I’m trying to study for my Film course and I need some help to understand this question.
Question 1: The Cast and the Theme
Konchalovsky already used some non-professional actors in House of Fools, but here in The Postman’s White Nights we have a primarily non-professional cast, including the lead character and the villagers with whom he interacts. By “non-professional” I mean everyday people who have no formal training and who have not acted before. Only the postman’s scripted love interest, Irina, and her son are played by professional actors. What do you think Konchalovsky was trying to accomplish with such casting choices? What do you think he is trying to capture in this film?
Question 2: The Plot and the Theme
We have a film that was shot largely without a script and appears to have almost no plot. So, what is it about? What does the camera focus on? What are we invited to see in this film?
Question 3: Open Topic
Write a post about a topic of your choice. You can focus on the film’s technical achievements and challenges, or discuss themes, scenes or visual motifs. Interesting technical topics would include the soundtrack, and the types of shots used by the director. You are also welcome to compare the film to another we have watched.7. F r a g m e n t s o f E m p i r e : T h e H e a r t l a n d i n P o s t – S o v i e t F i l m
In this chapter, concerned with a cinematic representation of Russia’s heartland, it is worth
mentioning two framing assumptions. One deals with the notion of modern ruins—a notion
that extends far beyond a concrete narrative of death and decay and that, nonetheless, is
directly important for the films considered in this chapter. A second assumption connects this
theme of ruination with a postcolonial reflection characteristic of the mindscape of modernday Russia striving to (re-)create a range of identities after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Both assumptions determine a specific cinematic language that describes Russia’s heartland in
post-Soviet cinematography: on the one hand, it demonstrates distinct traces of the preceding
era, and on the other, it exhibits the anxieties of Russia’s present.
All four films considered in this chapter were shot after the collapse of the Soviet Union:
the earliest one, Lidiia Bobrova’s In That Land (V toi strane, 1997), engages with a specific
dissolution of Soviet tropes associated with “village film,”1 as well as of the Soviet genre
system in general. Released at the very end of the twentieth century, In That Land does not
shy away from reproducing a number of recognizable clichés characteristic of Soviet, and
even Stalinist, cinematography, but the air of decay has already touched its monumental
The term “village film” is used broadly here, encompassing a range of films from Stalinist comedies whose
action unfolds in kolkhoz settings (especially films by Ivan Pyr’ev) to dramas produced in the Stalinist period
and beyond, dealing with a theme of communist construction in the village and/or involving a juxtaposition
of rural and urban existence. The term “village film” inevitably evokes the better-known term “village prose”
(derevenskaia proza), a movement conventionally traced to Valentin Ovechkin (1906–68), whose short stories,
collected under the title District Routines (Raionnye budni) appeared from 1952 to 1956 in the leading journal
Novyi mir even before Stalin’s death in 1953. As a creative movement, village prose was both a style of writing
and a thematic concern that departed from the existing conventions of Stalin-era socialist realism in the villageprose writers’ focus on traditional Russian village life (both its idealized values and their deterioration), drawn
through sharp contrasts between village and city, old and new, spirituality and modern exigencies. The bestknown writers associated with the village-prose movement include Fedor Abramov, Vasilii Belov, Aleksandr
Iashin, Valentin Rasputin, the early Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Vasilii Shukshin, who figures in the analysis
that follows. Increasingly, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the village-prose movement became associated
with nationalist opposition, whether encouraged by some factions within the Communist Party of the Soviet
Union (CPSU) or in anti-authoritarian protest against it.
reminiscences, turning them into a form of postmodern bricolage.2 In three additional films
to be examined here, what might be described as the Soviet mindscape is discernable through
the surface narrative of modern Russia, for which that mindscape functions both as nostalgia
and as nightmare, evoking a modernity that alternatively worships and dreads its own ruins.
It may come as a surprise that nostalgia for the Soviet mindscape is also explicit in Free Floating
(Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006) by the younger (then) auteur director Boris Khlebnikov, infusing
the film with a specific melancholic tone. As Johannes von Moltke (411) has remarked, the
mood of melancholy is typical of films concerned with an aesthetic of ruination: a melancholic
mise-en-scène serves to bring “temporal movements of cinema and ruins to a halt,” as if to
suspend historicity. The notion of suspended historicity is connected to the idea of a ruin’s
sublimity, which embodies a logic of idealization of the past, important in the production of
nostalgia. The anxious component of the films examined in this chapter is constituted in the
risk that they may use the Soviet tropes unreflexively, as a trace of consciousness no longer
present but not entirely absent: the “ruin consciousness” of the Soviets that keeps haunting the
In his essay “Authentic Ruins,” Andreas Huyssen (26) speaks about this ambiguity, proposing
the term “authenticity” to describe a modern admiration of ruination as an instrument that
grasps the community’s imagined past through evidence of its decay. According to Huyssen,
the process of ruination, imagined as (re)turning human-made structures into nature, becomes
associated with the notion of a nostalgic aura of the past, the sense of lost brilliance and
harmony. At the same time, the discourse of authentic ruins bears within itself a threat of lethal
suffocation within the constraints of the past, and this threat determines its ambivalent character.3
The term bricolage—building things in an amateur manner without the direct aid of professionals—was
reintroduced by Claude Lévi-Strauss (17) to describe a mythopoetic activity that uses “whatever is at hand”
to create new “projects” (including ideas). Further elaborating the term, Jacques Derrida (“Structure, Sign,
and Play,” 258) mentions that it is possible to view bricolage as a form of critical language—every discourse
actor is essentially a bricoleur, building a personal narrative out of existing composite parts. In the current
chapter, reliant on this legacy, bricolage is understood as a form of nostalgic consciousness that builds cinematic
narratives of heartland out of existing Soviet tropes, as well as new ideas that transform these tropes, instilling
them with novel meanings.
In his analysis of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etchings Carceri, Huyssen (“Authentic Ruins,” 26) argues that the
modern admiration of ruins has a darker side to it: according to the scholar, the idea of authenticity, which
venerated ruins embody, may constitute a “prison of invention” (26), where the bounds of the past cancel out
the possibility of innovation.
7. Fragments of Empire: The Heartland in Post-Soviet Film
Both the admiration of ruins and the anxiety around their suffocating potential are often
present in the discourse on Russia’s heartland in post-Soviet cinema. Recurrently, the heartland
becomes an embodiment of the ruination of the Soviet imperial past, which often bears distinct
traits of physical destruction, be it a dying village in Gennadii Sidorov’s Little Old Ladies
(Starukhi, 2003) or the ruins of a Soviet school in Andrei Konchalovskii’s The Postman’s White
Nights (Belye nochi pochtal’ona Alekseia Triapitsyna, 2014) more than a decade later. At the
same time, the deceased empire tends to be presented as a site of desire, whose intensity does
not subside even when confronted with the self-criticism in which these films abound. Here
the empire attains an organic quality, revealing the logic of identifying the natural with the
national, characteristic of the early ethnographic as well as certain nationalistic phantasms.
In this identification of the empire with the living organism, the representation of Russia’s
heartland plays a crucial role.
In his theorization of the national as a narrated category, Homi Bhabha (“DissemiNation,”
212) speaks about the imagining of nation as a form in space, or “landscape,” which informs the
idea of nation with “visual presence.” In this respect, it might be argued, the space of Russia’s
heartland in the films considered here comes as the visual presence of imperial consciousness,
which simultaneously repels and attracts utopian longings. Obvious characteristics of the
heartland as a remote, nature-laden space activates dichotomies of the traditional and modern,
cyclical and linear that help to inscribe it into the narratives of modernity. In present conditions
when—one might argue—modernity is experiencing its own ruination, including the demise
of the Soviet state as a form of alternative modernity, certain metaphors present in these films
may come as part of a broader reflection on the specifics of modernity in Russia. Here the
theme of heartland is closely intertwined with phenomena that have sometimes been described
as symptomatic of internal colonization, which finds its vivid representation in a specific
ethnographical impulse of the films discussed below.
The term “internal colonization” was reintroduced by Aleksandr Etkind to describe
a specific Russian reality in which the country’s Volk, and the peasantry in particular, have
been assigned a role of internal “barbarian,” whom westernized elites began to Orientalize as
a consequence of the reforms of Peter the Great. As a result of the reforms, which contributed
to the shoring up of the estate system in Russia, the nobility tended to view peasants from
the position of the colonizer: as “wild natives” or, worse, as domesticated animals (Etkind,
Vnutrenniaia kolonizatsiia, 171), a status that was reinforced by master-slave relations prior to
the 1861 abolition of peasant slavery. Drawing on an intellectual legacy that includes ideas
developed by the Russian historians Sergei Solov’ev and Vasilii Kliuchevskii, Etkind’s view
on internal colonization is compatible with related arguments by Geoffrey Hosking and
Michael Cherniavsky (119–20), delineating two different imaginings of Russia: as Holy Rus’,
which embodied the Russian Volk, and imperial Russia, the domain of post-Petrine elites, who
viewed themselves as in many ways detached from the demotic roots.4 The divide proved to
be enduring and survived into Soviet imperial consciousness: in his essay devoted to the early
Soviet cinema, Walter Benjamin (“On the Present Situation”) cites Russian filmmakers’ belief
that the peasants’ perception is drastically different from that of the urban population. Here
he repeats the filmmakers’ idea that Russian peasants are unable to follow two simultaneous
narrative strands in film and are capable of following only a single series of images that had to
unfold chronologically “like the verses of a street ballad” (14). According to Etkind (Vnutrenniaia
kolonizatsiia, 8), this account might be taken to confirm the Orientalizing logic regarding the
Volk, the logic characteristic of internal colonization, adopted by Russian intelligentsia as
a westernized cohort.
The view of heartland as something fundamentally different from the imperial center
and constructed as culturally and ideologically inferior to it was a popular cliché of Soviet
cinematic representation, wherein Moscow occupied the position of a panoptic observer of the
rest of the Soviet Union. It is fair to say that a similar perspective, intimately connected to the
notion of internal colonization, still underlies the perceptions of many contemporary Russian
filmmakers, who continue to view the heartland according to a dyad of metropole/colony
relations. Indeed, the imperial perspective has a rich legacy independent of (and prior to) the
Soviet tradition in the history of world cinematography, dating back to the early ethnographic
projects, to which the post-Soviet heartland films have a surprising affinity. To demonstrate
this connection, it is worth briefly turning, for example, to an early ethnographic film, In the
Land of the Headhunters (1914), by the American filmmaker Edward S. Curtis.
In Tsar and People: Studies in Russian Myths, Cherniavsky attributes the emergence of the term “Holy Rus’” to the
sixteenth century—it first emerged, he argues, in Andrei Kurbskii’s correspondence with Tsar Ivan IV. In his
writings, Kurbskii used the term to oppose the mass of the country’s population—Holy Rus’—to the autocratic
tsar. Cherniavsky argues that since then, the term has frequently been used to delineate the totality of the
Russian people, as opposed to the ruling elite, including in Petrine times.
7. Fragments of Empire: The Heartland in Post-Soviet Film
Curtis’s film offers a bizarre example of the turn-of-the-century “salvage ethnography”
aimed at saving traces of American indigenous cultures, believed to be on the verge of extinction
due to the unavoidable march of progress. In this context, native cultures were perceived as
the prehistory of civilized humanity, and preserving their traces, in essence, meant preserving
the history of white civilization (Wakeham, 294). In the Land of the Headhunters was Curtis’s
contribution to this project: in his film, he aspired to show what Native American existence
looked like before the intrusive influence of white culture took its destructive toll. To fulfill this
mission, the filmmaker created a script including aspects of romance, intrigue, and adventure
that, in his mind, could have taken place in the indigenous community prior to white invasion
and asked the native people of Kwaqiutl to act that script out for the camera. Apart from using
this script, which capitalized on white stereotypes regarding Native American populations,
Curtis made the indigenous actors wear commercial merchandise of his time, including massproduced wigs and nose rings imported from China (Wakeham, 298).
Despite being shot in a different cinematic era and with a different purpose, one might
argue that In the Land of the Headhunters shares a striking affinity with post-Soviet cinematic
imaginings of Russia’s heartland. This affinity constitutes itself in a specific colonial aesthetics,
realized through the use of a documentary alibi that, paradoxically, only reinforces the
constructedness of the cinematic fabric. Just like the Curtis film, post-Soviet imaginings of the
heartland occurs along lines of Orientalizing (yet simultaneously westernizing) its inhabitants.
Most of the films examined in this chapter employ a cast of nonprofessional actors, usually
consisting of the residents of the localities being filmed. As in The Land of the Headhunters, they
are asked to act out scripts suggested by an urban filmmaker who comes as an outsider to their
In That Land, filmed in the village of Verkola, employed villagers to play roles as themselves
under different names—for example, the main protagonist, the shepherd Skuridin, is played
by Dmitrii Klopov, a real shepherd in the village; similarly, the part of a former prisoner
is given to a real former inmate. Although the directorial imposition of the plot structure
remained strong, actors were allowed to change certain lines if they seemed inauthentic to
them, thus reinforcing the ethnographic impulse of the film as a study of the village life.
Likewise, Gennadii Sidorov’s Little Old Ladies contains both professional and nonprofessional
actors. Here the mixed cast serves to emphasize the constructed-ness of the filmic situation,
which also carries certain ethnographic overtones: real old ladies of the village, most of whom
remain unnamed throughout the film, participate in the demonstration of specific village
rituals, including mourning and gossiping. Last, The Postman’s White Nights also works as
a combination of professional actors and villagers playing themselves, reproducing the casting
choice of Konchalovskii’s earlier film, The Story of Asya Klyachina (Istoriia Asi Kliachinoi, kotoraia
liubila, da ne vyshla zamuzh, 1967). Overall, the fact of directorial imposition of a vision of
village life on real villagers who, as a result, are enjoined to perform modified versions of
themselves for urban audiences can be perceived as a colonizing practice that simultaneously
regards the village population as a curiosity in need of cataloging and attempts to structure
this population under the rubric of the Other. In this scheme, the inhabitants of the Russian
heartland serve as the exotic background of tradition that highlights the modern quality of an
While the opposition of village and urban lifestyles is an old trope of Russian cinema,
used in both prerevolutionary and early Soviet films,5 the impulse to produce documentary
narratives within the fictional framework (and vice versa) stems most productively from avantgarde experiments of Soviet filmmaking. In his documentary Kino-Eye (Kino-Glaz, 1924), the
film without “actors and script” (as the viewers are informed by introductory intertitles), Dziga
Vertov engaged reenactments in order to create narrative cohesion (for instance, a group of
Young Pioneers was asked to reenact Pioneer rituals for the camera). Concerned with “catching
life unawares” and rendering “cinema truth,” Vertov was generally preoccupied with the goal
of ridding the cinema of all artifice, including trained actors,6 a mission relevant to our analysis.
Yet post-Soviet films dealing with the theme of the heartland, by contrast, often use the device
to produce a more complex conceptual vision of the post-Soviet and postimperial landscape;
here the representation of the villagers as a subject group contains the elements of nostalgia
connected to imaginings of a ruined past.
In early Russian film and in the cinema production of the 1920s, the city tended to be portrayed as a site of
decadence and moral corruption, as opposed to the purity of village existence. The trope can be traced in
Evgenii Bauer’s short Child of the Big City (Ditia bol’shogo goroda, 1914), as well as in the films of the early
Soviet period, including Lev Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mister West in the Land of the Bolsheviks
(Neobychainye prikliucheniia mistera Vesta v strane bol’shevikov, 1924), Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa (Tret’ia
Meshchanskaia, 1927), Fridrikh Ermler’s Kat’ka the Appleseller (Kat’ka “bumazhnyi ranet,” 1926), and others.
In his essay “On the Significance of Non-Acted Cinema,” Vertov (37) insists that the only valuable cinema is
the kind producing “film-objects” that focus on “real life” instead of artificial narratives. For these film-objects
“the field of vision is life, the material for montage construction—life, the sets—life, the actors—life.”
7. Fragments of Empire: The Heartland in Post-Soviet Film
T h e S o v ie t Union We H a v e L o s t : In T ha t L and
Shot in 1997, Lidiia Bobrova’s In that Land comes as a distinct example of a post-Soviet
consciousness of ruin. The film reuses several tropes of the Soviet village cinema, including
a focus on a strong kolkhoz leader, who battles village vices of inertia and alcoholism.
Characteristic treatments of the motif can be found in many Soviet films, including Aleksandr
Zarkhi and Iosif Kheifits’s Member of the Government (Chlen pravitel’stva, 1939), Iurii Egorov’s
A Simple Story (Prostaia istoriia, 1960), Aleksei Saltykov’s The Chairman (Predsedatel’, 1964),
and Evgenii Matveev’s Earthly Love (Liubov’ zemnaia, 1974). I should add that, although in
several of these instances, a given film may propose the figure of a kolkhoz chairwoman, the
female leaders are constantly advised by male communist mentors, a trope that undergirds the
patriarchal logic of Soviet ideology.
In addition to the strong kolkhoz leader, a second borrowed theme is the narrative of the
“ticket to a sanatorium,” frequently found in village films of the 1970s and 1980s. In Vasilii
Shukshin’s Happy Go Lucky (Pechki-lavochki, 1972) and Vladimir Men’shov’s Love and Pigeons
(Liubov’ i golubi, 1984), the motif receives characteristic comic treatment similar to that in In
That Land. Apart from individual motifs, Bobrova’s film recycles an entire plotline from the
iconic The Red Snowball Tree (Kalina krasnaia, 1974), turning Shukshin’s film into one of its
principal sources. It seems that Bobrova embarked on the task of recreating what the Soviet
village film constituted as a genre, reproducing and rethinking its prominent filmic traits.
Overall, In That Land may be viewed as a specific screen on which nostalgia for the Soviet
(cinematic) culture is projected: this screen comes to be a site of mourning for the filmic country
that was lost and must be reconstructed as a totality in order for reflection to take place.
Central to Bobrova’s film, as an example of what I have chosen to call “ruin cinema” (Moltke),
is its attention to a confused temporality: throughout most of the film, we are never entirely
sure when the events are unfolding. In one scene toward the end, the viewer is presented with
a TV screen with opening credits of the US soap opera Santa Barbara, from which we can
understand that the action is set sometime after the collapse of the Soviet Union.7 In introducing
Soviet themes into the film, Bobrova fosters this confusion: in essence, the viewers are shown
a post-Soviet reality of the village that looks very much like the Soviet village. From the film’s
Santa Barbara was one of the first soap operas screened in Russia shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union:
the broadcast began in January 1992.
action, the viewer understands that the village still resembles a kolkhoz, with Chairman
Chapurin as its leader; it is still possible to get a free ticket to a sanatorium if you work well;
and the village authorities are still making visible efforts to tackle the village’s social ills, such
as alcoholism. In the film, post-Soviet reality “pretends” to be Soviet; however, the viewer is
also presented with obvious facts indicating the destruction of Soviet forms of consciousness
that have died out together with the communist economy.
In Bobrova’s In That Land, Chairman Chapurin is constructed as a typical Soviet mentor,
who strives to move the collective farm forward and to reeducate those populations who are
ideologically lagging behind (a group of drunkards whom Chapurin tries to persuade to quit
their habit). Despite retaining some characteristics of the Soviet leader, Chapurin finds himself
in a new reality to which he cannot fully reconcile himself. Realizing that the old system has
collapsed, he believes that his country is now “rolling into the abyss,” as he intimates to his
wife. Chapurin is visibly upset and inept in the new conditions: he laments that he cannot
pay salaries to his fellow villagers anymore (“before, the government gave us money; now
we need to earn money ourselves”). As the film unfolds, it turns out that the chairman is also
unable to reeducate the drunkards, who die one after another, providing a near-ethnographic
demonstration of village funeral rituals.
Fig. 7.1. Bobrova, In That Land. Local drunkards whom Chairman Chapurin fails to reeducate.
7. Fragments of Empire: The Heartland in Post-Soviet Film
On the one hand, in accordance with Soviet tropes, Chapurin is portrayed as a strong,
even monumental personality: when a fire occurs in the village, he is the one who runs into
the burning house to save its inhabitants, an act of heroism that buys him the sympathies
of his young female secretary, Katia. At the same time, Chapurin is presented in a distinctly
less idealistic fashion than kolkhoz leaders in most Soviet films. On several occasions, he is
portrayed as a person whose private interests outweigh his communal obligations: despite
being married, he contemplates an affair with Katia, and he takes back a sanatorium ticket
from Skuridin to please his influential superior. It is clear that the character of Chapurin is
constructed as a form of intermediary consciousness, a nostalgic phantasm oscillating between
the new reality of post-Soviet Russia and the “ruin consciousness” of the Soviet period. This
“ruin consciousness” can be characterized as a patriarchal realm. Despite the monumental
depiction of Chapurin, he fails to attain the epic status of his Soviet predecessors. He is
distressed by the ongoing historic change whose consequences he cannot control; important
decisions in his life are made by his wife, who takes control in times of crisis. Overall, Chapurin
as a figure of patriarchal power proves unable to function in the new reality, which lacks the
moral clarity and uniformity of the communist period.
Bobrova’s film is alternately dismissive and expressive of the previous moral and political
hierarchies deeply embedded in the history of Soviet cinema. One such motif would be a direct
citation from Vasilii Shukshin’s The Red Snowball Tree. Shukshin’s film narrates the story of
a former criminal, Egor Prokudin, who is released from the penal colony and attempts to start
a new life in the village where he comes to meet his female pen pal, Liuba. Despite his early
prison behavior as a thug, Egor gradually undergoes a transformation under the influence of
village life and Liuba’s devotion, but his criminal past catches up with him, and he dies at the
hands of his former accomplices. In That Land borrows this plotline almost entirely, omitting
some of its dramatic components: in Bobrova’s film, former prisoner Konstantin arrives in
the village to meet Raisa, whose mother has engaged in correspondence with him in order to
marry off her daughter. Much like Egor in The Red Snowball Tree, Konstantin brings his prison
behavior with him but gets reeducated in the village, adopting a more peaceful mentality by
the film’s conclusion. Unlike Egor, however, Konstantin is not killed by his former colleagues;
instead, a final scene of the film shows him and his former adversary, Skuridin, leading
a peaceful conversation over a wooden “bird of happiness,” which the shepherd made with
his own hands.
The repetition of the plotline of The Red Snowball Tree occurs alongside allusions to other
prominent Soviet-era village films released in the recent Soviet past. Among them is Vladimir
Men’shov’s Love and Pigeons (1984), in which we also come across a bird as a symbol of
reconciliatory transformation: in Men’shov’s film, pigeons that initially provided a topic of
contention between a husband and wife become a symbol of their reconciliation and newfound
happiness. Unlike in Love and Pigeons, in In That Land happiness is a crafted state, not something
preordained. By introducing a handmade bird in a concluding scene, Lidiia Bobrova sends
a hopeful message that, despite all the destruction that the village and the country as a whole are
undergoing at this historical juncture, happiness can be “made” by means of conscious effort,
replacing the governing logic of the Soviet state with the lambent alternative of individual effort.
In this regard, the episode with the bird engages in a dialogue with a previous scene, where
Chapurin and his friends sing about being born in the country where they will remain forever.8
In the lyrics, the word strana can be understood both as “country” and as “land,” creating
a conflation of the global and the local, in both the territorial and the historical sense. Chapurin’s
song becomes a lament for the USSR, the country where he and his fellow villagers were born
and that has recently been lost forever; simultaneously, the lyrics serve as a determination to
remain in the land where he belongs, despite the turmoil. Combined with Skuridin’s bird, the
song signals a positive existential program under conditions of major historic loss, which the
film processes and mourns. This work is accompanied by the emergence of cinematic ghosts,
fragments and echoes of the films produced in the country that is lamented over, as one laments
over a recently deceased relative. In this regard, the film becomes a memory site that processes
the loss in real time, instilling old Soviet tropes with new hope and a new ideology.
Im p er i al No s t algia : L i t t le Old L adies
Writing about Gennadii Sidorov’s Little Old Ladies, Viacheslav Shmyrov mentions that the film
presents a picture opposite to that in Farewell (Proshchanie, 1981), the Stagnation-era Soviet
village film by Larisa Shepit’ko and Elem Klimov. Based on the novella Farewell to Matyora
(Proshchanie s Materoi, 1976) by the village prose writer Valentin Rasputin, Farewell narrates
the story of a village that is to be flooded for the construction of a hydroelectric power plant.
“I will remain in the land/the country where I was born.”
7. Fragments of Empire: The Heartland in Post-Soviet Film
The film depicts the plight of villagers who do not want to leave their rural homes and ancestral
graves, and it can be viewed as a larger commentary on the destructive toll that modern
civilization inflicts on the realm of rural tradition. In contrast, according to Shmyrov, Little
Old Ladies contains the element of hope, showing the village that briefly revives and celebrates
itself. The film’s hopeful overtones are largely informed by nostalgic imperial sentiment, which
both mourns and revives the phantasm of the Soviet Union, creatively reinterpreting major
As in Bobrova’s In That Land, Sidorov’s film is filled with markers of ruination that it
both documents and attempts to overcome. The action is set in a dying village whose only
residents are a handful of elderly women; the only young person is Mikolka, a boy who suffers
from Down syndrome. The village comprises a number of empty houses, abandoned as their
residents moved elsewhere or died of old age. The village—with its crooked gates and fences,
the piles of unwanted kittle that populate the frame—is abandoned also by the state authorities:
it has neither electricity nor radio; in many ways, it lives by the inertia of its prior existence.
Compared to its Soviet counterparts, this film seems to have abandoned all possible imperial
hierarchies—it shows the village in a state of isolation, both from the former metropole Moscow
and from civilization more generally.
Yet among its traces of imperial consciousness is the motif of Moscow, signaled by Pashka,
the grandson of the old lady Anna, who dies at the very beginning of the film. Pashka comes
to pay his respects to his grandmother’s grave and spends a day in the village with Mikolka
and other relatives. Working as an actor in a Moscow theater, Pashka is eager to perform in
front of his village audience, even when it is unnecessary. During (what is supposed to be)
a warm conversation between two relatives, Pashka suddenly recites to Mikolka a monologue
of Lermontov’s character Pechorin; he reads a poem by Sergei Esenin at Anna’s grave,
performed in an exaggerated theatrical manner inappropriate for the occasion. Both episodes
mark a gaping rift between Pashka and his village folks: Mikolka is unable to appreciate the
culture references that Pashka brings, as are the village grandmas, who characterize Pashka as
“boneheaded.” Overall, Pashka is rendered through a largely parodic lens: always drunk and
unable to connect, he abuses the notion of high culture with the low quality of his performances
and general ridiculousness of his persona. In his recitation of the Pechorin monologue, he is
drunk and shirtless, his semi-naked body occupying half of the screen, creating a grotesquely
obscene impression. The depiction of the Muscovite not only accentuates the rift between
metropole and heartland; it fails to reproduce the conventional Soviet hierarchy in which
Moscow dominates the heartland. It undercuts conventional imperial inequalities.
Apart from ridiculing Moscow, the film also focuses on the institution of the army,
traditionally associated with the patriarchal ambitions of state power. Despite their isolation,
the village residents manage to maintain contact with a larger reality through a Russian
army tank regiment, located in the village’s proximity, and the regiment’s commander, often
referred to as Fed’ka (played by director Gennadii Sidorov himself). The regiment’s soldiers
are regular customers of the village grannie Fekla, who produces cheap homemade alcohol;
they also help make coffins when an elderly resident dies. Despite the fact that cooperation
between the old women and the regiment often attains satirical overtones, their tandem seems
to compensate for the lack of government support for the village after the collapse of the Soviet
Union. Conventionally embodying the disciplining power of the state, the army seems to be an
unlikely caretaker in normal circumstances. Yet the army itself is shown in a state of confusion
and disorder: the entire regiment drinks; privates fulfill nonmilitary tasks on Fed’ka’s orders,
including coffin production; the commander himself routinely abuses his power, even
threatening to kill one of the soldiers for sleeping with his wife. Like the village, the Russian
army functions in a state of disarray and paralysis, suspended between the glorious past of
Soviet modernity and the uncertain future of the post-Soviet condition.
As we focus on the “ruin qualities” of the film, we cannot help but mention its identification
of empire with an aging organism, destined to live out a natural life cycle. Sidorov’s film
bears strong allegorical affinities to several other films that take up the trope of the human life
span as a form of reconciliation to the death of the Soviet imperial state. Best known of these
cinematic allegories, perhaps, is one of Marina Razbezhkina’s earlier documentaries, End of the
Road (Konets puti, 1991). In her film, Razbezhkina conflates the lifespan of the Soviet polity
with the life of her character, the eighty-year-old villager Zinaida Gorshkova, who witnessed
both the rise and fall of the USSR—that is, the socialist empire on its journey. The choice of
a villager does not seem like a coincidence; here the landscape of the countryside embodies the
empire itself. The representation of the Soviet empire as a natural phenomenon positions the
USSR within a pantheistic understanding of the world, alleviating anxieties associated with the
recent dissolution of the communist state. Similarly, in Little Old Ladies we encounter a presentday village haunted by the ghost of the Soviet imperial memory system; without the women’s
living recollections, which still populate the ruins among which they live, the Soviet village
7. Fragments of Empire: The Heartland in Post-Soviet Film
will vanish without a trace. In this respect, the increasing isolation of the village plays the role
of a utopian island, a place where the organic empire can disappear and reemerge over and
over again, following cycles of nature and memory.
The village as an embodiment of the “organic” empire is confirmed by the film’s principal
plotline: a Tajik family arrives in the village, arousing a mixture of hostility and curiosity in
its elderly residents. Unlike the village’s natives, the newcomers embody reproductive vitality
long absent in this land: the woman in the Tajik family is pregnant with her third child. The
relationship between the Tajik family and the Russian locals is informed by a dynamic that is
both imperial and xenophobic: the old ladies are repelled by and curious about the newcomers.
Moreover, the villagers are willing to patronize them in an imperial manner that the Russian
film critic Natal’ia Sirivlia calls “loving, Russian style” (liubit’ po-russki). The crucial moment
comes, argues Sirivlia, after Mikolka burns down the house where the newcomers are settled.
His act of arson is inspired by the old ladies’ xenophobic gossiping, which the boy interpreted
as a call to arms. Devastated and desperate, the Tajik family now becomes a focus of the old
ladies’ affection: “Now they [the old residents of the village] can feel sorry for them, love them
with all their heart, invite them to live in their homes, share their last belongings with them”
While the arson leads to the reconstruction of the imperial dynamic between the Russian
population of the village and the refugees, its most interesting aspect is situated elsewhere:
the young father of the Tajik family is building a small power generator to supply the village
with electricity, and toward the end of the film, he succeeds, ending the film with the village
community’s celebration of their analogue of the “Il’ich lamp.”9 This return to the origins of
Soviet modernity with its focus on the countryside’s electrification and modernization offers an
interesting inversion of the imperial dynamic: unlike the 1920s, when the modernizing impulse
originated from the imperial center, now it comes from the Tajiks, the former Soviet periphery.
Here again, we deal with the notion of empire as a living organism—to be reconstructed, it
needs the vitality of the former “subject group,” from which it literally drains energy. This
In November 1920, the villagers of Kashin (Moscow region) invited Vladimir Il’ich Lenin to witness the
lighting of the village’s first incandescent bulb, lit by a rudimentary generator in his presence on 14 November.
The electrification of the USSR through the efforts of GOELRO (Russian acronym for State Commission for
the Electrification of Russia) came to be known colloquially as “Il’ich’s lamp,” the naked incandescent bulb
witnessed by Lenin, who is himself referred to here affectionately by his patronymic “Il’ich.”
neocolonial perspective considers the Tajiks as bearers of a “younger,” hence “more vital,” type
of culture, able to produce tangible results that serve the Russian population. In this regard, the
film’s village acts as a microcosm of the post-Soviet imperial ambition, which has not departed
far from the logic of its Soviet predecessor.
R u s si a n R o a d F ilm : F r ee F loa t ing
I would begin this analysis of Boris Khlebnikov’s Free Floating by suggesting that it belongs to
the genre of road movie, traditionally concerned with mobility and a corresponding “aesthetics
of curiosity” (Hurault-Paupe, 6). Although Free Floating does not resemble a typical road film, its
concern with motion (and a resulting transformation of its protagonist) evokes direct parallels
with the genre. According to David Laderman (2), US road films are often instilled with a mood
of rebellion against an oppressive societal norm, which is rejected in favor of self-discovery.
Here the road poses as a “universal symbol for the course of life, the movement of desire, the
lure of both freedom and destiny.” Some of these notions are explored in Free Floating, which
centers on a young protagonist, Lenia, who is both lost and alienated but also willing to find
his place in the society in the state of post-Soviet confusion. In the film, the road is evoked both
literally and metaphorically, posing as an organizing principle in the protagonist’s work and
search for identity, with its traits of postimperial contemplation.
Lenia’s journey of self-discovery, heavily associated with professional self-realization,
begins after he and his colleagues are fired from a Soviet-era machine-building plant, which is
sold to Americans. Following the Soviet tradition, the episode seems to vilify the US investors,
who are said to have bought and closed the plant in order to eliminate a competitor; through
the use of irony, we understand that what is really being satirized is the remnants of Soviet
thinking. In the episode, one of the workers asserts that the Americans bought the plant because
its collective “worked well.” This statement deserves little credence, as the opening sequences
of the film clearly demonstrate the lack of labor discipline at the plant prior to acquisition. The
only person who seems to work is the novice Lenia; others are engaged in meaningless leisure
activities, such as collective smoking breaks and meandering about the factory premises.
What is interesting here and in the film more generally is its close attention to the factory
workers’ mundane, empty routines. The static camera lingers forever on each individual person:
a worker lethargically unwrapping an antiquated meat grinder; his colleague slowly turning
7. Fragments of Empire: The Heartland in Post-Soviet Film
Fig. 7.2. Khlebnikov, Free Floating. Lenia and his colleagues from the road repair team.
a beer can into an improvised ashtray. The camera turns into a meditative observer of what is
supposed to be the noble routine of labor; in so doing, it both imitates and subverts the habits
of the Soviet camera, detailing the labor achievements of shock workers. Here, by contrast,
there are neither shock workers nor heroes; rather, the narrative is filled with longing for “real”
labor, absent from both ideological and economic landscape of post-Soviet Russia.
Russian film critic Elena Gracheva observes that labor here poses a Platonic ideal: “no
one has ever seen it, but everybody talks about it.” In addition to being an unattainable ideal,
work functions as a staple of self-identification. After leaving the factory, Lenia embarks on
a number of short-term jobs, including as a traveling plasterer, a job he rejects after seeing that
this work is primarily done by women. The role of the work could be ironically compared
to labor in the Soviet films, where a good Communist had to be a good worker. Through an
ecstatic experience of work, the Soviet citizen could achieve the heights of class consciousness
and social hierarchy (as the heroine does in Grigorii Aleksandrov’s Stalinist film Bright Path
[Svetlyi put’, 1940]). Yet labor remains a nostalgic phantasm in the film, impossible in the
economic and ideological conditions of post-Soviet, small-town Russia, where the action of
Free Floating unfolds. It is no coincidence that the protagonist’s search for work and for identity
starts with the demise of the plant, sending its former employees into the universe of entropic
“free floating,” where employment and identity become a fraught, individual project. In this
regard, Lenia’s subsequent journey is laden with the anxiety and uncertainty of an atomized
Laderman (4–6) draws an important connection between road films and the key aspects
of modernist aesthetics, including an ecstatic belief in technology as a liberating force that
can lead the society into the future. The road movies celebrate this belief through the notion
of a moving vehicle that brings the character to his transformation. In Free Floating, Lenia’s
search for employment is continuously accompanied by his physical movement on foot
and by vehicle or explicit allusions to feet and traveling. First, he sells footwear at a small
market; this employment ends abruptly when Lenia decides that he wants to quit. His next
attempt as a plasterer is directly connected to traveling by vehicle: Lenia departs by bus,
but—on arrival—decides that the job doesn’t suit him. He returns home on foot, passing
a bizarre sculpture of two white bears, emphasizing the absurdist, even existential, character
of Lenia’s searches. Next, in a kind of narrative concretization, Lenia joins a team that repairs
municipal roads. His foreman Roslov compares the road to a woman, while the repairman is
a strange mix of her doctor and lover: the crowbar should not be a tool of “violation,” but
rather a syringe that “pleases” the road, an allegorical rendition of the road as embodiment of
desire. Unsurprisingly, this job becomes Lenia’s most lengthy employment before he lands his
last job on a barge, in perpetual navigation down the Volga River.
S o v ie t M o der ni t y R e v isi t e d : T he P os t man’s W hi t e Nigh t s
Andrei Konchalovskii’s The Postman’s White Nights is the most “Vertovian” of the films
discussed here. In his essay “The Birth of Kino-Eye,” Dziga Vertov reiterates his belief that the
“cinema eye” of the camera must serve a single goal: to catch life as it is, without altering it by
means of artificial literary scenarios, costumes, or acting. Explaining the existential goal of his
technique, Vertov (“Birth of Kino-Eye,” 41) writes, “Not ‘filming life unawares’ for the sake
of the ‘unaware,’ but in order to show people without masks, without makeup, to catch them
through the eye of the camera in a moment when they are not acting, to read their thoughts,
laid bare by the camera.” In an idealization of the cinematic apparatus, Vertov believed in
7. Fragments of Empire: The Heartland in Post-Soviet Film
a single “truth” that can and should be rendered by the “kino-eye”; the previous filmic tradition,
based on theatrical and literary frameworks, was bourgeois and obsolete.
In The Postman’s White Nights, Andrei Konchalovskii could be seen as following Vertov’s
prescriptions closely: from casting a minimum of professional actors (only three in the film,
all in supporting roles) to the shooting that involved no script. The camera merely followed
a real postman, Aleksei Triapitsyn, in his everyday dealings and introduced a minimum of
invented plotlines. According to Triapitsyn (Kichin), the filming process was largely based on
improvisation both on the part of the film director and the cast, including the professionals.
In his attempt to document village life as factually as possible, Konchalovskii installed static
cameras in Triapitsyn’s home, as well as in the houses of several other village residents. The
cameras’ dispassionate gaze recorded the villagers’ sleeping habits, waking routines, and an
occasional party accompanied by vodka, tea, and a friendly chitchat. It is worth noting that the
cameras were mostly installed above the heads of the heroes, the high angle evoking the “God
shot.” The cameras’ positioning does not look like an accident: Konchalovskii’s film is instilled
with existential symbolism, with distinct traits of both pantheistic and Romantic worldviews,
conflating the natural landscape with the divine.
Along with portraying the everyday existence of Triapitsyn and other village characters,
Konchalovskii introduces another plane, a distinct authorial view on the essence of the human
existence as a spiritual and natural phenomenon. Juxtaposed to the documentary rendition
of the visual representation in the film, this plane is intentionally “fictional,” facilitated by
the film’s soundtrack (mostly composed by Eduard Artem’ev, together with Giuseppe Verdi’s
Requiem). Alternately barely discernable and loud, the soundtrack overturns the documentary
impulse of The Postman’s White Nights and renders the film analogous to a painting by William
Turner, where the human being is overwhelmed by a sublime natural landscape, framing the
human within the magnitude of God’s creation of the universe. In a similar fashion, Artem’ev’s
music, gentle and otherworldly, evokes a transcendental reality that looms over the characters’
From minute eight, when the music first engages with the natural beauty of Lake Kenozero,
to the very end of the film when we hear the Requiem, the soundtrack punctuates moments
when the divine comes into a close contact with the human and the mundane. It comments
on the sublime natural landscape of Kenozero, appears again at a villager’s death, and in
a morally ambiguous episode when Triapitsyn learns that his longtime friends had stolen his
Fig. 7.3. Konchalovskii, The Postman’s White Nights. Aleksei Triapitsyn in the ruined building of his Soviet-era school.
boat engine. In all the musical episodes, Triapitsyn figures as a direct participant: he observes
the natural beauty of his land; he mourns his deceased neighbor and the failing friendship.
As the real-life intermediary between the villagers and the “big land” (from which he delivers
newspapers, letters, and pensions), Triapitsyn is a kind of provincial Charon, connecting the
dying village with the urban space that still inherits the future.
An encounter of the “documentary mundane” with “fictional divine” makes up the
ontological framework of The Postman’s White Nights, highlighting a specific aspect of what
I have been calling “ruin cinema.” In a dream sequence, Triapitsyn sees himself in the ruined
building of the Soviet school where he and his friends underwent initiation into the communist
collective many years ago. In the sequence, the postman visits the building, now dilapidated
and forgotten, and hears fragments of Soviet songs he sang in childhood. This oneiric scene
poses the Soviet past as a nostalgic vision, both beautiful and ephemeral, organized as a
form of mnemonic collage. While ruined and lost forever, its lingering in dream and memory
reinstitutes this modernity as an active part of Russia’s present. This Soviet modernity is
preserved, too, by the film’s theme of the space industry, still able to launch rockets into the
beyond. The village is located next to a real launching facility in Plesetsk, which the postman
Triapitsyn visits in hopes of asking assistance with finding the stolen engine. The space industry
is signaled again toward the end of the film, as a rocket takes off into the sky, underscored by
7. Fragments of Empire: The Heartland in Post-Soviet Film
a return of the same otherworldly soundtrack. It is a deeply ambiguous turn, granting Soviet
modernity—with its idealization of cosmonauts and outer-space achievements—a second
chance at transcendental status, an eternal empire that inherits the sky. In his own version of
imperial ambition, Konchalovskii steps beyond Sidorov’s organic, dying empire. Instead of
the Soviet empire as a mortal body, Konchalovskii’s deceased country is an immortal soul, an
allegory that is arguably a little more troubling.
Aleksandrov, Grigorii, dir. Bright Path (Svetlyi put’, 1940).
Bauer, Evgenii, dir. Child of the Big City (Ditia bol’shogo goroda, 1914).
Bobrova, Lidiia, dir. In that Land (V toi strane, 1997).
Curtis, Edward S., dir. In the Land of Headhunters (1914).
Egorov, Iurii, dir. A Simple Story (Prostaia istoriia, 1960).
Ermler, Fridrikh, dir. Kat’ka the Appleseller (Kat’ka “bumazhnyi ranet,” 1926).
Khlebnikov, Boris, dir. Free Floating (Svobodnoe plavanie, 2006).
Konchalovskii, Andrei, dir. The Story of Asya Klyachina (Istoriia Asi Kliachinoi, kotoraia liubila, da ne
vyshla zamuzh, 1967).
———. The Postman’s White Nights (Belye nochi pochtal’ona Alekseia Triapitsyna, 2014).
Kuleshov, Lev, dir. The Extraordinary Adventures of Mister West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Neobychainye
prikliucheniia mistera Vesta v strane bol’shevikov, 1924).
Matveev, Evgenii, dir. Earthly Love (Liubov’ zemnaia, 1974).
Men’shov, Vladimir, dir. Love and Pigeons (Liubov’ i golubi, 1984).
Razbezhkina, Marina, dir. End of the Road (Konets puti, 1991).
Room, Abram, dir. Bed and Sofa (Tret’ia Meshchanskaia, 1927).
Saltykov, Aleksei, dir. The Chairman (Predsedatel’, 1964).
Shepit’ko, Larisa, and Elem Klimov, dirs. Farewell (Proshchanie, 1981).
Shukshin, Vasilii, dir. Happy Go Lucky (Pechki-lavochki, 1972).
———. The Red Snowball Tree (Kalina krasnaia, 1974).
Sidorov, Gennadii, dir. Little Old Ladies (Starukhi, 2003).
Vertov, Dziga, dir. Kino-Eye (Kino-Glaz, 1924).
Zarkhi, Aleksandr, and Iosif Kheifits, dirs. Member of the Government (Chlen pravitel’stva, 1939).
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