“A Bomb into the Lap of Mother Russia”: Little Vera (Vasiliy Pichul, 1988)
In May 1989, an issue of the American magazine Playboy caused a furore in the Soviet Union.1 The cover model, Natalya Negoda, clad in a midriff-baring top that read My za Mir (Russian: We stand for Peace), was a Soviet actress and star of the recent film Malenkaya Vera (Little Vera, Vasiliy Pichul, 1988). Her appearance on the cover of Playboy, under the title “The Soviets’ First Sex Star”, was clearly intended to break taboos, standing in stark contrast with the ironic claim publicised three years previously that “There is no sex in the USSR.”2 Negoda’s eponymous role in the first Soviet film to feature an explicit sex scene proved that there was indeed sex in the USSR, much to the delight, no doubt, of Playboy’s readers.
Directed by Vasiliy Pichul and written by Mariya Khmelik, only 28 and 26 years old respectively, Little Vera’s punkish energy made it a succès de scandale in the spring of 1988, one of the most talked about films of the glasnost era. Set in Zhdanov (present-day Mariupol, Ukraine), a provincial town on the Black Sea, the film follows the story of Vera, a wayward high-school student. Dressed almost exclusively in miniskirts, loud tops, and plastic jewelry, Vera despises her downtrodden working-class parents and prefers the company of Lena, a like-minded late Soviet rebel. After a disco at a local park ends in a tussle with the police, Vera meets the neighborhood heartthrob, Sergey. Their relationship is viewed with hostility by Vera’s parents and her older brother, who has been summoned from Moscow to “talk some sense” into his sister. Things hardly improve when the parents meet Sergey and he unceremoniously leaves the dinner table with Vera and takes her to the bedroom. Tensions further escalate when Sergey moves into the family apartment: Vera’s alcoholic father stabs Sergey in a drunken brawl and the latter is hospitalised. With Vera sinking into depression, her family persuades her to recant her testimony to the police in order to make sure that her father does not end up in jail. Under pressure from her parents and given the cold shoulder by her lover, Vera tries to commit suicide by overdosing on anti-depressants. Although she is saved by her brother, Vera is too distraught to rejoice at Sergey’s return. In the final scene, her father collapses to the kitchen floor and dies of a heart attack.
A melodramatic yet broadly realist representation of everyday life in the Gorbachev-era USSR, Little Vera captures the increasingly consumerist cultural landscape of the glasnost era, which combined Western imports with Soviet kitsch. A group of young people sit mesmerised watching a foreign music video; Vera’s father keeps his vodka – or, most likely, moonshine – in a Beefeater gin bottle; and the door to Sergey’s dorm room is covered with brightly-colored American cigarette packets. These tokens of consumer culture are offset by Soviet bric-a-brac: grimy furniture, porcelain figurines, and wall rugs. In a brief, unmotivated scene, one of Vera’s friends is having an Orthodox crucifix tattooed on his chest, seemingly as a modish gesture rather than a symbol of faith. In Russian, “Little Vera” also means “little faith”. But the film is not so much about losing one’s religion as the discomfiting realisation that when the old regime begins to collapse, all that is solid melts into air.
Fin de régime malaise gives the themes of teenage angst and intergenerational strife a bleak, existential bent that constitutes a distinctive cinematic style. As Vera says, “This is the happiest time of my life, but all I want is to cry all the time.” How else were Eastern Bloc youth to feel about the end of Communism? Little Vera followed in the wake of Vai viegli būt jaunam? (Is It Easy to be Young?, Juris Podnieks, 1986), a hit Latvian documentary about the perestroika generation, which portrayed them as confused, disenchanted, and alienated. At the same time, Little Vera’s naturalistic portrayal of life in the depressing Soviet backwaters led many critics to associate the film with a genre called chernukha, which has been defined as “representational art that emphasizes the darkest, bleakest aspects of human life […] [with] an emphasis on physicality and “naturalism”3. Broadly a phenomenon of 1980s Soviet cinema, the term has been applied to a fairly heterogeneous body of films, from Rashid Nugmanov’s Igla (The Needle, 1988) or Vitaliy Kanevskiy Zamri, umri, voskresni! (Freeze, Die, Come to Life!, 1989) in the USSR to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (1975) or Tinto Brass’s Caligula (1979) in the West. However, for all its stylish, chernukha-infused violence and eroticism, Little Vera goes beyond genre filmmaking in its critique of late Soviet culture.
In one seemingly gratuitous scene, a group of teenagers fight with flick knives next to giant billboards of Soviet leaders and what seems to be a monument to the air force. It is typical of the film’s portrayal of the disintegration ideology that had animated the official culture of the USSR. As Anna Lawton observes, “the stigma of poshlost’ (lack of spiritual values), traditionally an attribute of the petty bourgeoisie is here placed on the working class.4 From teenagers illegally selling foreign currency turning to more serious crime, to Vera’s aggressive and calculating parents, the proletariat is thoroughly rotten in Little Vera. The casting choice for Vera’s parents – Ludmila Zaytseva (Pechki-lavochki [Happy Go Lucky, 1972]; A zori zdes tikhiye [The Dawns Here are Quiet, 1972]) and Yuriy Nazarov (Goryachiy sneg [Hot Snow, 1972]; Zemlya sannikova [The Sannikov Land, 1974]) – adds to the shocking effect. As one of the film’s first reviews remarks, “Zaitseva used to be a patent ‘simple, heartfelt woman’ of the Soviet screen; Nazarov was a well-known ‘brawny, reliable guy’ [and] Little Vera turned their stereotypes upside down.”5
Although the film certainly does not romanticise the workers as the chiseled Stakhanovites of 1930s socialist realist sculpture, it is hardly optimistic about the nascent, Americanised bourgeoisie either. Sergey, in spite of his filthy room, represents the latter: he does not have to work since his parents support him from their jobs abroad and he wears Western-style clothes. His constant reading becomes a bone of contention with his proletarian future in-laws. Sergey’s brazen attitude, invasion of the family’s private space, and rudeness (“Why are your parents so dumb?”) make him no more sympathetic a figure than Vera’s parents. This petty class conflict, which casts both sides in a negative light, deconstructs the entire social structure of the Soviet Union, which had been presented in the official discourse as classless and driven by the principle of “one human being is a friend, a comrade and a brother to another human being”, as posited in the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism.
Scenes of vodka-soaked violence against women also point toward the double-bind of the hollowness of tradition and its replacement by the promise of nothing good. Since the campaigns for the emancipation of women in the 1920s, gender equality was postulated as a given in the Soviet society. Sexual liberation became a common topic in political discourse and cultural production, from Aleksandra Kollontai’s “Make Way For Winged Eros” (1923) to Abram Romm’s film Tretya Meshchanskaya (Bed and Sofa, 1927) and Sergey Tretyakov’s play Khochu Rebënka (I Want a Baby, 1927). Later, thousands of Soviet women entered the workforce and fought alongside men during the Second World War. In Little Vera, Soviet gender egalitarianism appears to be thin on the ground but the new Western-style sexual liberation seems to be no less of a sham. Vera’s mother remarks “Don’t get married – they will torture you with cooking and laundry.” Young women are straight-jacketed in domostroy expectations by men old and young alike: Vera is habituated to carrying her (much larger) drunk father to bed and accepts Sergey’s halfhearted marriage proposal, despite his mocking comment: “We’re going to marry so that you can wake up next to me every day and make me delicious dinners.” Most importantly, Pichul brings into the spotlight the routine sexual abuse of women: the viewers find out that Vera was harassed by her physics teacher when she was barely a teenager and later we see her attacked by her ex-boyfriend, Andrey, who crudely lays his claims on her body: “You wouldn’t put out for a whole year, now you’re gonna come with me!”6
Little Vera’s cinematography of the urban landscape serves to further materialise the broken promises of Communism. Having likely emerged in posters for the propagation of the goals of the First Five-Year Plan (1928-1932) and continued with the major-scale programs of construction of the following decades, industrial imagery had been a staple topos of Socialist Realism, a stand-in for the USSR’s industrial power. In the late 1980s, undermining industrial imagery became a recurrent mechanism for political critique. Little Vera begins with a panorama of towering smokestacks and factory buildings that surround a maze of khrushchëvki – cheap housing projects consisting of identical five-floor apartment buildings with notoriously small units that were built to alleviate the discomforts of communal apartments in the Khruschev era (1953-1964). Despite occupying a seemingly peripheral place and serving primarily as a backdrop for recreating the atmosphere of a late-Soviet provincial town, glimpses of decrepit industry, scaffolds, and heaps of rusty scrap metal serve as subdued visual leitmotifs that are reinforced by mournful factory sounds that can be heard throughout the film. Trains that appear out of nowhere with plodding regularity create the impression of a monotonous cyclical temporality in the hermetic space of the provinces. Notably, even though the town is full of means of transportation – trains, taxis, trucks, ships – it is impossible to escape it. The viewers’ attention is drawn to the landscape of industrial ruin when Sergey hurls a bottle through a hospital window that overlooks a surreal image of mounds of scrap metal overgrown with lush vegetation, emphasizsng the significance of the industrial setting for the film.
With its naturalism and a foray into previously forbidden topics, Little Vera marked a watershed moment in Soviet cinema, for which it has been deservedly called “the first full-fledged product of New Model Soviet Cinema” and the “ground-zero” film of the 1980s.7 In its wake followed such hits as Pëtr Todorovskiy’s Interdevochka (Intergirl, 1989), a story about the lives of Soviet hard-currency prostitutes, and Pavel Lungin’s Taksi-Blyuz (Taxi Blues, 1990), a long goodbye to the ideals of perestroika and a bitter comment on the sense of bewilderment of the final years of the USSR. Political and cultural changes in Putin’s Russia brought the coming-of-age dramas and the ever-increasing generation gap, this time between Soviet parents and post-Soviet children, back into the artistic purview. It’s hard to not hear an echo of Pichul’s film in Valeriya Gay Germanika’s Vse umrut, a ya ostanus (Everybody Dies But Me, 2008), when the heroine played by Polina Filonenko, having been raped and beaten, returns home to her obtuse parents and the omnipresent dinner table: “Why don’t you get lost, dear mother? Why don’t you get lost, dear daddy? I don’t give a fuck about [what you say].” Germanika’s film and the many other “heirs” to Little Vera have revitalised the urgency of Pichul’s film in the Putin era, turning the theme of alienated urban youth into a powerful and aesthetically distinctive political critique – or, to put it in Playboy’s words, “a bomb into the lap of the Motherland.”
- “That Glasnost Girl,” Playboy, May 1989. ↩
- In July 1986, during one of the U.S.-Soviet “space bridge” broadcasts organised by Vladimir Pozner and Phil Donahue, one of the participants famously said that “There is no sex in the USSR.” ↩
- Seth Graham, “Chernukha and Russian Film”, Studies in Slavic Cultures 1 (January 2000): 9. ↩
- Anna Lawton, Kinoglasnost: Soviet Cinema in Our Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 192. ↩
- Tatiana Moskvina, “Forward, singing!,” in Michael Brashinsky and Andrew Horton (eds.), Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 106. ↩
- Little Vera also used much stronger language than any previous Soviet films. ↩
- Nicholas Galichenko, Glasnost: Soviet Cinema Responds, trans. Robert Allington. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991), p. 111; Michael Brashinsky and Andrew Horton, Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 108. ↩