Two Decades of Post-Soviet Cinema: Taking Stock of Our Stocktaking

By Seth Graham (UCL-SSEES)

A year or so before most of us had heard of Vladimir Putin or the Russian Film Symposium, I wrote:

The notion of chernukha's “excess” as an artistic strategy in a transitional social period has a useful analog in Peter Brooks' understanding of melodrama. Brooks discusses melodrama as a cultural “mode” that arose transgenerically in response to perceived “social and ethical upheaval[s]” at a particular moment in European history (xiv). If melodramatic narrative is defined by a compensatory excess of emotional expressionism, by “ever more concentrated and totally expressive gestures and statements” (Brooks 4), then chernukha can productively be viewed as a sort of naturalistic inversion of the melodramatic impulse in which concentrated emotionality is supplanted by concentrated physicality. Also useful for those studying post-censorship Russian cinema is Brooks' notion of the “moral occult,” which he defines as “the domain of operative spiritual values which is both indicated within and masked by the surface of reality. The moral occult is not a metaphysical system; it is rather the repository of the fragmentary and desacralized remnants of sacred myth” (5, emphasis added). In the specific case of Russia since the late 1980s, many viewed the recovery of pre-Soviet values, aggressively “desacralized” for 70+ years, as an attempt to access just such a “domain.” (Graham 11).

As we take stock of the past decade, we must also, of course, look further back to the decade that preceded it. The Yeltsin and Putin eras were both characterized by attempts to locate, gather, and find new uses for the smithereens into which virtually all categories of meaning had been smashed during the collapse of the Second World. The difference between the two post-Soviet decades, in the context of the Russian film industry, is the difference between failed and successful attempts to access the Russo-Soviet “moral occult,” or what the organizers of this year's Russian Film Symposium have termed, bringing Jameson into the mix, the “ideological occult.”

To be fair, those attempts during the Yeltsin years were relatively few and far between, and were hampered by financial paucity and a continued enthusiasm for debunking, denouncing, and destroying the Soviet legacy in all its forms. The rampant chernukha filmmaking of the late-1980s and 1990s, with its multifaceted nihilism, implied that the shards of meaning that littered the Russian psychological and social landscape were not yet small enough, that the dead worldview was not dead enough. Unexpectedly instructive at this juncture is the scientifically confirmed funniest joke in the world:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?” (Wiseman) [1]

The Russian film industry experienced a similar and prolonged “now what?” moment in the 1990s following several years in which a common approach to filmmaking seemed to be to “make sure it [Soviet cinema and the value system it represented] was dead.” By the middle of the decade, film professionals and many others were discussing chernukha not as an abstract anti-aesthetic trend, but as an epidemic that threatened the reputation and livelihood of Russian film as an art form and an industry. The perceived threat provoked explicit interventions by members of the industry and others. The liberal political party Union of Right Forces, for example, sponsored a competition in the mid-1990s, with a prize of $20,000 and a guarantee of production, for scripts that portrayed Russia in a positive light. Another example: the jury at the 2000 Russian Film Festival in Sochi agreed among themselves not to consider violent films for the top prizes (which means that Aleksei Balabanov's Brother 2 [Brat 2], the most talked-about film that year, took no prizes). In retrospect, the 1990s were defined by the inevitably combined search for (1) a framework of common values and stable tropes upon which a popular domestic cinema could be (re)built and (2) a film industry characterized by profitability and self-sustenance. The second of those two goals is a fait accompli, in part due to the (almost literal) lubrication of the film industry by record oil profits, and the increasingly close links between the (more reliably profitable) television industry and the film industry, but also due to the renewed and active interest in domestic film production on the part of the Kremlin. As for the first of the two goals—the particular combination of values and tropes that have been successfully mobilized by the film industry—well, evaluating the success of that is our ongoing task as informed observers of Russian culture.

The oft-cited crisis of quantity in Russian film production has in recent years been offset not only by improving production statistics, but also by an increase in quality, or at least in the quality of production value, distribution, and marketing. The improvements have in turn attracted larger audiences. The past nine years or so have witnessed the domestic financial success of a string of Russian films, including Nikita Mikhalkov's epic costume melodrama The Barber of Siberia (Sibirskii tsiriul'nik,1999), Balabanov's jingoistic action film Brother 2, Timur Bekmambetov's horror-fantasy Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004) and its sequels, two adaptations of Boris Akunin's historical detective novels—Dzhanik Faiziev's Turkish Gambit (Turetskii gambit) and Fillip Iankovskii's State Councillor (Statskii sovetnik), both 2005—and Fedor Bondarchuk's Afghan War film Company 9 (Deviataia rota, 2005). The popularity and profitability of these and a handful of other films amount to a mini-renaissance of autochthonous popular cinema in Russia. The nascent resurgence is confirmed by yet another statistic: the rise in the share of the Russian market represented by domestically produced films—29.7 per cent in 2005, which is quite an improvement over the single-digit figures of the early 1990s. The figure is, in fact, comparable to domestic shares in the same year in the UK (34 per cent) and France (36.9 per cent), and significantly higher than in Germany (17.1 per cent) and Italy (18.7 per cent). [2]

The growing marketability of domestic films testifies to the renewed relevance of the film viewer, the consumer, to the Russian film-industry food chain. The films that have been successful share an awareness of national and other categories of collective identity as topics of great interest—and marketable appeal—to domestic audiences. This might seem like an obvious and unremarkable characteristic of any popular cinema, but in Russia it is a notable development, given the negative connotations attached to civic and other collectivist thought patterns in the years immediately preceding and following the collapse of the USSR. This is not to say that all Russian directors are making consciously “Russian” films (although some certainly are), or that all of them are even interested in the issue of filmic representation of Russia or Russianness (many certainly are not). But notions of national identity have clearly informed recent Russian cinema in more or less explicit ways.[3] Ruminations on Russian identity have naturally been central to the still-emerging concepts of post-Soviet Self and post-Soviet Other, the visual and verbal vocabulary associated with those concepts, and the complex negotiation between them by cultural producers, especially filmmakers.

In Balabanov's Brother 2, the first Russian blockbuster of the Putin era, Russian brute violence is sent abroad in the service of national pride. Danila Bagrov, a lethal, patriotic Russian in the West, is the anti-Shtirlits: he has no interest in culture, does not conceal his identity, and makes no effort to learn the local language. He goes to the US as a Russian Rambo; his mission on screen, like Rambo's, is ostensibly driven by personal motives, but those motives transparently symbolize a larger need to avenge a national humiliation. Danila rescues a Russian prostitute, whose status as an economic POW is underscored by her shaved head. In the scene in question, Danila has been arrested in Chicago after assaulting, essentially, every black character he encounters in defense of the prostitute. He is set free by a sympathetic, racist cop, another acknowledgment of an international brotherhood of strong, willful (and reactionary) men defending the weak (read: female) from threats by other classes (businessmen) and races. The defining piece of dialogue in Balabanov's film is one of the last: a television journalist asks Danila and the rescued prostitute “Are you gangsters?,” to which she replies, “no, we're Russians.” “We're not gangsters, we're Russians” is a sentiment that informs a very different text, Mikhalkov's hit, The Barber of Siberia , the marketing slogan of which—“He's Russian. That explains a lot”—is a kind of pre-emptive paraphrase of Balabanov's “gangster” line. Barber implicitly addresses the image of the Russian as the rowdy hooligan of European culture who is also, however, that culture's most knowledgeable and appreciative connoisseur . As Andrei Plakhov reminded us in a recent interview with the BBC, the new heroic image created by Balabanov was used explicitly in Putin's 2000 presidential campaign, one of the slogans of which was “Putin is our President and Danila Bagrov is our Brother” (Smirnova).[4]

A significant impulse apparent in Russian filmmaking in the middle of the “post-ideological” 1990s was the recovery of everyday culturemes (objects and behaviors) as abstract values in and of themselves. Aleksandr Rogozhkin's Peculiarities … (Osobennosti... ) films , for example, offer a mundane, even profane view of Russianness, a comedic paean to the minute rituals of everyday life, of the malaia rodina (little Motherland), with its comforting and affirmative little-v values and little-t traditions. Vodka has been the dominant cultureme in these films. Rogozhkin depicts vodka as a sort of Tao, an omni-motivation for human behavior and discourse, as the ether in which latent Russianness is manifested and performed. This was a time, of course, before the teetotaler Putin was celebrated in song as the ideal man.

Reasserting the presence of the body in the social life of the nation was one of the first corrective projects of post-censorship Russian culture. The newly permissible discourse had a prominent physical aspect across genres and media. Cinema, as a visual medium, not surprisingly reflected the resurgent emphasis on physicality with particular enthusiasm, and not only in the predictable realm of erotica. The quotidian life of the Russian cultural consumer became a reservoir of symbolic referents around which certain filmmakers attempted to construct a viable national popular cinema. In part the privileging of physicality was a natural symptom of the age; popular culture (including advertising) in a market environment seeks to elicit physical responses: sexual arousal, laughter, cathartic tears, hunger, or thirst. In the specific case of post-Soviet film, it is instructive to examine how various types of materialism—market materialism, Soviet materialism, and the ontological materialism of everyday life—have been negotiated by certain filmmakers. Aleksandr Veledinskii's Russian (Russkoe, 2004), for example, is an adaptation of several works by the poet, novelist, and, most recently, radical political figure Eduard Limonov.

The film critic and historian Evgenii Margolit has spoken of the “fear of reality” as endemic to contemporary Russian film. He is referring primarily to filmmakers' non-realist choices in regard to genre, style, and plot, rather than the relationship to reality of the protagonists themselves. But in Veledinskii's film we have an entire narrative that is not only itself firmly in the realist tradition, but which also depicts a protagonist's negotiation of the social reality that surrounds him. Someone once said that there are four escape routes from reality: into crime, art, madness, and religion. In Russian, what we have is a struggle among the four for the fate of the hero. The material world is, on the surface, dominant. Even before the narrative begins, during the credits, each name we see projected on the screen is accompanied and represented by an object. Poverty and squalor dominate the mise-en-scène. The plot itself, especially before the protagonist, Ed, enters the Saburka Psychiatric Hospital, is driven by exchange, barter, and transfer of things of value: a knife, a razor, a ring, a book, a maidenhead, znachki, a notebook, a photograph, eyeglasses, nylons, mandarin oranges, vodka, rubles. Ed's sole motivation in the beginning of the film is the achievement of a physical act (sex with his girlfriend, Sveta) by material means (buying her dinner in a restaurant). Sveta's mercenary promiscuousness is mitigated, however, by the fact that she will trade her physical affection not only for material wealth and status, but also as a token of her appreciation for good poetry and for the company of a true poet. In a film in which there is no shortage of mentors, Sveta's lesson for Ed (which he misses, tragically, the first time she offers it, when he comes to her door with the knife) may be the most relevant to his personal arc: that poetry is a useful tool for negotiating the East vs. West, Spirit vs. Flesh dilemma that is every Russian's celebrated and accursed birthright.

Poetry in the film is represented as both divine and visceral, the coin of a value system that Russia has traditionally posited as an alternative, a way out of the messy world of material values. Veledinskii's attempt at reconciling the filth, viscera, and squalor of modern Russian life with both a sense of “higher values” and an engaging, marketable film product is ultimately more honest than other such attempts (for example, Mikhalkov's in Barber), and does not resort to crude juxtaposition with an Other to define a Russian Self. Russian is a relatively successful negotiation of the space between the extremes of chernukha and kliukva, the problematic negotiation of visual and narrative associations that has been faced by the Russian film industry since the early 1990s. As Russian directors continue their negotiation of how to represent, narratively and iconically, the life of the nation in a way that allows the citizens of that nation to recognize themselves (or desired selves) on screen, and thus have a reason to pay money to see Russian films, a central question for analysts of those representations will remain: Is the Russian Self invisible except when contrasted with a non-Russian Other? Although this was the topic of a previous Russian Film Symposium (2003's Arrogance and Envy), it is still an operative and open question, and one that is relevant to the current Symposium.

Traveling with Pets

If the first film screened at this year's Symposium, Aleksandr Mindadze's Soar (Otryv, 2007), was an exercise in complexity, elusive causes and effects, and constant onscreen dialogue, the third film, Vera Storozheva's Traveling with Pets (Puteshestvie s domashnimi zhivotnymi, 2007), has been called by Robyn Citizen “a meditative wisp of a film” and by Anita Uzulniece“transparent” and “simple, like a watercolor.” To complete the contrast, Storozheva's film has no dialogue at all for the first twelve of its 97 minutes, and words are sparse throughout. The plot is as linear as the train tracks that dominate the mise-en-scène : Natal'ia is a 34-year-old woman who was sold at age 16 to her husband—to whom she refers only as “master” (khoziain)—by the orphanage where she grew up. The khoziain is a strelochnik, a railroad switchman, and he and his wife/slave live in a trackside shack at a remote whistle stop. This symbol of transition is one of the many moments where Storozheva relies on the visual plane to metaphorize Natal'ia's experiences and perceptions. Her narrative arc begins when her husband keels over dead while selling milk to a passing train. Let me point out an oversight in most reviews of this film, which would have us believe that it begins with the khoziain's death and Natal'ia's subsequent realization of her newfound freedom. They ignore the film's actual beginning: Natal'ia and her cow, Shalava, are walking along the tracks when Natal'ia is distracted by a floating object, which she begins to chase. Her attempts to catch it are shot from the perspective of the object, which gives Storozheva and her cinematographer, Oleg Lukichev, the opportunity for an extended portrait of Natal'ia en face, in an act of urgent desire that is purely abstract and subjective until she catches the object (a red balloon in the shape of a mouse or cat) and it is finally revealed. Only then to we have the death scene, after which Natal'ia begins to transform her surroundings and herself. She discards her dead, unloved, unloving husband's things as if they are “rotten cabbage leaves” (Leonova). The spectrum and style of her clothing go through a series of symbolic changes: from sexless grey, to black for the funeral, to brown, red, gold, and finally blue. She trades her cow for a goat named Bertha and picks up a stray dog she names Koshchei—the “pets” referred to in the title.

Consumer culture and popular culture are certainly not prominent here, as they are in many or even most films in the current age of glamur, but they have a quiet presence in Storozheva's film. Natal'ia buys new clothes, a mirror in which she examines her body and seemingly rediscovers the fact that she is a woman. She decorates the shack with magazine cutouts of Elton John, Harry Potter, and other famous faces. She even buys a flat-screen television, a decision that affects the narrative, when she realizes that she wants a child after seeing a diaper commercial. She meets two men who influence her spiritual and physical awakening, respectively: an orthodox priest and a young truck driver (played by Dmitrii Diuzhev, who himself plays an Orthodox monk in another one of this year's Symposium films, Pavel Lungin's The Island [Ostrov, 2006]). Having been stunted as a person for 18 years, Natal'ia goes through a kind of crash course of the sacraments—literal and otherwise—of life. She rides a carnival swing carousel, grinning like a child (a scene that, along with the introduction of a television to a rural setting and the protagonist's desire for a child, connects this film with Nikita Mikhalkov's Close to Eden [Urga, 1991]). The truck driver becomes her lover. She wears a wedding dress at one point. She goes to church, as Leonova puts it, the first time out of obligation (her husband's funeral), the second time for herself. And most importantly, she builds herself a new family from scratch: the goat, the dog, the mouse/cat balloon, and, finally, a child she adopts from the same orphanage from which she herself was “sold like a slave” to the switchman at age 16.

This story of reconstructed family in the wake of a watershed event has been called a parable (for instance, in Elena Monastireva-Andsell's excellent review) and is my segue into a broader, extrinsic consideration of the film. Some questions: Is Storozheva's lyrical portrayal of individual consciousness and self-consciousness and collective-formation mappable onto analogous processes going on in Russia today? What are the elements, the “shards of meaning,” to use Peter Brooks' term, that Natal'ia collects for use in the construction of her new self and her new life? How are we to look at Traveling with Pets through the lens of this year's topic, or in other words, in what ways is this film “under Putin”?

Instead of a Conclusion: Fodder

By way of posing “agenda items” for collective consideration at the first roundtable of this year's Symposium, I want to point out two recurring motifs I have detected in recent Russian films, one rather broad and one quite specific.

The first is the prevalence of rural and provincial chronotopes, which strikes me as a significant contrast with prevailing trends of the 1990s and even early 2000s. Films that exemplify this “bucolic tendency” include Gennadii Sidorov's Little Old Ladies (Starukhi, 2003), Dmitrii Meskhiev's Our Own (Svoi, 2004), most of Il'ia Khrzhanovskii's 4 (2004), Andrei Zviagintsev's The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003), Aleksandr Sokurov's Taurus (Telets, 2000) and Mother and Son (Mat' i syn, 1996), Ivan Vyrypaev's Euphoria (Eiforiia, 2006), Boris Khlebnikov's Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006), Denis Naimand's Junk (Zhest', 2006), Pavel Lungin's Roots (Bednye rodstvenniki, 2005) and The Island, and Storozheva's Traveling with Pets .

The second image is perhaps a subcategory of the first: films in which the final scene features a boat, usually a rowboat, and usually on open water. There is a surprising number of films that use this image, including Euphoria, Free Floating, Roots, The Island, and Traveling with Pets. One could even add Sokurov's Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002) to this list. My questions for the Symposium sotsium : what are the symbolisms of this type of transport and this type of movement through space? How does the image compare to the troikas, trains, tractors, tanks, etc. in which Soviet film characters (and indeed, fictional Russians for at least three centuries) commonly moved?

Seth Graham
University College London


1] In 2002 psychology professor Richard Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, set out to determine the funniest joke in the world. He set up a website where people could submit and rate jokes, and more than 40,000 jokes were submitted and voted on, eventually registering over 2 million votes.

2] From Cahiers du cinema.

3] On national identity in post-Soviet Russian film, see Beumers and McCausland.

4] Available online, scroll down to “Culture and the Arts.” .

Works Cited

Beumers, Brigit, ed. Russia on Reels: The Russian Idea in Post-Soviet Cinema. London: I.B. Tauris, 1999.

Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination:Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

Citizen, Robyn. “Travelling with Pets.” Cinemaattraction (24 January 2008).

Graham, Seth. “Chernukha and Russian Film.” Studies in Slavic Cultures 1 (2000): 9-27.

Leonova, Evgeniia. “Po zhenskoi linii.” Seans (23 November 2007).

McCausland, Gerald. “The Post Soviet Condition: Cultural Reconfigurations of Russian Identity.” Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Pittsburgh, 2007.

Monastireva-Ansdell. “One Size Does Not Fit All: Trains, Fashions, Mammals, and the Meaning of Life in Vera Storozheva's Traveling with Pets .” KinoKultura 19 (January 2008).

Smirnova, Olga. The Putin Project.

Uzulniece, Anita. “The (Cinematic) State of the (Former Soviet) Union.” FIPRESCI. Festival Reports. Moscow 2007.

Wiseman, Richard. LaughLab.

Seth Graham © 2008

Comment on this article via the Forum


Updated: 13 Jul 08