4Lecture16 min

Leonid Parfenov: “We did awfully little, almost nothing”

New language of the media, responsibility of the elites and the future

Experts: Leonid Parfenov

Text expansion for the Lecture

Leonid Parfenov: “We did awfully little, almost nothing”

New language of the media, responsibility of the elites and the future

00:20 — 02:02 How did the media come to speak a new language?

It bothered me that all texts broadcast, or written in the paper, were not original. There are stock clichés. They had been changing since Ilf and Petrov, yet always remained clichés: heavy rain, a record harvest, a feeling of deep satisfaction, etc. Me, I can weave a parody of such texts just like that, without thinking about the next phrase. Here we go: “The factory gatehouse that put her on her feet. Anna Kosykh came here as a barefoot girl, but now her comrades praise her ‘golden hands’, etc. You can just string phrases along until morning comes.

It was outrageous that it had all been said 20 times before. What are they paying you for? Are you doing any work? Where’s the text that you wrote? When our media reported the Bolshoi’s triumph in the USA, they write “the New York Times calls Maya Plisetskaya the queen of Soviet ballet”. Why don’t you call her that?

Among us a huge protest arose against this. I felt this need to speak I can remember very well the first phrase I said then. I wanted to speak in passages that could be quoted. The very first airing of Namedni started with Popov being elected mayor. It began “For the first time since Pericles, ruler of Athens, a Greek again becomes head of a city that is a whole state in itself.”

02:02 — 05:17 What could printed word have changed?

We were coming out of a literature-centric era. When it is written in black and white it seems that’s that, you can’t live like before. I know for many people there was before “Ivan Denisovich” and after. I know people my age who understood the hierarchy of that era: if “Ivan Denisovich” had got the Lenin Prize in ’63, there would have been no “Gulag Archipelago”, nothing. Solzhenitsyn would have become part of “Soviet literature”. He would have become mainstream. A boost to Soviet literature, but world lit would be worse off. There you have it.

Today we learned that Afanasyev died. I remember way before the “aggressively compliant majority”, before all that, when he appeared for the first time. He said in an interview with Tania Menshikova in “Sovetskaya Kultura”, the newspaper of the Party Central Committee, that a good film came out, “Moi Sovremenniki”. We see Gagarin walking down the red carpet, and then boom – the end. Where was he going? Who was he walking towards? Who was he getting ready to salute? How long are we going to pretend there was never any Khrushchev? Black and white in the Central Committee’s newspaper – Khrushchev. Let alone what a Soviet historian back then would say to an innocent question: who was Premier after Lenin? He wouldn’t be able to get it out. He just couldn’t utter the name Rykov. It was just out of the question. People knew, somehow. The Soviet Encyclopedia had an article “Trotskyism”, but no article “Trotsky”. Otherwise they would have to admit that he built up the Red Army and led the Revolutionary Military Council.

That is why every time, it was like this back then: “Listen, they are broadcasting such things on the TV right now”. “What are they broadcasting?”. “It’s not to be talked about on the phone”. There were many such things when it seemed, “That’s it”. I remember Bitov or someone saying, in a preface once, there was a deep feeling that “Lolita” would never see print. It just wouldn’t happen. The “Gulag Archipelago” isn’t so bad, but they'd never publish “Lolita”. And later it turned out that no, it didn’t mean anything.

I remember I bought a novel called “Nikolai Nikolayevich”, by Yuz Aleshkovsky, at the Pravda news agent. I opened it right there at the entrance, under the Soviet medals from the Pravda logo and I read it… I mean, I knew what I’d find there, but still... Still, it said, “We don’t give a sh..t about it”, etc. “Whoever wants to can see for themselves”. I looked up again… I think there were three medals: Order of the October Revolution, Order of Lenin, another one. I looked again at the book. How could someone have written something like that? He could.

05:17 — 09:42 Where did “old songs about the most important” come from?

First of all, we had to get rid of “Goluboy ogonyok”. No more people sitting around tables. There was Soviet pilot and astronaut Beregovoy with his wife…

Yes, we made it all up when Constantin Ernst and I were making a film about Alla Pugacheva, and we went with her on her tour to Nizhny Novgorod. There were 3 concerts there, then one more added on. At every concert they applauded not “Million Roses” or whatever, but on “To that road, to that crossroads I don’t need to hurry anymore…”.

After a concert singers always sit down for a while. They’re so worked up; they can’t calm down. They sit down, drink tea, maybe something stronger. Well, we had tea and talked about all that. We hummed something. There was no Internet back then. You had to make do with whatever words you had in your head. There was an idea to change the lyrics. Another aspect of our postmodernist perspective was that we had some Soviet film archetypes: “The Cossacks of the Kuban”, first of all. There was, I don’t know, a kolkhoz chairman, a woman with a difficult past, whose personal life did not turn out well. She said it herself. In the end she lashes out, and it’s Sofia Rotaru. She says to Bari Alibasov, “Yet again we didn’t have a chance to talk”.

A village shopkeeper, chatting women, gossipers, divorced women – these were Larisa Dolina, Irina Otieva, etc. A village poet comes back from the army, and his girlfriend hasn’t waited for him – that’s Vladimir Presnyakov, “On your doorstep...” and so on, it all came together.

The third reason was: you go to karaoke in the US and they’re singing Sinatra. At any birthday party, celebration, they sing “My Way” just like “Moscow Nights” for us. Drinking songs for the masses, or not drinking songs, but this kind… They stopped writing them across the world somewhere in the mid-60’s. So, it’s a new year, but the songs remain the old ones. After a fifth shot of vodka, if people are singing types, then they sing, “You are the same as you used to be”. In any case, it was that way 20 years ago. They will not even sing “The Plush Skirt”, though that was more for the masses than some new hits. I would come with a painting…

A reproduction of Sergei Gerasimov's canvas “Kolkhoz Festival”, and I would hold it like this. We would point our fingers at it. We would sit at the Videofilm yard, where Konstantin had his editing room. Pugacheva would come. The street was very narrow and she had this crazy Lincoln. It didn’t fit at all. We had to turn it to the side. It was 12 meters long. It was like a roadblock and we couldn’t do anything about it. But at least our star had arrived. A lot of songs were sung just like that, while she accompanied. I remember “From an unknown village, to an unknown height”, and all that. Can one down a shot of vodka like at the front during these verses. Ba-bum, ba-bum. Is this musical phrase long enough? We didn’t use that one. But this is one of the things that make you be grateful for your profession.

We had this idea that, OK, everyone has bought Panasonics, the trendy Absolut vodka appeared in shops, etc. But this, you can’t get rid of it. That code has remained. But they wrote in the Izvestiya that this was music to support the Communists in the Duma elections! It wasn’t like that. Plus, the Duma elections happened before this show even aired. Even so, they still back-dated it and attributed it to us.

09:42 — 13:55 What is the responsibility of the cultural elite of the 90’s?

Well, obviously, no institutions have been created. This is entirely the fault of the elites, of course. It was the elites, everyone, some smaller, some bigger, some more impertinent, some less, some with big money, some with little money — all of us, we did our jobs. But we didn’t do anything for society. We did awfully little, almost nothing. We did only what didn’t hinder our own careers, I guess. We all benefited from that era and tried to make it last. We would not have been the beneficiaries of the new era. It’s sad.

Of course I’d rather blame everyone, not just the elites, but the people, too. On the demand, aspirations, understanding, self-criticism. Realizing we ruined the whole 20th century, and that we must go home and be ashamed… This identity was very strong in the case of the Poles, the Czechs. And where did they go in the end? Look where Poland and Lithuania are now, and where is Kaliningrad? It just seems that it’s only about morality. But it turns out to be the economy, too. They knew that it was not us, that Edward Gierek, Wojciech Jaruzelski, Bierut, I don’t know, Husak and others – it’s not us, it’s something different. We need to go home, we need to pay for these huge… You know, how should Estonia have looked at its big sister Finland? What have they done during this time? What about us? We spent 45 years as the Estonian SSR. Everyone started off from about the same place. Plus, Kaliningrad today had about the same start as Lithuania and Poland then. And where is Kaliningrad 20 years on? Everyone was auguring it as Hong Kong on the Baltic. Geez. It’s a deeply depressed region… …can’t even feed itself.

For example, when we were making the film “The Divine Eye”, about how Shchyukin, Morozov, Tsvetaev built their collections, how they had a sense of being European. I showed Irina Antonova reviews after the film hit YouTube. People often referred to a specific minute and second. After the episode about how Shchyukin ordered a dance, there was the most daring piece, something totally unthinkable. It had been made for hanging in a house, somewhere between the first and second floor, on a landing. What kind of house was it, who was its owner? A terrible scandal, the whole world’s saying that’s it, it’s the end of art, it’s self-destruction. Who needed that in their home? What kind of a home was it? It was a Russian home and a Russian owner.

Pointing to e.g. 42'16" someone commented, “Russians rule!”. Later again, “Russians rule”. Then a long list of comments… “My God, it’s so beautiful,” she said. I am deeply convinced that the Russians still remain a taboo subject in Europe. In general, after Eastern Europe, the Baltics, we are the last European resource.

13:55 — 16:20 What does the future hold?

It’s some long-drawn transition period. Unfortunately, we’ve already lost so much time and we keep losing it. All of us, even those without any hopes, will be bitterly disappointed. Bitterly. I keep repeating this. It’ll be like Galich about Stalin: “Our comrade ate a cucumber, painfully summed it up: ‘Our Father’ proved to be a bastard, not a father…”. It can’t be avoided. It’s so much against the current of the time.

If everything seems so decrepit, then most likely it really is. We’ve already been through all this. I remember when there was an attempt… You see Brezhnev, you hear those speeches. No, there is something… It just can’t be just some driveling old man. No, there’s something… No… After all, a great, mighty tradition… They must understand something. OK, he didn’t actually write his memoirs, didn’t even read them. That’s obvious. But still, there is something…

There was nothing. Nothing. I remember some first half-adult conversation with rural writers. I didn’t participate, just witnessed it in Vologda. I realized that they didn’t dare to look… They hated the kolkhoz system… yet private land ownership was completely taboo. How did people live before 1929? I later talked to Viktor Astafyev, the most radical anticommunist of all. He had been dispossessed, and all that, Norilsk, everything… He had suffered a lot. He later admitted that “Yes, look, we lost our way in broad daylight”. We couldn’t decide, we wanted both, to have our cake and eat too.