Russia is Sick
In ‘Petrov’s Flu’, Filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov diagnoses his home country’s illness
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its apparent war crimes there have met with severe international backlash. Russians themselves denounced it so strongly that the Duma, Russia’s legislative body, criminalized even calling it a war. A possible 15-year prison sentence faces offenders. Yet, overall, the Putin propaganda machine has been working pretty typically for years until this moment–nay, it has been preparing for years for this moment, with constant cultural callbacks to the Great Patriotic War (WWII) accompanying rhetoric painting any enemies of the regime as Nazis.
The Russian people, long accustomed to repression and material lack in their personal lives, are dangerously inclined to support the status quo, even if it directly hurts them. With even Russia’s grandmaster chess prodigy Daniil Dubov publicly calling for a revolution, Russian dissidence is needed now more than ever. It may serve that cause to take a cue from an artist who has been wrestling with Putin’s Russia for a long time. Fortunately, one recent work can help us shed some light on Russians’ evident lack of political will. What it reveals is that the problem is deeper than many imagine.
The latest film by dissident director (and half-Ukrainian) Kirill Serebrennikov, Petrov’s Flu, takes a stab at diagnosing precisely what is wrong with Russia today. In the process it shows the many impasses faced by Russians, trapped in the midst of an ideological/spiritual epidemic which has been persisting for a very long time. The film’s surreal twists mix with science fiction and allusions to the Russian past. Based on a book by Alexey Salnikov, it showed at Cannes before appearing in Russia in September. It released in the UK in February. It hasn’t seen a US theatrical release, but it is available streaming on the site Soviet Movies Online.
Serebrennikov sets his film in the Ural city of Yekaterinburg as the important New Year holiday approaches. The central character, comic book artist Seryozha Petrov, is sick, although no one really understands the illness. It all feels like a fever dream, although it’s hard to determine the symptoms of the illness, nor whom the infirmity has actually infected.
The embodiment of this tension is in Petrov’s encounters with the mythical Snow Maiden, first in 1977 as a child and then as an adult on the city bus. As a child, Petrov asks the character at his New Years party if she really is the Snow Maiden because her hand is so cold. The Snow Maiden, whose coldness likely stems from her pregnancy, replies, “Yes, I am. And you have a fever.”
This dichotomy persists, wherein living is to have a fever and to be cold is both connected to death and (re)birth. Underlying the sickness of living is the reality that the conditions will persist. The living hope for the future as an interruption and salvation – will a UFO rescue my child from the expired, decades-old Soviet aspirin which is all I have to give him? Yet there never was a rapture of technological utopia, and we only find the cold, stark reality that the next generation will continue this trudging.
Petrov’s other encounter with the Snow Maiden is in his present in the person of the fare collector on a trolleybus with “non-closing doors”. Her trolleybus, which is shown to be red at the end, is a symbol of continual social decay: wretchedness, conflict and repetition. Throughout the film, it is implicitly contrasted with a blue trolleybus. It is a thing that Soviet poet/singer Bulat Okudzhava described as a cure for despair, as it travels through the night to rescue the “victims of the night”. The film adds attributes of space travel to the blue trolleybus, spelling out the futuristic hopes for the destitute and forlorn as conceived of in the Space Race.
There’s a piercing nostalgia for such science fiction dreams lingering behind the entire tale: Russians decorate Christmas trees with cosmonauts or stand beside rockets. The film suggests Strugatsky-like hopes of other planets but never fulfills them. A Tarkovsky-esque cinematographic ambiance mixing technology and Orthodox imagery permeates everywhere. A poet laments, “Little white books and little red books lined the bookshelves of my childhood. A library of modern science fiction. But they’re all trashed by careless bastards. I’d toss and turn in bed all night. Dreaming of flying my spaceship through the stars. To fly between black holes. Now I sit on my ass, on a cheap stool. And know I’ll never conquer Mars…”
Another poet clarifies that we must preserve our crew throughout this missing interstellar voyage, “our fathers and their fathers”. The hopes of generations, articulated in the lost ambitions of the last. Here we should begin to see the cause of all the sickness.
The storyline of Petrov’s librarian ex-wife, Nurlinsa Fatkhiakhmetovna Petrova, centers around her outbursts of violent rage when wearing a green jacket. Petrov says the coat “loses color every wash,” and that while it may look good it does not protect against the cold. Her Tatar maiden name elicits a xenophobic outburst from a patron, although her character evidences no other attribute of this ethnicity which has lived in Russia for centuries. She believes the patron to be a murderer reported as on the loose (for his choice of reading), and ultimately seeks vigilante justice, killing him in a dilapidated space-themed playground.
She cannot be sure, however, if he was the right target. Her son later asks her, “Is it true that when a murderer dies, the ghosts of everyone he killed gather at his bed?” She knows then that she has become as much the murderer as anyone else. She responds by putting her green coat into the washer, with its door resembling a porthole, one last time. Whenever there is no dream of extraterrestrial intervention, there is this hope of escape. “HADES: IT’S TIME TO LEAVE,” announces a sign outside an editorial office, depicting a plane departing the green Earth for the blue skies beyond.
This kind of vigilante justice, akin to the dictator’s lone assassin, contrasts with the revolutionary political justice demonstrated on the trolleybus at the beginning of the film. There, Petrov is taken off the vehicle and given a gun. He is put into a firing squad and made to execute a group of wealthy citizens. The carnivalistic mayhem of the scene speaks to the bloodlust of long-oppressed peoples. It is also a suspect response, however, as it follows the cognitively dissonant rants of passengers which are simultaneously xenophobic and antisemitic and nostalgic for Soviet social benefits and ethnic fraternity.
The incongruence between the communist past and today’s ethnonationalism is the natural product of the lack of a better Russia that science fiction once promised. Today’s totalitarian state unironically exploits its anti-Nazi past (often in cinema) to justify its reenactment of the 1939 Nazi annexation of Sudetenland on the false premise of protecting an ethnic minority. It is proof that fixing Russia’s problems is impossible within a fever of autocratic oppression which prohibits the people from consistently plotting – or even imagining – any course into a brighter future.
With no rational bridge between the sacrifices of the past and determinate aspirations of the future, any kind of reactionary perversion is possible in the present. The future is what makes sense of the past, and what gives reason to the present. With no future we remain stuck in the sickness of the present: inequality. “WE ARE ALL EQUAL TO ZERO”, as another piece of graffiti tells us. Russia’s modern political evolution is that of a successfully emerging totalitarianism, and not that of a failed emerging democracy, as has been the conventional wisdom for too long. It has proven both that an oligarchy can pay lip service to democracy to get by, and that true democracy and material equality are inseparable. It is truly inequality that ravages the people of Russia as seen in this film, and not some yearning for democracy for its own sake.
Igor is a figure who becomes Petrov’s companion after pulling him off the trolleybus and putting him into the back of a hearse where they drink above a coffin. Alternatively a government agent, guardian spirit, alien, criminal, and/or representative of Hades, Igor is the man who accepts the system and seeks his own way through it. His friend, Vitya, is a manic skeptic whose suspicions of corruption preclude the possibility of democracy. Vitya’s monologue against the superficiality of Christianity recalls the superficiality of Communism and democracy: “We just adapted the stories, rejected some of the myths, and suddenly, we’re not pagans. But in fact we still are!”
“Victor Mikhailovich,” Igor calls him, referring to the painter whose neo-Romantic work helped construct the modern myths of Russian nationalism. If Igor means to say that his friend is repeating the same errors he critiques, Vitya ignores him. “Let ’em keep on praying to their Ancient Greek and Roman gods! We need to make peace with the Arabs and live in our own way!” This cynicism represents an eternal retreat into the ever-distant past, barely any different than Putin’s construction of the Monument to Vladimir the Great in 2016.
Petrov’s failed writer friend, Sergei, offers another form of cynicism. To begin with, he writes his friend into a homoerotic tale of a mechanic and his lover with a backdrop reminiscent of a highway sunset in Australia or the American West. This is a future, but it is not his. It’s not even Russian. Then Sergei enlists Petrov in his suicide. If he cannot be a writer, he will die. Yet his death becomes the ultimate avoidance. “You’re the procrastinator. You’re scared,” says Sergei. “Of course. I’m just a dumb bastard, like everyone else. That’s why your lofty goals scare me,” replies Petrov.
These may as well be the lofty goal of political change and the suicide of political protest. Sergei insists: “Because your death would be pointless. Both your life and death are pointless. And my suicide is the proof that I’m right. Got it?” Petrov consents, “I got it.” After assisting in his suicide, however, Petrov makes sure to burn all of Sergei’s manuscripts and suicide notes. That is what the masses of “dumb bastards” think of his egotistically impotent form of protest. It negates all of its own reasons.
The truth is that the “dumb bastards” like Petrov know the past only in relation to their presents and futures. Petrov’s memories of his parents begin with cosmonauts and end with nudity and the image of Adam and Eve. We begin to see others nude, in moments of archetypal resonance. The overlapping story of the Snow Maiden of 1977, Marina, reinforces the relativity of time’s distinct dimensions. Her fever of inequality is Soviet rather than post-Soviet. She had come to the city from the countryside to live in workers’ dormitories. The parents of her lover reject her for being a “provincial”.
It is an antithesis to the plot of 1979’s Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, but it is a much more accurate reflection of the realities of classism within the USSR. She is pregnant with his child and struggles with what to do next. Her brother, Vitya, tells us that she would later immigrate to Australia, but we do not know whether she keeps her child or not. We know that she has called Australia a provincial continent and that her brother Vitya believes that her life disqualifies her from voting and shows the impossibility of democracy. At the very least we can assume that the Russian fever did not follow her to her new home.
It is never quite clear whether the flu or the cold is the primary cause of events. We only know that the two have been intertwined for a very long time, and they cannot escape one another, at least not easily. That ambiguity of cause/effect is an adequate reflection of the average Russian experience, with its gaslighting by the state and its appendages. The film mostly tells Petrov’s story through the numerous secondary characters who we meet along the way, with each demonstrating their own responses to the flu.
Similar to the biblical story of Job and his three consolatory friends, each character’s response ultimately appears futile, leaving us with the sense that remaining feverishly unconsoled is the best, most natural response. The self-doubt felt by the victim of gaslighting is, after all, a reality in itself. Or perhaps, as the science fiction allusions suggest, the best response is to begin with the future one wants and to work backward to the present and the past.