The Bizarre Soviet Movie That Predicted Putinism
With a downcast expression of existential despair, Varakin pleads that he only wants to go home.
“You don’t appreciate the seriousness of the Nikolayev case,” the response responds, then the prosecutor adds, ominously, “because it affects the interests of the state.”
At that point, the prosecutor pulls out a chair and delivers Varakin perhaps the most succinct articulation of Russkii mir statism, in which Russian society must serve the needs of the state, rather than the other way around.
“Since the time of the Tatar-Mongol invasion, the main idea that unites us – which inspired generations of our ancestors – is the idea of a state,” he proclaims. “A large and powerful state is the ideal for which the Russian is ready to suffer, to bear any deprivation. Ready – if necessary – to give his life.
Noting Varakin’s silence, the prosecutor continued:
“It is an irrational idea. It is not the pragmatic European who strives to extract the maximum personal profit. It is the idea of the great Russian mind, of which your own individuality, and mine, is only a small subordinate part, but which gives us back a hundredfold. This sense of belonging to a great organism inspires in our minds a feeling of strength and immortality. The West has always tried to discredit our idea of a state. But the greatest danger lies not in the West, but in ourselves. We seize on all these incessant and fashionable Western ideas, seduced by their obvious rationality and practicality, without realizing that these qualities alone give them a fatal power over us.
Varakin said nothing. “But too bad,” continues the prosecutor.
“In the end, our own idea always comes out victorious. Look, all our revolutions ultimately led not to the destruction, but to the strengthening and strengthening of the state. They always will. But few people realize that the present moment is one of the most critical in all of our history. And the case of Chief Nikolayev – which seems so banal at first glance – has a deep meaning.
“So…there’s no way you can leave town.”
Defeated, Varakin understands that fighting against the official narrative is futile. Any hope of contentment can only come from state-sanctioned subordination to alternate reality. And in doing so – and reluctantly accepts the role of the slain leader’s son – he is celebrated as a hero by the citizens of this bizarro City Zero.
Varakin’s resignation no doubt sounds familiar to many citizens of contemporary Russia, especially after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, accompanied by the crackdown on free speech against anyone who questions “the operation Special Military” of Russia. For independent-minded journalists, activists and even oligarchic elitesthe only means of political survival is either to subordinate oneself to the surreality by Putin Russkii mir, or to leave it; and it becomes more and more difficult to escapemuch like the City Zero trap.
The film ends with the townspeople accompanying Varakin on a midnight visit to the town’s millennial oak tree. It was said that Grand Prince Dmitrii Donskoi and Ivan the Terrible both took limbs from the oak tree, and each in turn became the ruler of Russia. But now the tree of power was now dead and rotting. As the townspeople were concerned with gathering his limbs together as souvenirs of the power that once was, Varakin makes a break for him, fleeing through the dark wasteland. Approaching a bank, he finds a boat without oars. At dawn, he throws himself afloat into the wide misty river, adrift and helpless.
Will he ever return to the real world? Does Russia? The film offers no clues.
While the fates of Varakin and contemporary Russia are unknowable, with the passage of time it is curious to see what has become of the main characters of the film.
The character of Varakin was played by actor Leonid Filatov, whose tired blue eyes and sympathetic manner belied Varakin’s eternal torment. Unfortunately, he died of pneumonia in 2003 at the age of 56.
The prosecutor was played by the famous Soviet director Vladimir Menshov, whose “Moscow does not believe in tears” won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1981. But in his later years, his personal politics became virtually indistinguishable from the role he played as City Zero’s prosecutor, particularly in regards to his loyalty to Russkii mir. After Putin occupied Crimea in 2014, Menshov said annexation “a supernatural event” which not only demonstrated the “vitality” of Russia as a unique civilization, but provided “proof of the existence of a Russian God par excellence” who would bring salvation to the Russia after years of bewilderment by individualism, the money-hungry West. Soon after, Menshov would blacklisted in Ukraine, while Putin would award Menshov the 2nd Degree Order for “Merit to the Fatherland”. Menshov died in July 2021 of Covid-19.
Yet perhaps most disturbing has been the evolution of the man who co-wrote and directed City Zero, Karen Shakhnazarov. In the heady Russia of the 1990s, Shakhnazarov was named Managing Director of Mosfilm Studios and, in 2011, was instrumental in bringing the the entire Mosfilm catalog of films on YouTube – including City Zero – where they can be viewed anywhere for free, with subtitles.
In recent years, Shakhnazarov has become a key supporter of Putin’s strategy Russkii mir in the field of cultural policy. Putin decorated him with many state awards, including the Order of the 4th degree “For the merit of the fatherland(2012) and the Order of Alexander Nevsky (2018). He played an active role in Kremlin politics and in Putin’s United Russia party, even lead a formal working group amend the Russian constitution.
More importantly, he became one of the most outspoken Putin’s public supporters neo-imperial invasionof Ukraine, that he accuses the United States for incitement. It regularly appears on the most-watched and pompous mouthpiece Putin’s propaganda Vladimir Solovyovnightly commentary program of Russian state television. To delight the audience, Shakhnazarov spoke enthusiastically about Putin’s restoration of Russia as a great civilizational empireand warned that ‘unpatriotic’ domestic opponents uncomfortable waving the letter Z – an emblem of Ukraine’s ‘special military operation’ – will be confronted”concentration camps, re-education and sterilization. Everything is very serious.”
Although he later claimed that his comments on the concentration camps were taken out of contexthe then reappeared on Solovyov’s propaganda show to proclaim that – if Russia fails in its grand and historic mission to recapture Ukraine –it is the West that will have concentration camps readyand will send all the Russians there without mercy.
Of course – here in the real world – such hyperbole seems unimaginable, almost ridiculous. But if Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has taught us anything, it’s that we mock the Kremlin’s alternate-reality echo chamber at our peril. When the Russian godfather of fantasy cinema applies his techniques to an entire country, it should grab our attention.
Even though many outsiders credit Putin with this curious worldview that enabled the monstrosity unleashed on Ukraine, City Zero points out that the Kremlin’s selfish worldview is nothing new. In fact, the three pillars of Russkii mir are evident in the film, even when Putin was still a lowly KGB officer in East Germany. Chauvinistic Russian nationalism in opposition to ‘decadent’ European values - as the twin rotating ‘sculptures’ in the trove of history show – certainly goes back generations. Illiberal statism – in which people serve the state instead of the state serving the people, as the prosecutor explained – also has deep roots in Russian culture. Finally, as in the history mine, state control over information and the manipulation of history is also a long-standing feature of Russian autocracy, whether stemming from the tsarist censors or the Soviet propaganda.
On the contrary, the difference between contemporary Putinism and the autocracies of Russia’s past are differences of degree rather than kind. Instead of being invented from scratch, the Russkii mir draws on many warmed-up traditions of Russian autocracy; albeit imbued with the power of modern social media, mass persuasion and information technology unimaginable to previous generations of autocrats.
In 1989, when the Berlin Wall was collapsing along with the communist autocracies of Eastern Europe, Shakhnazarov’s City Zero seemed a fitting surreal critique of the absurdities and contradictions of autocracy. Now, on the contrary, it seems to serve as a non-ironic and disturbing model of how autocrats can manipulate history, information, and even reality itself to suit the needs of the state and the selfish desires of its chief.