‘Post-Soviet’ and ‘post-socialist’ are two of the most popular terms that are bandied around by commentators when addressing modern day Eastern European art, culture and politics. Typically, both adjectives denote the years in which the various Eastern bloc countries were finally allowed to vote in open elections, while at the same time a small group of oligarchs proceeded to loot the region’s vast natural resources. Yet, what specifically followed is normally reduced to tales of queuing for bread in Adidas shell suits, power outages, and political violence. The collapse of socialism throughout the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries reflects something far more complex than just a shift in governing regimes or the removal of a colonial power. Rather, it represents a rupture of the epistemic structure and a realigned truth-regime. It is a true revolution in the fullest sense in that its impact completely re-shaped every facet of life for its citizens. The shift that occurred is something that Marx or Lenin could only have fantasized about.
Understood in this fashion, it becomes impossible to ascertain any degree of aesthetic continuity. A shift that significant does not just create a singular counteraction but a spill of thousands of different narratives. In many ways, this reflects the highly contentious response to the event that intermixes joy, horror, nostalgia, and a lingering sense of haunting. In this regard, it makes sense that we should not even speak about post-socialism in the singular, but as the twisted pluralistic imagination that remains continuously under construction yet always lacking any concrete foundations. Post-socialism at best denotes a ghost that lingers in an ever-shifting guise.
As such, the list of post-socialist films below represents not one event or one style but constitute pieces of a jigsaw that has yet to completely reveal itself. We selected the movies that we selfishly love and reflect the aspects of post-Soviet life that leave us utterly intrigued. Naturally, there are thousands of great movies not on this list, including everyone’s default favourite post-Soviet movies Brat and the Oscar-nominated Leviathan. Each, however, provides some narrow insight into what the post-socialist experience might be.
Winter Journey (2013), dir. Sergey Taramaev & Lubov Lvova
This film is often dismissed as “the Russian gay movie”, as it was released immediately after the Putin regime enacted its grotesque homophobic laws in opposition to “the promotion of gay culture.” Lost in the midst of this controversy is a bold film that tells the story of Erik (Aleksey Frandetti), a classical musician, and Lyokha (Evgeniy Tkachuk), a petty criminal, who shed their class, past, and relationship to violence, to share a deep love. Their love is natural. As one hurls homophobic abuse at the other, they do not waiver in their affection. Their love is intact, regardless of what horror the other commits. Breathtakingly elegant, this film gives Moscow one of its most alien presentations and imagines a reality of cold solitude – until you take the wrong tram.
A Trip to Karabakh (2005), dir. Levan Tutberidze
It would be unfair to say that A Trip to Karabakh is significantly better than other 21st century Georgian films, like In Bloom or Corn Island, which reflects upon Georgia’s circumstances in the 90s. Unlike the aforementioned movies, Levan Tutberidze’s depiction of a group of teenage boys from Tbilisi that travel to Azerbaijan to buy drugs, but end up fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, is less of an act of memory.
Based upon Aka Morchiladze’s 1992 novel, the film adaptation was produced and released during the very early days of the Saakashvili regime, when power outages were still a frequent occurrence and geopolitical stability remained precarious. The filmmakers were not self-consciously attempting to replicate a time period but were very much still part of it. In many ways, this is the reason why, in spite of the war, poverty, and drug use portrayed throughout, A Trip to Karabakh isn’t a depressing movie. The script doesn’t play to the myth that the 90s was a period of total darkness. Rather, showing it as a turbulent time in which people continued to live as normally as possible. At the heart of the entire movie is a very whimsical love story that will ease the burden of your sadness.
The Debt (1999), dir. Krzysztof Krauze
The advent of capitalism in the post-socialist realm led not just to the collapse of any social safety net and quality of life in many countries, but led to a major upsurge of violence. This has become a favourite topic of Western depictions of the region during the 90s. Yet, most focus on the typical Mafioso organizations without speaking about just how entangled violence was with normal business practices. Few films do this better than The Debt. Shot in Warsaw during the darkness of winter, this film showcases how capitalist fantasies can quickly turn into violent realities. Based on the true story of two businessmen that were extorted, beaten, and reduced to murdering their tormentors, it showcases the bleakness and nihilism that underscores capitalism.
Traffic (2004), dir. Cătălin Mitulescu
It wouldn’t be entirely controversial to credit this film as the reason why most of Europe spent the last half of the past decade focused on the Romanian film industry. Strangely, it is Cătălin Mitulescu’s 15 minute-long movie that is regarded as instigating the Romanian New Wave movement, and some of the best films to come out of the country, such as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
At the heart of Traffic is a story of a man trying to cope with modern, trivial tasks while stuck in traffic. Despite only being a quarter of an hour long, it paints a vivid picture of an economy in transition where one man’s time is of a high price, while one girl’s time is so worthless that her job is of little significance. Both protagonists come together for a brief moment to pause with little consequence, yet it speaks to the fundamental discord that remains in Romania and other post-socialist economies.
My Joy (2010), dir. Sergei Loznitsa
Constructed out of stories heard or lived through during his years of travelling across Russia, My Joy, the fiction feature debut by acclaimed Belarus-born documentarian Sergei Loznitsa, is an ultra-nihilistic, Kafkaesque parable of a nation still scarred by the Soviet Union and the Second World War.
When truck driver Georgi (Viktor Němec) takes a wrong turn into the woods and finds himself lost in a bleak Russian underworld, he is forced to fight to survive amidst increasingly violent reminders of the country’s dark history. Guided by Georgi’s journey and the increasingly troubled characters that he encounters on it, Loznitsa portrays scenes of brutality, rudeness, corruption and violence in beautiful, lyrical mise-en-scene. Bleak and challenging, this is an intricate and poetic portrayal of the ugliness of a Russia where God is dead.