Issue 69 (2020)

Klim Shipenko: The Serf (Kholop, 2019)

reviewed by Irina Anisimova © 2020

kholopThe most remarkable aspect of Klim Shipenko’s film The Serf is its box office success. Earning 3 billion RUR ($42 mill.), it became the highest-grossing film in the Russian film market in the post-Soviet era. This achievement seems even more impressive because this film does not fall within the traditional blockbuster genres. Moreover, released during the New Year holidays of December 2019, the film was competing against such high-budget productions as Andrei Kravchuk’s historical drama The Union of Salvation (Soiuz spaseniia 2019) and Fedor Bondarchuk’s science-fiction film Invasion (Vtorzhenie, 2019). Given the film’s stunning commercial success, it is interesting to speculate about the reasons for its audience appeal. One of these reasons is the fact that the film both follows and subtly subverts a number of current cultural trends, participating in dominant socio-cultural discourses. This film is a comedy with the elements of satire; yet, this satire does not penetrate beyond the polished surfaces of Moscow glamour.

The Serf belongs to the popular genre of time travel—a genre that became especially prominent in recent Russian film and fiction. In a comedic subset of this genre, the humorous effect results from the incongruity between the time traveler and his new, unexpected surroundings as in the Soviet classic, Leonid Gaidai’s Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession (Ivan Vasil’evich meniaet professiiu, 1973). The original invention of The Serf is to combine this time-honored and recently over-used genre with a self-reflexive approach to film production.

kholopThe film tells the story of Grisha (Miloš Biković), the son of a Russian oligarch or “Major,” who is enjoying his elite lifestyle in Moscow. His disruptive behavior causes constant consternation for his father, Pavel (Aleksandr Samoilenko). The social subtext of Grisha’s actions is corruption of Russian society: his father’s status means that Grisha is above the law, yet his rule-breaking attracts attention to his father, who would prefer to operate in shadows.

Grisha’s actions call for some drastic measures. A TV producer and Pavel’s lover, Anastasiia (Mariia Mironova), introduces Pavel to her former husband, an eccentric psychologist, Lev, (Ivan Okhlobystin), whose treatment of psychological problems involves theatrical performances of make-belief violent acts, such as fake hangings and amputations of limbs. Together with this psychologist, Anastasiia develops a plan for Grisha’s personal transformation; they design a theatrical set of a Russian village just before the abolition of serfdom and populate it with actors. After an engineered car accident, Grisha awakens in this nineteenth-century estate as a lowly serf or kholop, where, under the watchful eyes of the psychologist, his father, and the producer, he undergoes an experiment of living in the Russian past.

kholopThus, the film has a refreshingly irreverent view of Russian history, which reverses Russian official culture’s glorified version of Russian history as the main foundation of the new national identity. This tendency is exemplified in such recent measures as the laws against the “falsification of history” and the regulation of history in the new amendments to the Russian Constitution. In contrast to this lofty approach to history, The Serf presents Russia’s past as both simulative and bad. Reflecting the current tendency to instrumentalize and reconstruct the past, the film presents Russian history as simulated; it is literally a film set. The simulative and manipulative nature of this historical reconstruction is reminiscent of the contemporary official ideological approach to the past. At the same time, a film set that reproduces a different historical era is also reminiscent of the much more elaborate film project Dau by Il’ia Khrzhanovskii.  

Anastasiia and the psychologist create this historical set in a hasty and clumsy way that threatens to show its fake nature at any moment. As a comment on the actors’ work conditions, the actors have little investment in a ridiculous storyline, and they are not well compensated to care for the preservation of the historical integrity. Only Grisha’s lack of knowledge about history—a satire on the current state of Russian education and actual historical knowledge—prevents the failure of the project. The funniest aspect of the film is Grisha’s inability to recognize all missteps of the film crew. Even when they have to adjust the original script and introduce the Tatar and Mongol invasion into the nineteenth-century plot, Grisha is not surprised by that anachronism.

kholopIn contrast to the official glorification of Russian history, The Serf does not glorify the past but, on the contrary, draws attention to its negative aspects. The constructed project emphasizes the persistence of violence and corruption in Russian society past and present. For example, the film creates parallels between the behavior of contemporary golden youth and the son of the old landowner; careless driving and disregard for people are the trademark of both young men. The film also comments on the ease with which people learn to adjust to the lack of freedom. Thus, Grisha fails to fight for his rights under the changed circumstances.

The film’s title, “Kholop,” which can be translated to English as peasant or serf, and the setting in the village before the abolition of serfdom relates to the discourse of serfdom that is very current in the circles of Russia’s political opposition. For example, the popular politician and blogger, Aleksei Navalnyi, uses terms such as kholop in describing the attitudes of the Russian governing elite towards the common people. Similarly, political analysts often refer to Russian elites as the today’s nobility.[1]

kholopAnother social subtext of the film is the meditation on the role of violence. The intent of the psychological experiment is to change Grisha through violence. In this sense, the controversial actor Ivan Okhlobystin, in the role of an unconventional psychologist, reminds the audience of his recent role as a violent father in Mikhail Raskhodnikov’s Temporary Difficulties (Vremennye trudnosti, 2018). However, the psychologist’s project goes off plan in two ways. First, Grisha too easily adjusts to his environment, refusing to resist the violent treatment. In that sense, the film seems to participate in the on-going and never-dying debate about the nature of the Russian character and the Russian people’s failure to resist authoritarian governments and injustice.

The project also goes off script in its love subplot. Thus, Grisha unexpectedly does not choose the love interest assigned to him in the script. Instead of the appointed actress, Grisha chooses the veterinarian Liza (Aleksandra Bortich), who is supposed to take care of the horses on the film set. This plot twist adds the elements of the romantic comedy genre, thus extending the audience appeal.

Despite these topical and satirical elements, The Serf does not contain any hard satire—the feature that probably insured this film’s popularity. Thus, the ending of the film affirms the stability of the current social norms. Through his time traveling, Grisha changes enough to become an acceptable member of his father’s family. The film ends with a wedding photo-op on the bridge at Zaryadie Park, a symbol of the modernized Moscow and the new Moscow elite. Moreover, since Grisha finally reunites with his love interest, the audience can be assured of the continuation of the oligarchical generations and lifestyles. It is telling in this respect that Grisha’s cure turns into a replicated treatment for wealthy youth at the end of the film.



1] In social sciences, feudal tendencies in contemporary Russia have been explored, for example, by Shlapentokh and Arutunyan (2013).

Irina Anisimova,
University of Bergen

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Works Cited

Shlapentokh, Vladimir and Anna Arutunyan. 2013. Freedom, Repression, and Private Property in Russia. New York: Cambridge University Press.

The Serf, Russia, 2019
Color, 109 minutes
Director: Klim Shipenko
Screenwriters: Dar’ia Gratsevich, Anton Morozenko, Dmitrii Permiakov
Cast: Milos Bikovic, Aleksandra Bortich, Ivan Okhlobystin, Aleksandr Samoilenko, Mariia Mironova, Ol’ga Dibtseva
Music: Ivan Burliaev, Dmitrii Noskov
DoP: Iurii Nikogosov
Editor: Tim Pavelko
Producers: Eduard Iloian, Taimuraz Badziev, Viacheslav Dusmukhametov, Vitalii Shliappo, Denis Zhalinskii, Aleksei Trociuk, Aleksandr Kushaev
Production: Yellow, Black & White, MEM Cinema Production, KIT Film Studio

Klim Shipenko: The Serf (Kholop, 2019)

reviewed by Irina Anisimova © 2020

Updated: 2020