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SSEES Research Blog


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


Alexei Balabanov: the potency of cinematic story-telling

By Sarah J Young, on 22 May 2013

Balabanov on the set of 'Morphine'. Via Wikimedia Commons

Balabanov on the set of ‘Morphine’. Via Wikimedia Commons

Alexei Balabanov was as much a cinematic translator as a chronicler of post-Soviet reality, finds Seth Graham

A few days before Alexei Balabanov’s death at age 54 on May 18, I was finishing a blurb for a talented film scholar’s forthcoming book on the director’s work. I wrote: ‘The downside to studying artists who are still alive and working, of course, is that they will always outflank those who study them by creating more art’.

The particularly superstitious might accuse me of hastening Balabanov’s death with this fate-tempting, tongue-in-cheek line (sglazil!). But Balabanov himself did some mortal tempting, and hinting, of his own in his fourteenth and final film, Me Too (2012), in which he appears as a film director who (spoiler alert!) dies an early death. It was not a secret that Balabanov was chronically ill. His relatives, friends and colleagues certainly knew it, and he did not hide it from the public. He said in his last interview that ‘there probably won’t be any more Balabanov films’.

Still, the news of Balabanov’s passing, announced by Sergei Sel’ianov, the director’s perennial producer and co-founder of the CTB production company that funded all of his films for nearly two decades, came as a cruel surprise to Russophiles and cineastes who had gotten used to the regular pleasure of seeing what Balabanov’s latest work had to offer, and which self-designated guardians of Russian culture it would offend.

The latter pleasure was made even more, well, pleasurable due to the fact that Balabanov as an artist typically stayed above such criticism; he was simply not interested in epatage or chernukha or schlock/trash/exploitation or whatever film-studies term you want to use that has been lobbed at filmmakers whose work is considered controversial. He did not make films in order to antagonise or offend or scandalize. He was not the ‘Russian Tarantino’ or even the ‘Russian Scorsese’, despite a similar level of graphic violence combined with formal virtuosity and thematic omnivorousness; Balabanov’s depictions of violence were not, as they often seem to be for Scorsese and other directors, excursus on the nature of violence. His films were excursus on nothing but the concentrated potency of the particular form of storytelling at which he excelled: cinema. (more…)

Writers, doctors, goalkeepers

By Sarah J Young, on 18 March 2013

Der Kicker (1924). Via Wikimedia Commons

Der Kicker (1924). Via Wikimedia Commons

Tim Beasley-Murray writes about the UCL German Department’s research project in the ‘medical inhumanities’, doctors who were also writers, and writers who were also goalkeepers.

The UCL German Department is in the process of launching its fourth Departmental Research project (the previous three having resulted in volumes on Laughter and ridicule in German culture, legacies of Norbert Elias, and questions of national identity). This new project, in which Central Europeanists in SSEES will also be taking part, is provisionally entitled ‘medical inhumanities’.

While one might object, on philosophical and ethical grounds, to the whole notion of ‘inhumanity’ as a way to describe human behaviour, there is no doubt that this is a fertile topic, provocatively framed – particularly for the study of German culture where, in the Nazi period, above all, inhumanity and medicine became so horribly enmeshed. Perhaps more prosaically, however, this project will be, one guesses, a contribution, not only to the study of inhumanity, but also to the field of the medical humanities. This is a field in which UCL has, in its time, played a leading role, and one to which, one hopes, it may yet return with initiatives under the auspices of the Grand Challenges of Human Wellbeing and Global Health.

The starting point of the concept of the medical humanities is the idea that medicine and the humanities both offer specific ways of viewing the world and the human being that, while they differ fundamentally, may also illuminate each other in productive ways. (more…)

What Bulgakov can tell us about reforming nursing in the former USSR

By Sean L Hanley, on 13 November 2012

Re-reading Bulgakov leads health researcher and guest contributor Erica Richardson to some sharp realisations about primary healthcare in the former Soviet Union


Photo: Vladmir Menkov via Wikicommons

I have now reached an age when I can go back to novels I read twenty years ago, reread them with fresh eyes and experience the joy of new discoveries.  Most recently, this has involved revisiting A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov, a collection of short stories based on his experience as a newly qualified doctor sent to a remote region for his first job practicing medicine.  I sincerely believe it is essential reading for all new doctors and cannot recommend it highly enough.  In the 1990s, I was struck by how little had changed in the rural Russian landscape despite the electrification and mechanisation drives under Stalin.  In 2012, I was struck by the way in which different members of the clinical team were presented.

Maybe this is because I’ve recently returned from Minsk, Belarus where I was representing the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies at a sub-regional policy dialogue on human resources in countries of the former Soviet Union.  As an aside to discussions about skill-mix and task shifting, a fascinating discussion developed around the concept of a ‘nurse’ and in the post-Soviet context, and where ‘feldshers’ fit into the picture. Nurses have their distinct heritage and philosophy which is focused on ‘care’, while the doctors are more focused on providing ‘treatment’.  So what’s a feldsher? (more…)