The Power of the Weak

Film critic Maria Kuvshinova on the environment that gave birth to the iconic filmmaker Aleksei Balabanov.

On January 14, designer Gosha Rubchinskiy’s FW 18 show was held in Yekaterinburg’s Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center. To accompany the show, INRUSSIA released a book comprised of texts and archival photos of the 1980s subcultural movements in the Ural city that inspired Rubchinskiy’s latest collection. Among the primary figures to emerge from Yekaterinburg (then Sverdlovsk) was the filmmaker Aleksei Balabanov, whose earliest films documented the city’s underground rock scene. The text below, which features in our book, explores the filmmaker’s legacy and his Sverdlovsk origins. 

Director Aleksei Balabanov, who was born in Sverdlovsk and died in St. Petersburg in 2013, is a subject of the most vibrant cult following in post-Soviet history. While everyone else in the world continued to study, rework and mimic the legacy of Tarkovsky, Balabanov, who mentions “Andrei Rublev” as one of his favorite films, gradually transformed into a father figure for a new generation of Russian cinematographers. Young filmmakers dedicate their work to his memory and quote his heroes. Vassily Sigarev, one of the few influential directors operating in Yekaterinburg today, along with his wife actress Yana Troyanova, make public appearances garbed in telnyashkas – a recognizable attribute of Balabanov’s wardrobe. 

Unlike Tarkovsky, whose slow-paced rhythm and fascination with nature are easy to imitate, the minimalist style of Balabanov is non-reproducible. It was born out of the trembling atmosphere of the post-Soviet transition: its books,  its music and a unique personal experience that is confined to its time. His films often deal with questions of morality – the films “Brother” and “Brother 2” formulate a clear idea of what a “good guy” should be. This is a man of his word, always ready to stand up for those closest to him. One of Balabanov’s mottos was “if you’ve made a promise, stand by it firmly.”

Filming “Brother 2” in the U.S.

Largely due to the support of producer Sergey Selyanov, Balabanov remained one of the few directors of his generation whose career wasn’t interrupted in the 1990s – a period characterized by a complete decline in both the economy and film production business. His films largely reflect this state of total decline. The racist, sexist and violent remarks and actions of his characters, make Balabanov’s work a conduit for the the spirit of post-Soviet and post-imperial ressentiment – embodied in his films through specific images of residual masculinity. The courageous peasants, workers and veterans praised by Soviet filmmakers transform into criminals and killers in his films. This transformation takes on a particularly comical spin in the 2005 film “Dead Man's Bluff,” where there’s a strong accent on the cheap haircuts, leather jackets, crimson coats and cranberry-red blood. 

After a lapse of time it becomes evident that one of Balabanov’s main themes was the weakness of the strong individual, the winner of the social Darwinist championship, and the hidden power of the weak individual, known in Russian classical literature as the "little man." This “little man” is the graveyard-dwelling German from “Brother” who refuses dirty money; this is the Yakut-veteran who is forced to burn the bodies of dead criminals in “Kochegar.” The charming killer Danila Bagrov, who became a role model for several generations of viewers, and whose image was used in a commercial next to Vladimir Putin, is – according to the director himself – a lost boy scorched by the Chechen War. 

Balabanov, like the “cursed poet” of Yekaterinburg Boris Rizhy who committed suicide at the age of twenty-six, came to exist in the the Urals as a result of the migratory nature of Soviet citizens. Balabanov’s mother, Inga Aleksandrovna, arrived to Sverdlovsk from Vladivostok in order to study medicine and became the director of the local scientific research institute of balneology and physiology before hitting 40. She was well acquainted with Boris Yeltsin, and in 1981, when he served as the secretary of the regional committee, she accompanied the future president to Moscow for the XXVI Congress of the CPSU. At the congress the delegates had the opportunity to buy scarce goods and send them to any address with a courier; and so the young Balabanov, who was studying foreign languages at the Pedagogical Institute in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), received a surprise package of herring and clothes. His father, who carried the revolutionary name Oktyabrin and embraced Russian Orthodoxy a few years before his death, was a newsman with a technical education, who spent several years overseeing the production and distribution of science films at the Sverdlovsk film studio. The studio was located in an elegantly constructed 1930s building, reminiscent of its contemporary the Roman Cinecittà. The work of Oktyabrin Balabanov includes a book on the secrets of Tibetan medicine and a film about Kasli casting – Southern Ural cast-iron sculptures and figurines that adorned almost every Soviet apartment and later became a recurring motif in his son's work.

After completing institute, partaking in an internship in England (there he bought the record collection that featured in “Blind Man’s Bluff”) and serving as an army translator (from 1981-1983 he was stationed in Angola, Afghanistan, Equatorial Guinea, Yemen and Syria), Balabanov began to understand that he wanted to make films. He asked to work at his father’s studio, and his father hired him for one of the lowest positions – third director’s assistant. The young Balabanov’s tasks included assembling editorial scripts for the film almanac “Soviet Ural” and for other documentaries. The Sverdlovsk studio was responsible for the production of all multi-series documentaries across the whole region. During his time working for the studio Balabanov traversed the entire Far East, Siberia, the Kuril Island, Kamchatka and Sakhalin. This experience drew his attention to the Yakuts and other indigenous peoples of the Russian north – the “Indians” of the Russian empire, whose simplicity of mind, purity and lack of rights merged with the idea of the “little man” present throughout Balabanov’s work. It’s also evident that he applied this distinction to himself: a naive Yakut veteran in the film “Kochegar” is deliberately dressed in Balabanov’s trademark outfit – a telnyashka with an Afghanka cap

All three of Balabanov’s earlier works, completed during his studies at High Film Courses for Film Directors in Moscow, are in one way or another related to the Sverdlovsk rock club – a movement that was hastily organized by the local authorities in 1986 in order to maintain control over the musicians of the USSR’s third rock capital. The songs of Sverdlovsk musicians would later sound in many of the director’s films, which always featured very carefully curated soundtracks. In the film “Brother” for example, the main character’s love for the music of Vyacheslav Butusov – frontman of the bands Nautilus Pompilius and U-Piter – is one of the main catalysts for the film’s narrative. 

Until the early 1990s, Sverdlovsk was a closed city, in which foreigners and foreign products were almost entirely barred from entry. Balabanov’s schoolmate Evgeny Gorenburg – with whom the filmmaker also founded the vocal instrumental ensemble Kerry – recounts how a lack of international records caused the music scene to develop in a very chaotic manner. After hearing a Beatles song performed by the Spanish band Los Angeles, Gorenburg genuinely began to speculate that a certain band by the name of “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club” stole the melody from the Spaniards. In spite of these complications, Kerry wasn’t the only band that emerged from its school. The end of the 1970s gave birth to a flourishing musical underground, the atmosphere of which can be felt in three of Balabanov’s short films: “It Used to be Different” (1987), “I Don’t Have a Friend” (1988) and “Nastya and Egor” (1989). 

The actions in all of those films take place at the beginning of the perestroika era – in a still deeply-Soviet country. Yet all of the characters, that dwell in the uncomfortable interiors of their damp city, exist in their own reality – detached from the official reality of the state. This very condition of “vnenakhadimost”, or,  “inside-outsideness”, the constant escape from the all-seeing eye of the government, is the very condition described in Alexei Yurchak’s book “Everything was Forever Until it Was No More” about the last Soviet generation.

His first film, “It Used to be Different” is a short encyclopedia of young adulthood. The bulk of the film takes place in a restaurant where Vyacheslav Butusov and his band Nautilus Pompilius are playing. The name of the film is a line from the song “Nobody Will Believe Me.” A young couple wakes up on a narrow bed with a portrait of Alain Delon hanging just above their pillows. The male character travels to a village to borrow money from his father, while the female character lies about something to her mother over the telephone, and by the evening the couple meets again at a restaurant. The following morning however, the young woman wakes up beside another man: a friend of the former young man who has been granted a night with the girl to quash a debt.  In between these two scenes, there are attempts to resell rare jeans, dances (one of the cheeky-looking men in the shot is Gorenburg, who at the time made money on the side as a discotheque DJ) and Karate lessons – which at the time were in vogue. The film caused a furore at the Moscow film institute: the capital had already heard recordings of the Sverdlovsk band, but nobody had seen their live performances. Later, fragments of the film became clips for the song “The Gaze from the Screen,” written by Butusov with the poetry of Ilya Kormiltsev. In it a faraway and unattainable Alain Delon is juxtaposed with the dull and traumatizing Soviet reality.

His next film, “I Don’t Have a Friend,” or sometimes referred to as “One Step Beyond” like the Madness song, features a female heroin engaging in behaviour that was shocking and unimaginable for a member of the Soviet Komsomol.  A timid schoolgirl accidentally finds herself at an underground rock concert, after which she wakes up in bed with the influential local rockstar Egor Belkin – who with his wig and makeup could easily be the fifth member of Kiss. During the performance a friend tries to convince the heroin to lose her virginity to a much less attractive partner; when the situation unfolds in a completely different manner, the friend winds up feeling deeply embarrassed. The musician gifts the girl a Japanese netsuke figurine – which were incredibly popular in the 1980s. After being in the midst of musicians who muse about the avant-garde, wear makeup and consume cheap wine, the girl begins to feel her incompatibility with the dreary world of Komsomol assemblies and hollow cliched slogans. This feeling is the “one step beyond” that the entire country – electrified by Western mass culture – was in the process of taking. 

Stills from “Nastya and Egor”.

Egor Belkin and his friend Nastya Poleva (who appears later in a scene of “Brother” with Butusov) became primary characters in Balabanov’s third Sverdlovsk film, “Nastya and Egor.”  

In this half-hour sketch the male character is torn by ambition, while the meek female character is "performing the simple dance that all girls my height dance." Later Balabanov admitted that the film wasn't exactly a documentary. He knew his friends very well and could predict, and sometime even provoke, their reactions.  Today, the hot- blooded monologues of the young Sverdlovsk rocker – who exclaims at one point that his songs need to be performed by Sting – are perceived not only as the universal manifestation of human pride, but also as the worldview of an individual from an era that sits in anticipation of change. An individual who is expecting life to unfold in front of him in all of its brilliance. 

Although the majority of Balabanov's films were shot in St. Petersburg and thematically tied to the poetics of the city, the uneasy time on the verge of cataclysmic changes explored in his early films, coupled with the severity, chasm and hidden power of Ural rock and the Ural civilization, will remain in his cinema forever.

Photography courtesy of Aleksei Balabanov's family archive.