Marina Rojavin, Tim Harte (eds.): Soviet Films of the 1970s and Early 1980s: Conformity and Non-Conformity Amidst Stagnation Decay

London and New York: Routledge, 2021, ISBN 9780367408992, 190 pp.

Bogdan Popa
Walter Benjamin; Michel Foucault; Soviet Cinema; stagnation; glasnost; Soviet avant-garde; socialist realism; antihero; flaneur; auteur; heterotopia; communism; Marxism.

The 1970s were exceptionally successful years for Soviet cinema, which during that period produced numerous entertainment films, attracted one of the biggest film audiences in the world, and generated “steady revenues” maintaining low ticket prices around “25 kopeks for adults and 10 kopeks for children” (Prokhorova 2013: 106). The scholarly conceptualization that we have of this period is, however, determined by its successor, the cinema of glasnost, which gave the period its Gorbachevian name: the cinema of stagnation. This cinema was defined by themes such as despair and materialistic malaise, which were contrasted with the enthusiasm and idealism of the mid-1980s in the Soviet Union. The productions of the late 1960s and 1970s have been understood in light of two key elements: first, they were primarily seen as a reaction to Stalinism and socialist realism, and second – scholars concentrated on films that were perceived as subversive to the official Soviet cinema. To give an example, in the first survey in English on the effects of glasnost on the reception of Soviet film, Nicholas Galichenko focused on films such as Мой друг Иван Лапшин / My friend Ivan Lapshin (Alexey German, 1985, USSR), Тема / Theme (Gleb Panfilov, 1979, USSR) and Агония / Agony (Elem Klimov, 1985, USSR). His analysis revealed not only their opposition to the aesthetic of socialist realism but also privileged a model of dissidence that gave them a high artistic value. Scholars have been prone to study films considered at odds with the official rhetoric, such as the avant-garde cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexander Sokurov, and Kira Muratova, or innovators, such as German and Panfilov. In the 2000s, a more inclusive scholarship, such as produced by two eminent scholars of Soviet cinema, Elena Prokhorova and Alexander Prokhorov, has broadened the analysis not only to melodrama and comedy but to the diversity of genres such as adventure films, children’s films, and Soviet animation (Prokhorova 2013; Prokhorov 2013).

This recent volume Soviet Films of the 1970s and Early 1980s: Conformity and Non-Conformity Amidst Stagnation Decay edited by Marina Rojavin and Tim Harte is excellent and continues the work of highlighting the diversity of Soviet cinema. It focuses on major tropes such as the antihero as well as analyzes new themes: the “aging kings”, the relationship between violence and pedagogy, the crisis of masculinity, and the presence of literary devices such as “the double” in film productions. The wider lens of this collection provides not only a much-needed historical contextualization of the anti-hero trope in socialist films but also an analysis of a broader range of topics in its eight chapters. In Alexander Prokhorov and Elena Prokhorova’s contribution, “Character Doubles As A Symptom In Late Soviet Cinema”, antiheroes reveal themselves through the strategy of doubling, a subversive device deployed to reevaluate the norms of late Soviet culture. The authors draw on Foucault’s notion of heterotopia to reveal the multiple and contradictory dimensions of television films. In this reading, we learn not only that the use of a double multiplies the range of interpretations but also that characters move beyond simple binaries of “good” and “bad”. In Rimgaila Salys’s chapter, “Antiheroes from an Imagined West”, the author introduces readers to figures like Baron Munchhausen and Jonathan Swift, who function as transgressive geniuses offering positive life-strategies to the Soviet audience. By focusing on two films, Тот самый Мюнхгаузен / The very same Munchhausen (Mark Zakharov, 1979, USSR) and Дом, который построил Свифт / The house that Swift built (Mark Zakharov, 1982, USSR), the chapter illuminates the relation of these films not only to the imaginary West, but also to the carnavalesque aesthetic inherited from the avant-garde of the 1920s. In “Teaching ‘by’ violence”, Tatiana Mikhailova explores the fascinating theme of a student who induces a teacher to act violently, an important subject for the film Чужие письма / Other People’s Letters (Ilya Averbakh, 1975, USSR). This article brilliantly describes the emergence of this trope as well as its recent iterations in post-Soviet cinema, such as the 2016 film Ученик / The Student (Kirill Serebrennikov, Russia).

The book also offers surprising interpretative angles that capture topics such as the elderly generation of Soviet people and the interrogation of the crisis of masculinity associated with the 1970s. In “Aging Kings on the Soviet Screen”, Otto Boele describes the presence of elderly characters and their loss of power in late Soviet society, which represents an important contrast to newer post-Soviet cinema that focuses on younger characters. We learn not only that the aging antihero is a newcomer to the Soviet screen but also that this character type played a major role in the rise of so-called post-collectivist values such as privacy and individuality. As he points out, in films such as Кафедра / The Department (Ivan Kiasashvili, 1982, USSR), С вечера до полудня / From Evening until Noon (Konstantin Khudiakov, 1981, USSR), and Частная жизнь / Private Life (Yuli Raizman, 1982, USSR), we encounter an elderly protagonist who is clearly overpowered by feelings of social isolation and self-disenchantment, gradually becoming an unsettling presence for colleagues, relatives, and friends” (Rojavin & Harte 2021: 77). In “The Soviet Flâneur-Turned-Marathoner”, Raymond de Luca writes about the crisis of masculinity in Georgii Daneliia’s 1970 films. He deploys Walter Benjamin’s concept of the flaneur to highlight the end of a hopeful period such as the Thaw: “The onset of Brezhnev’s Stagnation, which revived elements of Stalinism, fueled a widespread sense of pessimism and cynicism” and thus hasten “the demise of Soviet flânerie” (ibid.: 100). The article provides an important contrast between the hope and mobility of Soviet people during the Thaw and the erratic and disappointing movements of male characters in the stagnation era. Similarly, Marina Rojavin’s chapter “Unneeded Men In The Time Of Compliance” describes the predicament of antiheroes in Неоконченная пьеса для механического пианино / Unfinished piece for Mechanical Piano (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1977, USSR) and Полёты во сне и наяву / Flights in Dream and Reality (Roman Balayan, 1983, USSR). The author illuminates that one of the responses to socialist realism was the portrayal of the vain and superfluous man of the intelligentsia. In her interpretation, these films “show the tragedy of men forced to act, speak, and think differently in their private and public lives” (ibid.: 118).

The last section focuses primarily on the aesthetic of subversion in Soviet auteur cinema. In “Getting to Know the Big Wide World”, Eugenie Zvonkine offers a genetic analysis of the subversive strategies of Kira Muratova’s characters, who are designed to undermine the narrow aesthetic of socialist realism. As the author points out, “Muratova managed in her 1979 film to go even further and to create truly indocile and bumptious characters who diverged from all preexisting patterns” (ibid.: 139). Finally, in “Deconstructing The Stalin Myth”, Tim Harte interprets the antiheroism of Alexei German’s characters who are designed to function as anti-Stalinist vehicles. For him, German’s protagonists “prove antiheroic through the manner in which they come to embody a rejection of Stalinist, socialist-realist ideology and its explicit emphasis on the Soviet hero (ibid.: 157)”.

However, while the book continues to critically revise previous scholarship and enlarge the canon of Soviet films, its politics remains to some extent embedded in the idea that auteur films anticipated and reflected the end of the socialist project. After all, the term ‘stagnation period’ might have to be revised in light of the failure of the glasnost politics to preserve the Soviet Union. This critical orientation calls us to interrogate many assumptions that have underlined the critical approach to this period. For instance, notice that Elena Prokhorova not only observes but also believes it was inevitable that the generation which grew up after World War II became “alienated from socialist rhetoric” (Prokhorova 2013: 107). The stagnation model, too, often regards the breakup of the Soviet Union as a teleological conclusion to communism, rather than insisting on the continued possibility of new socialist beginnings. For instance, does Abrikosov, the main character of Private Life, experience private life only in opposition to his professional identity as a socialist manager? While the film concentrates on the contradiction between the two, it keeps open the possibility that a dialectical movement can open up a new life for a socialist bureaucrat. Similarly, in Kira Muratova’s Познавая белый свет / Getting to know the Big Wide World (1978, USSR) revisions of socialism realism do not work to completely undermine the communist structure of the narrative. Because of the Leninist dimension of the official rhetoric, many elements from the films discussed here point not only to a period of blockages and despair, but also to some possibilities for political renewal.

Another important question is whether the theory deployed can accurately capture the Leninist dimensions of the analyzed films. The use of Foucault’s concept of heterotopia and Walter Benjamin’s image of the flaneur assume a particular theoretical position about the Soviet Union. According to the book’s interpretative framework, the socialist state was either a consumerist capitalist society (so that Benjamin’s ideas can be deployed) or it presupposes an anti-Stalinist position with strong anti-communist undertones (Foucault’s term ‘heterotopia’ was conceived not only as a critique of Stalinism, but also that of socialist politics). The point here is not that the authors cannot use theoretical models that are not based in Marxist-Leninist ideology. Rather, concepts that are broadly associated with critical theory function to a certain extent to de-historicize the films by introducing a standpoint that does not correspond to their historical production. Given that the films were produced according to Leninist rhetorical rules, such a theoretical approach prevents a deeper understanding of the period. A stronger strategy to historicize films would be to understand their function not only as part of the Soviet ideology, but also as part of global shifts in aesthetics. A different focus, i.e. on the pessimism in 1970s European cinematography, would nuance the narrow historical attention to the specific Soviet dynamics. A prominent example of a broader understanding of Russian films is Salys’s The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader 2005–2016, which seeks to situate films in their global dimension.

Nevertheless, Soviet Films of the 1970s and Early 1980s is an important addition to the field and introduces the reader to a broader sample of Soviet films than is usually presented in publications of this kind. While the need to rethink the stagnation period and move away from its negative connotations is deeply felt by some scholars of Soviet cinema, one could also find a democratic potential in the Marxist aesthetic that underlines such films.1 My hope is that a different vision of the 1970s would bring a much more nuanced understanding of socialism in the Soviet Union and its lost historical possibilities.

Bogdan Popa
Transilvania University, Brașov, Romania


1 Also note Prokhorova’s desire to move beyond the stagnation framework: “In spite of the negative designation given to the era by economists and historians, for cinema, Stagnation was a time of many successful productions which ranged from genre to art films” (Prokhorova 2013: 113).


Bogdan Popa is Senior Researcher in the Department of Literature and Cultural Studies at the Transilvania University, Brașov, Romania. His research interests include the historical transformation of sexuality and gender, histories of Marxism in Eastern Europe, and the intersection between film studies and political theory. Bogdan’s new book, De-centering Queer Theory: Communist sexuality in the flow during and after the Cold War (Manchester University Press, 2021) analyses competitive models of Cold War sexuality and inserts a Marxist epistemology in queer theory.


Prokhorova, Elena. 2013. “Cinema of Stagnation late 1960s-1985.” In The Russian Cinema Reader, Volume II, The Thaw to the Present, edited by Rimgaila Salys, 104–114. Boston.

Prokhorov, Alexander. 2013. “The Diamond Arm.” In The Russian Cinema Reader, Volume II, The Thaw to the Present, edited by Rimgaila Salys, 114–126. Boston.

Galichenko, Nicholas. 1991. Glasnost-Soviet Cinema responds. Edited by Robert Allington. Austin.

Rimgaila Salys, ed. 2019. The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader 2005–2016. Boston.

Suggested Citation

Popa, Bogdan. 2022. Review: “Marina Rojavin, Tim Harte (eds.): Soviet Films of the 1970s and Early 1980s: Conformity and Non-Conformity Amidst Stagnation Decay.” Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 14. DOI: