Both a Taunt and a Lure:

Khasan Khazhkasimov’s “The Rider with Lightning in His Hand” as a Challenge to Colonial Feminism

Serian Carlyle
Khasan Khazhkasimov’s Vsadnik s molniei v ruke / The Rider with Lightning in his Hand (1975, Soviet Union) is a rare example of a film made at a studio in the Russian Soviet Republic by a director from outside the Soviet centre, set in their native region. Set in the 1930s and based on real events, the film focuses on Natasha, a student-geologist. She comes to the Kabardino-Balkaria region in search of molybdenum, a rare element with industrial and military applications, with the intention of transforming the rural area into a prosperous, Sovietised metropolis. There, she falls in love with El'berd, a local blacksmith. Their relationship challenges Natasha’s ignorance and prejudices. In this article, I put forward a reading of the film as an expression of Indigenous identity and a challenge to Soviet settler colonialism. I demonstrate how Khazhkasimov subverts state narratives of progress, that on a surface level reading, the film appears to validate. Specifically, I analyse how Khazhkasimov interrogates the colonial and racist assumptions underpinning apparently feminist rhetoric through the depiction of the romantic relationship at the heart of the film. I propose that, in challenging official discourse, the film undermines the validity of Natasha’s colonial feminism and Soviet rhetoric. Through her storyline, I suggest that Khazhkasimov subverts the narrative that (Russian) state representatives had superior insight, instead highlighting the knowledge and experience of people from the region. In particular, Khazhkasimov centres their relationship with the land itself, positing the Soviet state as an aggressor towards the natural world. Khazhkasimov’s work has hitherto not been the subject of focused scholarship, yet the film provides a pivotal case study in understanding the ways that non-Russian Soviet directors could give voice to specific nationalities within the confines of the Soviet cinema industry. It also demonstrates the heritage of the cinema from the Kabardino-Balkaria region.
Khasan Khazhkasimov, Kabardino-Balkaria, Indigenous cinema, geography, Vsadnik s molniei v ruke, environmental cinema, interracial relationships, decolonising Soviet cinema, white feminism, gender equality.


Questions of Terminology and Theory

A Statement on Positionality

Background to the Film

Interracial Relationships

White (Soviet) Feminism

The Land






Suggested Citation


In 1975, Khasan Khazhkasimov released Vsadnik s molniei v ruke / The Rider with Lightning in His Hand (Soviet Union), a rare example of a film about the Kabardino-Balkaria region, by a Soviet director from this area. Unusually for a film with a regional focus, it was produced at a studio from the Russian Soviet Republic, the Moscow-based Tsentral´naia kinostudiia detskikh i iunosheskikh fil´mov imeni Gor´kogo (Gor´kii Central Film Studio for Children’s and Young People’s Films, hereafter Gor´kii studio). Khazhkasimov stands as an important figure for the region to this day; the contemporary director Andzor Emkuzh has described Vsadnik s molniei v ruke as one of the most important films about the Caucasus (“Samoe kavkazskoe kino”, literally, "the most Caucasian of films", Anonymous, 2019). The film is available on the Gor´kii studio YouTube channel, with nearly 100,000 views at the time of writing.1 Yet, there is very little written on the film in either Russian or English; Madina Tlostanova’s discussion of it in Narratives of Unsettlement: Being Out-of-joint as a Generative Human Condition is one of the only English-language examinations of the film since the period of its release (Tlostanova 2023). In this article, I call for the film to be read as an assertion of Indigenous visual sovereignty. I argue that Khazhkasimov uses the film to highlight and interrogate the damaging ideologies used to justify Soviet settler colonialism. I investigate three of the most prominent state narratives in the film: the use of interracial relationships as an exploration of and challenge to racial/national stereotypes; the rhetoric of gender equality; and industrial ‘progress’ as a justification for environmental damage.

At first glance, Vsadnik s molniei v ruke appears to fulfil some of the common tropes of early Soviet colonial films, by which I refer to the use of films to construct the new Soviet identity, particularly with reference to Soviet power in areas with large populations of people who were not ethnically Russian.2 Khazhkasimov’s choice to set the action in the 1930s and to film in black and white creates a direct connection with the Soviet adventure films of this period.3 Based on the life of Vera Flerova, a Soviet geologist who died in 1936, the film follows Natasha, who travels to Kabardino-Balkaria to search for molybdenum, a rare element with significant technological applications, intending to bring economic development and industry to the region. The film thus centres on the implicit conquest and ‘modernisation’ of the republic. Natasha is the protagonist of the film, and it is clear that Khazhkasimov intends for the audience to sympathise with her to a certain extent. Khazhkasimov highlights the sexism she experiences, and there is no dismissal of her irritation about the chauvinism that is directed at her. However, her character is also used to undermine Soviet state ideology and draw attention to its lack of respect for or understanding of local traditions and history. Very subtly, it references the policies used in the region and the attacks on Balkar and Kabardin communities, though the specificities of these would likely not have been recognised by audiences outside the region, including, potentially, viewers involved in censorship and edits of the film.4 Finally, it is Natasha’s arrogance towards the land as a settler colonist that inevitably causes her death, denying her a potential future happiness with El´berd, a local blacksmith who supports her research.

Questions of Terminology and Theory

My choice to use the term Indigenous could be seen as provocative within the context of the Soviet Union. In using it, I do not wish to suggest that the myriad Indigenous groups of the former Soviet space are inherently united or to amalgamate diverse experiences, both within the region and/or with groups across the world. However, the terms Native and Indigenous have also been used by some groups within modern Russia, for example, the Illustrators_Native Collective, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and Indigenous Russia.5 Furthermore, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith notes:

the term [Indigenous] has enabled the collective voices of colonized people to be expressed strategically in the international arena. It has also been an umbrella enabling communities and peoples to come together, transcending their own colonized contexts and experiences, in order to learn, share, plan, organize and struggle collectively for self-determination on the global and local stages. (L. T. Smith 2021)

I also use the term as an invitation to those of us working on Soviet studies more broadly, as a reminder that there is an existing body of scholarship, activist work and writing that offers important lessons for our field. While we must be aware of the specificities of the experiences of peoples colonised by the Soviet state, we should also not ignore the decades of work from Indigenous, Black, and postcolonial studies from the region and more globally. We should be actively engaging with these works to guide our next steps. Using this existing scholarship can ensure that we are better able to identify similarities with other Indigenous cinemas while also demonstrating the unique experiences and choices made by Indigenous filmmakers in the Soviet Union. In discussing the film in terms of Indigenous cinema, I follow the work of Jolene Rickard (Rickard et al. 1995) and Michelle Raheja (Raheja 2010). As Raheja demonstrates in her work on the experiences of Native Americans in Hollywood, Indigenous peoples “were not always the victims of corporate interests and ongoing attempts at colonization. Native performers were active agents whose work continues to influence, empower, and trouble” (Raheja 2010, 5). I argue that Vsadnik s molniei v ruke similarly acts as an explicit challenge to the Soviet state, despite its apparent inclusion of propagandistic messaging.

There is an ongoing and essential debate about the colonial and imperial tenor of the Soviet state project.6 In this essay, I make use of the definition of the term settler colonialism by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012). Tuck and Yang emphasise that settler colonialism differs from extractive and internal colonialism (both of which are also useful concepts in the Soviet case), because “settlers make Indigenous land their new home and source of capital, and also because the disruption of Indigenous relationships to land represents a profound epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence” (Tuck and Yang 2012: 5). In order to justify the settler’s “sovereignty over all things in their new domain”, settlers must “destroy or disappear the Native in order to disappear them from the land” (ibid.: 5-10). Tuck and Yang identify the use of the “settler-native slave triad”, arguing that “settler colonialism involves the subjugation and forced labor of chattel slaves, whose bodies and lives become the property and who are kept landless” (ibid.: 6).7

There are obviously many differences between the history in North America, which Tuck and Yang focus on, and the Soviet case. In using the term to refer to the actions of the Soviet state, I follow the work of Botakoz Kassymbekova and Aminat Chokobaeva, who have convincingly argued for the importance of using this concept to understand the Soviet empire and challenge “the popular view that the Soviet Union was an egalitarian project” (Kassymbekova and Chokobaeva 2023). It is also particularly useful in the context of Vsadnik s molniei v ruke for several reasons. First, the attempts by the Soviet state to settle in and conquer the lands in Kabardino-Balkaria are central to the film, differentiating it from other imperial and colonial experiences in the Soviet space. While this did not include the imposition of chattel slavery, as Tuck and Yang outline in their American prototype, the film is set during the period of collectivisation and makes multiple references to local resistance to the project, which naturally involved the enforced Soviet control over land and the dispossession of its prior inhabitants. Furthermore, the environmental focus of the film, discussed in this essay, is proof of the ways that Soviet representatives, like Natasha, can be seen to fulfil the descriptor of the settler as viewing themselves as “holding dominion over the earth and its flora and fauna, as the anthropocentric normal, and as more developed, more human, more deserving than other groups or species” (Tuck and Yang 2012: 6). In the realm of cinema, this was a common theme of films in the 1920s and 1930s, which emphasised the Soviet project to enact dominion over the land, and assimilate Indigenous societies into Soviet society. This enforced assimilation took different forms over time, and while the film focuses on the Sovietisation of the local community, it was obviously filmed after the forced deportations of Balkar and Kabardin people on Stalin’s orders during the Second World War.

I have also chosen to discuss identity in the Soviet context in terms of race and ethnicity, as well as the nationalities assigned to Soviet citizens. There is a long debate on this topic in Soviet scholarship.8 Vera Tolz has highlighted the tendency in Soviet studies to consider nationality and race as “separate and even contrasting conceptual domains”, “despite the ways that discussions around these topics intersect” (Tolz 2019: 29). As Eric Weitz argues:

[t]he Soviet regime at times assigned immutable characteristics to particular ethnic and national groups and made nationality an inheritable, biological category. This recognition would seem immediately to open up a discussion of race. Yet although they raise the term race, they step around it gingerly and quickly retreat to the safer language of ethnicity and nationality (Weitz 2002: 10).

As Weitz’s work indicates, the use of ethnicity and nationality offers many parallels to race and racialisation in other national contexts. I argue that it is particularly important to discuss the question of race in the Soviet case because it highlights the ways that racialisation of particular groups is a social process that is used politically to justify differential responses. It also highlights the hierarchies inherent in Soviet classifications of national and ethnic groups. I do, however, also use the term ethnicity, as a reflection on the ways that racial and national categories were constructed upon real and individually meaningful characteristics with which certain communities, geographic regions, customs, and cultures were associated. Finally, in writing on race, I have chosen to capitalise Black, Indigenous and White. While I acknowledge the rationale for using a lowercase to discuss W/whiteness, I feel that this can perpetuate the tendency to treat Whiteness as standard, rather than another constructed and political identity.

A Statement on Positionality

I am a White woman from the United Kingdom. I have had no access to archival materials given the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, as I do not feel that my situation allows me to ethically hire a research assistant who might be able to access further resources. Therefore, I am not able to reference any documents in which Khasan Khazhkasimov or other individuals involved in the film speak for themselves. This inevitably impacts my work. As one example, I would highlight Khazhkasimov’s decision to include exchanges in local languages that are not subtitled, and would not be familiar to most Soviet audiences.9 The current political situation and my own linguistic limitations mean I do not have the skills and resources to translate these exchanges. I explicitly acknowledge the restriction this places on understanding their content and power. In writing this article, I wish to explicitly acknowledge its partial reading of the film, and to invite and provoke further discussion about a fascinating and insightful film which has largely been neglected in discussions of Soviet cinema. I hope that my work can contribute to the discussion about the depiction of race, colonialism and indigeneity in Soviet film. However, even the fact of my focus on White Feminism in the film in some ways demonstrates my own positionality and limitations. I hope that I have responded to the challenges that Khazhkasimov proposes in the film to women like myself, though I am also aware that I will repeat many of Natasha’s errors. I welcome criticism and correction from individuals with greater knowledge and lived experience in this arena.

Background to the Film

Khasan Khazhkasimov was born in Kabardino-Balkaria in 1932. He was familiar with the violent repressions of the Soviet state as his father spent several years in forced labour camps under Stalin (Tlostanova 2023: 101). Khazhkasimov began his career in film working as an assistant for the director Stanislav Rostotskii on his film Geroi nashego vremeni / Hero of Our Time (1966, Soviet Union) (Borisoglebskaia 1975: 4). Throughout his career, Khazhkasimov concentrated on the experiences of people in the Caucasus, including a film about the period Alexandre Dumas spent in the region (Diuma na Kavkaze / Dumas in the Caucasus, 1979, Soviet Union).10 Vsadnik s molniei v ruke was his second film. The film spans two very different moments in Soviet history: its Stalinist setting and the Brezhnev era of its release. While it did not have stand-out success in terms of ticket sales, it was featured twice in Sovetskii ekran (Mukhina 1975; Borisoglebskaia 1975). At the time of the film’s release, Rasim Belaev, who plays El´berd, also appeared as the cover star for the second issue of the popular film magazine in 1975.

The 1930s period of the film’s setting was a turbulent time for the region; as the Soviet state and local communities interacted, borders were drawn and redrawn. After the end of the Civil War, in 1921, the People’s Commissariat of Nationality Affairs created the Autonomous Mountain Soviet Socialist Republic, which incorporated Karbardin and Balkar communities. In early 1922, the republic split and the Autonomous Kabardino-Balkar Oblast was formed.11 As the film suggests, Soviet interest in the region increased after the ‘discovery’ of molybdenum and tungsten in the mountain regions of the North Caucasus in the Stalinist period. In particular, the region of Tyrnyauz was developed into a mining complex, reliant on the forced labour of political prisoners, though this element of the area’s history is not referenced in the film.12 Chronologically, the film is set at the beginning of this period of industrialisation. Early in the film and shortly after the team arrives in the area, Andrei, the senior geologist, is injured, and Natasha, a dedicated Soviet student, continues the expedition. She recruits the local blacksmith, El´berd, with whom she falls in love. However, her quest angers a mountain gang led by the bandit Astemirov and his three sons.13 Astemirov, relying on local customs of hospitality, gains the support of El´berd’s younger brother, Andzor. As a result, Andzor dies in a stand-off with the police, and Astemirov is arrested. Having successfully located tungsten, Natasha presides over the industrialisation of the area but dies in a rockslide.

Vsadnik s molniei v ruke was based on a screenplay by Iulii Dunskii and Valerii Frid. Dunskii and Frid were a prolific duo, who co-wrote a number of successful screenplays, including Prikliucheniia Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona / The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson (Igor´ Maslennikov, 1979, Soviet Union). The pair were childhood friends and applied to VGIK together in 1940 (K. E. Smith 2017: 131). However, in 1944, both were arrested for plotting to assassinate Stalin. After their release in 1956, they were supported in their rehabilitation by their mentor from VGIK, Leonid Trauberg, and a camp companion, the screenwriter Aleksei Kapler, who successfully convinced Ivan Pyr´ev to consider their work during his time as head of Mosfil´m (K. E. Smith 2017: 134). The pair then led long-lasting and successful careers, working together until Dunskii’s death by suicide in 1982. I mention this background since, as Tlostanova argues,

The dark history of the film’s authors made them extra careful in their ideological message yet through the pro forma progressivism and romanticization of the Soviet extractivism, one can easily make out the real focus of the film – the painful and brutal clash of the local culture, ethics, and way of life and the forcefully imposed Bolshevik values that do not offer people any chances or rights to be above the fray. (Tlostanova 2023: 101)

Without access to archival materials, it is difficult to judge the decisions around the film and its location, as well as what changes, if any, Khazhkasimov made to the original screenplay. It is likely that the film was already set in Kabardino-Balkaria, given the influence of Vera Flerova’s life on the narrative. Certainly, other films had been made in the region, including Boris Durov and Stanislav Govorukhin’s debut film, Vertikal´ / Vertical (1967, Soviet Union), which was set near Mount Elbrus. Khazhkasimov could have been chosen for his personal connection to the region. However, it might have been the case that the original idea was more general and Khazhkasimov adjusted it to fit his own interest in the region, or that he worked together with Frid and Dunskii to develop the screenplay.

Interracial Relationships

When the geologists first arrive in the region, the local Party functionary sees Natasha and asks in relation to the team’s mission, “что такая найдет? Ну, может жениха она найдет – парни у нас хорошие.” [“What is a woman like that going to find? Well, maybe she will find a groom – our boys are good lads.”]14 Immediately, Natasha is identified as the potential source of a romantic storyline, the question of a ‘mixed marriage’ raised, and Natasha’s qualifications as a geologist diminished. Madina Tlostanova argues that Vsadnik s molniei v ruke included a love story between Natasha and El´berd in order “[t]o incorporate the Soviet ideology of proletarian internationalism and the unofficially promoted ethnic mixing with the view of the future Soviet citizen with blurred and therefore weak ethnic-cultural identity” (2023: 102). Certainly, the choice to include an ‘interracial’ relationship between the protagonists is a provocative decision, given both the complexity of the state approach to intercultural and interracial relationships and the relative absence of such relationships in earlier Soviet films. Films featuring mixed relationships were extremely rare, and – as in both Tsirk and Vsadnik s molniei v ruke – in the cases they do appear, the couples’ happiness was practically an impossibility.15 Khazhkasimov takes a light-hearted and tender approach to the difficulties that the couple face. He also makes concerted reference to Balkar identity (embodied through national dress, ceremonial swords, and daggers) and the land. However, the progress of their relationship suggests that they were doomed by Natasha’s Soviet-ness.

While interracial relationships were sometimes used as a symbol of the state’s self-image as a brotherhood of nations, they also raised concerns about the possibility that such a brotherhood might be achieved and the position of Russians diminished. In cinema, the most famous example of this is Tsirk / Circus (Grigorii Aleksandrov and Isidor Simkov, 1936, Soviet Union), which uses the response to a multiracial baby to compare the USA negatively with the Soviet Union.16 The film begins as the protagonist, the American performer Marion Dixon, is chased out of town by a mob in the USA for having conceived a child with a Black man. She flees to the Soviet Union, where her German manager uses his knowledge of her son to blackmail and control her, telling her that the Soviet citizens will also chase her out of the country. However, at the end of the film, she and her son are welcomed into the Soviet Union by audiences of various nationalities, who sing a lullaby to the child in their native languages. Despite this apparent commitment to anti-racism, the film reveals Soviet prejudices. For example, it is telling that the Black father of the child never appears in the film; Marion ends up with the White Russian hero. Infamously, the section of the lullaby in Yiddish was removed in 1948, after the singer, Solomon Mikhoel’s was assassinated on the orders of Stalin (Salys 2013: 257).

As the content and history of both Tsirk and Vsadnik s molniei v ruke suggest, there were also socio-cultural and ideological anxieties about interracial relationships. Adrienne Edgar’s research, which includes interviews with children of ‘mixed-marriages’ from the 1950s-1970s, is particularly valuable in considering the position of such relationships in the Brezhnev period (Edgar 2022). While I acknowledge that intercultural relationships may have also functioned to encourage “weak ethnic-cultural identity”, as Tlostanova proposes, this was specifically among non-Russian nationalities. By the Brezhnev period, “the consolidation of a Soviet identity in the USSR was consistently undermined in practice by the commitment to ethnically conceived nationality, and ‘Sovietness’ was often conflated with ‘Russianness’ – increasingly, a closed category based on descent or ‘blood’” (Edgar 2019: 210). During the Brezhnev period, there were increasing concerns about low birth rates among ethnic Russians. As Jessica Lovett notes:

Government campaigns aimed to raise the birth rate among Slavs, while suppressing it among Central Asians (and to some extent the people of the Caucasus too). For elite social observers in Moscow, both fertile Central-Asian mothers and reluctant Slavic mothers thus became abstract groupings, whose lives had no significance beyond the categories themselves, which must be altered in size to protect the nation. (Lovett 2022: 2).

This fostered anxieties about miscegenation, particularly in terms of White (primarily Russian) women. For example, on several occasions, Black African male students in the Soviet Union were attacked for having relationships with White Soviet women (Walke 2019: 302; Matusevich 2008: 72). As such, while in theory both the state and its population supported mixed marriages, in reality, such couples and their offspring faced difficulties (Edgar 2019: 2022). This is vital context to the film, given the social and ideological expectations that motherhood was a woman’s natural role and the necessary consequence of a romantic relationship. Soviet women were under particular pressure, especially at the time of the film’s release, to fulfil both their roles as workers and as mothers.17 The film makes reference to this context, featuring a scene in which Andrei asks their local guide, Timbur, how many children he has. Enthusiastically, Timbur replies that he does not have many, only nine. In contrast, Andrei only has one, a fact he admits slowly. Given the contemporary state and social anxieties about the declining birth rate, this seems to indicate that this is a failing on his part. Soon after, he is hit by debris from the mountain and injured, as if to suggest a double-threat to the future of ethnic Russians. Natasha does not display any consideration of a future in which she has children. As such, the pressure facing women to fulfil their ‘double burden’ is not a focus of this article, which will instead analyse the depiction of the relationship itself, specifically from the perspective of the cultural differences between Natasha and El´berd.

From the start of the film, Khazhkasimov uses the relationship between El´berd and Natasha to emphasise a particular image of masculinity from the region, centred around the figure of the sword, national customs (and costumes). This also emphasises the differences between the two individuals and their backgrounds. For example, throughout the film, Natasha is pictured in light-coloured clothes and El´berd tends to wear black, including elements of national dress such as the chepken/chokha (riding jacket with gazyr’ pockets to hold rifle charges) and papakha (tall sheepskin headwear) on some occasions. This division between them is echoed when Natasha first sees El´berd. As the group arrives in the town, Natasha sees a figure on horseback riding in a storm, who is apparently able to capture lightning with a sword. However, because of the black-and-white filming and the distance, as an individual, he is invisible. Natasha and the viewer can predominantly see the light from the sword. When Natasha asks Samson, their guide, what it is, he replies that he can see the Archangel Michael with his sword of fire, “а по вашему, не знаю” [“but what that means for you, in your language, I don’t know”18].19 This description makes El´berd into a warrior of superhuman potential, centred on a local tradition of weapons-smithing “the way his ancestors used to do from the time immemorial”, but also someone beyond Natasha’s comprehension (Tlostanova 2023: 102). Tlostanova argues that in this scene El´berd

becomes a god-like hero for whom different characters in the film find different analogies, depending on their cultural and religious backgrounds – from Saint George to Tlepsh – one of the main Circassian gods who is a blacksmith and a patron of crafts and medicine. This specific, almost magical function of the blacksmith is eroded by the new Bolshevik order when in the end of the film Elberd appears as a different person who has literally turned from a god-like figure to a humble future proletarian on his way to the city (Tlostanova 2023: 102).

As such, the film demonstrates the damage that the Soviet state enacted over myriad Indigenous groups across the empire’s history, removing people’s connections to their ancestral cultures and beliefs, and both encouraging and forcing compliance to Soviet identities. However, I also suggest that there is space for a more optimistic and challenging reading of El´berd’s character arc. I argue that, within the constraints of state and studio censorship, Khazhkasimov affirms a cultural identity that was under extreme threat, demonstrates the ways that Indigenous people challenged the state by maintaining their identities and histories, and creates an image of positive masculinity that is explicitly non-Russian. His choice to take up Soviet study is proof of the varied ways that different groups utilised Soviet policy for their own ends and reformulated their identity. Furthermore, the film’s coda takes the viewer to present-day Tyrnyauz, highlighting the cable cars, the university, and myriad citizens. Among them is an older man wearing a chepken, papakha, and a sword at his belt. I read this figure as an older El´berd, reflecting on the passage of time, both part of the changes to the area, and maintaining a visible commitment to ethnic identity and custom. Given the decades of Russian and Soviet colonisation of the region and its inhabitants, I view El´berd’s choices as a challenge to Russification campaigns.

El´berd and Natasha meet – the sword between them.

El´berd maintains the historical custom and actively performs masculinity through his relationship with weaponry. After this first sighting, when Samson and Natasha go to the smithy, El´berd is preparing a sword, which he wields as she enters. The attraction between Natasha and El´berd is apparent to the viewer in their wide-eyed silence. Samson explains that El´berd is the archangel they saw. The lightning-riding is part of his practice as a blacksmith, a method to temper swords. The sword functions as an embodiment of El´berd’s masculinity and sexual appeal. It is both the embodiment of their attraction and, a literal barrier to their potential closeness, standing between them. These interactions centre the sword as a statement of cultural identity. The film also suggests that the sword functions as a vehicle for resistance to imperial power. Andzor, El´berd’s younger brother, explains that the swords are no longer useful to anyone, as they have been banned from wearing them. It is left unsaid whether this was a Tsarist ban or Soviet. El´berd justifies his continued practice as a smith due to the fact that “руки просят хорошую вещь делать” [“I need to make something good with my hands”]. The sword is, despite its potential for violence and the rejection of its use, inherently important, as is the traditional process of its forging. When Natasha asks for his help, El´berd promises it, as his duty as a Komsomol member. Yet, his presence and work in the smithy demonstrate that, despite his commitment to the Soviet state and its principles, he has also continued to dedicate his time to his ancestral craft. It is not an aspect of his character that the film explores in any further detail; this is the last time we see him in this role; for the rest of the film, he is dedicated to the research project. However, it suggests to the viewer that he has found a way to marry both the required dedication to the state, its institutions and ideologies, while also maintaining his ethnic and cultural identity. Given the Soviet emphasis on productivity, this choice is inherently challenging to state ideology. Furthermore, given Samson’s original statement and Orthodox faith, it is also interesting to consider the archangel Michael’s flaming sword, which has Biblical connotations with Judgment Day and triumph over the reign of evil.20

Despite the immediate sexual interest between them, it initially appears that Natasha will not have the capacity for a romantic relationship. In the first scene, after they have begun their partnership searching for molybdenum, El´berd is hard at work, digging a trench. The sequence opens with a medium close-up focused on his hips, as he attempts to excavate the soil. The shot thus centres his belt, from which his dagger and hammer are both hanging. The shaft of the spade he is using is also centred, continuing to highlight the phallic imagery of weaponry. As a statement of masculinity through strength and virility, it is compelling. Behind him, Natasha is daydreaming. However, instead of considering a future with El´berd, she imagines a city stretching over the currently untouched landscape. His masculine prowess comes second to her dreams of constructing the Soviet future.

El´berd hard at work.

Despite this, Natasha and El´berd do build a relationship. This development is directly associated with the land, their different backgrounds and expectations, and local resistance to Soviet hegemony. After one of their expeditions, the pair camp out on the mountainside. The scene takes place after Astemirov finds them, a threatening encounter in which Astemirov has the upper hand and the final word. Natasha’s insistence that they continue their work leaves them both vulnerable, and El´berd sets up a camp for them to hide from the resulting threat to their lives. However, despite this background, the setting is also used for comedic and romantic effect. They lie next to one another, looking away from the other. Natasha starts, discovering a dagger that El´berd has placed between them. He explains to her that it is there out of custom to form a wall between them so that nothing (one assumes, nothing sexual) will pass between them. Natasha complains that it is old-fashioned, but then slowly turns her head to look at him. As the extra-diegetic music swells, she asks if this means that they are now made siblings by the custom, stating that she had heard that a man and a woman could not marry after sleeping like this. As she bites her lip waiting for the answer, it is El´berd’s turn to complain about nonsense. After telling her to sleep and turning onto his side, he then rolls back to inform her “[э]то совсем другой обычай! У Грузин!” [“That’s a completely different custom! Among the Georgians!”]. Natasha smiles slightly, then lifts her chest, so she can wriggle down into their makeshift bed. The camera zooms in to a close-up of her face as she stares dreamily. This time, there is no Soviet city, but instead a brief shot of El´berd on horseback, now identifiable, holding his flaming sword. The scene is moving and humorous in its realistic approach to the youthful awkwardness present in their negotiation of early sexual and romantic experiences. However, its timing, following Natasha’s challenge to Astemirov, also demonstrates the real danger that Natasha’s stubborn insistence on following her Soviet dreams creates, both for herself and for El´berd. It also centres on the difference in their cultural backgrounds, gently mocking the Russian tendency to amalgamate the different groups in the Caucasus.

On another occasion, they are walking down into town and laughing together when they notice Mount Elbrus. Awed, Natasha quotes quietly, “Две вершины, как девичьи груди…” [“Two peaks, like a maiden’s breasts”]. This shocks El´berd, who cannot believe that a young woman could use such language, while Natasha complains that it is poetry. Jolted out of their cheerful conversation by this reference to the female body, they squabble as Natasha tries to jump from the rock they were standing on alone, rather than take El´berd’s help. Regardless, she ends up jumping into his arms. They end up close together as if about to kiss, and El´berd’s hands catch Natasha, brushing her own maiden’s breasts. This active acknowledgement of their desire and of the potential for a sexual and romantic relationship is intimately connected with place; the region is centred in their developing feelings. Yet, even their closeness highlights their lack of understanding of the other.

An accidental romantic moment.

Natasha is therefore clearly capable of finding love, despite the fact that she remains true to her ambitions. At the end of the film, after her death, a final scene reunites Natasha and El´berd. They walk together, discussing their futures as both head off to continue their studies. For the first time, they are both wearing light colours, emphasising their connection, rather than the black/white contrast that has been used until this point. This could be read as El´berd’s fantasy, given that it happens after Natasha’s death. However, as it occurs as he walks through the same space to leave the town and includes a conversation about the practicalities of their decisions, I would argue that it is intended to be read as a flashback. Against the background of a swelling soundtrack, the following dialogue occurs:

“Где будешь копать?”
“Вон там, у той скалы”.
“Я хочу тебе спросить… Но надо ответить правдиво, как в смертный час. Ты могла бы полюбить чужого человека, ничего не зная того, что ты знаешь? Чужая кровь… Чужой язык”.
[Interrupting] “Я полюбила. Я давно люблю”.

“Where are you going to dig?”
“Over there, by that cliff.”
“I want to ask you something… But you have to answer honestly as if it were your hour of death. Could you love a stranger?21 Someone who doesn’t know anything of what you know. A stranger by blood… a stranger by language?”
[Interrupting] “I have already fallen in love. I have been in love for a long time.”