Representation and the Real

4–9 May 2020

The twenty-second annual Russian Film Symposium, “Representation and the Real,” will be held on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh (Cathedral of Learning) and the Carnegie Museum of Art Screening Room from Monday 4 May through Saturday 9 May 2020. This year’s Symposium will focus on the gradual re-emergence of an urban middle class in Russia, generating in the process a series of aspirations and ambitions, only to have them abruptly erased in the past decade.

This middle class was not merely a post-Soviet phenomenon (after all, the Soviet Union was an allegedly “classless” society); it was the direct result of the post-1996 rise of Russia’s robber barons (oligarchs). Their privatization of national resources with the permission of the state empowered them to generate unthinkable wealth into the national economy, creating a host of banks and media outlets, establishing an endless quantity of businesses and offices, national and international holding companies. Each of these required numerous employees to run the machinery of the enterprises: tellers and managers in banks, clerks and secretaries in offices, maintenance and management personnel in the industrial sphere, etc. Pejoratively referred to by representatives of the state and the media as “office plankton,” “the clerical class,” or simply as “hamsters,” these employees comprised the emerging middle class, which demonstrated its growing social and political clout during the December 2011 and January 2012 massive protests over voting fraud in the parliamentary elections.

Russian cinema responded to this new social force by glamorizing (“varnishing”) how they were represented on-screen. While the middle class on-screen lived in large, modern, newly built apartments and spent their weekends in their luxurious country houses, the actual middle class lived, for the most part, in their old apartments, at best renovated and upgraded, but still quite small and modest; while the middle class on-screen invariably dined in the most expensive restaurants and vacationed in the most exotic places, the real middle class dined, for the most part, at home and vacationed in Russia or in nearby countries. This gap between represented reality and lived experience was invariably defended as an innocent form of the “Russian dream.”

The collapse of the oil market, the major source of the country’s income, and the wide-ranging sanctions imposed on Russia by the international community after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the barely concealed military intervention in eastern Ukraine, led directly to the virtual collapse of the national economy: construction of offices and apartments came to an end, the price of food stuffs and other necessities rose dramatically, businesses were closed and workers’ salaries cut significantly if they were not laid off.

And so, the “Russian dream” inevitably became an unsustainable fantasy in need of radical redefinition. This redefinition has taken many forms: an avoidance of representing the immediate present in favor of the near or distant past; a shift of focus from the glamorous center (Moscow and St. Petersburg) to the country’s periphery; an escape into literary adaptations (the single most frequently encountered genre during Soviet years); a celebration of Russia’s past achievements in science exploration and sports; and so on.

The Symposium will screen twelve films (four in subtitled DCP prints and eight on subtitled DVD), will host eight panels with film scholars from Russia, the UK, and the US, and two roundtables for the participants to continue debating the issues raised during the post-screening discussions at the film panels and to examine the overall topic for this year’s Symposium.