Андрей Алферов
Film scholar, director, curator
Liberal Arts
7 minutes for reading

Why Ukrainian cities were not shown in Soviet movies

Why Ukrainian cities were not shown in Soviet movies
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Artwork: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop


Five years ago, I undertook a large multimedia project, «Flights in Dreams and Reality. Exhibition», in which I tried to penetrate the Kafkaesque space of the late Brezhnev stagnation with its unheroic heroes through Roman Balayan’s main movie. At the same time, I discovered the urban theme in Soviet Ukrainian cinema.

As it turned out, the theme was tacitly banned in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. So much so that Ukrainian cities are not represented on the world cinematic map to this day, in most cases continuing to remain just nameless locations for a variety of stories.

Odesa and Kyiv somehow stand out against the general background. But both of these cities, despite everything, have not acquired their own screen biographies and have not become big heroes or characters of cinema, as was with Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, Leningrad, Paris, or New York. The latter, it seems, is now unable to exist outside the movies at all.

While the above cities have dozens of movie portraits, New York has literally thousands. In some (like Jules Dassin’s «The Naked City» and Woody Allen’s «Manhattan»), it is immediately warned that New York is one of the heroes of the movie. Martin Scorsese hints at the same indirectly in his «Taxi Driver», building a complex on-screen relationship between gutter-like New York City and Robert De Niro’s down-on-his-luck Vietnam veteran, wheeling his PTSD through its vicious streets at night.

The very image of New York was first constructed on the screen in the main movie about the city of the future and man-machine — «Metropolis» (1927). However, the urban theme in the movie did not begin with this masterpiece. And before and after him, films whose places of action were cities were filmed enough. But only the Italian Roberto Rossellini was the first to recognize that the city is not just a beautiful setting but the scene, the place of action, the arena of human drama, an independent and self-sufficient hero.

His «Rome, Open City» (1945) — is a story of survival with non-professional actors under the shadow of the eternal city. A decade and a half later, movie biographies of other major metropolises, including several Soviet ones, would begin.

In the drama «Cleo from 5 to 7» (1962), a popular singer hangs around summer Paris, eagerly bidding farewell as she awaits a terrible medical sentence. Director Agnès Varda turned Paris into a living being on the screen and created its topography. Kyiv had all the chances to get its own movie biography at exactly the same time. No, not thanks to the cult comedy « For Two Hares» (1961), where, despite the declared Volodymyrska Hill and Andriivskyi Descent, the role of the city is reduced to a screen minimum. 

A great artist Parajanov saw in Kyiv a great, mystical hero. Swinging after the resounding triumph of «Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors» (1964) on the urban theme (for the first and last time in his life), Parajanov undertook to make a movie on his own script.

He thought of his «Kyiv Frescoes» as a myth of Kyiv. Cities change quickly, and when a city ceases to live up to its myths, there is a well-known formula of nostalgia, when we grudgingly notice that, say, «Rome is no longer the same»… As a rule, a myth is a projection from the past, created by someone or something. It is all the more interesting when a city begins to conform to its own myth. The kind that would be made in a movie. As happened with Paris, as mentioned earlier, or New York.

Parajanov, who had just constructed the myth of the Carpathians and the Hutsuls, was going to apply this experience to «Kiyv Frescoes» to reinvent the city literally. «Frescoes» had every chance to become what «Manhattan» became for modern New York — Woody Allen’s city, known to have defined the face of Manhattan of today.

In his essay «Eternal Movement», published in the magazine «Art of Cinema» in January 1966, Parajanov writes: «I have long dreamed of making a movie about Kyiv. Kyiv has been on the screen many times — historical, landscape, architectural, industrial, destroyed by the war. But almost no one has looked into the soul of Kyiv and has not noticed its sadness and desires or its humanity. There is a new Kyiv and an ancient one. And it is one and the same city. The city acquires new beauty with each generation without losing the old one. The biography of modern Kyiv is unthinkable without its childhood. And that is why we want to make a movie about time — about a great architect who constantly reconstructs, restores, destroys, completes».

Formally, «Kyiv Frescoes» was supposed to be a movie for the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Kyiv from fascist invaders. The plot — in the style of Parajanov— is extremely confusing: the unnamed director, in whose figure it is easy to see Parajanov himself, sends a courier a huge bouquet of flowers to a retired general on the day of victory.

But the courier mistakenly delivers the flowers to another address — to the widow of a fallen soldier, who works as an ordinary employee at the Khanenko Museum in Kyiv. Having given the flowers, the courier will spend the night in the company of the widow and the revived Infanta Margarita Velasquez. Periodically, there will be some soldiers, nude sitters, dancing black people, and many others….

Work on the movie was about a year — from the beginning of 1965 to 1966. But because of the conflict with the studio authorities, Parajanov never launched. The author was accused of formalism and denigration of Soviet reality. The movie was closed.

Several versions of the script and 13-minute screen tests have survived (and have been published many times), miraculously not washed away by the studio executioners: the cameraman Oleksandr Antipenko literally carried the footage out of Dovzhenko’s studio on his own. These samples are quite an independent work with a very bright author’s signature.

From «Kyiv Frescoes» three years later grew «The Color of Pomegranates» — full of passion and mysticism poetic film parable about the fate of the Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, staged by Parajanov already at «Armenfilm». And the «Frescoes» themselves seem to have reincarnated, germinated in the work of another genius of the era. In 1972, Federico Fellini shot his «Rome», in which he fantasized about the future of the Eternal City in the same way.

«Kyiv Frescoes» will die but will lay the foundation for the Kyiv «partisan» urban cinema. Its authors — Parajanov’s students — will, little by little, violating unspoken prohibitions, drag the city onto the big screens.    

We can talk as much as we want about Moscow’s colonizing policy towards Ukraine and the charovar, agrarian narratives it has imposed. But the core of the problem lies more in the social background of the republican leadership. Most of them (V. Bolshak, Y. Olenenko, O. Romanovsky, S. Bezklubenko) were first-generation peasants.

This concentration of the specific rural mentality at different levels of power (in the USSR leadership, the Ministry of Culture, and the Government Cinema of the Ukrainian SSR, as well as in the film studio directorate), with its inherent division into «their own» and «strangers» (read «aliens», meaning the conventional city), making it challenging to promote urban projects in production. Consequently, the urban culture with its mores was profoundly alien and incomprehensible to such people.

And the incomprehensible, as we know, causes fear. And fear causes aggression, the desire to destroy, reprisal, and erase like «Kyiv Frescoes» — the first tragic station in Parajanov’s creative biography, its turning point.

A little luckier was Odesa: the film studio there from 1961 to 1981 was headed by a Mariupol resident, Doctor of Philosophy Gennadiy Zbandut. Under his wing, the urban theme became almost central to the repertoire of studio plans. What is worth only one full-length debut of Kira Muratova, «Short Meetings» (1966), or filmed by her four years later, the same movie, «Long Seeing Off» — in both, Odesa literally breathes in every frame.

Yes, both pictures soon «laid on the shelf», but at least they were filmed. In 1981, Peter Todorovsky put on the same studio capacity of his tender melodrama «The Beloved Woman Mechanic Gavrilova», where the partner Lyudmila Gurchenko will be Odesa itself.  


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It should be said that modern Ukrainian urbanism (no matter how wild and unpleasant it may sound now) was formed… in the USSR, which means that it is deeply Soviet. Due to historical peculiarities, there was simply no other.

The pre-Soviet urban civilization, which originated in the landed estates of Ukrainian aristocrats, was swept away by the revolutionary masses of rebellious Ukrainian villagers, as the prominent Ukrainian intellectual Serhiy Yefremov wrote.

The actual beginning of the «urban theme» of the Soviet era can rightly be considered the book «The City» (1928) by Valerian Pidmohylny — the first urban novel in domestic literature (modernist in its essence), with new characters, conflicts, and narrative style.

But even in this story about the conquest of the city by Stepan, a simple rural boy, and the literary genius awakened in him, one can read a wary attitude to everything urban: Kyiv is alien and hostile to Stepan. He longs for the Dnipro, but its water is «slippery and unpleasant».

He is pleased, however, by the weakness of the city dwellers and his class’s non-membership with them. «Here they are, these townspeople. They are all old ashes to be wiped away. And he is called to it». Kyiv, in the end, was subdued by the provincial. But no one dared to screen the book.

The mighty and mystical Kyiv will be recorded on paper by Paustovsky and Bulgakov (first in « White Guard», and a little later in «Master and Margarita»: the Moscow there, with its flying everywhere wickedness, reincarnations — not Moscow at all, but Kyiv»).  

The Republican leadership will keep a watchful eye on any manifestations of «urban» in literature and cinema. It will deal with the eccentric Parajanov but will overlook his friend and student, the unconventional loner Roman Balayan.

The latter is one of the few who retained in himself, in his worldview, the attitudes that defined Parajanov’s «circle» semantics. The same familial contact, non-recognition of any form of hierarchization of interhuman relations, the desire to adjust all behavior in its gesture-speech perspective to self-disclosure of himself and the person from his group («circle»). The fusion of the ideal-utopian and the real makes it possible to develop a unique worldview plot.

One of the peculiarities of Parajanov’s behavior in everyday life (assimilated and continued by Balayan) is the presence of what is called the author’s personality, which functions in the sphere of literary and artistic life. She and her plots create an automythology, an automyth that ensures, among other things, the functioning of a stable metatext.

In the second half of the 1970s and 1980s, after the actual liquidation of «poetic cinema», which relied on mythological complexes of predominantly peasant, agricultural culture, a new informal circle of bright personalities emerged at the Dovzhenko Film Studios.

In addition to Roman Balayan, it included directors Vyacheslav Kryshtofovich, Alexander Itygilov, Konstantin Ershov, cinematographers Mikhail Belikov and Vilen Kaliuta, partly Nikolai Rasheev (back in 1968, following Paradzhanov’s attempt to glorify Kyiv, he co-authored with Alexander Muratov the lyrical urban study « The Little School Orchestra» — about metropolitan schoolchildren in love with jazz — with incredible portraits of Kyiv streets).

All these authors were united by the peculiarities of everyday behavior, which had nothing in common with the official rhetoric of power, with the hierarchy of objects, primarily ideologically colored.

It is logical that it is private life (in almost unavoidable opposition to official life) that is the material of the best films by Ershov («Women Joke Seriously,» «Late Child»), Krishtofovich («Before the Exam», «Your Happiness», «Trifles of Life»), Itygilov («Date», «The Accused Wedding», «Humble Cemetery»), Belikov («Night is Short», «How Young We Were»). Family and private values are presented here both in their romantic-positive hypostasis and in crisis, under the pressure of the realities of the modern big city (almost always Kyiv), which was a new and unusual material for Ukrainian cinema in general.

Because if the city was represented in Ukrainian cinema, it was not at all in a realist discourse.

One can understand how safe this was from the history of the film «Grandfather of the Far Left» (1973) by Leonid Osyka, one of the key representatives of the national poetic school, who was poisoned not so much by the official censorship as by fellow filmmakers themselves for, as it was said, «apostasy».

This refers to his departure from the canons of poetic cinema in favor of urban themes. For this story about an artist who takes care of the facades of Kyiv houses with passional passion, Osyka was reproached for script miscalculations. And the movie itself, which found not just the atmosphere but the very spirit of Kyiv, was called «a manifestation of a creative crisis».

Balayan and his «urban group» continued to play out images and stories of people who were wildly similar to themselves. People who did not fit into official plots and pictures.

The flagship of this movement, in fact, the central film of Ukrainian urbanism, was the frighteningly authorial hit of the stagnant era, «Flights in Dreams and Reality» (1983) — a kind of X-ray snapshot of the generation that entered life in the 1960s, on the wave of reorientation of state and social life. And already at the beginning of the 1980s, they discovered the emptiness in their own souls and their actual irrelevance, their non-insertion into the structure.

Balayan’s superfluous person dwells in the space of a frighteningly deserted provincial city (as Balayan saw Soviet Kyiv). This city appears, directly or indirectly, in almost every movie of the author. For the first time — in his debut, «The Romashkin Effect» (1973). Two years later, he screened Chekhov’s «Kashtanka» (1975), rehearsing the drama of life’s emptiness and homelessness and providing it with deserted urban panoramas.

Based on Turgenev’s stories in «Lone Wolf» (1977), Balayan removes the forest but implies the city. Kyiv again (this trait of showing Kyiv without Kyiv is borrowed from Parajanov, from his «Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors», where the director showed the Carpathians, actually alluding to the mountains themselves through the subject world, like moss on the stones, the bark of the shrubbery).

The hero living in conditions of this nature is the same — lonely, proud, unruly, suffering from the humiliating circumstances in which he has not even to live but exist.

Then there’s «Filler» (1987) — about a grammar school teacher nostalgic for agreement with himself. The city in the frame is not named but reads the same as Balayanov’s deserted Kyiv. In «Two moons, three suns» (1998) Balayan settles in Kyiv in the late 1990s Hamlet, who prefers revenge to a relationship with a chance encounter Ophelia.

In «Birds of Paradise» (2008), the director shows Kyiv for the first time without any metaphors, directly, trying his best to make it one of the heroes of the movie: «Birds of Paradise» opens with panoramas of the city shot from a bird’s-eye view; it teases with marker locations, like the Volodymyrska hill or the pedestrian bridge.

Without any hints, the author already makes Kyiv one of the central characters in a dissident story with a love triangle at its center. And in Balayan’s melodrama «We Are Here, We Are Close» (2020) Kyiv is an island, the only place on earth where the only people on earth live. And all this, of course, is also a myth about Kyiv.

There is one unique feature: over time, the city begins to live up to its own myth. Balayan and Ershov’s Kyiv (he constructed it in his most personal movie «Women Joke Seriously», 1981 — about his search for himself and his vanished love) disappeared and vanished into thin air.

Kyiv disappeared from the drama «I’ll Be Waiting» (1979) — a touching and free adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s novel «Do You Love Brahms?», starting with a flirtation on Khreshchatyk and rushing through the metro station «Dnipro» straight to Darnitsa, with its wastelands of new buildings. There is no confusion in Kyiv about the first years of independence from Kryshtofovich’s «The Dead Man’s Friend» (1997).

Geographically, the same place is now the city of lonely heroes Valentin Vasyanovich («Black Level») and Tonya Noyabrova («Hero of My Time», «Do You Love Me?»). These do not reinvent Kyiv. Their authors did not set themselves such tasks. But in their movies, the city stares from the screen directly at the audience.

There are a few interpretations of Kyiv. But there are many. 3.5 million people are living in Kyiv, and everyone has their own Kyiv in their head. However, creating a new myth is a job for a genius. Such has not appeared for the last three decades.

But a new myth about Kyiv will be invented one day. There is no doubt about it.


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