The Mystery of Russian Cinema

Alexander Fedorov
6 min readMar 12, 2020

Russian cinema today is, like Russia itself chaotic, unpredictable and full of contrasts. No one can tell if the country will become an equal among equals on the world’s professional stages by the beginning of the 21st century, casting off its poor role as a supplicant to Western artistic leaders.

Anyone who knows even a little history is aware that Russia was virtually outside European civilization for 75 years of XX century. The Communist regime firmly controlled all spheres of life for a sixth of the planet’s citizens. In spite of totalitarian pressure, however, Russian culture managed to survive. The best books of Mikhail Bulgakov and Anna Ahmatova, the symphonies of Dmitry Shostakovich and Alexander Prokofiev, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Vassily Shukshin were created in the years of the most rigid censorship.

Despite bans, prisons and gulags, the artists leaned to speak to their readers and spectators in some sort of “language of initiates”. Music, without clearly defined plot, made it much easier to do this. Writers, directors and actors were forced to talk about many things in hints and symbols, taking advantage of legends, fairy tales and parables.

Russian authorities of the 60-s through the 80-s officially supported the publication and distribution of classical literature — the works of Lev Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov, etc. The best film directors knew this, and were aware of weakened censorial control applied, at times, to screen adaptations. Consequently, the period saw The Nest of Noble Family (1968) based on Turgenev novel and (1971) based on Chekhov’s play, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky. Uncle Vanya

There were also Station’s Employee (1972, using Pushkin’s prose) directed by Sergey Soloviev, (1984, from the Gogol novel) directed by Mikhail Schweitzer, and others. Nikita Mikhalkov, making films based on Chekhov ( Dead Souls , 1976) and Ivan Goncharov ( Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano , 1980), succeeded in telling more about the situation in Russia — and the national character — than the majority of his colleagues whose pictures dealt with the country’s modern life. Oblomov embodies the paradoxes of mysterious Russian soul: intelligence, talent and an innate sense of beauty go poignantly hand in hand with passivity, laziness, sleepy inaction and abstract dreaming… Several Days in the Life of Oblomov

The Russian cinematic fairy tale also has old traditions, founded by Alexander Row ( The Frosty Fire, Water and Cooper Trumpets, Morozko, etc.) and Alexander Ptushko ( ). Until recently, however, fantasy films had to submit to two unwritten rules: all except a few were made for a children’s audience, and the action had to take place in ancient times, in a faraway kingdom. The first rule dictated an understandable style for the fairy tale, with vivid, clear pictures and vocabulary, and villains looking not very fearful but on the contrary, usually, funny and harmless. The second rule was very seldom infringed, because magicians, witches, demons and other fairy characters — according to “highly placed” thought — could be perceived as an embodiment of the authors’ mysticism intruding on a modern background. In these cases, when magic and witchery were admitted into our days (as in The Stone Flower, Sadko by E.Shengelaya and A.Saharov), unintended associations and parallels appeared. The Snowy Fairy Tale

In the word, the production of films similar to The Omen by Richard Donner and by Stanley Kubrick for the Russian screen couldn’t be even imagined until 80-s. Now the situation has turned 180 degrees. Russian screen are full of foreign and indigenous horror films and fearsome tales that chill the blood. Vampires, demons, witches and others evil spirits have become frequent guests on video and cinema circuits from Moscow to the very frontiers… The Shining

Remarkable Russian actors — Oleg Dal (1941–1981), Vladimir Vissotsky (1938–1980), Anatoly Solonitsin (1934–1982), Vladislaw Dvorzecki (1937–1978), Nikolai Grinko (1920–1989), Alexander Kaidanovsky (1946–1995) — very often played heroes who stood beyond the usual circle of life on the screen of the 60-s and 70-s. The Fairy Ivans, fools and intelligent outsiders of Dal. The hot-tempered, contentious, furious romantics of Vissotsky. The inspired, always doubtful or cynical, devastated heroes of Solonitsin (Andrei Tarkovsky’s favorite actor)… These were in opposition to the artificial characters distilled in the retort of Socialist Realism.

Censorship was ruthless to the filmmakers. Important scenes, phrases and frames were cut out of many movies. Yet Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966), despite all the alterations, extolled Russian culture and closely connected with the Orthodox faith, while Elem Klimov’s (1981) remained an angry accusation of the political system of the time, aspiring to destroy this same culture and religion. The Parting

After the widespread destruction of temples and churches in the 20-s and 30-s, Russian culture became a peculiar national religion; as the only source of spirituality, it allowed people who could not stand slavery to maintain a dream of Beauty during the hardest years.

Indisputably, politics had a highly negative influence on the development of Russian culture and education, but the classical legacy of art helped people to survive. Every new truthful book or film of the masters was perceived throughout the country as a desirable breath of cool wind. I remember how the books of Alexander Solzhenitsyn were handed around, how the films of Marlen Hutsiev or Gregory Chuhrai, in the ’60s, were discussed till voices became hoarse. And what events for Russian viewers in the ’70s were screenings of masterpieces by Federico Fellini (Amarcord, Orchestra Rehearsal)!

Another paradox of Russian life is that all people hoped for and aspired to the “light future”, yet their ranks included dissenters who were Slavophiles, craving a return to the Russia of 1913, and dissenters of Western orientation who wanted a rapprochement with America, while the majority of the so-called “common people” faithfully waited for a near-Socialist paradise of well-being and, in the name of this, were ready to tolerate “temporary” hardships. Today a lot of Russian politicians try to find some “middle way” between capitalism and socialism where, to trust the premises of fashionable leaders, harmony will reign. In the political, economical currents some Russian filmmakers thoroughly lost their bearings, becoming victims of the whirlpools, submerged stones and shallows. Having got rid of censorship and having been given “carte blanche” in freedom of thought, they began to throw onto the screen what they apparently believed were commercial and brave statements, but which in fact were monotonous, non-competitive films. The freedom didn’t evoke the expected abundance of masterpieces, because bitter truth alone isn’t enough for the creation of a work of art. Talent is also needed, and it is everywhere in deficit.

More and more Russian cineastes, finding it harder and harder to work in the Motherland in a condition of permanent economic crisis, are gathering under Western’s roofs. Almost all Russian masters (Nikita Mikhalkov, Pavel Lungin, Ivan Dykhovichny, Valery Todorovsky, Gleb Panfilov, Andrei Konchalovsky, Alexei German and others), even if they make films in China or in Moscow, nevertheless do it with the help of U.S. or French money, on Western film stock, with the Western sound system. Western producers willingly stake these talented directors who capture prizes at prestigious festivals. For nearly a year the preeminent actor of Russian cinema — Oleg Yankovsky ( Nostalgia by Andrei Tarkovsky)- appeared on stage in a Paris theater. It is rather logical: Russian filmmakers hope that West will become a gate to the world screen for them; at home indigenous movies are being forced out by American production everywhere. Only the most entertaining Russian films manage to survive the competition in such conditions, but they, as usual, copy U.S. pictures and don’t hold any special interest as art. Undoubtedly, such work in the West (by Andrei Konchalovsky and Nikita Mikhalkov, for example) requires a certain attention to the producers’ wishes and an orientation toward middle-of-the-road European and American viewer’s tastes. Well, don’t judge and you will not be judged…

The words of Russian great writer Gogol about the “Bird-troika” — Russia — therefore turned out to be really prophetic: “Russia, where are you rushing to? Give the answer. No answer”.

Alexander Fedorov, 2001

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