Russian Screen Responses to the Pandemic

Greg Dolgopolov
More than a dozen Covid-19 era TV series were produced and distributed on Russian subscription streaming services. In this paper, I examine four different series made under quarantine conditions that illustrate competing regimes for viewers’ pleasure and pedagogy. These low-budget productions acknowledge the coronavirus as a context but replace the fear, panic, and anxiety of outbreak narratives with comic domestic foibles of life under quarantine. They embody the ‘feast during the plague’ syndrome that ignores the mortal consequences of the disease and celebrates a gallows humour. These were the first ‘screenlife’ serials to be produced as a methodological approach to solve a range of production proximity restrictions and in turn their aesthetics is one of intimacy and authenticity.
Timur Bekmambetov; Semen Slepakov; Russia; #SidIAdoma; The Plague!; Cursed Days; In Lockdown; Screenlife; Quarantine; Pandemic; series; streaming services.

Feast During the Plague

Ways of Thinking about Quarantine Representations

#Screenlife Series



Okaiannye dni






Suggested Citation

Feast During the Plague

Come now, Luisa,
Come, lighten up – for this whole street is ours,
A silent haven from the hands of death,
A shelter for wild feasts that stop for no one

Alexander Pushkin, “Feast During the Plague” from Little Tragedies (1830)

While most film and television productions around the world stopped or went into some form of hiatus during the first wave of Covid-19 lockdowns (March 25 to June 9, 2020), more than a dozen Russian screen productions found a way to work around the restrictions by employing variations of the “screenlife” format. There were more than a dozen Quarantine-themed series produced and screened on the major streaming services. The series were made quickly, with well-known actors and directors and the majority employed Covid-19 production protocols with remote, spatially distanced filming that were characterised as “screenlife” serials by the press (Al’perina 2020). These were produced under specific remote working conditions and employed remote digital production technologies. Not all of these series looked like “screenlife”, but they all examined the impacts of the quarantine on social mores, working practices, sexual desires, and social practices with a smattering of political satire. This quarantine production wave was remarkable for its novel approach to the pandemic through a series of feast-during-the-plague responses that denied the contagion of fear through comic, current and authentic portrayals of life under quarantine that engaged with the day-to-day foibles and quotidian complexities of the pandemic and its local specificities. Many productions acted as a form of viewer paedocracy in exploring the social aspects of life under quarantine. This quarantine-era streaming content created a form of pedagogy around some of the expectations of what could occur in a pandemic providing viewers with a process of considered learning of adaptive behaviours.

For the purposes of this study, I survey some of the more popular series produced during the 2020 quarantine: the serialised narrative small business comedy, #SidIAdoma (Ol’ga Frenkel’) on Premier; the two seasons of the historical social satire Chuma! / The Plague! on ivi and the comedy screenlife almanac Okaiannye dni / Cursed Days written and produced by Semen Slepakov and directed by Petr Buslov on Premier and Vzaperti / In Lockdown (Ivan Petukhov) on Okko. For the purposes of chronicling the outcomes of the pandemic period, it is important to categorise these series. The 2020 projects could be divided into four broad groups:

1. Screenlife narrative series and serials employing primarily the multi-window zoom chat aesthetic – #SidIAdoma, Izoliatsiia / Secure Connections (Pavel Kapinos,, Vse vmeste / Everyone Together (Viktoria Kravchenko, Okko), Liubov’ v nerabochie nedeli / Love During the Non-working Week (Leonid Margolin, Okko), Bezumie / Madness (Aleksandr Molochnikov, Kinopoisk HD) – and screenlife series filmed on a mobile phone and presented as if viewers see the protagonists’ phone screen – Vzaperti and Zona diskomforta / Zone of Discomfort (Pavel Bardin, Start). Vzaperti was the only “official” screenlife project produced by Timur Bekmambetov. The majority of these shows focused on complex romantic relationships.

2. Screenlife sketch shows: Okaiannye dni, #Vmaskeshow / #MaskWearingShow (

3. Comedy narrative series not filmed in the screenlife format: Chuma! and Nagiev na karantine / Nagiev in Quarantine (Sarik Andreasian, Okko).

4. Chat Shows – recorded zoom conversation between theatre and film director Konstantin Bogomolov and a range of actors on Start: Koronnyi vykhod and #Izolenta (Petr Olevskii and Stanislav Erklievskii, Megogo).

Ways of Thinking about Quarantine Representations

Scholarly literature on quarantine representations has focused largely on films about viral outbreaks and not on films and television series produced under quarantine conditions. Researchers in this field address viewer consumption and response to established, already produced films that engage with the themes of disease and contagion watched during quarantine. Qijun Han and Daniel R. Curtis examine these films for the “broader moral failings within society at large” (2020: 390). Johan Höglund (2017) explores pandemic horror films as engines of middle-class anxiety. He argues that “the pandemic is a middle-class anxiety and a reminder of their mortality, rather than a palpable threat to their lives or dominant position” (Höglund 2017: 6). Kirsten Ostherr highlights the “proliferation of images of the diseased body” (2002: 31) and the use of films “as technologies of instruction, education, and discursive production” (ibid.: 2). Priscilla Wald’s influential “outbreak narrative” (2008) set the framework for theorising the viewing experience of contagion themed films through a moral, racial and class dimension. Wald argues that “Contagion [not the film, but the concept] is more than an epidemiological fact. It is also a foundational concept in the study of religion and society with a long history of explaining how beliefs circulate in social interactions” (Wald 2008: 2). However, her approach does not address films, series and screen-based narratives that were produced during the extended quarantine period. The scholarly analysis of pandemic films does not engage with the technologies and the media of the 2020 quarantine and the ubiquitous videoconferencing formats, multi-platformed communications, omnipresence of streaming services and the culture of working remotely.

In an attempt to make sense of the fear and fascination elicited by cinematic accounts of viral outbreaks in films Wald identifies the construction of an established outbreak narrative that “follows a formulaic plot that begins with the identification of an emerging infection, includes discussion of the global networks throughout which it travels, and chronicles the epidemiological work that ends with its containment” (ibid.: 2). This may be true of western approaches, but the question is if it is true of Russian representations. There is an interesting collection of Soviet-era “outbreak narratives” that has charted a distinctive course and approach to the moral issues that include such films as Nepovtorimaia vesna (Aleksandr Stolper, 1957), Karantin (Sulamif Tsybulnik, 1968), V gorod prishla beda (Mark Orlov, 1966), Komitet 19-ti (Savva Kulish, 1972) and Dni zatmeniia (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988). However, this essay does not examine outbreak narratives or zombie horror and disease containment, but the screen content produced in Russia during the 2020 quarantine employing widely available remote production technologies. Localising Wald’s key motivation for her research that the conventions of “the outbreak narrative have consequences” (ibid.: 3, italics in the original), the survey and analysis of Russian quarantine-era productions, matters as a snapshot of the response to the changed social relations and content production in the context of the pandemic.

Han and Curtis’s examination of the changes in social morality during pandemics suggest a possible method for making sense of the Russian focus that is not so much based on fear of the virus outbreak, but on social morals that are threatened by people’s self-centred approach to survival. Han and Curtis note that some western films portray death from disease as a response to immoral behaviour and sexual debauchery (2020: 390). Rather than demonstrating declining social morality, the Russian quarantine-era productions under examination focus largely on unity in adversity leading to an enhanced social morality that rises above the chaos without scapegoating an identifiable group in finding solutions for dealing with the virus.

In his influential study of television, Australian media theorist John Hartley introduced the term paedocracy to describe the struggle for control over television audiences and the governing of childlike qualities. Hartley argued that “broadcasters paedocratize audiences in the name of pleasure. They appeal to the playful, imaginative, fantasy, irresponsible aspects of adult behaviour. They seek the common personal ground that unites diverse and often directly antagonistic groupings in a given population. […] The desired audience is encouraged to look up, expectant, open, willing to be guided and gratified, whenever television as an institution exclaims: ‘Hi, kids!’” (1992: 111). Hartley also acknowledges television’s pedagogic mode that attempts to educate and mature the audience hailing them, guiding and instructing them on how to view – governing their childish qualities. Perhaps in the current multimedia sphere with its multitude of viewing options, platforms and content sources the struggle over control is more complex. Content producers adopted pedagogic textual strategies for viewers to make sense of the social changes that engulfed them along with the content producers in a playful common ground that had been established because viewers were not just guided, but gratified.1

#Screenlife Series

Most of the Russian quarantine-era series were produced in a version of the “screenlife” format – as computer screen films using the desktop or mobile phone interface as a frame as though the viewers were eavesdropping on a skype or zoom conversation with the screen format set out as though it was a private video messenger call and the screen space appearing as a standard desktop. The “desktop film” is a new subgenre that presents the protagonists’ action, telephone or messenger conversations and photo archives on a desktop computer screen and tracks the narrative from their first-person perspective with the cursor directing the viewer’s gaze. Based on ubiquitous digital technologies and shared new media languages and competencies, “desktop films” restage people’s mediated communication experiences with a deep sense of intrusion and authenticity. The first “desktop” feature film to successfully utilise the format is considered to be Unfriended (Levan Gabriadze, 2014, USA), produced and developed by renowned producer-director Timur Bekmambetov who came to fame in the 1990s with his grandiose “Bank Imperial” historical ads and then moved into mainstream cinema with Nochnoi dozor / Night Watch (2004, Russia), Dnevnoi dozor / Day Watch (2006, Russia), Wanted (2008, USA) and the Elki / Yolki film series (2010-2017, Russia). Initially calling the format “screenmovie”, Bekmambetov wrote a manifesto for conceiving the virtual space and the production methodology that identified three main pillars that appear to be applicable to most “screenlife” productions (Bekmambetov 2015):

1. The Unity of Place – the action never moves outside of the screen, unravelling on the display of the character’s gadget. The size of the screen remains a constant. The viewer must constantly be aware of where the action occurring at any given moment originated. The camerawork is stylised to resemble the behavior of a digital gadget’s camera.

2. Unity of Time – all the action takes place in real time—here and now, while the film is put together by means of in-frame montage without any visible transitions (as if shot in one continuous take).

3. Unity of Sound – all the sounds in the film originate from the computer. Their origin can always be rationally explained; the viewer has to understand at all times where the music track is coming from.

From 2015 to 2018 Bekmambetov developed what he called “screenlife” software to allow for the seamless production of these films and made it freely available. The software allows filmmakers to record sessions in Google Chrome along with links and videos that are recording webcam footage and microphone sounds using the cursor for direction. Bekmambetov moved predominately into screenlife production as producer but also as a director on Profile (2018, USA/UK/Russia/Cyprus). Therefore, screenlife became both a presentation and production format where the diegesis takes place entirely on the screens of various devices from desktops, to mobiles using all forms of video messenger apps to engage viewers familiar with the aesthetics and applications.

“Screenlife is a new format of visual content that has grown from independent projects to full-length, world renowned films, documentaries and TV shows. Its main idea is that everything that the viewer sees happens on the computer, tablet or smartphone screen. All the events unfold directly on the screen of your device. Instead of a film set, there’s a desktop, instead of a protagonist’s actions – a cursor.”

Bekmambetov’s often repeated claim “that he discovered a new film language, screenlife” has garnered substantial attention, but without thorough investigation. There is a powerful specific example of how screenlife gives us insights into character through how the protagonist interacts with the computer screen – the moments when the father in Searching (Aneesh Chaganty, 2018, USA) writes one word in the search window, then quickly erases it and writes another and the speed at which this is done and the sound of the keystrokes give viewers an insight into what the character is thinking and how they respond. When the protagonist is using the computer to search for something, and the cursor freezes as if they are hesitating, this gives us a rapid insight into character. As Bekmambetov notes “the viewer is able to observe the emotional transitions of the character and his actions through the way the character’s cursor moves, to understand his background and motivation. This revolution in cinematographic narrative is comparable, for instance, to the invention of the stream of consciousness in literature, which enabled the reader to look inside the mind of a character rather than simply observing their actions” (2015). The horror or investigative thriller in the screenlife format are highly conducive to the genre, but comedy series require adaptations of the format.

Not all screenlife projects are made equally. Films such as Profile and Searching feature considerable innovations in screen language and extensive post-production. They were both carefully constructed, technically sophisticated and narratively tight feature films that performed well at film festivals globally. In contrast, the quarantine-era screenlife series were the first iterations of the format in rapidly produced serialised narratives with a focus on comedy. The majority of the Russian 2020-made screenlife projects had immediate currency. They are unlikely to enjoy re-screenings or trouble future film scholars with their aesthetic innovations. The dozen or more series exploited the benefits of screenlife for covid-safe production processes so that content could be made remotely, with either very small crews, minimal set decorations and props and with the actors acting as cinematographers and designers – picking the best backgrounds and lighting and ensuring that their sound recording is optimised. For example, the cast of #SidIAdoma were all credited as actors and cinematographers.

Bekmambetov claimed in his manifesto that the chief innovation of screenlife was its capacity to create a sense of stream of consciousness that the viewer experiences as a special, privileged insight into their character. He explains that “it enables the author to explore the psyche of a character in a new way via their interaction with virtual reality. The user writes a message to a conversation partner, the cursor freezes, as if hesitant; the viewer is able to observe the emotional transitions of the character and his actions through the way the character’s cursor moves, to understand his background and motivation” (Bekmambetov 2015).

Even though the Russian quarantine-era serials were universally dubbed as “screenlife series” by the Russian mainstream press (Al’perina 2020), it is surprising just how different these series are from the Bekmambetov manifesto and the films that preceded them. Surprisingly, the protagonist’s point of view disappears in these series. In Searching, Profile and Unfriended and Dniukha! (Roman Karimov, 2018, Russia), there is a clear impression of the protagonist leading an investigation, with viewers following the diegesis at the same time as the protagonist does. There is, in short, a clear character perspective. By contrast, the quarantine-era series do away with a singular protagonist, and instead the screen real estate is shared with multiple characters and multiple, unprivileged points of view. There is no one key protagonist and no singular perspective. An all-in-it-together ethos permeates these series. The reasons for using the screenlife format are clearly more pragmatic than stylistic – there is no moment where the protagonist’s cursor hovers indecisively, no typing and then retyping a search query, no deep character insights. This is replaced by a synchronous, unified connection of time and place between multiple characters.

The quarantine-era screenlife series could be either considered screenlife-lite or a simplified or democratised variation of the established production aesthetic. The key difference between these quarantine-era series and the established format was that the new examples lacked a first-person perspective and a privileged insight into the protagonist’s consciousness. The setup implied a shared and equal screen space – the multi-window zoom architecture suggested that no one “owned” a screen that only privileged viewers could access. Rather, viewers were positioned as equal participants in the narrative with no greater access or insight than the characters.


This Russian comedy serial premiered on April 14, 2020 on streaming platform PREMIER. There were eight weekly episodes of about 20 minutes each, produced and filmed using zoom by the actors that included such luminaries as Aleksandr Robak, Anna Mikhalkova, Iuliia Aleksandrova, Gosha Kutsenko, Kirill Kiaro and Anna Kotova-Deriabina. The series attracted a reasonably high rating on the Russian film search portal, Kinopoisk with 6.8/10 based on 2880 votes. Audience size or rating was unavailable.

The plot revolves around the employees of a provincial cleaning supplies business, KlinXoz and the complex private life of their boss, Gennadii Tsvetkov (Aleksandr Robak). Set during quarantine, Tsvetkov is trying to save his business and staff from going under during the enforced lockdown and is encouraging his staff to continue working normally, but remotely. Meanwhile his new wife (Iuliia Aleksandrova) is stuck in Bali and he speaks to her regularly on messenger while she takes part in all forms of spiritual rituals while he is trapped at home with his mother-in-law. Tsvetkov’s ex-wife (Anna Mikhalkova) is not wasting any time during quarantine and is planning on marrying Tsvetkov’s new wife’s yoga teacher, while also managing their son’s affairs and keeping up a warm relationship with all the KlinXoz employees. Meanwhile the company’s secretary, Iuliia, is upset because her secret lover has chosen to self-isolate with his family rather than with her. He takes all his zoom calls from the apartment’s closet in order to achieve a modicum of privacy. Head of logistics and security Sergei (Gosha Kutsenko), a former special forces officer and now a heavy drinking single man creates as many problems for the company as he manages to solve while sitting in an empty indoor swimming pool where aside from the multiple bottles of strategically hidden vodka, he is storing all of the company’s toilet paper stockpile. He is supported by the company’s accountant who dreams of having a private life with him but is stuck at home trying to work and home-school two young children who turn her life into a living hell. Over eight episodes the series explored the company’s employees' complex inter-relationships as they try to survive amidst the deprivations of the lockdown.

The success of the series was its representational authenticity both narratively and through the zoom/mobile phone interface. It captured the everyday lives of working people trying to make ends meet, look after one another, and continue having some semblance of private life while working from home, often with hysterical consequences. The series utilised a simplified version of screenlife. The director used zoom to record the actors through various takes working remotely. The action takes place entirely within the frame of the computer screen, which captures their video work meetings, their private messenger calls, mobile chats and all other forms of communications. However, there is no privileged view from the protagonist’s screen. No hesitating, hovering cursor provides an emotional insight into the protagonist’s consciousness. Point of view is shared equally among the workers. The actors filmed the series working from home, in their own houses and apartments. Director Ol’ga Frenkel’ claimed that the enforced situation of remote working has created numerous new opportunities:

I enjoy working through the screenplay methodically without having to think about the limitations imposed on hiring equipment and pavilions. I like the opportunities of quickly reshooting a scene. I like being able to change the script without being dependent on economic or organisational factors. Normally there is at least one year from the moment you come up with an idea to when you get a chance to film the pilot, but we wrote and filmed the pilot in just 10 days! And I really like the intimate set up, just me, zoom and my favourite actors. (Frenkel’ 2020)

The remarkable thing about this series and part of the reason it attracted such positive feedback from viewers – “Well done! Very funny series. Cheered me up!” (Kinobase 2020)2 – was that the series not only captured the conversations and issues and concerns that people were going through in their everyday lives during the pandemic, but it also represented people’s daily life while working remotely and their heavy reliance on screens for all forms of communication, whether private or work related as well as everything in between. The series’ aesthetic aims for the genuinely amateurish with moments of frozen screens and software foibles. The series would start with the company KlinXoz holding its daily morning work meeting. But almost immediately they would turn to some personal and private relationship issues highlighting the complex patterns of Russians attitudes to work – even in isolation.

#SidIAdoma effectively employed a dialect of the screenlife language adapting to the fast turn-around series. The diegesis moved efficiently from the group zoom meetings screen, where all key members were visible at the same time, to duologues that were interrupted by mobile messenger calls and even some inevitable faux pas with the character’s accidentally sending “private” photographs to their work colleagues. #SidIAdoma exhibited some effective screen language innovations that developed the screenlife format. The series used close ups with a high proportion of actors making a direct, intimate address to the webcam with few long distance or unmotivated camera set ups. Especially at times of high emotional drama, the actors moved into extreme close ups with their faces right up against the camera, hair over the lens, poorly framed but authentic moments creating an unusual sense of intimacy even for such a cosy format. There were no second cameras, no alternatives for coverage. In contrast to the Bekmambetov produced screenlife projects there was no protagonist and no structured, consistent point of view. Emily Wei argues that as “immersive as screenlife films could be, there is an omnipresent undertone of voyeurism concomitant with the awareness that we are looking at someone else’s personal computer, a lingering feeling not quite easy to dismiss in spite of the identification with the protagonist” (2018). In this case the shared national voyeurism was the intent. Actor’s eyelines were cleverly employed to focus just off centre, towards the bottom left of the screen so as not to create that impression of the actors looking directly at the lens, directly at the viewer whether they were watching on a big screen TV or on their mobile. This created an experience of intimacy in that viewers were positioned as being part of the action, maintaining a clear feeling of connection, but also with a partial experience of voyeurism as if “zoom bombing” a meeting. Dynamism was created through editing and movement between the actors’ screens with frequent interruptions creating constant changes on the screen. Dialogue based sound bridges ensured continuity between scene fragments and as with the standard zoom interface, there were rapid transitions on the main screen when one of the participants spoke, otherwise they were all visible in small squares at the bottom of the main screen. The regular use of screen glitches and image stuttering was used to reinforce a feel of the authenticity of shaky internet connection and a haunting sense of realism – a technique to reinforce viewers’ connection with comfortable and familiar referents.

The quarantine lockdown created an extraordinary context for national comedy having returned that lost impression of a shared gallows humour that was such a powerful source of unification during the Soviet era with the sharing of illicit anecdotes in cosy unrenovated kitchens across Russia. There was a similar shared public experience in these “isolation comedies” that recreated that sense of a shared comic language of 1960s and 70s Soviet comedies of Gaidai and Ryazanov. The beauty of screenlife for this domestic comedy genre is that the format is character-centred, privileging the script and relationships limiting the action outside of the performance in the frame of the computer screen. The focus is on character’s responses to one another, the attention to small details in character development, the capacity to watch people listening and responding to one another with no special effects or zany interiors. The format has focused attention on the way people speak and react and listen and respond to what is around them and how they respond to their own loneliness and sensitivities to all forms of domestic, quotidian anxieties.

The zoom metaphor of bringing everyone together on one screen has created a form of national unity with a shared audio-visual narrative experience. Confined to the immobile unmoving cells or frames of existence – unable to go beyond their shared frames into the limitless realms of the online world – the characters are forced into a form of equivalence with their would-be viewers. #SidIAdoma created a symbolic intimacy and community while temporarily ignoring the rampant virus and its attack on closeness.


Curiously of all the quarantine-era screenlife serials the one that stood out the most for its formal experimentation was the only one produced by the originator of the screenlife format, Bekmambetov. The ten six-minute episode scripted narrative series Vzaperti was shot entirely on the Samsung mobile phones and then presented on the streaming service Okko as if viewers were watching the mobile phone screen. The serial was presented vertically optimised for viewing on a mobile phone device. All other screenlife serials utilised the more standard computer screen interface and largely the videoconferencing multi-window zoom format. And while most also used mobile phones for recording the direct to computer screen scenes and some cutaways and other coverage set ups, this was the only series that highlighted the mobile phone screen for presentation purposes. Vzaperti was filmed by the actor-participants, real life partners Anna Chipovskaia and Dmitrii Endal’tsev in their house. The storyline is about a couple who seek to separate during the lockdown due to Igor’ admitting to Katia that while he was overseas, he was unfaithful. She is furious and kicks him out. But just as he is about to leave, he is stopped at the door by health inspectors who enforce a two-week quarantine. Igor’ and Katia are forced to continue living together. The narrative is presented through the familiar mobile phone interface with its logins and alarms and two-way facing cameras. The camera movement is quick and spontaneous moving readily from selfie-mode to a reverse full camera format. Similarly, the performances are vibrant and appear authentic. The characters were created organically by the experienced actors with little self-censorship in the use of profanities which would be unimaginable on the mainstream television channels. The fact that it was shot on a mobile phone allowed for a fast post-production process and a casual, quotidian aesthetic.

As series producer Bekmambetov explained, “our life has long moved into the online screen space: here we get to know each other and sort things out, work, go shopping... Relationships today are a history of correspondence on social networks and instant messenger services. The screenlife format, when the viewer sees everything that is happening on the protagonist’s screen, reveals a new authentic dimension of what is happening. Support for the project from the Okko multimedia service and partnership with the global brand Samsung are proof that screenlife is turning from experimental into one of the most relevant media formats of the new time.” (2020) This series did exhibit the protagonist’s point of view and sense of ownership of the mobile screen and this voyeuristic position was shared with the viewers. The series was reasonably popular with a Kinopoisk rating of 6.5/10 out of 1264 votes.

Okaiannye dni

Not all screenlife serials were created equal and not all pandemic era series were created in screenlife. While not presenting themselves as “official” screenlife series made during the 2020 pandemic, a number of series utilised the format, structures, and screen language in modifying the standard production filming process. This allowed for inexpensive, fast turn-around, remotely produced products that quickly helped shape viewer expectation and generate demand especially given just how topical and funny some of these series were.

Okaiannye dni, was a ten-episode almanac of stories produced in the simplified version of the screenlife format about Russians' life during the quarantine with A-list actors and written by one of the most respected Russian satirists, Semen Slepakov. All episodes take place in domestic locations, mostly the actor’s own homes and are filmed either via zoom, mobile phone or video messenger. When two characters are conversing, the series presents them either in a single close-up shot with a stationary camera or a two-shot with two windows presented on one screen at the same time or a small window superimposed on top of another window giving the impression that the two conversationalists are speaking to one another. The editing is smooth, and the cuts are on vocal cues. The impression is that the series is both authentic and effortless in its use of contemporary and widely accessible media technologies and screen language. In the first episode, housewife Lena (Anna Mikhalkova) takes a Skype call at home. Behind the nickname “Kristina_1996” with a little black cat avatar hides her agitated husband Vitia (Nikita Tarasov), a weedy, nervous, bespectacled scientist. Lena wants to know when Vitia will be home. But Vitia, begging his wife not to worry, explains that his colleagues from the institute gave him as a gift an erotic Thai massage to remove all the negative energy surrounding him. Lena is furious and wants to kick him and all his things out of their apartment, but he tries to explain that just before the session was to take place at Kristina’s – the masseuse – apartment, a team of people in white suits and masks turned up and placed the apartment into two weeks of strict self-isolation and ... because of the close contact, Vitia, her client, must stay with her. The beauty of this episode is that rather than fall apart in a jealous rage, Lena first avenges her pain by destroying Vitia's rare beetle collection and then sides with Kristina; they form an unexpectedly warm relationship, talking every day during the lockdown over video messenger. Lena moves from her initial jealousy towards the young and attractive Kristina to slowly becoming friends and openly discussing Vitya's character deficiencies including his irritability, lack of personal hygiene and constant flatulence. Lena sends food parcels to Kristina's apartment and Kristina gives her marital advice that only a close friend would dare to share. The mise en scene ranges from a single close-up shot of the characters looking directly at the camera, to a split screen that combines the two messenger windows on the same screen so both apartments can be seen at the same time. Having one of the characters in Kristina's apartment move in the background provides an experience of spatial dynamics as do the moments when the camera in selfie-mode is moved quickly and with odd framing in moments of emotional fervour as the characters carry their phones around. The only impression that this is a film is provided by the diegetic music and the happy ending.

The almanac utilises many of the social innovations discovered during quarantine. In episode 7 we witness a remote yoga session; in episode 5 we experience a tele-health consultation between a patient and a would-be urologist who recommends a prostate massage delivered remotely. In another episode, Pavel (Fedor Bondarchuk), a prominent Moscow official, wakes up his brother Alexandr (Dmitrii Lysenkov) in the middle of the night with a request to remove his incriminating post about the authorities' inaction from his Facebook account; the conflict deepens until their mother needs to step in and reconcile her sons by threatening to drink from the same cup that Aunty Zhanna drank from before she was taken away with coronavirus. In another episode, Konstantin, in the midst of a drug fuelled orgy in his mansion, decides to call his friend Dima, who owes him 500,000 rubles. Dima replies that as he is in quarantine, he cannot give him the money. So Konstantin hires a debt recovery specialist (Vladimir Epifantsev), a tough brute who is no stranger to violence and torture (but charmingly lives with his elderly mother). He has pivoted his business model and now extracts debts... remotely. The series is about adaptation in the context of a tough quarantine regime. In one of the stories, a traffic policeman who has become used to living off bribes for traffic infringements tries various ways to encourage a repeat-offending small businessman to pay for his misdemeanours in advance through a complex system of remote corruption strategies until they both get caught up by an anti-corruption official who accepts their bribes as he too has to make ends meet under these difficult conditions. Although Okaiannye dni was released late in the period of self-isolation in Russia and it follows the established tropes of the screenlife series, it is the funniest and most bitingly comically absurd. The series was rated 6.8 out of 2644 votes on Kinopoisk. Each episode was directed by different directors and filmed by the actors using available cameras or their computers often in their own homes using some of their family members as supporting cast. After years as a popular musical satirist, often saying things in song about the authorities that would be unthinkable to say directly and following the success of the 2019 series Domashnii arest / House Arrest, the brand "Semen Slepakov Presents" is now widely considered as a mark of quality and fearless social comedy. While many of these quarantine era serials will disappear from public memory and will not warrant a second viewing, Okaiannye dni will in the future provide a semblance of ​​how strange this time was in Russian life. The pandemic is hardly mentioned, but there is a clear awareness of the new restrictions and the episodes examine the new social conditions and how viewers who gain an intimate insight into the myriad of online conversations that examine effective adaptation to the crisis.


Chuma! is different to the other quarantine era serials in that it is a political and social satire set in the Middle Ages and was not filmed as a screenlife project, but rather as a carefully scheduled, socially distanced costume drama. Replicating the black humour of Horrible Histories (Dominic Brigstocke and Caroline Norris, 2009-2014, CBBC) and the style of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, 1975, UK), this satire states explicitly that any connections with the current situation are purely accidental. It is a comedy about how the inhabitants of the fictional town of Nishburg live under a strict quarantine and social distancing regime: the executioner seeks to work remotely, the peasants line up to get their temperatures tested, the Pechenegs raid the city dressed in face masks and gloves while the guards chase the peasants around trying to measure their temperatures and provide existential commentary on the whole quarantine experience.

This is the story of a medieval Russian town and its populace of twisted royalty, peasants, court jesters, magicians, witches and commentators who are forced into quarantine due the plague. The courier William is also locked up in the castle despite being the messenger who delivered the news of the plague. The courier’s fiancée remains beyond the walls of the castle; despite the heavy police guard, he does not give up on trying to escape to see her. Unfortunately for William the daughter of the local Baron (Maksim Lagashkin) takes a shine to him – she is unsightly, capricious, has a drinking problem and a deep desire to get married before she turns 30. The courier has a serious problem – he is forced to choose – either he marries the Baron’s daughter, or he will be executed. The Baron who is dying of boredom is quite happy with either option. In Season Two the royal intrigues continue to mount as the second wave of the plague intensifies. There are regular characters and considerable courtly intrigue.

In a regular sequence that appears in every episode, the guards, covered in heavy armour, discuss the issues of the day as they stand by the city gates. In Season 2, Episode 1:

Guard 2 (Ivan Kuprienko):
Did you hear the news? 170,000 people. A new record!
Guard 1 (Dmitrii Khasis):
Are you an absolute idiot?! What are you so happy about? 170,000 people are sick. The second wave is coming, and you are happy?!
Guard 2:
So why then if we are having a second wave, and there is a new record, why is everything open and everyone is out and about?
Guard 1:
They will close everything when it's going to get really bad.
Guard 2:
Then everything will be good?
Guard 1:
Then everything will be far worse.
Guard 2:
Hang on a minute, but why do we have to choose between bad and really bad? It's going to be good someday, isn't it?
Guard 1:
We have already had the 'good times'.
Guard 2:
What? When? Did I miss when I was in the toilet?
Guard 1:
Well, don't you remember, a year ago, when everyone was complaining how bad life was? Well then, it turns out.... everything was actually really good then.
Guard 2:
Then why didn't you tell me that it was the good times then? I would have been happy.
Guard 1:
I didn't know about it myself at that time.
Guard 2:
OK, then, I got it. So as not to miss it, I am going to start being happy all the time. I'm going to start right away.
He tries to laugh, huffs and puffs.
Hooray! A new record!
He smashes his partner on the helmet as he dances off.

Although thinly veiled, this social satire is effective because it operates through the prism of historical distance, allowing comic commentary about the present to be blamed on the past.

Satire is typically employed to address those ideas that are difficult to discuss openly. The role of satire is to amplify and thereby illuminate these often ubiquitous and unquestioned ideas and practices – to ridicule them in order that viewers may find them easier to reconcile in their everyday life – a form of entertaining paedocracy that better equips viewers to redress the maladies they have diagnosed and seek to shape a more equitable society. As with the other quarantine-era serials Chuma! provided specific, often biting comic commentary about current issues in domestic and social life in the context of the pandemic that provides viewers with a critical outlet.

One viewer exclaimed, “The series is about stupidity, window dressing and modern trends in various guises. This is a merciless satire and on all sorts of insta-divas, glamorous bloggers with fans and subscribers, and on the trend of modern television with its endless shows and serials, and on the political system, when the appearance of activity is passed off as the activity itself, but above all Chuma! is a mirror that shows us as we are, reflecting all our current flaws” (say-alek 2020).

This was also the only show to enjoy a second season in 2020. The narrative series commenced on the streaming service ivi on May 29 with six episodes ending on June 12, 2019 with each episode about 20 minutes long. The second season continued the narrative and maintained the style and satirical structure commencing on October 30 and concluding on December 18, 2020. The series attracted a 6.6/10 out of 3296 votes on Kinopoisk. What stands out is that this is a historical costume drama, with a large cast, period settings and elaborate medieval costumes that responds cleverly and topically to the quarantine but with a modified production process utilising small groups of actors in short recurring episodes.


During the lockdown of 2020, there was considerable activity by Russian comedy series producers, who released more than a dozen quarantine-themed series. All of these projects were distributed by online streaming services rather than traditional, mainstream television channels, thereby raising the streamers’ profile with original, branded content. The online streaming services witnessed a considerable rise in paid subscriptions over the year. The number of Russian subscribers who paid for legal online streaming services jumped from 19% in February to 39% in September (Mentykova 2020) and the overall market leapt to 18,637 billion roubles (Skopin 2020). These timely quarantine-themed series provided the streaming services with flagship content branding that clearly differentiated their offerings from mainstream television content. Russian quarantine-era screen entertainment could be characterised by remote production processes that incorporated variations on the "screenlife" format, mobile communications and videoconferencing technologies; the appearance of A-list actors in scripted comedies with the actors often acting as their own cinematographers in their own homes. Not surprisingly these series featured an absence of pandemic themed horror shows, but focused instead on romances or comedies united thematically around domestic responses to life under quarantine. Films about pandemics share with these quarantine-era productions a pedagogical address to their viewers. While the former focus on how viral outbreak films affect the public’s health literacy (Kendal 2021), the latter provide moral and practical guides for making sense of social relations, remote labour etiquette and satirise the often-incongruous government health directives. Viewers of the quarantine-era series negotiated the traumatic context with an interplay between a paedocratic regime of pleasure and pedagogic regime of learning how to navigate the complex new work of lockdown etiquette and how to find intimacy in isolation. The screenlife format facilitated this impression of intimacy with famous actors appearing to share the real-world issues affecting everyone in quarantine in the familiar zoom window architecture. This was the first time that versions of screenlife were employed for serialised drama and comedy, giving rise to a new “dialect” of the established screen language. Gone was the emphasis on the protagonist’s point of view seen in the original screenlife films. This was now replaced by a far more equitable communication format. These series did not bill themselves as “screenlife”, but their shared production protocols and aesthetic gave rise to the term among Russian media journalists. In fact, the quarantine-era screenlife series altered Bekmambetov’s manifesto format to present material that was more accessible, intimate and authentic and implied a shared and equal screen space between actors and viewers that balanced their pleasure and pedagogy in learning how to adapt to the complexities of communication under lockdown.

Greg Dolgopolov
UNSW, Australia


1 Hartley's analysis of the regulatory regime that wrestles for control over audiences oscillating between pedagogy and paedocracy is particularly apt in the situation of a pandemic when various platforms of mass media and entertainment seek to educate, control and infantilise and stimulate viewers. Jonathan Bignell expands on Hartley's argument and explains “the audience, like the child, is regarded as both valuable and unruly, both under television institutions’ pseudo-parental control but also able to evade this control. So institutions develop strategies to address an audience on which they depend, but which they also patronise and demean. The paedocratic relation to the audience is based on satisfying its presumed desire to regress to a childlike state characterised by a search for pleasure, entertainment and distraction. In contrast, the pedagogic mode attempts to educate and mature the audience. Pedagogic strategies include the promotion and reviewing of television, which instruct the audience about programmes and how to watch them, as well as censorship and regulation by government or educational institutions” (2005: 283). Similarly, the Russian streaming services were seeking to identity a specialist niche that was distinct from the mainstream, government funded and controlled television channels by highlighting the childlike fascination with taboo-breaking behaviour such as the use of non-normative swear words and an unruly, feast-during-the-plague approach to the pandemic alongside some soft-touch pedagogy on what to do in quarantine. All the case-studies in this paper could be read through Hartley's analysis of the competing regulatory regime.

2 All translations mine.


Dr Greg Dolgopolov is a Senior Lecturer in Film at the School of Arts and Media at UNSW. He is a festival director and curator. Greg teaches video production and film theory. His research interests include film festivals, short films, film distribution, Australian and post-Soviet cinema and the crime genre. He has written on historical television detective serials and reality game shows. His research has been published in Social Semiotics, Senses of Cinema, Metro, Lumina, Real Time and Kinokultura. Greg is the artistic director of the Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival, Short+Sweet Film Festival, and the Russian Resurrection Film Festival and The Best of Australian Shorts Festival that tours Russia. Greg is a filmmaker having directed a number of short films, musical compilation films and documentaries.


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Suggested Citation

Dolgopolov, Greg. 2021. “Russian Screen Responses to the Pandemic.” Pandemic Cinema in Central and Eastern Europe (ed. by Raoul Eshelman, Mario Slugan, and Denise J. Youngblood). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 12. DOI:


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