Istoriya Asi Klyachinoy, kotoraya lyubila, da ne vyshla zamuzh (Asya’s Happiness) is a seminal film, a film that suffered numerous title changes and edits by edict. It is a rediscovered classic that was shelved for 20 years and now stands as a testament to the paranoid absurdity of Soviet censorship. It is a film that provided a powerful start for some careers and stunted others. With its natural lightness and exploration of femininity it broke the genre of the collective farm-worker movie and introduced a deeply Russian neo-realism that celebrated the rural, spiritual environment through stunning black-and-white cinematography and breathtakingly authentic performances by non-professional actors that captured the sounds, stories and pace of life in the village of Bezvodnoye. It is regrettable that the story of Asya’s Happiness invariably returns to issues of political censorship, as it is a film about love. Complex, inexplicable, lonely, broken, violent, tender, unspeakable and proud are the various manifestations of Russian love that we witness in this remarkable story.
We gaze across a wide, gently billowing field to the endless horizon somewhere in central southern Russia. A child is lying in the tall grass looking dreamily at the sky. Gradually we meet the workers of the collective farm languidly going about their daily routines. What we are shown is a matriarchy in a typical Russian village. The women are more active and more powerful than the men. They are just recovering from the ravages war, the evidence of which is everywhere: invalids, haunted memories, the paucity of men and the loneliness of women. The widower Chirkunov arrives from the big smoke in his dark jacket having taken his holidays to visit his old village. Without wasting much time he sort of pesters and sort of proposes to the farm cook Asya (Iya Savvina), as she guts fish and diffidently ignores him. We see she has a glowing round face, sharp bright eyes and a slight limp. Chirkunov has been in love with her for a long time. But she refuses his proposal. Asya doesn’t love him. Asya lives in a house with four generations of women. The only man present hangs on the wall – a portrait of her great grandfather who built their shack. Asya actually loves the loutish Stepan and is pregnant to him. Stepan treats her atrociously and Asya knows that their romance is doomed. Chirkunov insists; he has money and wants to marry her even though she is pregnant to another. But when Stepan, in a moment of lucidity, asks Asya to marry him, she refuses. Not because she doesn’t love him, but because she is too proud.
This is Asya’s story of love, suffering and virtue. She comes across as the Russian Madonna, righteous, patient, hard-working, bearing her cross with dignity despite her harsh life. She bears no grudge against her fate, her lame leg, her dissolute man. Life for Asya is a gift that is far greater than any social expectations. She combines the peasant’s patience and moral strength with the intellectual’s innate spiritual delicacy (1). Iya Savvina’s performance as Asya is radiant but appropriately indistinguishable from the rest of the untrained cast. Asya’s Happiness could be called an ethnographic melodrama for aside from the three lead actors all the supporting cast are actually collective farm workers. Strangely for a Moscow aesthete such as Konchalovsky, the film does not observe these figures as weird specimens of a perverted humanity. In contrast to his later films, their stories and faces are not moulded into leaden metaphors of the soul of Russia. This is a genuine Russian love story, one that would haunt Konchalovsky throughout his career.
The villagers who appear in the film do not only bring a profound sense of authenticity to the proceedings, they also share their real stories of love. In the process, the film captures these incredible characters, their voices, their dialect, and their real stories at a time when these things were not being documented. We get village life in the raw. There is Prokhorov, the soldier who sustained a mangled hand from a landmine explosion. Sitting smoking beside a truck that he is fixing, he talks about the girl he fell in love with during the war and how he competed with his best friend for her attention. It was only after this friend’s death and the end of the war that he felt that he could approach her. He describes her in such an exalted tone (as if she was a goddess) that the surrounding world takes on a different, lighter quality. Then there is the old man who after the war spent eight years in jail “for nothing”, a statement he makes without a hint of bitterness. His comment comes across as casual because so many others rotted in jails for no reason. Sitting in the tea-house over a beer, his story meanders across a landscape of remarkable historical change. Thus, upon his release in 1953 he comes home to his wife and realises they have grown apart: “we sat opposite one another and we looked at one another and we had nothing to say to one another, absolutely nothing”. And with a tear in his eye he proclaims his faith in the people, that life will be better and that he loves the motherland. It is these unscripted “vérité” monologues of country folk who were rarely represented in the films of that time (unless they were heavily veneered) that form the spiritual core of this groundbreaking film.
Asya’s Happiness can be seen as part of the USSR’s stuttering New Wave. In his second feature film as director, Andrei Konchalovsky (2) employed startling new methods for a Soviet director of the time: synchronised sound, improvisation, rewriting the script while the film was being shot, and the use of non-professional actors. In his 1977 rumination on directing, Parabola zamysla (Parabola of Concept), Konchalovsky revealed the extent of his film’s innovation and improvisational approach to directing both professional and non-professional actors. Unusually for that time in the USSR, for example, he used synchronised sound recordings to capture the testimonies of storytellers shot in natural interiors and utilising long takes and two or three cameras (3). Some of these innovations may be directly attributed to his Director of Photography, Georgi Rerberg, who started and made his career with Konchalovsky before becoming one of the USSR’s most celebrated cinematographers, working with Tarkovsky on Zerkalo (Mirror, 1975) and an early version of Stalker (1979). Konchalovsky himself studied with the older Tarkovsky, collaborating on the scripts of three of his early successes: Katok i skripka (The Steamroller and the Violin, 1961), Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966). At about the same time as he was experiencing censorship problems with Asya’s Happiness, Tarkovsky was battling the censors over Andrei Rublev, but with different results.
Konchalovsky’s art is closely aligned with Tarkovsky’s, but he has not experienced the same fame or recognition as a filmmaker (even though his output has been significant and eclectic with some brilliant literary adaptations in the 1970s). In the 1980s he became the first post-war Russian director to make a name for himself in Hollywood. After the international success of the epic Sibiriada (Siberiad, 1979) Konchalovsky emigrated to the United States, making a range of films including the children’s adventure tale, Runaway Train (1985), based on an Akira Kurosawa story, and the police action comedy Tango & Cash (1989) starring Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell and Jack Palance. As Elena Plakhova has suggested,
Konchalovsky along with Polanski and Forman became the links between the film worlds of the West and the East. However, unlike Forman and Polanski – he did not become a complete character of “that” world, because he recklessly sought to protect and cultivate the remains of Slavic romanticism. (4)
While his Hollywood output was considerable and diverse, Konchalovsky became disillusioned with the studio machine and returned to Russia in the early 1990s. His first project was a continuation of Asya’s story some 30 years later but told as a comic fairytale, Kurochka Ryaba (Ryaba, My Chicken, 1994). Although Asya’s Happiness defined Konchalovsky’s cinematic career, the censoring of the film, and the director’s subsequent acquiescence to the demands of the ideologues, also stunted it and denied him the sort of mythical status enjoyed by Tarkovsky.
There is a kind of perverse pleasure to be gained from contemplating the reasons why a particular film had once been censored. Asya’s Happiness was completed in December 1966 and had a small run to considerable acclaim in specialist film clubs (as well as being screened for the non-professional cast at their regional cinema). It was officially passed by the censors in March 1967, but then after considerable cuts it was ultimately not released. Birgit Beumers argues that “the film was shelved for portraying the life of a single mother, living in a collective farm, who prefers to raise her child alone, rather than marry the child’s alcoholic father” (5). In Soviet Socialist Realist cinema, rural life was invariably presented with the veneer of happiness rather than as it really was. Konchalovsky’s film was a breakthrough in terms of featuring local dialects, informal, at times, crude speech, authentic stories and showing the real poverty, wretchedness and beauty of everyday life. The authorities didn’t want real life, they wanted positive heroes, glorious myths and beautiful, smiling people who made hard work look easy. Ruminating on the fate of his film, Konchalovsky claimed that “the representation of the simple life in the story of Asya pierced the audience with its pain, its misery, its frozenness. Since it was not possible in Soviet Russia to be unhappy. It was not permitted. All were happy. But the blood flowed… and the moans did not cease.” (6) Irrespective of Konchalovsky’s family pedigree (or perhaps because of it), the film was condemned as “obviously the work of the CIA” by the then chairman of the KGB, who denounced the film in an expletive laden speech. The authorities were dismayed by the director’s decision to feature so many invalids, so much misery, disorder and dissoluteness. They demanded changes. Konchalovsky complied, providing numerous cuts and re-edits. Even the name of the film was altered to “Asya’s Happiness” to better reflect the more optimistic revisions that the director was forced to make. He joked later, “I was euphoric. I had become a dissident for a short time. But I did not suffer absolutely. When you are a banned artist – everyone looks at you with respect. Everyone understands, what it means.” (7) Neya Zorkaya, who conducted a comprehensive investigation into the censorship process prior to Asya’s Happiness shelving, considered it “a serious failure, and [that] the director [had] plunged into erratic experimenting” (8). Others, such as Val Golovskoy, assert that the director’s compliance with the demands of authorities had destroyed his status as an artist, leading him to a path of conformism that eventually led to his disillusionment and emigration (9). The triumphal public screening in December 1987 of the largely (but not completely) restored film was a profound moment of perestroika.
But Asya’s Happiness (or more correctly, The Story of Asya Kliachina) deserves to be remembered not for its infamous censorship, but as a delicate story about love and the little represented rural life of Russia in the 1960s. Asya’s strong-minded and unexpected rejection of the men around her is testament to her dignity. Asya’s happiness is her pride and her ability to make a very small but private choice in a world that was far from free.
- Marina Kuznetsova, “Istoriya Asyi Klyachinoi, kotorya lyubila, no nevyshla zamyzh”, Russkoe Kino: http://www.russkoekino.ru/books/ruskino/ruskino-0074.shtml.
- Konchalovsky is a part of a centuries-old Russian artistic and aristocratic dynasty. He is the older brother of Nikita Mikhalkov and the father of the hip film director, Yegor Konchalovsky. He is also the grandson of painter Pyotr Mikhalkov and the son of the beloved children’s writer and celebrated composer of the Soviet National Anthem, Sergei Mikhalkov.
- Andrei Konchalovsky, Parabola zamysla [Parabola of Concept], Moscow, 1977, p. 58.
- Elena Plakhova, “Andrei Konchalovsky: Russian formulae for success”, Seans no. 9: http://seance.ru/n/9/limage-russe/blizhniy-krug/rossiyskaya-formula-kinouspeha-andrey-konchalovskiy/.
- Birgit Beumers, Pop Culture Russia! Media, Arts, and Lifestyle, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, 2005, p. 8.
- Andrei Konchalovsky, Vozvyshayushei Obman, Kolktsiya “Sovershenno Sekretno”, Moscow, 1999.
- Interview with Konchalovsky quoted on his personal website: www.konchalovsky.ru/sub1.php?razdel=0&id=3.
- Neya Zorkaya, The Illustrated History of the Soviet Cinema, Hippocrene Books, New York, 1989. p. 252. See also Neya Zorkaya, “Ne stoit selo bez pravednicy”, Iskusstvo Kino no. 1, 1989.
- Valeriy Golovskoy, “Pechalnaya istoriiya Asi Klychinoi”, Vestnik Online no. 2 (339), 21 January 2004: http://www.vestnik.com/issues/2004/0121/win/golovskoy.htm.
Istoriya Asi Klyachinoy, kotoraya lyubila, da ne vyshla zamuzh/The Story of Asya Kliachina/Asya’s Happiness (1966/1987 USSR 99 mins)
Prod Co: Mosfilm Dir: Andrei Konchalovsky Scr: Yuri Klepikov Phot: Georgi Rerberg Ed: L. Pokrovskaya Art Dir: Michael Romadin
Cast: Iya Savvina, Aleksander Surin, Liubov Sokolova, Gennadi Yegorychev, Michail Krylov, Nikolai Nazarov, Ludmila Zaitseva, Ivan Petrov, Boris Parfenov