Histoires Continentales
Geschichte Popkultur Russland

Losing the Past and Losing the Future: Two Soviet Movies about Women in Late Socialism

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.



Cover Picture: Still from Larisa Shepitko’s «Ascent», https://flic.kr/p/bmv9wS, CC-BY-NC 2.0