The Soviet Captain

Frame from The Soviet Captain, film by Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov


Commentary on the film directed by Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov

The Soviet Captain, a 2021 Russian production directed by the couple Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov, is the type of film that operates on what Freud called the “return of the repressed”: a psychic mechanism through which contents that were expelled from consciousness return, in a distorted way or deformed – dreams, failed acts, fantasies – thanks to the negotiation between the repressive psychic instance and the repressed representations.

Cinema, after all, is also a psychic mechanism, it exposes traumatic contents of Soviet history, the purges promoted by Stalin between 1937 and 38, and brings to light the repression that lay dormant in the unconscious of this formidable nation, but doomed to extremes, the Russia. The film is part of the set of representations of the Soviet Union in contemporary Russian cinema.

It's 1938, Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg. Executioners and torturers are metrosexual, wear well-designed red uniforms, practice Olympic gymnastics and Attached, the Russian martial art. Our protagonist, Captain Volkonogov (Yura Borisov) goes through a crisis of conscience triggered by the suicide of a colleague, who threw himself out the window, falling just a few meters from where he was walking.

It is the beginning of the journey typical of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novels, combining anguish and redemption, regret and guilt in the protagonist. The Soviet Captain ultimately describes a process of metanoia, that is: change in the subject's mental model, a profound transformation that alters the consciousness of the world, either expanding or limiting it. A religious reading – and there is no shortage of religious readings of Fyodor Dostoevsky's characters – would say that the captain's metanoia is the process by which repentance becomes doctrine, in this case Christianity.

On the real plane of wanton slaughter, this is the calamity of calamities, which Fyodor Dostoevsky did not see, but in a certain way anticipated. Writing in Diaries of a writer, highlighted as a characteristic of the Russian people: “What particularly surprises me is the urgency, the impetus with which the Russian man sometimes rushes to express himself, at certain moments in his life or in the lives of the people, in what is good or what is sordid. Sometimes he just can’t help himself.”

O Great Purge, as the terror that hangs in the atmosphere of the film is known, was a mass extermination organized in a bureaucratic manner based on order number 00447 approved by the Politburo, the central committee of the Communist Party. On July 31, 1937, the persecution and annihilation of members of religious communities, opponents of the Bolsheviks, Cossacks, kulaks (owners of rural properties) and suspected of international espionage.

Until August 1938, when the murderous frenzy was suspended, an estimated 800 people were murdered through confessions obtained under torture and summary trials, plus hundreds of thousands deported to the Gulag camps, where many died.

The exact number of direct and indirect victims of the purge is not known: filmmaker Natasha Merkulova speaks of two million, the Wikipedia mentions Soviet archives of the NKVD – the secret police, later named KGB and currently FSB – to inform that 1.548.366 people were detained in the period, of which 681.692 were executed, an average of 1.000 executions per day. Statistical precision does not alter much the absurdity of what occurred.

Faced with all this, Volkonogov runs away, undercover, is arrested with some homeless people and forced to dig the graves of former squadmates: the paranoia of the purgers often turns against their own viscera, the agents of extermination. His partner, Veretennikov (Nikita Kukushkin), returns to the surface, after being buried, to rip out the captain's viscera and demand that he obtain the forgiveness of at least one of those murdered, to finally achieve redemption.

This is the metaphysical saga of The Soviet Captain: one by one, the captain visits the victims' families in search of the illusory absolution. His pursuer is Major Golovnya (Timofey Tribuntsev), obstinate and suffering from an incurable lung disease. The search for forgiveness, however, is met with failure after failure: some are apparatchiks of the Party convinced of the guilt of their families, others carry the hatred of unfair mourning, others have gone mad. In the religious key, the captain seems confined to an eternal purgatory.

If it is a psychic mechanism capable of revisiting such a tragedy, cinema was, unfortunately, not able to ensure the distribution of The Soviet Captain to the Russian public. The current Russian invasion of Ukraine has sharpened the government's sensitivities and tension over difficult historical themes: the producers chose not to distribute the film domestically, even though the Russian Ministry of Culture was among its financiers, for fear of generating dangerous controversies, in the style of patriotic and nationalistic issues.

As Aleksey Chupov, one of the directors, said, even today many people have a positive opinion about Stalin: for them, it is part of the past and helps them to continue living in the present.

*João Lanari Bo He is a professor of cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasília (UnB). Author, among other books, of Cinema for Russians, Cinema for Soviets (Time Bazaar). []

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