The image of youth in late Soviet cinema: Monstrous Youth

‘The image of youth in late Soviet cinema’ is a series of articles exploring the ways youth was portrayed in Soviet films of perestroika period.

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In the late 1980s, film critic Marina Drozdova has identified a frightening feature of the young Soviet generation both in reality and on screen — ‘distorted mentality, tortured by ideological wickedness — a moral color blindness’ that leads to ‘devaluation of everything and everyone’*. Whether it was a reality of the perestroika period or, as just an authorial view, clouded by incomprehension and fear of the young generation, this frightening feature found reflection in many Soviet youth films in the 1980s. This cinematic vision of youth picturing the new generation as cruel and immoral monsters is epitomized in El’dar Riazanov’s film Dorogaia Elena Sergeevna (Dear Elena Sergeevna, 1988).

In Dorogaia Elena, four final year students visit their teacher Elena Sergeevna on her birthday. Soon the teacher gets to know the real intentions behind what she saw as an act of courtesy: her students failed the exam they had taken earlier in the morning, but, being pragmatic in regards to their future (they need good marks to enter university), falsified the exam papers with the correct answers. It appears that Elena Sergeevna has the key from the safe where the real exam papers are kept, and they need it. The remaining hour of the film is a watered-down version of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997): students, refusing to leave, engage in sophisticated psychological torture of their teacher, which is peppered with philosophical arguments about values and morals of the shestidesiatniki and the glasnost’ generation.

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The Soviet times produced three generations: the first was brought up under Stalin, the second under Khrushchev and the third under Brezhnev. When perestroika started off from the Party, the leftovers of Stalinist generation have already lost any influence, Khrushchev generation (shestidesiatniki, as they belonged to the 1960s) was the only real force able and willing to support it from below. Having failed back in the 1960s as the thaw was relieved by frost, they conceived of perestroika as of the last chance to apply their dreams to reality. However, Khrushchev ideals of ‘socialist democracy’ had become hopelessly obsolete, especially in the face of a new generation of ‘glasnost kids’. Having learned from their 1970s stagnant childhood to take nothing for granted, the young generation, profit-seeking and introverted, acquired tough skin. This generation, sceptic and cynical, was destined to tell their gurus that they have failed again.

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Elena Sergeevna is an exaggerated embodiment of the ideals and principles of the Khrushchev generation. She firmly believes in the greater good and lives by the rules of honesty and diligence. She is a Mentor who has completely lost her credibility in the eyes of her students. She is also a White crow who has fallen behind the times and is profoundly shocked by what she discovers about her students, ‘the glasnost kids’: they are sceptic, cynical, profit-seeking and introverted (for Mentor-White crow-Group scheme explanation see the previous article).

Lialia, the only girl among the four, is proud of having read ‘Lolita’ in English, hates living in a communal apartment with her mother, and dreams of a luxurious life. She confesses to Elena that she is still a virgin only because she is looking for a higher payer to sell her virginity to. Her boyfriend Pasha and their classmate Vitiok desperately need a good mark to be able to enter university and escape military service. The self-proclaimed leader of this group is Volodia — the visit to Elena Sergeevna is his master plan. He does not need the key since he did well in his exam, he just believes that this situation will secure his role of the leader and is ready to do whatever it takes. After Elena Sergeevna is kept as a hostage and searched by his command, which does not lead anywhere, Volodia threaten to rape Lialia in front of their teacher, knowing that Elena Sergeevna’s humanist nature will not allow this and she will have to give away the key.

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The motive of monstrous youth is present not only in the characteristic features and actions of the young heroes, but also on the visual level. The characters are constantly grimacing behind Elena Sergeevna’s back, and we also see their surrealistically portrayed monstrous faces from Elena Sergeevna’s point of view in the break-dance sequence (see the video below).

There is no winner in this war of generational ideologies — it appears to be destructive and futile. Elena Sergeevna gives the key to Volodia to prevent the rape; however, Vitiok’s awoken conscience makes him confront Volodia and discourage him from taking the key. Throughout the film, Vitiok is the one who also possesses qualities of the White crow: he is simple, innately kind, and very often paralleled with another White crow of the film — Elena Sergeevna, and is mocked by the others because of that. In the end he is the one that acts honestly: tries to fight Volodia during the rape attempt, recovers the key and helps Lialia to regain consciousness.

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By the end of the film, their group easily disintegrates, as the common purpose their relationship was built on ceases to be relevant. Each of the boys leaves separately in an unknown direction, while Lialia cries out to Elena Sergeevna, who, as the film suggests, has committed suicide behind the closed door of the bathroom. The film offers a macabre portrait of youth, but explains little the reasons for youth’s monstrosity; the violence of the young is portrayed as mindless — it is no coincidence that the film was compared with Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) by critics. In on of the interviews, the director Riazanov claimed that his young characters act as monsters because the education system has failed them. However, there is hardly any evidence of this in the film that makes it more of an authorial view, clouded by incomprehension and fear of the young generation. As it is put by Liubov Arkus: ‘The Empire was dying, and it was afraid of its own children — and film captured not the actual youth, but phantoms generated by this fear’.

Still from Avariia - Doch' Menta (1988)

Still from Avariia – Doch’ Menta, 1989

Another interesting subcategory that can be observed within the monstrous youth tendency is represented by the two rape and revenge films: Avariia — doch’ menta (Crash – Cop’s Daughter, 1989) and Den’ liubvi (Day of Love, 1990). At the core of both films there is a gang rape of a teenage girl by her peers: in Avariia, the heady lifestyle of the rebellious neformal Valeriia leads her to get raped by a gang of young delinquents; whereas in Den’ liubvi, a girl from an upper-class family, Kristina, becomes one of the victims of a series of rapes orchestrated by a local crime lord to distract police’s attention from a robbery. In both films, the rape becomes the turning point in the generational conflict, and the representatives of the older generation take the side of their children on the basis of their desire for revenge. The angry parents avenge their kids in spectacular and cruel ways: while Kristina’s stepfather burns the rapist alive in a metalworks furnace, Valeriia’s father, being a police officer, engages in a car chase with his daughter’s violators and provokes a crash and the explosion of their vehicle. Thus, the fathers engage in a cruel game played by the sons, and from a position of authority descend into monstrosity.

*Marina Drozdova. 2008. ‘Midseasonal anarchists: Youth consciousness and youth culture in the cinema of perestroika’, in Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost (Cambridge University Press), pp. 35-40.

>> Read the next article: Doomed Youth