Movie Review: Russia’s “Vanished Empire”

Every generation has its vanished empire, its city of the wind, the one blown away by time. In Karen Shakhnazarov’s magnificent 2009 film, that city and that time is the Moscow of 1970’s, where a group of college friends, with an emphasis on a love triangle involving classmates Sergei, Stepan, and Lyuda, express their youth by rebelling against the rules of the Soviet game.

Contrary to Ronald Reagan’s boast that he effected the fall of the Soviet Union, the truth had more to do with the flowering of a new generation that did not share the fear their parents had of the absolute power of their government to regulate the behavior of its citizenry. “Vanished Empire” follows its characters through various acts of law-breaking and love-making, from busting up restaurants to making out in the lecture hall.

Sergei steals books from his grandfather to raise money to buy black market records and Western clothing. For his girlfriend Lyuda’s birthday, he blows seventy five rubles on what is promised to be an authentic English pressing of The Rolling Stones’ “Goats Head Soup”, only to find a Tchaikovsky record inside the album sleeve. As the college kids cavort in the carefree bloom of their adolescence, the Soviet Union lumbers on. The Russian kids pay little attention to the anti-Western propaganda filling movie theater newsreels and television newscasts, more intent on chasing girls and listening to local bands cover Western pop songs such as “Venus” and “Smoke on the Water” than rallying behind the Communist cause.

In the film’s startling and elliptical climax, Sergei finds himself thirty years in the future, confronted by an unrecognizable Stepan, who complains that Moscow no longer resembles the city of his youth, that it has been over-run by evil foreigners, and that he is now happy to be living in Finland. He is reminiscent of the old rebels from our own era of dissidence, who now complain that their hometowns changed too much, and are  no longer the cities of their youths, when their youth was spent in rebellion against the city as it was in those days.

Shakhnazarov gained international prominence during the “perestroika” era with her 1983 film, “Jazzman.” One of the most enlightening aspects of “Vanished Empire” is its resemblance to films made and set in the 1980’s, such as “Little Vera,” when its story takes place a decade earlier. This shows us how artificial our view of history is. A culture cannot be so conveniently split up into eras given definitions such as “glasnost” or “perestroika.” Change in always happening, and is the result of actual people, not political determinations. As is the case in US history, with the disaffection of the beats preceding the dropping out of the hippies, the seeds of dissent were sown in Soviet youth long before the rest of the world took notice. By the time Reagan credited himself with the felling of the Soviet Union, that empire had already vanished.


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