Issue 34 (2011)

Zinovii Roizman’s Everybody’s War is Different (U kazhdogo svoia voina, 2011)

reviewed by Polina Barskova © 2011

Shapes of Silence

everybodys-warThe question—what happens after the massacre quiets down and survivors, crippled by the experience, come home—has more and more takers these days. The spectrum of genres and registers is impressively, idiosyncratically wide. A random sampling from this writer’s past week would include the recent BBC series Sherlock, wherein Doctor Watson seeks distraction from the pain of PTSD after his return from war in Afghanistan. And perhaps the most important and provocative historical publication of the year in Moscow by Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie has been the diary of observant puppeteer Liubov’ Shaporina, who takes her readers through every possible turmoil of the Russian century. One of the most difficult impressions in her writing is about the years immediately after the Nazi Siege of Leningrad: the shock comes from the contrast between the expectation of radical improvement and the gruesome reality of continued disaster: hunger, poverty, political oppression, and social humiliation.

These questions—what happens after the Great War, what are the effects of the discrepancy between expectation and experience, what is the role of the war memory in coming to terms with post-war reality—lie at the core of a peculiar recent television series by director Zinovii Roizman, Everybody’s War is Different, broadcast on Russian TV in 2011. Of course, Russian television (and cinema) is flooded with new productions about the Great Patriotic War. With minor, though notable exceptions (e.g., Aleksandr Sokurov’s We Read the Blockade Book [Chitaem blokadnuiu knigu, 2009], Mikhail Konoval’chuk’s Day of the Beast [Den’ Zveria, 2010], and Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Our Own [Svoi, 2004]) these texts work towards a common teleological consideration: they reaffirm the nation’s usable past as a source of collective pride and charismatic self-valorization. Medvedev’s Russia, with its disturbing sentimentalism about the “leader of the victorious army,” endlessly rehearses narratives of heroism, unity, and sacrifice, thus providing continuity with the Soviet interpretation of these events.

everybodys-warDiscussion of the devices of this propaganda nowadays could (and should) make a monograph of its own, but for my modest purposes, Everybody’s War is Different constitutes a brave exception in this flow of ideologically conformist utterances. All this is not to say that this series is aesthetically flawless or even coherent. As a work of TV-art, it invites criticism and frustration; as a work of historical analysis it suggests a refreshing direction of inquiry.

This is the second attempt to film Eduard Volodarskii’s novella Everybody’s War is Different. The first was a film adaptation by Aleksandr Pankratov in 1987 called Farewell, Riffraff of Zamoskvorech’ie (Proshchai, shpana zamoskvoretskaia); Volodarskii was one of the leading Soviet playwrights and screenwriters, working with such notables as Nikita Mikhalkov, Aleksei German, and Oleg Efremov, to name only a few. However, Volodarskii’s novella just did not supply enough material for Roizman’s 16 episodes; the text was significantly altered and the main problem of the series seems to be that it does not have enough script material to fill the epic screen time. Predictably, then, some plot lines are mercilessly stretched out and watered down. There is also a curious discrepancy between the generic origins of the series (the closest kin would be the 19th-century “slum novel of mysteries” as found in Eugène Sue, Charles Dickens, or Vsevolod Krestovskii) and its ideological agenda—those fatal questions: who did benefit from the Great Victory and what exactly did the proverbial winner take?

everybodys-warBut let us start ab ovo, from the list of dramatis personae and their disposition: the action takes place in a Moscow communal apartment in 1952-53. The apartment is inhabited by a good dozen Soviet citizens, including two embittered war veterans (alcoholics); a profiteer hack musician who made his tainted riches in the Tashkent evacuation; his Jewish wife, an escapee from the Holocaust; an ex-Party VIP, whose whole family perished during the Siege of Leningrad; a war widow and her unruly sons; and the intelligent doctor-cum-writer, who—together with the episodically emerging history teacher—carries out the narrative task of tackling difficult questions and regulating impossible answers.

everybodys-warAccording to the good old tradition of the Russian novel—even in its tele-novela incarnation—the population of the apartment is polarized between “fathers and sons”: fathers brood and recall the war, sons regret that they cannot recall the war and act on this lack of historical experience. That is, they fall in love and break the law. The main conflict in terms of plot action and development is supplied by one of the “sons”: a zek who returns from the camp where he was imprisoned for robbery: he personifies the Soviet underworld with its capacity to resist the official system of laws and values. Following the Schillerian plot recipe, two brothers disagree about both love and their ideas about a life of robbery—the elder brother murders the younger’s fiancée in revenge for her being a police informant. In the message offered by the series, the criminal underworld presents a powerful, if often revolting alternative to the values for which the generation of the fathers in this communal apartment sacrificed their lives, illusions, and extremities.

Every battle-scarred survivor is ascribed a line of flashbacks which concentrate on the same topic: disappointment in official Soviet values that they have fought for. Among such moments of truth, we witness the protagonists’ loosing their war friends in NKVD arrests, discovering extreme inequality in food rationing during the Siege in accordance to one’s Party standing, and that the local population prefers the German politics of occupation to the Soviet strategies of liberation. Such bitter observations turn into “blocks” in the lives of the former soldiers. They cannot be smoothly incorporated into the existing order of things, nor can they be challenged. As a result, the character of the new homme fatale of the Russian screen, Konstantin Lavronenko, in every night’s dreams revisits his battles in a drunken stupor, thus protecting himself from the merciless questions of the post-war reality voiced for him by the young thief: if you’ve won the war, why are you so poor, downtrodden by the very state you saved from destruction?

everybodys-warThe veteran has no well-formulated answer to that, and his silence might be one of the most endearing gestures of this series’ philosophy: the slick, victorious narratives of the majority of today’s films about the war are challenged in Everybody’s War is Different by the tragic dyslalia of the survivors who could also be called victims of a state that frequently achieved its political purposes in that war by sacrificing its population.

Lack of language for their epiphanic experience is registered in various ways: while working-class veterans dissolve their political disappointments in alcohol and “distract” themselves through domestic violence (the brawl scenes are poignantly impressive), the members of the intelligentsia attempt to voice their experience but mostly camouflage it with the “word of the Other,” as happens in a striking scene when the writer recites Tiutchev, Russia’s probably most paradoxical historiographer. Both the writer-chronicler and teacher of history demonstrate a lack of authority to supply their “disciples” in the communal apartment with the acceptable version of their history.

everybodys warThe most impressive incarnation of the lack of a discursively satisfactory expression of the post-war trauma is the character Rosa, played by one of the most supple Russian actresses of the 1960s generation, Ekaterina Vasil’eva. (Here it is appropriate to mention the remarkable dramatic ensemble of the series that includes Polina Kutepova and the inimitable Fedor Dobronravov.)

Vasil’eva’s character utters one phrase in her part: “I can’t watch you any longer—I want to die”—which she promptly does. Beyond that, Rosa observes the grotesque and tragic mores of the apartment silently (which holds its own irony since we are given hints that she is the original pre-Revolutionary owner of the apartment who lost her entire family in the bleak expanses of the Gulag). Rosa’s silence strikes as a strong symbolic expression of a position of the puzzled subject of Soviet history since, even in 2011, this history is abundant with the zones of traumatic lack of knowledge and discursive expression.

Polina Barskova
Hampshire College, MA

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Everybody’s War is Different, Russia, 2010
16 series
Director: Zinovii Roizman
Script: Eduard Volodarskii
Cinematography: Vitalii Konevtsov
Composer: Evgenii Shiriaev
Production Design: Aleksandr Tolkachev
Cast: Igor’ Petrenko, Polina Kutepova, Ekaterina Vasil’eva, Konstantin Lavronenko, Sergei Gazarov, Ekaterina Strizhenova
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian, Aram Movsesian, Sergei Danielian, Denis Frolov
Production: Studio Elegiia

Zinovii Roizman’s Everybody’s War is Different (U kazhdogo svoia voina, 2011)

reviewed by Polina Barskova © 2011

Updated: 02 Oct 11