Films Perestroika Post-Soviet Russia

Marina Goldovskaya: Chronicler of the Post-Brezhnev Era

My post is about a film festival that was held on my campus on March 18. We screened three documentary films by documentary filmmaker Marina Goldovskaya. I emerged from the event, and also after reading her autobiography, convinced of the importance of the documentary in understanding recent Russian history.

Goldovskaya — who was at the event and commented on the creation of her films — has a unique talent for finding subjects. Her subjects are ideal microcosms that provide a window into larger issues and themes. She adds to that talent an uncanny ability to draw her interviewees out on camera. She rejects the term “interview”and refers to her subjects as “characters.” She calls her interactions with the protagonists of her film “conversations.” Goldovskaya somehow manages to maintain an unobtrusive presence in her films. The setting for her conversations is often the apartment kitchen. She films her subjects as they chop onions, slice bread, and open their souls, as Russian so often do, around the cramped but cozy kitchen table. Her 1993 film (The House with Knights, 58 minutes) explored a famous house on the Moscow Arbat. It was so named because of the distinctive statues of knights in niches outside the grand structure. Built in the early 1900s as an apartment building for the rich and privileged, it was parceled into communal apartments after 1917. Goldovskaya recounts the tragic story of the Stalin years through interviews with the house’s residents (who were evicted from the house in the 1970s, just as the rich had been evicted in 1917, when it was converted into government office space). The subjects convey the uniqueness of communal apartment living, when everyone knew everyone else’s business (and often passed it along to the NKVD informants/residents, who are also interviewed in the film). While capturing the unique ethos of a civilization built around communal apartment living (family dramas played out for all to see and comment on), Goldovskaya also tells the story of the Arbat itself. She documents the creation, inharmoniously, of a new Arbat street alongside the old one. The film would make a nice classroom complement to Stephen Bittner’s wonderful book on the Arbat (The Many Lives of Khrushchev’s Thaw: Experience and Memory in Moscow’s Arbat).

The March 18 film festival featured three more of Goldovskaya’s films, one of which I discussed in a previous post. The other two films concern Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya, the crusading Russian journalist, opponent of the war in Chechnia, and human rights activist who was shot and killed at the age of 48 on October 7, 2006. After the assassination, which will probably never be solved, Putin derisively dismissed her contributions to Russia as “insignificant.” The first and shorter film from 1991 was titled A Taste of Freedom. It examines the heady atmosphere at the very end of the Soviet Union through the prism of Anna Politkovskaya and her husband Alexander — who at the time rose to prominence as a new-style journalist produced by Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost’. Indeed, he was far more famous than his wife who then played the role (reluctantly) as homemaker and mother, cooking borshcht and changing diapers while her husband was away on assignment or out drinking with colleagues. As Goldovskaya noted at the festival, she set out to focus on on the husband but soon realized that Anna was a far more interesting subject — an intuition validated by the rapidly declining fortunes of the husband. Along the way, the filmmaker and Politkovskaya (who divorced her husband) developed a fast friendship. Goldovskaya filmed her incessantly, following Politkovskaya’s journey from frustrated housewife to crusading journalist and human rights activist in the Putin era. She also managed to film the ex-husband, who was by turns bitter and cynical about the possibilities for positive change in Russia — such a stark contrast to his youthful idealism in the days of Perestroika.

After Politkovskaya’s death Goldovskaya began working on an update to her earlier film. She called the sequel A Bitter Taste of Freedom (2011, 88 minutes). It is a stunning accomplishment, a feature length documentary film that is every bit as gripping and moving as any Hollywood drama. Through the triumphs and tragedies of Politkovskaya’s life the filmmaker has managed to convey the spirit and times of the Putin era. The film also has much to say about the role of women in modern Russian society — and about the chauvinistic attitudes of the many male journalists who managed or knew Politkovskaya (her supposedly emotional, subjective, hysterical, and irrational style of covering the Chechen war).

Goldovskaya’s films are gems. She has spent much of the last 20 years in the United States, teaching film at UCLA. But she has returned frequently to Russia for her film projects. Her generosity and humanity come through both in person and in her film making, which provides an invaluable resource for understanding the last 20 years of Russian history.

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