The image of youth in late Soviet cinema: Introduction
‘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.
In the 1960s, rebellious youth counter-culture prefigured the peak of social radicalisation of Western youth, motivated by their disaffection with hierarchy, bourgeois culture, oppression and militarism. The aesthetics and ideology of youth counter-culture were played out most prominently in American cinema, with films such as The Graduate (1967), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969) and Woodstock (1970), in which strong social and political dimensions co-existed with a commitment to aesthetic innovation.
However, it was only the 1980s that youth culture became a medium of expression for protest against the establishment in the Eastern Bloc countries. This series of articles is an attempt to investigate how the Soviet vision of youth was reflected in cinema in the perestroika period. Since March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary, Soviet media have featured revealing information about various aspects of Soviet youth which previously could not be discussed openly. The perestroika era saw a variety of films that thematized youth in a way different from the previous decades. These articles will touch upon how Soviet youth was represented in the pre-perestroika cinema, offer an extensive analysis of the main tendencies of its portrayal in the late 1980s, and conclude by looking at the state of Russian youth cinema today.
It is also important to mention that, especially in the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union, youth as a social group (both in real life and by extension in its cinematic representation) was tightly confined to the boundaries of the two paramount institutions: the family and the education system. The family was always central to the Soviet social concept, being the child’s and citizen’s first collective. In turn, the Soviet education system, considerably different from that of the West, was first of all concerned with the production of citizens, and only as a side effect served for implanting knowledge. Therefore we will start our discussion of Soviet youth cinema by considering the roles the family and the school played in it throughout its development. This will help us to set up the theoretical framework, allowing for detailed analysis of the changes that Soviet youth cinema underwent in the late 1980s.
Among the vast arsenal of Soviet themes that became vulnerable to critical reevaluation during the perestroika period were numerous tropes of familial relations. Perhaps due to the impulse to verbalise previously silenced historical traumas and social ills, representations of families during the Gorbachev years typically emphasized their dysfunctionality. As we will see in the course of this series of articles, the dysfunctional family has prominent presence in Soviet youth cinema in the 1980s, often serving as a microcosm for the late Soviet society.
A large part of Soviet youth cinema is confined by the boundaries of the school as an institution. In her lecture, Liubov Arkus offers an overview of the evolution of the Soviet youth film and claims that, from its dawn in the late 1940s until perestroika, the genre revolved around the three dramatic centres: the White crow (the “odd bird” or the outsider), the Group (the collective of individuals that the White crow is opposing), and the Mentor (an older individual, usually a teacher, who attempts to guide the White crow). As the years went by, the balance between the three dramatic centres was shifting and the configuration largely depended on the socio-political climate, but the triangle formula became the canon of the genre. Overviewing Arkus’s observations will prove to be useful for the construction of the argument.
Arkus maintains that, in the early Soviet school films such as Krasnii galstuk (The Red Tie, 1948) or Attestat zrelosti (Certificate of Maturity, 1954), the White crow is usually rectified by the Group in the process of the narrative, whereas the Mentor remains a purely symbolic figure having no active agency in the story. For instance, in Krasniy galstuk the protagonist is an exemplary pupil, but is hardly interested in social work, therefore loses his red pioneer tie, which instantly codes him as the White crow; in the course of the film he is rectified by his classmates and regains his tie in the finale. As it is put by Arkus in the finale of the film (see the video below),‘the Adult [the Mentor] — is a Hero of the Soviet Union, who as if descends from heaven in order to conduct the rite of passage, the ritual of merging with the group (acceptance in the Pioneer organization)’ .
This layout radically changes in the 1960s with Drug moi, Kol’ka (My friend, Kol’ka, 1961): the White crow becomes a positive hero and a leader of the Group; the Group, in turn, helps and supports the White crow instead of rectifying him; and the figure of the Mentor is divided into the Liberal and the Conservative, respectively supporting and opposing the White crow. For Arkus, this layout is a typical product of the Thaw with its value scale and utopian belief in ideal society. With the waning of the Thaw, the layout changes again, and the Mentor takes up the role of the White crow. The central character of Respublika SHKID (The Republic SHKID, 1966) is an idealist who believes in the innate kindness and uniqueness of each individual and decides to open a reform school for orphans, delinquents and homeless young people — children of the Civil War (the action take place in the 1920s). His pedagogical idea is to create ‘a society of White crows under the leadership of the White crow’. For Arkus, the film is a farewell to the 1960s and conveys a fading hope for the overall social harmony.
In Dozhivem do ponedel’nika (We’ll Live Till Monday, 1968), the character of the White crow-Mentor — the teacher Mel’nikov — is an embodiment of the condition of Soviet intelligentsia in the year of Prague Spring. He is a historian who decides to quit his job because he cannot stand the lies and total profanation that teaching his subject implies. His inner conflict is also mirrored in the White crow-student, the poet Genka Shestopal. Here, the confrontation between the Liberal and the Conservative still goes on, but the Liberal (Mel’nikov) is exhausted and the Conservative (the Russian literature teacher Svetlana Mikhailovna, who diligently teaches her subject) defends her principles mechanically, only out of habit.
In the 1970s, with the release of Perestupi porog (Step over the Threshold, 1970), the White crow confesses to the Mentor: ‘I wouldn’t want to find myself in your shoes. I hope to find a better application for my skills’. The Mentors of Soviet school film in the 1970s are representatives of a disillusioned, ageing generation, helpless in the face of modern reality and often despised by the younger generation. This younger generation is of course diverse and ‘like any other generation, they incorporate various qualities — some of them are social climbers, some are peaceful petty bourgeois, hard-working people and hard-boiled hooligans. However, they all are united by one thing — their reluctance to be part of the social life of their country’ . According to Arkus, by the 1980s, the White crow–Group–Mentor dramatic scheme gradually loses its topicality and ceases to be the subject of authorial reflection. The author barely mentions the development of Soviet youth cinema in the 1980s.
This theoretical framework proves to be valuable in relation to our discussion. The trope of the dysfunctional family largely informs late Soviet youth cinema, as well as Arkus’s dramatic scheme is potentially useful also in relation to Soviet youth cinema in general. The detailed analysis of several emblematic youth films of the period will reveal the White crow–Group–Mentor pattern, at times in a rather perverted form. However, in order to be applicable in the larger contexts, the boundaries of the categories proposed by Arkus should be revised and made more fluid. The Mentor category, by extension, should embrace parents or representatives of the older generation and should be stripped of its exclusively positive meaning — as we will see later, the Mentor of the 1980s Soviet youth cinema can be morally bankrupt, impotent or nonchalant. The Group category should incorporate both society in general and its various microcosms (family, tusovka, specific social milieux). The White crow should remain a migrating category as described by Arkus; however, it also should be expanded from the quality of not fitting with the group, to the general feeling of not belonging to the social environment and being at odds with the Zeitgeist.
Examining a number of the late Soviet youth films allowed us to identify several major tendencies within youth cinema of perestroika that are to be explored within the framework of these articles. It is important to point out that these are interconnected tendencies rather than strictly defined categories, and some of the films under discussion can easily travel between them.
>> Read the next article ‘Monstrous youth’