In the early 2000s I arrived at graduate film school in Moscow thinking I would be surrounded by brooding lovers of avant garde Soviet cinema, devotees of the evasive spiritual allegories of Tarkovsky or the high-art agitprop of Sergey Eisenstein. To my surprise, most of my mature co-students—many of whom were from outside Moscow, as well as from the Baltics, the Caucusus, and Ukraine—were more interested in imitating the bittersweet psychological dramas of the late Soviet era. The films they loved were quietly anti-Soviet in that they shunned great power narratives in preference for private stories about love and friendship. The heroes of these films were often humble, tired men looking for the sparks of values—friendship, loyalty, love—in a somewhat cynical, cold world.
I was reminded strongly of these 1970s Soviet movies when I began watching the new Ukrainian President, Volodomyr Zelensky’s, television series Servant of the People, where, as I’m sure you’ve heard, he plays a humble school teacher who accidentally becomes President. The utterly lovely opening song, with its easy melody and friendly irony, is right out of a late Soviet film:
I love my country, my, wife, my dog
I already have everything I need, decency and honor…
Zelensky’s character, the school teacher Goloborodko, is an archetypical 1970s crumpled male: His wife has left him; he lives with his parents in the most Soviet-looking apartment one could possibly imagine; the characters in the communal courtyard seem to have wondered out of Mosfilm central casting.
Thrust into the cynicism of government-level politics, Goloborodko is the late Soviet “decent” everyman trying to preserve his values in a mean world. His guides are great historical figures who advise him how to behave in dreams, such as Plutarch and Abraham Lincoln. They are largely from the Western canon of democratic heroes (Ukrainian historical characters only appear late in season 2). Thus the positive part of the Soviet cultural legacy is fused with aspiration for a Western-style government and global history.
As the very sharp Ukrainian philosopher Volodomyr Yermolenko first noted to me, part of Zelensky’s appeal is that he offers a way for people who still feel close to Soviet and Russian pop culture to become politically European. This is attractive to many. Since 1991 the main way to head towards “Europe” in Ukraine was a post-colonial Ukrainian identity, centered, like many 19th- and 20th-century national-liberation projects, around language and memories of martyrs sacrificed in the name of independence over many centuries of imperial oppression—an approach that the previous President Poroshenko tried to encapsulate with his election slogan “Army, Language, Religion.” With Zelensky’s approach, one can be “European” while retaining the attributes of late Soviet culture.
This process can upset those who have risked, sacrificed, and staked much on the project of Ukrainian national liberation over the centuries. But it is also potentially subversive for Putin’s cultural model of the Russian world too: It opens a space where you can take the positive associations of Soviet culture and fuse them with a desire for democracy. The great, late 1970s Soviet films are still shown in prime time TV slots in Russia and beamed to Russian speakers in the post-Soviet “near abroad.” The emotions they capture—that desire for values in a cynical world—still resonate. By screening them next to Putin TV’s ultra-propaganda with its sneering, sarcastic tone, the Kremlin has managed to co-opt the wistful yearning for decency of the older Soviet films with geopolitical ambitions: Come for the lovely, gentle movies that prove you have a soul, stay for the spittle-laden current affairs show brimming with hate that satisfies other needs.
This has been the skill of the Kremlin: to own both the snarling cynicism of Great Power Bullying and its emotional critique—simultaneously to own arrogance and humbleness, so the whole rainbow of experiences can be subsumed into one great Russian World of feeling where all emotional roads and cultural associations lead to the Kremlin. Breaking the Kremlin’s emotional geography on all ways to think and feel in Russian, to feel a connection to the past, is an important and subversive project.
And it could resonate in other countries once colonized by Moscow, where large parts of the Russian-speaking population, descendants of peoples moved there by Soviet population shift, find themselves caught up in local national liberation projects which by definition they struggle to belong to. I have met “Russian minority” Latvians and Estonians who are completely loyal to their Baltic homelands politically, but feel adrift in terms of culture, not wanting to be part of Putin’s “Russian World” but also unable to find a steady sense of self in the national liberation projects around them. It’s a challenge that is producing a generation of very interesting writers and poets who deal with the question of how to be simultaneously Latvian, Estonian, Russian, and European in ways more subtle, if less popular, than Zelensky.
Just to be clear: I’m making no comment here about Zelensky’s politics, which are perturbingly opaque. Though he speaks of “fighting corruption,” it is as yet unclear if part of his appeal is not more reforms but actually undoing the few that have taken place already, which, like securing independence from Russian energy flows, have been hard and expensive for people. The more experienced Ukrainian experts I have spoken to roll their eyes at all the identity dramas I have discussed in this piece. Zelensky, they fear, is just another layer of cover for another set of clans to exploit the country.