The bizarre Soviet movie that predicted Putinism
With a dejected expression of existential despair, Varakin pleads that he wants only to go back home.
“You fail to appreciate the seriousness of the Nikolayev case,” comes the reply, and then the prosecutor adds, ominously, “as it affects the interests of the State.”
At that point, the prosecutor pulls up a chair and delivers to Varakin perhaps the most succinct articulation of Russkii mir statism, in which Russian society is to serve the needs of the state, rather than the other way around.
“Since the times of the Tatar-Mongolian invasion, the main idea uniting us—which inspired generations of our forefathers — is the idea of statehood,” he proclaims. “A great and mighty state is the ideal for which the Russian is willing to suffer, to bear any deprivation. Ready — if need be — to give his life.”
Noting Varakin’s silence, the prosecutor continues:
“This is an irrational idea. It is not the pragmatic European striving to extract the maximum of personal profit. It is the idea of the great Russian spirit, of which your own individuality, and mine, is only a small subordinate part, but which repays us a hundred times over. This feeling of belonging to a great organism inspires our spirits with a feeling of strength and immortality. The West has always striven to discredit our idea of statehood. But the greatest danger lies not in the West, but in ourselves. We grasp at all these incessant and fashionable Western ideas, seduced by their obvious rationality and practicality, not realizing that just these qualities give them a fatal power over us.”
Varakin says nothing. “But never mind,” the prosecutor continues.
“In the end our own idea always emerges victorious. Look, all of our revolutions have finally led not to the destruction, but to the strengthening and reinforcement of the State. They always will. But not many people realize that the present moment is one of the most critical in our entire history. And the case of the chef Nikolayev — which appears so trivial at first glance — has a profound significance.”
“So… there’s no way you can leave town.”
Defeated, Varakin understands that struggling against the official narrative is futile. Any hope of contentedness can come only from subordination to the state-sanctioned alternative reality. And as he does so — and begrudgingly acquiesces to the role of the slain chef’s son — he is fêted as a hero by the citizens of this bizarro City Zero.
Varakin’s resignation undoubtedly feels familiar to many citizens of contemporary Russia, especially following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with its accompanying clampdowns on free expression against anyone questioning Russia’s “special military operation.” For independent-minded journalists, activists, and even oligarchic elites, the only means of political survival is either to subordinate oneself to the surreality of Putin’s Russkii mir, or to leave it; and it is getting increasingly difficult to flee it, much like the trap of City Zero.
The movie concludes with the townspeople accompanying Varakin on a midnight visit to the town’s storied 1,000-year-old oak tree. It was said that Grand Prince Dmitrii Donskoi and Ivan the Terrible both took limbs from the oak, and each in turn became Russia’s ruler. But now the tree of power was now dead and rotting. While the townspeople preoccupied themselves by gathering its limbs as souvenirs of the power that once was, Varakin makes a break for it, running off through the dark wilderness. Approaching a riverbank, he finds a boat with no oars. As dawn breaks, he casts himself afloat into the wide, foggy river, adrift and powerless.
Does he ever make it back to the real world? Will Russia? The movie offers no hints.
While the fates of Varakin and contemporary Russia are unknowable, with the passage of time, it is curious to see what has become of the main figures in the movie.
Varakin’s character was played by actor Leonid Filatov, whose weary blue eyes and sympathetic manners belied Varakin’s eternal torment. Sadly, he died of pneumonia in 2003 at the age of 56.
The prosecutor was played by acclaimed Soviet film director Vladimir Menshov, whose “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. But in his later years, his personal politics became virtually indistinguishable from the role he played as City Zero’s prosecutor, especially regarding his fealty to Russkii mir. Following Putin’s occupation of Crimea in 2014, Menshov declared the annexation “a supernatural event” which not only demonstrated the “vitality” of Russia as a unique civilization, but provided “proof of the existence of a quintessential Russian God” which would deliver salvation to Russia after years of being led astray by the individualistic, money-grubbing West. Not long after, Menshov would be blacklisted in Ukraine, while Putin would award Menshov the 2nd Degree Order for “Merit to the Fatherland.” Menshov died in July 2021 from Covid-19.
Yet perhaps most disturbing of all has been the evolution of the man who co-wrote and directed City Zero, Karen Shakhnazarov. In the heady Russia of the 1990s, Shakhnazarov was appointed director general of Mosfilm studios, and in 2011, was instrumental in uploading the entire Mosfilm catalogue of movies to YouTube — including City Zero — where they can be viewed anywhere for free, complete with subtitles.
In recent years, Shakhnazarov has become a pivotal proponent of Putin’s Russkii mir in the realm of cultural politics. Putin has decorated him with numerous state awards, including the 4th Degree Order “For Merit to the Fatherland” (2012) and the Order of Alexander Nevsky (2018). He has taken an active role in Kremlin politics and Putin’s United Russia party, even heading an official working group to amend Russia’s constitution.
More importantly, he has become one of the most outspoken public supporters of Putin’s neo-imperial invasionof Ukraine, which he blames the United States for instigating. He appears regularly on the most widely watched and bombastic mouthpiece of Putin’s propaganda, Vladimir Solovyov’s nightly commentary program on Russian state television. To rapt audiences, Shakhnazarov has spoken glowingly of Putin’s re-establishment of Russia as a great civilizational empire, and warned that “unpatriotic” domestic opponents uncomfortable with brandishing the letter Z — an emblem of the “special military operation” in Ukraine — will face “concentration camps, re-education, and sterilization. It is all very serious.”
While he later claimed that his concentration-camp comments were taken out of context, he then reappeared on Solovyov’s propaganda show to proclaim that—should Russia fail in its great and historic mission to reconquer Ukraine—it is the West that will have concentration camps ready, and will send all Russians there without mercy.
Of course — here in the real world — such hyperbole seems unimaginable, almost laughably so. But if Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has taught us anything, it is that we make light of the Kremlin’s alternate-reality echo chamber at our own peril. When Russia’s godfather of movie fantasy applies his techniques to an entire country, it should command our attention.
Even as many outsiders ascribe to Putin this curious worldview that has enabled the monstrousness unleashed on Ukraine, City Zero underscores that the Kremlin’s self-serving worldview isn’t particularly novel at all. In fact, all three of the pillars of Russkii mir are evident in the film, even when Putin was still a lowly KGB officer in East Germany. The chauvinistic Russian nationalism in opposition to “decadent” European values — as shown by the twin rotating “sculptures” in the history mine — certainly goes back generations. The illiberal statism — in which people serve the state instead of the state serving the people, as explained by the prosecutor — likewise has deep roots in Russian culture. Finally, as in the history mine, state control over information and manipulation of history is likewise a longstanding hallmark of Russian autocracy, whether from tsarist censors or Soviet propaganda.
If anything, the difference between contemporary Putinism and the autocracies of Russia’s past are differences of degree, rather than kind. Instead of being invented out of whole cloth, Putin’s Russkii mir relies on many warmed-over traditions of Russian autocracy; albeit infused with the power of modern social media, mass persuasion, and information technology unimaginable to prior generations of autocrats.
Back in 1989, when the Berlin Wall was crumbling along with the communist autocracies of Eastern Europe, Shakhnazarov’s City Zero seemed a fitting, surrealist critique of the absurdities and contradictions of autocracy. Now, if anything, it seems to serve as an unironic and disturbing blueprint for how autocrats can manipulate history, information, and even reality itself to suit the needs of the state and the self-serving desires of its leader.