Marina Goldovskaya: documenting modern Russia

London’s Pushkin House is hosting a retrospective of Russian director Marina Goldovskaya’s documentaries under the heading ‘Russia since Perestroika'. Masha Karp reflects on Goldovskaya’s distinctive art and the issues raised in her films.

In a British documentary about Russia, a Russian soldier is asked about Perestroika. His answer —‘it started under a valid pretext, but ended in a bad way for everybody’ — is perhaps a little clumsily expressed. But the sentiment behind it is, unfortunately, shared by many former Soviet citizens, exhausted by life post-perestroika.

Over a quarter of a century has now passed since Mikhail Gorbachev announced to the country that it must reform to survive. What actually happened back then and what has happened since is not particularly clear to ordinary Russians. Indeed, the fewer people who remember their own experience of the Soviet era, and the more aggressively schools and the media push their false and simplistic version of the past, the more derogatory the word perestroika becomes.

Watching Marina Goldovskaya’s retrospective, however, is like re-living the hopes raised by perestroika, its huge potential and, later, its tragic failure to change things in Russia. 

Chronologically, the retrospective starts with ‘Archangelsky Muzhik’ (1986), a portrait of Nikolay Sivkov, a peasant from the Archangelsk region who is eager to work hard as an independent farmer on the almost uninhabited land along the North Dvina river.  People have fled this area, leaving empty villages behind, but Sivkov has asked for sixty calves to rear to supply meat to the region. Intelligent, business-minded, hard-working, obstinate and charming, 55-year-old Sivkov is a conscientious and responsible farmer - it is difficult to believe that such people can still be found after decades of collective and state farms, the annihilation of the ‘kulak’ (rich peasant) class, and the pressure to follow orders from Moscow, however absurd they might be.

Watching Marina Goldovskaya’s retrospective is like re-living the hopes raised by perestroika, its huge potential and - in later films – its tragic failure to change things in Russia. 

Sivkov started his fight to be an independent farmer in 1982 and by the time of filming had, of course, been greatly helped by Gorbachev’s announcement in 1985. Before that watershed date a journalist who dared to support Sivkov in a local paper lost his job, but now the regional bureaucrats must endure being interviewed about the farmer by a film crew from Moscow. They are, however, old hands and know that not everything announced in Moscow will actually materialise (indeed, that it’s crucial to avoid any blame for getting carried away, just in case the Kremlin changes its mind). So they are cautious and, although embarrassed, quite open as they explain how inconvenient, and indeed impossible, it is to have someone around who actively wants to work. They’d much rather deal with collective farmers, who  just obey orders and don’t produce much, than with Sivkov, who produces several times more but is full of ideas and demands and is actually undermining the entire deadbeat agricultural structure.

Marina Goldovskaya and her scriptwriter Anatoly Strelyany, who has written a lot about rural Russia, unreservedly put their faith in Sivkov, that is, in the Russian people, who would, they believe, work wonders if only they were not obstructed by the tenacious Soviet system, which hinders them at every step just for the sake of its own survival.

Postscripts

Watching this film 26 years after it was made, we are shocked to learn that Nikolay Sivkov died in 1993, aged 62, and that his beloved village is completely deserted now – Sivkov’s hope that other people would come to work there or at least that his children would stay has not come true. Nor has the film-makers’ hope of seeing the people of their country free and self-sufficient. Although the persecution of ‘kulaks’ has not  been revived, in today’s Russia any ordinary person whose business reaches a certain level of prosperity immediately falls prey to the same bureaucrats - only now they conspire with criminals and law-enforcement agencies (often indistinguishable from one other) to deprive him of his success.  As Russia has no legal framework for the protection of private property, individual business people simply have to share their profit with the officials – knowing that they can still be threatened by endless “inspections” and eventually ruined by those who wish to steal the fruits of their labours.  One would not want to imagine Nikolay Sivkov in such a situation …

The ‘Archangelsky Muzhik’ comes back to mind as one watches Goldovskaya’s film of 1999, ‘The Prince is Back’. A man who is  certain that he is a prince, a descendant of the aristocratic Meshchersky family ousted during the 1917 revolution, returns to their old estate of Alabino,  about 30 miles  from Moscow. The estate buildings, dating from the end of the 18th century and the work of the famous Russian architect Mikhail Kazakov, were largely destroyed in 1939 by the local Soviet authorities, who needed stone for road-building. Yevgeny Meshchersky decides to restore his ancestors’ home, a huge task given that only one wing survives intact and even that is barely habitable. There is no running water - it has to be fetched in buckets from a distant spring - so Meshchersky works tirelessly to dig a well nearby.  His dream, however, is not simply to live in the restored building. He wants it to become a museum of the family and eventually of local history, trying to fill the gap created by communist rule.

It is this dream that keeps him going against all odds. He has three children and a wife who helps him as much as she can. One thing, however, worries her – the uncertainty of their position. Her grandparents were deported to Siberia as ‘kulaks’ and have lived in fear ever since, like many others whose families fell foul of the Soviet authorities.  As Russia has not adopted any laws about restitution of property to former owners or their descendants, the Meshcherskys have no official permission to live in the abandoned building, and their unsanctioned initiative to restore the buildings obviously seems suspicious and unwelcome to the locals.

Meshchersky, of course, is not Nikolay Sivkov. His claim to the title and his faith in his destiny often seem bizarre, not to say eccentric. Yet prince or no prince, here is another Russian who wants to enrich his country with his own labour and yet the same top-down system that destroyed its riches in the first place will not allow him to do it. In 2002, after the film was made, the Meshcherskys were evicted from Alabino. Today the ruins are still crumbling away and next to one of the wings  there is a new mansion in a style favoured by ‘new Russians’, complete with automatic gates and an impressive fence.

Portraits against the Backdrop of History

A human life, watched closely in every mundane detail, and set in a precise social and historical context, is always at the centre of Marina Goldovskaya’s films. This, combined with high-class camera work, is her distinct style, her trademark. And as her social and historical context is always Russia, her documentaries serve as a chronicle of change and upheaval in the country.

'Solovki Power' retraces the history of the Solovki labor camp from the moment of its inception in 1923 to the day it closed in 1939. Photo: (cc) RIA Novosti/V. Krechet

As soon as it became possible under Gorbachev’s ‘glasnost’, Marina Goldovskaya started talking about Stalin’s ‘great terror’. Her film ‘Solovki Power’ (1988) was the first  Soviet documentary about the GULAG. The people filmed by Goldovskaya twenty five years ago, survivors of the Solovki camp for political prisoners - Academician Dmitry Likhachev, writer Oleg Volkov, memoirist Olga Adamova-Sliozberg and others– are all dead now, but their stories, that form this portrait of the terrible abuse of human rights that lasted from 1921 till 1939, are horrendous and vivid.  This documentary, which won numerous awards, was just the beginning – since then the theme of the murderous regime has been present in nearly all Goldovskaya’s films.

In 1993, in ‘The House on Arbat Street’, she looked at the lives of the residents of one building on a Moscow street and inevitably talked to both people crushed by Stalin and those who collaborated with the NKVD

In 1989 she made “I am 90, My Steps Are Light”, a film about Anastasia Tsvetaeva (sister of the poet Marina Tsvetaeva), who spent 15 years in Stalin’s camps. In 1993, in ‘The House on Arbat Street’, she looked at the lives of the residents of one building on a Moscow street and inevitably talked to both people crushed by Stalin and those who collaborated with the NKVD.  The theme of the repressive state doesn’t go away in Goldovskaya’s work because, unfortunately, it hasn’t gone away in real life.

In 2006 she made a film about the novelist Anatoly Rybakov, author of the popular ‘Children of the Arbat’ trilogy. Rybakov died in 1998, but his description of the state built by Stalin still holds good for Russia today: ‘a state run by bureaucrats responsible to one man only… a vertical where decisions are taken by one person’. The point of perestroika, according to Rybakov, was ‘to rid people of their fear. Everyone should be a decision-maker and take the initiative, otherwise the country can’t develop’.

Goldovskaya does not only deal with the past and its influence on contemporary Russian life: in ‘The Shattered Mirror’ (1992) and ‘Lucky to Be Born in Russia’ (1994) she becomes a chronicler of current events in the uneasy first years of the 1990s. In these two films, made in the format of video diaries, she uncovers early indications that the country is not going in the direction she and her friends hoped for when the changes started. 

Nearly everyone is shocked to find themselves poor. People have to sell personal belongings such as boots and coats to get money for urgent needs like car repairs or sometimes simply food. Their grown-up children are leaving Russia to try and seek happiness abroad. The country seems to be split – communist supporters are out on the streets of Moscow, marching in angry waves to the rousing tunes of revolutionary songs. – streets that are also witness to completely new things like dancing Krishna disciples or actors impersonating Lenin…

Goldovskaya’s films do not offer any direct political analysis, yet by focusing on people caught in a developing drama and affected by it, she draws attention to a deficiency in Russian politics, which consistently ignores the ‘human factor’.

The country is in turmoil and everybody in the films, including their author, seems to be racked by anxiety, which reaches its climax when the political stand-off explodes into an armed collision between supporters of president Yeltsin and the Russian Parliament in October 1993. These dramatic events resulted in a new constitution which gave the Russian President much more power than the legislative body, a change which undoubtedly influenced the subsequent development of Russia. Goldovskaya’s films do not offer any direct political analysis, yet by focusing on people caught in a developing drama and affected by it, she draws attention to a deficiency in Russian politics, which consistently ignores the ‘human factor’.

The life and death of Anna Politkovskaya

If there is one film where Goldovskaya’s different themes come together, it is her latest documentary, ‘A Bitter Taste of Freedom’ (2011) about her friend, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered at the entrance to her own block of flats in Moscow in October 2006.  The personal and political almost merge here; the fate of an individual and the fate of the country are intertwined more than anywhere else, surely because Politkovskaya herself, as one of her friends says at her funeral, has become the conscience of Russian society.

Goldovskaya unflinchingly follows the most horrific events of Putin’s rule – the  Second Chechen War, the Dubrovka Theatre hostage crisis, the massacre in a Beslan school, - where Politkovskaya was involved as a journalist and sometimes as a participant.  And yet her story of her friend starts with childhood photographs in a family album, shown to her by Anna’s mother, and with her sister’s story about Anna as a young girl, in love with her future husband.  Interviews filmed after Politkovskaya’s murder are interspersed with family scenes shot 15 years earlier, when Anna  was primarily the mother  of two small children and  the beautiful wife of a famous husband.  Alexander Politkovsky, a presenter of the ‘Vzglyad’ TV news programme that was immensely popular in the early Perestroika years, had been Marina Goldovskaya’s student and she was making a film about him, with his family hovering in the background. How useful this footage proved later!

The woman that Goldovskaya meets again a decade later is someone who has made her choices in life. The children have grown and she has become a journalist dedicated to her profession. She has divorced her husband and she helps people who are not getting help from anyone else – parents of children abducted in Chechnya, hostages during the theatre siege.

Goldovskaya's representation of Anna Politkovskaya is a portrait of both a person and an epoch in the life of contemporary Russia.

Marina Goldovskaya obviously has an ability to make people behave naturally in front of her camera. With Anna it is even more than that:  the two women are friends and Anna tells the camera everything – about her children, about her dog, about falling in love.  But even more often she talks of other things she feels passionate about – the brutality of Russian soldiers in Chechnya; Putin’s order to poison everybody in the Dubrovka Theatre with a gas whose name was withheld from the doctors trying to find an antidote; an American official trying to persuade her not to investigate the role of the Russian security services in the theatre siege. We see Politkovskaya in a bath-robe in a Los Angeles hotel and in a hospital bed after she has been poisoned on her way to Beslan – wherever she is, she is anxious about the appalling things happening and desperately looking for ways in which she can help.

It was one woman’s war with a powerful state and finally the state got her.  Politkovskaya’s murder was yet another sign that instead of its hoped-for transformation for the better, Russia had resumed its totalitarian ways, albeit on a different level: Politkovskaya’s articles in ‘Novaya Gazeta’ were not censored as they would have been under Brezhnev, she was not arrested and killed in the GULAG as she would have been under Stalin. Under Putin she was simply murdered near her own building entrance, silenced forever.

As they picture the present, Marina Goldovskaya’s documentaries embrace the Russian and Soviet past. That is what brings her back, again and again, to the confrontation between the individual and the state. 

Thumbnail: (cc) RIA Novosti/Meshcheryakov

About the author
Masha Karp is a London-based journalist with a special interest in Russian-Western cultural links. 
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Pushkin House: screening of the Retrospective of Marina Goldovskaya