KinoKultura: Issue 30 (2010)

The Self and the Other in Recent Russian Cinema

By Birgit Beumers (U of Bristol)

The sociologist Lev Gudkov (2004) has argued that an identity is usually constituted by reference to the Other, usually an enemy; he further argues that the victim complex is the result of the traumatic experience of the Soviet past. This self-perception is projected onto the way in which Russians are seen in world cinema (see Beumers 2008). Although the passivity and inertia that Gudkov attributes to the victim complex have been manifest in Russian culture even before the twentieth century—one only needs to think of the “Russian idea” with its submissive and aggressive elements, associating the east with passivity and the west with activity [1]—Gudkov’s point here is about a nation that has publicly and emotionally not come to terms with certain aspects of Soviet history. Thus, whilst parades mark the anniversaries of WWII with memorial celebrations that remember those who lost lives, no remembrance ceremonies have commemorated the victims of Stalinism.

For Gudkov, the victim complex is a mechanism that allows man to compensate for a lack of self-respect and self-esteem; it justifies general fatigue as the result of the ruling power’s coercion of man into action; it prevents man from turning plans into action, indeed it exempts the victim from action; it is a defense against an active Other that becomes the enemy, because it may coerce the victim into action (Gudkov 98-102): “The victim complex works like a mechanism purifying the subject of possible action from any defects and relieving it from deficiencies, from a sense of inadequacy or loss. Instead, it endows the subject with latent and potential qualities that cannot be tested against reality, cannot be realized, cannot translate into action” (Gudkov 101-2).

Gudkov’s argument that the victim complex is symptomatic of post-Soviet Russia even to a larger extent than of the Soviet era is connected to the lack of responsibility that the Soviet individual traditionally carried for his actions: “The victim complex is a perversion of personal initiative” (Gudkov 108). Therefore, the victim complex characterizes Russia’s self-perception, and strips the image of Russian-ness of the pseudo-confidence with which Soviet ideology endowed its citizens by claiming achievements, notably in the space and arms race, and in the victory over fascism in WWII.

The “victim” complex is a specific very effective mechanism of giving oneself a value […] it is not just and not only a compensation mechanism for an infected an hurt mass consciousness, but a mechanism that structures […] the perception of reality as seen by the individual as well as the masses. The sensation of the self as victim precedes the appearance of a concrete “aggressor.” […] It is born in answer to a vaguely felt deficit of gratification, the basis for the individual’s self esteem… (Gudkov, 98-9, emphasis in the original)

euphoriaActivity is thus not only associated with the Other, but it makes that Other a potential enemy. Action is a negative quality for a Russian character, so that the active and decisive hero becomes in the best-case scenario a negative character: Valera in Ivan Vyrypaev’s Euphoria (Eiforiia, 2006) serves as an example of the (negative) active character, whose definiteness about action contrasts with the undecided movements—in the open space of the steppe and in their relationship—of his wife Vera and her lover Pavel, or Pakha. In the worst-case scenario, the active character turns into a criminal, a character who mainly achieves his goals through action and is thereby eliminated from the circle of “ours,” those who share the victim complex and becomes marginalized or excluded from the group of “ours” into “theirs” (Gudkov 106).

The concept of the enemy is therefore intrinsically linked to the victim-complex. The enemy, or Other, is needed for self-affirmation, and to endow the victim with an explanation for the suffering. The enemy also justifies the status quo of the victim, because the enemy is the Other which the victim does not want to be (Gudkov 555-556). The enemy concept, argues Gudkov, mobilizes group solidarity, which is needed at times of chaotic, pluralistic developments (e.g. in the 1930s the focus on the enemy of the people, and later on the external enemy served Stalin’s regime to consolidate power).

In the early 1990s, as the political world order collapsed, countries were in want of a new enemy. The Chechen campaign enabled the Russian people to unite as a nation vis-à-vis a new enemy, albeit one that had been a part of the former, Soviet, multi-national self. In Russian cinema of the late 1990s the perception of Russians as victims of social circumstance gradually gave way to a manifestation of assertiveness over the Other, usually identified as enemy. No longer perceiving Russia as an enemy, European and American cinema readily adopted the victim concept which saw Russia as a loser, as a country that had failed to realize the communist dream and that failed in action.

Historical films, too, began to change their perception of the enemy as a fellow-sufferer, as is evident in particular in films about WWII, such as Aleksei A. German’s The Last Train (Poslednii poezd, 2003); the Russian soldier is no longer only the triumphant hero who fought fascism, but also a victim of his own system, as in the television serial Penal Battalion (Shtrafbat, dir. Nikolai Dostal’, 2004). A further aspect to be noted is that the victim readily admits to being a victim and actually relishes in this status: the victim has already lost the game and therefore never surrenders to the enemy, but only admits its own defeat. Cinema shows the hero in pursuit of a lost cause, against all odds, and despite having been let down by the State. This role of Russians as victims equips the Russian character with a degree of superiority over the Other: the Russian in American movies may be the laughing stock of American audiences, but Russian audiences perceive the determination of the hero fighting a lost battle—not for the sake of an ideal but for the sake of confirming his moral superiority.

stilyagaRecent cinema revises this view where the Other (usually an enemy) serves as a negative template for the definition of identity. Otherness no longer resides outisde, in an enemy, but it is internal; the enemy is no longer a foreigner, but either part of the aleinated Self. In the first instance, a number of recent films set in the Soviet past have revised the concept of Otherness: Otherness may manifest itself, for example, in the underground movements of the Soviet era that strove for an alternative way of life to distinguish themselves from officialdom or mainstream culture. Thus, Valerii Todorovskii’s Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008) reviews the stilyagi of the 1950s as a group of people protesting against uniformity. Their quest for plurality is met only in present-day Russia, which allows genuine diversity and multi-culturedness, as the film culminates in an ever-growing group of young people strolling down Tverskaia Street and uniting Mels, the film’s stilyaga hero of the 1950s, with modern-day punks, dandies, and hippies.

The film’s style with its close ups and crane shots, musical interludes and colorful dresses—that could never have been captured on Soviet color film stock so brightly—deliberately sets itself apart from the style of the period to underline the fake quality of the historical setting, thus emphasizing the film’s performative nature. The music draws on popular hits of the early 1990s, from Bravo to Nautilus Pompilius, thus collapsing the values of the Thaw with those of glasnost and perestroika, an era that Todorovskii clearly knows first-hand. Thus, for example, the musical form undermines any serious ideological concern of the time: songs are used both for the portrayal of the stilyagi and the komsomol, ridiculing the komsomol as a dull chorus which accuses Mels of disloyalty to Stalin by dropping the S in his name when he turns into the stilyaga Mel. On the other hand Fred, the son of a diplomat, enjoys a liberal regime at home, but when his father makes him choose between being a stilyaga and a career as a diplomat with a posting in the US, Fred immediately relinquishes his stilyaga antics.

Mels remains a loyal friend throughout and almost returns to normalcy when he supports his girlfriend Polza and her black child, conceived in a one-night-stand she had with a negro visiting Moscow – for the sake of exoticism and the encounter with Otherness. The reference to Grigorii Aleksandrov’s The Circus (Tsirk, 1934) is all too obvious: Marion Dixon and her black child were integrated into the Soviet collective of the circus audience. Polza, too, becomes an average Soviet mother, concerned with the child and household chores rather than her outfits. For Mels, the stilyaga ideals are shattered when Fred tells him that nobody dresses and behaves like the stilyaga in the US and they would all stick out in the crowd – even on Broadway. Otherness is an invention, a myth. The finale of the film sings a song of praise to the present—rather than the past. This Otherness is exposed as a mere soap bubble and an illusion in the 1950s; it is possible only now, in present-day Moscow, on Tverskaia Street. In this sense, the film debunks the stilyaga myth as an illusion and shows the time and place for genuine variety as the Moscow of today, playing into the hands of liberal and democratic ideologies. 

vanished empireKaren Shakhnazarov’s Vanished Empire (Ischeznuvshaia imperiia, 2008) focuses on the sub-culture of the young generation of the 1970s and its involvement in the shadow economy. Vanished Empire explores the forbidden fruit of the era, but also the hope for love and a normal life, which the film denies them. Sergei comes from a family of archaeologists and turns to the east to find a value system that is lacking in contemporary Russia: he works on the excavation of the city of the winds, Khoresm. On the other hand, Kostia emigrates, without finding happiness abroad. The past of the 1970s is clearly staged (albeit not as obvious as in Stilyagi) and good things are remembered about the past. “Everything about the film’s mise-en-scène—the obsessive attention to period detail, the de-saturated color—appears bathed in the glowing light of nostalgia for late socialism, for childhood and youth” (Kaganovsky). Vanished Empire recollects the past with affection and nostalgia, while presenting two diametrically opposed solutions to the quest for Otherness which the film’s heroes experience in the 1970s: the withdrawal into spiritual solutions found in the east (archaeological interests), or in the satisfaction of material quests found through emigration to the west. Shakhnazarov suggests the discovery in Russia’s roots to lie in the cultures of the east and in ancient (not recent) history.

Sergei Solov’ev’s 2-ASSA-2 (2009) concludes the revision of the Soviet past with a review of the search for alternative ways of life as manifested by Bananan in ASSA (1987) and annihilated by the criminal system of the late Soviet era as represented by Andrei Krymov (Stanislav Govorukhin). In the post-Soviet these attempts at Otherness lead to the triumph of the criminal dynasty (in the figure of Krymov’s daughter, who now an oligarch living in Italy), and in the destruction of alternative lifestyles through those same criminal structures, thus offering a disillusioned and desperate diagnosis to the quest for diversity and change voiced by the last Soviet generation (in the figure of Viktor Tsoi and his song “We are waiting for change” (“My zhdem peremen”) at the end of ASSA. Alternatives may or may not be available for the now matured ‘dissidents’ of the Soviet era, but all the films discussed above confirm that the source of Otherness and the desire to be different originates precisely in the Soviet past. Thereby, the films seek to assert that difference or Otherness is not an exclusive characteristic of an external enemy or the Other who belongs to a different culture, but that Otherness has always been a constituent part of Soviet culture—whether it was suppressed or not.

Even more interesting is the approach on Otherness in the present, in contemporary Russia. On the one hand, a number of documentaries in particular have succinctly addressed the issue of the lack of acceptance of Others, whether these are gastarbeiter from the Caucasus and Central Asia—for example in Bakur Bakuradze’s short film Moskva (2006), or whether these are Jews—for example in the short film The Billboard (Plakat, 2006)—where a billboard with the words “Death to the Jews” (“Smert’ zhidam”) is placed at the side of a motorway while the camera captures the indifference of those who drive past—except a woman who stops to trash the board and who is blown up by a booby-trap bomb attached to it. Both films were, incidentally, shown at the festival kinoteatr.doc, which has served as a platform for many new or emerging filmmakers and scriptwriters. On the other hand, a growing number of films diagnose a different problem: the lack of identity that apparently leads to the negation of anything different or Other (racism), or else the absence of the Self that makes the Other necessary to define an identity, but may lead to the subsequent destruction of the Other (the negation of the template in order to assert the originality and uniqueness of the Self).

I have already mentioned the Otherness within a group in Ivan Vyrypaev’s Euphoria, where Valera stands out as a character who acts, and through his action releases his criminal energies. Vera and Pavel are gripped by passion: their emotions, pure or not, make them act differently as they surrender almost passively to their fate. Otherness from the group excludes them as much as Valera and destroys them. Yet Euphoria only lightly touches on the theme of Otherness. One could here go list a range of recent films and explore their use of Otherness. However, it would seem more fruitful here to focus on two recent films, both of which were made in 2008 by filmmakers who represent new voices in modern Russian cinema: Kirill Serebrennikov’s Yuriev Day (Iur’ev Den’, 2008) and Bakur Bakuradze’s Shultes.

yurievYuriev Day is a much debated film, and attracted diverse and diametrically opposed responses when shown in competition of the Kinotavr festival in June 2008. In April 2009 the film was shown on Aleksandr Gordon’s Closed Screening (Zakrytyi pokaz) where most critics attacked or defended the representation of the Russian provinces and determined as central theme the issue of the people versus the intelligentsia. Both sets of approaches stimulated the discussion, which was further heated by the subsequent debate triggered by Anya Shalashova’s comments on the internet about the payment made to the audience of Zakrytyi pokaz for expressing certain views during the discussion; the insults directed at Ksenia Rappoport are hardly worthy of any serious response. I am interested here in the search for the Self and therefore concentrate on a slightly different set of themes suggested by the film. Rappoport’s heroine Liubov’ Pavlovna is an opera diva with engagements at the most prestigious opera houses of the world: she has a unique and famed voice. In this characteristic alone, she contrasts with the traditional Russian image of meekness and subordination to a leading voice; she contradicts the typical features of Russianness defined by Gudkov: submissiveness, a sense of being the victim, and acceptance of her lot. Her return to her native village is a return to her roots, and a return to what Russia has to offer in terms of identity. Of course, when she travels there she intends to visit Yuriev and leave; however, it is the loss of her child that makes it impossible for her to leave the place of her son’s disappearance. This psychological trauma triggers a series of acts that stand in sharp contrast to what an opera diva with wide-ranging experience might do in her situation. She tries to find her son and find herself: her Self, lost with the disappearance of her son as a figure who confirms her existence. She searches for her identity, having been severed from her previous life first by the loss of her family, then by the loss of her voice. It is this voice—individual, marked, expressive—which is an obstacle for her full merger into the collective. She undergoes self-debasement (sleeping with the police chief), loss of her own personal appearance (dying her hair), self-humiliation (serving and washing the prisoners), and finally surrenders her voice as individual to the chorus of the collective. She destroys in herself everything that made her different from the others, the people of her village. She destroys the Other which has taken over her Self as opera singer—to return to what?

yuriev denI suggest that it is precisely this return, which complicates the reading. The village of Yuriev is life-less. The local kremlin is deserted; the village life is dominated by alcoholism and domestic violence. Religion —after the religious revival of the late 1980s and 1990s often presented as a source of inspiration and comfort—here offers no solution either. The priest is interested in the restoration of his church and material pursuits keep him on the mobile phone even when blessing visitors: his belief appears false. The choir sings in a monotonous voice, lacking devotion and conviction, while its conductor is shown from camera angles which suggest psychological deviation, if not madness, that stems from an obsession with religious service in the absence of any other meaning or meaningful aspect of life in Yuriev. Thus, not unlike Aleksei Balabanov’s conclusion in Cargo 200 (Gruz 200) where the church can offer no comfort to the professor and the visit is a mere formality, here, too, religion offers no salvation. Therefore, the film leaves the heroine in search for her Self which has been annihilated by a trauma; she can neither return to her roots nor to her profession; there is no salvation in spiritual values or in materialism, neither in eastern values not western ones. It is this hopelessness that would seem to lie at the heart of the controversy over the film, usually articulated through a critique of the bleak portrayal of Russian provincial life. But is appears to be the impossibility to deny Russians to find an identity that constitutes the film’s despairing and bleak finale. Having suffered a trauma, Liubov’ Pavlovna effaces her Self, including all the western allures of an opera diva (the former function of the external enemy—the spy, the German, or an ethnic minority) and discovers—nothing. Her past is as false (a created role, a mask) as her martyrdom for the collective. Neither path leads to a solution of her (and by extension Russia’s) identity crisis. Indeed, if we follow through this interpretation to its logical conclusion, a connection can be made to Serebrennikov’s earlier film, Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zhertvu, 2006) Here too the main character, Valia, enacts a series of roles (as crime victim) in order to have a face and hide the fact that he has no identity of his own. He can only construct an identity by imitating the criminal action that creates him as the victim (the murderer who creates for him a role that he can play). His identity, too, is a lie, as it is composed of a series of masks that help him live in the illusion of having a face. Yet the various roles of victims alone cannot forge an identity, and therefore Valia himself turns to criminal action—negating the victim complex as Russian characteristic and defining himself by relation to an enemy (the murder victim) which is a fake (false mask) of his (former) Self. 

shultesBakuradze’s debut film Shultes (2008) in many ways scrutinises this issue of forging an identity—national or other—and takes this search to a logical conclusion. The film’s hero Lesha Shultes suffers from amnesia after a trauma: he and his wife/girlfriend have been in a car accident after which she died. Unable to come to terms with the loss (and in analogy to the fate of Liubov’ Pavlovna in Yuriev Day) he warps himself in his memory loss: Shultes suffers from a severe form of amnesia, which effaces his past Self. Forced to forge a new identity from scratch, he finds himself unable to do so and lives parallel lives. Through Kostia, the teenage delinquent whom he chooses as his partner for his job as a pickpocket, becomes his chief aide: Lesha has no memory and cannot even remember his home. His emotional memory is stirred by a Serbian girl, whom he mugs and whom he recognizes when she is brought into the hospital in a coma while Lesha visits his friend, a doctor. It is through parallels to her emotional life—she is happy with a man, who looses her through an accident—that he realizes his loss, which lies at the root of his inability to engage with others. His identity is blank: he has no emotions, no hatred, and acts only by instinct. Through the emotions of other Shultes remembers his emotional life of the past. When he foresees his death at the hands of gangsters, it is the death of his empty shell, as his emotions and his will to live have long been lost. The loss of identity through a trauma can be transferred onto Russia and its people—stripped of a sense of who they are. Used to defining their identity by reference to an Other, an enemy, in the absence of such an enemy Russians fail to forge an identity and are annihilated as a nation with an identity.

In this bleak diagnosis of Russia’s failure to forge an identity, Serebrennikov and Bakuradze share common ground. They both portray characters who have to overcome the Otherness that resides within their Selves: unite and harmonize or annihilate this Otherness are options, but none seems to offer a satisfactory solution. The path of defining the Self through action (as offered in western philosophies) seems (still) to be closed to for the Russian character.

Birgit Beumers
University of Bristol


1] The ‘Russian idea’ is a concept promoted by Vladimir Soloviev (1888) and Nikolai Berdiaev (1946) that sees the role of Russia as one bridging Europe and Asia, east and west, thus resolving the tension dominant in the 19th century between Slavophiles and Westernisers.

Works Cited

Beumers, Birgit, “Through the other lens? Russians on the global screen,” in Stephen Hutchings (ed.), Russia and its other(s) on film: Screening intercultural dialogue, London: Palgrave, 2008, pp. 166-83.

Gudkov, Lev. “Kompleks ‘zhertvy’,” and “Ideologema ‘vraga’,”, in Negativnaia identichnost’, Moscow: NLO, 2004, pp. 83-120 and 552-649.

Kaganovsky, Lilya, Review of "Vanished Empire", Kinokultura 22 (2008) 

Birgit Beumers © 2010

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Updated: 07 Oct 10