Issue 30 (2010)

Oleg Dorman: Word for Word Translation (Podstrochnik 2009)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski © 2010

lunginaLilianna (Lilya) Lungina (née Markovich; 1920-98), the wife of the theatre director and script writer Semen Lungin and the mother of the film directors Pavel and Evgenii Lungin, was a renowned translator from German, French, Norwegian and Swedish (among others, she translated into Russian works by Friedrich Schiller, Gerhart Hauptmann, Heinrich Böll, Max Frisch, Boris Vian, Astrid Lindgren, as well as Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg). The daughter of Zinovyi Markovich, a medium-rank Bolshevik functionary, and Maria (Manya) Liberson, an educationist and theatre entrepreneur, Lilya was born in Smolensk but, because of her father’s job transfers, moved to Berlin at the age of five and to France at the age of ten, visiting relatives in British-mandate Palestine in the meantime, and returning to the USSR for good in 1934. Educated at a number of renowned institutions, including the Lycée Victor Duruy in Paris, the experimental school No. 1 of the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment in Moscow, the MIFLI (Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History) and—for her postgraduate studies—the Institute of World Literature in Moscow (the Academy of Sciences), she worked as a journalist at the Moskovskii komsomolets, Komsomolskaia pravda and Znamia kommunizma newspapers (the latter was published in the Tatar town of Naberezhnye Chelny, where Lilya and Manya were evacuated during World War II), taught French at VOKS (All-Russia Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries) and eventually became a member of the Translators Section of the Soviet Writers’ Union. In 1990, in collaboration with the journalist Claude Kiejman, Lilya published a French account of her life, under the title of Les saisons de Moscou: 1933-1990 (Paris: Plon). The readers of Elle magazine called it the best non-fictional book of the year.

On 6-9 July 2009, in four late night installments, the Rossiia television channel broadcast a seven-hour long documentary Word for Word Translation (Podstrochnik) by Oleg Dorman, Semen Lungin’s former student, telling the story of Lilya’s life more or less in her own words (the bulk of the material was recorded as a seven-day interview in February 1997, when she was still alive). The film was promptly hailed as the most important broadcasting event of the year, and received a prize from Russian television critics ‘for a breakthrough of individuality onto the [small] screen, and the magic of a unique voice (intonatsiia)’ in September 2009; the Lavr (Laurel) prize, awarded to documentary films, for the best documentary TV series, in December 2009; and a prize of the Stalker film festival, which focuses on the human rights issues, “for dignity, decency and spirituality (intelligentnost’), preserved throughout the XX century,” received on behalf of the Lungin family by Pavel and Evgeny Lungin (also in December 2009). A full transcript of Dorman’s interviews with Lungina (only two thirds of which have actually been included in the film) was released as a book, also called Podstrochnik, by the Astrel’/Corpus publishing house, and its sales so far have reportedly exceeded the average print run for non-fiction in Russia, currently estimated at about 2000 copies, by at least ten times.

The success story does not end here, however. In a slightly different format (fourteen 26 minute long installments plus one final 43 minute long episode), Word for Word was broadcast again, on 1-26 February 2010, this time by the Kul’tura television channel. All this came after years and years of refusals, first, to requests for funding to complete the additional shooting and the final editing, and second, to approaches about broadcasting the finished product, made by Dorman to virtually every major Russian TV channel, from national to cable. It took Dorman eleven years to complete the film and one more year to find a channel that would air it. This struggle even prompted Dorman’s public refusal to accept a Russian Television Academy (TEFI) prize in September 2010, because there were people personally responsible for Podstrochnik’s delays among the Academy founders, members and jury (see Lapteva and Livsi). Dorman’s difficulties with securing a financial backer and a broadcaster are perfectly understandable, given that, for the most part, the film consists of lengthy shots of a “talking head,” infrequently interrupted by frames of the places that Lungina went to, as well as family photographs and scenes from her husband’s films,[1] and bearing in mind that, although Lungina had a reasonably eventful life, she was little known outside the Moscow intellectual and artistic circles (and remained “anonymous” to the millions of Russian readers of Lindgren’s children books in Lungina’s translations). According to Dorman’s interview to Radio Liberty of 6 July 2009, a typical reaction of the TV executives to his demo could be summarized as follows: “we watched it at home, my family got excited, my wife cried, my children laughed—[but] the viewers won’t be interested.” As the publisher of the book version of Word for Word, Sergei Parkhomenko, put it in his blog, it seemed that “the film about Lungina would not be wanted even if someone decided to pay a TV channel for its broadcast”. It took celebrity intervention to get it screened: the author of popular detective novels Boris Akunin watched the film, liked it and recommended it to the influential TV journalist Leonid Parfenov, who also became a champion of Word for Word and passed it on to Sergei Shumakov, producer general of the Rossiya TV channel at the time. Shumakov and his boss Oleg Dobrodeev decided to accept the film and show it to the public.

Word for Word’s limited appeal was obvious to the TV executives from the outset. In his interview to the Literaturnaia gazeta newspaper of 21 October 2009, Shumakov said that the film portrays “a very narrow circle of people, who lived not merely within the boundaries of the Garden Ring [delineating the centre of Moscow], but [even more specifically] on Arbat Street. It was not altogether clear if these people knew what was happening outside their circle.”

lungina bookMoreover, Lungina’s autobiographical monologue, arranged chronologically, did not reveal anything particularly new beyond the details of her private life. At school she studied with the poet David Samoilov, the cultural historian Georgii Knabe and the historian Anatolii Cherniaev, who went on to become Gorbachev’s assistant. At the MIFLI, she knew the war poets Pavel Kogan and Sergei Narovchatov. None of these people, however, is, strictly speaking, a household name. She was also on friendly terms with Aleksandr Tvardovskii and Evgenii Evtushenko, but all we learn of the former is that he got drank on vodka after reading the manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and vowed to go as far as Khrushchev, if necessary, to obtain permission for its publication; and of the latter, that his attire made him look like a firebird and he was full of himself. None of this qualifies as sensational.

Aesthetically, Word for Word is also unprepossessing, to say the least. Its austere style has made the critic Iurii Bogomolov exclaim: “Where is visual expressiveness? Why are the attempts at reconstruction and memorable cuts (ostrye montazhnye styki) not there?” (Bogomolov). Yet the film, paradoxically, succeeds in retaining the attention of the viewer precisely by defying the basic strategies for doing so. According to Shumakov, “Two minutes into someone’s speech, when it is shown on TV, the viewer gets bored and wants to see something else, even if the speaker has a silver tongue. Word for Word is inexplicably different, though: Lungina’s enunciation and tone of voice mesmerise you, and you cannot take your eyes off the screen” (Al’perina and Naralenkova).[2]

Although Dorman believes that Podstrochnik might well appear unusual (because Lungina is quite a unique person),[3] the film’s structure is strongly reminiscent of Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary (Im toten Winkel: Hitlers Sekretärin, 2002) by the Austrian filmmakers Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer. This documentary is based on interviews with Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s last private secretaries, and consists of little more than a sequence of shots of Frau Junge talking. It may, of course, have remained unknown to Dorman. Its main differences from Word for Word are that the Austrian documentary is only 90 minutes long and that Frau Junge is dressed differently in different scenes of Blind Spot, because Heller and Schmiderer came to see and film her more than once (Lungina wears the same dress throughout, for continuity’s sake, which, incidentally, indicates the preponderance of deliberate design over apparent spontaneity in Dorman’s direction). Still, Blind Spot produces an effect not dissimilar to that of Word for Word, although, unlike Lungina, Frau Junge is interesting not so much in her own right, but because she stayed in close proximity to Hitler during his last weeks and hours and has an insider’s story to tell. Indeed, the crowd-pulling credentials of Blind Spot were deemed sufficient enough to warrant its cinematic release,[4] and it was later used as a partial source for the German-Austrian feature film Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004; dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel). By contrast, Dorman, who was trained as a feature film director by the famous Marlen Khutsiev, contemplated a feature film about Lungina but rejected the idea, because, as he said in his interview to Radio Liberty of 6 July 2009, it would have been impossible to find an actress who could imitate Lungina.

If Lungina could not say much about the famous people she knew; if her own life, adventurous as it may have been, could not really be termed heroic;[5] if she was neither a media personality, nor a popular actress nor singer, what made many viewers look forward to yet another episode of the Lungina saga—not to speak of the consummate professionals from Dorman’s film crew, who reportedly forgot all about their normal work obligations when filming the interviews and started interrupting Lungina to ask further questions and to exchange their own stories with her?

“They suddenly saw the truth right in front of them,” Dorman explains in his above-quoted Radio Liberty interview. Yet Lungina’s narration is not free from factual inaccuracies. Thus, she claims that a friend of her father’s, the chess player Emanuel Lasker, a world champion who fled to the Soviet Union from Nazism, left the USSR for the USA after the arrest of his Bolshevik patron, People’s Commissar for Justice Nikolai Krylenko, whereas in fact the arrest took place after Lasker’s departure. Lungina also states that her friend, the French anthropologist Jean-Pierre Vernant, left the French Communist party shortly after the 1964 Soviet trial of the poet Joseph Brodsky, whereas this apparently happened only in 1969.[6]

It is hard to deny the irresistibility of Lungina’s mode of narration, which generates what might be termed a “Scheherazade effect.” In the opinion of the cameraman Vadim Iusov, who used to work on some of Andrei Tarkovskii’s productions, and filmed the interviews with Lungina, “She possesses a great charm, a colossal erudition and a phenomenal memory. Most importantly, she is full of communicative energy and knows how to keep her audience’s attention. Her narration is permeated with the logic of art, not life. […] She was a master of literary translation, after all” (Tsvetkova and Berchenko).

The importance of Lungina’s function as a cultural mediator should not be underestimated either. She was someone who not only knew several European languages and acted as a translator, but had a long personal experience of life in Western Europe, which may have ultimately precluded her from adjusting fully to the worst Soviet values.[7] Lungina’s individualist Western upbringing, with its emphasis on a personal ethical responsibility, might well have contributed to her ability “to live in a [Communist] hell and not to become contaminated by its darkness” (Kucherskaia). Although Lungina does not position herself as a role model, it can be said that her behavior in a number of situations (such as publicly protesting in the late 1930s against an automatic expulsion of children of the “enemies of the people” from the Young Communist League) does set an example. In the opinion of one viewer, “People like Lungina are extremely rare, of course, but they do exist and […] we should be able to see them and hear them […] to empathize, think and make a decision about our own situation” (Sotnikov).

Characteristically, Lungina’s monologue never turns into a sermon. Moreover, it invariably stimulates an imaginary dialogue with the audience and an impression that Lungina’s thought is being born right “in front of the audience’s eyes, which is, of course, eye-catching” (Zaslavskii). In her interview to the Ekho Moskvy radio station of 13 December 2009, the film critic Natal’ia Basina claims that this has become possible because Word for Word reflected Lungina’s conversations with Dorman, a friend, who understood her very well, being someone she respected and trusted. Although Dorman’s part was excised from Word for Word, the film looks as if Lungina communicates through Dorman with a really wide circle of friends. One critic expressed this apparently quite common sentiment as follows: “[Today], as I was getting up in the morning, a thought crossed my mind: This evening, [Lungina] and I will see each other again and have a chat. How wonderful!” (Mel’man)

With Lungina having been deceased for a dozen years and her monologue comparable to a light emanating from a dead star, there is a tangible finality to her personal story and to the epoch it represents.[8] This also contributes to Word for Word’s attraction. Shumakov likened the impact of Lungina’s narration to a resurfacing of Atlantis. In his interview to the Izvestiia newspaper of 6 July 2009, he says:

For me, [Podstrochnik] is one of the first attempts to create an existential program on television. This is a Russian version of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, albeit in oral form, but similarly epic in its depiction of the XX century. […] The story is based on the private life of a specific person. There is no ideological agenda […] and it is not judgmental. This is the everyday experience of a little girl, [who later becomes] a young lady, a woman and [finally] an old age pensioner. She only talks about what she witnessed personally. […] And these particularities, ribbons, kisses, tears and resentments suddenly transform into a gigantic fresco.

This statement sheds light on a very significant, perhaps even crucial reason for Lungina’s unexpected breakthrough onto the national television, because it recognizes her indispensable role as an elderly female witness. It is common knowledge that in Russia, women live longer than men (currently, the average life expectancy for a man is 59 years, while for women it is 73). This trend can of course be also observed in many other countries, but in Russia the gap between the life expectancy of men and women is widening. In pre-revolutionary Russia, the gap had amounted to only two years in women’s favour. In the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, it was more than seven years. Now it reportedly constitutes almost 14 years.[9] In other words, if the younger generation in Russia wants a lesson in history—coming not from a book, or a classroom, or the media, but with a bit of a personal touch—they are likely to get it from women of their grand- or even great grandmother’s age, because their grandfathers (not to mention their great grandfathers) are, sadly, as a rule, not around any more.[10]

The relevance of the feminine gender of Word for Word’s central character did not pass unnoticed. Ivan Tolstoi, a Radio Liberty journalist, made the following comment in his program “Poverkh bar’erov” (Beyond the Limits):

Everything told from the screen by this woman, who had never wielded any power and enjoyed no protection, except for the authority of a truthful word, […] is astounding in its simplicity and purity. I have fallen in love with Lilianna Lungina. And I can see now that it would be fully justified to add such a clever, beautiful, conscientious and gifted person to the highly impressive list of Russian (rossiiskie) women that includes Lidia Chukovskaia, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Emma Gershtein, Lidia Ginsburg and Iulia Dobrovolskaia.” Sergei Shumakov has gone even further and, taking advantage of a widespread Russian cliché that identifies a female figure (usually of a child-bearing age) with the concept of Motherland, claimed that in Lungina he suddenly ‘saw a crystal clear, highly artistic, incredibly tragic and at the same time exceedingly jovial and distinctive (lichnostnyi) image of my Motherland.[11]

How can this be reconciled with the reaction of a typical television executive to Word for Word, as summarized by Sergei Parkhomenko: “Eight hours of screen time spent on an old female intellectual (pozhilaia intelligentnaia tetka)? […] So what if she is an engaging speaker? My grandmother could spin a yarn too – you would not want her to stop”.

A cynical view would posit that the change of perception was made possible by the fact that in the middle of a summer there had been virtually “no risk of a drop in the ratings: the season was over, and the viewers had fled. What do broadcasters [normally] do? They program either a low-quality product, or a high-brow one, for a select audience. The viewing figures would be roughly similar but the high-brow product would improve the [channel’s] reputation” (Bogomolov). An even more cynical view linked the appearance of Word for Word on the Rossiia channel with someone’s desire to give Pavel Lungin a present to commemorate his sixtieth birthday (which took place on 12 July 2009, i.e. three days after the end ofWord for Word’s first broadcast).[12] There are, however, other possible (additional) explanations.

It has to be admitted that even if a sponsor was found, the required additional shooting was completed and the film was broadcast while Lungina was still alive—or shortly after, i.e. in the late 1990s or in the early 2000s—it would hardly have made a similar impact in the context of the last years of Yeltsin’s chaos and the first years of Putin’s rule, when the audience’s attention was absorbed by much bigger and arguably more involving issues, such as the non-payment of wage arrears, the 1998 default, Yeltsin’s search for a presidential successor, the second Chechen war, the influence of the oligarchs, the Kursk submarine disaster, the struggle for ownership of the major TV companies, and so on and so forth. These days, when the Russian mass media are kept on a comparatively strict diet, it is somewhat easier for an individual voice to get noticed.

Also, Lungina, on the one hand, and Putin and Medvedev’s media, on the other, seem to project a similar viewpoint, which is purely coincidental, but must have helped Word for Word to obtain an airing. When comparing two great representatives of labor camp literature, Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, Lungina says that Solzhenitsyn enjoyed more success because his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was not as bleak as Shalamov’s stories, as the former wisely chose a relatively good day in the life of a convict, which made it sound hopeful and thus pleased the public that tends to prefer happy endings. Lungina’s own story can be said to have a happy ending too, as neither she nor her immediate family had been arrested, and both her husband and herself (not to speak of the next generation of the Lungins) did manage to make a fairly decent living on a freelance basis in the face of undeniable constant (often anti-Semitic) adversity. As she herself puts it, she won a lottery of sorts, and therefore she insists throughout the film, first, that difficult situations can unexpectedly be turned to one’s advantage, and second, that things could always take a turn for the worse.

One of Lungina’s distant childhood memories, before she even left Russia, is about begging her father at a market to buy a little white goat to take home with her. Mr Markovich cannot resist his daughter’s request. He buys the goat, brings her home and places it for a few days under his desk, much to the horror of his neighbors in the large communal flat where the Markovich family stayed at the time. I do not know if Lungina was aware of an old Jewish parable about a Jew with a large family, who came to a rabbi to complain about the unbearable life in his overcrowded house, and the rabbi told him to buy a goat and to keep it on the premises together with the family. The Jew was surprised but followed the rabbi’s advice. Several days later he came to see the rabbi again. “Did it get any better?,” asked the rabbi. “No,” said the Jew, “in fact, it got worse.” “Now,” said the rabbi, “you can take the goat outside.” The moral of this parable is, of course, that there is no point in complaining about the present because the future might turn out to be even worse.

This also summarizes neatly a logical conclusion of Lungina’s story, made on the basis of her personal experience. The part about not criticizing the present too much—either because the future might prove to be even worse or because some of the not so distant Russian past was undoubtedly much worse—is the message that the state-controlled Russian media want their audiences to hear. If such a message was coming out directly from the Russian government via television, the audiences might have doubted it. Owing to Lungina’s delivery, the message acquires the credibility it would have hardly had otherwise.[13] And this appears to be yet another reason why Word for Word has been broadcast.

Andrei Rogatchevski
University of Glasgow

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum


1] Such as Warrant Officer Panin (Michman Panin, 1960; dir. Mikhail Shveitser) and Welcome, or No Unauthorised Entry (Dobro pozhalovat’, ili Postoronnym vkhod vospreschchen, 1964; dir. Elem Klimov).

2] This might signify that Russian audiences are growing tired of the video clip culture with its quick succession of different shots, preferred by modern television. As one critic put it, “a healthy old-fashioned style, coupled with competence (gramotnost’) and good taste, yields miraculous results, of which the recent Podstrochnik […] is an ample proof” (Barabash).

3] See his interview to the Izvestiia newspaper of 1 February 2010: “If I saw a film about such a person, as a viewer, I would have become insanely happy and would have been ready to live forever in a country full of people like her. […] For me, Lungina’s existence meant light, air and many other things which cannot be expressed by recourse to an even more complex metaphor.”

4] Junge’s memoirs have also been released in book form as Bis Zur Letzten Stunde: Hitlers Sekretärin erzählt ihr Leben (Munich: Claassen, 2002).

5] Shumakov relates some people’s objections to the choice of Lungina for a documentary film subject as follows: “In our country, with its tragic and unpredictable history, there are thousands of heroes. Why did they prefer Lungina? Could not they find anyone else?” (Al’perina and Naralenkova) Cf. also a critic’s unflattering comment on Lungina as Podstrochnik’s central character: “Today’s television is not interested in creative people, […] who have not lived in emigration and have not acted as dissidents in their own country, even though they might have fought at a war or have done more than their fair share of travelling” (Sergeeva).

6] Some mistakes, such as the authorship of a negative confidential review of Marina Tsvetaeva’s book of verse (under consideration by the Goslitizdat publishing house after Tsvetaeva’s return to the USSR), mistakenly ascribed by Lungina to David Zaslavsky instead of Kornely Zelinsky, have been corrected in the book version of Podstrochnik (see pp. 139-42). Others remained (e.g. a claim, made on p. 86, that in the early 1920s, in her house in Koktebel, Maria Voloshina had given shelter to members of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists supportive of Stepan Bandera, whereas OUN-B did not exist until 1940). For more factual errors in Lungina’s stories, see, for example, an interview with the Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn scholar Liudmila Saraskina in Literaturnaia gazeta of 29 July 2009.

7] Lungina believed that she was saved by “the impetus of free thinking, or whatever you call it, which I received during the years of my childhood spent abroad” (see the book version of Podstrochnik, p. 97).

8] In the late 1990s, Russian audiences would have hardly been ready for such a finality, because of an insufficient distance in time from the demise of the Soviet Union. As for Lungina herself, her own life was coming to an end, and she knew it.

9] See link. This is what Dorman has to say about little Lilya, the daughter of Evgenii Lungin, in his interview to Radio Liberty of 6 July 2009: “When I think that one day she will be able to look at her grandmother like that, [as shown in my film], I feel envy, because I have nothing left from either of my grandmothers.”

10] Dorman testifies that there is some demand for Podstrochnik among the youth. In his interview to the Ekho Moskvy radio station of 13 December 2009, he recalls how he overheard a conversation between two students of the Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) on a trolleybus when the series was being broadcast for the first time. One student said to another: “They showed some old granny (babka) on TV. I was already falling asleep but [woke up and] could not stop watching”.

11] One might wonder why someone would fall in love with a woman thirty eight years his senior, who had not even been alive for the past twelve years or so, and why someone else believes that a Jewess can symbolically represent his Russian Motherland. It looks as if Lungina’s overwhelming charisma has a great deal to answer for!

12] See Saraskina’s interview to Literaturnaia gazeta of 29 July 2009. Pavel Lungin was congratulated on his sixtieth birthday by Prime-Minister Putin. Incidentally, in Pavel Lungin’s view, “Podstrochnik is a revolutionary project. It is completely non-scandalous and anti-glamour. It is about the essence of what it means to be human (pro sushchnostnoe, pro chelovecheskoe)” (Izvestiia 6 July 2009).

13] Cf. a response to Word for Word, reportedly received by Evgenii Lungin from a young Russian woman, residing somewhere in Europe, via the Odnoklassniki (Classmates) social network: “Recently, I had such a miserable time that I wanted to end my life. […] Suddenly, I saw your mother on television. Believe me, I am neither hysterical nor insane. But I simply have to tell you that your mother has saved me” (cited by Dorman in his interview to Izvestiia 1 February 2010).

Works Cited

Al’perina, Susanna and Oksana Naralenkova. “Podstrochnik: posleslovie,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 2 March 2010

Barabash, Ekaterina. “Beregite golovy,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, 24 August 2009

Bogomolov, Iu. “Podstrochnik k Podstrochniku,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 14 July 2009

Kucherskaia, Maia. “Memuary v zhanre sviatochnogo rasskaza,” Vedomosti, 24 December 2009

Lapteva, Elena and Elena Livsi. ‘Rezhisser Oleg Dorman o TEFI: U nikh net prava davat’ nagradu “Podstrochniku”’, Komsomol’skaia pravda, 26 September 2010

Mel’man, Aleksandr. “Bol’naia dusha,” Moskovskii komsomolets, 5 February 2010

Sergeeva, Tat’iana. “Vykinut’ slovo iz pesni – pesniu isportit’,” Moskovskaia pravda, 17 July 2009

Sotnikov, Vladimir. “Nikakoi khitrosti, a otorvat’sia nel’zia,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, 5 February 2010

Tsvetkova, Vera and Roman Berchenko. “Vadim Iusov: ‘Byl by zhiv Tarkovskii, on by tozhe pol’zovalsia komp’iuternymi tekhnologiiami’,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, 26 February 2010

Zaslavskii, Grigorii. “Istorii v detaliakh: Lilianna Lungina v fil’me Podstrochnik,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, 13 July 2009


Word for Word, Russia, 1997-2009
Documentary series
Colour, 14 episodes, 26 min each plus 1 final episode 43 min long
Director: Oleg Dorman
Camera: Vadim Iusov, Oleg Dorman

Oleg Dorman: Word for Word Translation (Podstrochnik 2009)

reviewed by Andrei Rogatchevski © 2010

Updated: 02 Oct 10