The USSR formally ceased to exist 25 years ago today in 1991. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned on December 25, and the next day the Supreme Soviet accepted the declaration that created the Commonwealth of the Independent States and ended the Soviet Union.
But these events don’t exist in the cinematic history of Russia – no feature films focus on them, and very few have them even in the background.
A quick Google search can give you a hint why: “dissolution of the USSR” and “destruction of the USSR” are used interchangeably, with the majority preference given to the latter. The neutral legal and historically accepted term “dissolution” is abandoned for “destruction”, which has obvious value judgement. With such polarised opinions still dividing society, how can directors and writers know how to approach the topic? What would the film be a comedy, a drama, or a liberation epic?
Do we still need time to think the events over, after 25 years? Other, more recent historical events such as the Chechen wars have been given the feature film treatment. And there are plenty of documentaries on the topic of the USSR’s demise – most of them obviously taking sides, such as The Collapse Of An Empire and How They Destroyed A Great Country. Although Sergei Loznitsa’s The Event discusses the topic without taking sides, it uses only found footage of St Petersburg during the attempted coup d’etat in August 1991 – an event that led to the dissolution on the Union a few months later.
Moreover, the Soviet Union is now at the centre of the politically charged promotion of just one view of our history — the official, state-sanctioned history. And even though Vladimir Putin’s idea of creating a single “unified” history textbook for schoolchildren, one that would exclude any “double meanings” or interpretations, was abandoned after fierce debates, its general concept, one that sees the USSR as a force of good and something we lost rather than were liberated from, has come to dominate the mainstream view of history.
And these mainstream ideas have direct consequences on how the public reacts to art that dares to touch on history, including cinema. The most recent example is Alexey Uchitel’s forthcoming film Matilda, which focuses on Nicholas II’s affair with ballet dancer Mathilde Kschessinska. The film is due to come out next year but has already caused an uproar, with politicians and public figures asking for the film to be banned from cinema release in the country because it portrays the last emperor who is canonised by the Orthodox church as simply a weak man. Natalya Poklonskaya, the former Prosecutor General of Crimea and current deputy in the Russian State Duma, asked the Attorney General to inspect the film to see if it qualifies as “anti-Russian and anti-religious propaganda”, and the Ministry of Culture Advisory Committee said that it might try to cancel the film’s release”. And while the film is still likely to be released due to well-known director and a big budget, the public scandal might cause issues for cinemas that decide to screen it – it’s no secret that “activists” often try and shut down art exhibitions in the country and have no reservations about the methods they use.
Matilda (2017) trailer (no subtitles available)
In this environment, is it possible to make films about the dissolution of a country mourned by mainstream history, films that would refrain from stereotyping and judging, and would instead look at the many human stories that the events produced? Matilda attempts to do that – how well it does in cinematic terms remains to be seen when the film comes out in March, but we can already see the reaction it’s produced. As for the USSR’s demise, the best film we have now was made in Germany about the fall of the Berlin Wall (Good Bye, LeninI), although, admittedly, there is less polarisation in German society regarding that event – at least in terms of the accepted mainstream interpretation of history.
How do we start making films about events that happened quarter of a century ago? The issue is surely not just the lack of funds – Andrey Zvyagintsev’s multi-award-winning Leviathan was funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture, and Matilda by the federal Film Fund (Fond Kino) organisation, even if both were heavily attacked by politicians and pro-government activists upon release.
The solution most likely lies in preventing politicians and bureaucrats from weighing in on films in public, thus pouring gasoline on public discussions that produce enough sparks as it is. Let’s let film-makers make films, and encourage politicians to start film-review blogs where they can express their opinions without consequences – at least then we can just call them bloggers.