Mar 122012

Afonya - collective labor discipline

Judging by the films Afonya (1975) and Autumn Marathon (1979), Georgi Daneliya had not yet broken free of the constraints of socialist realism in 1975.   He was still working within that box, mostly, but on the other hand the box was not boxing him in.   The values of collective society are explicitly stressed over those the individual, but the story is about an individual, Borshev, and is at least as much about his self-destructive behavior as his society-destructive behavior.

In fact, the scenes in which he is put in front of the collective for some labor discipline elicit more sympathy for Borshev, the individual, than for the collective.  And this is even though we’ve seen what kind of slacker and self-server he can be.   Most of the workers are portrayed as being bored or tired of these proceedings, and are inclined to make a joke of them.  The box is a pretty battered container by the time Daneliya is done with it.

Autumn Marathon - Keeping the intellectuals in line

There are only the faintest echoes of the theme of collective over the individual in Autumn Marathon.  There is no labor discipline, but there is a scene (pictured here) that demonstrates how intellectuals were kept under control.    (Some might say the method in this scene is not all that different from the way conformity is maintained within the American university system, or even that it’s a more subtle technique than we have.)   But this scene just demonstrates another way in which the main character, Buzykin, is helpless to change his life.    He can not bring himself to do anything to resolve the conflicting demands of his wife and girlfriend, and cannot do anything to make himself stand up for right treatment of his colleagues, or even avoid complicity in ill-treatment.

In Afony the individual does manage to reform himself, or get reformed by others, although there is some ambiguity on that point.   In Autumn Marathon, nothing changes in the end.  There are attempts, but to no avail.   But in Marathon, reform for an individual would not have much to do with conformity to society.   If you’d want to make the point that Buzykin should get his life in order for the good of society, you’d have to make up that part of the story for yourself.   The movie isn’t going to do it for you.

I suppose all of this is debatable.   As usual, I probably miss a lot of subtleties and cultural allusions, given that it’s not my country and not my language.   I also wish I could find an overview on what was happening to the whole concept of socialist realism in Russia the 1970s.    Unfortunately, all of the English-language materials on the subject that I’ve found so far seem to deal with it only through the 1960s, if even that.     So I’m still looking for reading material on the Decline and Fall of socialist realism in Russia.

Sep 122010


This scene from Osenniy Marafon has stayed with me ever since I first saw it a few years ago, and has led to some of my recent reading. Oleg Basilashvili’s character (seated) has been informed that his just completed work of translation will not be published. The publisher explains: “…Simon just published an article with racist overtones. The progressives are putting up a hell of stink about it. It’s hardly the moment to puff him up by printing his work.”

It struck me as a plausible sort of scene, if repeated many times over and in many different variations, that could have constituted the state of affairs that provoked Alexander Solzhenitsyn to write his famous letter to the Fourth National Congress of Soviet Writers in May, 1967, twelve years before this film came out. Among many other things Solzhenitsyn had to say in that letter was the following description of how his own work was handled:

For three years now an irresponsible campaign of slander is being conducted against me, who fought all through the war as a battery commander and received military decorations. It is being said that I served time as a criminal, or surrendered to the enemy (I was never a prisoner of war), that I “betrayed” my country, “served the Germans.” That is the interpretation now being put on the 11 years I spent in camps and exile for having criticized Stalin. This slander is being spread in secret instructions and meetings by people holding official positions. I vainly tried to stop the slander by appealing to the board of the Writers Union of the R.S.F.R. [Russian Republic] and to the press. The board did not even retract, and not a single paper printed my reply to the slanderers. On the contrary, slander against me from rostrums has intensified and become more vicious within the last year, making use of distorted material from my confiscated files, and I have no way of replying.

My interest in this state of censorship is heightened by the increasing centralization of funding and control over research and publication in our own country, and the increasingly loud and high-placed calls for even greater central control. We haven’t yet progressed nearly to the state of affairs described by Solzhenitsyn, but just the same I thought there might be some practical utility in understanding the social relationships that constitute this type of system. It’s more insidious than the way Anna Politkovskaya was handled, and possibly has a more corrupting effect on the participants.

I presume Georgi Daneliya was very intentional in putting this kind of scene in the film. It’s a great fit with the whole theme of the film — of a person caught up in a system of deceit that he will not be able to resist.

With all this in mind, I found and read the book Nomenklatura (1984) by Michael Voslensky. That was a fascinating read, but one thing I learned from it is that contrary to what I had imagined, the movie scene is not showing the direct workings of the nomenklatura. The nomenklatura were a different stratum of society, I guess. Voslensky knew about the nomenklatura, having been part of it himself, but he did not have anything to say about careerism and social relations in, say, literary fields like the one portrayed in the film.

Now, if only I could think of a movie that would give me an excuse to talk about what I learned from Volensky’s book. Gray Wolves, maybe?


Back to Osenniy Marafon. I can now affirm that it stands up very well to repeated watching. I’ve put it on my Droid X after having learned that my AVS software has a built-in profile for converting to the .mp4 format that’s needed.

All the actors in the film did excellent work — including all three of the women who are complicating Andrei Pavlovich’s life. But the more I watch Natalya Gundareva (the wife) the more impressed I am with what she did. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone play the wronged wife the way she played it — but it’s a very believable, nuanced character. It would be interesting to read an analysis of her work, but I haven’t found much information about her in English other than a comment saying she played a wide variety of roles. She would be my age if she was still alive, but she died five years ago. I guess I’ll have to watch some of her other films and try to learn more for myself.

Feb 222009


In this scene from Osenniy Marafon, the character played by Yevgeny Leonov (on the right) walks in on Buzykin (Oleg Basilashvili) and his guest, Bill Hansen. Leonov’s character doesn’t even notice Bill until he says two words in Russian (not his first language). Then there is a long silence while Leonov looks at him suspiciously, followed by an introduction (shown above).


Leonov then asks, “Does he understand Russian?”

Well, I thought it was funny. Bill knows more Russian than I do, but there was something about the way he sounded when he opened his mouth that made clear right from the start that he didn’t know the language very well. Was it the pronunciation? The way he spoke slowly and deliberately? Or was it the choice of words? I recognize the first word he said, but not the second, and can’t find it in any online dictionary or translator.

Whatever the case, I could see giving myself away that quickly, too, if I were ever to visit Russia and open my mouth to talk.

Speaking of a visit to Russia, I’ve been reading a wonderful travelogue on It’s “A Honeymoon to Remember” by Erin Arnold Barkley and Sam Barkley, who rode their bikes through a bit of Russia between Kazakhstan and Mongolia on a tour that’s still in progress several months later. Erin describes the arrival at Srotski:

We rode all afternoon, making it to near Srotski, birthplace of a guy I’d never heard of, Vasily Shukshin, but it seems like he was a big deal around the village: virtually every building had a sign like “Shukshin’s primary school” or “Shukshin’s mom’s house.” Anyway, Wikipedia tells me he was a famous Soviet playwright and director, and his monument on a hill sure provides stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

The name Vasily Shukshin didn’t ring a bell for me, either, so I looked him up and saw that I’ve already seen one movie in which he appeared in a minor role: Komissar.

An article about him at had this intriguing information:

The film Kalina Krasnaya (aka The Red Snowball Tree) released in 1974 came as a mind-blow: there had been nothing of the kind in domestic cinema before. The story of a former prisoner who decides to break with the criminal world and live a peaceful country life holds a firm place in the gold Russian cinematography, as well as the majority of movies with Shukshin’s participation.

Vasili Shukshin died on October 2, 1974 during the filming of “Oni Srazhalis Za Rodinu” (aka They Fought for Their Country) of a heart attack. There are some suspicions he was poisoned.

Memocast has the film Kalina Krasnaya, but as far as I can tell nobody has produced any English subtitles for it. So it will probably have to wait until I learn more Russian. I haven’t yet found out whether there are English subtitles for any of Shukshin’s other films.

That travelogue on has some great photos, btw. Highly recommended.

Feb 182009


The van driver in this 1979 movie is angry at Buzykin, the character played by Oleg Basilashvili, who was preoccupied with problems caused by the competing attentions needed by his wife and his girlfriend. Buzykin wasn’t watching where he was going, and got nicked by the van. The subtitle is of angry words from the driver.

It’s interesting in that three years later, Basilashvili was in another movie in which this same standard of justice was the premise. In “Vokzal dlya dvoikh,” his wife hit a pedestrian in the dark. Since the pedestrian wasn’t drunk, the driver was assumed to be at fault. Basilashvili’s character took the rap for his wife, which meant three years in a Siberian gulag.

It seems to represent a little different standard than we have in the U.S. Bicyclists here are constantly reporting cases of drivers who get off way too easy after hitting a bicyclist, and it would be pretty much the same for hitting a pedestrian, too. Most likely a case between a driver and a careless pedestrian who wandered into traffic would not be decided in favor of the pedestrian unless the driver was drunk or speeding, and even then it’s sometimes difficult to get a conviction of the driver — especially if the driver has good connections.

But judging from these two Russian movies ca 1980, the driver is almost presumed guilty unless proven innocent. I don’t know if that’s the way it worked in real life, and if so, whether it still works that way. Also, I would expect the case of the politically- or economically- well connected driver to work pretty much the same as here. But I don’t think you’d ever have a U.S. movie in which the driver would bawl out a careless pedestrian the way this one did. It just wouldn’t relate to anything in real life. The driver might be concerned with the emotional trauma of having to live with the knowledge that he killed someone, but a sober driver obeying the traffic laws wouldn’t be be particularly fearful of being sent to prison.