A Russian Insight on the Russian Tragedy

philippe de lara

4.11.2015

Philippe De Lara

You must rush at Andrei Zvyaguintsev films if you have not seen them yet, notably The Banishment and Leviathan. Zvyaguintsev is a towering artist, the beauty and the expressive force of his pictures are constantly staggering. Although often mute and elliptical, difficult to articulate, they convey the clearest understanding, exactly like music. Take for instance, in Leviathan, the excavators demolishing the hero’s house, iron faced cold dinosaurs of injustice. Like all great art, it goes beyond a single explicit message (in Leviathan, it would be the corruption of local politicians and Courts) and offers a deeper human significance. Any interpretation is then partial compared to the thick meaning of his films.

The more I penetrate Zvyaguintsev world, the more I perceive an underlying theme, rather a presence: void. Not a metaphysical, or religious emptiness, like in Bergman’s or Tarkovsky’s films, but an all human one, an emptiness I can’t help seeing as a mirror of the Russian society inwardly eaten up by the ghost of Soviet Union. It is not the silence of God but the lies of men that create emptiness. People in this ghostly world cannot escape misfortune because things do not happen as intended. The father in The Banishment believes he offers (or rather bargains) his forgiveness to his wife, but the deal leads to her death. Zvyaguintsev displays the pure mechanism of tragedy: intention deceived by fate, but fate is here specially crushing, as if nothing happened as intended, as if everything was fake. Everything is fake indeed, not because people are dishonest, even if many are corrupted, but because society as a whole is enmeshed in emptiness. Beyond corruption, beyond insecurity, the tragic bend of daily life is caused by emptiness. I understand this emptiness as the pervasive guilty conscience of post soviet society, which takes over after a criminal regime without coming to terms with its past.

This is not Zvyaguintsev explicit purpose, but I think one can trace back the kind of emptiness of ordinary life he tells about to the identity crisis of post soviet Russia, this hysterical mobilisation for beliefs no one can really believe. It seems that the louder they shout — we are the strongest, we are the righteous, we are the victims, we defend the rule of law, etc. — the more they secretly distrust the legitimacy and the possibility of success of what Putin’s Russia has to offer to the world. I still cannot fully understand how so many western leaders are enticed by his phony claims: how Christian conservatives can believe Putin is the true defender of traditional value? how can hard boiled politicians like Sarkozy and Fillon in France believe that this Russia is a wise and stable counterbalance to American and Chinese hegemony?, how decent people can give the least plausibility to the gross lies of Russian propaganda on Estonia threatening Russia and Ukraine slaughtering Russian civilians (civilians, not Russian soldiers since there is none in Ukraine!), how can anyone believe that Russia is playing with the West against Islamic terror in the Middle East? How can the ridiculous swagger of the Kremlin be worthy of the genuine Russian pride?

But the problem is not only that Russia makes unsustainable claims, on Crimea, on its justice, on its major role in the defence of Christian values, on its own economical and military power. The problem is that faith in these shameless lies has become mandatory in the public sphere. Although there is no more iron curtain, that is no more physical isolation of the Soviet empire from the West, Russian society has recreated the imaginary world of ideology, not in the Bolshevik mode of totalitarian religious fanaticism, not in the mode of post-totalitarian newspeak nobody believes in but everybody must pretend to, but in the neo totalitarian mode of mass media spin doctoring increased at a level unknown in pluralist countries, what I called elsewhere the combination of Goebbels and Berlusconi. There is a new kind of lonely crowd, atomized not by the fear of secret police and by isolation, but by being mesmerized by TV shows. Zvyaguintsev does not deal with this situation, but he makes explicit the destruction of normal life, of normal relationships involved by such a social and political background. Let me give another example of this emptiness: in the celebrated book by Svetlana Alexievich on the persistence of homo sovieticus, Time second hand, I have been struck not so much by the Dostoyevskian mood of the characters than by their loneliness. People are often interviewed among witnesses, family, friends, colleagues, but no one ever speaks to no one when people disagree, for instance pro and anti Stalin relatives. They don’t argue one with the other but go on soliloquizing.

Russian tragedy seems an unending nightmare. Yet Putin’s neo totalitarianism is fragile in a way Stalinism was not. Stalinism was a consistent imperial undertaking cast in a dreamlike ideology worshipped like a religion, Putinism is a fake and unconsistent imitation, a tentative dream of Great power cast in “Russian soul” cheap story telling. Zvyaguintsev’s films help us to understand the torments of the Russian soul and the evil power of emptiness.

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