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Russia and the West in the Films of Karen Shakhnazarov, 1984-2009

In a previous essay I mentioned all the Russian films with English subtitles now on YouTube and how with a simple connection they can be enjoyed on large-screen televisions. Over 200 of these films have been provided by Mosfilm Studios president Karen Shakhnazarov. A dozen of his own films, directed between 1984 and 2009, are part of this collection, and they mirror well the last quarter century of Russian history. While entertaining and often humorous, they also convey important insights to audiences everywhere. Although only one of his films, American Daughter (Американская дочка, 1995), was shot mainly in the United States (in northern California), his movies can enlighten us Americans about the relationship of our country to other parts of the world.

Karen Shahnazarov

Since the early nineteenth-century debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers, Russian intellectuals have differed on the value of “Westernizing” their country. The Slavophiles believed that the West (i.e. Western Europe and the United States) overemphasized materialism, rationalism, individualism, and legalism, while Russia (at least before Peter the Great began Westernizing it) had properly emphasized spiritual values, faith, intuition, the community, and social and political relations based more on moral bonds than on impersonal laws. Later Russians like the writers Dostoevsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn often reflected Slavophile views (see, e.g., the latter’s Harvard Commencement Address in 1978). And in other parts of the world, such as Japan, India, the Middle East and Africa, some intellectuals and religious leaders have also criticized the West in ways similar to those of the Slavophiles. Today perhaps we hear most often such criticism from the Muslim Middle East.

But Slavophile-like criticism of modern Western secularism, materialism, and individualism at times also sounds likes similar words from some U. S. conservatives. For example, in her book The De-Moralization of Society (1994), historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (mother of conservative editor William Kristol) decried the decline of Western morality and the corresponding increase in “crime, drugs, violence, illegitimacy, promiscuity, [and] pornography.” Such criticism has been part of the ongoing “culture war” over values and virtues between conservatives and progressives. Shakhnazarov’s films provide material to consider on these related topics, as well as on generational conflict and the importance of history.

His first important film, We Are Jazzmen(Мы из джаза, 1984), is a musical comedy set in the 1920s. It depicts the ambivalence of the new Soviet state toward jazz, which was sometimes considered a dangerous Western import. From this film up through his 2008 film Vanished Empire(Исчезнувшая империя), attitudes toward Western music often played an important part in his films. In a 2008 interview discussing the latter film, set in 1973-74, he stated that the records of the Beatles and Rolling Stones contributed to the collapse of the USSR in 1991. This is a view that is not as outlandish as it might sound.

To understand it a little historical background is necessary. Soviet attitudes toward jazz, and later also rock music, fluctuated from one Soviet period to another. Throughout most of the 1920s, jazz was generally tolerated. Then as Stalin strengthened his power and ecncouraged a “cultural revolution” (1928–1931), jazz came under increasing attack, which eased somewhat by the mid 1930s. But it was the World War II alliance with the United States and Great Britain that led to a far greater tolerance of it. Wartime enthusiasm for it was so great that pilots, cooks, and even the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) formed jazz groups of their own. The late 1940s, however, witnessed the beginning of the Cold War and jazz came under renewed attack. In 1949, the Soviet government declared that jazz was a means of spreading U.S. imperialism, and it banned the saxophone.

During the Khrushchev era (1953-1964), many Soviet citizens listened, despite Soviet hindrance, to the Voice of America. There they heard musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington for the first time. Although Khrushchev disliked jazz—he compared it to radio static and “gas on the stomach”—he finally allowed the first U. S. jazz visit in 1962 (before the Cuban Missile Crisis) when Benny Goodman and his orchestra arrived for a six-week tour. During the Brezhnev era (1964-1982), the bands of Duke Ellington and others toured Russia, reflecting the Soviet-U.S. détente of the early and mid 1970s. By then, however, Soviet authorities were much more frightened of rock music than of jazz, which was allowed increasing latitude.

Among youth, rock’s popularity steadily increased, helped again by Voice of America broadcasts. The music of Bill Haley, the Beatles, Chubby Checker, and the Rolling Stones became known to Soviet youth. A man who later became Gorbachev’s English interpreter recalled the Beatles’ influence on him and his friends in the 1960s: “We knew their songs by heart. . . . To the Beatles . . . I owe my accent. . . . The Beatles were our quiet way of rejecting ‘the system’ while conforming to most of its demands.”

Only reluctantly did the Soviet government give in to youthful pressure. In 1979, rock star Elton John was allowed to perform, and his rendition of the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR,” which he had been asked not to play, created the greatest response among a Moscow audience. During the early 1980s, the number of Soviet rock groups, official and unofficial, numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but only a small number of rock albums were allowed production. Rock circulated primarily via underground tapes.

ward 6

Ward 6

By the time of Brezhnev’s death in 1982, rock (both Soviet and foreign) had became the most popular music among youth. Following his death, there was a brief crackdown on rock, but during Gorbachev’s years in power (1985-1991) most restraints on it disappeared. By the end of the 1980s, the Communist Party youth newspaper, Komsomolskaia Pravda, was reporting on Pink Floyd and the Talking Heads, and Soviet youth could legally buy records of such groups as Led Zeppelin. Although this accessibility pleased many youth, some Russian nationalists denounced rock groups as satanic and were upset at its growing popularity.

In We Are Jazzmen, Shakhnazarov deals with jazz affectionately, and he was sympathetic with the increasing cultural tolerance demonstrated in the Gorbachev years. From 1972 to 1988 his father had held important Communist Party positions dealing with foreign communist countries, and in 1988 he became an important aide to Gorbachev. His son’s remaining films were all made during the Gorbachev and post-Soviet periods.

The collapse of the Communist system and the USSR in 1991 created a major identity crisis for many Russians, and it still lingers in the twenty-first century dominated politically by Vladimir Putin. In the 1990s and beyond, no consensus existed on what Russia now stood for and how it should define itself. Debates reminiscent of those of the earlier Slavophiles and Westernizers flared up. 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 a government newspaper ran a contest offering a monetary prize for the best essay on “The Idea of Russia.” The winning entry claimed that as compared to Western Europeans, Russians valued their homeland, society, power, and glory more than materialism, individualism, freedom, and law.

Shakhnazarov’s films reflect that identity crisis. A few years ago he observed that “Russia is not yet certain of its identity. This problem was at least partially caused by the dissolution of the USSR but this is a very complex matter and we find ourselves in a very complicated and difficult situation.”

Although he is neither a hard-line communist nor a right-wing nationalist, he bemoans the moral bareness of post-Soviet Russia. In a 2008 article, he was quoted as saying: “There's no ideology, no ideas. In the Soviet times we believed in something, we had values and a story to tell, right or wrong. Now's there's nothing.” A year later, in an interview about his 2009 film Ward No. 6 (Палата № 6), based on Chekhov’s story of the same name, he said “I would say that this is the drama of an individual [Dr. Ragin] who has lost his faith in God and only believes in the material world. I have come to understand that Chekhov is a deeply religious writer. This was initially a revelation to me” (For more on Chekhov’s spirituality, despite his rejection of traditional religion, see my “The Wisdom of Anton Chekhov,” p. 33). In this same interview he stated: “Dr. Ragin tries to justify his worldly, materialistic existence and indifference to the suffering of others by saying that we are all going to die anyway, spiritual immortality does not exist and so the actual circumstances of one’s life are meaningless.” When asked, “What pushed this character to lose his faith and spirituality?” Shakhnazarov replied: “I cannot say for sure what makes people become so indifferent. This is one of the factors that make Ragin our contemporary. This is the very problem of modern life. People have become estranged from simple, clear comprehensible human feelings. It appears that material things prevail. They seem to be more valued than human emotion or what we refer to as the human soul. It is typical of contemporary society that people are more interested in what kind of coffin Michael Jackson was displayed in–whether it was gold or not–rather than the spiritual connotations of death.”

With this background in mind, we are now better able to see the continuity in Shakhnazarov’s films. His 1985 film, Winter Evening in Gagry (Зимний вечер в Гаграх), like We Are Jazzmen, is another musical comedy, and reminded me of his later film Day of the Full Moon (День полнолуния, 1998). Both the 1985 and 1998 films combine romantic nostalgia with an appreciation of transcendental values like goodness and beauty. In the first a former tap dancer recalled that the most memorable night of his life was an evening in Gagry [a Black-Sea resort town] when he tap danced in front of a small audience with his little daughter. Shakhnazarov flashes back to the scene, depicting it in romantic colors in a beautiful hotel overlooking the sea.

Toward the end of his 1998 film two clusters of images are especially notable. In one set an old man recalls one of the most significant events of his life was seeing a beautiful woman in lilac back in 1948. In the second a young boy is reading Alexander Pushkin’s “Journey to Arzrum” (1836), and then Pushkin appears in and around a Kalmyk yurt and asks a pretty young Kalmyk woman for a kiss. As a scholar once wrote about this prose work of Russia’s greatest poet: he “seeks in this return to the spaces he had traversed and described nine years ago a ‘time-out’ from contemporaneity, from the impetus of time itself: To refresh his soul is to live the life of the past.” The romantic images in Day of the Full Moon offer a brief similar escape from the “contemporaneity” that Shakhnazarov found so troubling.

His 1987 film, The Messenger Boy (Курьер), with its contemporary setting, and his Vanished Empire (2008), set in the early 1970s, both center on a young man on the cusp of adulthood. The first film reminded me of the American film The Graduate (1967) in that it depicted generational conflict. But unlike the Dustin Hoffman character in the American film, Ivan, the courier, fails to even get into college. After delivering a package to a Professor Kuznetsov and meeting his daughter, Katya, the professor criticizes him and much of his generation for having no principles and tending toward nihilism. Later on after the professor asks him what principles he intends to live by, he answers: “I’d like to have good pay, a car, an apartment in a good location, a dacha [summer cottage], and a cushy job.”

Although Katya has been brought up in a more plush and cultured atmosphere than Ivan, she is charmed by him and his irreverence. Like many of her generation, she is attracted to Western goods, and has on an Adidas shirt when she first meets him. Later on at a party of her parents’ friends, she answers instead of Ivan when a friend of her father asks him what he wants out of life. She says she wants to be irresistible, drive men wild, and drive a fast car.

Shakhnazarov, however, displays some sympathy for the younger generation—at the end of the film, for example, Ivan displays kindness by giving his winter coat to a poorer friend. The director also depicts the failings of their elders. At the beginning of the film, Ivan’s parents get a divorce because his father wishes to leave his mother for a much younger woman. Katya’s father, the professor, is overly strident and not as wise as he thinks he is. After Ivan falsely tells him he has got Katya pregnant, the professor asks him how he intends to support himself. Ivan mentions being a courier, but adds he also writes poetry and recites the first stanza of a poem he claims he wrote. It is actually from Pushkin’s poem “Exegi Monumentum” (1836), which begins “I have erected a monument to myself.” Unaware he has been duped, the professor says it’s not bad though it sounds kind of familiar.

Attitudes toward music also play a part in the film. Several scenes depict some of Ivan’s acquaintances practicing break dancing and Ivan has a “Rock Club” poster on a wall of the dingy apartment he shares with his mother. Although Katya can play classical music on her piano, when she starts to on one occasion Ivan tells her he does not like it and instead they bang out together a silly song. But music also suggests a possible reconciliation between the generations. In one scene Ivan, while strumming his guitar, sings a Russian ballad, and his mother joins him in the singing. Later, at the professor’s party, he asks Katya to sing a Russian song, “The Nightingale.” She refuses, but Ivan takes the pressure off her by offering to sing it. After he begins, one of the older female guests with a fine voice joins him, as do eventually others.

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Shakhnazarov seems to suggest that Russian music like “The Nightingale,” offers more substance to the soul than Western imports like rock. He also hints at the value of poetry when Ivan’s mother reads a translated version of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 77, and tells Ivan how she recited at an office party the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky’s “Someone Is Beating a Woman,” for which she received cheers and flowers.

Poetry as well as music also figure in Shakhnazarov’s more recent Vanished Empire. The main character, young Sergei, grandson of a famous and wise archeologist, thinks he is buying a black-market copy of the Rolling Stones album “Goats Head Soup” as a gift for his girlfriend, Lyuda, but discovers he has been fooled. When he pulls the record out it is not the Rolling Stones album but Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” His grandfather tells him that he also once had a girlfriend called Lyuda, and he adds that he “read her the poetry of Gumilev all through the night,” and that “it was a wonderful night.”

The grandfather’s mention of Nikolai Gumilev is interesting not only because of his poetry but also because the writer was married to another famous poet, Anna Akhmatova, and with her had a son named Lev (1912-1992). In the Gorbachev years¸ the latter was well known as a proponent of a Eurasianism which stressed Russia’s connection with Asia more than with the West. By the end of the film, Sergei has visited the ancient Central Asian ruined city of Khorezm, discovered by his grandfather, and become a translator of Farsi. As one expert on Russian films wrote: “Shakhnazarov suggests the discovery in Russia’s roots to lie in the cultures of the east and in ancient (not recent) history.” And a reviewer noted that “Sergei has finally shed the false identity under which he has been living throughout the film. That false identity is formed by Western objects—Wrangler jeans, Marlboro cigarettes, Rolling Stones albums, English words inserted into Russian speech . . . . What Sergei must come to understand . . . .is that these are false objects that detract from seeing the beauty of “real” Russia, hidden within.”

Two more films that touch on rock music are Zero City (Город Зеро, 1990) and Dreams (Сны, 1993). The New York Times review of the first declared it “a deliciously cheerful satire about the legacy of Stalin, personal identity and the political importance of rock-and-roll.” This review and others also thought it “Kafkaesque.” The main character is a middle-aged Moscow engineer named Aleksei who arrives by train in a bizarre small town, where he witnesses the suicide (or murder?) of a chef named Nikolaev. A prosecutor soon tells him he cannot leave the town and accuses him of being the son of Nikolaev. He further tells Alexei that he does not understand the seriousness of “the Nikolaev case,” that it affects the interests of the state, that for centuries the main idea uniting Russia has been the necessity of a strong state, and that for it Russians have been willing to suffer and die. The prosecutor also warns of the allure of the West, which could lead to Russia’s undoing and give the West “a fatal power” over Russia.

At the time the film was made many Russians’ interest in their own Soviet history was elevated because of all the new revelations that appeared during the Gorbachev years. And a real life “Nikolaev case” was central to this history because Stalin had used the murder of the popular Communist Sergei Kirov in 1934 by a man named Nikolaev as the linchpin for the “Great Terror” that he unleashed in the mid and late 1930s. Thus, when the film’s prosecutor declares that the (chef) Nikolaev case is crucial, many Soviet citizens would understand the historical allusion.

It further turns out that chef Nikolaev many years before had created a scandal when he dared to dance to "Rock Around the Clock." And now after his death, Aleksei consents to speak at a just-opened rock club, which features portraits of his supposed father, along with Elvis Presley. Toward the end of the film the woman Nikolaev had danced with decades earlier comes to Aleksei’s hotel room, gives him some former possessions of his supposed father (including a picture of Ernest Hemingway), and asks him to dance to a recorded version of "Rock Around the Clock." Later, three girls, desiring to party, come in and sing a song glorifying money. When Alexei is asked what song he wants to sing, he begins a more traditional Russian ballad reminiscent of the songs mentioned above sung by Ivan (the courier) with his mother and at the professor’s party in the The Messenger Boy.

The 1993 film Dreams contains an even sharper satire of Russia’s aping of Western ways. This was at a time when Russian inflation was running rampant—more than 2,000 percent in 1992—and many Russians were desperate and disappointed that more Western economic aid was not forthcoming. By way of the dreams of a tsarist-era countess named Masha Stepanova, the film flashes back and forth between the early 1990s and a century earlier. In her dreams of the future she sees her husband selling nude pictures of her on the street in order to earn enough money to afford inflated-priced food. She protests that she thought he was taking the pictures to send them to California. Later on government officials name her the economics minister, hoping her sexual allure will convince a foreign IMF representative to offer more economic credits to Russia. In a conversation with several Russian ministers they simplistically explain to her that if the West will furnish more money Russians can then eat better, leading them to work better, live better, and become more cultured and civilized, which in turn will lead to less vodka drinking, stealing, and vandalism.

Two latter scenes are especially interesting. In one of them Masha’s husband is meeting at the Winter Palace with Tsar Nicholas II and his ministers and tells them if they do not improve the conditions of peasants and workers and allow them political participation then revolution, chaos, and disorder will follow. By the early 1990s, he predicts impoverishment and moral, cultural, and political decline. For poor Russian women prostitution (not for rubles, but for American dollars and German marks) will become the most prestigious profession. Although his words are met with cries of “socialist” and “revolutionary,” he claims he is a Russian patriot and departs the meeting.

The other scene is more in keeping with Shakhnazarov’s concern about Russia’s moral vacuum and its aping of the worst of Western practices. It depicts a contest among the former Soviet republics now comprising the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), with Masha representing Russia. It is sort of like a Western beauty contest, with the contestants’ banners bearing the name of their country. But except for the banner covering one breast, each woman’s top is bare and the contest is for the best bust. Although one American businessman (and democrat) is among the jurors, most of the jurors appear to be Russian including a few more businessmen and other men whose positions indicate a concern with such subjects as ethics, the arts, peace, and children. The contestants come to the stage through a door flanked by two bands, one a German army jazz band, the other a CIS rock band called “Rusty Nails.”

The emcee in the dream is Masha’s husband (played by the gifted Oleg Basilashvili, who starred in a number of other Shakhnazarov films). Before he goes any further, he introduces an evangelical pastor from Minnesota, who tells us how he was a sinner before he turned to Jesus. A female chorus then sings Hallelujah, and Bibles and bottles of California wine, which the emcee tells us the preacher will present to the contestants, are wheeled on to the stage. A bidding contest then ensues with the winner getting to kiss the bust of the first contestant, Masha. The emcee also announces that all proceeds will go to the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. (The reconstruction of this Moscow cathedral blown up under Stalin was actually a major Moscow project during the 1990s.)

Two additional Shakhnazarov films—Assassin of the Tsar (Цареубийца, 1991) and The Rider Named Death (Всадник по имени смерть, 2004)—present a different way of using history to shed light on the director’s concern with another type contemporary moral failing—terrorism. The first film, like his later Ward No. 6, deals with a mental patient and his doctor. In Rider the patient is played by the English actor Malcolm McDowell. He believes that he is two characters, each involved in a separate assassination. The first, the killing of Alexander II in 1881, is dealt with quickly, and most of the film focuses on the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in July 1918 by the Soviet Cheka in the Ural city of Ekaterinburg.

Although more details about the 1918 mass murder would later become available and Shakhnazarov allows himself some artistic license in depicting historical events, his film is generally historically accurate. It concentrates most of its attention on the mind of the mental patient, especially in his imagining himself Jacob Yurovsky, who directed the killing and personally shot Nicholas II. His main motivation, he tells us, is that he wanted to become someone important.

The second film, The Rider Named Death (2004), is based on a novel, A Pale Horse, written by the Russian terrorist Boris Savinkov. Although a work of fiction, the book reflects the great outburst of terrorism that shook the Russian Empire in the early part of the twentieth century. According to one estimate, from 1905-1916 revolutionary terrorists killed or wounded about 17,000 individuals, including high-ranking government officials. Although the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), not the Bolshevik party of Lenin and Stalin, furnished the most terrorists, some Bolsheviks, including Stalin, also sometimes carried out terrorist acts.

Some of the details of the assassinations depicted in the film reflect the actual history of the times, while others are altered for artistic reasons. The chief object of the film’s terrorists, Grand Duke Sergei, was indeed assassinated by terrorists, but by a bomb thrown at his carriage rather than by a pistol shot as the film portrays.

But Shakhnazarov is mainly interested in the motivations of the terrorists, and as The New York Times review of the movie notes “each member [is] motivated by a different set of principles.” Although some killed to destabilize an oppressive government, the motives of the central character, Georges, are less clear. In a brief analysis of the novel on which the book is based, Anna Geifman, in Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917 (1993), wrote. “The central character and leader of the terrorist band, who bears many of the author's traits, is portrayed as a lonely and crippled soul, with an invariably skeptical approach to all ideas and ideals. On several occasions he admitsthat he himself does not know why and for what goals he participates in terror.” Although portraying the mixed and complex motives of terrorists may be closer to historical truth than any simplistic depiction, the murkiness of Georges’ motives, also depicted in the film, may leave viewers a bit puzzled as to this man’s reasons for taking the lives of others.

The only remaining films (of the dozen mentioned early in this essay) not yet summarized are American Daughter and Poisons or the World History of Poisoning (Яды, или Всемирная история отравлений, 2001). The first, which appeared in 1995, is the story of a Russian father, Aleksei, who comes to California hoping to take his pre-teen daughter back to Russia. His wife had left him and Russia, taking their daughter to the San Francisco Bay area, where she now has a rich new husband and lives in a mansion. The loving father, who speaks no English, is a singer and guitar player. He possesses the simple, genuine feelings that Shakhnazarov said he values. His former wife is more materialistic and tells their daughter she should be grateful to her “new father” who has provided her with their magnificent house and all her beautiful toys. When Aleksei is offered money in exchange for giving up any claims to his daughter, he refuses it. And later, after being sentenced to four years in jail after his daughter comes to him and they flee, heading for Phoenix, and eventually Moscow via Mexico, he refuses to obtain his freedom by renouncing his claims.

The second film, Poisons, flashes back to the past so historical figures like the notorious Borgias, recently reintroduced to U.S. viewers in Showtime’s The Borgias, can illustrate the usefulness of poisoning. A young Russian actor, Oleg, under the tutelage of a man he meets in a bar (played by Basilashvili), is persuaded to poison his wife for cheating on him. In one scene

Cesare Borgia, standing by his sister Lucrezia and their father, Pope Alexander VI (also Basilashvili in a delightful dual role), gives a speech in which he asks, “What rules this world?” His answer is passions, the most notable of which are covetousness, envy, jealousness, and power. His advice is to poison everyone who stands in your way to power, wealth, and glory. At the end of the film, as Oleg passes by advertisements for Camel cigarettes and other Western products, a voice-over tells us that Oleg has obtained an acting role playing Cesare Borgia. Thus, he has come to acting (literally) like this infamous Italian,

Despite the seriousness of his concern with the moral bankruptcy he sees around him, and the aping of the West, Shakhnazarov considered Poisons a comedy. And indeed his films, much like the plays of Chekhov, mix well the comic and serious (see this link for more on the use of humor by Chekhov and others). Watching a dozen of his films in about a three-week period provided me not only intellectual nourishment, but considerable enjoyment, enhanced by the director’s use of humor, music, color, historical settings, and a realistic presentation of Russian post-Soviet problems—in Poisons, for example, Oleg and his unfaithful wife compete for their apartment in a Moscow where roomy and affordable living space is scarce.

Like all of us, Shakhnazarov has his biases and failings, and they sometimes are apparent in his films. What we can learn from viewing them, however, is sympathy for all the people in the world facing the dilemmas of Westernization (primarily Americanization), whether they be Russians, Iraqis, or people on remote Pacific-Ocean islands where the gun-touting Rambo of U. S. movie fame became a folk hero in the 1990s.

It is no easy task for these non-Western societies to maintain social cohesion between generations, along with the best of their traditional customs and values, while also adapting to Western influences of varying worth. Too often, as President Bush and many supporters of the 2003 Iraq invasion did, Americans assume that it is natural and fitting for other peoples of the world to become more like us. As Shakhnazarov reminds us, the ideal and the reality are much more complex.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss