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SRSC 4 (1) pp. 45-63 Intellect Limited 2010 Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema Volume 4 Number 1 @ 2010 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/srsc.4.1.45_1 ALEXANDER ETKIND University of Cambridge The tale of two turns: Khrustalev, My Car! and the cinematic memory of the Soviet past ABSTRACT The essay offers a reading of Aleksei Iu. German's film Khrustalev, My Car! (1998) as a memory event. Khrustalev, My Car is discussed together with two other films about the Soviet past,
  SRSC 4 (1) pp. 45-63 Intellect Limited 2010 Studies in Russian and SovietCinema Volume 4 Number 1@ 2010 Intellect Ltd Article.English language. doi: 10.1386/srsc.4.1.45_1 ALEXANDER ETKIND University of Cambridge The tale of two turns: Khrustalev, My Car! and the cinematic memory of the Soviet past ABSTRACT The essay offers a reading of Aleksei Iu.German's film Khrustalev, My Car! (1998)asa memory event. Khrustalev, My Car is discussedtogether with two other filmsabout the Soviet past, The Cold Summer of 1953 (AleksandrProshkin,1987) and Island (Pavel Lungin, 2006).Showing deep but reversible transformations of the centralcharacters, each of these films develops in two turns: first from citizen into victim, then from victim into citizen. Crucial to thisreading of Khrustalev, My Car! is a narratological analysis that distinguishes between several levels ofnarrated reality: what the narrator laims hashappened in his fictional world; what hesuggests could have happened; and what he could notpossibly know butdreams about. Starting with the narrator's wetdream, culminating n the imagined scene of the gang rape of the father andending with the wishfuldream of the father's (and others) returnfrom the camp, the film develops as anarticulated,analytically unfolding work of mourning. KEYWORDS post-Soviet film memory mourning StalinismAleksei Iu. German narratology 45  Alexander Etkind I For cinematicmemory and mourning, seeSantner (1990), Rosenstone (1995) andGrainge (2003). For an excellentdiscussion of poetic and cinematic allegories as the means of representingcatastrophic experiences, see Lowenstein (2005). 2,Joseph Brodsky altered Adorno's statement into 'How canone write poetryafter the Gulag?'and added, 'and how onecaneat lunch?'(Brodsky 1995: 55). 3. For critical analyses ofAgamben's thought, see Edkins (2003: 211-15), Ross (2008) and Mazower (2008). For a recentattempt to apply Agamben's theorizing to nineteenth-century Russia, see Ruttenburg (20081 For testing these ideas in the context of the Gulog, see Etkind (2008). In what is arguably the mostimportant filmof post-Sovietmemory, Khrustalev, My Car!lKhrustalev,mashinu! (Aleksei Iur'ievich German, 1998), the military surgeon Klenskii is arrestedand then rapedon hisway to the Gulag.Suddenly,he is redressed,perfumedandtaken to the ailing Stalin. AsKlenskii regainshis military posture and clinical focus,Stalin dies in his hands,producing afinal expulsion of flatulence.In one moment, Klenskii reverts from the stinking,bare life of a prisoner to the sublimeduty ofa citizen.In the same moment, thedictatordeparts from hisduty and, quickly passing the stage of thestinking, bare life, is annihilated forever.The central scene of the film occurs when the sovereign andthe abject meetand theirpositionsswap.Thinking about this cinematically powerful but historically improbablescene, I beganto notice similar constructionsin other Russian films aboutthe Soviet past. Some of them, probablythe most remarkableones, also develop in two turns:the first from citizen into victim, thesecond fromvictim into citizen.This essaytestsmy findings withinpost-Soviet cinematic memoryagainst certain philosophicalconcepts that weredevisedto understand theHolocaust.' ... BUT NOT SACRIFICED The provocative statement by TheodorAdomo that writing poetry afterAuschwitz is barbaric, has led to aprohibitivedictum that representing the horror of the Holocaust is impossible. 2 Inspired by the literary representations of Auschwitzby itssurvivor Primo Levi andseeking a philosophical means of representing its horror,the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben developedtheconcept of homo sacer, defined as 'life that may be killed but not sacrificed'. Not protectedfrom murderand not eligiblefor sacrifice, the bare life of the victim is exemptedfrom any legal or religious order. Oscillating between social and biological deaths, bare life is deprivedof any political meaning orvalue. Essentially,it is a survival on thebrink of death, which, due to humiliation, hunger and disease is hardly self-conscious and barely remembered. Inhisanalysis, Agamben focuses on those prisoners of the Nazicamps who wereexhausted anddesperate to such anextent that they did not expresstheir pain, did not communicate with their peers, and did not tell them theirstories. In Auschwitz these people were, curiously, called Muselmann (Agamben 1995,1999). In the Soviet camps, they were called dokhodiagi ('the soon-to-be-dead') and fitili ('wicks'). Their bare life anddeath in the camps hadno valueor meaning. These victims were killed but they were not sacrificed. However, Agamben'snotion of sacrificeis challenging. It relies on the religiousconceptsof the ancientGreeks and Romans for whom the idea of human sacrifice was accessible; for modems, this is avery ambiguous concept.Insecularterms one couldspeculate that sacrifice requires acknowledgment from the public sphere. In other words, sacrificeis public and meaningfulto the public; killing is not. When the soon-to-be-dead were killed, murders wereroutinelyexecutedby guardsmenor fellow prisoners. More often, victims died of disease or starvation. With no public participation, life inthe campscouldbeonly killed, not sacrificed.In Agamben's words, 'the atrociousnews thatthe survivors carry from the camp totheland of human beings is precisely that it is possible to lose dignity and decencybeyond imagination, that there is stilllife in themost extreme degradation'(Agamben 1999: 69). The former is definitely true; as we will see, the Russianfilm-makersdo theirbest to show what goesbeyond imagination. However, if thelatter is also true, if there was 'still life' at this level of decay, a bare life canrebel. 3  In AleksandrProshkin's film TheCold Summer of l953IKholodnoe eto 53-ego (1987), the central character is an army captainwho, after manybattleswiththeenemy, finds himself in theGulag.In 1953, after Stalin's death, the former captain lives in administrative exile in a northern village, refusing to work and barely surviving on the leftovers that some locals give himout of pity. Everyone calls himby his nickname, Lusga; his actual name andhis past are irrelevant. Still alive, he is a typical soon-to-be-dead, exhausted,apathetic and silent. But when a gang of bandits (former prisonerswho left thecampsdue to the chaotic amnesty of 1953) enterthe village to rob and rapethe locals, Lusgaheroicallysaves the village. 4 The armed officials who were appointed to discipline the helpless Lusga and his peerssubmittothebandits. Finding himself ina Hobbesianstate of nature producedbythe random violence of bandits, Lusgaoccupies a position of sovereignty and restores civil order in the village. The 'soon-to-be-dead' is defined from the outside; however, it is morally wrong to acceptthis external definitionbecause it is imposed by the perpetrators. It also leads to misjudgement. Thevictims' ability to conceal their subjective lives under thepatheticmask of the soon-to-be-dead iscrucial for their survival.The heroic captainshows that the external definitions are wrong. Hewasjudged as a dying object ofpower;actually, he is the heroicsubject of his own life. This somersault is asimplausibleas itis moving. The lowest of the low becomes, even though for only a moment, the embodiment of power. In the course of the action, Lusga's fellow exile, atypical Soviet intelligent known as Kopalych, perishes inafight with the bandits. Theyalso kill Lusga'sbrief objectof infatuation, Shura. At theend of the film, the surviving,released andsoon-to-be-rehabilitated Lusga visits Kopalych's family in Moscow to tell themabout the death of their husband and father. Lusga learns that while Kopalych's wife mourns him, his sonhad betrayed his father. Now the son is struckby the idea that his father hadnot been 'guilty' becauseacceptingthisidea would result in an unbearable guilt. The last shots of the film show Lusga in Moscow,strolling the boulevards andmeeting his peers, the returnees. Lusga is bitter but complacent. His feelings about his broken life and lost friends donot ascend into anything reminiscent of AleksandrSolzhenitsyn's orPrimo Levi's hatred towardsperpetrators. Even though it is clear that the regime threw Lusga intothe camp in the first place, in the film he actually fights not with the regime but with the bandits,enemies of the regime who enjoy thesupport of the piti- ful leaders of the local soviet. Relying on the popular conventions of British and American spy films, The Cold Summer of 1953 presents acentralcharacter whodemonstrates perfectintegrity and is essentiallyforeign to his environment. But unlikeJamesBond,Lusga belongs to the same political community as the villag-ers andthe bandits. Their differences are presented as moral, not political. We can say withsomeconfidence that Lusga woulddisagreewithAgambenon two accounts. First, Lusga didmake sacrifices for the sake ofhis struggle. Lusga's friend and his love were such sacrifices, unintentional of course.They werelost in a battle that he could mournbut also be proud of. 'Hewaslost in action,' Lusga said about Kopalych. However,the very concept of sacrifice barely survives these examples. Second,Agambeninvests much effortin the discussion of the'symmetry'between homo sacer andthe sover- eign, who both live inthestate of exceptionfromlaw. But hedoes not dis-cuss the possible transformation of theformerinto the latter or anexchangebetweentheir respective positions. In Proshkin's fim, there is nosymmetry between the soon-to-be-dead Lusga andthose whopersonifythe Soviet regime inthe village. But in thestate of emergency that is depictedinthe film, The tale oF two turns 4. For an illuminating account of thehistoricalcontext, see Dobson (2006). 47  Alexander Etkind 5, In an official praise for the film, Aleksii II said:'People are tired of those films that spill blood and produce propaganda for hatred [...I Films tell us too little about positive things in life. ('Patriarkh 2009). itis Lusga who stops random violence and restores legal order. In themicro- politics ofthis story, the homo sacer becomes the sovereign of the domainthathe pacifies by killing his enemiesand sacrificing hisfriends. It is not quiteplausible that anexhausted, chronically underfedman could defeat a gang of professional bandits with his bare hands. However, the senseless suffering of Lusga, an officer of WorldWar II who was rewarded for his heroism on the battlefield withmany yearsin the camp,also tran- scends the limits of plausibility.His situation is incomprehensible, but weknow that it occurred on a mass scale. Along with a dynamic plot andthe excellentwork ofValerii Priemykhov who plays Lusga, the success of this film wassecured bythis clash betweenthefundamental improbability of the Gulag and the public knowledge of itshistoricalreality. We do not see the first turn, of a brave officer intotheGulag's soon-to-be-dead, but we know that it happened toLusga. In contrast, hissecond turn, from a victim into a hero, is developedingreatdetail. This transformation is the Gulagversion of old talesabout Aladdin, Brer Rabbit,Ivan the Fool, the Prince and the Pauper, which showthe magical ascendance of the lowest of the lowto the highest of thehigh.Anthropologistsandhistoriansinterpret such folk stories as mental'weapons of theweak', hidden transcripts that theoppressed com- pose todisavow theirdependenciesandtoproducemental drafts for future rebellions(Scott 1985; Levine 1993). However, weare notdealinghere withcamp folklore butwith a commercially successful product that reflects and defines popular ways of understanding andmourning the Soviet era, thepast as opposed to the future. ... NO SALVATION WITHOUT REPENTANCE Twentyyears laterandin a dramatically changed politicalcontext, Pavel Lungin's Island/Ostrov (2006) dealswith the Soviet memoryin a very differ- ent way. Island wasshotin Kem, which is mainly known as the collecting hub for thenearby Solovetskcamp, but onefinds in this film surprisingly few referencesto the Gulag,Stalinismor other recognizablefeatures of the Soviet period. The actionstarts with a war-time scenein 1942 andends in an Orthodoxmonastery in 1974. Unusual connoisseurssuch as Patriarch Aleksii II applaudedthe film. 5 Butcriticsalso attacked Island for suppressing histori- cal truth. Mark Lipovetsky (2007) notedthatthere were nomonasteries in northern Russia in the 1970s andthatthe characters and conflicts inthishis- torical film are conspicuouslyrelevanttoreligious debates in contemporary Russia.This is all true, but a deepertheme of the film has escaped the crit-ics of both flanks. This theme is the radical transformation of characters who change,in the course of the film, from one polar end of the human spectrumto theother. In 1942, the protagonist, Anatolii, appears asa patheticcoward, a sailor who,under torture,betrays his captainto a Nazi andthen kills thecaptain in exchange for his own life. Since the film beginsinthe familiar black-and-white idiom ofSovietmilitary movies,thisbetrayalprovokes a well-conditioned dis- gust.Jumping to 1974, we gradually recognize the same Anatolii as an ascetic, pious and funnyelder who works miracles, speaks truth to powerand gainsrespect and awe from hisfellow monksandthe larger community.Although in this film we watch a number of smaller wonders such as miraculous escapes, fortune-telling,healingbyprayer and exorcism, this character transformation is the most remarkable of the miracles.Both the script andthe director heavily 48
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