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Nationalism, Heroism, and “Manliness” in the Russian Films of Alexei Balabanov

In Russia’s first two post-Soviet decades, Alexei Balabanov was one of its most controversial directors with films like Brother (1997), Of Freaks and Men (1998), Brother-2 (2000), War (2002), Dead Man’s Bluff (2005), Cargo 200 (2007), Morphia (2008), and Stoker (2010). As of this writing these films, with the exception of the last two, are available with English subtitles on YouTube, but for how long is uncertain—after my first essay on Russian films appeared, YouTube removed those I had mentioned uploaded by RussoTurismo because of claims of copyright infringement.

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As a historian, what interests me most about Balabanov’s films is what they reveal about Russian life and culture. In that detailed analyses of many of these movies is available on the web, I will limit myself to providing (1) a revue of the historical setting (1984-2005) in which all but two of the films mentioned above occurs; (2) summaries and/or comments on them; and (3) scrutiny of the values they reflect.

Most of the films mentioned above are set in the last two decades of the 20th century, beginning with Cargo 200’s setting in 1984. This was the last year before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and unleashed the reforms that would contribute to the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

An excellent review of Cargo 200 in the journal Kinokultura summarizes what it depicts:

Soviet society circa 1984 was the poisonous wreck of an industrial civilization tottering on the verge of collapse from the sum of its political, social, and individual vices: a hopeless foreign war of choice [Afghanistan] bleeding the country dry, a terrorized and infantilized populace, rampant alcohol abuse among young and old, complete police lawlessness (bespredel), a geriatric and out of touch government, a dismal and hypocritical popular culture, an arrogant and cynical intelligentsia, a nihilistic younger generation, and the soul-crushing hopelessness of everyday life for the masses. When the best representatives of the younger generation were sacrificed to vain and doomed imperial ambitions in Afghanistan, the future was put in the hands of amoral black-marketers (fartsovshchiki), the absolutely predictable products of a soulless, cynical, and materialistic culture, who would become the business elite of post-Soviet Russia.

The chief characters in the film are Artem, a Leningrad professor of scientific atheism; Alexei, a rural distiller of illicit alcohol, and his wife, Tonya; the youthful couple, Angelika and Valera (who gets drunk along with Alexei at the latter’s home); and Captain Zhurov, a sadistic and corrupt police officer, who lives with his alcoholic mother, rapes Angelika with a bottle in Alexei’s shed, then brings her to his apartment, handcuffs her to a bed, and keeps her there.

Although the film’s portrayal of the USSR is overly bleak, it did reflect some ugly realities, including a decaying industrial landscape, economic stagnation, and one of the world’s highest rates of alcoholism. The Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989) was going poorly, and the title Cargo 200 refers to dead Soviet bodies being brought back home from that bloody and unsuccessful incursion. The USSR was ruled by a worn-out oligarchy, with K. Chernenko (d. 1985) being the third old and ailing leader to die in a three-year period. Political corruption was common, and allegiance to communist ideology had degenerated into a rationale for maintaining political power and a bureaucratic order.

Artem’s defense of atheism in a conversation with Alexei is weak, and at the end of the film he comes to an Orthodox church hoping to be baptized. Like other nerdy characters in other Balabanov films, Artem lacks any heroic qualities. Only Alexei’s wife, who eventually takes the law into her own hands, in order to execute vigilante justice, demonstrates the type of heroism Balabanov depicts in some of his other films.

Although none of his movies are set in Gorbachev’s years in power (1985-1991), a few paragraphs concerning it are necessary to understand the subsequent post-Soviet period (1992 to the present), as well as Russian attitudes toward Gorbachev.

After decades of Soviet rule that denied basic liberties, he began reforms that included increasing political, economic, and cultural freedoms and ending the Cold War. But reform after all these years of implanting Soviet habits and bureaucracy was not easy and encountered stiff resistance from those with vested interest in the old system. By 1991 the USSR was facing three intertwined crises, in the economic, nationalities, and political realms. Inflation, budget deficits, unemployment, shortages, bartering, and rationing all increased. So too did conflicts among the more than 100 Soviet nationalities, with the ethnic Russians comprising barely half of the USSR total population. And politically, Gorbachev’s ability to hold together reformers and more traditional communists became increasingly difficult, with radical reformer Boris Yeltsin presenting an especially difficult challenge. In mid 1991 Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian republic (comprising about three-fourths of the USSR’s territory). In December of that year, he led a movement to disband the USSR. On December 25, 1991 Gorbachev, now a president without a country, resigned his office.

Although popular abroad for initiating changes to end the Cold War, Gorbachev grew increasingly unpopular among Russians. Many of them blamed him not only for their increasing economic woes, but also believed him responsible for the disintegration of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union as well as the larger “Soviet Empire,” which included other communist East European countries. In the 1990s, as many economic and social problems worsened, most Russians continued to fault Gorbachev for the legacy he left behind. A poll in January 2000 and another in early 2012 ranked him lowest of all twentieth-century leaders, including Stalin.

Barely more popular than Gorbachev was Yeltsin, Russia’s president during the 1990s. And the continuing economic and social problems of that decade help explain why. Just a few examples should suffice.

The Russian inflation rate in 1992 alone was over 2,000 percent, gradually declining to over 200 percent in 1994. After financial improvements in subsequent years, a financial crisis battered Russia in 1998. By early October, Russia’s stock market average was only about one-fifteenth of what it had been a year earlier.

During the 1990s, some suffered more than others as Russia continued the transformation from a government-run communist economy to a form of “crony capitalism.” The conspicuous consumption of the rich—expensive Western cars, jewels, furs, bodyguards, and spending in new casinos, restaurants, and stores—increased the envy and political dissatisfaction of many poorer Russians. The latter perceived most of the new rich (the richest referred to as “oligarchs”) as crooks or members of the old communist elite who had used their positions, connections, and know-how to benefit economically as government enterprises passed from state to private hands. The elderly, women, children, rural inhabitants, the unemployed, some state employees, and the disabled suffered disproportionately during this post-Soviet era.

Crime was another serious concern in post-Soviet Russia, especially that directed by thousands of criminal organizations or gangs loosely referred to as mafias. Newspapers reported gory killings, daylight gangland shootings, and signs in expensive clubs indicating that guns must be checked at the door. Many banks and businesses paid protection money to mafias, which also assassinated individuals who refused to go along with them, attempted to expose them, or became involved in gangland competition with them. Among those assassinated were journalists and members of parliament. Collusion with corrupt officials and police and the inadequacy of government funding, resources, and the legal system help explain the mafias’ power.

The misery of the decade was reflected in Russia’s decreasing birth rate and increasing death rate, which by 2002 was higher than any time since WWII, with life expectancy dropping to about 58 years for men and 72 for women.

Meanwhile various Western influences continued to penetrate Russia. Throughout most of the 1990s, 90 percent or more of the films viewed by Russians came from abroad. Even by 2008, Hollywood films in Russia still earned twice as much as Russian-made ones. Western chains like McDonald’s also continued to increase outlets. By late 2003, it had over 100 of them in numerous cities including Moscow (with the most) and St. Petersburg and Nizhnii Novgorod (two cities where Balabanov characters appear at franchises).

Bombarded by all the changes wrought since 1985, post-Soviet Russians seemed to be undergoing a collective identity crisis. Should Russia become a democratic law-governed and capitalistic power like the major Western powers or would a unique Russian way be more appropriate? In 1994, the Russian journal Rodina devoted three issues to the question “Russia—Who Are We?” Two years later, Yeltsin set up a committee to discover a new “national idea,” but it failed to reach any agreement.

With this background in mind we are better prepared to examine Balabanov’s remaining films. A most useful overview of Brother (1997) and Brother-2 (2000) is available by Vanesa Rampton. Both films are set in the post-Soviet 1990s. The first centers on young Danila Bagrov, recently released from army duty, who comes to St. Petersburg and joins up with his brother Viktor, who has made a career out of killing for money. He soon recruits Danila to carry out one of his hits: the murder of a Chechen mafia figure at the request of a rival mafia leader. Danila proves adept at killing not only the Chechen gang leader, but also other “bad guys.” While in St. Petersburg, he becomes friendly with two women, Kat and Sveta. The first is the youngest, sometimes eats at McDonald’s, and seems to live for drugs, partying, and rock music. The second is a trolley-car driver with a husband who sometimes beats her. Danila also befriends an ethnic German vendor (Hoffman) at an outdoor market, telling him that Germans are okay but that he doesn’t like Jews much. When a thug attempts to extort “protection money” from Hoffman, Danila beats him down

Besides loyalty to his brother and those he cares for, like Hoffman and Sveta, music is important to Danila. At the beginning of the film, he sees a video being made of one of the songs of Nautilus Pompilius (a real Russian rock band), often visits CD stores to purchase their music, and frequently walks around listening to his CD player. In a room he rents in St. Petersburg, he has a few of their posters on the wall. On one occasion, he tells a Frenchman, he mistakes for an American “Your American music is shit. . . . Soon your America will fall away. We’ll get you all. Do you understand?”

In Brothers-2 Danila again battles mobsters and evil businessmen, first in Moscow and then in Chicago (via New York). Cabdrivers in both Moscow and New York tell him that Gorbachev betrayed the Russians. In Chicago, he tries to help Mitia, a Russian-born hockey player who is being cheated out of much of his lucrative salary by a Chicago businessman, Mr. Mennis, who has illegal ties to a Moscow tycoon. Danila also believes that Mennis ordered the Moscow killing of his friend Kostia, who was Mitia’s brother. After warring with many who work for the crooked Moscow and Chicago partners—in about twenty seconds Danila shoots more than a half dozen men in one Chicago nightspot alone—Danila gets Mitia’s money from the crooked Mennis and turns it over to the hockey star. Before doing so, he says to Mennis:

Tell me, American, what is power? Is it really money? . . . I think that power comes from being right. Whoever is right is more powerful. And you’ve deceived someone, and made a lot of money, but so what? Have you become more powerful? No, you haven’t. Because you’re not in the right. It’s the person you deceived who’s in the right, and he’s more powerful. [Translation as given in Rampton.

As in the first Brother film, Danila is again involved with a few women and music plays an important role. One of the women is pop-singer Irina Saltykova, who appears as herself in the film. The throbbing rock score in each of the Brother films contributes importantly to their mood. There is also a poem heard a few times in the story. As Danila’s climbs a fire escape on his way to get the money from Mennis, we hear it accompanied by music.

I've discovered that I’ve got Relatives and they’re my lot,
They are woods that are so dear,
Fields of corn and every ear,
Streams of water, skies of blue.
I shall tell them: "I love you."
It's the Homeland of mine.

Another woman in Danila’s life is the Russian-born prostitute (Dasha) he discovers on Chicago’s streets. When he realizes that she is being exploited by a pimp, he sets out to free her from his control—reminding me of Travis (Robert De Niro) doing likewise for Iris (Jodie Foster) in Taxi Driver.

The pimp happens to be black, and Afro-Americans are treated unsympathetically in Brothers-2. On one occasion as Danila, brother Viktor, and Dasha are sitting around a fire near Lake Michigan, Viktor says to a black man: “Look at you Black scum. You need a good scrub.” Dasha adds: “I think the power’s in them. Something primordial and brutal about these people. . . . The whites know it and they’re afraid of them.” In another Chicago scene Danila overcomes some sexual resistance (not much, it is implied) from a black TV journalist who has brought him back to her apartment. On a web site promoting Brother-2, Balabanov defended the film’s portraits of blacks, claiming many of them don’t wish to work, live on welfare, and deal drugs. He also expressed a fear that minorities like the Chechens could cause similar problems in Russian cities.

The film War (2002) is set against the background of the major offensive launched against secessionist Chechnya in late 1999 (see here for fuller review). A former soldier, Ivan Ermakov, narrates his story to a journalist in flashbacks that begin in the summer of 2001, when he was being held captive by a Chechen leader named Aslan. His tale involves his dealings with the Chechens and a fellow captive, an English actor named John. Along with another captive, Margaret, John had been in a touring company, putting on Hamlet, in neighboring Georgia. Another captive, the injured Captain Medvedev—played by Sergei Bodrov, Jr. (1971-2002), who was Danila in the Brother films—has a minor role, but is greatly admired by Ivan. He tells the journalist that the captain was a tough guy who possessed an inner calm and couldn’t be broken.

Ivan is much like Danila in the earlier films, the strong, silent type, willing to kill perceived evildoers. The contrast between him and the Englishman John recalls that between Hollywood or Spaghetti Western heroes played by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and some Eastern tenderfoots. And like many an old Hollywood “tough guy,” Ivan, like Danila, often has a cigarette in his mouth and appeals to women.

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John, wearing glasses, by contrast is often hysteric, twice shrilly protesting to the Chechens about their abusing human rights. But they release both him and Ivan, primarily so he can go back to England and come up with a huge ransom. To make sure he delivers, they keep Margaret captive and tell John they will gang rape and then kill her if he fails to come up with the money.

He goes back to England, but cannot obtain the necessary amount. He then flies to Russia and goes to Ivan’s hometown, Tobolsk (in western Siberia), to which Ivan, now a civilian, has returned. John seeks his help in freeing Margaret.

In Tobolsk, Ivan visits his father in a hospital, who tells him that life has become boring and miserable for him. “It’s good that you were at war. War makes a man of you. And that’s what you should be. A man has strength. It’s all held together by that strength.” He also tells Ivan that he had strength once and wishes he could go to war now, and that Ivan’s mom is a good woman, but that he fell out of love with her. “Remember son: If you fall out of love, walk away! You can’t live without love. You mustn’t’son!”

Ivan agrees to help John free Margaret, as well as Captain Medvedev, which they do, but not before shedding much Chechen blood. Throughout the film, the Chechens are perceived as brutal and dishonorable. Ivan declares, “Chechens are [all] gangsters.” And the captain’s young daughter says that her dad is a hero, defending their homeland against gangsters. The Chechen leader Aslan, however, thinks that Russia is weak, having earlier given half its country away for free (e.g. Ukraine and Kazakhstan), and “soon the Chinese will take the Far East.”

Ivan is clearly the leader in planning and executing the daring rescue of Margaret and Captain Medvedev. Speaking English because John speaks no Russian, Ivan is constantly instructing and correcting John, and tries to toughen him up to the necessity of killing. At one point he tells John to stop filming him with a camera recorder. And Ivan says to the journalist interviewing him, “They’re about to kill his woman and he’s filming. Strange.

Along the way, Ivan forces a reluctant Chechen to help them, and later generously rewards him with money. But in the end, the Chechen testifies against Ivan, who is prosecuted for killing (while a civilian) citizens, including an old man and a child, who, although Chechens, were still legally part of the Russian federation. Meanwhile John had become famous by returning to England, making his video-recordings into a film, and writing a book about his experiences.

A few years after War, Balabanov completed Dead Man’s Bluff (2005). (See here for a fuller review.) Like the Brothers films, it deals primarily with gangsters in the 1990s, is bloody, and pulsates with rock music. Although Balabanov meant it to be a comedy—and it does have some funny scenes—it reflects well the hazy connection that often existed between crime and business.

It starts off with a professor telling her students that start-up capital is the first thing necessary. “The key thing is how to get it . . . . At the beginning of the 1990s, there was a redivision of property. Today’s so-called ‘oligarchs’ acquired theirs then. . . . Yes, there were financial pyramids which emptied the pockets of the common folk. . . . There were also criminal groups that merged with the authorities, and in so doing, acquired their start-up capital.

Most of the remainder of the film is an almost slapstick illustration of her point, as various gangsters in the mid 1990s clash over money and drugs. The two most successful, Sergei and Simon, although often blundering along the way, work for Sergei Mikhalovich, a mob boss played by the leading director and actor Nikita Mikhalkov. By the end of the film, which jumps forward to 2005, Sergei and Simon have left the Volga city of Nizhnii Novgorod, gone to Moscow, and become respectively a member of parliament and a big-shot businessman.

Among the rivals of Sergei and Simon in Nizhnii Novgorod are three thugs, working with a corrupt cop. One of the thugs is black and constantly referred to as Ethiopian. He repeatedly denies he’s from Ethiopia, but one of his fellow gang members says to him, “Cut it out. You can tell a mile off you were a cannibal.” It is hard to see any other Balabanov purpose for making this gangster black (in a country with few blacks) than to provide a target for racist humor.

The character closest to John in War is a nerdy-looking architect working on projects in the mansion of Sergei Mikhalovich, who tells him, “If your fireplace is anything like your bathroom, I'll burn you in it, got it?” Later in the film, we hear that is exactly what happened.

Among others killed are two “bad guys” with apartments containing posters for Rocky and Apocalypse Now, as well as of Elvis Presley and Bob Marley. One of the apartments also has a collection of records (snatched up by Simon after numerous gruesome sadistic killings within) that includes albums of British rock groups, some songs of which we hear on the film’s sound track. On one occasion, while still in Nizhnii Novgorod, Simon insists on going to McDonald’s, and Sergei says, “And eat that shit?” Simon orders a Coke, fries, and a hamburger, and it cost him 73,000 rubles—not as ridiculous as it might sound considering Russian inflation. Exactly what Balabanov is suggesting about the West by these scenes is difficult to say, but it’s not flattering.

Set not far from St. Petersburg but also in the mid 1990s, Balabanov’s latest film, The Stoker (2010), is about a Yakut (one of Russia’s many nationalities) and former army officer who now stokes a furnace in a factory basement where another former military man (a sergeant), now a gangster, burns up bodies. The stoker and former sergeant each have a daughter that operate a business together and share, unbeknownst to either of them, a hitman as a lover. In his spare time the stoker writes a story, visualized in the film, which includes a 19th century criminal exile in Yakutia who rapes a Yakut woman. Thus, as in some of his earlier films we again have gangsters, killings, and rape. And, “as in previous films,” the reviewer in Kinokultura writes, “the setting is a deteriorated, late twentieth-century Russia. As ever, a feral masculinity dominates the dialogue, plot, and visual detail.” But this same reviewer believes that Balabanov is “a genius,” his use of music especially skillful, and that “as a local chronicler of the modern id, few directors provide a better portrait than Balabanov.”

Among Balabanov’s other films are two set in the early 20th century, Of Freaks and Men (1998) and Morphia (2008). The first (reviewed in England’s The Guardian), deals with a few developers of pornographic film in early twentieth-century St. Petersburg. Balabanov’s depiction of sexual scenes here is not without some historical foundation. In his classic book on Russian culture, The Icon and the Axe,James Billington stated that “the early years of the twentieth century brought about a preoccupation with sex that is quite without parallel in earlier Russian culture.”

Morphia is adapted mainly from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Notes of a Young Doctor, especially from its story “Morphine,” in which a young doctor named Poliakov comes to a rural region in the revolutionary years of 1917-1918 and gradually becomes a morphine addict. One reviewer mentioned the doctor’s “unmistakable ‘intelligentsia’ round glasses”; Balabanov’s clever use of music; and its “main motifs,” among which were the ignorance of the masses, “the weakness of educated man, [and] the imminence of death and destruction.” There is also the film’s “casual, graphic treatment of bodies in pain, suffering in death,” in “a birth scene, an amputation, a tracheotomy, a toilet scene, and a fellatio. The line between pleasure and pain, between patients and doctors, between living bodies and the dead ones is constantly blurred or simply rendered irrelevant.”

A second reviewer called attention to a major change in the film as opposed to Bulgakov’s book: the insertion of an evil ethnic Jewish Bolshevik. The reviewer noted that while Balabanov has “been criticized for anti-Semitism before, this time he really has outdone himself.” This same reviewer also notes that Balabanov in an interview “argued that even if the Revolution was not a completely Jewish affair, the very idea of ‘revolution’ was entirely Jewish.”

Without denigrating Balabanov’s many skills as a director, or minimizing the difficulties and wounded national pride faced by many in post-Soviet Russia, or being simplistic regarding Balabanov’s values, it is still possible to be critical of the nationalism, heroism, and “manliness” projected in his films. They are most clearly reflected in Brother, Brother-2, and War, especially the last two.

By his nationalism I mean not only investing his heroes like Danila, Captain Medvedev, and Ivan with superior “Russian” qualities, but also denigrating and stereotyping others in comparison, such as Jews, Americans (especially Afro-Americans), and Chechens. While true heroism and manliness (murky though the term may be) are to be valued, Balabanov’s interpretation of them turns them into negative qualities which stress a willingness to kill.

From at least the days of Homer, people have valued fictional heroes like Ulysses. Tough-guys like those played by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Sylvester Stallone have been a stable feature of Hollywood films. Real-life military heroes have also been admired throughout the world. And it is understandable that we praise military virtues like physical courage and loyalty. These types of heroes use violence when they think it is necessary, sometimes to aid the weak and defenseless, sometimes even breaking the law in order to render vigilante “justice.”

And such heroes resonate with many people, whether in the United States, Russia, or even on remote Pacific Islands—in the 1990s, travel writer Paul Theroux discovered that Hollywood’s gun-touting Rambo had become one of the islands’ folk heroes. In his autobiographical Rumor of War (1977), recounting his experiences in Vietnam, Philip Caputo recalled how as a young college student in 1960 he enrolled in a Marine officer training program partly as a result of seeing war movies. “The heroic experience I sought was war; war, the ultimate adventure; war, the ordinary man's most convenient means of escaping from the ordinary. . . . Already I saw myself charging up some distant beachhead like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and then coming home a suntanned warrior with medals on my chest . . . I needed to prove something—my courage, my toughness, my manhood.”

In films the John-Wayne-type heroes (almost always men) are sometimes contrasted to weaker men, sometimes to spineless and ineffectual intellectuals. In the United States such a contrast fits in well with the anti-intellectualism historian Richard Hofstadter decried already in the 1960s and believed harmed the “egghead” Adlai Stevenson in his presidential campaigns against former army general Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.

The problem here, and with Balabanov’s heroes, is not their physical courage and loyalty, and certainly not their sometime willingness to defend weaker people. Those who identify courage and toughness with ideal manliness are no doubt simplifying, and they are ignoring their presence in many women, but the qualities themselves are praiseworthy. There is also room for honest debate on the necessity of violence on some occasions. Observers as astute as the psychologist William James recognized that military training and wars appealed to positive, as well as negative, human traits. Well before World War I, he called for the creation of a "moral equivalent of war," for opportunities for people to perform more of the heroic type of actions of war without all the accompanying tragedies of it.

But as Hamlet said, “ay, there’s the rub”: the horrors that accompany such a misuse of values like nationalism and “manly” courage.” In his Identity and Violence (2006), the Nobel-Prize winning economist Amartya Sen insisted that much violence flowed from “the illusion of a unique and choiceless identity,” for example, that of nationality, race, or class. He added that “the art of constructing hatred takes the form of invoking the magical power of some allegedly predominant identity that drowns other affiliations and in a conveniently bellicose form can also overpower any human sympathy or natural kindness that we may normally have.” In almost all cases of wars and atrocities, the enemy is depicted as less human by derogatory terms—like “Black scum” in Brother-2. And the belief that one is serving a worthwhile cause is fraught with danger, for overwhelmingly war killings, terrorist acts, and vigilante “justice” are committed by people who think their beliefs justify their actions. Just as importantly, virtues like courage and loyalty must be balanced in our complex world by other wisdom virtues and values such as compassion, humility, tolerance, rationality, temperance, justice, and moderation.

In the Kinokultura review of Cargo 200, the reviewer referred to Dostoevsky and spoke of the great novelist’s importance “in the national discourse about post-Soviet national identity.” But there are other Russians of the past who should also figure in that discourse.

Philosopher and poet Vladimir Soloviev was a friend of Dostoevsky but also criticized him and others for their nationalism. Soloviev considered himself a patriot in the best sense of the word, but decried intolerance toward Russian minorities and other nations. He was an especially strong critic of anti-Semitism (of which Dostoevsky was guilty) and the persecution of Jews that characterized that era. In 1890 he drew up a petition that reflected his feelings: “The increased awakening of ethnic and religious enmity, so contrary to the spirit of Christianity, suppresses the feeling of justice and humaneness, demoralizes society at its root and can lead to moral anarchy, especially in view of the already noticeable collapse of humanitarian ideas and the weakness of the juridical principle in our lives. This is why, if acting only out of a feeling for national self-preservation, it is necessary to emphatically condemn the anti-Semite movement, not only as immoral in its essence, but as extremely dangerous for the future of Russia.”

There was also Tolstoy, who also criticized nationalism and intolerance towards minorities. In the last three decades of his life he was a pacifist, and he influenced Gandhi, who once referred to himself as a “humble follower” of Tolstoy. And there was Chekhov, who stressed compassion and tolerance and also criticized anti-Semitism. In the twentieth-century, there was Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov. He too criticized intolerance, nationalism, and militarism, and emphasized human rights.

Part of Vladimir Putin’s appeal to Russians is his tough-guy image. A year before graduating from law school and joining the KGB, Putin was Leningrad’s judo champion of 1974. Foreign journalists have sometimes mocked Putin’s penchant for posing shirtless and otherwise displaying his “manliness.” But what the world needs today is tough guys (and gals) more like the rebels Sakharov, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Dorothy Day, as well as Nelson Mandela, who combined the abilities of a rebel with those of a pragmatic but visionary statesman. Each of them was courageous, brave, tough, and loyal, willing to endure such suffering as hunger strikes, jails, and/or exile for their beliefs, but these values were also balanced by others mentioned above like compassion and tolerance. Although not all of the five were complete pacifists, even those who were not (Sakharov and Mandela) were extremely cautious about the use of violence, regarding it only as a last resource.

In fairness to Balabanov he deserves credit, as Cargo 200 clearly demonstrates, for resisting the blind nostalgia of some Russians who glorify the communist past. Some would also assert that in depicting some of the ugliness of life, he is just being realistic, and the world needs heroes like his to battle life’s evils. But does not more beauty, truth, and goodness exist in life than his films suggest? And do we not need heroes more like Sakharov, Gandhi, King, Day, and Mandela rather than trigger-happy characters like Danila Bagrov, and Ivan Ermakov?

walter moss

Walter G. Moss