What Is Wrong With This Picture?

Winter, Go Away! and the tragicomedy of Russian politics
by Boris Nelepo  posted January 11, 2013
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I have seen Winter Go Away! four times. The first time was before Putin embarked on his third term as Russia's President; the film was then still at a draft stage, to be completed in time for the inauguration. The second time was the world premiere in Locarno: almost sold-out, Pussy Riot on the cover of Libération, and a very young man asking a naïve question during the discussion: "Maybe you can show your film to the UN, they have to help somehow, don't they?" The third time occurred in a riot-hit Lisbon in November. And finally, I re-watched the film before writing this article. The first time I saw the footage, it felt like the political "winter" of the film's title would soon be gone. The film was like a snapshot of the euphoria we had felt at that time. A few months passed, and yesterday's actualité cemented into a fact of history, turning the pulsating newsreels into a time capsule that enclosed the mood, the spirit, the rhythm, and the faces of those days more than the events themselves.

Winter Go Away! is a fruit of certain political circumstances, so some context is required. In the fall of 2011, Putin switched places again with Medvedev, and in December the parliamentary elections took place, amid a huge number of witnessed and documented violations of the law. The head of the Central Election Committee, Vladimir Churov, announced that the violation videos flooding the Internet had been produced in some covert home studios, and the alarmed Investigation Committee added that all of these videos were distributed from the same server located in the U.S., in the state of California (i.e. YouTube), which made it necessary to identify the paymaster behind this campaign. The very last days of 2011 saw the first really large-scale protests in Russian in the last 20 years.

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Winter, Go Away!

Yet another rally calling for fair elections was scheduled for February 4. The oppositional newspaper Novaya Gazeta ("The New Paper") that once counted the murdered Anna Politkovskaya among its staff reporters decided to cover the preparations for the protest. The editors approached the well-known documentary filmmaker Marina Razbezhkina, the founder of the School of Documentary Film and Documentary Theatre. Ten young graduates, including the former actor Dmitry Kubasov (Philippe Grandrieux's Un lac), got so engaged that instead of concluding the project with the coverage of one single action they decided to go on working until the end of the presidential campaign. The time limit is quite clear: from February 4 to March 5. Between these two dates more than 1000 hours of footage was captured, from which emerged a 78-minute film, a collective work in some ways like that of the Collectif Cinélutte or the Groupe Medvedkine de Besançon: when History barges into everyday life, one pair of eyes and one camera are just not enough.

Political films were next to nonexistent in the Russia of the 2000s. Cinema was the last thing on people's minds: notoriously, the essence of Putinism was in a social contract whereby basic political freedoms where traded for personal space and unrestrained consumption. One of the few exceptions is the The Revolution That Wasn't (2008), an outstanding documentary by Alyona Polunina that amounts to a Dostoyevsky-style tragedy of the system cruelly crippling the lives of the radical oppositioners. Polunina's new film, Nepal Forever (2013), dwells on a micro-party of Communists that engage in trolling in the hopes that journalists would take their provocations as the statements of the official Communist Party. In particular, they proclaim their intent to go to Nepal to reconcile the Maoists with the Marxist-Leninists. Such is the essence of Russian politics: there is just one step dividing the tragic from the comic, and this is exactly the point where Razbezhkina's students concentrated their efforts.

The most important political films of the past year—Sylvain George's Vers Madrid (The Burning Bright)! and Romuald Karmakar's Democracy under Attack: An Intervention—capture the birth of political discourse. In Karmakar's film, German intellectuals talk about the oncoming wave of economic crisis and insist that man in the 21st century has to re-think his place in this world. The same idea is picked up by George's protesters in a Madrid square before they collide with the police in a cruel fight. Winter Go Away! is almost a slapstick comedy that focuses on the physical, the plastic, and sometimes on the burlesque. This is pre-defined by the texture: politics in Russia has no content. This is why the film opens with one of the most spectacular events organized by the opposition, namely the Big White Circle whereby the participants holding hands formed a complete circle on Moscow's Garden Ring, a circular road measuring 15.6 kilometers. There were no speeches, slogans, or banners; left-wingers, nationalists, and liberals are all standing there, holding hands.

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Winter, Go Away!

The film is carnivalesque; its title comes from a song that the participants of one of the protests chant as they burn down the straw figure of Winter on Shrove Tuesday before the Great Lent. We see young people on the Bolotnaya square; they are dancing in a ring and singing a children's song. And then we find ourselves at a pro-Putin demonstration which is also followed by dancing. "Shall we set this place on fire?" asks the billionaire Prokhorov from the stage as he breaks into a dance; he is one of the few presidential candidates allowed to participate in the election (remember the fake Communists; spoiling is the essence of the state doctrine). Sometimes it's a bit like a game of cowboys and Indians: one of the most thrilling episodes shows the participants of a protest action hanging a huge banner across the river from the Kremlin that reads: "Putin, go away!" The fascination lies in the minute mechanical details: preparations of all sorts, leaflets handed out, conspiracies formed, arguments proved.

This is a world with its own spells, counting rhymes, passwords, and, finally, toasts at parties: "Russia without Putin." There is even a certain kind of modern art: a young member of the opposition dips his head into paint and writes the word PUTIN on the floor of a trendy gallery. A carnival turns into a mystery play. A participant of a pro-Putin demonstration tells about his visit to Mount Athos in Greece where he was immediately asked if he was against or pro Putin. Upon hearing he was a supporter, they forgave all his sins. The Pussy Riot group barges into the Christ the Savior Cathedral with a punk prayer, "Mother of God, chase Putin away." Putin himself speaks before a crowd several thousand strong, quoting Lermontov's Borodino poem and calling on his followers to die defending Moscow. The opposition in the meantime is reciting Mandelstam's verses. In the Nizhny Novgorod region of Russia, in a sectarian community, an icon of Putin starts secreting myrrh, and its Mother Superior, Fothinya, insists that in his past life, the president baptized Russia and all but descended from the cross. And she sighs as she stares into the camera: "It is so hard for him to run such a big country with so many crazy people!" La terre de la folie, in the words of Luc Moullet.

Whether this film was oppositional or counter-revolutionary was the subject of a fierce controversy in Russia. The directors intentionally avoid taking any sides while watching everyone with incredible vigilance. Speech is the least reliable manifestation of a man, argued Razbezhkina, while urging her students to focus on movements and gestures. The leaders of the opposition are portrayed in a very cold way. "We will never forget and will never forgive" is the ritual conclusion that Alexey Navalny, named among the Foreign Policy Top 100 Global Thinkers, uses for his interviews. "Here, to our right cause!" the lefty Udaltsov says as he gets up from the table. The film's perfection lies in its editing, the flawless precision never giving way to speculations. Winter Go Away! introduces a host of characters, some of them turning into key figures while others dissolve into the periphery. "All we want is honesty," a young woman says desperately in a chaotic voting station as she impotently watches a falsification. These are the only meaningful words in Winter Go Away!: this is exactly why tens of thousands of formerly indifferent people suddenly took to the streets and stayed there for a few months in a row. The ruthless editing shows how the protests froze: after a cut, the notorious Prokhorov appears, immediately profaning the key notion as if arguing with it: "As for honesty, the election was rigged from the very beginning but I agreed to take part."

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Winter, Go Away!

Razbezhina watches over the political events and captures their theatrical essence. The participants are journalists, hipsters, pop stars, writers, laymen, vigilantes, sectarians, communists, nationalists, etc., along with a number of naïve young men who believed that the darkness and the evil could be chased away by a simple roundelay. The animal cruelty of the police in the final part of the film contests these idealistic notions, and life brings corrections of its own: the general mood turned darker after the inauguration with four criminal charges pending against Navalny and two dozen common protesters facing lengthy prison terms. How can such a film avoid the carnivalesque if the news coverage keeps erasing the boundaris between the real and the imaginary? Here are the top three events outside the film that will help build the necessary context. Vladimir Putin piloted a hang-glider to lead a flock of cranes. After a Dead Souls performance in the Bolshoi theater, the audience booed at the composer Krzysztof Penderecki mistaking him for the chairman of the Election Committee Vladimir Churov. Putin personally presented Gerard Depardieu with a Russian passport; the actor, dressed in a folk costume, travelled to Mordovia where one of the Pussy Riot girls is serving her two-year sentence and was offered the position of the regional Culture Minister.

"Laughter is the most powerful form in art," Razbezhkina claims. If so, her film is a perfect illustration of the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin who posits the culture of laughter as an amalgam of ritual spectacles, comic verbal compositions, and various genres of billingsgate: these are precisely the three pillars that Winter Go Away! rests upon. Laughter is essential: it is no accident that The Cherry Orchard, one of the saddest works in 20th-century Russian literature, is officially a comedy. Don't let the comic form fool you though: Winter Go Away! is not a story of one specific rally or the state of affairs in a given time but rather an uncommonly sad, precise, and encyclopedic examination of the set-up of Russian life over the centuries.

Bakhtin in fact prefaced his book with the words of the famous political writer Alexander Herzen: "It would be extremely interesting to write the history of laughter." Tom Stoppard in his wonderful trilogy The Coast of Utopia makes Herzen soliloquize upon the beginning of the 19th century, and his words sound like the most bitter and truthful description of today: "You remember those puzzle pictures, when we were children... there'd be a drawing with things wrong in it, a clock with no hands, a shadow going the wrong way, the sun and stars out at the same time... and it would say, ‘What is wrong with this picture?'... Someone sitting next to you in class disappears overnight, nobody knows anything. In the public gardens ice creams are eaten, in all the usual flavours. What is wrong with this picture? The Kritski brothers disappeared for insulting the Tsar's portrait, Antonovich and his friends for forming a secret society, meaning they met in somebody's room to read a pamphlet you can buy on the street in Paris. Young men and women are pairing off like swans on the skating ground. A crocodile of Poles goes clanking by in leg-irons on the Vladimir road. There is something wrong with this picture."

Thanks to Olga Lavut and Olga Grinkrug for help with translation.
 

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THE AUTHOR

Boris Nelepo, a film critic and programmer based in Moscow, is editor-in-chief of Kinote online film journal and contributing editor to the film magazine Séance. He has also published in Cinema Scope, MUBI, and Lumière, and is the Russian film consultant for the Locarno Film Festival.

More articles by Boris Nelepo