By Fernando Gómez-Herrero
The brand new dirty-realist documentary Russia 1985-1999: Traumazone by unconventional British film-maker Adam Curtis is mostly but not only about “the bad Russians.” I would highly recommend it.
Six years ago, Curtis made the highly stimulating and disturbing Hypernormalisation. In 2022, the film-maker is very much of the same mind, mood and mode, except his focus in smaller. The lens captures vignettes of the transition from the break-up of the Soviet Union to Russia’s seemingly permanent malaise. No “let them eat cake!” and no schadenfreude: I hasten to add that the West is not left off the hook. In both works, the Western figures do not cut a good figure and they are certainly no wiser saviours. Yet, we —in the British Anglo Zone and elsewhere in the West— are invited to look at the “other side” of the former curtain wall, now formally the official enemy in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine (hard to believe it is 9 months already!). The period 1985 to 1999 represents fourteen years of hurt. The hurt has not gone away. To look at it, if fleetingly, must be a first step not to turn fatalistic about it.
“Hypernormalisation” (the concept is connected to Alexei Yurchak who covered the mental adjustments in Soviet life in the 1970s and 1980s). It is getting used to very bad things, a mood of cynical apathy, alienation and distancing mores miles away from the official discourse, definitely a protection device, a collective sense of lack of alternatives, “fake” and kitschy overcompensations, going along and getting used to weird, disruptive and violent phenomena. Curtis’s earlier frame feels appropriately Chomskyan in the general indictment of political manipulation of mega powers. Escapism does not help either. In TraumaZone, Curtis is providing a narrower geography of the other side of the West. There is less room to escape and Russia offered plenty of opportunities for BBC reporters to capture many situations that still shock today. Curtis credits the work of their colleagues pressed in these fourteen years and thirty-five years of filming (perhaps there will be future episodes running down the chronology). TraumaZone is a seven-hour selection of what must be a colossal trove of richly provocative materials.
TraumaZone is a mesmerising sequence of vignettes befitting the globally messy times in which Russia is hit particularly hard. Trauma: literally “wound” in Greek, physical but also intellectual and emotional. The mind fails to comprehend what is going on and there is no placing it (the disorientation, the hurt) in some ground and horizon of symbolic order. The premise of the series: what it felt like to live through the fall of Communism and the fall of democracy soon after. Seven one-hour chapters gives us a wide array of this double fall in between Soviet-Union and its republics breaking free from Russia (Ukraine is currently compromised as we are all aware at the present moment). Democracy is no denouement. It leaves a very bad aftertaste following “shock doctrine” measures promoted and circled by kleptocratic practices touching everyone from top to bottom. Bye, bye to the Communist and Soviet past, but the present looks ugly and ominous with no sign of abating.
Segments linger in the eye and continue feeding the mind after the film is over. Shoppers are not finding bread in the shops and shout and punch each other in tension and disbelief. Dysfunctional collectivisation plans are followed by “shock doctrine” measures (Yegor Gaidar is mentioned) impoverishing a majority of people, while speculators, managers and gangs split the profit (the Togliatti car plant, largest in the world, is highlighted). A “black market” takes over big industries all the way down to reaching out to average citizens selling their wares in the street (one man selling one shoe, clocks or cigarettes, women their bodies in cheap motels). Chernobyl becomes a symbol of official denial and we witness the suicidal bravery of men running in and out the roof of the plant or through its cracks to remove radioactive debris with shovels.
Curtis plays off contrasts and “narration” is buffeted accordingly: beauty competition of poorly dressed damsels and images of a war dead cemetery in Kabul, Chechnya rival gangs in cars and desperate mothers looking for news of their missing sons in Russia’s wars, state chicken farm vistas and minefield explosions in big mountains. Promethean convulsions of transformed nature of near-cosmic proportions and close encounters and quasi-confessional dialogues with seemingly nondescript, anonymous characters who deliver hard-to-swallow wisdom for the ages to come: that young woman removing plaster from the house walls who tells the off-screen interviewer she does not believe in anyone and anything. No dream, no future, one cannot go on and yet one still goes on in a mixture of Samuel-Beckett and punk “I do not give a damn about anything anymore.”
People set up their own shops “to save communism,” and fetching images of reindeer herding in cold winter snow. Nature does not rest or cure the anguish in the human marrow and bone. The small money people are making is offset by the “real money” oligarchs are making “out of nothing” (the now exiled Mikhael Khodorkovsky is highlighted). We see discotheques in bad 1980s hairdos and more enthusiastic 1990s, but something is not quite right, Strellki is the Russian version of the Spice Girls, there is a crappy-Soviet television version of Lord of the Rings, and acrobats in parades stretching their legs to the skies and young women having abortions because they cannot afford the space in the small flats or for other reasons, and despondent girls not keen on learning anything in derelict classrooms.
It is not the grand march of a great civilisation or tradition on display, let us put it that way. And the Russians are not alone in that crass consumerist making-do of popular-culture shenanigans (a cursory flipping through the channels of British television will suffice, make sure you check out Naked Attraction on Channel 4). The wife of the famous English spy Kim Philby (one of the lasting believers in Communism?), lingers in a tender face-to-face sequence with the husband already in the casket. There is a sense of horror: gangs killing each other in plant floors of factories, cemeteries of opposing gangs filling up, numerous acts of intimidation, assassinations, decapitations included, digging up of the remains of German corpses of WWII supposedly looking for something of value. Tsar and family remains reconstructed and buried but no one really knows what’s what. Economic looting is organised according to economic principles and game theory (Boris Berezovsky is mentioned). And old peasant woman is charged with petty-stealing by a tribunal: small fish is caught, big fish, less so. Nationalism in the former Soviet republics replaces Communism of the Soviet Union, but it is the former communists who now declare themselves nationalists and who is to say otherwise? They still get the popular vote. Gorbachev cuts a very isolated figure in trying to save Communism. At one point the superimposed language tells us of an aide finding the old Soviet leader crying alone in the Kremlin, once the realisation that Yeltsin is roughly removing him from power finally sinks in.
Yeltsin is the name of the dismantling of Soviet Communism done in the name of Russia and democracy that he himself will undermine with the closing of Parliament, before being defeated by alcohol (we see him puffed-up stumbling in public). We also see the arrival of the first McDonald’s and fresh-faced young women inviting a throng of early customers to American fast-food. Impossible symbolic potency of fast, bad, cheap capitalistic underdevelopment getting ahead of itself and losing itself along the way. Ideological vacuum. What will fill it up? Trauma exceeds what consciousness cannot and perhaps does not know how to or even want to grasp. TraumaZone invites us to consider Russian excess. The AK-47 inventor (Mikhail Kalashnikov) is distressed by the state of his country. American evangelicals are preaching salvation in Christ—via a translator— to Ukrainians, a serial murderer (Andrei Chikatilo in a very colourful shirt) makes a statement in court about his evil nature against the wailing of women. We see a precocious girl growing up amusingly asking for money along traffic lines. Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin runs the mega-company Gazprom. He is behind, we are told, “the biggest robbery in the former Soviet Union, perhaps in human history.” Our mind craves narrative togetherness and it is not Curtis’s fault that is not forthcoming.
The eye travels faster than the mind and the heart attempts to catch up with both. The three travel through these non-sequiturs of a collective culture of scarcity —that is not only physical— mendacity and, above all, survival. We may “go up” to contemplate the state apparatus or we may “go down” to the street with their indifferent passersby. There are nationalistic commotions in public squares and epic-scale gang-related kleptocratic feats of daring-do (the isle of Jersey off the coast of France is involved in one of these). TraumaZone is adult entertainment: adulthood in the sense of an awareness of very ugly things happening at a close distance and the ostrich option is idiotic or simply not an option at all. But one must survive no matter what. Simplistic binaries such as democracy and autocracy will not do and TraumaZone will leave you pondering dark thoughts about the Russian soul, but it is not only about their soul. Ours is somehow tied up in the knot. There is no escaping the mendacity, tawdriness, coarseness and brutality, add salt and pepper, violence and lots of kitsch popular culture too (no high culture in this documentary, but it exists), Curtis says fleetingly. There are images of festivities, music and dance, canapés and drink and yet there is no balm somehow.
Curtis’s editorial hand cuts and pastes these riveting BBC visual segments produced over 35 years. Yet this series covers 14 years and we stop in 1999, two decades ago. Fast-forward to today and we have Putin, Yeltsin’s successor appointed by his inner circle knowing full well that he would not dismantle the oligarchic grip of power, the English editing over the images tells us. Trauma is not receding but mounting and Russia’s war in Ukraine is one of its dimensions. TraumaZone contains no voice-over. We hear original languages of the former Soviet lands with English subtitles, sometimes crass and careless, sometimes banal and forgettable, oftentimes arresting, almost always direct. No euphemisms, no under-saying, no punning or quipping. The English-language lines over the images are the closest we will get to a narration. It is perhaps better the crisis of one.
These English sentences are meant to be descriptive and one must assume Curtis’s authorial perspective behaving somewhat like a Greek chorus to a collective tragedy that has not ended yet. Tragedy it is and this documentary is no simple and facile indictment of the pathos and the bathos of “the others.” That is what puts Curtis well above many colleagues dishing fast and furious lessons from afar. Instead, I would like to suggest that there is an ambivalent type of pity side by side individual and collective obstinacy and stubborn survival of those babushkas trading through the snow and carrying potatoes and a suicidal, beyond-any-reason courage among those pushing and shoving shovels and buckets of radio-active material in the Chernobyl plant. From afar there is plenty of kitsch and pastiche, but this may change from close-up among those more knowledgeable (the copy may supersede the original, The Spice Girls may fall short of the Strelki?). There is desolation but also determination among those mothers looking for news of their missing sons, some of them watching video footage of mutilated corpses to identify their whereabouts and of the soldiers taken out of tanks by the multitudes, or buried in holes in the ground of former Soviet republics, but also whiling away in dilapidated quarters and looking at the cameras standing along long tables with lots of food and drink. We are with them and we are not with them. In TraumaZone, the American managers of Russian Vogue are not winning hearts and minds, and they fail to teach the women how to smile. Clinton looks no better than Yeltsin shaking hands. U.S.-backed “shock therapy” is said to bring democracy. These westerners are simply playing the comparative advantage. TraumaZone appears to suggest that the East-West difference does not fall for binaries, dichotomies, let alone Manichaeism. Curtis appears to be saying that this difference is not of kind but of degree or gradation. Among the many different cultural variations, should we super-size and “hypernormalise” them? Our messy times should be ripe for more dirty-realist documentaries like TraumaZone.
Fernando Gómez-Herrero has taught in fields of Literature and Culture, Translation and Interpretation Studies at the Universities of Manchester and Birmingham in the U.K. He obtained his PhD at Duke University. Most recently, he published The Latest American Appropriation of Western Universalism: A Critique of G. John Ikenberry’s “Liberal International Order.