My university (California State University, Long Beach) is screening a number of documentary films about Russia this semester, including three films from the esteemed documentary film maker Marina Goldovskaya: A Taste of Freedom (1991, 46 min.), A Bitter Taste of Freedom (2011, 88 min.), and Three Songs About Motherland (2009, 39 min.) Goldovskaya will be attending the event on this March 18 — and I will be participating in a panel discussion along with a number of other professors. So if you are in the LA area please do attend. Venue and details about this and other events can be found here: http://bwordproject.org/
Here is my review of one of the films, Three songs About Motherland. I have found it especially valuable for the classroom because of its brevity and neat division into three compelling stories.
For every claim about Russian society or the Russian character, one can always find a counter example in this vast land that spans 9 time zones and one-eighth of the earth’s land surface. Marina Goldovskaya’s 2009 documentary “Three Songs about Motherland” attempts to convey the paradoxical and complex state of Russia in the Putin era. It provides a rich, contradictory, and panoramic view of Russian society in the first decade of the 21st century—in just 39 minutes. This may be the best short documentary about contemporary Russia; it is to be savored like one of those delicate Russian pancakes filled with sour cream and beluga caviar.
The film contains three segments, each about a different Russian city. There is a city of dreams, a city of hope, and a city of tears. All three display the dramatic clash between the Soviet legacy and the frustrations, corruption, limitations, and possibilities of post-communist Russia.
In Moscow, the “city of tears,” Goldovskaya focuses on the story of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Politkovskaya’s fearless accounts of Russian atrocities in the break-away region of Chechnya in late 20th and early 21st century earned her the enmity of the Putin government, which many believe had a hand in her murder on October 6, 2006. The second venue is Komsomolsk-on-Amur, the “city of dreams,” a product of the Stalinist industrialization drive of the 1930s situated in the Far East. A closed industrial city in Soviet times focusing on defense and heavy industry, Kosomolsk-on-Amur was built, in part, by idealistic members of the Komsomol, the communist youth organization. It is now a monument to a failed dream. Finally, Goldovskaya turns her lens to the city of hope, the Siberian oil boom town of Khanty-Mansijsk, which seems to share more in common with Houston, Texas, than with the other two cities. The section on Kosomolsk-on-Amur focuses on interviews with elderly people who originally came to build the city as idealistic volunteers in the 1930s. While the elderly subjects live almost entirely on the memory of their youth, they remember very different pasts. Stalin is the dividing line in those diverging memories. Some condemn the dictator as a monster and evil incarnate. He was the one who destroyed their city of dreams. Yet others praise Stalin as a God. He saved the world from fascism and from the blood-sucking American capitalists and their nuclear bombs. In their view, it was not Stalin but Gorbachev who destroyed their dream. In either case, the city of dreams is no longer a place with a present or future, but a memory that belongs to the past.
The Moscow section focuses less on the collapse of the Soviet dream than on the collapse of the dream that followed it: the hope for a democratic and free Russia. The tears are for the democratic revolution of the 1990s that fizzled and died—just like the communist revolution before it. The film tells that story through clips of interviews with Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading journalist who uncovered corruption and human rights abuses in the Yeltsin and Putin era—and who refused to shut up or leave the country, even though it was clear to everyone that sooner or later she would be murdered if she didn’t stop. “It’s pointless to fight,” said the mother of Politkovskaya’s ex-husband, echoing a point of view that seems to have become a consensus in the city of tears. The city of tears, like the city of dreams, is a place with no hope for the future.
The exception to this story is the “city of hope,” Khanty-Mansijsk, the last of the three segments. The city has something almost unimaginable in Russia: good roads. This oil boom town oozes wealth and optimism. Residents drive modern cars across modern bridges and down modern thoroughfares on their way to modern casinos, cafes, restaurants, ski slopes (with artificial snow), horse stables, movie houses, and night clubs. What a contrast to the other two cities! The people of Khanty-Mansijsk seem to lead a fairy-tale existence in a proverbial land of milk and honey—courtesy of oil and natural gas. One proud resident proclaims to the camera that young people in the city of hope are getting married and having children, the most tangible expression of an attitude of hope about the future visibly lacking elsewhere.
Each city contains bits and pieces of the other two. There is some hope in Moscow, though not a lot. There are nostalgic communist dreamers in Khanty-Mansijsk, though not many. There are some capitalist go-getters in Komsomolsk-na-Amur, although most have left for places like Khanty-Mansijsk or Moscow.
But most of all it is oil that links the fate of all three cities. Oil fuels the fantastic wealth and opportunity of Khanty-Mansijsk. It is the engine that drives wealth and corruption in the capital of Moscow—as well as the bloody and brutal struggle for control over Chechnya (which is blessed and cursed with oil). Anna Politkovskaya was murdered when she tried to tell this truth. Finally, Komsomolsk-on-Amur has no oil. It must therefore live on dreams of the communist past rather than on hopes tied to the extraction and sale of black gold.
Russia, it seems, would be just fine if everyone would follow the example of Khanty-Mansijsk. Problem is, there is not enough oil to go around and those who control it have little desire to share the wealth. When the oil runs out, as it will, the city of hope may turn into a fourth type of Russian town: the city of capitalist delusion.