Soviet cinema during Late Socialism has produced highly successful movies, both with a domestic and with a foreign audience. The adventures of Shurik in the Caucasus are popular in Russia to this day; «Moscow does not believe in tears» helped Ronald Reagan to better understand the Soviet mindset before meeting Gorbachev; Tarkovsky’s «Solaris» – shot around the same time – was praised by critics, especially outside the USSR, winning the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury at Cannes film festival. What these movies share is that they all take the viewers to other worlds: Shurik to the internal Orient of the Caucasus, «Solaris» to outer space and into the inner life of its main character. «Moscow does not believe in tears» depicts the counterpart to the American Dream, the «Soviet dream» of Late Socialism, retelling the rise of a young provincial girl to professional success (and late personal happiness): hard work pays off.
A slightly different perspective is offered in the two movies under scrutiny here, Larissa Shepitkos «Krylya» («Wings», 1966) and Gleb Panfilovs «Proshu Slova» («I wish to speak», 1975). Both movies are much more sober in their depiction of life in Late Socialism. They demonstrate that at the brink from Khrushchev «Thaw» to so-called «Stagnation» a new temporal regime arose that ceased to be linear and forward-looking and started to become circular or even bent toward the past. Contrary to earlier assumptions about «Stagnation», this period did not mean a cultural or political, ideological or cultural standstill, rather intellectual life under Brezhnev was «one of heterogeneity, struggle, conflict and creativity».
Shepitko was together with Andrey Tarkovsky «at the forefront of the Russian New Wave that flourished under Khrushchev». This Russian New Wave disentangled itself from the Soviet classics as well as from the dogmas of socialist realism. Panfilov was a student of Mikhail Romm (as was Elem Klimov, Shepitko’s husband) and shared with Shepitko the «anxieties about the human condition beyond the politic conditionings». Both films reflect what Late Socialism on the brink of Stagnation was about, at a psychological level but also in its societal dimension, seen and perceived from the standpoint of the films’ main characters: the loss of a glorious, heroic past, lived in the victorious fight against fascism, and the loss of future, which should have been realised in communism. Together these films allow for a glimpse into the psychological and societal shift taking place in the Soviet Union between 1966 and 1975: from upbeat, albeit fading optimism under Khrushchev, to «realism» and «pragmatism» under Stagnation. The movies under scrutiny show that film-makers were aware of these processes taking place.
«Krylya» and the loss of the past
«Krylya» is the second most important film in the small oeuvre of Larisa Shepitko. The touching, dramatic picture is set on one day in the life of the main character, Nadezhda Petrukhina (Maïa Boulgakova). Nadezhda is 41 years old and a former combat pilot. She now works as a headmistress in a Soviet provincial town. The movie starts with Nadezhda receiving a commendation for a work. The ceremony, which is broadcast on TV, is closely followed by her students. However, a quarrel between two of them, a young girl and an equally young boy ensues shortly afterwards. Resolutely, Nadezhda reprimands the boy for his behaviour, reflecting a general attitude towards the male characters of the film: they are all helpless, aggressive, shallow or incapable, and in need of firm female guidance. Behind her strict and resolute appearance, however, Nadezhda is deeply insecure. The strictness and resoluteness seem to be the only functioning way to interact with the rest of her environment. In all other ways, especially, with love and understanding, she seems unable to connect either to her daughter, to her students, or to a potential lover. Particularly the younger generation is unable to understand Nadezhda’s sense of duty, discipline and sacrifice: her daughter pities her, one student openly hates her, another does not recognize her picture in the local museum. Nadezhda is indeed a living exhibit of the past that walks around in the present, a relic of an era that has passed. Her way to feel connected at all is escapism, into dreams of the past, scanning the skies, walking the city, «floating through a hollow urban world that bears down upon her», much as Jeanne Moreau’s disconnected character, Lidia, in Antonioni’s «La notte» (1961). In Nadezhda’s last sequence, she returns to the aerodrome. Left alone next to a parked plane, she hesitantly approaches and touches its wings and flaps. Clumsily at first, then desperately, she crawls into the cockpit of the lone aircraft. The gaze of the camera, the gaze of Nadezhda, wanders from flight instrument to flight instrument until a flight instructor and his students return to the plane. Benevolently mocking Nadezhda, who is still sitting behind the controls, they start pushing the stray plane back to the hangar. As they approach the gates of the shelter, Nadezhda realises that she is about to be put back into the cage of her dull post-war life. Refusing to be stored away, she suddenly starts the plane’s engine, which roars up angrily. With a violent movement Nadezhda turns the plane 180 degrees and lifts-off for yet another flight.
The story of Nadezhda is a story of loss. The values of war against fascism, which required discipline and adherence to the Stalinist brand of socialism seem to vanish in Late Socialism. The other jolly movies mentioned above reflect the shallow mood of modest Soviet consumerism and meditate about individual, inner concerns, instead of societal transformation to communism. Especially Soviet men turn out to be useless, lacking seriousness or reliability, or they are outright criminals. In «Krylya» all men seem to be losers: the deputy director lacks precision; with her lover, a bookish museum director, Nadezhda seems to entertain a passionless and incorporeal relationship; the unruly boy has a criminal, absent father; her daughter’s husband is surrounded by a shallow circle of friends; only the flight instructor at the aerodrome seems to remotely be a match for her. «Krylya» points to a loss of the past, to a loss of heroism, to a loss of «manhood». Only in the past, Nadezhda finds real men and real purpose, respect and understanding: She escapes into the past, daydreaming about her presumably last flight with her pilot-lover Mitya. After a dogfight, Mitya lost consciousness and his plane started a steady, prolonged descent into terrain, which Nadezhda desperately tries to prevent by repeatedly crossing the downward trajectory of Mitya’s plane. This episode reflects how she fought to save sense and meaning in her life, to save Mitya and with him, purpose, status, and a whole way of life. The descent and crash of Mitya’s plane, however, is also the descent of the Soviet Union after WWII in general, at least as perceived by the war generation. «Krylya» thus symbolises the lines along which the generational conflict was fought during the 1970s. On the one side of the barricade there was a generation that clung to the values of war, and on the other side, a generation disinterested and detached from these very values, interested in the consumerism and the good life that Late Socialism could offer. While it is almost impossible to draw clear lines, the war generation was followed by the generation of the Soviet Baby Boomers, that witnessed De-Stalinization first-hand and were exposed to heightened political indoctrination; it was followed by the generation of Perestroika, which witnessed and participated in the demise of the Soviet Union. «Krylya» is mirrored on the political level: with the triumphant optimism under Krushchev fading, an old leadership renewed the importance of May 9, «Victory Day». While in 1955 it still was a common business day, in 1965 it was elevated to the second most important holiday of the USSR, both in an attempt to enshrine the heroism of WWII as well as to establish a new foundation narrative for the Soviet Union, and thus to compensate for the fading appeal of the Revolution as well as of for the fading appeal of WWII among the younger generation.
«Proshu Slova» and the loss of the future
The flip-side of this loss and intergenerational conflict of Late Socialism is depicted in «Proshu Slova». On the surface it seems to be a typical drama centred around a Soviet party official. Again, we have a strong female lead character. Again, we witness how a history of loss unfolds, as «communism demands sacrifices». Elizaveta Uvarova (Inna Tchourikova) is at first glance very similar to Nadezhda Petrukhina: Both are stern, hands-on, no-nonsense female party bureaucrats in firm control of the men around them, who are mostly in secondary if not ridiculous positions. Yet, she is very different from the nostalgic Nadezhda. A married mother of two, she certainly does not look back to the past. Presumably, she is also about ten years younger than «Krylya’s» Nadezhda and experienced World War II as a child and not behind the control column of combat aircraft. Elizaveta is also a highly successful markswoman and winner of numerous competitions. Most importantly, though, she is the mayor of a mid-sized provincial town. As such, Gleb Panfilov presents her as a resolute, hard working party member who relentlessly fulfils her duties and pursues her goal: to build a bridge across the river and erect a new, high-quality residential area on the other side. Elizaveta Uvarova seems to be a believer – a believer not in socialism as an abstract construct but as something to be built in hard day-to-day work. However, a shadow hovers over Elizaveta. As the viewers are informed at the very beginning of the movie, her son Yura will die in a shooting accident, while being a central figure both for Elizaveta as for the movie in general.
The experience of loss is also palpable in Elizaveta’s daily work, which Panfilov follows closely. Elizaveta is often seen rushing through the city in her black Volga to fix various problems or to fulfil an array of duties. For example, she awards the order of Lenin to an infirm revolutionary, who lies in sickbed. He is surrounded by former brothers in arms, with whom he entertains a tense relationship (to be dissipated by singing a song that the younger attendees do not seem to know); she meets a French delegation and while patiently replying to all questions, she later mocks them for their idealistic and bourgeois attitudes, their theoretical socialism, and irrelevant, provocative questions (about her unassuming clothes); she discusses Sartre with her driver and is quick to dismiss him: «I read him, I don’t like him, — he’s a lefty.» The Q&A with the French delegation is also revealing because when asked about her dreams, the only dream she can come up with is the bridge to be built across the town’s river. It is not communism, a better life, a different society or something of this calibre. It is just a bridge. Later, watching TV with her family, a fight ensues between Elizaveta and her son Yura: Yura claims that his mother should dress more elegantly as a mayor, Elizaveta sternly rebukes that one should live modestly, as Lenin did, and that «if man has goals in life, clothing is the last thing to care about». Yura is all for seizing the opportunities, to use Elizaveta’s staff car to get to school (Elizaveta orders him to take the tram) or to get a family dacha; Elizaveta considers all this «petty bourgeois». Yura, wearing his Komsomol shirt, finally gives in and leaves the room, however, not without accusing his mother of idealism: «You do not know life, you are an idealist». Elizaveta also leaves. When Salvador Allende’s death is announced on TV, she breaks into tears, grabs her guns and leaves for the shooting range to blow off her steam. Most likely, she sees in Allende a practical communist and soulmate.
All the drama of a surprisingly agitated Stagnation is encapsulated in the relationship between mother and son: the son has no ideals, considers himself to be a realist, while Elizaveta seems to stick to revolutionary ideals, to the ideals of constructing socialism. For her, socialism is a practice, not lofty ideas, as with Sartre or the French visitors, whose socialism she considers sterile and artificial. Therefore, all she can think about is the bridge, at one point even frustrating her generally patient husband. Most ironically, the self-proclaimed realist Yura dies with Elizaveta’s indirect assistance, and her culpability runs throughout the film: it is she who delivers him the tools of death. He shoots himself mishandling the device his mother knows best – a pistol. The mishandling occurs by trying to dismantle the weapon using the very toolbox Elizaveta brought back from a trip to Moscow («why not an imported one?», he complains – «ours are reliable», she retorts), the very trip, on which her request for funding of the bridge was turned down. In short, the new generation is unable to use the very tools of Stalinism (the pistol) and of Thaw (toolbox). But it is the older generation that has sown the seeds of socialist disenchantment.
Late Socialism between past and future
Elizaveta Uvarova and Nadezhda Petrukhina thus embody the transition from Thaw to Stagnation. Nadezhda is the war hero that lives in the past and that experienced the formation of her identity and even freedom during war. Now, she is caught in the handling of day-to-day matters and petty questions, which she takes with military seriousness, but which do not match the duties that brought fulfilment and connection in the past. She wanders disconnected through the Soviet city. In contrast, day-to-day duties are the air that Elizaveta breathes. She does not aimlessly stroll through the modern Soviet city, she is in charge of it; she rushes through the town to solve its problems. Elizaveta lives for the management of her city, for the construction of a seemingly very concrete socialism. While Nadezhda seems to be a late Stalinist that dreams of the past, Elizaveta, the late Khrushchevite, dreams of the future, albeit a very practical one. Nadezhda’s past, however, is over for good, even if she refuses to accept it by taking off in the last scene, while Elizaveta’s future does not materialise, failing against incompetence, bureaucracy, or lack of funding. Most importantly, though, it is the new generations that cannot relate either to Nadezhda’s past, nor to Elizaveta’s future. Even worse, they hate Nadezhda’s past, and are unable of grasping Elizaveta’s future with the tools of Late Socialism.