Liquidating the Happy End of the Putin-era

By Greg Dolgopolov (UNSW, Sydney)


Something is not quite right with the realization of the Putin ideology on screen. New Russia's proudly nationalistic, positive, pragmatic outlook that sports a boisterous neo-Soviet ideological complexion with totalitarian ambitions should translate easily into popular cinematic narratives. However, film and television narratives, while expounding banal nationalism do not always fit snugly with the regime's project of positive self-promotion..

Domestic cinema has been booming at the local box office during Putin's second term. There has been a resurgence of nationalistic and patriotic themes with the surfeit of World War II movies and Slavic sword and gusli [1] blockbusters, supplanted by a post-sots revival of a glossy Social Realist agenda adapted for the current pragmatic sensibility. But veteran director, Karen Shakhnazarov, who runs Mosfil'm studio, says that while cinema is on the march, it lacks soul: “there's no ideology , no ideas. In Soviet times we believed in something, we had values and a story to tell, right or wrong. Now there's nothing” (qtd. Parfitt 43). It is noteworthy that the positive, pragmatic ideology of the Putin regime does not translate into narratives that spread the spirit of optimism and happiness.

This essay argues that Shakhnazorov's “nothing” of the Putin-era screen culture is actually far more complex than a content void, mandatory happy endings, or even content born of the recycling, rewriting, or repetition of the past through binary models of Russian cultural development (Lotman and Uspensky; Papernyi; Dobrenko).

While Putin is no Stalin when it comes to cultural control or fascination with the movies, he has supported filmmaking through targeted State funding, bemoaning the low level of domestic production. “Under Yeltsin cinema was financed very poorly,” said Aleksandr Litvinov, the deputy director of Mosfil'm. “With Putin the situation is improving considerably, and the state gives about 50% of the money necessary for the films. Naturally the state has a right to determine the priorities” (qtd. Walsh 19). There are clear trends that have emerged in filmmaking since 2002 with the (now former) Minister of Culture, Mikhail Shvydkoi, promising that “preference would be given to films of a patriotic and historical nature and to films for children. This has been seen as a request for films that send a particular message to the Russian people: that Russia is once again in the ascendant, and that family values and hard work can conquer all” (qtd. Walsh 19). Staging the past as the spiritual legitimization of national identity is a motivating force in the absence of a civil society or a free media. The diversification of production and distribution, the considerable state funding, an increase in leisure spending, and the acknowledged national agenda have led to impressive local box office results that are growing annually. There has been a successful trend in recent years to portray nationalist sentiments of Great Russia in fantasy epics and blockbuster WWII movies that revise existing cinematic narratives about the past to offer a more positive tone and more vibrant action. The preferred subjects and the nationalist sentiments are in step with the political and social consciousness of the past few years. Although the attraction of conspiracy theories is undeniable, it would be wrong to consider that all these positive subjects are “ordered” from the top as the outcomes tend to be authorially messy and “dirty.” As John Hartley has argued, there is a “power located in dirt,” and the narrative trajectories of the most popular films and television serials of the past few years have exhibited the ambiguous boundaries of the electronic media (23). Furthermore, the rise of internet discussion forums has highlighted the vigorous activity of audiences and the level of debate indicates that ideological injections are largely a thing of the past. Putin-era cinema and television drama is best defined by a heterogeneous “dirty” base that supports broad genre variety, an indigenization of Western formats, a decline in experimental art house cinema, and a resurgent populism based on retro-oriented blockbusters and a banal, domesticated national consciousness in tele-serials and soap operas.

There are five emergent tendencies of the Putin era, especially his second term, that are defining cinematic narratives as “something” different from the past and unique to the political and cultural context:

(1) There is a focus on revisiting the myths of the Great Patriotic War in a flood of films that have been used to revise existing cinematic narratives about the War, to build a contemporary patriotism and a new sense of a national identity (Norris163-4);

(2) Since 2002, the State was set to fund films that featured positive role models with a new intelligent, pragmatic, and positive hero indicating an eschatological orientation to cinematic happy ends (Walsh 19);

(3) There is an attempt at a communal reunification by exposing the dark secrets of the past and seeking to rehabilitate state security officers associated more often than not with pure evil in the Russian collective unconscious (Stojanova);

(4) The construction of a positive national agenda involved a transfiguration of former polarities of good and evil, not with a traditional maximalist reversal but a more sophisticated multiple layering, thereby unpicking the prevailing Manichaeism;

(5) The enormous commercial power and audience access of the federal television channels has ensured that serialized drama has commandeered a communal, brightly nostalgic revisionism of the past that is articulating different narrative modes of national identity to that of the cinema.

In this essay I propose to explore these tendencies of Putin-era screen culture by examining the hit television series Liquidation (Likvidatsiia; dir. Sergei Ursuliak, 2007) alongside some related examples.


Liquidation is one of the most prominent television serials of the past decade that fulfills the key requirements of a new cinematic agenda of retro-oriented detective thrillers about the War with a positive if not patriotic pathos. Ursuliak's fourteen-part post-WWII detective serial was broadcast to high critical and public acclaim on the Rossiia television channel beginning on 2 December 2007, right after the State Duma elections. The program achieved astounding ratings success, with the first night attracting 43.4% of the viewing public (“Proekt ‘Likvidatsiia'”). M any viewers admitted to watching the eleven hour serial in one sitting—so engaging and effective was the suspense. Liquidation, produced by the Central Partnership Group, Russia's largest independent diversified producer and distributor of film and television drama, highlighted that the quality distinction between television drama and cinema is increasingly becoming more negligible, especially in large, well-funded projects.

The action takes place in Odessa in 1946. Although the war is over, it does not mean that the enemy has been defeated. Odessa is overrun by crime and haunted by veiled Nazi collaborators who brazenly steal ammunition from army garrisons. The story is based on the historical fact that Marshal Zhukov (Vladimir Men'shov), having fallen out of favor with Stalin, is sent to Odessa to clean up the out of control criminal activity . Much of the rest was invented by the writers. This caused considerable anxiety for some viewers, who saw the serial as documentary history. Zhukov is disgusted by the city administrators' lack of solutions to their problem; only the head of the local criminal investigation, Major David Gotsman (Vladimir Mashkov), impresses Zhukov with his forthright ideas and decisive action. Gotsman is a good cop, but with a heart condition (both literally and figuratively): he is popular with his colleagues, neighbors, and thieves, but unlucky in love. During the course of the investigation, it becomes apparent that the criminal activity of the “legitimate” thieves-in-law only masks the anti-Soviet actions of the slippery mastermind of the garrison thefts, the invisible German spy, Akademik. Zhukov confuses the domestic criminal activity with the anti-Soviet plots and comes up with the operation code-named “Liquidation,” which Gotsman opposes to his own detriment. Akademik is plotting an armed uprising against the Soviet authorities with the help of partisans concealed in the forests surrounding Odessa. Only Gotsman, working with Zhukov and the commander of the counter-espionage forces, can save the city. They conceive a complex and dangerous operation to trap Akademik. But there is a mole within the police force who continuously undermines their plan. We know how it is going to end; what we don't quite know is the mood of the ending and the authorial statement. There is an expectation that Putin-era representations will revise the past to make it appear sunnier and more harmonious, and that their narratives will “reflect” Russia's greater optimism and pragmatism with conclusions that are happy and socially useful.

1. Happy Endings and Eschatology

The happy ending is the natural heritage of a happy democratic nation… Let us, therefore, not deride the happy ending, but give thanks to the motion picture for spreading the spirit of Happiness and Optimism throughout our land and for bringing Hope and Cheers and a glimpse of the Brighter side of life to the whole civilized world.” (qtd. Bordwell 2)

Sounds like something out of the 23rd Party Congress rather than an invocation from the 1926 journal of The Motion Picture Director on how to craft a screenplay. With the emergence of the Russian state's new self-image as a happy sovereign democracy that is strong, confident, and unified, it was inevitable that narrative conclusions and authorial statements would replicate this attitude by presenting outcomes that are positive and confident about the present time, rather than oriented towards some far off future well-being.

It is hard to avoid the massive generalization that the recent narrative trend has eschewed the tragic conclusion that is an outcome of a chaotic world full of anti-hero killers and prostitutes. The new films, whether overtly patriotic films—like Vladimir Khotinenko's 1612 (2007), Fedor Bondarchuk's Company 9 (Deviataia rota, 2005), or Vadim Shmelev's The Apocalypse Code (Kod apokalipsisa, 2006),—melodramas, or fantasy epics rekindling a great Slavic power present a world that is pragmatic and positive. But is it one where happy endings predominate?

Happy endings have gained enormous popular attention, but narratology has remained largely dominated by David Bordwell and Richard Neupert who categorize and define a structure of possible cinematic endings. Their formalist approach defines the modes but not the moods of a cinematic conclusion. Although a film or television series may fulfill a genre convention, it may still provide a commentary to it that is provocative and challenges expectations. Furthermore, the categorization of endings avoids cultural specifications that would determine audience expectation, as well as notions of cultural value and distinction attributed to specific types of endings and authorial statements.

Russian cinema has a history of avoiding happy endings. Yuri Tsivian, a historian of early Russian cinema, notes that “Russian films incline to what has been termed ‘the inevitable ending' rather than an idealized or happy ending” (7). From the first silent-era films, even the most light-hearted Russian films would end tragically. As Oksana Bulgakowa notes: “before 1917, the inevitable ‘sad endings' of Russian films were taken into account even by foreign producers, who shot two endings—a happy one for their own market, an unhappy one for Russian distribution, since only sad stories were successful in that country. Similarly Russian producers would film a grim ending for the home audience and a cheerful alternative one for international release” (211). There are different reasons for this quite aside from the gloomy Russian soul. Tsivian points out that it is tempting to link this stylistic feature to presumed national characteristics, such as clichéd notions of the depth of the Russian soul and its propensity for suffering. He speculates that the “Russian endings” came into cinema from audiences' commitment to high art and the privileged place of tragedy that was transferred into more popular entertainment in 19 th century theatrical melodrama, which always ended badly (8). Partially in response to domestic audiences' preference for the happy endings of American cinema, Socialist Realist films constructed narratives of pure optimism, replete with positive heroes and the mandatory formulaic happy ending where the united lovers or workers gazed at an open vista or a winding road beyond the horizon of the present, anticipating the coming of the future. While not all audiences would have seen American movies, films about the war often concluded with the hero dying while his friends and comrades would continue his work in memoriam. These “optimistic tragedies” were, in a sense, peculiar national variations of the happy end. Similarly, Soviet auteur cinema eschewed happy endings in favor of ambivalent, intellectually challenging, or tragic conclusions that have become ingrained as markers of cinematic quality.

The chernukha trend of public self-laceration of the 1980s produced bleak and catastrophic endings to signify a world in chaos without hope. Commenting in 1997, editor-in-chief of Iskusstvo kino, Daniil Dondurei claimed:

For the last several years filmmakers in Russia have been making films not for their audiences but for international festivals, boards of five to seven people. And what are those seven people expecting? They want to see that Russia is a horrible country, that a killer will never be punished, that there are no happy endings, that moral values will never win. And the director wants to show that he is a courageous boy who shows this to the world. (qtd. Ramsey 24)

This overly cynical view partially explains the decline in cinema-going in the 1990s, but does not respond to the cultural, historical, moral, and aesthetic challenges these films posed to their admittedly small audiences. There was a shift around 1995-6 with a number of melodramas and comedies displaying a more positive optimistic outlook—Dmitrii Astrakhan's Everything will be OK (Vse budet khorosho, 1995), Karen Shakhnazarov's American Daughter (Amerikanskaia doch', 1995), Alla Surikova's Moscow Vacation (Moskovskie kanikuly, 1995). This trend continued with the gradual increase in the number of domestic productions following the 1997 currency crisis. Film director Vladimir Dostal' claimed there would be an increase in domestic audiences if Russians had comforting movies and nice, new theaters to see them in: “People don't go to movie theaters to watch the news, to watch people being killed. We will build happy endings. Do you often see an American film where the hero hangs himself and the heroine drowns?” (qtd. Kishkovsky 4).

There are now hundreds of comfortable cinemas, but without relying on an exhaustive survey, I suggest that Putin-era films do not replicate the unproblematic, positive, and formulaic elements of Social Realist dénouements or the expectations of the cinematic mainstream's optimism. Evgeny Dobrenko's thesis that Russia is locked into an eternal cycle of cultural rewriting, “a cycle in which there is no development, but instead endless ‘renewal' via erasing and rewriting” (9) is attractive, yet it does not explain the excessive “dirty” and ambiguous boundaries of contemporary films that carry the multiple effects of genre expectations, traces of Soviet film history, responses to Western cinema, and auteur pretentions as part of the complex layering of affects. While there may be a move away from the self-critical bleakness of the 1980s, there has not been a total reversal and a focus on producing unmotivated happy endings. Seeing justice being done, the cheerful resolution of political conflicts or family disputes ending in mutual understanding does not form the basis of today's cinema. It is interesting to note that the conclusions of such WWII films as Aleksandr Rogozhkin's The Cuckoo (Kukusha, 2002), Dmitrii Meskhiev's Our Own (Svoi, 2004), and Vitalii Mel'nikov's Agitation Brigade “Beat the Enemy!” (Agit drigada “Bei vraga!, 2007) are nominally happy. The finales are not tickertape mass celebrations of the ending of the war. Rather their happiness is a smiling through tears, a nod towards the unification of the “greater” family and of a sense of hope coming out of tragedy. Analyzing the plots and themes of the large number of war films of recent years, Norris clearly demonstrates that they are far more than retro-nationalistic, but are complex creations with multiple competing ideas and influences (184). It would be hard to argue that this does not make them successful propaganda and effective in using the war to build patriotism, but this position would neglect a number of exceptional films and television serials.

I would like now to turn to examining the conclusion of Liquidation in light of contemporary expectations of a happy ending and my own discomfort with this series' finale.

A good director can contrive a happy ending that leaves you dissatisfied. You know that something is wrong—it just can't end that way. (Fassbinder; qtd. Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson 82)

Fassbinder's remark highlights four compelling potentialities in evaluating Liquidation : that the “happy end” responds to the demands of “classical” Soviet or now Putin-era cinema; that the rules of the detective genre, where unlike the gangster film/series, the protagonist achieves his goal notwithstanding some major sacrifices and trauma along the way; that the director is acting subversively, “ushering in a self-conscious and omniscient presence” (Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson 83); or even that the arbitrary conventionality of the ending raises ideological questions. It is doubtful that the ending of Liquidation was contrived to follow some production code sent down from the Ministry in quite the same way as Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941) or Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, 1941) were required to follow studio rules in generating an unmotivated happy end. Rather I would suggest that the conclusion and the epilogue appeared to be of step with the rest of the series and with the history of the narrative trajectory of “quality” Russian drama, which calls for tragedy to articulate the seriousness of the subject.

A happy ending did not sit comfortably in a series where corpses were piled high, all the evil characters died, and all the good characters survived. This was out of keeping with the structure established by the serial that dramatized Babel''s world of Odessan crime, where cops mixed with criminals and the distinctions were multiple shades of grey. This is a series that romanticized equally the security service and the criminals. This conclusion appeared to be too prosaic, too ordered, too resonant with narrow expectations of “Putinism.” In an online review of the tele-series Apostle (Iurii Moroz and Ivan Ivanov, 2007), screened on the ORT channel, Semen Kvasha argues that in comparison “Liquidation is nearly a completely de-ideologized serial without any pro-Soviet, patriotic or new-Russian, anti-Soviet mythologies.” Indeed, Liquidation does not take an overt ideological line (but surely the more secret and hidden it is, the more effective), yet it does make a very clear ideological statement, especially in the form and mood of its conclusion and authorial avowal. While Liquidation followed some rules of the detective genre, would the series have been less “ideological” if a different conclusion was explored? I pose this question to determine whether the finale was indeed a happy ending and if it is in keeping with the current “positive” conventions, or if indeed there was something else at play.

The Final Episode

Before the final episode the serial had already ended once the thriller and detective elements were revealed and the Nazi spy was unmasked. All that was left was to tie up loose ends. The detective genre has a default happy ending: the detective hero or the team fulfill their desires and solve the mystery. The case is inevitably closed, the loose ends are tied up, the detective (and his team, and, in a sense, the audience) triumphs over the criminal; the mystery is solved and the police move on to fight another evil. But Liquidation is no ordinary detective thriller as the stakes were higher than the success or failure of one police team. This was a story about the Hero City, Odessa, and its possible degeneration at the hands of criminals. This was a story about the Soviet Union in 1946, about counter-espionage; and this was a story about now, no matter how well this was concealed in the sepia tones of the past.

Peter Brooks invokes the assertions put forward by Barthes and Todorov “that narrative is essentially the articulation of a set of verbs. These verbs articulate the pressure and drive of desire. Desire is the wish for the end, for fulfillment, but fulfillment must be delayed so that we can understand it in relation to origin and to desire itself” (111). Solving the crime and finding out the motivation is our desire for meaning, not as individuals, but as an audience that is intertextually determined and desiring narrative sense and connections to our own time.

We know who Akademik is, but we don't know when Gotsman is going to get him, how he is going to capture him, and, most importantly, we don't know what makes Akademik tick, what drives him, why is he engaging in this crazy, anti-Soviet adventure? Gotsman captures Akademik without a fight. We knew that Gotsman would get his man, but this not a good ending. It lacks struggle or conflict. We need to know why Krechetov, the traitorous Akademik, did what he did—the classic final grilling to give a sense of meaning to our desire. But here comes the twist: rather than having Gotsman in a position of power questioning Akademik, why not reverse this? Krechetov/Akademik asks for a cigarette from the now relaxed Gotsman who agrees and, in a second, Akademik suddenly grabs a secretly stashed pistol, shoots the guards, knocks out Gotsman, and makes a break for it. But he can't get away—the police station is heaving with well-armed cops. Akademik takes Gotsman hostage and raids the weapons stockpile, intending to inflict the maximum destruction to this venerable Soviet institution. According to the genre, he still needs to make a confession. From a position of power: looking down on the beaten and bound Gotsman, Akademik explains to him why he worked for the other side… “Not because I love the Germans, but because I hate the Soviets… they are always at war and when they are not fighting someone else they fight one another.” Ahhh! Now it is clear! His motives are so contemporary to be almost confusing in their layering of meaning.

Ideology is always a site of contestation. Not everyone was happy with the way the war ended. Not everyone is happy with the current regime. Is Akademik a metaphor for this opposition? The series establishes enormous State authority and contrasts it with various sites of conflict and divergence. It is surprising to show such legitimate criticism of the regime and to portray evil characters with a “human face” and as appealing romantic thieves. It is hard to understand a traitor and Liquidation does not provide much insight. We got to know the Krechetov character over ten episodes, but that in one episode he turns into a homicidal psychopath pacifist only makes him more intriguing.

Gotsman, the brave, emotional, powerful, but overly honest, overly determined detective has achieved his tasks—he has revealed the traitor, the art-loving, romantic Nazi collaborator who is still operating well after the end of the War, but in a moment of casualness he destroyed all his hard work… Akademik hoists Gotsman onto his shoulders and carries him outside, using him as a human shield. The cops surrounding the building stop shooting. What should happen now?

Krechetov successfully gets away? Evil triumphs and the ineffectiveness of the cops symbolically suggests the collapse of the State.

Gotsman succeeds and brings Akademik to justice? Good triumphs, the cops are rewarded and their work is recognized for saving the nation from a great evil.

Nothing happens? We end at that climactic moment, not knowing the outcome.

In the tradition of the “inevitable ending” or the“optimistic tragedy,” Gotsman needs to be sacrificed to spotlight our sense of complete meaning, a punctuation to reiterate that heroes act not for themselves, but for the nation—their narrative demise carrying their memory into the future with the sacrifice as a memorial. In the new mainstream positive individualist model, Gotsman saves the day. The first conclusion would work well with a Social Realist ideology, while the second fulfils genre expectations. But is there a third possibility?

It is worth turning briefly to the end of The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed (Mesto vstrechi izmenit' nel'zia; dir. Stanislav Govorukhin) the 1979 cult detective thriller set in post-war Moscow. There are clear similarities between the two series, such as the post-war setting and the effects of the war on society, the criminal milieu, the bravura performances, and questions about the relationship of justice, the police, and the law. One clear distinction identified on Wikipedia is that “In the Meeting Place, chief of criminal investigations Gleb Zheglov had a motto ‘The thief must go to prison, no matter what' (and he used to plant evidence, too). While in Liquidation, chief of criminal investigations David Gotsman's motto has changed to ‘Thief must go to prison, but lawfully so'” and the serial goes to great lengths to focus on the need for laws. In the final scenes of Meeting Place, Captain Zheglov captures the Hunchback's gang, leading them out of their hideout under heavy police guard. When Levchenko, Sharapov's army mate who had helped him survive within the gang, makes a run for it, Zheglov shoots him (having already judged and convicted him as a criminal) in complete contravention of Sharapov's entreaties not to shoot. This is a poignant final moment that signifies the end of the relationship between Levchenko and Sharapov, on the one hand, and of the emerging friendship between Sharapov and Zheglov, on the other. Solving the crime and capturing the crooks should indicate a happy end, but Zheglov also shot a man without trial. He was following his convictions, but the series delicately suggest that he was wrong. He may have followed the law, but not a higher justice, and with that he betrayed the trust of his mate and turned a joyous occasion into a tragedy. Sharapov, overcome with grief, his friendship with Zheglov soured, goes to the hospital to pick up the abandoned baby but he is informed that someone has beat him to it. His mood is now even heavier as he enters his apartment, his face battered and bruised; he sees his wife standing at the window with the child. She turns, overcome with emotion, unable to speak. Freeze frame. This child epilogue is painfully dramatic, but suggests a moment of hope in the future happiness of the family. Here the happy ending comes outn of a tragic conclusion. Happiness is promised, but forestalled beyond the narrative diegesis.

What is striking about the final action sequence in Liquidation is how it is somber in tone. Held at the top of the stairs by Akademik as a human shield in a situation that appears hopeless, Gotsman loosens the knots binding his hands. He tackles Akademik, falling to the bottom of the stairs and, thereby, crushing Akademik's head on the ground. As Gotsman gets up, he says quietly in a thick Odessan accent: “Sorry if everything is not as it should be,” as we watch blood spurt out of Akademik's mouth. And as Gotsman brushes himself off, he adds his usual riposte, “An oil painting!” before leaving the scene. For such a classic action finale there is no triumphalism, no backslapping from the other cops, no grandiose musical score. This should be a happy moment, but in Ursuliak's staging it is not. It appears more as an audience provocation—genre conventions are fulfilled, but only structurally, not in terms of the mood.

The subsequent epilogue sequence is in two parts and modulates the genre fulfillment. We see Gotsman as he watches his adopted son singing in the military school choir from outside before sitting down on his haunches and closing his eyes, as their beatific voices continue in the background. Then a separate scene shows Gotsman's detective colleagues and his wife holding hands, and cheerfully running towards us in a field along the Black Sea coast before the camera sweeps forward to look out over the sea. A male voice-over narration tells us that everything that we saw may or may not have happened as it was such a long time ago and only the city and the sea can remember what really happened.

The narrative dénouement and the subsequent epilogue strategically signify a happy, optimistic end and in structural terms the conclusion fulfills genre expectations: the various story elements are drawn together, the case is solved, the righteous succeed, the evil characters are annihilated, and the collective is united. However, there is something in the presentation of this formulaic wrapping-up that smacks of authorial provocation. The tone, editing construction, and the voice-over narration of the final sequence present a series of compromises to the overt, simple happy ending, rendering the finale curiously ambiguous.

The lack of non-diegetic triumphalism in Gotsman's conquest over Akademik may point to a symbolic discomfort with allowing an individual to take credit for what was a collective achievement. Gotsman's first impulse is to connect with his adopted son, to see that he is safe. The striking staging of Gotsman slumping to his haunches outside the open doors of the choir allows for multiple readings. It indicates a lyrical moment of calm satisfaction or suggests that his weak heart gave out once he had fulfilled his duty. Given that we are continuously reminded that Gotsman has a heart condition and the merciless approach of the filmmakers to their most beloved characters, such as Fima's premature death, this reading is entirely consistent. The second epilogue sequence, painted in overly nostalgic hues, shows the four detectives and Gotsman's new wife running forward together to symbolize the unification of the family and work collective, but without Gotsman.[2] He is not with this group—but they will carry out his work and bear his memory forever. The conclusion of Liquidation allows for a detective genre's specified “happy end,” as well as a contrasting epilogue that in its mise en scène asserts a nostalgic retro-orientated “optimistic tragedy.”

Narration can momentarily break down the ideological unity of a film. The paternal voice-over that interrupts the second epilogue sequence—in an ironical storyteller mode—reminds the audience that everything that we have been watching up to now, aside from the exile of Zhukov to Odessa, is actually a fiction. This points to an authorial multi-layering that denies a definitive commitment to a positive conclusion but thrusts the series into a complex epic zone where audience desires are activated. The polarized discrepancy between the narrative conclusion and the epilogue, the variance of genres along with the clash of cinematic and tele-visual modes asserts an ongoing zone of ideological conflict in the national myth building project. The final scene of Liquidation implies a new path of eschatological development that makes this series strikingly relevant to the late Putin era.

2. The Transfiguration of Tele-Detectives

Lotman and Uspensky have clearly illustrated how the “fundamental polarity”—the binary models of change—operate in Russian culture to avoid a third, neutral or liminal element (3-6). Thus, the pagan deities of pre-Christian Russia were either reinterpreted as personifications of unclean powers or merged with images of Christian saints, but they were not shifted into neutral value zones. A similar thing happened in the transformation from crime-thrillers to detective-thrillers—the values and the organizational structures were inverted, the charges swapped but no third way was imagined.

Soviet detective serials kept a clear distinction between the criminal and the cops: the former were bad, the latter were noble. The popularity of the crime genre in the 1990s reversed this trend: cops were scum and lawlessness was exalted. The detective serials of the late 1990s and early 2000 focused on enhancing the images of the various branches of the security services, and were influenced heavily by the preceding mafia culture. Cops (Menty; various directors, 1997-2003), a serial that spanned this process of transformation, transfigured many of the popular elements of the film criminals in a low-rent, shabby but cheery style. The cops took on many of the values of the mafia—from talk to tactics and apprehensions of the law; there was a shift in the polarities of the charge.

The series marked a transfer from the symbolic dominance of the gangster to the police-as-hero and a move from valuing the individual to valuing the group. It was not a radical text that inspired resistive readings, but appeared to be a part of paedocratic strategy that promoted social and economic stability, moral reconstruction, and the power of the state through the rehabilitation of the much maligned police force. Cops worked the notion of visibly “good policing with a human face” into an escapist, patriotically conservative television form where the police were seen as professionals doing a difficult job prudently but using shabby laws. The early 1990s fiction of the loner extracting justice against organized crime and a corrupt state, but in the process destroying him- or herself, was subsumed into the promotion of organizational superiority in the pursuit of righteousness.

TV detektivs were competitive with the heterogeneous mafia film values. They adopted the mafia's passion for rules and structures of unofficial loyalty, not to mention their dress sense and jargon. The vigilante tendency is prevalent in post-Soviet detektiv serials. The legitimated vigilantes are the re-legitimated authorities absolved of their moral compromises. Since the Russian tele-detektivs can only simulate “law and order,” enacting it noumenally because the social order and the moral imperative are in flux; they bend the laws to suit the situation. This operates not just in framing suspects, as Zheglov did without hesitation, but also in enacting the full performance of justice since the legal or penal institutions are largely absent from these serials. There is the recognition that the cops bend the law, but this is styled as ultimately unimportant on a moral level, since they are abiding by higher laws and, therefore, re-inscribing a moral imperative. What is important is that justice is seen to be done—whether it follows the Russian legal code or some mishmash is narratively irrelevant.

Cops , in all of its pre-Putin and subsequent iterations over seven years, fitted into the model of the Soviet detective story. The legal system under which Cops operated appeared to privilege the arbitrary, conventional rule over uniform and universally binding laws or independent legal institutions. Similarly, the crime genre privileged Rule over Law. Cops's genre transformation was that the good cops were the Law. There was no opposition between the law and rule as in British cop shows. The primary opposition was the play of different rules in the veritable absence of Law. These were modulated by vague ethical imperatives that suggested some kind of desire for natural justice that would triumph over everything else.

Cops and other Putin-era detektiv serials rebranded retribution as justice and romanticized the performances of authority as the law. They represented a new order of altered values and pure authority without the lie of equality before the law. Cops did not appear to be aimed at educating audiences in the possibilities of a civil society but at building consensus, confirming the status quo , and promoting images of national cultural stability. They offered a hybrid, pragmatic morality made up of borrowed fragments from various screen genres and historical layers. Cops fought but did not reject the national abject. They reincorporated it as a regenerative power and in the process removed the terrorism of meaning and the discredited “longing for truth” [3] with the passion for rules and rituals.

By contrast, Liquidation transforms the Soviet-era detective serial, with its clearly Manichean distinctions between thieves and cops, creating a liminal zone as a positive feature of the serial. While it looks backwards to Babel''s image of Odessa, this suggests a surprising future “third way” as a point of difference to Lotman and Uspensky's modeling of the transformation of Russian culture. No longer is there a binary opposition and inversion, but a more complex relationship of layering and bleeding between boundaries—itself emblematic of the heterogeneous influences on cinema and television conceptions occurring over the Putin era. The intimate connection between friends and foes, between the state and enemies, and between cops and criminals is an important feature in creating a highly romantic, glowing portrait of post-war Odessa. The always sunny courtyard that David Gotsman shares with a thief-in-law (a criminal authority figure [vor v zakone]) is suggestive of a world far more complex than one divided into thieves and cops. Gotsman's success as a detective may be in part attributed to his background—on the edges of the law. His friend, Fima, is a former criminal, but a good man with an authoritative knowledge of the Odessan underworld. Gotsman intimately understands the criminal culture and is respected by its authorities, and, indeed, shows them due respect. He is ready to go outside the law in a “controlled way” to achieve justice, but he is vehemently opposed to the state terror of liquidating casual criminals. Zhukov's plan, code named “Masquerade” inverts the liminal state of a post-war city after dark by dressing the Special Forces in civilian clothes, arming them while removing their identities, and setting them out with a shoot-to-kill authority in order to clean up street crime. The “masquerade” activities are clearly criminal and do not abide by state laws or lead to decriminalizing the city. The earlier capture of the city's godfathers unleashed a wave of terror on the city as their gangs were untethered from primary sources of authority. Both of Zhukov's plans are seen to fail as the emphasis falls not on the quotidian criminals, who are portrayed as part of the integral fabric of the community, but on traitors seeking to destabilize society. The serial explored just how intimately crime and the law sit together, how a godfather can live on the same block as the head of criminal investigations, both aware of each other's occupation while able to respect each other's humanity. In contrast to the late Yeltsin-era Cops, Liquidation points to the possibility of a third way, allowing for a bleed between difference rather than a merry-go-round of the inversion of polarities.

3. Rehabilitation

The rise of recent Russian cinema has attracted considerable Western media attention with accusations that film and television are again becoming tools of state-funded propaganda. In an ABC news report, the Australian state-funded media outlet, Emma Griffiths “raises concerns” about Russian cinema's rebirth, claiming that “some are despairing that nationalism is creeping back into Russian cinema.” She completes her report with the unsubstantiated statement that “Russian secret services support Russia's film industry revival and the KGB have reportedly funded several new films.” Whether this is true or not raises important questions about Western media's pessimistic expectations of Russian film and television production, and a lack of faith in audiences' ability to negotiate the meanings of what they watch.

The representational strategies of the Putin era have sought to reconstruct national pride by rehabilitating symbols and narratives from the past. There has been an understandable focus in films and serials on police, the military, and, increasingly, the secret services engaged in heroic acts, rewriting the glasnost-era damnation. Liquidation could appear as propaganda with its positive presentation of the police and the ncounter-espionage services, especially when they find a way to work together to achieve a common goal. In an interesting side note to the perceived effectiveness of State propaganda, Daniil Dondureii notes that “as the glut of screen cops increases, the faith in security personnel decreases” (6). Over the past five years there has been a fascinating rehabilitation and humanization of the most barbarous elements of the military, police, secret services, and even spies. Christina Stojanova expresses this cogently:

such attempts at exposure of dark secrets from the Soviet history only to highlight model heroes and positive gestures of forgiveness and self-sacrifice as expression of the proverbial Russian soul, no matter how isolated and inefficient against the backdrop of total fear and betrayal, is the very stuff Putin's films are made of. These films understandably appeal to a creeping rehabilitation of the formidable KGB officers and the Party Commissars, associated more often than not with pure evil in the Russian collective unconscious. If Russia is to survive in the new millennium, the subtle message goes, people have to learn to empathize even with the bad boys for “we all are family.”

Films such as Nikolai Lebedev's The Star (Zvezda, 2002), Meskhiev's Our Own, Pavel Chukhrai's Driver for Vera (Voditel' dlia Very, 2004), Mel'nikov's Agitation Brigade “Beat the Enemy!," and Ursuliak's Liquidation do not shy away from the shameful and difficult moments of the nation's history—the fear, the continuous inversion and abuses of power and the state hypocrisy, the leader's blood lust, and the brutality of the system. These films set in the past do create model heroes, softening the criticism of the post-Soviet era, but they also rehabilitate the trash of Russian history, humanize traitors and secret agents as a process of forgiveness as well as allowing modern audiences to reshape their understanding of the past based on current moral perspectives. The magic of the Putin-era ideological occult uncovers the hidden knowledge of a shameful history and brings it forth into the spotlight of reconsideration. The cinema of the current regime escapes easy assignations of propaganda or nationalistic public relations as the vectors of change and influences have become more complex and heterogeneous than previous models for conceiving Russia would allow.

Greg Dolgopolov
UNSW, Sydney, Australia


1] Gusli is a traditional Russian folk stringed instrument played on the musician's lap.

2] This position is supported by the scriptwriter, who envisaged in his original script that Gotsman would die, and his wife Nora and adopted son Misha would go to Moscow; see “Gotsman umer ot infarkta”.

3] This argument is in part a response to Galina's overly idealized claim that the detective story can only blossom in the well-cared for soil of a stable society and that Russian audiences have a yearning for truth, law, and justice (92). Rather than adopting a cynical position and arguing that these grand concepts are impossible, I propose that they are unnecessary, that a yearning for happiness is based on reconfiguring eudemonia, and that these detective serials provided some of the tools for accomplishing this.


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Greg Dolgopolov© 2008

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Updated: 13 Jul 08