During the school spring break at the end of March 1985, merely two weeks after Mikhail Gorbachev had been appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party and the fresh breeze of perestroika was blowing through the Soviet Union, Programme One broadcast the five-episode series Guest from the Future. The impact was colossal even by the USSR’s standards — girls cut their hair like Alisa Seleznyova, the central character of the TV show, boys fell in love with Natalya Guseva who played the role, and more than a million fan letters were received by director Pavel Arsenov.
The character of Alisa originally appeared in a children sci-fi novel by Kir Bulychev in 1965. In the middle of the Space Race, here she was, a brave pioneer from the not-so-distant future: traveling from a planet to planet with her father, a distinguished space biologist, and resolving all kind of riddles. For the cult TV series, Pavel Arsenov adapted one of Bulychev’s most popular Alisa books, One Hundred Years Ahead (1978). The story starts with a 1980s Moscow boy, the sixth-grader Kolya Gerasimov (played by Aleksei Fomkin in the series), who discovers a time-travel machine by chance. Jumping from 1984 to 2084 for a few hours, he gets mixed up in a plot involving a powerful spy device called a mielofon. Kolya decides to save the mielofon by bringing it back to the past but is pursued by two dangerous space pirates as well as Alisa, a schoolgirl.
While Guest from the Future draws its vision of 2084 with great attention to detail, presenting a peaceful and seemingly free-of-charge future, every kid’s favourite part of the series are the episodes in which Alisa goes back in time a century to Kolya Gerasimov’s school. Arriving in 1984 with her, we see a very peculiar mix of George Orwell’s vision of the future and Mikhail Bulgakov’s account of the past in The Master and Margarita. The two alien-pirates, “foreign elements”, wreak havoc in the late-Soviet world and an ever-more-complicated detective plot unfolds, complete with apt references to James Bond and Sherlock Holmes. When Alisa starts going to school, she is a 1984 dream come true, speaking fluently seven or eight foreign languages (most notably English) and demonstrating brilliant potential as an athlete. As it turns out, this is the 2084 norm. So is the concept that a pupil does not need to stand up in order to talk to the teacher, which in 1980s USSR is a revolution of its own.
No wonder the “alisomania” that this TV show instantly sparked has left a memorable trace in Russian pop culture: from rock bands to video games; from accomplished fan websites to societies of hardcore admirers who gather at key shooting locations; from “I have the mielofon” memes to recurring “What became of…” sentimental articles. And, as many users in their 30s and 40s admit in blog comments or online forums today, the moment they hear Guest from the Future‘s theme song Wonderful Far-away composed by Evgeny Krylatov, they cannot help but shed a tear or two for a future that will never be. In this sense, the TV series has remained as a monument (and time-travel machine) to 1985, the very last moment of hopeful Soviet existence before the Chernobyl disaster crushed everyone’s illusions and many lives in 1986.
Fast-forward to 2015 when Berlinale, a festival with good nose for politically and socially important cinema, premiered two Russian films: Pioneer Heroes by Natalya Kudryashova (Panorama) and Under Electric Clouds by Alexey German Jr (Official Competition, Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution for Cinematography). Both directors come from the generation touched by alisomania in the USSR, and both their films undoubtedly relate to Guest from the Future, reflecting on the past and the future while looking for answers about the present.
This link is more noticeable in Pioneer Heroes, Natalya Kudryashova’s semi-biographical debut. The title refers to a very particular pantheon of children — the war heroes whose intrepid sacrifice during the Second World War let their deeds live on in Soviet textbooks and propaganda. Yet when the film opens with a 1980s school setting quite similar to Guest from the Future, ethical ambiguity sets in. There is a detective intrigue that slowly transforms into a moral initiation for the little Katya — an ordinary kid who wants to be good pioneer and needs support from her friends, Olga and Andrey. The pioneer-hero canon calls for a very specific sense of paranoia, growing kids into loyal spies of the Party who suspect and are “always ready” to give away those around them, including their own family, which Katya is reluctant to do.
Director Natalya Kudryashova, who plays the grown-up Olga in the film, follows up on this particular ideological indoctrination by depicting the spiritual void in young Russians today. At the beginning of the 21st century, Olga is trying to break through as an actress but is suffering anxiety attacks, Katya is a glamorous PR dating an older, married man, and Andrey works in the field of political analysis and relaxes by playing violent video games. They all feel depressed, without knowing why. Once led to believe that they were destined for glorious unselfish deeds, they now find it difficult to define what their self is anyway, especially when stripped off money, success, fast cars and luxury items — the indispensable attributes of the 21st century Russian lifestyle. The storyline focussing on Olga and her psychoanalysis is a fine pretext to illustrate the dysfunctional inner universe of former pioneers who are fully aware of the agitprop they were subjected to and yet still feel an urge to comply with its directives, making them unfit for the present day. The film’s finale is radical in the best traditions of Russian romanticism: in dying, Katya is presented with the chance to enter the Pioneer Heroes’ heaven, whereas Andrey takes religious vows. Apparently, this is the only dramatic relief that would allow Olga to return to normality, that is to say, to find comfort in static and unheroic reality.
An analysis of Under Electric Clouds, on the other hand, requires looking back at Alexey German Jr’s rich filmography, and not only at his sepia-bound signature works Garpastum (2005) and Paper Soldier (2008) which deal with the Soviet past but mostly at Hard to be a God (2013), his father’s last film. Known for interpreting the Stalinist era in his cinema, Alexey German Sr chose for his opus magnum one of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s most significant sci-fi novels, first published in 1964, only one year before Alisa’s first literary appearance. This project, which was 13 years in the making, envisions a future in which people discover a planet whose inhabitants have evolved to an era comparable to our Middle Ages (more or less a grim version of Guest from the Future‘s plot). The brutal, monochrome texture of Hard to be a God, as well as its tragic overtones, make it a heavy rumination on the meaning of civilization and the mechanisms of power. Due to the filmmaker’s declining health, though, the intricate production relied on Alexey German Jr who officially took over editing and promotion after his father’s death, together with his mother Svetlana Karmalita.
This classic Oedipus twist predestines Under Electric Clouds as an attempt to remodel personal tragedy through the methods of cinema. The loss of a father, of a great filmmaker, and of one’s creative identity explains the narrative disintegration of the film into its seven chapters, both on dramaturgical and transcendental level. Set in 2017, 100 years after the October Revolution, the fourth feature of Alexey German Jr is not only an attempt at auto-therapy but also a challenge to 20th century Russian optimism. On a dramatic level, “lishnie lyudi” (literally “useless people”) roam aimlessly, making small talk, while a looming sense of apocalypse hangs over the film like a dark cloud. No wonder Under Electric Clouds reads like a subtle tribute to Hard to be a God‘s scepticism about the future and its ethical challenges. And apart from borrowing from Hard to be a God‘s elaborate framing and camera movements, Under Electric Clouds is equally populated with cultural topoi and melancholy. The flâneurs in Alexey German Junior’s film are not the cultivated urban strollers Waltern Benjanim wrote about, they are reincarnations of that classic Chekhovian trope, the character doomed to walk around in circles infinitely.
Is there an alternative to this sombre path? How to cope with the high expectations created by an innocent yet formative TV show that shaped the mindset of an entire generation, including today’s vanguard of Russian cinema? The alisomania phenomenon is clearly not simply a fixation with the idyllic past (or with the idyllic future, for that matter). If nothing else, three decades after Guest from the Future, Generation X is now best placed to consider redrawing the cultural map of Russia and embark on a new direction.