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Past for the Eyes

Oksana Sarkisova
Péter Apor

Subjects of Nostalgia: Selling the Past

Long Farewells

The Anatomy of the Soviet Past in Contemporary Russian Cinema

Oksana Sarkisova

Texte intégral

One can look back at the footprints left in the sand
and see them as a road.
Zygmunt Bauman, From Pilgrim to Tourist

1From a growing temporal distance, the Soviet historical “episode” seems to entail an emphatic beginning and a somewhat less spectacular but equally distinguishable end. The present article sets out to review the films of the last twenty years dealing with the Soviet period. Despite the declared break with the past, characteristic of transitional societies, a closer look at the social and cultural fabric of “post-Communism” reveals that the simplistic opposition of “before” versus “after” is subverted by recurrent long-term intellectual frameworks, narrative devices, and visual imagery, employed to make sense of the world “here and now” as well as “there and then.”

  • 1 Sergei Lavrientiev, “Tuman posle peizazha” [Fog after the landscape], Iskusstvo Kino 10 (1991): 11 (...)
  • 2 Daniil Dondurei, “Kinodelo: na puti k rynky” [Film business: On the way to the market] in Rossiisk (...)
  • 3 Daniil Dondurei, “Beshenye den’gi” [Exorbitant sums], Iskusstvo Kino 1 (1991): 61.
  • 4 “Nashe kino segodnia: vzgliad iz-za granits. Kruglyi stol v redaktsii Kinovedcheskie Zapiski” [Our (...)

2The liberated post-Soviet film market seemed to promise the emergence of a “new Bombay” for the film producers.1 The first units of film production and distribution organizations independent of the state appeared as early as the autumn of 1988, at the same time as non-state investment in cinema was allowed.2 The consequences turned out to be contradictory: initially mounting, production figures plummeted within a few years; Russian films disappeared from the shrinking distribution network, and a new chapter in the debate on the “crisis of cinema” unfolded. The market-oriented rationality that had just arrived faced a long tradition of approaching cinema as art, shared by filmmakers and functionaries alike. The opposition of “money” to “culture” sometimes took the form of opposing Russia to “the West.”3 The slow adjustment of the film industry to the new social and economic realities provoked increasingly anxious debates about the seemingly gloomy prospects of Russian cinema.4

3All the setbacks notwithstanding, the decay of the ideological confines promised to many a long-awaited leap into the “kingdom of freedom.” Freedom was the “carrot” of changes, and liberation from the shadows of the past was expected to be a shared experience. The imagery of liberation facilitated the establishment of a symbolic rupture with the Soviet past in politics, history, and economics. In the first post-socialist years numerous filmmakers worked with the recurrent metaphor of escape from a closed repressive “zone.” Over the last twenty years, however, the representation of the troubled Soviet past has evolved from concentration on social and individual traumas to the gradual emergence of a nostalgic modality. The withering away of the motif of rupture between the past and the present over the post-Soviet decade points to the gradual stabilization of the new order, bearing witness to the acceptance and routinization of social changes. Arguably, the disappearance of one of the constitutive discursive elements of the “post-communist condition” suggests the emergence of a new cultural configuration in contemporary Russia, including a mélange of the motifs of individual survival intertwined with the themes of collective security, paternalism and patriotism. I intend to trace how in a growing number of mainstream and art films the Soviet past turns from a repressive space into a routinized flow of everyday life. Being offered a growing number of examples of how “simple Soviet (wo)men” abused, exploited, resisted, and adjusted to the changing “rules of the game,” the audience is occasionally given a chance to be proud of their collective achievements. Yet, while opening up the discursive space to multiple interpretations, most directors choose not to challenge the audience with too many disturbing questions.


I have discovered a fascinating similarity
between life in the camp and at liberty…
Almost any prisoner could be a security guard.
Almost any warder deserved to be imprisoned.
Sergei Dovlatov, Zone

  • 5 Andrew Horton and Mikhail Brashinsky, The Zero Hour: Glasnost’ and Soviet Cinema in Transition (Pr (...)
  • 6 Alexander Shpagin, “Sotsrealism umer. Da zdravstvuet?” [Socialist realism is dead. Long live…?], I (...)

4Liberation discourse flourished with the coming of glasnost’ and can hardly be used as a chronological marker of the post-Soviet period.5 Yet perestroika cinema, in the loosening grasp of state censorship, tended rather to thematize the experience of unattainable freedom, of striving for a better world located “elsewhere.” As the sunset of Socialism approached, freedom gradually came to be relocated to the amorphously defined and unreachable “outside”; the ever-failing search for a desired condition of liberty introduced a persistent motif of escape as an attempt to break through to some other—free—existential space. The image of the “zone” as a space where rules radically different from those in the outside world are in operation became a metaphysical topos with Andrei Tarkovskii’s famous Stalker (1979). His vision gained its strength from the multiplicity of possible significations, as the spatial metaphor opened up the geography of the soul. The weakening grasp of the regime made endowed the immediate connotation of the zone with concrete geographical references, confronting the audience with the inhuman conditions in the camps and prisons on the peripheries of the Soviet Union. The proliferation of traumatized narratives further expanded the meaning of the zone to stand symbolically for the entire territory of the Soviet Union, while the Solzhenitsian metaphor of an “Eternal Inmate, (…) looking at a normal world from behind bars” was projected onto society as a whole.6

5Recurrent references to the imposed and unavoidable constraints presented escape as the only way out, often opposing the individual to the pressure of the group. In the parable-like Zero City (Gorod Zero, 1988), Karen Shakhnazarov depicted a Kafkaesque Soviet town, where a tight community circle forcefully embraces the protagonist, excluding all possibilities of departure, save a desperate escape. Another “accidental escape” appears in an absurd tragicomedy, Cloud-Paradise (Oblako-Rai, 1990). The main protagonist dreams of leaving a deeply provincial town and announces his desire to all his acquaintances living nearby. The inspired neighbors channel their fascination with the idea of escape into really “helping” the hero, whom they eventually force to set off on an unexpected voyage—into the wide open world.

Fig. 1 Freedom is Paradise Courtesy of Iskusstvo Kino

6The motif of escape often appears coupled with that of imprisonment, occurring in the most diverse genres ranging from drama to comedy. Sergei Bodrov’s Freedom is Paradise (S. E. R., 1989) tells the story of an uncouth but vulnerable teenager, whose only desire is to break out from the all-embracing penitentiary system. (Fig. 1) The hero keeps trying to escape from the camp for juvenile delinquents, searching for a never-seen father who turns out to be an inmate in a remote prison on the other side of the Soviet “Gulag Archipelago.” As the two protagonists meet, the film turns from a private story into a societal metaphor of the unavoidable ties—symbolized by the heavy chain—binding times and generations. Freedom—a paradise, according to the young hero’s tattoo—belongs to an unattainable, “unearthly” world which one can only long and strive for. The heavenly metaphor was used differently in Elena Tsyplakova’s directorial debut. Reed Paradise (Kamyshovyi rai, 1989) contrasted an attractive surface with the infernal essence, as a labor camp in the Central Asian desert turns out to be hell for those attracted by the promise of easy earnings. Faced with the brutal practices of this new, market-oriented Gulag, filmed with merciless naturalism, escape is the only (and unfulfilled) hope of the protagonists.

Fig. 2 Solovki Power Courtesy of Iskusstvo Kino

7By the end of its lifespan, the Soviet regime had firmly established the connection between prison and the Soviet rule. The belief in the boundless possibilities of molding (perekovka) human beings, inherited from early Soviet times, gradually turned into its tragic opposite. The contrast comes to the fore when we compare the groundbreaking perestroika documentary Solovki Power (Vlast’ solovetkaia, 1988) with the long-forgotten Soviet propaganda film Solovki (1928). In both films the camp represents the Soviet world in miniature. The early Soviet propaganda film presents Solovki as an ideological shop-window, where a forced labor camp looks like a sanatorium, in which the inmates are spoiled by regular meals in a clean canteen with white tablecloths and lavish free time. By the 1990s, the propaganda images have been subverted by the oral history of the survivors, who speak of the territory under the Soviet regime as one spacious zone. (Fig. 2)

8A paradigmatic connection of political regime and imprisonment emerges in Yurii Il’ienko’s Swan Lake: Zone (Lebedinoe ozero: Zona, 1990). Sergei Paradzhanov’s script, based on his personal experiences in a Soviet labor camp, offers a captivating visual metaphor: the protagonist, running away from the camp just before his release, hides for days in a huge hammer and sickle installation, trapped literally and symbolically by the system. The failed escape triggers the cruel retribution of his fellow inmates, forcing the hero finally to choose suicide as an ultimate form of escape from the vicious circle of brutality.

9The modalities of referring to the Soviet regime ranged from original plots to kitsch, recycling the Soviet clichés. Many of them appear in an unsophisticated burlesque called Strict Regime Comedy (Komedia strogogo rezhima, 1992), where the inmates of a prison stage a revolutionary play, internalizing the roles of the Soviet “founding fathers” to the point of carrying out a real uprising and putting back into service a train resting “on the sidetrack,” evoking a line from a popular Soviet song. In the closing shot, the camera moves from a close-up of the escaped inmates to a bird’s-eye view of a train circling around the camp at full speed. A similarly dubious salvation appears in the tragicomedy The Promised Heaven (Nebesa obetovannye, 1991), which makes a euphemistic escape into the sky (parodying the famous ending of Vittorio de Sica’s Miracle in Milan, 1951) seem the ultimate “liberation” for those who are unable to accommodate to the pace of change.

10One of the much anticipated consequences of the dismantling of the Soviet control system was the gradual opening of the borders and the possibility to visit the countries previously hidden behind the Iron Curtain. In the Soviet period, escape abroad equaled a transfer to another world, making the notion of commuting between the two worlds virtually impossible, since sooner or later everybody was forced to make an “either-or” choice. In the 1990s, the concept of “abroad” began to acquire material characteristics, appearing in post-Soviet cinema as a desired final destination, bringing its inhabitants ultimate happiness, freedom, and satisfaction—but often appearing as a “reward” for crimes or betrayal. In a symbolic competition with the “West,” Russia appeared at one and the same time as the West’s temporal and spatial periphery and as a space of close proximity, “allowing” one to step out of a Petersburg window straight onto the roofs of Paris or to visit any world capital through the back door of an old house. (To See Paris and Die, 1992; Window to Paris, 1993; Patriotic Comedy, 1992).

11Among the directions of escape, a traditional lifestyle also appeared as an alternative “paradise lost.” Nikita Mikhalkov’s Urga (1991) plays on the birth control rules in Inner Mongolia, creating a nostalgic saga where freedom is slowly receding under the advance of aggressive civilization. The longing for an “organic” coexistence with nature is comparable to the retrospective attempts to find the golden age in history, where ideological claims are masked by the emphasis on the reconstruction of historical “truth.” Searching for a “lost” Russia, Stanislav Govorukhin’s The Russia that We Lost (Rossia, kotoruyu my poteriali, 1992) uses a documentary form to represent pre-revolutionary times, creating an eulogizing image of arcadian Imperial Russia contrasted to the demonic Soviet past. The escape into the past sought to restore the stable order of things by erasing more than seventy Soviet years from Russian history.

12Used in a growing number of contexts, the escape metaphor occasionally complicated the original intention to break out of the imposed confines by offering numerous directions. The categorical “either-or” framework was challenged most often by the younger generation of filmmakers. They included Alexander Khvan, whose Dyuba-Dyuba (1992) is built on the familiar motif of liberation from prison but whose dramaturgy turns the linear structure of “liberation-escape-freedom-satisfaction” into something more complicated. The main protagonist returns to the town of his youth to save his first love from imprisonment for stealing drugs from the hospital where she works. The social gulf between the resident of the capital and his ex-classmates, who stayed in the provincial town and turned into alcoholics and drug-addicts, seems unbridgeable. To find the money needed for the escape, the hero ventures into a Dostoevskian undertaking of “expropriating” money of a nouveau riche, organizing a series of elaborate tortures. Despite a “successful” financial outcome, to the hero’s distress his beloved refuses to leave the city, preferring a crass lover along with the chances of landing again behind bars. The lonely protagonist ends up reviewing his own story from a distance with the estrangement of a spectator. Its sentimental pathos notwithstanding, the film is built on the ambiguities of imposed liberation, formulated in opposition to the motif of desired escape.

  • 7 “Segida-info,” Iskusstvo Kino 4 (1996): 76.
  • 8 A. Dubrovin, Mark Zak (eds.), Rossiiskoe kino: paradoksy obnovlenia [Russian cinema: Paradoxes of (...)
  • 9 Presentation of Alexander Troshin at a Symposium “Post-Soviet Art in Search of New Ideology,” Isku (...)
  • 10 Symposium “Post-Soviet Art in Search of New Ideology,” Iskusstvo Kino 6 (1996): 172.

13Despite the elaborate critique of the Soviet system, the directions for further development remained vague; the liberation from the past laid bare an unstructured present. In the 1990s, an initial increase in film output was followed by a significant fall in production: in 1992, 172 films were made, in 1993 152, in 1994 sixty-eight, in 1995 forty-six.7 Evaluations of the changes ranged from “fall, catastrophe, collapse” to “liberation and renewal.”8 The transformation of the film industry coincided with the perception of an ideological void, which disturbed a growing number of filmmakers and film critics. The blurred sense of direction evoked persistent attempts to redefine the state of the art. One of the attempts to unearth new ideological frameworks was a roundtable at the 19th Moscow International Film Festival (July 1995) entitled “Post-Soviet Art in Search of a New Ideology” and described by one film critic as a “voluntary search for a new illusion.”9 Although many participants—film critics, social scientists, philosophers—cautiously restrained from sketching a path of future development, most of the presentations tacitly implied the assigned moral “burden” of the art as well as the authorial “mission” towards the audience.10

  • 11 Presentation of Alexander Mitta at the Symposium “Post-Soviet Art in Search of New Ideology,” Isku (...)
  • 12 Presentation of Daniil Dondurei at the Symposium “Post-Soviet Art in Search of New Ideology,” Isku (...)

14Many of those present at the round table mentioned the loss of a sense of orientation as the political constraints vanished. The apathy of the audience was found to be most distressing. Nevertheless, some participants attempted to formulate a “new ideology.” Stating that Soviet cinema was a product of “imperial consciousness,” film director Alexander Mitta could only envision its survival as a client of the state. On behalf of the film industry, he offered the state a “fair deal,” promising “a chance of rebirth, of the reestablishment of its glory with the help of cinema.”11 Genre cinema was seen both as an answer to the needs of the audience and as a way out of the crisis of the “authorial” model. Daniil Dondurei, chief editor of the leading film journal, Iskusstvo Kino, argued for the cinema’s “psychotherapeutic” role, offering “livable models of the future.” Its success was described as depending on the positive image of the hero, since “one cannot seriously think that cripples, neurotics, and aggressors are the real heroes of our times.”12

  • 13 Boris Dubin, “Slovesnost’ klassicheskaia i massovaia: literatura kak ideologia i literatura kak ts (...)
  • 14 Natalia Sirivlia, “Temnye sily nas zlobno gnetut” [Dark forces are menacing and oppressing us], Is (...)
  • 15 Natalia Sirivlia, “Mafia—nash rulevoi!” [The mafia is leading us], Iskusstvo Kino 5 (1993): 26–33.

15Structural changes in the reading and viewing preferences of the mass audience facilitated the upsurge of a new industry of pulp fiction and television programs offering light entertainment, which marginalized “thick” journals and art cinema.13 Faced with the decreasing interest in Russian cinema, filmmakers were busy learning genre conventions, choosing rewarding themes according to Hollywood’s popular blueprint. In this context, adventure cinema rethematized the motifs of escape, liberation, and criminality by placing the ever-present mafia—“a symbol of absolute and omnipotent evil”14—in the focus of attention. The mafia on the screen gradually emerged as ubiquitous and eternal, penetrating all spheres of life and holding everybody within its reach. It was “rediscovered” in Soviet times (Bodyguard, 1991; Clan, 1991; Murder on Zhdanovskaia, 1992), and penetrated various spheres of the present, at once resisting the regime and growing out of its depths (Eastern Corridor or Racket à-la…, 1991; Rats, or Night Mafia, 1991; American Boy, 1992; To the Last Limit, 1991; A Day Before…, 1991; Crusader, 1995).15

  • 16 A. Titov, “Seans” zony” [Session in the zone], Iskusstvo Kino 2 (1996): 143–4.

16The previously established connection between the motifs of prison and liberation was losing its political connotations. The overwhelming presence of the criminal world on the screen began to provoke a counter-reaction to what came to be perceived as a thematic dominance: “today, when (…) the most influential part of society lives according to the law of thieves, central television shows a musical clip with the burial of a bandit, (…) the press reports the latest news from the life of outlaws, journalists go to prison to hear the revelations of crooks about the meaning of existence, one feels as if the most important social group were locked up, and those who are free were only rejoining or taking their leave from it.”16 The image of abroad gradually ceased to appear as a desired space of freedom, for which the cinematographic heroes of late perestroika longed, and came to be treated with a degree of detachment and criticism. The cross-Atlantic melodramatic love stories could have very different outcomes, but the us/others opposition no longer promoted a straightforwardly escapist motif (Groom from Miami, 1993; Wild Love, 1993; House on Stone, 1994). Among the clear-cut attempts to oppose the imagery of the “West as paradise” was Dmitrii Astrakhan’s melodrama You Are My Only Love (Ty u menia odna, 1993). Its protagonist refuses to go to America with a millionairess who loves him and stays with his wife in a small apartment, preserving a traditional set of gender roles rather than accepting a position as a kept partner.

17With the disappearance of the escape motif, the imagery of the zone became connected with the criminal underworld, losing the overtones of political or ideological liberation. The syncretic image of a romantic gangster proved to be a mixture of old and new characteristics. The most successful attempt to create a new hero in the 1990s appeared to be Danila Bagrov, the main character in Alexei Balabanov’s Brother (Brat, 1997), played by Sergei Bodrov. Winning over the sympathies of the young and particularly female audience with his aura of the lonely, handsome outcast, Bodrov’s hero performs acts of social justice in his spare time between contract killings. The fusion of vitality, physical power, and unshakeable conviction of moral righteousness reminds us of an ideal revolutionary hero—an unintended parallel further enhanced by Danila’s lack of interest in financial rewards, which is somewhat ironic for a professional killer. “The power is in truth, not in money”—with this paraphrase of Alexander Nevskii’s words, the new hero extends his symbolic genealogy back into the depths of national history.

18The sweeping popularity of Brother made the producers rush out the sequel Brother 2 (Brat 2, 2000), which further nourished expectations of a strong and confident hero. The existence of recognizable “bad guys” and the hero’s avoidance of too much “unphotogenic” reflection on the screen seemed to be two important ingredients of success. In the sequel, Balabanov sends the hero to the U.S. to apply his ideas of justice and truth. No longer a dream world, America becomes the context for stating the hero’s ideas of social order, and the extension of a familiar mafia space. Destroying the myth of the trans-Atlantic paradise, the film replaces it with another—that of the homogeneity of space, where Danila’s reading of the world becomes a universal system of references. In this context the motif of spiritual liberation becomes utterly redundant, being replaced by those of unity, justice, and the triumph of might.


  • 17 Quoted in Daniil Dondurei, “Novaia model’ kino: trudnosti perekhodnogo perioda” [New model of cine (...)

19The widely shared perception of the communist regime as a spacious repressive zone facilitated the initial repudiation of the Soviet past, seen as incompatible with basic human dignity and freedom. An accompanying sense of dissolving orientation blurred the coordinates of collective memory, making film critic Miron Chernenko describe the cinema of 1989 as a world in which “it is absolutely unclear, where we came from and where we are going.”17 At the same time, everyday life remained saturated by the intensive “consumption” of history. Public concern with historical material in the late 1980s and early 1990s had less to do with the work of devoted cabinet historians than with mass media accounts reacting with heightened interest to previously tabooed topics.

20The desire to fill in the white spots and to uncover the truth behind official lies motivated historians and filmmakers alike. The settling of accounts connected past and present, history and politics, reality and remembrance. In the years of perestroika, cinematography played a pivotal role in reformatting historical narratives by creating new paths through the labyrinths of collective memory. Starting with Repentance (Pokaianie, 1986), late-Soviet and post-Soviet cinema was at once concerned with and troubled by historical themes, seeing in Soviet history a decaying, unburied corpse, to be neither forgotten nor forgiven. Like Tengiz Abuladze’s heroine, who continuously unearthed the dead body of the buried dictator, demanding a public trial, the filmmakers originally sought to bring to light the yet unaddressed crimes of the past. The anatomical lessons of post-Soviet cinema were set in the most traumatic episodes of recent history.

21Liberation from the constraints of censorship made “plunging” into history equal to “reshooting” the past. Seeking distance from Soviet bluster, the epic was turned into the grotesque, deheroizing previously canonized figures and subverting established chronologies and hierarchies. The form was challenged along with the content in mocking remakes of canonized Soviet cornucopias (Tractor Drivers 2, 1992) or by pseudoscientific historical accounts, where an absurdist fictional (hi)story was constructed by using non-fiction material (Two Captains 2, 1993; Comrade Chkalov Crossing the North Pole, 1990).

  • 18 Lidia Mamatova, “Model’ kinomifov 1930h godov” [The model of film myths of the 1930s] in Lidia Mam (...)

22Among the historical references that saturated the cinema, the imagery of Stalin appeared most frequently. As the hero of Sergei Soloviev’s burlesque, Black Rose—an Emblem of the Sorrow, Red Rose—an Emblem of Love (1989), who woke up every morning to the recorded radio announcement of Stalin’s death, the audience was constantly offered details—documentary as much as invented—from the life of the dictator. The emphasis on the purely bodily existence of the tyrant aimed to destroy the Soviet mythology of the untouchable political body. Against the anti-corporeal tradition, which altogether deprived the leaders of any physical deficiency or bodily needs,18 post-Soviet cinema attempted to show the previously hidden areas of privacy (Inner Circle, 1991; How I Worked Under Stalin or Songs of the Oligarchs, 1990), subverting the imposed understanding of “high” and “low,” “witnessing” the nocturnal orgies in the Kremlin (Balthazar’s Feast or a Night with Stalin, 1989), emphasizing bodily deficiencies (Black Rose…), and even asserting the duplication of Stalin’s body for public occasions (Comrade Stalin Goes to Africa, 1991).

  • 19 “Nashe kino segodnia: vzgliad iz-za granits. Kruglyi stol v redaktsii Kinovedcheskie Zapiski, iyul (...)

23Looking back from 1989 at the Soviet period and its cinematographic reflection, film critic Mikhail Iampol’skii referred to it as a “sadomasochistic culture,” consisting of “desexualized bodies, unfamiliar with pleasure and satisfaction.”19 The ensuing search for Soviet subjectivity both extended and challenged this claim, seeking to dissect the fabric of everyday life and to see “everyday Communism” in its daily anti-monumentality under the gloss of official rhetoric, colossal architecture, and loud official declarations of achievements. What was portrayed behind the façade of the monumental ideology was the world of sexual simulacra and physical aggression. Not only gender roles, but gender itself became an adjustable category in a world that despised any conventional ideas of normality. The levels of such “adjustment” varied—from turning a mare into a stallion with cardboard genitals as part of the preparations for a pompous Red Square parade (Moscow Parade, 1992) to a travesty of the heroine, who is turned into a hardworking male to take up the burden of constructing the new world (Hammer and Sickle, 1994). The latter experiment becomes the ultimate embodiment of the Soviet project, creating a never-tiring yet deeply unhappy male Stakhanovist, the pride and foundation of the system. The bodily imprint of the Soviet ideology linked social and biological levels and approached revolutionary dreams as a grotesque experiment with the very basics of human existence.

  • 20 SMERSH is an abbreviation made up of two Russian words SMERt’ SHpionam (meaning “death to spies”). (...)

24Sexuality was seen as both a weakness and a weapon, serving as a mechanism of social coherence and as fuel for social conflict in a compact and remote military unit in Petr Todorovskii’s Encore, Once More Encore! (Ankor, eshe ankor!, 1992), where various female characters appear as the main agents of change. A military garrison, penetrated by the agents of the Soviet military secret police SMERSH,20 forms an artificially bounded unit from which the inhabitants dream of escaping. Communal life produces no unity or freedom, but gossip, mutual hatred, and dependency, with friendship and love being cynically used for career-building. Both pleasure and repression reappear in Todorovskii’s subsequent portrait of late Stalinism in What a Wonderful Game (Kakaia chudnaia igra, 1995), where a “joyous” world is ruined by a seemingly innocent joke, as the university students play out the mock radio broadcast of a governmental decree that never existed, announcing the fulfillment of the most wanted needs: lower vodka prices and freedom of speech.

25The Great Terror prompted very diverse visual and intellectual cinematic interpretations. Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (Utomlennye solntsem, 1994) became a successful borderline case between intellectual and mass cinema, which opposed an old-style intellectual to the charismatic, masculine, and simple revolutionary hero Kotov, played by the director himself. Presenting a contrast between two worlds, Mikhalkov made History an active protagonist, presenting melodramatic relationships as a tragedy with hagiographic overtones. The year 1936 is more than a background; time itself is clothed in the garments of a dramatist, turning the refined intellectual and musician Mitia into an NKVD agent, who is sent to arrest the legendary commander Kotov. But Kotov is far from being a passive victim, as at an earlier point he himself recruited Mitia to work for the secret services, before sending him away on a foreign mission and marrying his love, Marusia. As the opposition of the old and the new worlds becomes blurred, both protagonists perish, physically destroyed by the rising System.

Fig. 3 Concert for a Rat Courtesy of Iskusstvo Kino

  • 21 For more on Kharms’ The Old Woman, see Mikhail Iampol’skii, Bespamiatstvo kak istok (Chitaia Kharm (...)

26A visual contrast to the sunny summer countryside forming the background to Mikhalkov’s drama appears in Oleg Kovalov’s historical fantasy Concert for a Rat (Kontsert dlia krysy, 1995). The closed space of a Leningrad communal flat, through the aestheticized ascetic purity of black and white contrasts, carries a similar message of pulpable physical aggression. (Fig. 3) The merging of reality and fiction finds its high point in the year 1939, with the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact and the appearance of Daniil Kharms’s The Old Woman, both bearing witness to the ultimate fluidity of “normality” as a concept.21 Following the “rules of the game” does not protect the heroes from ultimate destruction. According to the inherent logic of purges, a cavalry officer, having diligently removed every new “enemy” from a group photo of his friends, finally sticks the scissors in his own throat, cutting himself out of the historical landscape.

27Bodily references permeate the sinister world of “Stalin baroque” in Alexei German’s Khrustalev, the Car! (Khrustalyov, mashinu!, 1998). The life of the protagonist, a surgeon, accustomed to cutting into human flesh, is itself dissected as he meets—in the density of the decaying Big Style—his own Doppelgänger. The subsequent infernal odyssey of the hero runs parallel with the physical decomposition of the state power, where identity is an ever-evasive notion. But the parallel existences intersect in the non-Euclidean space of the film, with Stalin’s death as their crossroads. The further—and ultimate—dissolution of the very foundations of the Soviet “body politic” and its memory appears in Sokurov’s Taurus (Telets, 2000). The physical decay of the agonizing Lenin and the dissolution of his dense visual mythology becomes not simply a farewell to a passing epoch, but constitutes the passing away of an “imagined community” held together by a recognizable imagery. The past, embedded in the eye of the beholder, disappears with the transformation of each single viewer.

28Towards the late-1990s, the heated debates of the period of “historical intoxication” gave way to the reestablished image of various epochs, where the complexities of history replaced the maximalist positions of the first truth-seekers. The public became the most sensitive barometer of changes: interest in the “terror of history” gradually declined, while the scope of portrayed epochs became more variegated. The emerging historical hierarchy replaced the insecurities of the post-communist period, reopening the possibility of using historical material to legitimize various national projects. The decay of the Soviet Union stimulated the reestablishment of national histories over the whole post-Soviet space, involving cinematography in the building of nation-states by constructing popular versions of normative historical memory. These attempts could be more or less subversive in the different successor states, ranging from Yurii Il’ienko’s openly provocative Prayer For Hetman Mazepa (2002) in the Ukraine to the monumental Amir Temur the Great (1997) and The Lands that Belonged to my Father (1998) in Uzbekistan. Similarly, filmmakers in Russia sought to put the past to the service of the contemporary statebuilding process, fusing pre-Soviet Russian and post-Soviet imperial cultural missions (The Barber of Siberia, 1998; The Romanovs: An Imperial Family, 2000; The Captain’s Daughter, 2000). However, none of the attempts to ascribe new values to different historical episodes included the obliteration of the major constitutive element of the Soviet period—the memory of the Great Patriotic War.

The times of the warriors: the imagery of war

  • 22 Denise Youngblood, Russian War Films: On the Cinema Front, 1914–2005 (Lawrence: University Press o (...)
  • 23 Ilia Alekseev, “Boinia # 6” [Massacre # 6], Iskusstvo Kino 5 (1993): 5–8.

29One of the central integrative historical memories in the Soviet period was the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945), a term used in Soviet and post-Soviet public discourse almost interchangeably with World War II.22 Thematized in literature, the plastic arts, and the cinema as an experience at once liberating and unifying, war memories from the early post-war years were shaped under close state supervision, which secured substantial material resources for numerous monumental displays and public performances. The war was introduced as “a moment of truth,” which made it possible to ascribe an unquestionable and uncontested meaning to the total subordination of individual interests to the well-being of the state. A Russian was considered to be “always a little bit of a soldier, who is most organic in the context of war and unfreedom.”23

  • 24 One such festival, for example, is the International Forum Zolotoi Vityaz’ established in 1992. In (...)
  • 25 According to the quoted data, 49 % of the respondents stated that their understanding of World War (...)
  • 26 T. G. Ashplant, Graham Dawson, Michael Roper, “The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration: Conte (...)

30Up to the present, the state has remained involved in the production of cinematographic war imagery, supporting film studios and sponsoring new “patriotic” film festivals specialized in the production and promotion of such images.24 While active state involvement in the politics of war memory also remained characteristic of the post-Soviet years, the cinematography of the 1990s tried to revise even this most monolithic and rigid myth of the Soviet times. In the last Soviet years this cornerstone of Soviet identity was challenged by the release of new data on human losses and official decision-making. An opinion poll conducted in Moscow in 1994 concluded that a significant percentage of the population questioned the image of World War II created by the Soviet cinema.25 Going against the “martial, male, Russian”26 war image which was dominant in the Soviet Union and has survived up to the present day, alternative discourses gradually emerged alongside the “officially promoted” imagery.

31The Soviet model of a hero-liberator was first consistently subverted in Pavel Chukhrai’s Thief (Vor, 1997), where the audience was faced with a crook behind the façade of an attractive officer. Himself the son of film director Grigorii Chukhrai, whose Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate, 1959) became a paradigmatic anti-monumental treatment of war, the filmmaker attempted to challenge the dominant discourse of heroism by looking at the father-son relationship. The father figure in Thief contradicts the representative tradition of sacralized patriotism, sacrifice, and communalism. The story is presented as one long flashback told by the narrator, a little boy at the time the story takes place. His father, using the fake identity of a military hero, cynically exploits the openness and trust of his gullible neighbors in order to fleece them. Masquerading the body, the film contests both the monumental self-representation of late Stalinism and the attempts to present the surface as the essence, revealing the omnipresent cult of brute force, struggle for survival, and mistrust of everyone around. The closing scene shows the grown-up boy as a colonel in Chechnya, himself caught up in a vicious circle of violence and militancy.

  • 27 Alexander Shpagin, “Religia voiny. Sub’ektivnye zametki o bogoiskatel’stve v voennom kinematografe (...)

32Although the 1990s opened up the arena for multiple agencies involved in shaping the war memories, their public appearance remained politicized. Heated debates demonstrate a high degree of resistance to different forms of deviation from the imagery shaped during the Soviet post-war decades. Among the most debated examples are Our Own (Svoi, 2004) and Polumgla (2005), made by filmmakers of a younger generation. While these works received partial support from the state-funded Cinematography Committee, their message differs markedly from the “war mainstream.” Visually and conceptually they draw on the heritage of the Thaw cinema of war, which, paradoxically, included not only official propaganda works, but also the first attempts to subvert Soviet bluster and monumentality.27 Characteristically, the films seeking to explore yet untouched dimensions of the war choose off-battlefield locations, concentrating on the stories away from the front line, and include figures that are often missing from the conventional “patriotic” accounts: collaborators, women, or prisoners of war.

33Artem Antonov’s Polumgla is a directorial debut. Polumgla literally means “dusk,” but in the film it is the name of a northern Russian village, far away from the front line, where German prisoners of war are sent to build a tower declared to be an important military project. The village women, losing hope of ever seeing their husbands alive, initiate interaction with the captives, which evolves into a bitter-sweet coexistence. When the tower nears completion, the villagers and the POWs prepare to celebrate the new year. At night, masked dancing figures emerge from the darkness around the Germans’ barracks, arousing mixed feelings of surprise and fear in them. As the villagers in their carnivalesque clothes draw the stunned Germans into the whirlpool of their merriment, the seeming unity and happiness is disturbed by an anxiety that fills in the air. Only one day after the death-mocking ritual tragic news breaks: the Soviet military leadership announces the uselessness of the construction and decides to “liquidate” the POW unit. In a sudden twist, the young men turn from enemies into victims, whose lives are taken away on the orders of some anonymous, invisible, irrational, yet omnipresent power that is not interested in individual stories and personal details. The carnival remains a false subversion that can never reverse the hierarchy of power. Any occasional delay becomes a strengthening element of the oppressive system.

  • 28 Igor’ Bolgarin started his script-writing career in 1957 with the adventure drama On the Count’s R (...)
  • 29 The script is published in Kinostsenarii 2–3 (2004).
  • 30 Igor’ Bolgarin, “Rezhisser rezal nashu pravdu. I dobavlial mnogo svoei lzhi” [The Director cut our (...)
  • 31 Valerii Kichin, “Polumgla slepit glaza” [Polumgla blinds], Rossiiskaia gazeta (1 December 2005). O (...)

34It was exactly this provocative ending that sparked the scandal around the film. The director used a script written by Igor’ Bolgarin and Viktor Smirnov—writers whose career started with rather mainstream Soviet scripts.28 The screenplay of Polumgla was originally entitled “And the Earth was Covered in Snow…”29 and featured a somewhat implausible final scene of the villagers bidding farewell to the German war prisoners whom they have befriended in the spirit of the late-Soviet internationalism. Having learned of the change in the script, the writers started a campaign against the film, without anticipating the final outcome. To the surprise of many critics, who welcomed the debut work, the director was accused by the script-writers of nothing less than creating an “anti-Russian” film.30 For some time the distribution of the film in Russia was delayed—an event unprecedented since the end of the Soviet regime.31 The festival success of the film, screened in Montreal, Vyborg, and Vologda, finally shifted the balance in the director’s favor and the film was released; however, the resurrection of the late-Soviet “patriotic” discursive ghost in new garments gave rise to concerns among professionals.

  • 32 Roman Volobuev, “Na neitral’noi polose” [On the neutral line], Seans 21–22 (2005), online version (...)

35Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Our Own also uses a rural setting, this time in the Pskov area, in the territories occupied by the Nazi army. Three Soviet military men—a political commissar, an NKVD-officer, and a young sniper—escape from captivity and head for the native village of the sniper. However, the young man’s father has accepted the position of village elder under the Nazi occupation and a number of his fellow-villagers are serving in the German police. One of them is in love with the old man’s daughter and uses every means to force the family to agree to their marriage. The destinies of the three soldiers are mixed up with the complex power struggle in the village, where betrayal and loyalty are only inches apart. Even though it went against the war clichés, the film was perceived by some critics as a “military-rural thriller” (Roman Volobuev), a “quality western with pseudopatriotic underlying motives” (Boris Khlebnikov), an “existential western made from the partisan discoveries of the Soviet multi-national cinema” (Andrei Plakhov), and even as “the first Russian ’American’ war film” (Yurii Gladil’schikov).32 This polarization of opinions, albeit somewhat less radical than in the case of Polumgla, points at once to the surviving resistance to the on-going revisionism of war representations and the growing desire to see even more “radical” treatments of the familiar theme.

36It is not only the younger generation of filmmakers who venture into films revising war experiences. A recent film by an established filmmaker, Petr Todorovskii, whose works were already mentioned above, is a case in point. The Taurus Constellation (V sozvezdii byka, 2003) is the somewhat artificial story of the rivalry of a village shepherd and a city show-off over a girl. Living in a village close to Stalingrad, the two become friends in the course of an adventurous foray to find hay for the bulls during the decisive battle. On their journey, the two are almost killed by German soldiers, but finally capture a medic whom they eventually befriend in their “run-for-your-life” journey in the snowy plains around Stalingrad. The film uses the familiar dramaturgical devices: everyday village life, the mutual dependency of the prisoner and the locals, the ability to understand the each other’s most basic needs despite the lack of a common language, and most of all a mildly sympathetic portrait of a German medic. Similar motifs of linguistic barriers overcome by humanity appear in Alexander Rogozhkin’s The Cuckoo (Kukushka, 2001), where an unexpected triangle—a Finnish kamikaze sniper, a captain in the Soviet Army, escaping from SMERSH, and a Lapp woman—try to make sense of their existence during September 1944, a few days before Finland dropped out of the Second World War.

  • 33 Current revisionism is visible not only in cinema: recently published archival materials, selected (...)

37These works remain exceptions among the conventional reproductions of heroic struggle and sacrifice, such as, for example, The Star (Zvezda, 2002), a recent remake of the 1949 adaptation of Kazakevich’s eponymous novel. At the same time, there is a growing number of films which use war as a pretext for telling adventure stories, using historical details as “decorations” of the storyline. One such is the crime drama In August 1944 (V avguste 44-go, 2002), where the role of the “good guys” is assigned to SMERSH agents, fighting heroically against Polish and Ukrainian Nazi collaborators.33

38Given the rigidity of the memory of World War II, other occasions of military conflict provide space for experiments with the existential borderline of life and death. Before the tragic outbreak of military violence in Chechnya, the film critics formulated a conceptual framework, using war situations as an exemplary model ground for existential questions. This potential was explored in the early 1990s in reflections on the war in Afghanistan (Leg, 1991; Afghan Breakdown, 1991; Peshawar Waltz, 1994). Vladimir Bortko’s Afghan Breakdown, for example, shows the last days of the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan. Everything is permeated by the anticipation of withdrawal: morale is low, the bullying of youngsters is rife, the inhabitants of the military town are completing their last shopping rounds, weapons are being traded in exchange for safe withdrawal, the longing for and the fear of life in peace pervade the daily conversations. The news of the growing lack of everyday goods, the environmental crisis, and the devaluation of savings, as well as growing criticism of Soviet interventionist military campaigns, arouses confusion and concern. But the fighting goes on—and the fate of the last victims makes the war even more meaningless.

39Characteristically of the “times of change,” the leading role of a brave and honorable military commander is played by the Italian actor Michele Placido, who starred in the mid-1980s Italian TV series La Piovra (Octopus) on the struggle between the mafia and the police, which was highly popular in the late Soviet Union. However, instead of a victorious hero image, he is assigned a tragic halo in the film: having accidentally killed a friendly Afghan mediator with his wife and children, he allows himself to be killed by the only survivor of the family, a teenage boy. His death does not represent a heroic martyrdom, but stands as a metaphor for expiating the sins committed by the Soviet Union. Ironically, it was the close cooperation with the military authorities that allowed for an impressive emphasis on the futility of the military presence and responsibility for the violence in the closing scene, where dozens of Soviet military helicopters dominate the Afghan sky.

40It is instructive to compare this early post-Soviet film to a recent Russian blockbuster: The 9th Company (9 rota, 2005). While the war in Afghanistan is a rare cinematographic topic, particularly since the outbreak of the war in Chechnya, a comparison of the two films reveals a clear discursive shift in the representation of war in post-Soviet cinema—war in general, as well as the Soviet presence in Afghanistan in particular. The 9th Company was directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, whose father Sergei Bondarchuk was a prominent Soviet actor and filmmaker known for his film adaptations of Mikhail Sholokhov and Leo Tolstoy. Bondarchuk junior took after his father in many ways: his high-budget production, which cost $9,000,000, became a record in contemporary Russian filmmaking, the shooting included mass scenes comparable with those of Bondarchuk senior, and the director also played one of the leading roles in his film.

  • 34 Most of the reviews are available on the film’s official web-site at flashindex.html(...)

41Although it drew on the accumulated experience of numerous Hollywood blockbusters, The 9th Company was cheered for its “patriotic” stance in many reviews and audience responses.34 Nevertheless, it contains some ambiguities, including recognizable tropes from earlier treatments of this war: the traces of the arms trade, the soldier brutality, and the mounting insecurity about accommodating to “life in peace” seemingly repeat similar themes in Afghan Breakdown. At the same time, the war business remains an exceptional episode and the humiliating treatment of soldiers is presented as learning “survival skills.” Both the reasons for Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the political context of the war are bracketed off: nothing provokes the audience to reflect on what exactly makes this war “ours”—except the official slogans about the “international duty of the Soviet soldiers to our brother nation under the threat of imperialist intervention,” chanted by newcomers as part of their training program.

  • 35 Interivew with Fedor Bondarchuk and Elena Iatsura on the 9th company’s official site: (...)

42The film seeks to replace both history and politics with a timeless epic of brotherhood, loyalty, sacrifice, and comradeship. An inevitable aestheticization of war takes place not only on the visual level, achieved with spectacular pyrotechnics, careful color correction, and fast-pace montage, but is also straightforwardly verbalized in the film by one of the protagonists, a painter. He explains his reason for volunteering to come to Afghanistan by paraphrasing Freud: “There is only life and death in war. War is beautiful.” Despite his declared principle of verisimilitude in portraying historical realities, the director seems to subscribe to a timeless and metaphorical view on the war. While this position might be explained by the intention to create another spectacular show with a schematic historical background, Bondarchuk sees the film as a “generational” stance, and also accepts its educational mission.35 This disturbing ambiguity intensifies in the closing episode of the film: after the final bloody fight, where most of the unit perishes, it turns out that the boys were simply forgotten at a post which not longer needed to be defended; nevertheless, the unit survivor proudly declares that they “won their war.” The utter meaninglessness of these sacrificial deaths even within the Soviet logic of war recalls Antonov’s solution in Polumgla, but Bondarchuk refuses to deheroicize the 9th company’s death, emphasizing the ambivalence of “war truths,” which not only rehabilitate the veterans’ pride, but also seek to serve as a model for a young audience.

  • 36 T. G. Ashplant et al., “The Politics of War memory,” 10.

43This brief overview of war films in contemporary Russia demonstrates the role of the cinema in the complex dynamics of war memory created by an interplay of different agencies, including “those of individual memory, remembrance in civil society, and national commemorative practices organized by the state.”36 Both the war films and their reception reveal an unbroken continuity in the perceptions of the war experience as a constitutive part of contemporary identity constructs.

A livable past: the triumph of soviet everyday life

  • 37 Yuri Levada, Ot mnenii k ponimaniyu. Sotsiologicheskie ocherki. 1993–2000 [From opinions to unders (...)
  • 38 Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001). Maya Nadkarni and Olga Shevc (...)

44The original break with the Soviet system of references became paradoxically transformed into its own opposite over the post-Soviet decade.37 The growing longing for the past, simplified and stripped of its deep contradictions by the nostalgic gaze, gradually became a pervasive characteristic of the new cultural context.38 The reemerging interest of the audience in Soviet cultural products, including first and foremost the cinema, resists attempts to make the Soviet worldview an object of rational analysis, appearing on most occasions rather as a form of emotional co-experience.

  • 39 Round Table “Searching for Meaning: New Patriotism” [V poiskakh smysla: novyi patriotizm], Iskusst (...)

45The crucial link in the new “chain of times” was provided by the desired new ideology, the absence of which so troubled the filmmakers in the mid-1990s. The round table at the 2005 Moscow Film Festival focused on patriotism as a “(re)discovered” normative pillar.39 The discussion itself, however, demonstrated a broad range of divergent views, as the participants spoke about diverse issues, including artistic mission, environmental conditions, history textbooks, the Russian soul, and the growing xenophobia. At the same time, round table participants pointed to the gradual emergence of prioritized historical themes and periods, which were markedly different from the “totalitarian” paradigm of the first post-communist years.

  • 40 Among such TV documentaries are the recently produced Julian Semenov. Information for Thought (Jul (...)
  • 41 The two programs are titled “Staraia Kvartira” (first shown in 1996) and “Namedni: 1961–1991. Our (...)
  • 42 Kirill Razlogov, “Vpered v proshloe” [Forward to the past], Iskusstvo Kino 3 (1997), available at (...)

46A prominent role in reshaping historical priorities was and is played by television. The growing number of Soviet films on TV screens in the late 1990s–early 2000s made it possible not only for the broadcasters to save on royalties and other fees but also to return the audience to the universe of the “common Soviet (wo)man”—a feeling which was met with enthusiasm by many. At the same time, attempts to critically assess the Soviet “blockbusters” and “masterpieces” were often discarded as unnecessary or irrelevant. The short-lived television program Kinopravda, which sought to create an analytical framework for viewing the films by contextualizing them with the help of historians, filmmakers, and other public figures, was quickly replaced by an ever-growing number of nostalgic documentaries in investigative guise, seeking to present the cult pop figures, as well as journalists, scientists, and politicians—as “survivors” and “subverters” of the regime.40 A number of television projects in the 1990s fused private recollections and material souvenirs creating a collage of historical anecdotes (Old Appartment, Lately).41 The New Year programs of the past years have consistently evoked the memory of Soviet musical programs.42 The shift of priorities bears witness to the continuing captivation by the Soviet ideological machine and the wariness of any alienating mediators.

47The cinema also turns to private memories and recollections, demonstrating a wide range of possible interpretations of multiple private histories. Paradigmatic in this respect is a work by Vitalii Manskii, Monologue: Private Chronicles (Monolog: Chastnye Khroniki, 1999). Manskii uses the home archives of countless anonymous contributors, merging their personal, individual and utterly private stories into the generic story of a collective Soviet self. Speaking on behalf of the last Soviet generation, an off-screen voice tells the viewers the story of a “simple Soviet man,” born on April 11, 1961, one day before Gagarin’s flight into the cosmos—at once keeping an ironic distance from the narrative and deeply internalizing it. The mosaic reconstruction of a Soviet Bildungsroman seeks to embrace the most generic generational experiences, as well as to present the history of private ups and downs behind the monochrome Soviet façade. The rehabilitated past emerges devoid of any extremes, appealing to experiences which are recognizable by the largest possible audience.

48In his macro-reflection, the narrator appears as both a contemporary and a historical figure, and his commentary on pioneer life and the 7 November demonstrations combines the complicity of a participant with the deconstructive view of an outsider. The Orwellian year of 1984, for example, contains the imagery of peaceful Volga landscapes, accompanied by a commentary on Reagan’s statement about the “empire of evil.” Restating on behalf of his generation that the Soviet Union was “indeed an empire, but not an evil one,” the narrator fuses the rhetoric of the times with a contemporary reevaluation of the imperial legacy in an ironic, detached tone. Although the author drowns his alter-ego at the onset of perestroika, it was exactly his generation that later partook in remolding the image of Soviet history, ascribing to it the nostalgic gaze of participant observers.

49The on-going transformation of the post-communist decade moved away from the Trauerarbeit of addressing past traumas, to the growing prominence of everyday life with the primary goal of survival among the most absurd or oppressive circumstances. The shift of historical epochs and genres further contributes to the reestablishment of the broken “chain of times.” Recent years have witnessed a growing number of films on the Brezhnevian and Andropovian epochs. Not only do the sheer numbers demonstrate the changing perspective; the evaluation of the times too has changed dramatically. For most of the 1990s, the Brezhnevian period appeared dull and repressive. It suffices to compare a Totalitarian Romance (Totalitarnyi romans, 1998) or Russian Ragtime (Russkii Regtaim, 1993) with the controversial TV film Brezhnev (2005).

Fig. 4 Russian Ragtime Courtesy of Iskusstvo Kino

50Both Totalitarian Romance, featuring a love affair between a Moscow intellectual and a provincial girl, and Russian Ragtime, where the hero’s emigration becomes possible through his betrayal of his closest friends to the KGB, are devoid of any nostalgic glow and penetrated by the obsessive desire of their protagonists to escape from the oppressive regime. (Fig. 4) The protagonist of Totalitarian Romance escapes from Moscow to a small town after becoming involved in the protests against the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. There he starts a relationship with a woman who is an archetypal product of the Soviet system, with a firm belief in the advantages of Socialism and pity for the suffering inhabitants of the brutal capitalist world. Their relationship is quickly spotted and monitored by local KGB agents. Trying to turn the girl into an informer, they ultimately open her eyes to the problems which she had long preferred to interpret according to the party directives. Russian Ragtime, where the protagonist has to convince the security services to let him emigrate, features a panorama of different “accommodating” strategies towards the regime, grounded in the ethical, professional, public, and private compromises that citizens were forced to perform.

51A conscious attempt at remolding the image of the period was undertaken in a recent TV project entitled Brezhnev. The four episodes, produced and sponsored by the state television Channel 1 in 2005, were directed by Sergei Snezhkin. They are set in 1982 and concentrate on the last days of Brezhnev, as the aging and ailing state secretary is gradually sinking into his own past. His dreams bring back the early years of his career, his first encounter with his wife, his work with Khrushchev, later a plot to remove him from his ruling position, and finally World War II. In his dreams, Brezhnev is potent and active—when awake, he is hardly able to concentrate for a few minutes. In contrast to Sokurov’s Taurus, physical deficiencies here do not become a marker of the decaying regime; rather, the aging physical “surface” is shown as containing a still potent spirit. It is not by chance that the top party leadership is worried—most of the aged functionaries who have survived numerous rounds of purges are afraid to take any initiatives while the General Secretary is still alive. The official reasoning conveys at the same time the main message of the film: “The country needs calm and stability, and calm and stability is you!”

52Further ambiguities in reconstructing a well-remembered Brezhnevian regime follow suit. The film director sought to distance himself from the image of the late Soviet regime as corrupt, oppressive, and unviable: in his reading, Brezhnev stands alone against a background of stupidity and incompetence as a benevolent tsar, whose best intentions are simply never realized. The film opens with the nocturnal appearance of a troubled petitioner whose son was unjustly sent to prison. Secretly climbing into Brezhnev’s country residence at night, the man with tears in his eyes tells his story to the General Secretary, who has been awakened against the will of the confused security guards. Brezhnev immediately starts to solve the problem—but the man cannot bear his happiness and drops dead at the feet of the warm-hearted ruler.

53The contrast between good intentions and non-complying realities remains a recurrent motif throughout the four episodes. Brezhnev visits a village store to discover to his great surprise that despite the party’s decree that “Soviet toilers shall have all they need on their tables” the shop is virtually empty of goods. Nevertheless, excited customers cheer the leader, assuring him that they all live very well. While his meetings with “the people” demonstrate the open heart and good will of the party leader, within his own family he is portrayed as strict and uncompromising, refusing to get involved in his son-in-law’s troubles, and unwilling to extend a helping hand to his daughter. At the same time, he is presented as a self-sacrificing figure, who has devoted his whole life to serving “his people”: “I was worn out before I should have been. Land improvement is my problem, the Constitution is my problem, disarmament is my problem, sausages in the shops—also my problem. But I don’t have two lives!” he cries in despair. The ambiguity of Brezhnev’s image is based on the shifting distance between the author’s position and the protagonists’ performance. While the film allows us to play with double optics—we are free to see Brezhnev as a lunatic remote from any reality or as a concerned leader, giving his life for others—this new ideological construct also serves the very practical goal of strengthening popular nostalgia for the years of “stability.”

  • 43 Contrary to the mid-1990s fascination with Stalin and his close collaborators, in the 2000s an inc (...)

54The re-evoked interest in Brezhnev’s times also gave rise to new topics, some of which at a closer look appear to be forgotten old ones. Among them is the (re)emerging interest in the workings of the secret police and spy stories, abundantly manufactured during the Cold War. Along with the cinema, the book market contributed to the shift in reading priorities, demonstrated both by the rocketing number of titles and by the size of print-runs.43 Among the recent cinematographic representations of the KGB one rarely finds the straightforwardly negative accounts common in the 1990s. Moreover, while in Totalitarian Romance and Russian Ragtime the agents were malevolent figures relegated to the background, a number of recent films put the secret agent into the focus, often creating ambiguous statements about the “grey cardinals” of Soviet life. Such is, for example, Illegal (Nelegal, 2005), directed by Boris Frumin and Yurii Lebedev. The main character, a KGB agent in Finland, is called back to the Soviet Union as his mission is on the verge of being discovered. Upon his return, the KGB builds him a civilian career, intending to make him work at the airport customs to secure the safe transit of agents and secret materials across the border. Played by Aleksei Serebriakov, the agent is a peculiar melancholic version of James Bond: in spite of his immediate success with all the women he meets, he is portrayed as a victim of the system, removed from his family and deprived of any deep personal relationship.

  • 44 Boris Frumin, “Konspektirovat’ nastoiashee” [Summarizing the present], Iskusstvo Kino 2 (2006), on (...)
  • 45 Roman Volobuev, “Nelegal. Sovetskoe ekzistentsial’noe retro pro shpiona” [Illegal. Soviet existent (...)

55Illegal is set in 1979. Somewhat ironically, director Boris Frumin emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1978, after his films (Diary of a School Director, 1975; The Errors of Youth, 1978) were shelved and his further career obstructed.44 The historical “markers” in the film are confusing: critics immediately picked on Brezhnev’s and Andropov’s portraits as Party General Secretary, on the contemporary brand of old cigarettes the protagonist smokes, and other minor but disturbing inconsistencies about times that are still vivid in the memories of many viewers.45 Both the hero’s goals and his means of achieving them remain petty and devoid of any of the romantic excitement typical of crime drama. On the contrary, his life is pitiful and empty: he is a minor cog in the complex machinery, whose existence is justified by the rhetoric of “keeping up with the enemies.” An ambiguous message sent by the film fuses an anti-heroic narrative with a theoretically “noble mission” which itself is at no point challenged.

56Another recent attempt to look into the KGB’s everyday life was undertaken by Konstantin Khudiakov in a four-episode TV film called The One from Leningrad. The Lives of the Others (Leningradets. Chuzhaia zhizn’, 2005). Khudiakov’s film included some well-known actors and mixed cinema and TV-series aesthetics. The story centers on an eccentric family of Soviet engineers, who for generations have worked on top military projects. It opens in 1962, when the youngest generation is assigned to build the most advanced atomic warship. The family itself is an aggregate portrait of the Soviet technical intelligentsia—well-educated servants of the regime, who do not always hide their critical opinions, but who enjoy abundant privileges although they live under permanent supervision by the secret services. In fact, a KGB agent is almost part of their family—he lives under the same roof, goes shopping with them, consoles an aging aunt, offers his services to a jilted bride, saves a talented engineer and an unlucky suitor from suicide, and even idyllically plants potatoes together with the whole family at their dacha. Meanwhile, he eavesdrops, searches through private belongings, and installs bugs in the house—all to misguide the omnipresent enemies. The master plot, revealed to the stunned family at the end of the film, is that their whole existence was only a diversionary project to distract the attention of Western spies from the real engineering breakthrough of the Soviet Union. A dubious modus vivendi, constructed by the filmmaker, avoids either straightforward glorification or any ethical issues: the symbiosis seems to function perfectly, and the only thing that upsets the hero is that his work on the most destructive atomic project ever was in vain.

57The rural theme seldom appears among cinematographic retro topics. In the 1980s, village life on the screens was presented in terms of an aging population and abandoned spaces, but it was not devoid of spiritual potential. In 1991, Lidia Bobrova’s debut Hey You, Geese (Oi vy, gusi) reworked these tropes into a dramatic story set in 1980 in a small Cossack stanitsa (settlement) in the Russian South. Evolving around the lives of three brothers—one handicapped, one alcoholic, and one a criminal recently released from prison—the film shows the penury and hypocrisy of the Soviet rural world. The family of the handicapped protagonist, for example, struggles with poverty, since the authorities forbid him to take any of the available jobs in order to “protect” his health and at the same time offer him a pension which is not enough to keep his family. The slow village life is set against the backdrop of the Olympics; and the bombastic media reports further expose the multi-layered falseness of the regime. Her later work—In That Land (V toi strane, 1997), set in contemporary Russia—shows how little the rural world has changed since.

58Bobrova’s films stand in sharp contrast to a recent village retro in the comic genre, Kolkhoz entertainment (2004). Set in 1989, introduced as “Perestroika,” the film takes place in the “Red Rebel” kolkhoz. Reprimanded for lacking “culture,” the kolkhoz director decides to shoot a movie in the village to prove that the kolkhoz is culturally advanced and worthy of an annual bonus. Finding no support in the capital, the director decides to involve villagers and inmates from the nearby prison, and brings in an alcoholic script-writer whose main dilemma is whether the film should be nominated for an Oscar or a Cannes prize. Choosing World War II as a time frame, the villagers create a parodistic cocktail of war film clichés, including brutal enemies, wicked collaborators, and selfsacrificing heroes. Gradually the fiction spills over into reality as the inmates start to harass the local villagers, confiscate their possessions and terrorize the population with explosions. But finally, in prison, where the whole crew has ended up by the close of the shooting, they receive the news that their film has indeed been nominated for an Oscar. This bittersweet cinematographic “fast food” fuses stigmatization and selfglorification, creating a fully virtual atmosphere of the most recent past.

59Among other recent attempts at “national hits” is Ivan Dykhovichnyi’s The Kopeck (Kopeika, 2001). At the center of the story is the first Zhiguli model, released in 1970. (Fig. 5) Throughout the film people from all social groups, occupations, and locations, partake in owning this loyal though chronically unreliable car. Passing from party elite to market sellers, engineers, and dissidents, the vehicle ultimately connects the whole of society not only spatially, as it travels from Moscow beyond the Urals, but temporally as well, with a lifespan up to the present day. The value of the Zhiguli only grows with time: it bridges both the Soviet and the post-Soviet world, entering contemporary times as a precious retro-object bought at an auction by entrepreneurs, before they perish one after another in the insecure “new-Russian” business world.

Fig. 5 Kopeck Courtesy of Iskusstvo Kino

60Social coherence is further strengthened by the participation in universally accepted achievements. Along with World War II, expansion into the cosmos emerges as another motif arousing collective pride. In recent years, filmmakers have turned to exploring the first years of space travel, creating works that successfully combine art-house characteristics with the appeal to a broad audience. Among such works are Aleksei Uchitel’s Dreaming of Space (Kosmos kak predchuvstvie, 2005) and Aleksei Fedorchenko’s First on the Moon (Pervye na lune, 2005). Both films are interesting examples of the sophisticated merging of fictional and documentary material, which makes it possible to support the artificial construct with the viewers’ embedded trust in non-fiction footage.

61Dreaming of Space is set in 1957 in a small port on the edge of the Soviet empire. The main protagonist is another “simple Soviet man,” a cook with the nickname Konjok (little horse), who has his work, his girlfriend, and his settled life. (Fig. 6) His alter-ego, friend-enemy, the mysterious Gherman with the strange name and even stranger behavior appears out of nowhere and is clearly—albeit only for us, the viewers, and not for the naïve and somewhat short-sighted Konjok—preparing to escape from the Soviet Union. He practices sports, swims in icy water, learns a single English phrase about political asylum, and finally seduces Konjok’s girlfriend in order to gain access to foreign ships. His actions, seen through the eyes of the enthusiastic and childlike hero, do not have the halo of resistance that such a figure would have received a decade earlier. In this narrative, it is Konjok, not Gherman, who is the main character. Following Gherman’s disappearance, Konjok is upgraded, moves to Moscow and on the way meets another enthusiastic young man, Yurii. In the final scene, together with Konjok the audience will recognize this young man as Yurii Gagarin, a new and a much more attractive role model than the disappearing friend. In this new system of coordinates, Gherman with his struggle to escape is marginalized, written off, and easily forgotten.

Fig. 6 Dreaming of Space Courtesy of Iskusstvo Kino

62First on the Moon is a conscious manipulation of archival footage, deliberately aimed at blurring reality and fiction. Stylized into an investigative documentary, this film is a phantasmagoric story of an NKVD-supervised experiment in which a special group is trained to fly to the moon. (Fig. 7) However, the first spaceship explodes, the astronaut disappears, and everybody involved in the project is purged. Fedorchenko creates an entertaining piece of fiction stylized into the form of “secret police footage” recently “discovered” in the KGB archives. This mock-documentary is shot in black-and-white in the style of the 1930s, and includes short fragments of original archival footage. The rest of the material was artificially aged and deliberately edited to make the story look credible.

63This “documentary fantasy” was premiered at the Mostra film festival in Venice in 2005, where it received a prize in the panorama program “Horizons.” The audience remained both entertained and perplexed: while the story is obviously from the realm of science fiction, one needs a high degree of visual literacy to be able to identify the very professional “visual stitches,” playing on the “authenticity” of the archival footage. The cosmos emerges as a space of competition—albeit an imaginary one—and also as a space of pride and positive identification. The dislocated hero—according to the plot after the spaceship exploded Kharlamov, the first cosmonaut, landed on an island in the Pacific—crosses oceans and continents to return to his native empire, even if he eventually ends up in a mental asylum. The centrifugal movement typical of early post-Soviet cinema is slowly but steadily replaced by a centripetal movement. While the twentyfirst century directors are giving free rein to irony and ambivalence in making their statements, the change of landmarks is paradigmatic.

Fig. 7 First on the Moon Courtesy of Iskusstvo Kino

64A symbolic temporal marker appears most pronounced in the recent adventure comedy Soviet Period Park (Park sovetskogo perioda, 2006), which seeks to settle accounts not only with the Soviet past, but also with the growing nostalgia for it. Director Yulii Gusman creates a virtual Soviet Disneyland where Socialism is a primary commodity. Saturated with references to Soviet film history, featuring old-time stars from kolkhoz melodramas and revolutionary “action films,” making ample use of remaining Stalinist architecture as well as new attractions such as a miniature Kremlin at a Turkish resort, the film looks at the past through a rosy veil of conspicuous consumption. All the visitors who have paid their fee are free to choose their own roles in the Soviet “paradise,” from the top party leader to the protesting dissident. The trained staff of this unusual sanatorium eagerly complies with the most eccentric wishes of the visitors—provided they are willing to abide by the rules. As soon as the main character transgresses the imposed regulations, the system starts to repress the rebel, showing the not-so-silver lining of this “idyllic” world.

  • 46 In an interview following the release of the film, the director exposed the eclectic post-Soviet m (...)

65By parodying the final episode of Repentance (1986)—the film which according to many critics “ended” Soviet cinema—Gusman tacitly exposes the long after-life of the alleged dead. Abuladze’s film closed with the quest for a road leading to the Temple, in search of repentance, absolution, and spiritual renewal. “Who needs a road that does not lead to the Soviet Period Park?”—Gusman asks himself in the guise of a driver on an endless road in the closing scene of his film.46 After twenty years, history returns as farce, replacing the hopes for a successful escape from or a peaceful burial of the troubled past, which were still available “at the beginning of the end” of the Soviet period, with an ambiguous grin from the pragmatic “nostalgia-makers.”


66A Day Before… (Za den’ do…, Oleg Boretskii, Alexander Negreba, Russia, 1991)

67Afghan Breakdown (Afganskii Izlom, Vladimir Bortko, USSR/Italy, 1991)

68American Boy (Boris Kvashnev, Russia, 1992)

69Amir Temur the Great (Velikii Amir Temur, aka Buyuk Amir Temur, Isamat Ergashev, Uzbekistan, 1997)

70Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldate, Grigorii Chukhrai, USSR, 1959)

71Balthazar’s Feast or a Night with Stalin (Piry Valtasara ili noch so Stalinym, Yurii Kara, USSR, 1989)

72Black Rose—an Emblem of the Sorrow, Red Rose—an Emblem of Love (Chernaia roza—emblema pechali, krasnaia roza—emblema lyubvi, Sergei Soloviev, USSR, 1989)

73Bodyguard (Telokhranitel’, Anatolii Ivanov, Russia, 1991)

74Brezhnev (Sergei Snezhkin, Russia, TV-film, 2005)

75Brother (Brat, Alexei Balabanov, Russia, 1997)

76Brother 2 (Brat 2, Alexei Balabanov, Russia, 2000)

77Burnt by the Sun (Utomlennye solntsem, Nikita Mikhalkov, Russia, 1994)

78Clan (Klan, Alexander Voropaev, Russia, 1991)

79Cloud-Paradise (Oblako-rai, Vladimir Dostal’, USSR, 1990)

80Comrade Chkalov Crossing the North Pole (Perehod tovarisha Chkalova cherez severnyi polyus, Maksim Pezhemskii, USSR, 1990)

81Comrade Stalin Goes to Africa (Puteshestvie tovarischa Stalina v Afriku, Iraklii Kvirikadze, Russia, 1991)

82Concert for a Rat (Konzert dlia krysy, Oleg Kovalov, Russia, 1995)

83Crusader (Krestonosets, Mikhail Tumanishvili, Alexander Inshakov, Russia, 1995)

84Diary of a School Director (Dnevnik direktora shkoly, Boris Frumin, USSR, 1975)

85Dreaming of Space (Kosmos kak predchuvstvie, Aleksei Uchitel, Russia, 2005)

86Dyuba-Dyuba (Alexander Khvan, Russia, 1992)

87Eastern Corridor or Racket à-la… (Vostochnyi koridor, ili reket po…, Bolat Omarov, Russia, 1991)

88Encore, Once More Encore! (Ankor, eshe ankor, Petr Todorovskii, Russia, 1992)

89First on the Moon (Pervye na lune, Alksei Fedorchenko, Russia, 2005)

90Freedom is Paradise (S. E. R. aka Svoboda eto rai, Sergei Bodrov, USSR, 1989)

91Groom from Miami (Zhenikh iz Miami, Anatolii Eiramzhan, Russia, 1993)

92Hammer and Sickle (Serp i molot, Sergei Livnev, Russia, 1994)

93Hey, You Geese (Oi, vy gusi, Lidia Bobrova, Russia, 1991)

94House on Stone (Dom na kamne, Aleksandr Khriakov, Russia, 1994)

95How I Worked Under Stalin or Songs of the Oligarchs (Ia sluzhil v apparate Stalina, ili pesn’ oligarkhov, Semen Aranovich, USSR, 1990)

96Illegal (Nelegal, Boris Frumin, Yurii Lebedev, Russia, 2005)

97In August 1944 (V avguste 44-go, Mikhail Ptashuk, Russia/Belarus, 2002)

98In That Land (V toi strane, Lidia Bobrova, Russia, 1997)

99Khrustalev, the Car! (Khrustalyov, mashinu!, Alexei German, Russia/France, 1998)

100Kolkhoz Entertainment (Kolkhoz Interteinment, Maxim Voronkov, Russia, 2004)

101Leg (Noga, Nikita Tiagunov, Russia, 1991)

102Miracle in Milan (Miracolo a Milano, Vittorio de Sica, Italy, 1951)

103Monologue: Private Chronicles (Monolog: Chastnye Khroniki, Vitalii Manskii, Russia, 1999)

104Moscow Parade (Prorva, Ivan Dykhovichnyi, Russia/France/Germany, 1992)

105Murder on Zhdanovskaia (Ubiistvo na Zhdanovskoi, Sulambek Mamilov, Russia, 1992)

106Our Own (Svoi, Dmitrii Meskhiev, Russia, 2004)

107Peshavar Waltz (Peshavarskii val’s, Gennadii Kayumov, Timur Bekmambetov, Russia, 1994)

108Polumgla (Polumgla, Artem Antonov, Russia, 2005)

109Prayer For Hetman Mazepa (Molitva za Hetmana Mazepu, Yurii Il’ienko, Ukraine, 2002)

110Rats, or Night Mafia (Krysy, ili nochnaia mafia, Yurii Muzyka, Evgenii Vasil’ev, Russia, 1991)

111Reed Paradise (Kamyshovyi rai, Elena Tsyplakova, USSR, 1989)

112Repentance (Pokaianie aka Monanieba, Tengiz Abuladze, USSR, 1986)

113Russian Ragtime (Russkii Ragtime, Sergei Urusliak, Russia, 1993)

114Solovki (A. Cherkasov, USSR, 1928)

115Solovki Power (Vlast’ Solovetskaia, Marina Gol’dovskaia, USSR, 1988)

116Soviet Period Park (Park sovetskogo perioda, Yuli Gusman, Russia, 2006)

117Stalker (Andrei Tarkovskii, USSR, 1979)

118Strict Regime Comedy (Komedia strogogo rezhima, Vladimir Studennikov, Mikhail Grigor’ev, Russia, 1992)

119Swan Lake: Zone (Lebedinoe ozero: Zona, Yurii Il’ienko, USSR/Canada/Sweden, 1990)

120Taurus (Telets, Alexander Sokurov, Russia, 2000)

121The 9th Company (9 rota, Fedor Bondarchuk, Russia, 2005)

122The Barber of Siberia (Sibirskii Tsiryul’nik, Nikita Mihalkov, Russia, 1998)

123The Captain’s Daughter (Russkii Bunt, Alexander Proshkin, Russia, 2000)

124The Cuckoo (Kukushka, Alexander Rogozhkin, Russia, 2001)

125The Errors of Youth (Oshibki yunosti, Boris Frumin, USSR, 1978)

126The Inner Circle (Blizhnii Krug, Andrei Konchalovskii, USSR/Italy/USA, 1991)

127The Kopeck (Kopeika, Ivan Dykhovichnyi, Russia, 2001)

128The Lands that Belonged to my Father (Zemlia predkov aka Otamdan Kolgan Dalalar) Shurhat Abbasov, Uzbekistan, 1998)

129The One from Leningrad. The Lives of Others (Leningradets. Chuzhaia zhizn’, Konstantin Khudiakov, Russia, TV-film, 2005)

130The Promised Heaven (Nebesa obetovannye, El’dar Riazanov, Russia, 1991)

131The Romanovs: An Imperial Family (Romanovy: Venzenosnaia Sem’ia, Gleb Panfilov, Russia, 2000)

132The Russia that We Lost (Rossia, kotoruyu my poteriali, Stanislav Govorukhin, Russia, 1992)

133The Star (Zvezda, Nikolai Lebedev, Russia, 2002)

134The Taurus Constellation (V sozvezdii byka, Petr Todorovskii, Russia, 2003)

135The Thief (Vor, Pavel Chuhrai, Russia/France, 1997)

136To See Paris and Die (Uvidet’ Parizh i umeret’, Alexander Proshkin, Russia, 1992)

137To the Last Limit (Za poslednei chertoi, Nikolai Stambula, Russia, 1991)

138Totalitarian Romance (Totalitarnyi roman, V. Sorokin, Russia, 1998)

139Tractor Drivers 2 (Traktoristy 2, Igor’ Aleinikov, Gleb Aleinikov, Russia, 1992)

140Two Captains 2 (Dva Kapitana 2, Sergei Debizhev, Russia, 1993)

141Urga (Nikita Mikhalkov, USSR/France, 1991)

142What a Wonderful Game (Kakaia chudnaia igra, Petr Todorovskii, Russia, 1995)

143Wild Love (Dikaia Lyubov’, Villen Novak, Russia, 1993)

144Window to Paris (Okno v Parizh, Yurii Mamin, Russia/France, 1993)

145You Are My Only Love (Ty u menia odna, Dmitrii Astrakhan, Russia, 1993)

146Zero City (Gorod Zero, Karen Shakhnazarov, USSR, 1988)


1 Sergei Lavrientiev, “Tuman posle peizazha” [Fog after the landscape], Iskusstvo Kino 10 (1991): 113.

2 Daniil Dondurei, “Kinodelo: na puti k rynky” [Film business: On the way to the market] in Rossiiskoe kino: paradoksy obnovlenia [Russian cinema: Paradoxes of renewal] (Moscow: Materik, 1995), 126–40.

3 Daniil Dondurei, “Beshenye den’gi” [Exorbitant sums], Iskusstvo Kino 1 (1991): 61.

4 “Nashe kino segodnia: vzgliad iz-za granits. Kruglyi stol v redaktsii Kinovedcheskie Zapiski” [Our cinema today: a look from abroad. Round table in the journal Kinovedcheskie Zapiski], Kinovedcheskie Zapiski 4 (1989): 4–21; “Kak ozhivit’ dinozavra? Rossiiskii kinemtograf v zerkale mezhdunarodnoi festival’noi politiki” [How to revive a dinosaur? Russian cinema in the mirror of the politics of international festivals], Iskusstvo Kino 12 (1993): 24–41.

5 Andrew Horton and Mikhail Brashinsky, The Zero Hour: Glasnost’ and Soviet Cinema in Transition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

6 Alexander Shpagin, “Sotsrealism umer. Da zdravstvuet?” [Socialist realism is dead. Long live…?], Iskusstvo Kino 3 (1991): 27.

7 “Segida-info,” Iskusstvo Kino 4 (1996): 76.

8 A. Dubrovin, Mark Zak (eds.), Rossiiskoe kino: paradoksy obnovlenia [Russian cinema: Paradoxes of renewal] (Moscow: Materik, 1995).

9 Presentation of Alexander Troshin at a Symposium “Post-Soviet Art in Search of New Ideology,” Iskusstvo Kino 2 (1996): 167.

10 Symposium “Post-Soviet Art in Search of New Ideology,” Iskusstvo Kino 6 (1996): 172.

11 Presentation of Alexander Mitta at the Symposium “Post-Soviet Art in Search of New Ideology,” Iskusstvo Kino 2 (1996): 163–4.

12 Presentation of Daniil Dondurei at the Symposium “Post-Soviet Art in Search of New Ideology,” Iskusstvo Kino 2 (1996): 155.

13 Boris Dubin, “Slovesnost’ klassicheskaia i massovaia: literatura kak ideologia i literatura kak tsivilizatsia” [Classical and mass belles-lettres: Literature as ideology and literature as civilization] in his Slovo-pis’mo-literatura [Word-writing-literature] (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2001), 306–23.

14 Natalia Sirivlia, “Temnye sily nas zlobno gnetut” [Dark forces are menacing and oppressing us], Iskusstvo Kino 11 (1991): 41.

15 Natalia Sirivlia, “Mafia—nash rulevoi!” [The mafia is leading us], Iskusstvo Kino 5 (1993): 26–33.

16 A. Titov, “Seans” zony” [Session in the zone], Iskusstvo Kino 2 (1996): 143–4.

17 Quoted in Daniil Dondurei, “Novaia model’ kino: trudnosti perekhodnogo perioda” [New model of cinema: difficulties of transitional period] Kinovedcheskie Zapiski 3 (1989): 9.

18 Lidia Mamatova, “Model’ kinomifov 1930h godov” [The model of film myths of the 1930s] in Lidia Mamatova (ed.), Kino: politika i lyudi, 30e gody [Cinema: Politics and people, 1930s] (Moscow: Materik, 1995), 52–78.

19 “Nashe kino segodnia: vzgliad iz-za granits. Kruglyi stol v redaktsii Kinovedcheskie Zapiski, iyul’ 1989” [Our cinema today: a look from beyond the borders. Round table in Kinovedcheskie Zapiski, July 1989] Kinovedcheskie Zapiski 4 (1989): 6.

20 SMERSH is an abbreviation made up of two Russian words SMERt’ SHpionam (meaning “death to spies”). The department was formed at the height of World War II (April 1943) with the original mission of identifying spies and conspirators in the army and among returning prisoners of war, as well as preventing any subversive activities within the Red Army and by anti-Soviet civilians, particularly in the territories returning under the control of the Soviet authorities. Freely using terror and purges, SMERSH left painful memories.

21 For more on Kharms’ The Old Woman, see Mikhail Iampol’skii, Bespamiatstvo kak istok (Chitaia Kharmsa) [Delirium as source: reading Kharms] (Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 1998).

22 Denise Youngblood, Russian War Films: On the Cinema Front, 1914–2005 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007). Lev Gudkov, “’Pamiat’ o voine i massovaia identichnost’ rossian” [War “memory” and Russians’ collective identity], Neprikosnovennyi zapas 2–3 (2005).

23 Ilia Alekseev, “Boinia # 6” [Massacre # 6], Iskusstvo Kino 5 (1993): 5–8.

24 One such festival, for example, is the International Forum Zolotoi Vityaz’ established in 1992. In his introductory address, the president of the festival invited the audience to “learn to appreciate a unique spiritual culture of the Slavic Christian world in the world of cinema, theater, music, arts, and Russian martial arts” (accessed 10 January, 2007). According to the festival’s statement, the “steady activities of Zolotoi Vityaz’ led to the emergence of a new phenomenon in world culture—a positive Slavic Orthodox cinema and theater. (…) Zolotoi Vityaz’ became a real spiritual alternative to the soulless business of the contemporary film market.” Available at (accessed 10 January, 2007). In 2003, there emerged a Festival of Military Cinema named after Yu. N. Ozerov. The festival sees as its goal “not only to show the latest cinematographic achievements in military cinema as the brightest and most dramatic kind of cinematography, but also to raise among all our countrymen and the young in particular an interest in history and love of our country and its traditions, which were mainly shaped by the primary aim—the defense of the Fatherland.” See the opening statement at the official festival’s site, (accessed 10 January, 2007).

25 According to the quoted data, 49 % of the respondents stated that their understanding of World War II had changed in the last few years, 40 % believed that fascism was misrepresented in the Soviet cinema, while 32 % claimed that the war films of the 1960s–1980s do not create an adequate image of the war. Although the formulation of the questions allows for different interpretations, and the principles of sampling remained unclear, the mere occurrence of the poll demonstrates the importance of the issue. See V. Dubitskaia, “Komu nuzhno razrushit’ mif o voine” [Who wants to ruin the war myth], Iskusstvo Kino 10 (1994): 66–7.

26 T. G. Ashplant, Graham Dawson, Michael Roper, “The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration: Contexts, Structures, and Dynamics” in T. G. Ashplant, Graham Dawson, Michael Roper (eds.), The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration (London: Routledge, 2000), 27.

27 Alexander Shpagin, “Religia voiny. Sub’ektivnye zametki o bogoiskatel’stve v voennom kinematografe” [Religion of war. Subjective remarks on God-seeking in war cinema], Iskusstvo Kino 5 (2005): 56–68 and Iskusstvo Kino 6 (2005): 72–89. On-line version available at and (accessed 26 January, 2007).

28 Igor’ Bolgarin started his script-writing career in 1957 with the adventure drama On the Count’s Ruins (Na grafskikh razvalinakh, 1957), where a little boy helps the Cheka officers to find and neutralize some bandits. He also co-authored one of the most popular films on the Civil War in the Soviet Union, His Excellency’s Adjutant (Ad’yutant ego prevoskhoditel’stva, 1969). Bolgarin initially cooperated with Viktor Smirnov in 1969. They jointly wrote the script for the adventure story Tough Kilometers (Surovye kilometry, 1969) and continued working together on dramas set during the Civil War and World War II, as well as on contemporary adventure stories. Their last joint film made in the Soviet Union was devoted to Dmitrii Ulianov, Lenin’s brother, and his activities in creating Soviet sanatoriums in the Crimea (It’s not Always Summer in the Crimea, V Krymu ne vsegda leto, 1987).

29 The script is published in Kinostsenarii 2–3 (2004).

30 Igor’ Bolgarin, “Rezhisser rezal nashu pravdu. I dobavlial mnogo svoei lzhi” [The Director cut our truth. And added his lies], Novaia Gazeta (8 September 2005) (accessed 29 January, 2007); Ilia Smirnov, “Polumglisty,” Skepsis, on-line version at library/id702.html (accessed 29 January, 2007).

31 Valerii Kichin, “Polumgla slepit glaza” [Polumgla blinds], Rossiiskaia gazeta (1 December 2005). On-line version available at (accessed 29 January, 2007).

32 Roman Volobuev, “Na neitral’noi polose” [On the neutral line], Seans 21–22 (2005), online version available at–22/films2004/svoi/rip1ey-svoi/ (accessed 27 January, 2007); “Seansu otvechayut,” Seans 21–22 (2005), on-line version available at–22/films2004/svoi/mnenia (accessed 29 January, 2007).

33 Current revisionism is visible not only in cinema: recently published archival materials, selected by the current Federal Security Agency (FSB), similarly glorify their mission and activities. See “Smersh”: Istoricheskie ocherki i arkhivnye dokumenty [“Smersh”: Historical essays and archival documents] (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Glavarkhiva Moskvy, OAO “Moskovskie uchebniki i kartolitografii,” 2003). Not surprisingly, the album received a positive review on the Russian Federal Security Service’s web-site: (accessed 29 January, 2007).

34 Most of the reviews are available on the film’s official web-site at flashindex.html (accessed 10 January, 2007). See also supplementary documentary materials on the released DVD.

35 Interivew with Fedor Bondarchuk and Elena Iatsura on the 9th company’s official site: (accessed 29 January, 2007).

36 T. G. Ashplant et al., “The Politics of War memory,” 10.

37 Yuri Levada, Ot mnenii k ponimaniyu. Sotsiologicheskie ocherki. 1993–2000 [From opinions to understanding. Sociological essays. 1993–2000] (Moscow: Moskovskaia Shkola Politicheskih Issledovanii, 2000).

38 Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001). Maya Nadkarni and Olga Shevchenko, “The Politics of Nostalgia: A Case for Comparative Analysis of Post-socialist Practices,” Ab Imperio 2 (2004): 487–519.

39 Round Table “Searching for Meaning: New Patriotism” [V poiskakh smysla: novyi patriotizm], Iskusstvo Kino 1 (2006). On-line version of the debate is available at (accessed 29 January, 2007).

40 Among such TV documentaries are the recently produced Julian Semenov. Information for Thought (Julian Semenov. Informatsia k razmyshleniyu, Alexander Pasechnyi, 2006), Ivan Brovkin’s Drama (Drama Ivana Brovkina, Irina Il’ina, 2006), Spartak Mishulin. The One who Could Fly (Spartak Mishulin. Umeyushii letat’, Andrei Grachev, 2006), The Land is Empty Without You… Maia Kristalinskaia (“Opustela bez tebia zemlia…” Maia Kristalinskaia, Svetlana Stasenko and Alexander Gromov, 2006), The Unbending Cohort. Thomas Kolesnichenko (Kogorta nesgibaemykh. Tomas Kolesnichenko, S. Kraus, A. Chernov; 2005), Suslov. The Grey Cardinal (Suslov. Seryi kardinal, Viktor Beliakov, 2005) and many more, produced and shown on a weekly basis. More on the current and earlier programs at (accessed 29 January, 2007). Furthermore, a whole new channel, Nostalgia TV, is currently in operation, although available only to paying subscribers via satellite. See (accessed 29 January, 2007).

41 The two programs are titled “Staraia Kvartira” (first shown in 1996) and “Namedni: 1961–1991. Our Era” (first shown in 1997), respectively.

42 Kirill Razlogov, “Vpered v proshloe” [Forward to the past], Iskusstvo Kino 3 (1997), available at (accessed 12 December, 2006).

43 Contrary to the mid-1990s fascination with Stalin and his close collaborators, in the 2000s an increasing number of publications came out on Brezhnev, Andropov, and the workings of the secret police—often resurrecting the cold-war rhetoric: S. Semenov, Leonid Brezhnev (Moscow: Eksmo, 2005); B. Sokolov, Leonid Brezhnev. Zolotaia epokha [Leonid Brezhnev. The golden age] (Moscow: AST-Press Kniga, 2004); Leonid M. Mlechin, Brezhnev (Moscow: TK Velbi, 2005); Alexander Maisurian, Drugoi Brezhnev [The other Brezhnev] (Moscow: Vagrius, 2004); Vladimir Musael’ian, Gensek i fotograf. 100-letnemy jubileyu posviashaetsia [General Secretary and photographer. To Brezhnev’s 100th anniversary.] (Moscow: Kuchkovo pole, 2006); Sergei Chertoprud, Andropov—KGB (Iauza: Eksmo, 2004); Sergei Chertoprud, Yurii Andropov: tainy predsedatelia KGB [Yurii Andropov: Secrets of the KGB chief] (Iauza: Eksmo, 2006); Leonid M. Mlechin, Andropov (Moscow: TK Velbi, 2006); Roy Medvedev, Andropov (Moscow: Molodaia Gvardia, 2006).

44 Boris Frumin, “Konspektirovat’ nastoiashee” [Summarizing the present], Iskusstvo Kino 2 (2006), on-line version at (accessed 26 January, 2007).

45 Roman Volobuev, “Nelegal. Sovetskoe ekzistentsial’noe retro pro shpiona” [Illegal. Soviet existential retro about a spy] at (accessed 26 January, 2007); Mikhail Trofimenkov, “Oshibki rezidentov. Sovetskaia shpionskaia klassika v “Nelegale” Borisa Frumina” [Mistakes of the residents. Soviet spy classics in Boris Frumin’s Illegal], Kommersant (19 September 2005). On-line version available at\daily\2005\175m\28520745.htm (accessed 26 January, 2007).

46 In an interview following the release of the film, the director exposed the eclectic post-Soviet mythology which creates a “cocktail of epochs,” calling for collective “cleansing and repentance. And to finally start living and working.” Interview with film director Yulii Gusman by Nadezhda Krasilova “Ia ne budu sidet’ v norke i umirat’ ot strakha” [I will not burrow and die of fear] on June 2, 2006. Available at 2006-06-02/47483 (accessed 26 January, 2007).

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1 Freedom is Paradise Courtesy of Iskusstvo Kino
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Légende Fig. 2 Solovki Power Courtesy of Iskusstvo Kino
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Légende Fig. 3 Concert for a Rat Courtesy of Iskusstvo Kino
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Légende Fig. 4 Russian Ragtime Courtesy of Iskusstvo Kino
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Légende Fig. 5 Kopeck Courtesy of Iskusstvo Kino
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Légende Fig. 6 Dreaming of Space Courtesy of Iskusstvo Kino
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Légende Fig. 7 First on the Moon Courtesy of Iskusstvo Kino
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Oksana Sarkisova (b. 1974) is a research archivist at OSA Archivum and program director of the International Documentary Film Festival Verzio in Budapest. She holds a doctoral degree in History from the Central European University, Budapest. Her publications and research interests pertain to visual anthropology, ethnographic cinema, Russian and Eastern European cinema, and visual culture.

© Central European University Press, 2008

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