“For Art to be profitable, it has to be on the same side as crime.”
Russkoe, a 2004 film directed by Aleksandr Veledinsky is based on the novels and stories of Eduard Limonov, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that the film is partly autobiographical. The film is set in 1959 and when the film begins it’s the October holidays, and everyone is celebrating. Everyone except Ed….
Ed (Andrey Chadov) is 16. He’s the only child of a policeman (Mikhail Efremov) and his wife (Yevdokiya Germanova) in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov. Kharkov is the sort of town in which the breaking of a shop window morphs into an intense search for the perpetrator. Although there’s a vivid street life among various outcasts and misfits, daily Soviet life is depicted as rather drab and unpleasant with everyone leading a hardscrabble existence. Aspects of Western culture peek through as desirable and unattainable (Elvis Presley, for example) to Ed’s crowd. Ed, who’s a would-be poet, runs with a marginal crowd and isn’t above using his poetry to distract victims for pickpocketing. In one scene, a woman covered with war medals screams that she’s been robbed by Ed’s friends, and she’s man-handled by the local police who are more interested in shutting her up than investigating her accusations.
When the film begins, Ed is infatutated by the perfect, unattainable beauty, Svetka (Olga Arntgolts). Sveta tells Ed “You are too poor for me,” and then Sveta hints that she may have sex with Ed if he takes her to a restaurant. Ed spends quite a bit of time and energy trying to get 200-300 roubles in order to give Sveta a night out. Unfortunately while Ed goes around hitting up everyone for a loan, they in turn hit him up for a drink instead. But after his futile quest for money ends badly (and he abandons a book of Blok poetry), he finds himself locked up in the Saburka insane asylum for a “puberty crisis.” And this is where the film settles in and becomes very interesting, dark, and humourous.
Although just 16, Ed is placed in the adult ward, in the so-called quiet room with four other prisoners. There’s Sasha (a WWII deserter) a man who continues to be there through influence, a psychopath, an intellectual, and Avaz (Aleksandr Robak), a chronic masturbator. While Ed imagines that his turn-around in the insane asylum will be fast, another inmate explains that Ed has a fat chance of being released since the fascist medical director specializes in suicide.
In pre-revolutionary Russia, prisons became the ‘universities’ for dissidents, and in Russkoe, the message seems to be that the insane asylum becomes Ed’s ‘university’. Locked up with the so-called insane, he learns to value his poetry and use it as a tool. He’s told that “all the greats wrote in jail,” and he discovers that Khelnikov and Vrubel were locked up in the same institution.
The characters in the insane asylum are locked up for various transgressions against Soviet society. A suicide case is supposed to be locked up for his own protection until the crisis is over. But in Ed’s case, he’s viewed as some sort of deviant. The film is rife with imagery of Soviet culture which largely focuses on telling people how to behave–one poster depicts a man saying ‘No’ to alcohol, another poster promotes breast health, and a poster inside the insane asylum lists various “Socialist Obligations.” There’s a dark humour to the appearance of this poster as the staff at the insane asylum–with very few exceptions play out their own fantasies and theories of life using the patients. The favoured punishment is to strap the patient to his bed and inject him with sulfur: “If you misbehave, you get sulfur. Takes you three days to get back.”
Perversions of power, the crushing of individualism and the control of behaviour appear throughout the film, and at one point a character discusses religion with Ed, asking: “Is god a kind of super KGB agent listening to all of us all the time?” Along with this view are crimes against the state and the subsequent punishment–with those in charge making all the decisions about what’s acceptable in society and what isn’t. Ed, after all, tried to destroy himself, and rather ineffectually at that. For this ‘crime,’ he’s viciously punished and almost destroyed by the very institution that is supposedly saving him from himself.
Clips from the film October by Sergei Eisenstein depict the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 and these scenes are recreated in parallel scenes of the residents of Kharkov storming the asylum. The message is that perhaps another revolution needs to take place.
Eduard Liminov is the leader and founder of the Nationalist Bolshevik Party (The Nazbols), and one scene depicts Ed as a middle-aged man, still in prison garb and the physical similarity to Limoniv is inescapable. Limonov was locked up in 2002 for weapons trafficking. In an early scene in the film, one of Ed’s friends rues that their Slav ancestors “didn’t fight to conquer hot countries.” Since one of The National Bolsheviks’ goals is to create one huge country which encompasses Russia and Europe, I wasn’t sure if this is a sly dig or just a way to show the germination of Limonov’s beliefs. I read some articles about Limonov (whose real name is Savenko, by the way). Some of the articles were patronizing, but that said, I don’t agree with Limonov’s disturbing politics at all. I did enjoy the film, though. I can find very little information about Russkoe, so if someone out there has more information, please leave a comment.