Blog Post

In the Shadows of Ancestors, Invented and Forgotten

Thoughts on two very different recent films from Russia, Silent Souls (Овсянки, dir. Alexei Fedorchenko, 2010) and I Will Remember (Буду помнить, dir. Vitalii Votobyev, 2010). Silent Souls (Ovsyanki) could have been shot by Fellini if he had been exiled to northern Russia and denied access to Kodak color film. To me it felt like some Northern version of Amarcord or La strada. No wonder it received the best cinematography prize (camera work by Mikhail Krichman) at the Venice Film Festival and was among the top three favorites to receive the Lion d'Or that year. Director Aleksei Fedorchenko sets out to tell a story about a tribal identity, almost forgotten and practically invisible, yet concealing a difference enormously potent and relentless – like a maddening itch between the toes of one’s amputated leg.

Visually, Ovsaynki, with its mildly infernal leaden color scheme and wan faces of its protagonists, feels like an elegy composed in Hades. No sun shines there, and given the story, it is just as well, since most of the plot is concerned with a bereaved husband and his friend driving an SUV, the body of the dead wife in the trunk. Their destination is a woodsy riverbank where the two spent their honeymoon decades earlier and where now the husband plans to hold her funeral—in accordance with some ancient custom, rooted in the archetypal recesses of his Finno-Ugric tribal memory.

But as you get deeper into the story, you begin to realize that “Silent Souls” is really a story about identity in the age of globalization. The main characters are two utterly average and average-looking middle-aged Russian guys. There is nothing special about them, except that they also happen to be descendants of an ancient Finnish tribe, by now almost completely forgotten, absorbed by ethnic Russians and their modern culture or, if you will, completely “globalized” out of existence. And yet, that ancient tribal world has left some of its tiny traces, still sufficient for reminding its descendents of their difference. Osip Mandelstam once wrote that even in his secular age, Judaism was fragrant like musk oil: a tiny drop was sufficient to fill a house with its scent. Infinitely less than a drop has survived of those ancient Finnish customs, and yet we see how even in homeopathic quantities—a mere aura of the forgotten world—they can fill the space between the low-hanging, impenetrable cloud cover of the European north and its barren earth blanketed now by sickly local flora, now by the anonymous twenty-first-century urban sprawl.

This is what makes “Silent Souls,” despite its ethnographic specificity, an allegory of the universal existential condition of our age. The few traces that are left of the ancient identity (names of rivers and odd fertility rites) create this great urge to recover the rest but instead of some mythic plenitude, what awaits one is a black hole that eventually sucks the two main characters into nothingness. The sparrow-like birds (the Russian ovsyanki of the film’s original title) that “remind me of something that I seem to have forgotten” (the narrator’s words early in the film) turn out to be the harbingers, not of fertility, but of death. There is, then, a calculated mythic inevitability about the plot: that something the main character had “forgotten” turns out to be the death wish itself.

The story unfolds against the alternative world of an endless stream of cars on a superhighway and some “global” Japanese fast food in a shopping mall with its discount big box retail outlets. The protagonists’ trek through some Costco large appliances section will send a chill down your spine. No amount of casual sex with the odd-looking girls, who seem to have been sent from the northern branch of Federico Fellini’s central casting, can counteract it.

Fedorchenko seems to be offering us a moral: you can recover your lost identity – only when you drive off the bridge into the Volga and go to live with the fishes. This quiet despair about the human condition in the twenty-first century globalized world that deeply moved me about this film. It shows us caught between the Scylla of dissolving our identity in the globalized traffic flows of everything and the Charybdes of trying to recover the imagined long-lost fullness of the archetypal tribal life. If the movie is to be taken at face value, no Odysseus could steer clear of the two.


I Will Remember (Буду помнить), although not in the same league, is also about identity nostalgia but of a completely different kind: WWII melodrama that is good for the soul. The main protagonist is a Russian Greek, an angry teenager, who gets drawn, against his will, into helping a Jewish Russian boy of the same age, a visitor from Leningrad, escape the holocaust after the Nazis invade his native resort town in Northern Caucasus. If the color scheme in Silent Souls is mind-numbing leaden gray, I Will Remember dazzles with its gold, so warm and gentle that it could easily have been shot in Southern California. The golden glow has something to do with the nostalgic simplicity with which Russians tend to view the uncomplicated, if brutal, life in Stalin’s time. The erstwhile egalitarianism of poverty and the petty vanities of the petty ruling elite look refreshing—the Great Terror notwithstanding—to people used to the evermore rigid stratification and astronomical income inequalities of post-Soviet Russia. In the film, as the Soviet Army retreats from the city of the Mineral Springs, Soviet order disintegrates and with it the fabric of Soviet identities revealing a society of far greater diversity in terms of class, ethnicity, religion, ethics, attitude towards the regime, and national commitment.

Remarkable for a film that appeals ostensibly to a wide audience (it may have been meant as a television movie), it reshuffles the deck of moral certitudes in such a way that even the evil characters gets to do good (a collaborator saved the protagonist who is about to be executed as a Jew) while the good ones, especially the boy’s father, can display bad judgment when faced with the choice between public weal, pleasing his boss, and the fate of his loved ones who depend on him for their survival.

One motif of the film is a handshake between the good and bad characters. Again and again, after a momentary hesitation, the hands are joined, as if in an allegory of an imperfect and ambiguous moral universe. The film clearly belongs to the age in which the necessity for moral compromise, at least a tactical one, is widely acknowledged. Such ethical sophistication is a far cry from the Russia of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, let alone the Manichean ethics of the Soviet era. Not to belabor this point too much, though; in the end, justice triumphs, if imperfectly, and the family with the right moral instinct gets to have a future.

The two boys meet again in the epilogue, this time, as men in their late sixties or seventies. If in Ovsyanki, the ordinary looking Russian men and women turn out to be anything but ordinary, because of their ancestry, in I will Remember, the difference between Jews and Christians, originally so stark – the film opens with a brutal fight between the two boys, each infuriated with an insult to his ethnicity – is completely erased in the epilogue when the Greek and the Jew, both in their sixties, meet again, one a well-known Russian author, the other an Israeli General, as if they were fraternal twins accidentally separated at a young age.


No story about men and boys can remain neutral when it comes to the psychoanalytic mythology of Oedipus. These two films are no exception, each tracing its own Oedipal “paternal lineage.” In Ovsyanki, the Oedipal tension is barely noticeable: narrator, though baffled by his father’s ethnographic eccentricities and alcoholism (he dies in a fiery car crash), carries on his late father’s ethnographic project and fulfills his father’s most cherished wish, death by drowning, considered a good death in the tribal tradition.

By contrast, I Will Remember, is Oedipus squared. The main protagonist has to deal with two father figures, his real mercurial father, who had spent time in the Gulag, and the surrogate one, who by hook or by crook, tries to win the affections of the boy’s mother. Both are killed by the boy: the natural father inadvertently and unintentionally, the surrogate one in what could have been a murder suicide but turned out to be just a murder. I Will Remember reaffirm the natural order of generational succession and for that reason offers its viewers a future, even if a melodramatic one. Ovsyanky drowns the history of the Finnish tribe in the Volga river, dissolving it into nothingness, along with the narrator and his friend. Fedorchenko closes the book on the last survivors of the endangered species still in thrall to their archetypal roots, and as the waters close over their heads, the endless flow of highway traffic above the river keeps flowing on, and on...

Berkeley, October 2010 - December 2011

Copyright © 2011 by Grisha Freidin (gfreidin@stanford.edu)

Professor Emeritus, Stanford University

Gregory Freidin has written and taught extensively on Russian culture, literature, politics and society. His long-standing project on the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel includes a series of essays, the Norton Critical Edition of Babel's writings, letters, reminiscences and critical reception Isaac Babel's Selected Writings, W.W. Norton, 2009); a collection of essays on Babel's works and days, The Enigma of Isaac Babel, Stanford UP, 2009); his own critical biography of the writer, A Jew on Horseback: The Worlds of Isaac Babel, is forthcoming.  Freidin’s first critical biography, Coat of Many Colors (1987), a study of the life and oeuvre of the poet Osip Mandelstam, was reissued in paperback in 2010.  In 2004, Freidin organized an International Isaac Babel Conference and Workshop at Stanford, producing the U.S. premiere of Isaac Babel's play "Maria" (directed by Carl Weber) and curating an exhibition on Babel at the Hoover Libraries and Archives. These Babel-related events have received a permanent lease on life in “Babel in California,” by Elif Batuman, the events’ participant observer, who opens with it her critically acclaimed collection Possessed (FSG, 2010). Freidin's interest in contemporary Russian politics and culture found its venue in the US and Russian Press, as well as in the major conference held at Stanford University in 1998 - Russia at the End of the Twentieth Century - that brought together scholars, journalists, editors, and government officials from Russia and the US, including the Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott, with who he translated the second volume of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament (1974). The First Russian edition of The Federalist Papers came out in Freidin's translation and with his introduction in 1990.

Freidin grew up in Moscow and emigrated to the US in 1971. He attended Brandeis University in 1972 and University of California at Berkeley in 1972-78 (M.A. and Ph.D.). Freidin career at Sanford spans 1985-2014. Professor Emeritus, he now resides in Berkeley, California, where he continues his writings and research. A contributor to Arcade, Freidin maintains a personal blog on culture and politics The Noise of Time.