greater awareness of its own alienation. This progress, for its part, enables the evolution of social forms and brings ever closer to resolution the conflict between consciousness and the conditions of existence. Thus Marx allows for two types of agency in the field of history: that of the objective laws governing the historical process (located in the Base) and that of human consciousness (as constitutive of the Superstructure). Only the latter is characterized by historicity, while the former is fundamentally ahistorical.
Taken as a whole, then, the Marxist account of history has the shape of an isotopic narrative: the narrative of man’s historical being, which takes him from an initial point a to a conclusive point z. If the narrative, at each of its stages, is different from its previous stage, the “scene” on which it unfolds preserves a degree of self-sameness guaranteed by the identity and permanence of laws operative on it. Thus whatever heterogeneity of being one encounters through the expanses of historical time or geographical space, it is counterbalanced and, indeed, offset by the homogeneity of this time and space. Socialist-realist texts reproduce this isotopic organization of the world in time and space, while making the positive hero the locus of development and historicity. The fictional universe of a typical socialist-realist text is never fragmented: every “then” is continuous with every “now” (along a line of progression), every “here”—with every “there.”[xi]
In the Thaw, the relation between being in space and time is inverted. As noted earlier, historicity is evacuated from the realm of being, which now begins to be seen as a simultaneous matrix of quintessential categories equally valid at each moment in historical time. If, before, narrative was charged with linking stages in a diachronic progression, its new role is now to establish a communication between two synchronically present states of existence. The following characterization of Dostoevsky’s artistic vision given by Bakhtin captures also the fundamental structuring impulse of Thaw narrative:
He [Dostoevsky] saw and conceived his world primarily in terms of space, not time.... Dostoevsky strives to organize all available meaningful material, all material of reality, in one time-frame, in the form of dramatic juxtaposition, and he strives to develop it extensively. An artist such as Goethe, for example, gravitates organically toward an evolving sequence. He strives to perceive all existing contradictions as various stages of some unified development; in every manifestation of the present he strives to glimpse a trace of the past, a peak of the present-day, or a tendency of the future; and as a consequence, nothing for him is arranged along a single extensive plane.
In contrast to Goethe, Dostoevsky attempted to perceive the very stages themselves in their simultaneity, to juxtapose and counterpose them dramatically, and not stretch them out into the an evolving sequence. For him, to get one’s bearings on the world meant to conceive all its contents as simultaneous, and to guess at their inter-relationships in the cross-section of a single moment. (28; emphasis in the original)
As in Dostoevsky, Thaw narrative uses space, not time, to relate—through opposition and juxtaposition—two ontological realms: one always perceived as “higher” and, therefore, normative, the other—“mundane,” marked by disorientation and flux. It is not by chance that the first Dostoevsky novel adapted for the screen during the Thaw is The Idiot (Ivan Pyr'ev’s eponymous 1958 film)—a text in which the opposition between ethical and ideological voices receives a most explicit spatial articulation. Although the entire action in the fictional present of the novel takes place in Petersburg—identified with the “earthly” realm in its threshold state—we are constantly aware, through the presence of Prince Myshkin, of the proximity of another, elevated, place, whose geographical equivalent is the Switzerland of Myshkin’s reminiscences.
In the most celebrated filmic text of the Thaw, Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 The Cranes Are Flying [Letiat zhuravli], the outbreak of the Second World War creates an analogous rift in the fabric of the represented world, separating two spheres: the frontlines and the rear. From this moment on, the two lovers, Boris and Veronika, are also separated. They have one last physical encounter on the screen—the day when Veronika learns of Boris’s decision to enlist in the army—but even during this encounter, they are already residents of different dimensions.[xii] Without this understanding, the following prolonged episode of the missed encounter cannot appear as anything but an unjustified piece of bad taste, made digestible only by its exquisite visual coating.[xiii] Why is Veronika unable to get through to Boris? And why is Boris’s farewell message unable to get to Veronika? It is not simply the “hand of fate” that intervenes between the two lovers. Behind the undeniably melodramatic mechanics of the plot stands the rigid logic of the Thaw’s bitopic space. What bars Veronika’s way to Boris is a semiotic boundary: while still on the territory of Moscow, Boris is already transported to the symbolic territory of a distant “there,” non-contiguous with the “here” of Veronika. In this sense, the visual narrative of the film runs ahead of its plot development, placing obstacles and bars whose real significance will materialize only later, after Veronika’s “fall” and Boris’s death. The visual dominanta of this part of the film is the frame cleft by diagonals, which the heroine crosses only to find herself behind new lines of demarcation.
The separation between the two semiotic loci is fully explicated midway through the film in a compact five-act sequence consisting of alternating scenes of Boris’s last day and Veronika’s life in Moscow. The strict temporal linearity characteristic of socialist-realist cinema is violated here in favor of simultaneity that arches across space and holds in opposition two realms of being. One of them designates the world expelled from grace, while the other circumscribes a plateau of ideal, in relation to which this very fall is measured. Kalatozov deliberately weakens the logic of occurrences in each of the two parallel lines (we do not know what events link the rape of Veronika and her decision to marry Mark; nor is the bullet that kills Boris sufficiently justified within the fictional territory where it is fired) in order to suggest a dialectical link between them. Thus, the rape of Veronika is equated with a rape of an ideal self (the death of Boris), which, for its part, motivates the ontological barrier that the film has already established.
It is important not to confuse the need for an ideal “second place” in the semiotic landscape of Thaw cinema with the inscription of any particular ethical code (whether it be that of the “common soldier,” the ardent revolutionary, the unblemished Bolshevik, the pioneer of the virgin lands, etc.). The latter is completely subordinated to the former: the structural necessity holds sway over the concrete articulations it occasions. To convince us of this, there is the second outstanding film premiere of 1957, Lev Kulidzhanov and Iakov Segel'’s The House I Live In [Dom, v kotorom ia zhivu].
One of the subplots in the film follows very closely the main story line of The Cranes. Exasperated by the constant absence of her husband, the geologist Dmitrii Kashirin, Lida spends a night with Konstantin, the older son of the Kashirins’ neighbors, the Davydovs. Stricken by remorse, but unable to confess her adultery to Dmitrii, she decides to leave him. That same day, however, the war breaks out, and it is again Dmitrii who leaves Lida, this time for the front and forever. At the end of the film, Lida makes peace with her conscience by rejecting Konstantin’s love and symbolically adopting his younger brother, Serezha,[xiv] who, now a young geologist himself, comes to take the place vacated by Dmitrii.
The paradox is that this place is, indeed, a no-place, a place of absence. Dmitrii makes only episodic appearances on the screen, during which he either prepares for his next absence, or, else, tells stories from his expeditions. He enters The House I Live In in order not to live in it. His character—if it can be called that—is a most general contour: we know that he loves his profession and his wife, and enjoys the company of young people. The quality that truly defines him is his far-and-away-ness, his inability to inhabit the same world as the other characters in the film. In the early part of the narrative, however, only one, horizontal (geographical), space is open for him (although, his profession foreshadows the transition to the vertical). After Lida’s adultery, all conditions are in place for the distant “there” that is Dmitrii’s true home to take on a new significance. This is why the Second World War begins.
When one compares the stories in The Cranes Are Flying and The House I Live In, it becomes clear that the war—far from instituting a definite moral, let alone ideological, domain—has a purely functional significance. In other words, it is not a matter of presenting the trenches or the frontlines as some cleansing or ennobling sphere, with some kind of mystical power of its own. The myth of the war as a moral purgatory is operative in Kalatozov’s and Kulidzhanov and Segel'’s films, but it is only corollary to the war’s mechanical task of creating a separation, a chasm in the vertical structure of the universe. The war does not make Dmitrii and Boris purer or loftier characters. It simply “hosts” them (by burying them) and, thereby, places them “out of reach.” It extracts them from the horizontality to which they had hitherto belonged and assigns them to a redemptive space, whose parameters are not defined by medals, battles, even sacrifice, but by an existential void in that other space, the space “below,” where the main action of the two films unfolds, and where Veronika and Lida reside.
Of course, in most films of the Thaw we will not find such a clear rift between two mutually exclusive territories. The characters on the screen, usually, inhabit the same spatial continuum, and are, seemingly, able to move within it freely. In such unilateral space, however, one of them—the central hero—appears somehow “trapped.” Like Dmitrii in The House, this hero is the carrier of a transcendental restlessness. In the place where all the other characters are comfortably at home, he is inevitably homeless, out of place.
Vasilii Ordynskii’s 1964 film The Great Ore [Bol'shaia ruda] captures precisely this moment of entrapment, which results from the flattening of the world onto a single surface. Shortly before his death, the hero of the film, Viktor Proniakin, relives in a dream the main moments of his life after the war. We see him, first, as a soldier who returns from the front to his beloved. He is on a boat, crossing a vast river shrouded in mist. From the ferryman Viktor learns that his bride-to-be is engaged to another. He convinces himself of this during his short sojourn in the village. The dream scene of the two lovers’ reunion culminates in a close up of the woman’s face as she laughs cynically at Viktor’s renewed marriage proposal. From this point on, the dream life of Viktor is dominated by images of trains that take him in an unknown direction. He becomes the resident of the road, unable to find a home anywhere but in the very imperative for movement.
Although Viktor returns after the war, presumably, to his native village, we never see him entering his own house (only that of his fiancée). We must understand that his true home was left there, in the misty beyond from which he has just emerged. The river of his dream is none other than the symbolic Styx of Thaw culture, separating the land of ideals from the profane space of “our” present. Now a prisoner of the latter, Viktor can acknowledge his lost motherland only by refusing to inhabit any identifiable “here.”
When he decides to interrupt his nomadic life to become a truck driver at a Siberian mine, this is not an act of reconciliation with the horizontality that has imprisoned him. On the contrary, at the excavation site, Viktor senses the possibility of “piercing” this horizontality and reopening the dimension of the essential. Through a rather clumsy narrative move, the film casts the truck driver Viktor as the one who first reaches the “great ore” (after a stretch of inclement weather cools the other drivers’ enthusiasm for work, it is only Viktor’s will and tenacity that power the excavator). Another maladroit narrative turn ensures that the hero, now that he has symbolically transcended the surface reality of “our” world, is physically removed from it (Viktor insists that he cart a double load of the newly discovered ore, which causes his truck to slide off the road and crash).
The last shot of the film zooms in on the front page of a local newspaper, where Viktor’s face can be seen pasted onto a photograph commemorating the discovery of the ore. He is in the midst of a group consisting of the mine’s directors and geologists, all formally dressed for the occasion. Viktor is in his soldier’s uniform, his face that of a twenty-year-old. In a still frame, the film reimages its entire narrative: from the very beginning Viktor had been a presence taken from another place and pasted onto a foreign surface.
Katerina Clark, who has discussed the bitopic structure of the Thaw’s semiotic landscape,[xv] understands this structure as a simple inversion of a previous model:
This opposition between the two worlds is set up through an inversion of the typical Stalinist valorization of place. In the Stalinist novel, Moscow functioned as a place prefiguring the higher-order reality to come in Communism, while the provincial town, factory, construction site, or kolkhoz in which the novel was set was bound to be far behind Moscow on the path to perfection. In the youth novel, by contrast, Moscow (or Leningrad) functions as the “false” place, polluted by bureaucracy, careerism, insincerity, and other such “Stalinist” ills, whereas some place “far away from Moscow” ... and, preferably, dramatically less civilized than Moscow (or Leningrad) becomes the haven of Leninist ideals to which the hero is drawn.
This reversal of the symbolic meaning of “Moscow” and “away from Moscow” did not, however, begin with the youth novel, for it can be found in some of the earliest fiction of the post-Stalinist period. In other words, the disparagement of the modern metropolis began as a schematic inversion of primary Stalinist symbols, but in the earlier examples the “other” place, far away, was if less blameworthy than “Moscow,” not yet a place where ideals were practiced. (227)
Clark’s observations support the main line of my argument, but I must part ways with her the moment she attempts to lock the structuring impulse of Thaw culture to a definite geographic model. I maintain that for each individual text this impulse “chooses” its anchoring points anew and bestows its own meaning on them. The meaning is in no way inherent to the places chosen to stand for “false” and “true” reality. Each represented space in Thaw texts constructs its own “here” and “away,” which may or may not correspond to the “here” and “away” of actual geo-cultural space. Another way of putting it is to say that the Thaw is not interested in valorizing any particular “away”; what needs to be valorized is the very function of “away-ness.”
Only from this point of view can one account for a text like Semen Tumanov and Georgii Shchukin’s 1960 film Aleshka’s Love [Aleshkina liubov']. Here we have all the external markers familiar from the “youth prose” tradition Clark discusses: a young hero who has left behind the big city and his studies for the far-away steppes, where he is employed as an ordinary worker in a geological brigade. According to the prescripts of the genre, which Clark spells out, we should expect the hero to discover a new self in this new environment and become a part of the community he finds there. Nothing of the kind happens. Like all male characters discussed thus far, Aleshka is static: no “rite of passage” awaits him and, consequently, no change of identity. Neither are there any “mentors” in sight: Aleshka finds himself surrounded by a group of primitives with whom he has nothing in common. The hard manual labor the hero performs is not imbued with redemptive ethos, as is so often the case in the works of “youth prose.”
The only thing that makes this distant locale bearable for Aleshka, is the fact that it holds the possibility of another distance, another road that leads away. In the film this is the road that takes Aleshka to the object of his love, Zinka. After each workday, Aleshka travels several miles on foot only to see her, and then returns to the place where his brigade has pitched its camp. Like Boris, Dmitrii, and Viktor, his main identifying feature is the separation he creates between himself and the others. He is truly himself neither on the geological site, nor at the railroad post where Zinka lives, but in the space of motion that separates them. It is only because of this restless motion that the “profane” world of the narrative becomes vertically articulated. As in The Great Ore, the “higher” realm of the ideal is dialectically linked with the hero’s entrapment in horizontal space and his position of non-belonging.
It should be clear by now why the spatial dichotomy found in the texts of the Thaw cannot be considered a “schematic inversion” of its Stalinist counterpart. Behind the seeming continuity of symbols, we find a disjuncture in the ways these two cultures think themselves in space and time. In Stalinist texts, center and periphery are opposed in isotopic horizontal space. The distance between them is measured with the yardstick of historical progress. By traversing this distance, the hero—himself a progressive function—resolves the dialectics of both individual consciousness and social geography.
During the Thaw, historicity ceases to be a viable category for understanding individual and social being. The dynamics of existence and, consequently, the dynamics of narrative are made sense of not in terms of successive stages, but in terms of co-present states. The energetic principle behind narrative movement is no longer that of linear progress, but that of transcendence. In order to make this movement possible, space must somehow eschew its horizontality. This is achieved with the help of the hero. He too has lost his historicity and is not subject to the force of time. The only alternation he can undergo for the duration of the narrative comes as a result of his having found his “true place” (home). The distance separating the place of belonging and that of non-belonging is always measured along the vertical axis of essential (therefore, timeless) ethical values.
If there is a reversal of coordinates that marks the transition from Stalinist to Thaw culture, this reversal should be sought not in the altered meaning of old symbols, but in the altered relation between fundamental cognitive categories. In Stalinist culture, space has a purely mechanical function: it sets the stage on which the workings of progressive time will become apparent. In Thaw culture, it is time that has a perfunctory role: having lost the element of progression, it exists now merely as duration that allows space to become an articulator of meaning.
An earlier version of this paper was awarded the First Prize in the 2003
Graduate Student Essay competition of the South Western Association for the
Advancement of Slavic Studies (SWAAASS).
The enormous symbolic value attached to locomotives, trains, and railroads
hearkens back to the very first days of the Revolution.
The propaganda trains dispatched by the Commissariat of
Enlightenment, the armored trains of the Red Army, the 1920s’ infatuation
with technology and machines, combine to ensconce these images in Soviet
cultural memory. Around them, a
veritable “cloud” of meanings gathers: socio-economic progress,
evolutionary enlightenment, the “iron” character of the Bolsheviks, the
“iron,” machine-like, necessity of historical laws, etc.
Like other tropes that it inherits from earlier Soviet history, Thaw
culture also re-figures, trans-codes, the “locomotive of history.”
As I argue here and further, the trauma of Stalinism makes it
impossible to retain as positive those meanings of “train” and
“railroad” that affirm the uninterrupted, teleological commencement of
кoтoрую я хoчу
я слышал oт мoeй
из мoeй памяти,
нo я расскажу
всe как пoмню. Шeл тысяча дeвятсoт вoсeмнадцатый
к грoхoту пушeк
нашeй мoлoдoй рeвoлюции....
Вoт в этoт гoд,
кoгда всe думы
были o фрoнтe, Лeнин
Oдна из них
я назoву здeсь
Вoт с этих-тo
днeй мать и
He has a child with Aniuta while she is still married to Fedor, thus
disregarding the advice of the Party representative he consults.
The other two films of the almanac are Larisa Shepit'ko’s Homeland
of Electricity and Genrikh Gabai’s Motria.
Shelved immediately after its production and released only in 1987.
See for example the episode in The Communist in which
Vasilii’s personal example infects the crew of the train, who, after
watching his superhuman efforts, join him in the cutting of trees.
I cannot do justice here either to the semantic richness of
Askol'dov’s text, or to the various ways in which the film problematizes
the Thaw idea of the Revolution. Therefore,
I am confining my comments to the dialogue between Commissar and
Raizman’s The Communist.
The very physical survival of Vavilova’s child is also put into
question, as a flash-forward shows his new, Jewish, family entering a German
To convince ourselves of this, we need only see the consistency with
which everything subject to the force of time, everything bearing the mark
of transience, is “arrested,” indeed, “frozen” in the texts of the
Thaw. Childhood, youth, Spring,
flight, pursuit, are all detached from the continuums of beginnings and
ends, starting points and destinations, to which they had belonged, and are
given independence and substantiality of their own.
Even the great divide between the Soviet “here” and the
bourgeois-capitalist “there” is to be seen as a temporary disruption in
a immanent spatial continuum. The
only reason this divide exists is because the world’s “there” has not
yet caught up with its advanced “here.”
In the opening sequence of the film—capturing the last day of peace before
the war—Kalatozov had brought the lovers together visually even after they
had parted, by juxtaposing almost identical scenes of them sneaking into
their respective homes. In the
scene of their last meeting, the dynamics of movement, the mise-en-scčne,
and Sergei Urusevskii’s camera work, manage to create distance between
them despite their physical presence in the same locale.
Aleksandr Prokhorov reads this episode through what Mary Ann Doane
has called the “rhetoric of too late”—one of the stock devices of
melodrama on screen (262-264).
In Kalatozov’s film, Veronika adopts a young boy who bears the name
of her dead lover.
“Like the fairy-tale hero, he [the hero in the texts of the Thaw]
makes a journey from the profane world (the false) to a higher reality (the
true). Unlike many fairy tale
heroes, however, he ultimately chooses not to return to the profane world
but completes his rite of passage in the land of ‛the true’ and
hence mediates mythically the conflict between the imperfect reality
revealed in 1956 and the higher reality of Communist ideals” (Clark 227).
Alov, Aleksandr and Vladimir Naumov. Pavel Korchagin. Kiev Film Studios, 1956.
Askol'dov, Aleksandr. Commissar [Komissar]. Gor'kii Film Studios, 1967.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.
Clark, Katerina. The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual. 3rd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000.
Dostoevsky, Fedor. The Idiot. Trans. Constance Garnett. NY: Bantam, 1981.
Gabai, Genrikh. Motria. Mosfilm Experimental Studio, 1967.
Kalatozov, Mikhail. The Cranes Are Flying [Letiat zhuravli]. Mosfilm, 1957.
Kulidzhanov, Lev and Iakov Segel'. The House I Live In [Dom, v kotorom ia zhivu]. Gor'kii Film Studios, 1957.
Ordynskii, Vasilii. The Great Ore [Bol'shaia ruda]. Mosfilm, 1964.
Ostrovskii, Nikolai. How the Steel Was Tempered. Trans. R. Prokofieva. Moscow: Progress, 1964. 2 vols.
Prokhorov, Alexander. “Inherited Discourse: Stalinist Tropes in Thaw Culture.” Diss. U of Pittsburgh, 2002.
Pyr'ev, Ivan. The Idiot [Idiot]. Mosfilm, 1958.
Raizman, Iulii. The Communist [Kommunist]. Mosfilm, 1957.
Shepit'ko, Larisa. Homeland of Electricity [Rodina Elektrichestva]. Mosfilm Experimental Studio, 1967.
Slutskii, Boris. Sobranie sochinenii. Vol. 2. Moskva: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1991. 2 vols.
Smirnov, Andrei. Angel. Mosfiim Experimental Studio, 1967.
Tumanov, Semen and Georgii Shchukin. Aleshka’s Love [Aleshkina liubov']. Mosfilm, 1960.
Woll, Josephine. Real Images: Soviet Cinema and the Thaw. NY: St. Martin’s P, 2000.