The title of this film presents a challenge to the
translator. Svoi has been translated—somewhat unsatisfactorily—as
Us, Ours, and Our Own, all of which can be confused
with nashi. The director's preference is Our Own, and this
is perhaps as close as one may come to rendering the term in English. With
this film, Meskhiev calls into question the definability of svoi
even in Russian. Ambiguity pervades the term when it stands alone; it
requires clarification through a subject position because the term hides a
relative belonging that begs the question: whose own?
A Soviet Union divided by World War II establishes the
historical location for the film's interrogation of this idea. The vast,
bucolic landscape is inhabited by Soviets but dominated by Nazis, as the
camera captures when German forces march prisoners of war through the
countryside. Svoi, however, is not a category easily marked by
citizenship. Soviets kill Soviets just as brutally as Nazis kill Soviets. The initial Soviet-German opposition becomes further
complicated after three POWs—an old NKVD officer, the Jewish commissar
Lifshits, and the young sharpshooter Mit'ka—escape to the nearby village
of Blinovo, Mit'ka's peace-time home.
Once there, they are hidden in the barn by Mit'ka's
nameless father, a complicated figure, who reveals himself gradually. At
first, it is unclear whether he is at all glad to see his own son,
suggesting the bonds of family are as fragile as the bonds of citizenship.
He immediately discloses that, as the village head, he cooperates with the
Nazis, confirming both that the refugees are not in a secure place and
that Soviet documents do not signify some mythic national loyalty. He
explains his animosity towards the state by recounting his biography:
deemed a kulak, he was exiled to Siberia; having escaped and returned to
Blinovo a decade before using forged documents, he was received in good
faith by the village and appointed its head—no one even considered
turning him in to the authorities. This moment introduces the first
concrete allusion to village community as a category of svoi.
The position in which Mit'ka's father finds himself is
one of negotiation: can he protect the fugitives, including his son,
without jeopardizing the village? While he works out whether he should aid
or dispose of the escapees, he locks them in his barn, which
simultaneously constitutes refuge and a new imprisonment. Through their
escape and the time spent in the barn, the three men develop a new bond of
svoi based on cooperation for survival, and Mit'ka soon comes to
privilege this level of svoi over the family bond, plotting with
the fugitives rather than with his father. At the same time, the father begins to take risks, even
allowing the NKVD officer and Lifshits into his home.
When Lifshits falls ill, the father nurses him and confesses that,
although he does not support the Soviet regime, he does not sympathize
with the Germans. Substantiating the implicit idea of svoi as
village community, he explains that he was selected as the village head
because the people knew that he would protect them. His father-protector
position extended from his own family to blanket the entire village, and
eventually to envelop Lifshits as well. Body language and visible tension
have until this point in the film characterized the father's conflicted
relationship with the NKVD officer, another nameless father-protector, a
political father and defender of the symbolic state-family. It is
precisely the father's verbal acknowledgement of this role, however,
that allows the viewer and the NKVD officer, who overhears the
conversation, to understand the nature of their opposition. The svoi
of the state is incompatible with the svoi of the family or
village, and yet both struggle to prioritize themselves within the
hierarchy of svoi, unconsciously enacting violence on other levels.
Female characters in the film are incorporated as svoi
quite differently from male characters. As is signaled both visually and
verbally, women are cows, inhuman property. At several crucial moments in
the film, women temporarily change hands as commodities, bought with
affections or stolen as IOUs. Ania transcends the familial svoi
when she sleeps with the NKVD officer, though she does not become part of
the political svoi. Katia made a fatal digression when she betrayed
Mit'ka and carried on an affair with the regional head. When she returns
to Mit'ka, the regional head imprisons the father's daughters in order
to pressure him for information, politicizing personal property. These
moments serve to strengthen bonds rather than break them; they force and
reinforce a distinction between different svoi.
The film resolves no stable definition for the idea that
is its focus. Rather, it suggests that svoi is not merely "ours"
defined against "theirs," but an attempt to name and organize "our"
identity. It is an unstable and dynamic concept as such, a process of
negotiating a hierarchy.