The evolution of the protagonist
From the criminal to the security guard
Experts: Yuri Saprykin
From the criminal to the security guard
Experts: Yuri Saprykin
From the criminal to the security guard
May 11, 2000 saw the release of Alexei Balabanov’s “Brother 2”. The lead role went to Sergei Bodrov Jr. It shows a completely new type of protagonist. One unimaginable in the Soviet past, and which did much to define the post-Soviet future.
In the late ’80s, the last Soviet years, the paradigms broke down. Some themes, layers of reality float to the surface. With them are protagonists who, due to censorship or a different vision, had never been considered before.
The heroes of post-Perestroika cinema were at the same time anti-heroes. If we recall the cinema of perestroika, its protagonists are marginals, semi-criminals who have a difficult relationship with the law and with reality: “Little Vera”, “Crash – A Cop’s Daughter”, “Intergirl”, “A Rock-Style Tragedy”. This New Realism, so-called “chernukha” would draw scorn for teaching children to become criminals, prostitutes. It really just reflected a reality that was long overlooked or straight-out banned.
By the early ’90s the most popular films, books, coop filmmaking had become genre stories about crime.
So who is the hero of early ’90s popular literature?
He’s an “Antikiller”, “Madman”, “Nickname: Beast”, a bandit or a militiaman: these roles could quickly switch. He fights evil, naturally with his fists, the methods at hand, without much concern for law or morality.
The early ’90s were a folkloric era. On the path to this pruning we inevitably arrive at archetypes deeply set in the popular consciousness, in popular culture.
In politics this was strongly reflected, for what is Yeltsin, or the dreams associated with Yeltsin’s image? Naturally it was an epic hero, asleep for 33 years in a cushy Party job, now awake. With a shrug of his shoulder, a wave of his hand, he destroys the system.
In pop culture these folklore traits began to be strongly manifested. Early ’90s protagonists are more intelligent cinema than the “Madman” films: it’s a small guy, a baffled simpleton caught up in ridiculous adventures. In Nikolai Dostal’s fine “Cloud-Paradise”, the protagonist’s restless, can’t find his place in life. He tells his small-town neighbors that he wants a change and is going east. Everyone says farewell to him. They dream about how things will turn out great for him there. Then he says it was a joke. Too late. They just force him on a bus, and he’s borne away to a new life. It’s completely out of an “Ivan the Fool” story.
The new reality that can be sensed by the mid ’90s was having a hard time coming into pop culture. There are people who are launching their own business. Entrepreneurs, and not necessarily doing pyramid schemes. Most are engaged in things useful for society. Pop culture hardly notices this at all.
Consider the completely folkloric film “Love in Russian” by leading Soviet filmmaker Yevgeny Matveyev. There the protagonists leave their ordinary life behind. They head to the village to farm. Naturally criminals attack and they have to fight them off. That’s the image of the popular hero in ’90s film. It’s evidence for pop culture’s failure to grasp the new reality.
Maybe the sole film trying to get this new class is Pavel Lungin’s “Oligarch”. This film too shows a revealing pathos, but at least protagonist Mashkov (based on Berezovsky) is a real person, not a cartoon character. He’s a person with depth, with a drama to him.
From the late ’90s, a wave of films appears rejecting this reality. The protagonists are now people who actively fight this reality, sometimes with arms. The first in this genre are Lutsik and Samoryadov. The only film both written by them and with Lutsik directing was “The Outskirts”, a subtle stylization of 1930s Soviet film where one also found epic characters: a soldier, a farmer, peasants. They are, again, robbed by bankers and merchants. Their lands, everything is being plundered. They set off against them like heroes of some Pugachevian revolt. They eventually come to Moscow, to an evil lair in a Kudrinskaya Square high-rise. They find some boss oligarch, who controls huge banks and oil. Now they get their fearsome revenge.
Perhaps the most powerful, most popular statement on the vengeance theme, this new resentment, was Balabanov’s “Brother” films, especially “Brother 2”. Balabanov managed to grasp something that pop culture didn’t then. In the media these feelings were reflected mainly in patriotic newspapers, which few took seriously. It is the rage of a man still young who has lost his homeland, his place in the world. He has lost some rather naive ideas about justice, and he tries to restore justice in the coarsest way possible.
“Brother 2” in this sense was completely prophetic. It’s an example of a film foreseeing the mood that would sweep Russia 10–15 years on. It’s a genre, folkloric, often tawdry cinema. Its protagonist first utters words, which in the 2010s, are almost mainstream.
His world is one where all evil comes from the West, from America first of all. The representatives of this evil in Russia are all-powerful oligarchs or just the wealthy. In fact, power lies not in money but in truth. Whoever possesses the truth is stronger. This truth consists of simple, naive love for one’s homeland in the form of grass, forest, and every ear of wheat in the field, the readiness to defend not so much the homeland itself (because it does not really exist anymore) but fragments of it scattered around the world: its representatives humiliated, insulted, deceived. It doesn’t matter who: some hockey player who was tricked out of his money; a Russian prostitute enslaved by an African-American pimp. They just have to defend themselves with a gun in their hands.
In the early 2000s “Brother 2” was largely seen as a genre exercise. Yet there was an acute need then for a new kind of hero. Oleg Menshikov illustrates well how the need was met.
You might think Menshikov was meant to play good guys. He had done just that his whole life.
In the early ’90s he was in Lutsik and Samoryadov’s “Dyuba-Dyuba”, there too an intellectual lost in the new world. He fought for his love against cops, thugs, wild figures. In the mid ’90s Menshikov was in “Prisoner of the Mountains” as a Russian officer taken prisoner by Chechens. In Nikita Mikhalkov’s “Burnt by the Sun” he’s again a reflective intellectual from the ’30s. He gets revenge on the new overlords for his stolen childhood, for everything good that Komdiv Kotov took away, and he reports him to the NKVD. But late ’90s Menshikov is already the tsar’s servant, father to soldiers, a supporter of autocracy who assets the new autocratic values. In “The Barber of Siberia” again by Mikhakov, he’s a Russian officer, but what matters is the mysterious Russian soul, which a Westerner can’t quite grasp. What matters for him are duty and honor, how he freezes at Nikita Mikhalklov playing Alexander III, who rides a fine horse into the Kremlin with his heir seated before him.
This demand for a new hero was greatly apparent in politics. It’s well known that when Kremlin technologists chose Yeltsin’s successor, they looked at polls on which film character most deserved to rule Russia. In ’99 Peter the Great and Marshall Zhukov led these polls. There were films about them, but they weren’t actually movie characters. In second place was Stierlitz, a scout behind enemy lines. In spite of everyone, he secretly holds patriotic values. Also Gleb Zheglov from “The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed”: a strong, taciturn male lead. His entire mythology lay in the phrase “A thief should go to prison.” Putin was in many ways a projection of this image into politics.
Going back to Menshikov, he also played Fandorin. He was also a man of the autocracy, yet with some European values. He ultimately cares about responsibility, the law, good manners.
Akunin is perhaps the only mass-market author who tries to create a new, positive hero, a new face of European Russia. Everyone else in films, TV, books tries to please society’s new demands, tries to gain a new audience.
In the early 2000s the big film and TV market is clearly a special social class. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call them “the security guards”. It’s men from the security forces, now in who knows what kind of jobs. They have fallen aside, but they feel comforted to guard something important, they have something to do. If something happens, they’ll pick up a gun and do some great feat. Patriotism, the “strong hand”, etc. characterize them. If we look at the most popular TV from the early 2000s, it’s basically about men who are unsettled, alcoholic, but real men – cops – who battle criminals. Take “Streets of Broken Lights”, “Cops”, “Glukhar”: typologically the same characters from TV show to TV show. It’s all the dreams of a security guard at work, in front of a small TV. He sees himself in this unsightly, unsettled guy who does heroic feats.
It all also reflects the new reality in which we found ourselves in the early 2000s, but there are two more important things here: firstly, TV and film definitively create the myth of the 1990s, an image of the ’90s as a wild epoch without limits. The early 2000s’ characters are mainly thugs in leather jackets. They run around with guns shooting each other, but they still have some good in them. These are the men in “Brigada”, “Bumer”, even Balabanov’s “Dead Man's Bluff”: grotesque caricatures who fill the screen with blood. Yet by Balabanov’s prophetic spirit, eventually they’re shown overlooking the Kremlin, deciding state affairs. It’s a fairly accurate picture of society’s transition from the ’90s to the 2000s.
A new reality with new money, new social relations. It’s present in mass culture as if being unmasked. It’s the glamorous film and books of the 2000s: Sergei Minaev’s “Dukhless”, Oksana Robski’s novel “Casual”, and the TV and other films that followed. It’s an ecstatic new life with fancy cars, clubs, cocaine, huge mansions, etc. On the other hand, the protagonist feels it’s empty, it’s not real. Even the pop culture which notices this reality, instinctively rejects it. Paradoxically, it converges with the resentment, the wish for revenge which is fully present in the 2000s after “Brother 2”.
Perhaps this trend is most vivid in the 2000s in Zakhar Prilepin. His first big story “Sankya”, is about a young man like Danil Bagrov from Balabanov’s films. He lives in a small town, feels his homeland has been taken away, his dreams. His parents are penniless, he’s unemployed. Eventually he and another youth storm the local authorities with guns. It thus foresees the Primorsky Partisans episode a decade later.
Prilepin develops this trend in all his books. And his own life, in which he passed through Chechnya to Limonov in the National Bolsheviks, is partially based on similar values. His last novel “Abode”, the most popular of the 2010s, is a completely new take on the positive hero.
The book is set in the 1920s in the Solovetsky prison camp. In many ways it follows on Russian gulag literature, but turns its values upside down. A camp is a place of unbelievable suffering. A place where evil reigns. For Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, it was an evil the Soviet system had wrought, and it needed to be destroyed. For Prilepin it’s instead a natural Russian course. It’s a cycle of torment where oppressors and victims change places, yet also a special Russian path towards holiness. It’s no accident the camp was built over Solovetsky Monastery. Thus, tormenting and murdering each other, we ascend to heaven.
Of course, for mass-market culture this path is too radical. In the 2010s it starts to allude to the past create a new national myth, a new pantheon of heroes which always existed among historical eras. It might be the Afghan War, the Civil War, but mainly World War II. It might be peacetime situations, when the heroes fight for their country in hockey, like “Legend No. 17”. 2010s mass culture is a search for a positive example that once was. Its features are a readiness to suffer anything for the homeland, to fight for it, to repel the enemy. Completely militaristic values.
Interestingly, the people who've been writing and making films these 20 years managed practically not to notice the new reality around them. They remained unadapted to it, didn’t create any patterns of behaving in it, surviving in it while being successful yet respectable people. All mass-market literature, film of these decades tried to expose the new reality, fight it, escape into the past where there are positive examples: various wars, Prince Vladimir’s time, ancient epochs far removed from us. Wherever, just not here and now.