The big joke — if it can indeed be called that — has backfired badly for director Yuri Bykov in his new, fast-paced spy thriller TV series Sleepers. A respected filmmaker known for his corruption exposés, Bykov now seems to be trying to earn a living by creating something in line with Kremlin rhetoric, while covering his back by mocking the whole endeavour in the process. Though Sleepers is full of patriotic flag-waving and fear-mongering, it also contains self-aware nods to its own absurdity that are clearly aimed at Moscow’s intelligentsia circles. But Bykov's peers didn't find it funny. Their reaction, mainly one of fury, has been all the more bitter because the final product so brazenly insults them.

The eight-part drama shows how Russia’s intelligence services foil a Western plot to destabilise the country — a long-held Kremlin concern. The premise is Russia signing a secret gas contract with China that will bring untold prosperity. In response, the CIA activates “sleeper cells,” a fifth column whose ranks include journalists and human rights advocates, and sends a “specialist in velvet revolutions” to Moscow to lead the operation. In rapid succession, the American agents organise a terrorist attack, murder their stooges and bomb civilians. The show’s knight in shining armour is Andrei Rodionov, a colonel in the KGB-successor Federal Security Service (FSB) and an obvious stand-in for KGB alumnus President Vladimir Putin, whose portrait presides, icon-like, over several scenes.

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    Still from Sleepers showing Igor Petrenko as FSB colonel Andrei Rodionov (left) and Yuri Belyaev (right) as his boss

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    Still from Sleepers

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    The headquarters of Russia's FSB in Moscow, known as the Lunyanka, in a still from Sleepers

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    Still from Sleepers

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    A still from Sleepers showing that its anti-Americanism does not save it from sloppy English

So far, so unsurprising. But Bykov’s involvement in such a project sent shockwaves through Russia’s liberal intelligentsia. The director’s acclaimed previous films, including The Major and The Fool, were bleak portrayals of official corruption and popular despair in the provinces that were barely shown in Russian cinemas. Bykov, 36, had been held up as a beacon of moral gravitas and artistic integrity who spoke truth to power. Even more surprising was what happened next: Bykov repented. On October 13, after spending several days promoting the show, Bykov wrote on his VKontake page that he had “betrayed the entire progressive generation that wanted to change something in this country.” He promised to “vanish for a long time,” though he said he would first finish his upcoming film Factory.

At a time of high anxiety in Moscow’s creative classes following the recent arrest of Gogol Centre director Kirill Serebrennikov, Sleepers touched a nerve. Journalist Oleg Kashin called it “the fears and illusions of the Kremlin on film.” Bykov, who had attended a protest at Serebrennikov’s court hearing, was accused by some commentators of having sold his soul. On news website gazeta.ru, Anastasia Mironova compared him to the Soviet hack writer Alexander Fadeyev, an apologist for Stalin who killed himself in 1954.

The show’s anti-Americanism is in-your-face, outdoing even Hollywood’s vodka-swilling Russian bad guys in its stereotyped xenophobia

Russia’s intelligentsia was entirely correct to perceive it as a personal insult. The show’s screenplay was written by Sergei Minaev, a Putin supporter known to enjoy taunting liberals. With juvenile glee, it gives the finger to the sacred touchstones of liberal memory: the terror of 1937, invoked by a snot-nosed blogger; the Bolotnaya protests, depicted in a demonstration organised by U.S. intelligence; the anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny, who serves as the prototype for a self-aggrandising lawyer; and, most egregiously, murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who is referenced in the form of a bitchy investigative journalist whose throat is cut by a sleeper.

The root of all evil, then and now, is the United States. The show’s anti-Americanism is in-your-face, outdoing even Hollywood’s vodka-swilling Russian bad guys in its stereotyped xenophobia. It also rivals Hollywood in its lack of attention to the language of the other side: Americans speak in British and Russian accents, and the chilling effect of a text message in the film’s finale, which reads “Kiev. Tomorrow” is marred slightly by the phone’s notification for a “new massage”. American diplomats plot dastardly deeds at fancy receptions; traitorous Russian journalists and bloggers eat hamburgers and fries beneath the stars and stripes.

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    A still from Sleepers

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    A still from Sleepers

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    Igor Petrenko plays FSB colonel Alexei Rodionov in a still from Sleepers

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    A still from Sleepers

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    A still from Sleepers

Sleepers is not necessarily a departure from Bykov’s previous work; anti-corruption is politically amorphous, and Bykov has been claimed as a hero by liberals and conservative nationalists alike. By reading the show as either a soulless apologia or a brave act of patriotism, both sides of the debate over Sleepers overlook the irony at its heart. The show’s inversions of reality are so grotesque that they leave no doubt its creators are in on the joke. In the universe of Sleepers, it’s the journalists and bloggers who are spectacularly rich, all-powerful, and corrupt, not the bureaucrats. The reporter Zhuravlyov lives in a gated community outside the city and cruises around town in a black BMW, both of which are associated with highly-placed politicians and their associates. Bykov himself plays a terrorist who plants a bomb in the middle of a Bolotnaya-style demonstration. The tone of winking irony reaches its peak when hero Rodionov attends an art exhibition. He stands in front of a massive painting by contemporary artists Alexander Vinogradov and Vladimir Dubosarsky, who are known for their postmodernist mockery of Stalinist aesthetics.

The show, which aired on state-owned Channel One earlier this month, is intended for a broad audience across Russia, but the knowing looks are exclusively for urban intelligentsia types. Perhaps the key message for these viewers is found in a scene between Zhuravlyov and his lover, a TV news host, whom he instructs on how to make it in Moscow. “The main thing you need to learn how to do is to compromise,” he says.

The show’s inversions of reality are so grotesque that they leave no doubt its creators are in on the joke

While the show pretends to condemn the notion of conflicting loyalties, the real compromises are happening in the lives of its creators, who jet back and forth between Moscow and European capitals but mock the West, who denounce the Ukrainian revolution on Maidan but support Serebrennikov. They have surrendered to churning out state messages for a living, but hope that by recognising the disjuncture they will preserve their souls.

Minaev, for one, spends a lot of time in European countries — a preference clearly visible on his Instagram account. Bykov has always wavered between patriotic declarations, winking irony and moralistic sermons in his public statements. But he may have to call time on this after the reception that Sleepers has received. With his online repentance, Bykov revealed that he is tired of the game, though whether he will really retire remains to be seen.

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    A still from Yuri Bykov's 2010 debut film To Live

  • A trailer for Yuri Bykov's 2014 film The Fool

  • A trailer for Yuri Bykov's 2013 film The Major

Perhaps Bykov should have taken more inspiration from the Brezhnev era, which showed it is possible to produce a state-backed espionage TV series that is both successful and artistically interesting. The beloved 1972 Seventeen Moments of Spring follows a Soviet spy embedded with the Nazis in the final months of World War II. It, too, features unlikely inversions, but they are self-reflective. If in Sleepers, the journalists have all the attributes of bureaucratic fat cats, in Seventeen Moments of Spring (as film critic and academic Mark Lipovetsky has observed), the Nazis wear clothes and work in offices reminiscent of those from the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Whilst depicting a war against an unquestionable evil, the show raised subtle questions about the nature of “good”.

In contrast, Sleepers wraps jingoistic truisms in a glossy James Bond package and has a void at its centre. Its heroes, like its traitors, wear expensive suits, live in sleek apartments and drive nice cars. The motherland they are fighting for exists somewhere beyond the frame, but what it represents is unclear. Bykov and Minaev’s vision of Russia feels as empty as Rodionov’s apartment, which he hasn’t furnished because he is too busy fighting the fifth column.

Minaev has already announced Sleepers will have a second season. In one scene, there is a telling exchange between an agent and the terrorist played by Bykov. “Do you really believe in all this?” she asks him. “It’s the best there is,” he replies.

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