KinoKultura: Issue 36 (2012)

The Smoke of the Fatherland: Body as Territory, Sexuality as Identityin Silent Souls by Aleksei Fedorchenko

By Tatiana Mikhailova (U of Colorado at Boulder)

The Ekaterinburg-based film director Aleksei Fedorchenko, previously known as the author of excellent documentaries and mockumentaries First on the Moon (Pervye na Lune, 2005) and Shosho (2006), caused a sensation in 2010 with his first feature film, Buntings (Ovsianki) based on the eponymous novella and script by Denis Osokin (aka Aist Sergeev), a young author from Kazan and Fedorchenko’s collaborator since Shosho, and starring Viktor Sukhorukov and Iurii Tsurilo, the lead of Aleksei German Sr’s Khrustalev, my Car! (Khrustalev, mashinu!, 1998), as well as the lesser known Igor’ Sergeev and Iuliia Aug. The film won several prizes at the 2010 Venice Film Festival: the Osella, FIPRESCI, and Ecumenical Jury Awards, as well as the Grand Prix at the “Black Pearl” festival in Dubai. As Fedorchenko told me in July 2011, various film festivals booked Buntings for years ahead after the Venice screening.

buntingsFor a rather sophisticated film, Buntings made good box-office in Russia, earning $410,988 in 2011 (meaning about 60,000 people watched it) and taking second place in earnings amongst Russian films of the last few years, yielding only to How I Ended this Summer (Kak ia provel etim letom, dir. Aleksei Popogrebskii, 2010). The French company Memento Films bought the world rights for Buntings and released it globally. In France it has been released under the title Le dernier voyage de Tanya, while in the English-speaking world it is called Silent Souls.

Silent Souls presents an inventive and original exploration of a cultural identity that seems to differ from, if not directly oppose, an imperial Russian identity. Osokin and Fedorchenko disclose the captivating mythology of the Merya, a Finno-Ugric tribe that occupied the territory of central and northern Russia, from Volga to Moscow, but completely assimilated into Slavic tribes by the 16th century, leaving traces in the toponymy of this region and a substantial body of archeological artifacts. Western film critics were enchanted by the way the film envelops contemporary viewers in ancient Merya mythology and rituals. 

In their numerous interviews, both Osokin and Fedorchenko emphasize that for them Merya represents a certain aspect of Russianness. Fedorchenko argues that in contemporary Russians more than 50 per cent of the genetic pool is of Finnish origin (which is incidentally supported by recent research in evolutionary biology). He adds, however, that for him Merya embodies the secret, hidden sides of every Russian.  In another interview, seemingly contradicting the previous statement, he adds that “Merya is more like a synonym of the intimate and sacred (zavetnoe) in everyone,” not necessarily Russian.

The exploration of the Merya identity relates to Fedochenko’s on-going debate with the Russian nationalists begun in his early documentaries about a Jewish boy named David, Kazakh Germans, Russian Poles, Tartars, Chechens, Koreans and Mari priests. The constructed mythology of the Merya, in this context, appears as a daring attempt to undermine an imperial Russian identity by demonstrating the possibility of other, liberated identity models, as imagined as the imperial self, yet supposedly free from the xenophobia, aggression, and the self-aggrandizing mania associated with imperialism.

Notably, a separate quest for a Finno-Ugric origin and identity can be seen in contemporary Russian culture. The relaxation of imperial Russo-centrism triggered this quest in the 1990s, along with a growing interest in Islamic cultures and Slavic paganism. The 1990s witnessed the emergence of such an imagined community as the “Finno-Ugric world”—a cooperative enterprise rooted in an attempt to construct a new identity across nation-state borders:

The decade saw an accelerating emergence of that community, including not only some Russian Federation regions, but also Finland, Hungary, and Estonia. The Finno-Ugric world stapled together by shared culture, language, and history, has no common economic platform in modern times, but culture is being used as a way to political unity. In addition to purely cultural interaction (e.g., congregations of Finno-Ugric writers, song and dance festivals, exchanges of students and linguists, etc.) … [the Finno-Ugric world] is a gold mine for provincial authorities irrespective of whether they actually belong to that community, of their own nationality, of familiarity with language. Their goal is to transcend regional limitations, circumvent state borders, and thus gain a degree of independence from Moscow… (Kowalev)

Furthermore, the Russian internet contains communities of users that consider themselves Merya and watchfully register all references to this culture. These sites not only offer a wealth of material about Merya history, but also grant visitors a chance to “get enrolled” into the Merya.[1]

buntingsHowever, those Western critics who place Silent Souls in the context of neo-anthropological cinematography concerning minorities and disappearing indigenous cultures are typically unaware of the fact that all the Merya rituals and beliefs showcased in the film are definitively fake-lore. The Merya myths and rituals as depicted in Silent Souls were single-handedly designed by Denis Osokin, the author of the script and a trained philologist with a deep interest in Finno-Ugric culture. However, the film creators present this pseudo-tradition both as authentic and alive today; indeed, as deeply interwoven with the daily fabric of the provincial lifestyle. For instance, the scene when the film’s protagonists, Aist and Miron, drive the corpse of Miron’s wife Tanya to the river shore to cremate it there in accordance with the alleged Merya ritual. The widower accompanies their journey by the so-called “dym” (smoke)—a conversation about the most intimate aspects of his relationship with the wife. Curiously, a cop who stops their car is not in the least surprised by the dead body in the back seat and the men’s intention to burn it—he is also a Merya, and he understands what they are supposed to do.

Among the most memorable of Osokin/Fedorchenko’s inventions in the Merya “folk tradition” is a custom supposedly belonging both to wedding and death rites—when colored threads are woven into a woman’s pubic hair. This ritual is somewhat similar to the Slavic Rusalia festival, when young women “would decorate the tree with ribbons and towels called the rusalka’s shirt, which the nymphs had requested.” Silent Souls, on the one hand, works to reveal the internal logic of these rituals by establishing a direct connection between the tree and the female body, fertility (tree, ribbons as solar symbols), and death (rusalka, water). On the other hand, the film and its literary source both radically invert this mythological motif.  Rusalia rites, in Joanne Hubbs’s words, “affirmed the solidarity of the feminine community […] and asserted its own order over that of the prevailing social one” (Hubbs 72). This is why, typically, men were not allowed to participate in these rites. However, Osokin and Fedorchenko undermine the women’s power as manifested by this ritual, first by reducing a woman’s symbolic body to her genitalia, and second by giving the men authority over the dead female body, something unthinkable in traditional culture. Thus, in Silent Souls the autonomy of the feminine order is violated by the men without the slightest recognition of the transgression—neither by the protagonists, nor by the film’s authors.

The popularity of Silent Souls in Russia may be partially explained by how well it fits a pattern of popular films, exemplified by the work of such directors as Nikita Mikhalkov and Aleksei Balabanov, that Susan Larsen defines as follows: “These models are all emphatically masculine, as are the conflicts and communities central to these films, each of which casts paternal and fraternal bonds as vital threads in the tattered post-Soviet fabric of Russian national identity […] The conflation of national identity with masculine authority is a key component of these films’ appeal to Russian viewers in a decade in which it often seemed as if Russian film-makers had lost both their market share and their claim to the nation’s imagination” (Larsen 493).

Silent Souls is focused on two male characters.  The first is Miron, the director of a small town plant, whose young wife Tanya dies suddenly. The second is Aist, the plant’s photographer, who not only helps Miron bury Tanya according to the alleged Merya ritual, but also simultaneously recollects his father, a poet named Vespa Sergeev (played by Viktor Sukhorukov) and an analogous journey with his mother’s corpse, during which the father shared stunning details of their conjugal life with 14-year Aist. Similarly, Miron tells Aist of his sexual conquest of Tanya during their journey to the burial place. The connection between the woman, the woman’s body and sexuality on the one hand, and a (re)constructed a-imperial national identity on the other, lies at the heart of the film’s complexity as well as its internal contradictions.

buntingsThe way Silent Souls treats femininity is in sharp contrast with the typical Soviet and post-Soviet aggrandizing of the mother figure. The mother is an idiomatic symbol not just of Russia but of Russian imperial power and benevolence to its infantilized subjects, as one can see in a wide range of films from She Defends the Motherland (Ona zashchishchaet rodinu, dir. Fridrikh Ermler, 1943) to Alexander Sokurov’s neo-imperialist Alexandra (2007). Tanya in Silent Souls is emphatically not a mother-figure; on the contrary, she is openly sexualized. Furthermore, Miron’s recollections of his sexual exploration and conquest of Tanya’s  body is projected onto images of Miron’s and Aist’s  journey to the place of Tanya’s burial—a typical central-Russian landscape with recurring rivers and bridges. Serguei Oushakine argued in his review of the film that “these endless (and origin-less) roads and bridges stand as materialized metaphors of the importance of the process of linking, connecting, bringing together parts of one’s life and one’s history.” However, as other critics writing about either Osokin’s novella or Fedorchenko’s film noted: all interpersonal connections in Silent Souls are inevitably sexualized. Therefore, when the film pairs graphic representations of Tanya’s body and sexuality with images of rivers and bridges, the latter begins to represent the former, and vice versa. This connection is also reinforced by a traditional mythological connection between women and water. When in the film’s finale Aist says that “women’s living bodies are also rivers carrying away our [i.e. – men’s] sorrow,” when Miron dreams of joining Tanya whose ashes he has thrown into the river, and when after a night with cheerful female strangers, the car bearing Miron and Aist falls into the river—then the viewer understands that Silent Souls offers a typical symbolization of the motherland as a feminine character, predominantly through imagery of the female body, and sexual relations with it. Nicola Kuchta is absolutely correct arguing that “although Miron and Aist are cast as the keepers of Merya culture, it is Tanya’s body (and that of Aist’s mother) that provides the rationale for the men to come together and reenact cultural identity through ritual be it in marriage or death.”

In Silent Souls, the sexualization of stereotypical imagery associated with the native land produces conflicting interpretations. On the one hand, an attempt to undermine the imperial hierarchy is obviously made as a dominating and authoritative mother is replaced in Silent Souls by a passive and submissive, yet cheerful and sexually adventurous sexual partner—no matter whether a wife or a complete stranger. On the other hand, both Osokin’s novella and the Fedorchenko’s film, emphasize the pre-Christian trope of woman as the manifestation of natural forces. For example, we read in Osokin’s text:

I asked Tanyusha to stop cutting her hair, and by the New Year she turned into our best-kept secret. Modest, young, beautiful in beautiful clothes—and underneath the beautiful clothes these bouquets between white skin, islands of grass into which I delved like a duckling. I delved into Tanya’s depths, hiding my face in the grassy islands under her armpits…

Fedorchenko preserves this symbolism through several scenes; for example, in the depiction of the ritualistic tying of multicolored strings onto a woman’s pubic hair, and the scene when a public performance of a song composed by Aist’s father, consisting of long list of various herbs’ names, provokes a strong sexual desire for Tanya in Miron.

However, despite their ostensible links to pre-Christian traditions, these images and motifs surprisingly lack a major element of analogous mythological constructions—the theme of fertility and the circle of life, inevitably associated with motherhood. Since the pagan mythology of the Great Mother has been translated into an imperial mythology of the Motherland, the authors of Silent Souls eradicate motherhood from their mythology—at the cost of removing the center of feminine power in traditional cultures.

buntingsIt is noteworthy that both Tanya and Miron have no children, and Aist’s mother dies while giving birth to his stillborn sister. No less characteristically, Miron does not tell Tanya’s mother about her daughter’s death, when she calls him and asks about Tanya. The mother’s role is here dramatically diminished in comparison to the husband’s authority.

All these details testify to the fact that the representation of female sexuality in the film in no way manifests the woman’s power over the forces of life. Instead, it signifies only male desire and sexual dominance. This is well noticeable in the scene when Miron shows Aist video recordings of him copulating with Tanya, inviting Aist to share his pleasure. One of the sexually most explicit scenes of the film, when Miron washes the naked Tanya with vodka, obviously combines the two main, stereotypical Russian male pleasures in one: sex and alcohol. In Osokin’s novella, this episode deepened the pornographic objectivization of Tanya through the description of an encounter bordering on rape:

Two bottles (of vodka) on the body. The third for the head. And a fourth bottle we drank afterwards. Tanyusha had a bite after the drink—you can guess what? She took a bite of me. She drank the glass, and I out it straight into her mouth. And then fed her a spoonful of salad.  

Thus, the authors’ attempt to distance the trope of the native land/woman’s body from imperial connotations is paradoxically paired with the reinforcement of male power over the woman’s body. In Silent Souls, the effort to state an alternative to imperial power appears to be founded on a parochial split into masculine narration and the reduction of the woman to a powerless female body serving as spectacle.[2] This distribution between the power-charged male narrative and powerless female body spectacle can be illustrated by the fact that Tanya, the central female character in Silent Souls, is completely deprived of any discourse—she can only moan or nod, thus expressing her complete agreement with the man’s (her husband’s) sexual or sexualized desires. The other female characters also speak only when they want to offer themselves to men: “Boys, do you want us?”

The male characters in the film not only control the gaze (Aist is a photographer), the narrative (his father is a poet), and administrative power (Miron is the director of the paper-mill and offers jobs at his factory to accidental lovers). Their control over female bodies is represented as an educational, or even colonizing process: for instance, Miron is much older than Tanya and he brags of “uncorking” all three of Tanya’s holes and making them work for his pleasure after their marriage, despite her being quite unmoved. No wonder that sex in Silent Souls appears to be institutionalized as a form of training: after having sex with two women Miron offers to hire them—sex appears as part of the job description, but this is matter-of-factly stated in the film as the most normal thing in the world.  

The scene of post-funeral sex between the protagonists and the two young women they meet on a bridge is especially telling for the meaning of sexuality in the film. The women’s faces beam with pleasure while their bodies move mechanically, as though by themselves.  The men are emphatically outside of the frame, inviting a distant, controlling gaze. The scene invites the male spectator to share the gaze, thus sharing pleasure with the protagonists. This performance of communality constructed through the sharing of a female body serves as the film’s emotional and symbolic coda. Here a shared, objectified female body is a medium for a performative act of identity construction. Notably, in the original director’s cut of the film, this very scene was placed out of the plot sequence at the very end.

The systematic objectification of the female subject and body in the film reveals a deeply imperial structure, underpinning Silent Souls ostensible attempt to construct a different model of identity. In a traditional imperial narrative, as Anne McClintock notes: “women were not seen as inhabiting history proper but existing, like colonized peoples, in a permanently anterior time within the modern nation.” (359) In Silent Souls this silent assumption serves as the foundation for the male protagonists’ quest: the “anterior—in other words, mythic—time within the modern nation.” This ultimate goal is achieved by the men through the use of a woman, or rather her body, as a channel connecting them with a myth-based identity. However, the identity—national or cultural—that is being constructed here through a woman’s body, is built without her consent or participation. The woman is emphatically deprived of agency, which belongs entirely to the men. In this respect, the “anti-imperial” Silent Souls is hardly different from Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (Utomlennye solntsem, 1994) or The Barber of Siberia (Sibiriskii tsiriulnik, 1999) as well as Balabanov’s Brother (Brat, 1997; sequel 2000) or War (Voina, 2002).

buntingsHaving said this, I would like to emphasize that the film’s authors are, at the least, intuitively aware of the contradictions inherent in their work. It is not by accident that Silent Souls resonates deeply with those recent Russian films where male characters are brought into conflict by a dead or absent woman, as in Valerii Todorovskii’s The Lover (Liubovnik, 2002) or Aleksei Popogrebskii’s How I Ended this Summer (Kak a provel etim letom, 2010). Like these films, Silent Souls not only mournsthe death of the woman as a mediator—in Fedorchenko’s case with a non-hierarchical cultural tradition, but also indirectly requires a woman’s death for the males’ self-realization through conflict and eventual bonding. Intentionally or not, these films demonstrate the flipside of their own semiotics. In Silent Souls the structure of male domination subtly creeps into a seemingly non-imperial identity construction, thus betraying the unconscious imperialism of the gender models which are presented by the film not as cultural constructs, but as natural logic justified by Merya’s ancient mythology. Tanya’s death, in this context, acquires a new—self-referential—meaning: her erasure, her transformation into a pile of ashes, is the inevitable price for the erection of this new mythology of identity. As such the film’s sole alternative to imperial identity seems founded upon the female body and conveyed through its objectification.

Tatiana Mikhailova
University of Colorado at Boulder


1] The internet communities of Mari, another Finno-Ugric ethic group, unlike vanished Merya, having its own administrative body—the Mari Autonomous Republic, which is part of the Russian Federation, are even more pro-active and they quite ardently discuss Fedorchenko’s most recent project The Heavenly Wives of the Field Mari (Nebesnye zheny lugovykh Mari), also based on Osokin’s script and also sexualizing the national identity. While one group accuses the film director of the distortion of the Mari traditions and rites, their opponents argue that the Mari should be grateful to the film director for at least making them visible to the world.

2] As Laura Mulvey explains: “the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one of advancing the story, making things happen. The man controls the film fantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further sense… so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence.” (Mulvey, 63-64).

Works Cited

Hubbs, Joanne, Mother Russia. The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture, Indiana University Press, 1993.

Kowalev, Viktor, “Power and Ethnicity in the Finno-Ugric Republics of the Russian Federation,” International Journal of Political Economy, 30.3 (2000): 81-100.

Kuchta, Nicola, Silent SoulsPittsburgh Symposium

Larsen, Susan. ‘National Identity, Cultural Authority and the Post-Soviet Blockbuster: Nikita Mikhalkov and Aleksei Balabanov’, Slavic Review 62.3 (2003): 491-511.

McClintock, Anne,  Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, Routledge,  1995.

Mulvey, Laura, “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema”, in Sue Thornham (ed.), Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, Edinburgh University Press, 1999, pp. 58-69.

Osokin, Denis. Ovsianki. Moscow: Kolibri, 2011. [Aist Segeev, “Ovsianki,” Oktiabr10 (2008)]

Oushakine, Serguei, “Silent Souls,” KinoKultura 31 (2011)


Tatiana Mikhailova © 2012

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Updated: 03 May 12