Issue 44 (2014)

Valerii Todorovskii: The Thaw (Ottepel', 2013)

reviewed by Tat’iana Kruglova© 2014

The conformism of the 60's generation at an aesthetic distance

“I don’t try to justify anybody, but simply to explain the mechanism.”
Valerii Todorovskii

thawDuring December 2013 Russia’s Channel One screened Valerii Todorovskii’s television serial The Thaw (Ottepel’): a serial which had been anticipated and awaited, which was actively watched and heatedly discussed. That is comprehensible in the context of the general tension vis-à-vis Soviet heritage and Todorovskii’s oeuvre, which has never deceived the expectations of the public. Everything in this serial is important: the precisely chosen transitional era in Soviet history, the aesthetic and chronological link with Todorovskii’s previous successful project Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008), and the title. The disputes around The Thaw reached an incredible tension right after the first series had aired. This was especially noticeable by the level of polemics on social networks. Todorovskii himself said in an interview that this was “the greatest psychological attack in my life. The furious discussion that developed, almost resulting in scuffles and sorting out relationships, culminating in curses—I did not expect that” (Todorovskii 2013). All this serves as evidence that The Thaw hit a painful point in the present.

The various strings of the discussion evidently converge on the issue of conformism; to be more concise: we have before us the whole encyclopedia of Soviet conformism, a dense network of survival practices such as deals, concessions, tenders, exchanges, compromises and betrayal. This assumption is supported by the frequency of the use of the word “conformism” in on-line discussions of the serial. The traumatic effect of this theme is proven by the consensus of the discussants qualifying the behavior of the serial’s heroes—especially the protagonist, cameraman Viktor Khrustalev—as conformist and even cynical, while they interpret this in rather opposite directions. Some justify it by repeating an idea stated by the director: “I wanted to tell about a man who gave all his life to one goal: creativity. He sacrificed his beloved woman, his family, his friends. Thus he is internally crushed and wants to make a film about the war, because he has a drama connected to this war. But what for? To enable the talented Egor to make a film” (Todorovskii 2013). Others are indignant about the a-political heroes immersed in their personal problems, and consider that the network of compromises and betrayals into which Viktor Khrustalev and Egor Miachin voluntarily plunge will never lead to an original artistic result. The director is charged with insufficiently exposing his heroes, essentially creating an apologia of conformism as the only strategy of behavior under the conditions of Soviet (and possibly post-Soviet) reality.

thawMoreover, opinions have been voiced that The Thaw is Todorovskii’s most deeply personal statement and can therefore be seen as some kind of creative program, a recommendation for today’s creative elite and Russian intellectuals at large. Here is what Egor Moskvitin (2013) writes: “a serial-negotiator between the power and the intelligentsia, offering the renewal of some public contract.” What contract is he talking about? We remember the theory of “the big deal” proposed by Vera Dunham (1990) to explain the genesis of Stalinist society: the loyalty of the newly-formed Soviet “middle” class, the pillar of modernization, was exchanged for material and symbolical benefits. The condition of the deal was the gradual rejection of radical revolutionary projects, the asceticism of the post-Revolutionary era, and the right of professional communities to some autonomy. Andrei Arkhangelskii sees in Todorovskii’s image of the 1960s

a certain universal model of relationships between the bohemian circles and Russia’s power. According to which, for example, if you want to make something of your own, you first have to make something false-faithful. And— morally even meaner—something of the faithful sh*** has to be dressed up as talented. […] Finally, the destiny of a work of art in any case depends on the authorities […] In other words, it is possible to read the film as a sermon of conformism and even agree that this film is an unambiguous offer to renew the contract with the current intelligentsia on the model of the 1960s, and thus offer a return to the condition of an “eternal thaw.” But from another perspective, it is possible to see here a sermon of non-conformism, which, however, does not annul the general concept of “this was a great epoch.” (Arkhangelskii 2013).

In my view, the power of the serial lies in its exact match of ambivalence, or rather and more precisely of the ambiguity of conformism as a concept and social phenomenon. On the one hand, conformists are people of the social norm, not heroes or rebels; they have understood the rules of the game and try to be successful in this game with power. The aim of game is a good one: creativity, high professionalism, skills, and the aspiration to advance culture. The way of achieving this is through deals and exchanges. There is no other option: the issue lies in the price and the result. On the other hand, the conformists—adopting the deal as a method—risk to never create anything worthy. From the position of non-conformism, it is dangerous to play with the authorities and no negotiations should be entered; any contract with the authorities is always fraught with the loss of talent. “Conformism” has proven to be a term-trap, as its semantic focus is continuously displaced, depending on the system of coordinates. People who call someone a “conformist” are certain that they know where the border runs between conformist and non-conformist behavior. For example, the poet Olga Sedakova, while emphasizing the difference of the 1970’s generation from the previous one, sees in the 1960’s generation much more conformism than would seem to them:

I think that some circles should be destroyed. I’m very glad that the memoirs of Nadezhda Iakovlevna [Mandelstam] destroy them or rather show them in their genuine form: this is not a circle of cultural people, but a deal. In the book this theme of the deal resounds constantly: everybody has accepted the deal. By the way, in Doctor Zhivago there is also a clear scene of such a deal: when the doctor’s re-educated youth friends speak as they should, with the conviction that they do this of their own accord (Sedakova 2014).

It is interesting that both the characters of the serial (of the 1960’s generation) and the contemporary spectators use this label as if it had a permanent value. Thanks to the system of traps, which the director prepared for us, there is a problem with the overlapping of these points of view. The director builds a system of mirrors: when looking into them, we see not the world of the 1960s as it was “actually,” but our own “Other”. We discover in the distant and, it seems, long-gone past the mechanics of social rules that are similar our current reality. Then we experience a complex feeling: a mix of pleasure of recognition and kindness, and an unpleasant surprise of how little we have moved on.

thawHere runs the main boundary between Todorovskii’s position and that of the 1960’s generation living today. They have great difficulties to recognize themselves in this mirror, at the aesthetic distance set by a person from another generation. The concern with fidelity to those principles for which they made sacrifices makes it impossible for them to see a different and new position of an author from a different generation. The typical remarks are summarized by the film critic Iurii Bogomolov, who is doubtless a man of the 1960’s generation: he is irritated by the protagonists who display an “insufficiently concise ideological position in relation to Soviet bureaucracy. Even the ‘ingenious’ cameraman Vitia Khrustalev (Tsyganov) and the promising young director Egor Miachin (Iatsenko), and the winner of the Stalin Prize, comrade Krivitskii (Mikhail Efremov), are irritating because of their demonstrative political apathy. None of them feels sick at the sight of the ostentatious collective-farm reality that they mould on screen” (Bogomolov 2013). Bogomolov recognizes the inevitability of conformism and sees its dramaturgic need, but cannot forgive the filmmaker the “demonstrative political apathy,” because opposition to authority—even in the most suppressed and passive forms—justified in his point of view the conformist practice. If we remove authority as an ingredient that stimulates resistance, which in turn shapes talent, then everything else becomes fragile and uncertain; the criteria disappear:

This is a film about how not to notice. It is a film about a free parallel life which man obtains in exchange for loyalty. It is a film about a Soviet form of conformism, when you observe the rules established by the regime for the sake of your safety and that of your children. And you are allowed to live a normal life: to go about your favorite job, to live with your favorite wife and even to have a personal car and a separate apartment. […] The Thaw is the answer of parents to their children’s question: ‘How could you…? How could you not notice and not see?’ That’s how: not to notice and not to see (Larina 2013).

And yet, where is the specificity of the author’s position that is unsolved by the 1960’s generation? What lies behind the “demonstrative political apathy”? And what hinders the recognition of the novelty of Todorovskii’s view in the decision of this painful and important problem for Soviet man: to be as everyone, living together, and to share with others a general historical fate, or to resist the world, leave, disappear, and perish?

thawIn order to answer these questions we should go beyond the framework of comparisons with reference to the works of the 1960’s generation. The Thaw is frequently compared to the cinema of Marlen Khutsiev, and clearly the serial’s protagonists lose out significantly in the scale of the questions and answers that they face. Todorovskii, without clashing with the generation of the fathers, nevertheless removes the Great History and the system of coordinates where private lives full of everyday trifles would have passed. This system of coordinates is openly announced in Sergei’s monologue from Il’ich Gates (Zastava Il’icha, 1964): “The Revolution, the ‘Internationale’, 1937, the war, soldiers, a potato.” For this reason Todorovskii frankly neglects historical accuracy: for him, man is no longer the instrument of Great History; man’s value is not defined by a universal meaning. The sense of creativity for Khrustalev, and most likely Todorovskii, is understood in the same way: it is a way of telling the world about the unique life of a man, his guilt and his right to happiness. Khrustalev wants to shoot a film at all cost about the boy who tragically perished in the war in order to kill his own sense of guilt that has pursued him all his life. “Many spectators felt slightly deceived; under such a promising title they expected to see a film about the political storm and Soviet ideology being bent like a tree in the wind of change. Instead, they were offered the personal history of a 1960’s film crew, agreeing on a creative compromise and making a Soviet fairy tale about love in order to deserve the right to work on their own project; the story of small people without any claims to prophecy and dissidence,” writes Galina Myl’nikova on her blog.

The mix of political context makes it possible to bring the past closer to the present. The concept of the Thaw was initially strongly politicized, since the main accent in its semantic field was placed on the struggle against Stalin’s regime. In the serial, the preference is obviously given to the density of everyday life where the significance of deeds is lost. Here, both nobleness and treachery exist without sweep, without flight and without extremes.

thawIf we agree that Todorovskii takes his cues from Khutsiev, then who does he move towards? In my opinion, he is close—as strange as that may seem—to Iurii Trifonov’s prose, the main Soviet expert on the problem of conformism. His story “The Exchange” (“Obmen”, 1969) also caused a stir, although he was both “criticized and praised for the same thing: for everyday life. For the fact that his heroes lead a petty and insultingly ordinary life. They are dissatisfied with trifles, quarrel over a trifle and are happy for a trifle. To exchange an apartment, to defend a dissertation, to receive a pay-rise, to arrange for the son to go to college. To borrow money from the ex-wife for the mother’s treatment. To sleep with the nurse in a sanatorium and then return to the wife. To find oneself a married, but very clever and kind friend right after the husband’s death. ‘Where is the greater purposes?’, critics—including fairly clever ones—asked. ‘Why are you not ashamed to write about stupid, malicious petty bourgeois?’. People recognized themselves and disdained what they had learnt” (Dragunskii 2014). In Dragunskii’s opinion “Trifonov is an unconditionally Soviet writer. He did not exist outside the rules of the Russian-Soviet literary behavior, i.e. he could not refuse to make political statements. Actually, the concentration on everyday practices was such a statement: simply life—here is a border drawn for kind citizens” (Dragunskii 2014).

thawOf course, the comparison with Trifonov does not explain everything about Todorovskii’s position. We should therefore look wider into the context of Todorovskii’s oeuvre. The first thing that is evident is the importance of eroticism and sex in his films. They are a major part of pleasure, which the heroes receive in the process of life, and which the author receives, too. He does not just love life, but he loves it voluptuously, deliciously. Every frame of Hipsters and The Thaw is penetrated by the desire to break through taboos, by the sensual aspiration “to devour” and not just admire and behold. There is no other contemporary Russian director for whom the seduction of the texture of life would be rendered in such a pure form. Russian cinema has always suffered from a deficiency of the representation of free corporeality as aesthetically attractive and stylistically flawless. Semen Kvasha describes this quality as follows:

…how to characterize the serial: lust, in the best sense of this word. The camera rejoices all the time. The protagonist goes in a car of the Moskvich type, a two-color cherry-red and cream colored masterpiece of industrial design that resembles some fantastic dessert. When droplets flow down from the bonnet of the car, the shots resemble the best advertising trailers. When the camera lingers on Dior-style outfits, with magnificent skirts and wasp waists, when it captures female underwear, slips and corsets, it is difficult not to become a fetishist. When we are shown vodka and herring as illustrated in the book about tasty and healthy food of the Khrushchev era, red wine with antique labels— that is a true feast for the eye, true glamour and work of highest quality (Kvasha 2013).

Todorovskii’s protagonists want to live not just well, but live with taste. They are the “new petty bourgeoisie,” who find it hard to sacrifice things for the sake of an idea not just of freedom, but a “sweet” freedom. The characters of Todorovskii’s films are entitled to weakness and even crime, as, for example, the modest typist from the film Katia Ismailova (Podmoskovnie vechera, 1994). In this respect the film My Stepbrother Frankenstein (Moi svodnyi brat Frankenshtein, 2004) is significant, where Leonid Iarmolnik’s character could not become a hero and bear the weight of responsibility, but even experienced relief when his “inconvenient” son Pavel perished. Now he will live with a feeling of guilt for having sacrificed his suddenly-found son Pavel for the well-being of his family, sacrificed an invalid of the Chechen war. Hipsters is unconditionally about the “new petty bourgeoisie.” Todorovskii is not worried about that. His heroes really want “bourgeois values” as they see them, as an alternative to the “Soviet, skinflint”. Yes, it is the Soviet variant of the freedom of consumption, but all the same—freedom. In The Thaw there is a lot of smoking, drinking, dancing, sex (including nonconventional); the characters want to enjoy a comfortable life and beautiful clothes: Todorovskii pays a lot of attention to these temptations of leisure and to the aesthetics of consumption.

thawThe main theme in this mix of pleasures remains creativity. In Todorovskii’s films it always rhymes with sex, as is the case in Hipsters. Freedom for him is always personal, and only. Freedom in his world is not a right or a necessity, but a temptation; therefore it has such clear erotic connotations. Again, we should remember Katia Ismailova where the revolt of the “grey mouse”, the daughter-in-law, against the authoritarianism of the intellectual mother-in-law was expressed in forbidden, boundless sex. But Todorovskii is not like the singers of freedom in the spirit of the beat-generation and hippies; in his world the aesthetic and ethical are always complexly correlated.

The characters in Todorovskii’s world never divide according to oppositions. His credo is the man of the middle. Most likely, he is convinced that each era, as well as each human life, has a place for its own conformism, for its own “deal.” This optic allows the director to study the ambivalence of the 60’s generation, to understand the essence of its exchanges and deals. In this sense, the Thaw is no spring, but a compromise “between,” a suspended and uncertain middle, neither this nor that, neither hot nor cold. The song, which became the leitmotif of the serial, sounds very sad, and not at all because the bad authorities ruined the growth of freedom, having frozen the beginning of the liberal spring. Before us, we have a sober view on the 1960’s phenomenon as a developed practice of justified and legitimate conformism, which was not acknowledged as such.

thawI would suggest that conformism was impossible under Stalinism; there was almost no place for it. The world of Stalinism—still without a middle—is made of the tension of oppositions: terror/enthusiasm, fear/triumph, executioners/victims, heroes/enemies, ours/others. In the more “vegetarian times” of the 1960s when the Soviet middle class had already formed, having grown out of  “the big deal” of their parents, having gained access to the blessings of civilization,—this is the moment when the system of “double consciousness” is formed: cynicism/hypocrisy, private freedom / official loyalty. This conclusion is supported by Oleg Kharkhordin’s reflections about the difference between personality in early and mature Soviet society. The main opposition, in his opinion, lies in the genesis of Soviet personality—“accusation/hypocrisy,” the complex interlacing of consumerism and highest moral values. During the period of liberalization, the Thaw, “the individual pretence or hypocrisy spread, which effectively protected the personality and supplemented the private life, always potentially subject to external intervention in the USSR, also in the sphere of private or intimate life of the personality” (Kharkhordin 2002: 475).

Viktor Khrustalev breaks the deal of the 1960’s generation with his refusal of hypocrisy, destroying our favorite myth about non-conformists. He accepts only one judge: the moral criteria inherited from the previous era of the war. During Stalinism, with all its confusion, the general picture of the world was more black-and-white. This is clear from a serial, for example, which screened a year before The Thaw: Life and Fate (Zhizn’ i sud’ba, 2012) by Sergei Ursuliak, based on the novel by Vasilii Grossman. The physicist Shtrum repeatedly faces a difficult choice, in a situation of serious pressure and almost violence from the mighty ones of this world, but his existential situation differs considerably from those choices made by the cinematic bohemians of the 1960s! The world of the Thaw is much more blurred. But these different eras are connected by the attitude to participation in the war. What is important is not the attitude to the idea of communism, to Lenin or Stalin, but to life and death, to a situation when it is absolutely clear that if you will not perish, someone will be perish for you.

Valerii Todorovskii looked at this epoch with sadness and sobriety. He pines for clear and firm criteria, which seem lost. Having removed the background of greatness, he pulled together these eras, showing the genesis and reproduction of conformism. But there is one essential difference: we no longer have such a reliable criterion as participation in the war. Therefore our conformism is much more limitless.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Tat'iana Kruglova

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Works Cited

Arkhangelskii, Andrei (2013), “Khrustalev, mashinku!”, Ogonek 9 December.

Bogomolov, Iurii (2013), “Ottepel’ trevogi nashei,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 10 December.

Dragunskii, Denis (2014), “Vremia i mesto Iuriia Trifonova,” Chastnyi korrespondent 28 March.

Dunham, Vera (1990), In Stalin’s Time, Duke University Press.

Kharkhordin, Oleg (2002), Oblichat i litsemerit’: genealogiia rossiiskoi lichnosti, St Petersburg/Moscow: European University St. Petersburg and Letnii sad.

Kvasha. Semen (2013), “Bezumtsy pod zaborom,” The Hollywood Reporter (Russian edition), 29 November.

Larina, Kseniia (2013), “Chlovek idet za solntsem,” Novoe vremia, 9 December [subscription only]; reprinted on Channel One website.

Moskvitin, Egor (2013), “Khrustalev, bobinu: na ‘Pervom kanale’ zakonchilas’ ‘Ottepel’’,” RBK Daily 13 December.

Sedakova, Ol’ga (2014). “Beseda s Ol’goi Sedakovoi. Zhertvy veka ili samouchki ‘predatel’stva sebia’: k analizu 1970-kh godov,” (interview with Irina Chechep’ and Aleksandr Markov), Gefter, 27 January.

Todorovskii, Valerii (2013) “Geroi s bol’shoi bukvy vsegda antigeroi,” Sovershenno sekretno, interview with Oleg Pshenichnyi. 24 December.

The Thaw, Russia, 2013
12 series, Channel One
Director: Valerii Todorovskii
Scriptwriters: Alena Zvantsova, Dmitrii Konstantinov, Valerii Todorovskii
DoP: Ivan Gudkov, Fedor Liass
Composer: Konstantin Meladze
Production Design: Vladimir Gudilin
Cast: Evgenii Tsyganov, Aleksandr Iatsenko, Anna Chipovskaia, Viktoriia Isakova, Mikhail Efremov, Svetlana Kolpakova, Iana Sekste, Nina Dvorzhetskaia, Pavel Derevianko, Evgenii Volotskii, Vasilii Mishchenko, Andrei Smirnov, Larisa Malevannaia, Vladimir Gostiukhin, Ol’ga Shtyrkova, Evgenii Brik, Fedor Lavrov, Nadezhda Markina, Duta (Demetr) Skhirtladze, Konstantin Chepurin, Anna Kotova, Svetlana Nikiforova, Anastasiia Prokof'eva, Paulina Andreeva, Marina Petrenko, Anastasiia Popova, Fedot L'vov, Viktor Dobronravov, Ulugbek Iuldashev, Viktor Khorinak, Nino Kantariia, Vlad Astashkin, Sof'ia Kashtanova, Sergei Bondarchuk jr,  Nikita Efremov, Egor Koreshkov, Andrei Zavodiuk, Natal;ia Ushakova, Ol’ga Khlebanovich, Valerii Todorovskii
Producer: Valerii Todorovskii
Production: Marmot Film

Valerii Todorovskii: The Thaw (Ottepel', 2013)

reviewed by Tat’iana Kruglova© 2014

Updated: 17 Apr 14