Since the Tsarist era, Russian rulers have seen Siberia as a prison without walls. Political opponents have long been bundled off to the region without close monitoring, the severe climate and vast stretches of taiga between settlements working more efficiently than any fence to prevent escape.
Russia’s easternmost territory of Sakha, also known as Yakutia, was the ultimate destination for many of those supposedly banished from civilisation. But new Russian arthouse drama Nuuccha challenges popular assumptions that the region was a void of nothingness. The area was, and still is, home to the Yakut people, who had lived in the region for centuries with their own established customs. Imperial penal policies brought an influx of Russian convicts into their villages, convicts who local families were forced by law to house. But exiles who had been victimised by the authorities as discarded dregs soon became complicit in a colonial hierarchy that brutalised minorities, contributing to the Yakuts’ ethnic displacement and grinding cultural erasure.
“It remains a very well-known fact of history in Yakutia,” Nuuccha director Vladimir Munkuev says of Sakha’s uninvited Russian house guests. He sat down with The Calvert Journal after the film’s world premiere at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in August. The event marked Munkuev’s first trip outside Russia, and he returned home with a weighty souvenir: as Nuuccha was awarded the Grand Prix Crystal Globe at the festival’s East of the West competition.
A number of seminal works of literature, such as dissident Alexander Solzhenityn’s 1973 memoir The Gulag Archipelago, which detailed life within the Soviet forced labour camp system, have linked Siberia in the cultural imagination with convict experience. Set in the late 19th century, Nuuccha was inspired by the lesser-known writings of exiled Polish author and activist Wacław Sieroszewski, who experienced the Yakut way of life at close hand after being sent to Siberia for activities subversive to the Russian Empire. “What I liked about his work was that it had the point of view of a Polish revolutionary, in a place where Yakuts and Russians live; a European who in an unbiased way had a clear view on the situation,” says Munkuev. In addition to writing fiction, Sieroszewski penned the first extensive ethnographic account of the Yakut people in 1900. “He was not an ethnographer by profession,” Munkuev explains, “he just saw what he saw and wrote it down.”
Nuuccha (which means “Russian” in Yakut) is a bleak and uncompromising vision of enforced assimilation that portrays the Sakha of Tsarist times as a prison not only for convicts, but also for local people. Inescapable laws make a daily life already characterised by hardship almost intolerable for struggling families. Yakut peasant couple Khabdzhiy (Pavel Kolesov) and Keremes (Irina Mihailova) have just lost a newborn baby and are on the verge of starvation as winter approaches, as fish and animals disappear from around their home. Yet rather than responding supportively to Khabdzhiy’s desperate request for help, callously self-serving regional authorities respond to his pleas by solving a quandary of their own: what to do with newly arrived political prisoner Kostya (Sergey Gilev). They foist the Russian upon the couple as a lodger. Khabdzhiy, with despondent resignation and halting Russian, does his best to accommodate their guest, harnessing his reluctant help in household chores. Keremes is more circumspect — a wariness that proves well-founded as Kostya manouevres with cynical cunning and brute force to reposition himself as master of the house. He may have failed to overthrow the rulers in St Petersburg, but his belief in his own right to seize power by any means runs up against few resources for resistance from his impoverished hosts.
Nuuccha’s award recognition gives an extra boost to Sakha’s fledgling film industry, which in recent years has brought Yakut experiences both to the big screen and to wider global awareness. The likes of Bulgarian production Ága, directed by Milko Lazarov in the Yakut language, snatched the high-profile closing film slot of 2018’s Berlin International Film Festival with its portrayal of an elderly couple struggling to eke out a living in Sakha.
Nuuccha director Vladimir Munkuev was born and grew up in Yakutia, initially studying theatre at the Arctic State Culture and Arts Institute before dropping out and turning his attention to cinema. “At that time, the cinema of Yakutia was being born,” he says. “I worked on a lot of productions in various roles, as assistant director and so on, and when I was about 28, I decided to leave for Moscow to study filmmaking.” He studied at the famed Moscow Film School under noted Russian directors Alexei Popogrebsky and Boris Khlebnikov. The latter would go on to serve as Nuuccha’s creative producer when Munkuev brought skills back from the traditional heart of Russia’s film industry to capture something of his own world.
Coronavirus initially threatened to derail the production schedule, but Munkuev pushed ahead, determined to surmount any additional obstacles the pandemic posed. “When the lockdown came, Khlebnikov suggested we postpone the making of the film until 2021. I initially agreed, but then reflected more, walking around Yakutsk thinking and drinking,” says Munkuev. “In the end I decided that, no, the right thing to do was to go ahead with the shoot as planned. Of course, I was aware of the risks, but we managed to shoot within a short period of time, about a month, despite the rest of the filmmaking industry in Russia being paralysed.”
A casting process was needed to find a Russian actor (Sergei Gilev) who fitted the role of Kostya, while Munkuev was able to enlist two of his friends from the theatre, Pavel Kolesov and Irina Mihailova, for the roles of Khabdzhiy and Keremes. Summers tend to be extremely hot in Sakha, the flipside to gruelling winters that have dealt out some of the lowest temperatures humanity has ever recorded, but unusually mild weather helped the team. A traditional wooden Yakut house, with a roof of bark and earth, was constructed for the characters around 150km from the capital of Yakutsk.
“Everything that started in the 16th century, I would say, is still reflected in Yakutia today — and not only Yakutia, but the whole Russian Federation”
But Nuuccha reconstructs not only the living conditions, but also the customs of the Tsarist era, some of which have since faded away. Many of the shamans that presided over the traditional Yakut rites seen in the film died out during the Soviet era, without passing on their practices. Their disappearance is the culmination of a centuries-long struggle of which Nuuccha captures just one chapter.
“Sakha is the only Asian nation that voluntarily accepted Christianity in the 16th century,” Munkuev says. “Of course, there was colonisation [by the Russian Empire] then, followed by the period that Sieroszewski wrote about it, and then Soviet times, in which speaking a regional language in any part of the Soviet Union [instead of the Russian promoted by the authorities] was not the best thing to do, I would say.”
Today, the director adds, there is little in the way of overt ethnic tension in Sakha. But the demographic shift prompted by the appearance of Russian exiles has changed the face of the region irrevocably. “There have never been any radical feelings or a radical mood that Russians are bad or Yakut are bad, but everything that started in the 16th century, I would say, is still reflected in Yakutia today — and not only in Yakutia, but in the whole Russian Federation.”