Construction of gender and family in Russian mobster films

In the beginning of Aleksei Balabanov's 1997 film Brat, Danila's mother tells him to go to Leningrad, saying, “Помру ведь я уже скоро, а он-то заместо отца тебе был” ("I will die soon, and he was like a father to you"). In the beginning of Balabanov's 2000 sequel, she addresses the brother, “Помру я уж скоро … Ехал бы к брату в Москву.” ("I will die soon … go to your brother, to Moscow") While she maintains her motherly appeal to her own mortality, the brothers' role reversal typifies the ambiguity in post-Soviet masculinity and fatherhood. In Brat and Brat 2, Balabanov constructs a post-Soviet male hero, in the process affirming and modifying familial and gender roles and imagery through internal and intertextual dialog. In his film Sestry (2001), Sergei Bodrov, Jr. engages Balabanov's world with a response that challenges the roles developed in the Brat films by presenting more ambivalent types, in similar situations.

Gender and family in Soviet society

In recent years, some English-language literature has emerged on the topics of gender in post-Soviet Russian culture, covering the legal and familial power shifts over the course of the Soviet period, as well as the peculiarities of gender in the new Russia. In the first transition of the 20th century, the Bolshevik revolution took hold of women, legally and socially disempowered, as a sort of surrogate proletariat, identified in central Asia (Massell, p. 76), and extended to Russia more generally (Ashwin, p. 4). With utopian social reforms immediately after the revolution until the institution of the New Economic Policy, the entire legal basis for male supremacy in domestic affairs was eliminated, as marriage, divorce became strictly legal matters, governed by simple registrations. Explicitly, the new message was of complete liberation. As these reforms were most at odds with peasant culture, Ashwin takes this wave of reforms as an attempt to undermine the stability of the peasant life and make room for the Party (ibid., p. 8). Under NEP and eventually under Stalin, this cultural revolution was weakened; collective kindergartens and uninhibited sexuality never became realities in the wider country.

While the most commonly studied aspect of family policy in the Soviet Union is the emancipation and official equity of women, the policy had implicit and intentional impacts on masculinity and fatherhood. In his essay on fatherhood spanning the rise and fall of Soviet power, psychologist Sergei Kukhterin characterizes the real effects of the reforms,

Women gained just enough autonomy to denounce and divorce their husbands, but domestic power dynamics were not transformed… What emerged was a situation in which women relied increasingly on the state as the omnipresent, reliable father and husband, while men were effectively marginalised. (Kukhterin, p. 78)

In Kukhterin's analysis, the legitimate venue for Soviet men to demonstrate masculinity was in work, further reducing their involvement at home. Through work outside the home, Soviet men were established firmly as the breadwinners, with women earning 65-70 percent of men's wages (Kiblitskaya, p. 61). Thus, secure fatherhood was ensured by taking home money for the family, the kormilets role. Among men, masculinity was established through interactions with coworkers, often involving drinking, and through a degree of financial independence, by which men could keep pocket money, zanachka. Marina Kiblitskaya, based on a life history study of Russian mean, notes, “Traditions such as keeping zanachka and going for drinks were important informal buttresses to masculine identity” (Kiblitskaya, p. 94). This is the male freedom celebrated in the popular film Ironiya sudby, where the male space of the banya and countless drinks has the power to confuse even two cities with one another, in an escape and a fantasy that still captures Russia every New Year's.

While the male role in real families weakened with the Soviet period, the tsar's role as spiritual and national father of the people was not uprooted, but rather transferred to the Party leaders and Soviet heroes. By moving the seat of power out of Leningrad and into the halls of the Kremlin, the identification of Soviet power with imperial power is implied. The body of literature dissecting Stalin's cult of personality speaks for itself, but especially during and after the Great Patriotic War, the Party pantheon attempted to take its place as spiritual father of the country. In film, the Soviet Father is perhaps most visible in Chiaureli's Padenie Berlina (1950), where Stalin flies into the newly freed Berlin to ring in a new internationalist world order. The presence of Stalin passes the glory of victory through his image, imparting him with credit for protecting the country.

In the latter parts of the Soviet era, disillusionment with anemic leadership and a paradise forever on the horizon grew; the mantra of future communism is captured best in Eric Bulatov's Sotz-Art icon, Red Horizon, depicting the ribbon of an Order of Lenin superimposed on the horizon of a beach seascape, with an archetypical family wading toward the horizon. The goal is at once attractive and unreachable, as the horizon is also an insurpassable wall of red and gold. Despite the popularity of such unofficial art, the art by its nature is dependent on the strength of the original imagery and doctrine. Not until the economic reforms of the post-communist state would these reference points change.

The end of communism

As the industrial base of the Russian economy shifted during perestroika, male employment was particularly impacted, undermining the ability of Russian men to realize even the most basis of family and gender roles, that of kormilets. In Kiblitskaya's surveys, one woman described how her income slowly became the primary income of the family, so that now she is the breadwinner, and she is free to hold back some of her wage for personal use (Kiblitskaya, p. 63). This reversal, while not necessarily typical, undermines both the tenets of masculinity left to men in the Soviet construction of family. In more general economic terms, the economic instability of the first decade of post-communist Russia saw real wages stay at less than 1987 levels (ibid., p. 94).

With the end of Soviet authority, the role of government as spiritual or moral guide was no longer explicit. While the de-Stalinization of the 1950s and 1960s had largely eliminated the cult of Stalin, the personal and ideological veneration for Lenin and Communism ended. Unlike in 1917, however, the mantle of Царь-батюшка (Tsar-dear) fell to no one, leaving post-Soviet Russia without its ultimate masculinity and effectively emasculating the incoming government by denying it a face.

In a context of economic weakness, shifting family structures, and a lack of real leadership, Aleksei Balabanov made Brat.

Why does the tatarin cry?

In their final scene together, the brother weeps inconsolably, despite Danila's assurances of forgiveness. Kneeling on the ground, beside the groaning body of his employer and betrayer, the tatarin has failed in all his roles. In his mother's construction, he is the successful son who sought and found his fortune in the city. In his brother's construction, he is the surrogate father and mentor for a boy fresh out of the war, yet without any direction. In his own eyes, he should at least be able to provide for himself and his younger brother, fulfilling the kormilets role of Russian masculinity.

In all of the first film, Danila's brother remains largely nameless, as брат (brother), лыс (bald man), or татарин (Tatar/stranger), so he is therefore the titular archetype, the eldest child, sent to seek his fortune. The mother explicitly placed hope in the Brother: «одна надежда у меня, Витенка мой» ("My one hope, my Viktor"). This is an image reinforced by their mother's veneration of his photos, piling them as a flipbook, effecting a reenactment of thirty years of aging on a childhood photo, and creating a father figure out of a favorite son. This father role is explicitly assigned to Brother, as Mother tells Danila, «он заместо отца тебе был» ("He was like a father to you"). By the post-Soviet fairy tale, the Brother gone to seek his fortune should be a satisfied and honest businessman in the big city, Leningrad. By not referring to Viktor by name, except the diminutive that the mother slips in, Balabanov allows Sukhorukov's character represent the Russian Brother.

In reference to Brat, Birgit Beumers presents a classification of heroic types: the escapist hero, who seeks false ideas; the war hero, now without a fatherland to protect; and the criminal knight, which Beumers sees as particular to Balabanov, “Balabanov belongs to a new generation of Russian filmmakers who refrain from moral judgment, but who challenge by juxtaposing the aesthetic with the ethical” (Beumers, p. 9). In such a system, the morally ambiguous criminal knight best fits the Brother, but his betrayals, by his colleagues, and of his brother, make him a more a refutation than a confirmation of Beumers's category. The criminal knight cannot cry on the shoulder of his younger brother.

Danila takes the Brother's guilt and forgives him completely, sending him home to take care of their mother. This is a pure redemption in brotherly fashion, akin to the selfless kenosis traditionally associated with Jesus in the Orthodox tradition. Throughout the course of Brat, Danila's demeanor, presence, and actions establish the younger brother as the redeemer and judge of Russia, a strong male image that is nonetheless self-effacing. On entering Sankt-Peterburg, still Leningrad to Danila, he enforces a seven ruble fine for riding the tram without a ticket. The fine is pitifully small, but Danila demonstrates his dominance with a flash of his revolver, at once making cowards of the would-be freeloaders. Later, after meeting with the Brother, Danila again sides with the downtrodden when he dispatches the Chechen thug harassing the trinket-seller Goffman.

In the course of Brat, the interactions between Goffman and Danila are most telling; in their last conversation, Danila remarks “Город – сила. А здесь слабые все,” ("The city -- is a force. And everyone is weak here") and Goffman responds, “Город – это сила злая. Сильный приезжает, становится слабым.” ("The city -- is an evil force. A strong man arrives, and becomes weak.") This city's inherent power has been mythologized and anthropomorphized in Russian literature since Pushkin's Medny vsadnik. In one shot, Danila passes the city's iconic Bronze Horseman statue, affirming their common nature.

The ideological decapitation that struck Russia with the end of communism left the people without a shared goal. In his work The Russian Idea, Nicolai Berdyaev identified an eschatological drive in Russian thought, evidenced by the strong role of Messianic deliverance in the Orthodox church, as well as in the teleological orientation of socialism: “the talk always turned upon some final perfect state of existence which ought to arrive and take the place of the evil unjust and slavish world.” (Berdyaev, p. 200). In 1996, Church, State, and Market no longer engendered such directed thought, leaving the people without any uniting goal. In the first scene of Brat, Danila enters a movie frame from the water, as if rising from nature. This presentation ties the character into the literary tradition of nature as a power that acts on humans, and in which it is often assigned moral qualities.

The superhuman figure is a paternal type, and its loss is a form of fatherlessness; the Orthodox construction of this type is the Church, the Tsar, or the Patriarch. In the latter years Soviet Russia, many families were single women with children, a phenomenon due in part to increased state support for mothers, as well as increased social acceptance (Issoupova, p. 47). After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the associated loss of the State-Father, real fatherlessness in these families became a major theme. For Danila, his biological father died in prison, then he took the army as a new father. After his discharge, Danila is again fatherless, so his mother sends him to his successful brother, “заместо отца тебе был” ("was like a father to you"). As is made clear, the Brother cannot be a protector of the mentor, so he fails to fill the void. The one father relationship that Danila does establish is with Goffman.

After he saves Goffman from the Chechen enforcer, Danila goes to the German's “home” in the Lutheran cemetary. On entering the shelter, Danila accepts the space as a home and offers his host vodka and bread, in the traditional gesture of a guest. They engage as two men, in a relationship of trust and care. When Danila is shot, he goes to Goffman for treatment and support, which the older man gives freely. These encounters legitimize Goffman as surrogate father to Danila. Thus, the real father is not Russian, but German.

Femininity and gender relations

This film addresses what Balabanov saw as a national desire for a response to the familial and teleological emptiness characteristic of the post-communist era. He does construct a powerful character that does not suffer from such indecision, a Jesus figure that ably and unambiguously judges and redeems the fallen city. Through Danila's specific actions, however, Balabanov makes implicit statements on femininity and the relationships of men and women. There are three female characters of any significance in the film: the brothers' mother, Sveta, and Kat. In his depiction of each of these characters, the director makes normative statements that warrant analysis and, perhaps, response. The mother's role is, as previously mentioned, the traditional Russian mother, worrying who will care for her and sending the children off to make their fortunes. Her concern with impending illness or death is clear; when she sends Danila off to Sankt-Peterburg, she says “Помру ведь я уже скоро, а он-то заместо отца тебе был,” a sentiment echoed by Danila when he tells the Brother to go back home, and almost precisely repeated in Brat 2 when she tells the Brother to go to Danila in Moskva. This concern is the common concern of mothers, “Who will care for me?”; being cared for in old age is an implicit reward for raising children. Thus, the mother represents duty to one's family, a developed form of the kormilets role.

In Sankt-Peterburg, Kat is a young product of the post-communist generation. Her fixation on drugs and money, particularly American money, is a demonstration of how the youth are no longer truly Russian. In their first encounter, Kat gives directions in broken English to a pair of Americans, and the Americanization is completed in their final encounter in the McDonalds, where Danila's honest feelings are ignored and only his pile of American dollars carry any weight. The image of Kat is most striking in comparison with Sveta, the streetcar driver.

The serendipitous arrival of Sveta's yellow streetcar saves Danila's life. From Anna Karenina's train tracks, to Dziga Vertov's streetcars in Chelovek s kinoapparatom, to Bulgakov's streetcar in Master and Margarita, this is an image of fate. While Danila's fate is opposite that of Berlioz in Master i Margarita, Sveta is no komsomolka, and no mysterious professor predicts Sveta's arrival, the motif is there, and it labels Sveta a truly Russian woman.

In their interactions, Danila attempts to provide for Sveta, returning to check up on her, eventually sleeping with her. He assumes the protector role, but this is the one thing in which he fails in the film, for his enemies find and rape her. The act of rape, one of complete violation, does not break Sveta, but it does refute his implicit claim to be able to protect ultimately, as seen in his previous acts as judge and redeemer. Sveta's response, drinking vodka from the bottle, clothing in complete disarray, and singing atonally, is passive, but not surrendering. She typifies what Berdyaev calls the Russian “exploit of non-resistance”, passive yet still strong. The real boundary of Danila's ability and his right to interfere comes when Sveta's husband returns. Danila shoots the abusive and drunken husband, in his role as moral enforcer. Sveta's response, going to the side of the injured man, states that the bond of marriage, no matter its character, cannot be judged from without.

After constructing the characters of Kat and Sveta as diametrically opposed forms of contemporary femininity, Balabanov affirms the traditional Russian archetype of womanhood by presenting Sveta, literally, “the light”, as the pure one. Kat leaves Danila alone in the clearly foreign environment of a McDonalds after taking his American dollars, while Sveta shows the strength to reject him in favor of a more real existence. The positive feminine figure in the film is a prescriptive type in which women are not independent of men, but rather independently strong and resilient, yet endlessly patient. This is a rejection of contemporary Western feminist thought.

A complement to Balabanov's Danila

The young actor playing Danila in Brat and Brat 2, Sergei Bodrov, Jr., made his directorial debut in 2001 with the film Sestry. The film follows the experience of two half-sisters on the run from the police and mafia while one girl's father clears up a two million dollar debt. Superficially, the film might be a projection of Brat's Danila onto the elder sister, Sveta, but it fits better as a complementary response to the images of Balabanov's films. Through implicit and explicit connections, Bodrov's film offers reinterpreted genders and a more real and acceptable contruction of the hero.

Dina's father Alik could easily have been any one of the mobsters in Balabanov's films, placing the events of Bodrov's film within the mythic struggle depicted in Brat, but its depiction in Sestry is more real. The family in Sestry is dynamic, as Dina's father returns from prison, but then the sisters are shortly split from both mother and father. For Dina, the separation sends her into a world of make-believe, where she hides under her invisibility hat. For Sveta, the independence is an opportunity to explore her own strength, as she guides Dina to potential havens. Their relationship warms, as Dina comes to enjoy the exotic belly-dancing that Sveta escapes to. This is a dynamism that belies the fixed types exhibited in Balabanov's world. The parallels to Danila in Sestry, such as Sveta and Alik, are both more ambiguous. Alik is not clearly Russian, he is mistaken for Chechen by Sveta's friend, and he is actually from Dagestan. More importantly, it is only on the road to finding his daughter and step-daughter that he takes any sort of avenging role; otherwise, he is only a bandit, not the savior of Russia. Sveta's proficiency with a rifle puts her on footing with Danila, but she is only resourceful, not omnipotent. Instead of being Danila, she only makes the gendering of the hero as male ambiguous. Other figures vacillate, blurring the strict lines of good and evil provided by Balabanov. In particular, the policeman that seemed ready to give up the girls to the mafia eventually martyrs himself in their defense, in a quotation from Dovzhenko's Arsenal. The drunken resident of the small island, Seifulin, is nonetheless an honest man, and he honestly tries to protect his charges with his shotgun. Finally, Bodrov inserts his own character, Danila, as if he is about to become protector of the girls, but he ends up just going on to Moskva. By denying Balabanov a chance to right the wrongs in his film, Bodrov rejects Danila's world for this one of greater realism. All these characters could have come up in Balabanov's version of the mafia world, but they could not have been so ambiguous. By injecting ambiguity, Bodrov forces the audience to reassess the conception of the killer-hero, or any hero, in Russia.

While Bodrov does not offer a new hero or a new vision for Russia, his response in Sestry implicitly labels the morality of Brat as false. Gender and family cannot be unambiguously prescribed, so Bodrov issued a revision of his own character, albeit somewhat subtly, through Sestry. With the tragic death of Sergei Bodrov, Jr., his answer to the Russian existential question will never be seen onscreen.

Works Cited

Ashwin, S. (2000) 'Introduction: gender, state and society', in S. Ashwin (ed), Gender, state, and society in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, London: Routledge: 1-29.

Berdyaev, N. (1948) The Russian idea, New York: Macmillan.

Beumers, B. (1999) 'Introduction', in B. Beumers (ed), Russia on reels: the Russian idea in post-Soviet cinema, New York: I.B. Tauris: 1-11.

Issoupova, O. (2000) 'Motherhood: from duty to pleasure?', in S. Ashwin (ed), Gender, state, and society in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, London: Routledge: 30-54.

Kiblitskaya, M. (2000) 'Russia's female breadwinners: the changing subjective experience', in S. Ashwin (ed), Gender, state, and society in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, London: Routledge: 55-70.

Kiblitskaya, M. (2000) 'Once we were kings: male experiences of loss of status at work in post-communist Russia', in S. Ashwin (ed), Gender, state, and society in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, London: Routledge: 90-104.

Kukhterin, S. (2000) 'Fathers and patriarchs in communist and post-communist Russia', in S. Ashwin (ed), Gender, state, and society in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, London: Routledge: 71-89.

Massell, G. (1974) The surrogate proletariat: Moslem women and revolutionary strategies in Soviet central Asia 1919-1929, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.