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Misha Yakovlev: an introduction to my research

A post by Misha Yakovlev | 18 May 2020

Today, I find myself in Term 3 of my first year of PhD research at the Department of Film and Television, University of Warwick. Last week, I delivered a paper summarising my research to date and a provisional [this cannot be stressed enough!] roadmap for the future to an internal postgraduate conference[ held on Microsoft Teams due to COVID-19]. This blog is based on that paper.

Thesis title: heteronationalism in unsocialist times: shifting norms of gender-sexuality-race on the russian screen during ‘transition’ (1986-2008)

As you can tell from the word “screen” in this blog’s title, TV histories are only one part of my research. Nevertheless, I hope this blog can offer you something useful whether in terms of theoretical thinking, methodologies or as an introduction to the incredibly niche[ that is, “incredibly niche” in Anglo-American context] topic of russian screen culture from the late twentieth century and early noughties.

My research seeks to explores the shifts in norms of gender and sexuality on the russian screen during the period often imagined in terms of “transition to democracy” – Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ on one side and vladimir putin’s first expansionary war (2008 Invasion of Georgia) on the other.[1] I pose three major questions. Did gender-sexual normativities on the russian screen change during this period and how? What were the ideological effects of these changes – which subjects bodies get excluded on and erased from screen? [How] does queer [and] decolonial thinking help us answer the first two questions? To some extent, these questions are tautological because I do not pretend ‘scientific impartiality’ – my own personal encounters (interpellations by, rejections of, etc.) with the russian screen inform these questions themselves, foreshadow my answers and sculpt the overall cartography of my research. Speaking of the latter, a number of academic volumes on the role of women on the [pre-]soviet russian screen have appeared in the west since 1991.[2] On the whole, these leave unaddressed issues of ‘transition’. So far, no substantial work of film scholarship on gender (or, indeed, women) and ‘transition’ exists. However, Emily Schukman Matthews’s Chapter in Ruptures and Continuities in Soviet/Russian Cinema (2018) explores the dominant construction of Woman in late-glasnost cinema – the glamorous prostitute.[3] Significantly, this and other existing scholarship treats the category ‘Woman’ itself as stable, unitary and essential.[4] Two related issues with existing scholarship are: the slippage between ‘wome/an’ and ‘gender’; and, a persistent blindness to intersectionality.

This year, I have started work on Chapter I of my thesis. This Chapter aims to reframe the debate by asking how dominant on-screen constructions (as opposed to representations) of Woman changed in relation to the broader socio-political context of transition – the emergence of an unsocialist russian heteronationalism. I start by arguing that popular films from the soviet twilight replaced the ‘working mother’ as the dominant Woman on-screen with a ‘sexually-emancipated’ (read, heteroticised) subject who rejects the factory-kitchen domesticity of her soviet predecessor.[5] Two films are key in this regard: Vasily Pichul’s 1988 Little Vera was the first film to screen sexual intercourse outside of marriage and without feelings in soviet film history; one year later, the last soviet blockbuster, Petr Todorovsky’s Swedish co-production Intergirl (1989) became the first film to screen russian sex workers since the suppression of the twenties avante-garde.[6] The still above is from Intergirl. In my opinion, this still both highlights the constructed looked-atness of the prostitute body on the late soviet screen and emphasises the glamour and desirability of her subject position through Western clothing, unattainable to most soviet citizens. Both films use the figure of Woman to explore the economic and, in Little Vera’s case, ideological bankruptcy of the soviet system. I argue that a number of nineties productions follow in the footsteps of these films to entrench the schizophrenic duality of Woman as Mary (suffering pure and resigned) and Magdalen (promiscuous and ‘fatal’) in a conservative effort to ‘re-masculinise’ the russian nation. In the process, these films reject the entirety of soviet culture as a corruption of natural Christian-Orthodox russian values.[7] Finally, the emergence of domestically-produced sitcoms in the early noughties introduced a competing construction of ‘respectable’ or heteronormative Woman, defined through capitalist consumption and forward-looking reproduction of the affluent heterosexual family – possibly, signifying a shift away from ‘transition culture’. Despite these changes, this Chapter is haunted by two continuities in constructions of Woman on the russian screen: her compulsory heterosexuality; and, whiteness.[8] [The latter is hardly surprising given that soviet Woman was always a white russian Woman under her red clothes.[9]]