The Bizarre Soviet Movie That Predicted Putinism

With a dejected expression of existential despair, Varakin pleads that he needs solely to return house.

“You fail to appreciate the seriousness of the Nikolayev case,” comes the reply, after which the prosecutor provides, ominously, “as it affects the interests of the State.”

At that time, the prosecutor pulls up a chair and delivers to Varakin maybe essentially the most succinct articulation of Russkii mir statism, through which Russian society is to serve the wants of the state, quite than the opposite approach round.

“Since the times of the Tatar-Mongolian invasion, the main idea uniting us—which inspired generations of our forefathers — is the idea of statehood,” he proclaims. “A great and mighty state is the ideal for which the Russian is willing to suffer, to bear any deprivation. Ready — if need be — to give his life.”

Noting Varakin’s silence, the prosecutor continues:

“This is an irrational idea. It is not the pragmatic European striving to extract the maximum of personal profit. It is the idea of the great Russian spirit, of which your own individuality, and mine, is only a small subordinate part, but which repays us a hundred times over. This feeling of belonging to a great organism inspires our spirits with a feeling of strength and immortality. The West has always striven to discredit our idea of statehood. But the greatest danger lies not in the West, but in ourselves. We grasp at all these incessant and fashionable Western ideas, seduced by their obvious rationality and practicality, not realizing that just these qualities give them a fatal power over us.”

Varakin says nothing. “But never mind,” the prosecutor continues.

“In the end our own idea always emerges victorious. Look, all of our revolutions have finally led not to the destruction, but to the strengthening and reinforcement of the State. They always will. But not many people realize that the present moment is one of the most critical in our entire history. And the case of the chef Nikolayev — which appears so trivial at first glance — has a profound significance.”

“So… there’s no way you can leave town.”

Defeated, Varakin understands that struggling towards the official narrative is futile. Any hope of contentedness can come solely from subordination to the state-sanctioned different actuality. And as he does so — and begrudgingly acquiesces to the position of the slain chef’s son — he’s fêted as a hero by the residents of this bizarro City Zero.

Varakin’s resignation undoubtedly feels acquainted to many voters of up to date Russia, particularly following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with its accompanying clampdowns on free expression towards anybody questioning Russia’s “special military operation.” For independent-minded journalists, activists, and even oligarchic elites, the one technique of political survival is both to subordinate oneself to the surreality of Putin’s Russkii mir, or to depart it; and it’s getting increasingly difficult to flee it, very similar to the lure of City Zero.

The film concludes with the townspeople accompanying Varakin on a midnight go to to the city’s storied 1,000-year-old oak tree. It was mentioned that Grand Prince Dmitrii Donskoi and Ivan the Terrible each took limbs from the oak, and every in flip turned Russia’s ruler. But now the tree of energy was now lifeless and rotting. While the townspeople preoccupied themselves by gathering its limbs as souvenirs of the facility that when was, Varakin makes a break for it, operating off by means of the darkish wilderness. Approaching a riverbank, he finds a ship with no oars. As daybreak breaks, he casts himself afloat into the vast, foggy river, adrift and powerless.

Does he ever make it again to the actual world? Will Russia? The film gives no hints.

While the fates of Varakin and up to date Russia are unknowable, with the passage of time, it’s curious to see what has develop into of the primary figures within the film.

Varakin’s character was performed by actor Leonid Filatov, whose weary blue eyes and sympathetic manners belied Varakin’s everlasting torment. Sadly, he died of pneumonia in 2003 on the age of 56.

The prosecutor was performed by acclaimed Soviet movie director Vladimir Menshov, whose “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tearsgained the 1981 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. But in his later years, his private politics turned nearly indistinguishable from the position he performed as City Zero’s prosecutor, particularly concerning his fealty to Russkii mir. Following Putin’s occupation of Crimea in 2014, Menshov declared the annexation “a supernatural event” which not solely demonstrated the “vitality” of Russia as a novel civilization, however offered “proof of the existence of a quintessential Russian God” which might ship salvation to Russia after years of being led astray by the individualistic, money-grubbing West. Not lengthy after, Menshov could be blacklisted in Ukraine, whereas Putin would award Menshov the 2nd Degree Order for “Merit to the Fatherland.” Menshov died in July 2021 from Covid-19.

Yet maybe most annoying of all has been the evolution of the person who co-wrote and directed City Zero, Karen Shakhnazarov. In the heady Russia of the Nineties, Shakhnazarov was appointed director common of Mosfilm studios, and in 2011, was instrumental in importing the entire Mosfilm catalogue of movies to YouTube — together with City Zero — the place they are often seen wherever totally free, full with subtitles.

In latest years, Shakhnazarov has develop into a pivotal proponent of Putin’s Russkii mir within the realm of cultural politics. Putin has adorned him with quite a few state awards, together with the 4th Degree Order “For Merit to the Fatherland” (2012) and the Order of Alexander Nevsky (2018). He has taken an energetic position in Kremlin politics and Putin’s United Russia occasion, even heading an official working group to amend Russia’s structure.

More importantly, he has develop into one of the vital outspoken public supporters of Putin’s neo-imperial invasionof Ukraine, which he blames the United States for instigating. He seems repeatedly on essentially the most broadly watched and bombastic mouthpiece of Putin’s propaganda, Vladimir Solovyov’s nightly commentary program on Russian state tv. To rapt audiences, Shakhnazarov has spoken glowingly of Putin’s re-establishment of Russia as a great civilizational empire, and warned that “unpatriotic” home opponents uncomfortable with brandishing the letter Z — an emblem of the “special military operation” in Ukraine — will face “concentration camps, re-education, and sterilization. It is all very serious.”

While he later claimed that his concentration-camp feedback had been taken out of context, he then reappeared on Solovyov’s propaganda present to proclaim that—ought to Russia fail in its nice and historic mission to reconquer Ukraine—it is the West that will have concentration camps ready, and can ship all Russians there with out mercy.

Of course — right here in the actual world — such hyperbole appears unimaginable, nearly laughably so. But if Putin’s resolution to invade Ukraine has taught us something, it’s that we make gentle of the Kremlin’s alternate-reality echo chamber at our personal peril. When Russia’s godfather of film fantasy applies his strategies to a complete nation, it ought to command our consideration.
Even as many outsiders ascribe to Putin this curious worldview that has enabled the monstrousness unleashed on Ukraine, City Zero underscores that the Kremlin’s self-serving worldview isn’t significantly novel in any respect. In reality, all three of the pillars of Russkii mir are evident within the movie, even when Putin was nonetheless a lowly KGB officer in East Germany. The chauvinistic Russian nationalism in opposition to “decadent” European values — as proven by the dual rotating “sculptures” within the historical past mine — definitely goes again generations. The intolerant statism — through which individuals serve the state as a substitute of the state serving the individuals, as defined by the prosecutor — likewise has deep roots in Russian tradition. Finally, as within the historical past mine, state management over info and manipulation of historical past is likewise a longstanding hallmark of Russian autocracy, whether or not from tsarist censors or Soviet propaganda.

If something, the distinction between up to date Putinism and the autocracies of Russia’s previous are variations of diploma, quite than form. Instead of being invented out of complete material, Putin’s Russkii mir depends on many warmed-over traditions of Russian autocracy; albeit infused with the facility of recent social media, mass persuasion, and data know-how unimaginable to prior generations of autocrats.

Back in 1989, when the Berlin Wall was crumbling together with the communist autocracies of Eastern Europe, Shakhnazarov’s City Zero appeared a becoming, surrealist critique of the absurdities and contradictions of autocracy. Now, if something, it appears to function an unironic and disturbing blueprint for a way autocrats can manipulate historical past, info, and even actuality itself to swimsuit the wants of the state and the self-serving wishes of its chief.

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