Post-Soviet, Yet Not Post-Irony

During the Stalin era in the USSR , systematic purges of thinkers and artists resulted in mass terror among these groups. By the late 1940s, the message for creatives from the regime was clear: comply, or risk your life. The official artistic doctrine was Soviet Realism, consisting of idealized depictions of the lives of typical Soviet workers. After Brezhnev’s death, the period of Glastnost began, which signaled an “opening” of the harsh constraints of the state. This was an interesting, exploratory period for Soviet artists, as they discovered exactly what they could get away with under the new order. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, questions about how to artistically handle the legacy of the USSR arose. Instead of completely constructing a new “school” of art, post-Soviet creatives reached into the Soviet pass to construct their work. By ironically adding to and copying some of the Soviet Realist themes from the USSR, artists were able to make sharp commentary on the regime, both before and after its existence.

Irony is present in much late and post-Soviet art, especially art that recalls Socialist Realism and the realities of living in the Soviet State. In the SOTS-art (Russian pop art) school of painters, parody of Socialist Realism themes is a central tenant. Often, the prescribed themes behind a picture or work are exaggerated to an ironic degree, thus calling attention the the absurdity of the vast amount of sincere state propaganda preceding it. For example, in Komar and Melamid’s painting The Origin of Socialist Realism, complete irony interrupts a classic, Socialist Realist painting of Stalin. Stalin sits bolt upright in a chair, the picture of firm, guiding leadership. A muse has come to offer her services to him. He looks on without paying any attention to the muse. The title itself is ironic: The Origin of Socialist Realism may bring to mind a stolid, bad creation myth, but that could not resemble less of the truth. In reality, Stalin is gazing ahead, “creating” Socialist Realism, while the muse is attempting to whisper in his ear, to no avail. The inherently hilarious juxtaposition of the painting is evident. Socialist Realism could not possibly have been created by one of the least Socialist and Real figures around: a muse depicted artistically in a classical style.

The movie Window to Paris, created two years after the USSR’s collapse, also contains elements of irony that seek to push back against the tragedies of the past decades, and create a hopeful brand of art for the future. Although it an essential part of the movie, and an understandable one at that, the way in which Nikolai convinces the children to return to Russia is inherently unusual. Imploring them back into the state so many have been trapped in for so long is tragic, as they could feasibly complete their educations in France and return to Russia later. As one little boy says “Our parents will be happy when we stay”. And what parent wouldn’t want the brightest future for their children. The last irony of Window to Paris is exactly this. It is a borderline Socialist Realist value to place the future of one’s children behind the good of the state, yet this somehow prevails in this post-Soviet film.

Komar and Melamid

What happens to a symbol when it is forcefully detached from its original meaning? Does it float off into semiotic oblivion, subordinated to whatever new context it has been placed in? Does it retain any of its previous separate power?

Komar and Melamid’s work is interesting on a few levels. The socio-political satire is, of course, biting and inventive: The Origin of Socialist Realism depicts Stalin, statuesque and incongruous in a poorly-lit semi-classical setting, visited by the Muse. Stalin and the Muses shows Stalin accepting a book from the Muses, radiating a dark light, in front of his desk (yet is it ‘his’? Once more, he is a statue). In Lenin Lived, Lives, and Will Live, the revolutionary may as well be some slain Danaan, weeped for by a shrouded women. These statements are clever, but do they move?

SOTS Art provides an interesting counterpart to Western pop art: the ubiquitous images of consumerism replaced with the ubiquitous images of totalitarianism. The Campbell’s Soup Can, however, is really only interesting because it has been placed into the new context (Warhol’s pop art). There it is!, we say- the things we buy, speaking back to us in technicolor.

A dictator speaks back a little louder. But does he always say the same thing? When Stalin is collaged into one of Komar and Melamid’s works, is he still ‘Stalin’? After we appreciate the parody, the ‘artistic statement,’ the polemic on socialist realism, does his image still conjure terror, awe, love, confusion? (I speak here about a Russian audience-the image of the dictator, any dictator, conjures up for most American students only a sort of amused, negative-reverent ‘oh yes, him.’ How many of us have seen this blog?

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes wrote that

When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not (i)emerge(i), do not (i)leave(i): they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies.”

These images of Stalin (and Lenin) are not photographs, but they are ‘photographic’- they pin down the ‘man’ (made larger than life) in time and space. Work like Komar and Melamid’s unfastens the image from propagandic contexts, but, to me, it seems that Stalin doesn’t really stop being Stalin, that is to say, the parody might be, inadvertently, a parody of itself too. The Archetypal Dictator is made ridiculous, yet he is still present, a ‘Big Other’ poked at but looking back mutely, fixedly. In her work Second-Hand Time, Svetlana Alekseevich interviews a young man who tells an archetypal story about Stalin: at his dacha, a portrait of him hung. Stalin would point to the picture, addressing his children: “That is Stalin.” Then to himself – “This is not Stalin.” We must ask ourselves: are the re-contextualized figures in Komar and Melamid’s “Nostalgic Socialist Realism” still ‘themselves’?


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The mysterious Russian soul

A most interesting part of the film “Window to Paris” was the loyalty to Russia that Nikolai Nikolayevich and his neighbors maintained.
His neighbor is particularly vehement, despite acknowledging that life in Paris seems much better: “We held off the Tartar-Mongols for 200 years while they evolved!” “They got fat at our expense!” Nikolai, originally intending to stay, has a nightmare of becoming destitute if he stays in Paris. In Russia, in the school who insisted that they had no need of an aesthetics teacher, the students demand that he return. It turns out that Nikolai and his music are valued in his native land. He even tries to convince the students at the end to return to Russia, in a rare sort of patriotism. He acknowledges that life in Russia, especially at that time, is difficult for everyone. But it is their country and they should stay and work to make it better. This seems like an unusual, sincere patriotism; none of them try to pretend that life in Russia is easy, or even better than in France. But for some reason, they still love their own troubled country.

Window to the West

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the walls preventing Russians to leave the country also collapsed, making the West more accessible than it ever was before for a multiple generations. This is represented in Window to Paris, by a magical window allowing Russian inhabitants of an apartment to travel to Paris for a limited amount of time. This is an ingenious device to analyze the modern situation as well as providing a stark contrast between the two countries.

As one would expect, people are much better off in the West and Kolya’s friends are able to make a lot of money when they are able to harness their entrepreneurial skills in Paris. Things are also visually more appealing in the West and the political atmosphere is peaceful. But the film also manages to satirize the capitalism of the West in two ways. The first being the stinginess of people in capitalist societies. They have an excess of products (while the Russians have barely enough to survive), but will waste it if they are not paid for in their full price. The other being this kind of moral decay that comes with excess and too much freedom. This is depicted in the “prestigious” society where they play the great classics but without pants to a nude audience; implying the purity of the classics are being tarnished because of their use in orgies.

This all is contrasted to the moment when the French woman is trapped on the other side of the window and bares witness to the vastly different living conditions in Russia. The beauty and peace you found in Paris is gone, it’s cold, the streets are dirty, there’s political turmoil, and she’s taken advantage of and robbed. Understandably, she wants to get out as soon as possible, she’s a wreck in prison by the end of her experience there. Despite this however, there is something in the Russian adults that tie them to their motherland that prevents them from completing emigrating to France, despite their monetary success.

The most touching scene is when Kolya is talking to the children who have briefly tasted the better life in Paris and want to stay here and leave everything in Russia behind. They argue that with all the opportunity in the West, they will be able to better provide for their families here than in the West. And this is representative of the younger generations who started to leave the country to find better lives in the West in the real world. And Kolya has to tell them that they are the one’s that can make Russia a better place to live in, they are literally the future of the country and they can bring about positive change.

The ending however is Kolya suspecting that there is another window to the West behind this massive wall is trying to break the wall down. This leaves me to conclude that although one must be critical of the West in some aspects, it is in the country’s best interest to change itself as to be more like the West, and be prosperous and peaceful.

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist

Amidst Friday’s grab-bag of cultural material, the Pussy Riot video stood out the most to me, especially since it is so contemporary. By combining anti-Putin, LGBT, and feminist sentiments, the band was arrested outside of a church for asserting their beliefs.

I think what interested me most is that this protest highlights the tyranny of Russia for certain people that still exists today. In this class, we have read many texts and seen films depicting the struggles people have faced in exile, indoctrination, censorship, and countless other contentions. However, this riot is bold and courageous; though there is something deeply upsetting about seeing people having to go to extremes for equality (whether that be for women, queer people, etc.). Invoking God and, interestingly, the Virgin Mary as an icon for women, a savior, an insider, Pussy Riot dares to cause a storm in a country still struggling.

I found the parallel between Pussy Riot and the New Wave art, namely Chernyshev’s History of a Love, fascinating. Feminism in the culture we have studied has been present, but preliminary. This painting struck me. As Pussy Riot protested, Chernyshev painted a stark comparison, with a past female,  idealized, glowing, perky… With a modern woman posing next to an antiquated portrait, emotions rise — do you love her for being different? For being herself? Or do you hate her for being different?


The second half of the painting is strange and alarming, (and I could be totally wrong), but demonstrated to me the desire to pick and choose the parts society maintains of a woman.

The Russian Soul: Internal vs. External Frameworks

Two post-soviet retrospective works present a clash between internal and external perspectives. In “The Life and Adventures of Shed Number XII,” Victor Pelevin presents a life form whose thoughts and aspirations are trapped inside it’s external frame; correspondingly, its aspirations are held in check by its external environment, at least temporarily. In “Night,” Tatyana Tolstaya presents a middle-aged retarded man who feels that he lives a double life inside and outside of his own head. This tension perhaps symbolizes the fractured nature of the Russian spirit as the Glasnost era came and went; the external framework of Russia lacked certainty or stability, yet there was newfound hope and eagerness for the potential future.

“The Life and Adventures of Shed Number XII” presents this idea in a very abstract and deconstructionist form. While the garage, as well as Numbers 13 and 14, try to convince Shed Number XII of its utilitarian value, hardened by reality, Shed Number XII looks inward for its hopes. Seeing a bike’s freedom and ability to travel, Shed Number XII aspires to take such a mobile form. Ultimately, this transformation for the sake of liberation requires the destruction of external structure. Much like dismantling of the Soviet Union, the fire that burns the sheds rids a restrictive structure that holds an expressive longing in check. The result may be a make-shift bicycle or a tumultuous Gorbachev era and transition to capitalism, but the potential to reach new heights has been set free.

“Night” focuses on a much more human and personal depiction of this conflict between internal and external purpose. Tolstaya writes that “Alexsei Petrovich has his world, the real one, in his head. There everything is possible. And this one, the outer one, is wicked and wrong.” Although Alexsei Petrovich and his mother depict vulnerability in the midst of traumatic transformation, the focus on Alexsei’s internal being marks a shift from societal roles to the consciousness of the individual. In his own world which stems from his internal individuality, Alexsei can envision himself a great writer. When he ventures into the outside world, however, he is lost. The external world still cannot hold his adventurous spirit. He can aspire, yet can’t yet see, suggesting that the new and hopeful day of Russian liberation is yet to come and still lies outside of his (and the mysterious Russian soul’s) grasp. Alexsei seems to realize this as he writes down his “newly found truth: Night. Night. Night…”

Post Soviet Retrospectives: the Stories of a Shed and a Young Boy

A simple shed narrates Pelevin’s “The Life and Adventures of Shed XII”, while the young child Alexei Petrovich narrates Tolstaya’s “Night”. Both authors chose to establish narrators as characters with little to no social or political power and little sense of the political happenings of the time. Both the shed and Petrovich are consumed by their own day to problems and unaware of other happenings and bigger issues in the time and place that they occupy.


The shed says: “The night after the painting (when he had been given his Roman numeral, his name—the other sheds around him all had ordinary numbers), he held up his tar-papered roof to the moon as he dried. ‘Where am I?’ he thought. ‘Who am I?’” (48). He is one of many, lacking individuality and a name and an identity, instead merely sporting a roman numeral. He doesn’t know who he is or where he is. He feels different and distinct from the sheds around him yet still grasps wildly for interaction.


The child hold his mother in incredibly high regard: “Oh, Mommy, guiding star! You’re pure gold! You’ll take care of everything, wise woman, you’ll untangle all the knots! You knock down all the dark corners, all the labyrinths of the incomprehensible, impassable world with your mighty arm; you sweep away all the barriers—now the ground is flat and level. Be bold, take another step! But farther on—there are more wind fallen trees” (!89). He lacks independence because she “take[s] care of everything” and clears the obstacles on the path he is supposed to walk. She encourages him and points him in the proper direction and warns him of the dangers of the outside world–“more wind fallen trees”, but doesn’t grant him freedom.


Both of these narrators offer commentary as Post-Soviet retrospectives, and share the sentiment of being lost and confused and fairly insignificant. By choosing such dependent narrators, Pelevin and Tolstaya express the feeling of powerlessness, but also a failure to formally acknowledge that powerlessness, a complex typical of that zeitgeist.

Moscow, the City of Loneliness

Moscow is not Paris, it is not the city of love, on the contrary it seems to be depicted as a city where no one interacts with one another, and no one falls in love anymore. This is quite surprising considering the fact that you would assume under a communist regime, where the group and community is prioritized, members of the community would mingle more and meet one another. The opposite, according to the film and animated short, however, has occurred. What I find extraordinary about the Moscow presented in the film Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, is the place of women in society. There is this newfound upward mobility where women are breaking out of their traditional role as in the domestic spheres, and instead are found everywhere in public. Women are the ones taking advantage of what the city has to offer in terms of amusement, culture, as well as oppurtunity. It comes to a point where women can have a higher ranking in society than man and earn more money. This feminine independence was first seen in Cement, and the same problem remains: men aren’t man enough to handle this shifting society. This however is not the only problem presented in the film concerning men however, it is also challenging to find a decent bachelor. Men are single because they are not being industrious or ambitious, instead they are drinking themselves away and shunning the public sphere, men are failing where women are thriving. And this is a phenomenon left unexplained by the movie, what is happening to the Russian men?

What I found really intriguing was the film’s dialectic concerning the woman role in this new society. The main dilemma being this: the film presents this main character, Katarina, a single mother (because men are dumb and irresponsable), who goes above and beyond, and has achieved a decently high rank in society, raking in a respectable income, that, by the end of the movie, settles with this man that has a old-fashioned and traditional outlook of women and their role in society (who hasn’t achieved half as much as Katarina). If this was Cement, she would never have settled. It was frustrating and not satisfying to what Katarina, who has endured so many hardships to prove her worth, to conform to this patriarchal hierarchy that places her in a traditional gender role that does not leave the domestic space. How can we reconcile these two opposing ideas? Especially when the ending is presented as a happy one, where Georg is the man she has been looking for? Does this undo all the previous narrative, that I perceived as having a certain feminist agenda? Is this movie trying to say that women need husbands to fully find their place in society and are incomplete without him, even if he’s not as accomplished?

Deception Takes Its Toll

In Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, nothing good comes from deception. Throughout the movie, Katerina, Lyudmila, and Antonina devise lies or hold back truths, yet all of these yield negative results: why do they do this? Although the initial setting and home of the women is a worker’s dormitory, these women stand out because they take on roles that seem ahead of their time; they are liberated much more so than many women were at the time of the film’s setting in 1958. The elusiveness of the truth, although it is frustratingly largely self-imposed, serves as a barrier to their freedoms in this film both from the situations developing as a result of the dinner party and in Katerina’s relationship with Gosha 20 years later.

In hopes of finding proper men to court and  brighter futures, Lyudmila convinces Katerina to throw a dinner party wherein the ladies pretend to be daughters of Katherine’s professor uncle. Unfortunately, this deception ultimately leads to turmoil for both Lyudmila and Katerina. Lyudmila develops a relationship with the hockey star, Sergei (who stays with her even after learning of her true identity) as a result of the dinner party, yet he turns to alcoholism later and becomes a nuisance for her even after they have divorced. Katerina suffers too, as she meets Rudolph, who leaves her after impregnating her and learning that she has lied to him. Antonina is the only character to develop a long, stable, healthy relationship, which arose from authentically before the dinner-party.

Despite all these negative results, all three women appear to find professional success and remain a striking level of independence given traditional Russian values. Katerina becomes a factory manager, yet when she meets Gosha and learns of his traditional values, she neglects to tell him of her status. This sharp juxtaposition between female strength and family deference both serves as the conflict for the second half of the movie and provides the viewer with uncertainty at the conclusion of the movie. Are Katerina and Gosha really a good match for one another? Although Lyudmila reminds Katerina that “Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears,” while Katerina is crying because of Gosha’s disappearance, Katerina gives in because of her dependence on a glimmer of happiness that has entered her life after so many years of fierce independence on her part. If nothing else, the film perhaps suggests that such an aversion to tears is unsustainable. Where this leaves Katerina as a symbol of Russian womanhood, however, remains unclear.

Moscow May Not Believe in Tears, but it Believes in…

Moscow believes in the Soviet ideal, as proven time and again in Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears. Throughout Vladimir Menshov’s award-winning 1980 film, subtle returns to the ideal citizens depicted in early Socialist Realism are interspersed with more modern ideas of gender roles. Without knowledge of Menshov’s politics, it seems as if the movie serves two purposes: grounding the viewer within their preordained role in society, and serving as a vehicle for the Soviet woman to re-affirm her stake, aided by the introduction of a more “modern” (1970s/80s) role for women. This may have been a vitally important task: citizens of the USSR were restless, just 11 years before the fall of the Soviet Union, and any chance to modernize and re-evaluate staid traditional policies might have pacified the people for some much-needed time. With this admission though, and even with the strong female presence found in the film, state ideology is never questioned or contorted beyond recognition. Moscow is a Soviet film at heart, with the intent of bringing culture back into a semi (and modernized) Soviet Realist style.

Moscow Does Not Believe in Tear is a story of three women at its core, and their experiences and trials throughout the film highlight the main themes applied by the writer and director. All migrants from the countryside, or “boonies” as is stated in the film, the women have extremely different mindsets and philosophies. I found region and education to be closely linked, heavily weighted factors throughout the film. Although studying to further their education, the women are all markedly different from the majority of true “Muscovites” that feature in the film. This may be purely a result of class (The Worker’s Dormitory they reside in versus the luxurious apartments of the elites), but I believe education is also a vital piece. The men that Liudmila, and to a lesser extent Katya, are interested in wooing are all have a distinctly academic and educated flavor, with a few notable exceptions. The opening scene is particularly indicative of the role Liudmila will play in the movie: she disparages the country boy, and worker, Nikolai. This will come back to haunt her, as her own husband (Sergei), a Muscovite hockey player, will descend into alcoholism, and the marriage will end tragically. Katya also suffers for adopting a toxic mindset. In her focus on education, she too bears a faint trace of the bourgeois, as does Liudmila’s taste in men. Her seeming acceptance of education and the Muscovite high life reaches its climax at her willingness to go along with Liudmila’s dinner party, which proves to be a vessel to meet eligible bachelors of a higher class. Katya pays for this violation by ending up a single mother. The good-for-nothing TV host father of her child and his clearly bourgeois family elites wants nothing to do with her or her daughter as soon as her ruse has been revealed. When shown that Katya is a member of the true favored Soviet Class (she is of rural origins, and a factory worker) they immediately treat her with disdain. In this way Katya plays a typical Soviet Worker Woman, and pays for her infidelity to the ideology dearly. She only reaches peace and happiness with the vaguely impoverished Gosha, himself a worker.

Unlike her roommates, Tonya has the “right” idea about men from the beginning of the movie. She is engaged in a constant, unending relationship with a fellow rural worker, which ends in as blissfully as it began. She makes no attempt to join in dinner-party like shenanigans, content to hold-true to a Soviet Realist ideal by marrying her fellow worker, and a typical Soviet man. With this, we can see the two distinct pathways taken by the women of Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears. In the eyes of the regime, the two women that ultimately pay during the movie chose the wrong path: pursuit of men of a higher, merit-less class, driven in part by slightly frivolous education. We see the opposite as well: ultimate obedience, in love and in life, to the collective national experiment of a working man’s state. The movie’s forward-thinking idea of gender dynamics can be encapsulated with one idea. The three women’s ability to choose between different classes and types of men, and to take the paths described above, creates a compelling film that counts a female audience as perhaps its largest stakeholder. With any luck, this was not simply a byproduct of a political agenda. We can only hope it was a sincere leap in the right direction, and a positive influence for Soviet and global cinema in the years to come.