A Brief American Intervention Regarding The Barber of Siberia

Seth Graham, University of Pittsburgh

One of the most persistent trends identified with Russo-Soviet cinema since the demise of censorship has been chernukha, a pejorative label that refers to the most radical visual manifestation of desovietization, a display of visceral excess that emphasizes with graphic naturalism and hermetic pessimism Russia's social ills and historical abscesses: crime, poverty, filth, ugliness, disease, desperation, drug abuse, drunkenness, cruelty, and violence. It depicts unremitting suffering and unmotivated harm to selves and others in unfiltered, uncontextualized contemporary settings.

The widespread belief that chernukha has inflicted great aesthetic and economic damage on the Russian film industry has provoked explicit interventions. Filmmakers have responded on screen to the chernukha threat in various ways. Appeals to a meta-textual nostalgia for Soviet film have been common. Another impulse I would categorize as responsive to chernukha is the cinematic recovery of everyday culturemes: the objects and activities of byt, of the "malaia rodina," the small motherland, with its comforting little-v values and little-t traditions. Vodka has been a central cultureme in such films.

Nikita Mikhalkov's 1998 blockbuster The Barber of Siberia is relevant to this year's symposium theme—Evropsk, Russia: Out of European Order—in that it implicitly addresses the image of the Russian as "out of order," as the rowdy, drunken hooligan of European culture who is also, however, the most knowledgeable and appreciative connoisseur of that culture. Mikhalkov envisioned Barber as both a needed dose of hope and national pride for domestic audiences and a quality export that rebutted international representations of Russia. His was also one of the loudest voices in the chorus of criticism directed at negative depictions of Russia in the foreign media.

I discuss Mikhalkov's film in the context of the tradition of which it is chronologically a part—post-Soviet cinema—and illustrate how it is an almost programmatic anti-chernukha text. Barber has exquisite production value and offers an aggressively coherent narrative. There is no depiction of unstructured time, loitering, unmotivated activity, or uncontextualized byt.

There are, however, four scenes of physical violence and four scenes of drinking, two elements that are de rigueur in chernukha film, and which are therefore problematic in a text conceived so militantly against chernukha imagery. The film engages the stereotype of the Russian as an impetuous, belligerent drunk by impeccably motivating its scenes of drinking and violence, which are highly contextualized both in the narrative structure and in the larger cultural traditions they depict. Mikhalkov's project is an aggressive recovery and recodification of culturemes that have been abused and squandered by post-Soviet filmmakers, but which cannot be ignored because their undeniable appeal to the Russian filmgoer makes them indispensable elements in the nascent Russian popular cinema.