RUSSIA BEYOND THE HEADLINES
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BEHIND THE RUSSIAN LANGUAGE
Movies Russian documentary filmmakers find professional success in the United States
Recalling the Soviet Past: Line, Deficit, String Bag Alexey Mikheev SPECIAL TO RBTH
f you visit a Russian supermarket today, you’ll see people lining up at the cash registers with full carts — in this sense, contemporary Russia is hardly different from other countries. However, during the Soviet era, buying goods required standing in line, a particular phenomenon that required a specific vocabulary. Store shelves were occupied by “unsellable” items, that is, goods for which there was no demand. If something that was truly needed went on sale, a line formed for it, sometimes for hours on end. This situation was described with the verbs davat’ —“to give”— or vybrasyvat’ — “to throw out,” a kind of shortened form of the expression “they threw it out for sale,” as in:“They’re giving coffee at the bakery!” or “They threw out jeans at the department store!” There was a popular joke about a woman who, seeing a line, walks up to the end of it and asks,“Who’s last?”and then, “And what are they giving?” The joke was honestly not very far from reality: Soviets, even when they did not set out to go shopping, would carry a mesh bag with them, just in case. As early as the 1930s, thanks to standup comedian Arkady Raikin, this bag got the name avoska. The name comes from the old Russian word avos, which can be translated as“What if?” The bag was carried just on the off chance you might run into a line where something was being given out. The very existence of a line meant that something truly needed was being “given,” and if it was being “given,” it needed to be taken. Goods that did not exist in sufficient quantity for everyone
“When People Die They Sing Songs” by director Olga Lvoff is one of the films scheduled to be shown at the festival in New York next month.
Russian Filmmakers Benefit From American Techniques Russian documentary filmmakers find that graduate study in the U.S. helps them put the theory they learned at Russian universities into practice. VSEVOLOD PULYA RBTH
Regina Gluckman, a cheerful and active woman of 93, sits in her New York apartment, telling her daughter stories from her life before World War II and showing pictures from an old photo album. Here she is with her father and her little brother, young and beautiful. “Back then, when I was a child, I did everything boys did – but just better than them,” she said, smiling. Gluckman has never told these stories to anyone, but now, as she is approaching the end of her life, music therapy – specifically songs in her native Yiddish – have stirred long-lost memories and given her daughter an opportunity to record them. The story of Gluckman and her daughter is captured in a documentary by young Russian director Olga Lvoff, 27, called “When People Die They Sing Songs.” In 2014, it was nominated for a 2014 Student Academy Award and received a number of prizes, including the 2014 CINE Golden Eagle Award. Lvoff is one of several young Russian documentary filmmakers who are now making their mark in the United States. Lvoff graduated from the School of Journalism at Moscow State University, but even before she graduated she realized that she wanted to make documentaries. She went to New York for gradu-
ate school and received a master’s degree in Fine Arts and Social Documentary at the School of Visual Arts in New York. “There are wonderful documentary makers in Russia, but there is no industry,” Lvoff said. “That world is very small, and revolves around several groups of people.” She said that in contrast, NewYork is the center of the documentary film world. Viktor Ilyukhin, 26, who was a classmate of Lvoff’s at Moscow State University, graduated from the School of Visual Arts a year after she did. His film “Two and Twenty Troubles,” which tells the story of disabled actors working
See Russian Documentaries in New York
“There are wonderful documentary makers in Russia, but there is no industry,” said filmmaker Olga Lvoff. on a production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”at Nicu’s Spoon Theater, has already received numerous acclaimations. “The film is about the idea of overcoming physical limitations through art,” said Ilyukhin. After two weeks of shooting, Ilyukhin completely forgot that the actors had any disabilities at all.“We were just talking about life, about how it has changed,” he said.“It was a revelation to me how many ways they find to express their acting ability.”
Craft and art Georgy Molodtsov, 29, had a successful career in Russia before
The Eighth Independent Russian Documentary Film Festival will take place at several locations across New York including the Anthology Film Archives, DCTV theaters and the Brooklyn Public Library on Oct. 9-11, 2015. The festival features documentaries from Russia, Belarus, Lithuania
and the U.S. that were made over the past year and emphasize social topics. Fifteen of the 20 films scheduled will have their American premieres at the festival. Some screenings will also include Q&A sessions with directors. For the complete screening schedule, visit www.rusdocfilmfest.org
deciding to continue his studies in the U.S. In 2008, he graduated from the prestigious Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) and was hired to select films for the Moscow International Film Festival. Later, he moved to Washington, D.C., for graduate work at American University. He received his master’s degree in Film and Media from the School of Communication at American this spring. “If VGIK offers an outstanding education in the philosophical and artistic appreciation of cinema, teaching you to understand its depth, [at American] we were instructed how to do it inside the industry,”Molodtsov said. “I was really impressed by how systemic all the processes are.” The animated social ad he made to promote a service that makes it possible to refill a drinking water bottle in 500 locations in Washington, D.C., received American University’s Vision Award. Molodtsov’s main American project is an as-yet-unreleased documentary about Anton Buslov, a journalist and expert in
urban planning who died in August 2014 in New York after a lengthy struggle with cancer. Buslov, who was a popular blogger, chronicled his illness, Hodgkin lymphoma, and the treatment he received in Russia and the U.S.
Next steps All three filmmakers have ambitious plans for the future, and aren’t limiting themselves to just one country. Ilyukhin is working on several environment-related projects both in Russia and the U.S.; Lvoff is starting to shoot a film with a working title “A Symphony One” about Dissociative Identity Disorder formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder and plans to continue living and working in the U.S.; and Molodtsov is in Russia, experimenting with virtual reality glasses in his documentary-cum–social project,VRability, which aims to enable people with disabilities to participate in sports.
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Chekhov’s Censored Early Work Finally Published Phoebe Taplin
GENNADY USTIAN SPECIAL TO RBTH
One of the Soviet Union’s most popular films,“Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears,” celebrates its 35th annivesary this year. Although today the film seems like a typical Hollywood romance, when it was made in the Soviet Union of the late 1970s, its themes of women who choose their own – sometimes unconventional – paths to happiness, was anything but ordinary. Modeled in part on the 1959 Hollywood film “The Best of Everything,”in which three women move to New York in search of success and romance, “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” is a story of three girls from the Russian regions who find themselves sharing a room in Moscow. Ambitious Katerina (Vera Alentova, who is also director Vladimir Menshov’s wife) is determined
to win a place at a university, despite having failed at her first attempt, and spends her evenings after work studying. Carefree Lyudmila (Irina Muravyova) sees life in Moscow as a big lottery and hopes to marry a good-looking man with a great Moscow apartment. Modest Antonina (Raisa Ryazanova), meanwhile, works as a painter at a construction site and marries a fellow worker early in the film. Gradually, Katerina becomes the film’s central character. After a brief affair with a high-flying film student, she becomes pregnant and is lectured by his formidable and domineering mother about the sorry fate that awaits single mothers in Soviet society. Katerina goes on to have a successful career, demonstrating the film’s overall message that there are no universal rules for finding happiness. “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” had its premiere in the Russian capital at the end of 1979, but was released nationwide only the following year. More than 90 million people went to see it in
SPECIAL TO RBTH
TITLE: THE PRANK AUTHOR: ANTON CHEKHOV PUBLISHER: NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS CLASSICS
© GALINA KMIT / RIA NOVOSTI
Oscar winner “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears” was a groundbreaking depiction of Soviet women at the beginning of the 1980s.
Husband and wife, actress Vera Alentova and director Vladimir Menshov.
the theater, even though it was released on television only the month after it appeared on the big screen. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film in 1980. The film’s depiction of single motherhood caused a lot of controversy at the time – officials in the Soviet film industry did not want to see a successful single mother presented on screen. But the film’s astonishing box-office success, followed by its Oscar win, made them change their minds about this“soppy melodrama not worthy of the Soviet woman.” Director Vladimir Menshov’s Oscar story was also typical of the Soviet era. He was not allowed to travel to attend the ceremony
itself and, having heard the news of his win on TV on April 1, thought that it was an April Fool’s Day prank. For years, Menshov’s Oscar statuette was kept at the State Cinema Committee, which oversaw the Soviet film industry. When in 1989 Menshov was presented with a Nika, Russia’s national film award, his Oscar was also brought on stage during the ceremony. Menshov seized the opportunity to get hold of his statuette and refused to hand it back when the ceremony was over. Like the characters in his most famous film, who followed long and winding paths to happiness, Menshov finally attained the most coveted prize in world cinema.
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Film Oscar winner “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” was inspired by a Hollywood film
Iconic Soviet Film Celebrates 35th Anniversary
were called deficit goods, or just “deficit.” In the 1970s and 1980s, salaries steadily rose, people started to have more money, and everything more or less valuable sold out quickly. Correspondingly, the scope of “deficit”widened. Salespeople took advantage of this and started selling deficit goods“through the back door”or “on the side.” For their part, shoppers tried to build friendships with salespeople in order to buy items by avoiding the shop counter. Such an action was known by a different verb: “to come by something;” this meant to receive something that was not openly on sale. To be able to “come by” something, people usually paid not just with money, but with something else, even a service that had a connection to the “deficit.” This system of relationships was captured in the popular proverb “You — to me, me — to you.” As a result, everyone turned out to be interested in the deficit. Nevertheless, stores needed to put at least a portion of the merchandise on the open market. And when it became known that a batch of “deficit” had arrived at a store (jeans, for example) and would go on sale in the morning, a line would start forming the night before. So that people did not stand in line all night, lists were established. Anyone who wanted to could sign up for the line and then get a number to save their place. Today, in this time of abundant goods, the classic Soviet type of line with lists for deficit items is no longer relevant; nevertheless, there are vestiges of it. In Russia you’ll still find people arriving at a line and asking“kto posledny?” — who’s last — before taking their place or giving their name to the person holding a list of numbers.
The Prank” is a collection of stories that Anton Chekhov hoped would kick-start his career as a writer. Censored in 1882, the book he intended has finally been published — in English. The collection has never appeared before, even in Russian, although many of the stories in it are well known and only two of them are new to translation. This selection of playful tales sheds new light on the young writer. Chekhov appears as a chameleonic jester — here in the guise of a Spanish translator, there as a scientific journalist; a malapropistic, elderly landowner, writing to his educated neighbor; a cantankerous mother complaining about marriage. By the end of the book, the author’s romantic pastiche swallows its own tail in an ecstasy of metafictional, pre-modernist surrealism. In the 1880s Chekhov was in his 20s and training to be a doctor. To pay his tuition fees and support his family, he wrote a series of comic short stories under pseudonyms like Antosha Chekhonte. Already published in humorous magazines, “The Prank” was to be his first book, with the revised stories illustrated by his brother Nikolai. The imperial censor rejected the manuscript and it languished in a dusty office until
a Soviet scholar rediscovered it in the 1970s. Translator Maria Bloshteyn, who has cleverly replicated the freshness of Chekhov’s prose and the deliberate awkwardness of his parodies, explains in her excellent introduction how subversive these stories were. At first glance Chekhov’s flippant fables, some little more than extended jokes, seem inoffensive. But look more closely and these seemingly innocent scenarios expose hypocrisy and corruption: a father tries to bribe a teacher into giving his son a better grade; a train carriage becomes a corrupt and stinking social microcosm. One traveler observes:“darkness, snoring, stale tobacco and rotgut — this is Russia all right.” In the opening story, an apartment block full of “artists’ wives” suffers from frenzied, babywaking singers, sleep-inducing literature or painters who demand their wives pose naked by the window. The protagonist, Alphonso Zinzaga, is a young novelist:“very famous (only to himself)”. Newcomers to Chekhov might find this slim volume an amusing appetizer; for those who already know and love his work, it adds an interesting layer to the portrait of the ironic, melancholic doctor we think we know. Confirmed theatrical Chekhovophiles will scour these pages for a glimpse of the later playwright, with his tragicomic psychological observations. As Bloshteyn hopes, these stories have “the effect of an early photograph of someone met in middle age.” Unfamiliar at first, closer inspection shows us“smiling eyes” and recognition: “Yes, that’s him! Of course that’s him.”
In this issue: Refugees reject Russia; Putin slated to speak at U.N. General Assembly; 18 months of U.S. sanctions
Published on Sep 16, 2015
In this issue: Refugees reject Russia; Putin slated to speak at U.N. General Assembly; 18 months of U.S. sanctions