It can be easy, as a distant observer, to watch Russian film with an eye out for remnants of the old Soviet order. We are so used to thinking in terms of a society governed by a totalitarian ideology that we often assume that those trends which proved so damaging in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union were firmly rooted in the past.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s third feature film paints quite a different picture. Set in two parts of Moscow, contrast, rather than continuity is key. Elena and her husband, a wealthy businessman, inhabit a plush apartment building complete with doorman and nearby private gym. The family of Elena’s son by a previous marriage on the other hand, live in a decrepit apartment block against a backdrop of unemployment, alcoholism and rampant indifference. The former, increasingly lawyered society offers opportunities for both work and socialising, the latter breeds a gang mentality, with petty corruption the lubricant for social mobility.
Elena herself straddles both these worlds, reminding the new Russia both of where it has come from, but more so what it has left behind. When her grandson fails to get into college on his own merits, the family fears that he will be conscripted and sent to fight one of the many bloody conflicts brought about in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The new Russia of laws and social norms offers sympathy but no solutions, so Elena takes mattes into her own hands.
Zvyagintsev’s film has earned what many Westerners would consider the ultimate epithet, being called Doestoyevskiian. In fact, while the basic division of society is there, the plot lacks the moral interrogation that the great Russian writer brought to bear on tumultuous societies. Instead, we have a wonderfully shot meditation on two very different countries and the great caesura that brought them into being. Thus the seminal moment for the Russian present, far from being the 1930s as some imagine, is much better located in the 1990s.