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SSEES Research Blog


A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


A prayer for the Russian dead

By tjmsubl, on 29 April 2015

Tim Beasley-Murray considers Emmanuel Carrère’s Retour à Kotelnitch and what it tells us about death in contemporary Russia. 

Retour à Kotelnitch (Back to Kotelnich) is a documentary film, made in 2003, by Emmanuel Carrère, a French writer of Russian descent, that tells of life in a small and unexceptional town eight hundred kilometers east of Moscow. The ending of the film is almost unbearably sad. Beneath the soundtrack of Carrère’s tender and unaccompanied singing of a Russian lullaby, Lermontov’s Bayushki Bayu, the images show us the desolate forecourt of Kotelnich’s railway station, under darkened skies, covered in frost and snow, an empty bench, leafless trees. We have already seen this place earlier in the film. In the earlier scene, Anna, a young woman whom Carrère has befriended, is with Lev, her baby boy of about four months, in a sling on her chest. She is talking animatedly and distractedly to the camera, proud, bubbling with the love of a mother for her child. Carrère, behind the camera, at this point in making the film, has begun to lose interest in Anna in terms of her value for his project. Nevertheless, in a cutaway from middle distance, Carrère sits on the bench and plays happily with the baby. In the book that accompanies the film, Un roman russe, the reader finds out that it is at this moment that Carrère sings the Lermontov lullaby to Lev in his arms. It is summer and the sun gently shines through the leaves of the trees on the station forecourt.

Kotelnich train station (Photo: Wikicommons).

Between these two scenes and these two views of the same place, one wintrily desolate, the other sunlit and full of a love that is low-key but self-evident, something terrible has happened: Anna and her baby have been brutally murdered. Anna, strangled in her flat with the cord of her telephone; Lev, hacked to pieced with an axe. Summer has turned to Winter. The viewer cannot but superimpose her or his experience of the two similar, but cruelly opposed scenes. (A clunkier film-maker would intercut a flashback here.) What we see through the falling snow on the empty Winter bench is the absence of this mother and child and the crushing presence of their death. The lullaby that Carrère had sung to a living, sun-dappled Lev, a lullaby that tells of a mother’s hopes for her child as he grows up, has now, sung again at the end of the film, become a grave-song for a life brought to an end, so soon, so unimaginably violently.

The footage of the first scene, we learn, has acquired quite special significance. Such was the mistrust of Sasha, the FSB agent who is Lev’s father, about being photographed, that he took no photos of Lev, his child. He is, we are told, a child who was never photographed. As a result, these images, and the stills that Carrère and his crew make from the film and bring back with them to Russia after the murders, are the only things that his father and his grandmother have to remember him by. These images are the only traces of Lev in the physical world, tokens that resist his slipping entirely into oblivion. It is these images that allow this child and his mother, in some way, to live on. In some larger sense, these images become a sort of living memorial. A memorial to whom? Well, yes, to Anna and Lev, but not only. To answer this question, we need to first think about who is responsible for their deaths. At one level, the answer here is simple: Anna and Lev were killed by a madman who, most probably, simply knocked at the wrong flat. On another level, the answer is more complicated than that. Anna, the film tells us, was one of six children in her generation (brothers, sisters and cousins). Of these six, only one is still alive; the other five have come to untimely deaths of the sort that are both shocking and ordinary in Russia today: Anna, as we know, murdered along with her son; the others, Afghanistan, Chechnya, alcoholism, a drunken fight, and finally a falling icicle – this final death, in its tragic ridiculousness, all too unexceptional. The responsibility for Anna and Lev’s deaths, then, may be argued to lie with no more than the arbitrary violence of Russian life. At this level, Carrère’s memorial is something of a cenotaph. Its empty bench and snow-covered station forecourt, its song that is both lullaby and elegy, recall the names of two of the victims of Russian violence, Anna and Lev. In so doing, however, Carrère’s film also recalls the nameless dead. Behind Anna and Lev, stand, in ghostly fashion, those who have fallen victim to the brutality and indifference of modern Russia, those who, otherwise, feature only as statistical entries in Russia’s horrifying mortality rates.

At a showing of this film in London in the Autumn, Carrère sat in the cinema and watched his film again. Whenever it is shown (which is unfortunately not too often), Carrère says that he always sits and watches it, something that is unusual for film-makers who don’t tend to rewatch their work but retreat to the bar before reappearing for the Q&A. Carrère says that he always does so because he is happy to be reminded of the people in it. Watching Carrère watching his film, something else occurred to me: Each time this film is viewed, the figures come to life again on the screen; the traces that they have left in the world are made visible. Carrère’s ritual rewatching of his film is the lighting of a candle. It is a prayer for the dead.

Tim Beasley-Murray is Senior Lecturer in European Thought and Culture at UCL SSEES.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

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