English Title: Russian

Original Title: Russkoe

Country of Origin: Russia

Studio: Sinemafor, Trial Blok, Pygmalion Production, with the support of the Cinematography Section of the Russian Ministry of Culture

Director: Aleksandr Veledinskii

Producer(s): Aleksandr Aliakin, Sergei Chliiants, Maksim Lagashkin, Aleksandr Robak

Screenplay: Aleksandr Veledinskii, Eduard Limonov

Cinematographer: Pavel Ignatov

Art Director: Il'ia Amurskii

Editor: Tat'iana Prilenskaia

Runtime: 112 minutes

Genre: Biopic, Drama

Language: Russian

Starring/Cast: Andrei Chadov, Olga Arntgol'ts, Evdokiia Germanova, Mikhail Efremov, Vladimir Steklov, Aleksei Gorbunov, Dmitrii Diuzhev

Year: 2004

Volume: Russian

Eddie is a working-class teenager in 1959 Kharkov. He hangs out with shady characters, but is also a gifted poet, albeit one who uses his talent to distract crowds while his friend picks-pockets. He pursues a local beauty, Sveta, promising her a date in a restaurant with the implicit assumption that she will repay him sexually. When he catches Sveta kissing his friend, Ed shows up at her flat with a knife, but runs off before she opens the door. He wanders the snowy streets and nearly commits suicide before his mother finds him and has him put in the Saburka, an infamous psychiatric hospital whose patients had included the artist Mikhail Vrubel’ and the futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov. There Ed bonds with the other maltreated patients, one of whom introduces him to the richness of Russian literature. After a brief escape, during which he climbs a church tower and prays for ‘an interesting life’, Ed is recommitted to the asylum, which prompts his mates to stage a ‘storming’ of the hospital (à la the storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917) in protest. When he is finally released, he has learned hard truths about his place in the world as a son and an artist.

The title of Russian in the original is Russkoe, which refers not to ‘a Russian person’ or the Russian language, but something closer to ‘Russianness’ or ‘things that are essentially Russian’ (indeed, one suggested English translation is It’s Russian). ‘Russkoe’ is the title of an early poem by the Russian author and (more recently) radical nationalist political figure Eduard Limonov, on whose autobiographical novels Veledinskii’s film is based. Despite the title’s seeming nod, however ironic, to idealistic Russian soul-searching and abstract values, the film is nevertheless also firmly in the realist tradition. The tight, disciplined narrative remains focused on its hero’s negotiation of the social reality that surrounds him and discovery of his potential place within it. Yet Russian is by no means a straightforward biographic film of Limonov. It is also a largely unsentimental contemplation of the East vs West, Spirit vs Flesh dilemma that is every Russian’s celebrated and accursed birthright.

Poetry in the film is represented as both divine and visceral, the coin of a value system that Russia has traditionally posited as an alternative, a way out of the messy world of material values. Veledinskii’s attempt at reconciling the filth, viscera and squalor of modern Russian life with both a sense of ‘higher values’ and an engaging, marketable film product is ultimately more honest than other such attempts, and does not resort to crude juxtaposition with an Other to define a Russian Self.  

Someone once said that there are four escape routes from reality: into crime, into art, into madness and into religion. In Russian, what we have is a struggle among the four for the fate of the young protagonist. The material reality of a late 1950s Soviet city is, on the surface, dominant. Even before the narrative begins, during the credits, each name we see projected on the screen is accompanied and represented by an object. Poverty and squalor dominate the mise-en-scène. The plot itself, especially before Ed enters the Saburka, is driven by exchange, barter and transfer of things of value: a knife, a razor, a ring, a book, a maidenhead, souvenir badges, a notebook, a photograph, eyeglasses, nylons, mandarin oranges, vodka, roubles. Ed’s sole motivation in the beginning of the film is the achievement of a physical act (sex with Sveta) by material means (buying her dinner in a restaurant). Sveta’s calculating promiscuousness is mitigated, however, by the fact that she will trade her physical affection not only for material wealth and status, but also as a token of her appreciation for good poetry and for the company of a true poet. In a film in which there is no shortage of mentors (which can be seen as a nod to the classic mentor-initiate model of Soviet socialist realism), Sveta’s lesson for Ed (which he misses, tragically, the first time she offers it, when he comes to her door with the knife) may be the most relevant to his personal arc: that poetry is a useful tool for negotiating reality, especially in Russia, where the line between art and reality has so often been blurred.

Author of this review: Seth Graham