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Blockbuster History in the New Russia: Movies, Memory, and Patriotism

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Seeking to rebuild the Russian film industry after its post-Soviet collapse, directors and producers sparked a revival of nationalist and patriotic sentiment by applying Hollywood techniques to themes drawn from Russian history. Unsettled by the government’s move toward market capitalism, Russians embraced these historical blockbusters, packing the American-style multiplexes that sprouted across the country. Stephen M. Norris examines the connections among cinema, politics, economics, history, and patriotism in the creation of "blockbuster history"—the adaptation of an American cinematic style to Russian historical epics.

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1 Introduction: Multiplexing Russia

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The renovated October Theater on Moscow’s New Arbat Street is a nice place to watch a film. Owned and operated by the Karo Group, Russia’s largest multiplexer, October houses eleven state-of-the-art cinema halls, Karo’s offices, a video store, restaurants, and other commercial outlets. You can sit and have gelato or grab a cocktail before you watch your movie.

The theater is also a battleground. October has clearly made the transition from a Soviet-era movie house into a post-Soviet multiplex, but in making this change, October and its fellow Karo multiplexes have become sites of contestation. These theaters are not just entertainment centers: they are the foci of heated debates about Russian national cinema, post-Soviet politics, and the state of patriotism.

Founded in 1997, Karo Film first renovated the crown jewel of Russian cinema halls, the Rossiia [Russia] Theater on Moscow’s Pushkin Square. In 2000 it opened the first-ever Russian multiplex at Moscow’s first Ramstore (the Turkish-based mega supermarket chain). A year later, Karo unveiled its first multiplexes in St. Petersburg and Nizhnii Novgorod. By 2008, the company had built in Samara, Kazan´, and Kaliningrad, as well as in Moscow suburbs such as Podolsk and Mytishchi. The company boasts that it runs 34 modern multiplexes with 165 cinema halls, serving a capacity of 38,000. In total, 1.55 million Russians watch films on Karo screens each month.1

 

2 The First Blockbuster of the New Nation

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Nikita Mikhalkov’s Studio Tri-te understandably exudes confidence. The studio’s offices and location mirror the centrality of its creator, the Oscar-winning director of 1994’s Burnt by the Sun. Located between Pushkin Square and Patriarch’s Ponds in central Moscow, Studio Tri-te inhabits an entire Soviet-era apartment building. It is one of the Russian film industry’s hubs and ground zero for the turn to “audience-friendly blockbusters” that dominated the zero years.

Studio Tri-te is a perfect representation of the connections between post-Soviet commercial concerns, patriotism, and personalities. Founded in 1988 and named for “three-Ts: creativity [tvorchestvo], comradeship [tovarishchestvo], and labor [trud],” the studio’s symbol has a Russian bear gripping three Ts in its paws. As a combination of Russian and Soviet patriotic culture, Studio Tri-te’s symbols would be hard to top. Clear to anyone who visits the premises, though, this studio is a center for promoting the persona of its founder, Nikita Mikhalkov. On its website, Studio Tri-te describes him as “an elegant man, a conqueror of women’s hearts, a nobleman of the new Russia, a famous film director, a distinguished politician, and an ardent apologist for the Russian national idea.”1

 

3 Terrorism Then and Now

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Director of Mosfil´m, Europe’s largest film studio, since 1998, Karen Shakhnazarov has personally overseen his studio’s cinematic renaissance, a stunning about turn that he considers to be his greatest achievement. At the time he became the studio’s head, the Russian film industry had shrunk to its lowest-ever point, producing just twenty-eight features in 1996 compared to the three hundred made in 1990.1 Shakhnazarov lamented this state when he compared the relative freedom artists found with the economic deprivations of the Yeltsin years, stating in 1995, “now there’s no censorship. But then again, we don’t have any films to censor.”2 Taking over as the studio’s head in the year of the 1998 ruble collapse, Shakhnazarov knew his work was cut out for him. He jokingly claimed that his immediate goal was to finance just one film. His long-term goals, though, were far bolder, for he wanted Mosfil´m to rid itself of its Soviet relics and to produce “audience-friendly cinema [zritel´skoe kino].” Shakhnazarov realized that audience-friendly films required funds, which were sorely lacking after the ruble collapse. “Cinema blooms if there is free money that appears in the economy or if films become an important part of state policy,” Shakhnazarov mused. “Right now in Russia, cinematography is not a component of the state’s ideology.”3

 

4 Wars and Gambits

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Dzhanik Faiziev’s film The Turkish Gambit, a mystery set amidst the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, debuted in February 2005. It went on to earn $18.5 million—more than any other film in Russian history—besting the previous year’s blockbuster, Night Watch. Produced by Konstantin Ernst, the head of Pervyi kanal, and Leonid Vereshchagin, Nikita Mikhalkov’s producer at Studio Tri-te, The Turkish Gambit was both hailed and reviled as a sign that Russian cinema had either refound its footing or lost the battle with Hollywood altogether. To supporters, the fact that the film topped the Russian box office for three weeks straight (eventually another Russian film, Shadow Boxing, bested it), was a sign of Russian cinematic strength. Russian films led the box office for the entire month of March 2005, the first time this feat had been achieved since communism’s collapse. For detractors, however, this “victory” meant nothing, for it represented a triumph of Hollywood style over Russian substance. “Russian” cinema, for some critics, had ceased to exist, replaced by action films that deliberately used American conventions to dumb down the masses.

 

5 A Requiem for Communism

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One of the most memorable aspects of David Lean’s 1965 adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago is its soundtrack. Love it or hate it, Maurice Jarre’s “Lara’s Theme” strums throughout the film with the help of balalaikas and burns itself into your brain. Anyone who watches the film cannot help but whistle or hum the tune afterward, an effect that no doubt contributed to the American Film Academy’s decision to award Jarre an Oscar for best musical score.

“Lara’s Theme” in many ways acts as audio shorthand for how many Russians view “their” Zhivago’s having gone wrong. The sweeping sound of balalaikas tends to be viewed as one of many ways that Hollywood turns Russian culture into kitsch. “Lara’s Theme” sounds like Russian music to Western audiences because it conforms to preconceived ideas, images, and sounds of a romantic Russia, as do Robert Bolt’s screenplay, Freddie Young’s cinematography, and Lean’s directing (and only Lean failed to win the Oscar for this Western imagining of Russia). This Zhivago is mostly a sad love story, a tale of a man who must choose between two women while history swirls around him. Jarre’s score reinforces this theme, impressing upon Western audiences the romance and exoticness of old Russia in a fashion similar to Max Steiner’s mock Arabic music for Casablanca.

 

6 Mirror of War

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In May 1985, the Soviet film critic Lev Anninskii published a seminal article in Iskusstvo kino. Appearing just two months after Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary, Anninskii’s “Quiet Explosions [Tikhie vzryvy],” promised, as the subtitle suggested, to be a series of “polemical notes.”1 Published to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of Victory Day, Anninskii asserted that the war against Nazi Germany had now passed into memory, particularly because of Soviet cinematic representations. What appears on screen, he wrote, “is not what was, but what is remembered [his emphasis].” Because cinema had fostered this memory work, turning the war into a myth that could be used by the Soviet state, Anninskii urged artists to break away from previous cinematic explorations of the war and to “sing their own songs about the war.” What was needed, according to Anninskii, was a series of “silent explosions” that could shake up the memories produced onscreen. Anninskii got his wish, but only in part, for the Gorbachev era brought a series of loud cultural eruptions. The call for “silent explosions” seemed quaint by December 1991, when a new era dawned.

 

7 Playing with History

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Dmitrii Puchkov left Fedor Bondarchuk’s 2005 blockbuster Ninth Company [9 rota] in a foul mood. The army vet and former MVD agent did not like the film; in his words, “while it was billed as ‘based on real events,’ it had no relation to reality.”1 Bondarchuk’s history of the events of 1988 on Hill 3234, promoted under the slogan “they wanted only to be loved” was for Puchkov “filth” and “slander.” In his words, Ninth Company was not the “truth” and therefore not “history.”

Many veterans of the Afghan War felt similarly. Yet Puchkov became the most vocal critic of the film’s use of history because he is not a run-of-the mill, grumpy ultra-nationalist. He is more widely known as “Goblin,” the voice behind a series of pirated film dubbings and video game commentaries. To fight back, Goblin combined his interests in new media and released a video game, a website, and a documentary film—all of which were titled The Truth about Ninth Company. The film and its video game ignited a memory war, one in which Bondarchuk, a man who calls himself Goblin, filmgoers, gamers, and veterans engaged in verbal combat over the meanings of Russia’s Vietnam. Together, all the participants played with the past, using the Afghan War to score patriotic points and to fire cyber attacks at their enemies.

 

8 The Blessed Blockbuster

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Perhaps the most surprising success of the zero years was Pavel Lungin’s art-house film turned national sensation, The Island. It opens in World War II, jumps to the Brezhnev era, and tells the story of how a Soviet citizen atones for a past misdeed by becoming a holy fool. The Patriarch of Russia, Aleksei II, officially blessed the film after more liberal members of the Church advised him to do so. For its supporters, The Island served as a spiritual guide to Russians looking for answers to tough metaphysical questions facing them. Father Vladimir Vigilianskii, press secretary for the Orthodox Church and a fan of the film, met with Lungin several times after shooting ended. According to Vigilianskii, The Island is not historically accurate; nevertheless, it offers “an artistic reality that captures real life and real issues.”1 After it received Aleksei II’s blessing, Orthodox priests openly recommended it to their parishioners.

Many film experts thought the Orthodox Church, which has reasserted itself in post-Soviet Russia and openly calls for Orthodoxy to be a fundamental anchor of new Russian patriotism, had overstepped its bounds by entering the film world. The Patriarchy has advocated cooperation with the Russian state in several areas, including “spiritual, cultural, moral and patriotic education and formation.”2 On the concept of patriotism, the Church has this to say:

 

9 The Soviet Horror Show

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Aleksei Balabanov knows how to court controversy. Best known for his cult-classic gangster film Brother (1997), Balabanov catapulted to iconic status with it and its sequel, Brother 2 (2000), when the eponymous hero of the series, Danila Bagrov (played by the equally iconic Sergei Bodrov, Jr.) takes on American corporate gangsters who are holding a Russian hockey player for ransom. In between these two films, Balabanov made an art house attack on nostalgia for Silver Age St. Petersburg. His 1998 Of Freaks and Men is not the prerevolutionary lost Russia envisioned by Nikita Mikhalkov, but an unnerving and perverse place populated by sado-masochist pornographers. In his films of the 1990s, Balabanov advanced a vision of a dark and disturbed St. Petersburg that stood in the tradition of Dostoevsky and Gogol, a place where madness, murder, and mayhem are a product of the city itself—as a character from Brother puts it, “the city is a force.”1

 

10 Animating the Past

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The fact that animated films served as a blockbuster historical centerpiece in the new Russian cinematic showcase should come as no surprise. Russian animation has a long history and has engaged in a longstanding cultural dialogue with Hollywood animation. Disney itself has long been the source of mostly negative scholarly and cultural debates, particularly for its ability to shape national identity, gender roles, and childhood values.1 In addition, the worldwide popularity of Disney films has led many critics to charge that they orientalize in a way that not only shapes childhood perceptions of evil, but also insults national sensitivities.2

The revival of Russian animation also provided a source of heated debate, particularly because the work of Andrei Riabovichev, the principal animator for the “first” post-Soviet animated film, Prince Vladimir, and his peers openly made use of Hollywood animated techniques at the expense of the “Soviet Russian tradition.” At the same time, Prince Vladimir and the handful of other animated features that appeared in the zero years all used the past, particularly the Kyivan past, to articulate messages about history and nationhood needed for the present. The use of Vladimir and Russian bogatyrs as symbols of Russianness employed by post-Soviet animators were revived traditions: at the turn of the twentieth century, particularly after the 1905 Revolution, Russian rightists frequently used Vladimir and Russian medieval warriors as national icons.3

 

11 The Look of Fantasy

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Billed as “the first Slavic fantasy film,” Nikolai Lebedev’s Wolfhound appeared in time for the 2006–07 winter holidays. Based on Mariia Semenova’s best-selling novels, Wolfhound premiered on over six hundred screens (a new record at the time) and was blasted by some film critics for being a “fairy-tale for the twenty-first century” even as it won praise from some viewers, who called it “our answer to Lord of the Rings.” Unlike previous examples of blockbuster history, such as Turkish Gambit or Ninth Company, which fictionalized actual events from Russia’s pasts to appeal to audiences, Wolfhound created a fictional past and packaged it as “Slavic history.” Central to this attempt to make fantasy history “Russian” was Liudmila Kusakova’s work. Kusakova, Wolfhound’s set designer, had built 1905 Moscow for Karen Shakhnazarov. For Lebedev’s film she built a different sort of set, one that turned fantasy history into a commentary on contemporary Russia.

 

12 The Business of Patriotism

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The Renova Group is one of Russia’s most successful businesses. Founded in 1990, by 2009 Renova was the largest private business group in Russia with twenty-five billion dollars in holdings.1 The company owns and manages assets in metals, oil, mining, machine building, energy, telecommunications, and other industries. Renova also owns stakes in business across the world, from Switzerland’s Sulzer AG to South Africa’s Harmony Gold Mining.2 Renova, by any economic indicator, is an unqualified success.

In its handbook for employees, Renova articulates a vision of selfhood that aims to transform communists into capitalists. Renova employees must not commit the business sins of insider trading or securities manipulation. They also have a social responsibility, for Renova “is committed to supporting economic, social, and cultural development of communities where it operates through creating jobs for resident population and charitable, cultural, and other initiatives.” Moreover, Renova employees must comply with environmental requirements, “acknowledge internationally recognized human rights and freedoms as the highest values,” “value the uniqueness of each member of its staff,” maintain honesty and transparency in all business transactions, and not accept bribes.3

 

13 The Production of the Past

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Sergei Gurevich, a producer at Nikita Mikhalkov’s Studio Tri-te, explained in 2008 the appearance of patriotic productions in the following way:

We were all close to collapse—the film industry and the television industry. For a while our film Barber of Siberia stood alone against 1990s culture. Then the Russian television audience got fed up with Latin American soaps and other foreign productions. People didn’t mind watching foreign films on TV in general, but Mexican passion every day only goes so far. Thanks to the leaders of our television networks—Konstantin Ernst first and foremost—investment began on domestic productions, on things that happen here in Russia. Studio Tri-te got involved right away, first with The Requested Stop [Ostrovka potrebulia] in 2000, which was produced by Ernst. Television, in other words, started this trend and it quickly became evident that there was an enormous demand for domestic themes. Film followed. Technologies had changed—the newer technologies and demand for domestic productions reinforced each other. The revival did not have much to do with the government. Mostly it was the intuition and good sense of network leaders. Ernst was the key—he loves movies and this love drives him.

 

14 Conclusion: Packaging the Past

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Our journey into blockbuster history began at the multiplex, which served as the initial locus for understanding film as a theater of historical remembrance. It ends at another new memory site that has appeared in post-Soviet Russia: the video store.

Video stores in the new Russia sell every film, game, and soundtrack mentioned in the previous chapters. The Soiuz chain, to pick one prominent example, operates 40 stores and 9 “hypermarkets” throughout Russia, while also distributing goods to 150 other shops. The company, founded in 1992, bills itself as one that “specializes in the production and realization of products related to the business category of intellectual entertainments.”1 Because of its nationwide reach, Soiuz also attempts to combat video piracy, which is traditionally high in Russia’s provinces. The company also operates a music label, serves as an official distributor of foreign and domestic films, and even helps to produce DVD versions of films—Soiuz officially produced Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200. In short, a trip into the world of Soiuz is a trip into how much Russia has changed since 1991.

 

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