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First on the Moon

The Totalitarian Echo in New Russian Cinema

Julia Vassilieva

In 2005, Alexei Fedorchenko, a Russian director known until then only to a


narrow circle of documentary fans through his works David (2002) and Children of
the White Grave (2003), made a film titled First on the Moon. The film
simultaneously continued and derailed the trajectory Fedorchenko had been
following: First on the Moon became one of the first attempts in Russia to experiment
with mock-documentary. Less than a handful of works can be named as its
predecessors: Sergei Kurechin’s Lenin-Mushroom (1992) and Sergei Livnev’s
Hammer and Sickle (1994).
All kinds of neologisms, mainly inspired by English terms, were introduced in
Russia to describe these works – such as насмешка над документом (mockery of
the document), документальная драма (drama documentary),
постмодернистская мистификация (postmodernist mystification), поддельная
документалистика (counterfeit documentary film) or, for those who wanted to look
really cool, стеб (amusing spoof). This diversity reflects not only terminological
problems, but also the problem of defining the genre as a distinctive screen form.
At a time when ‘the association between factual discourse and factual means
of representation is increasingly tenuous’ (1) – a situation aggravated by advances in
digital technology that seriously undermine the assumption that image in the film
should necessarily have a prototype in the real world – the mock-documentary has
emerged as a genre that questions the basic assumptions of documentary and takes a
reflexive and critical stand towards it. As a distinctive screen form, it adopts
documentary codes and conventions to create a fictional rather than factual account of
events. It deliberately falsifies the images which purport to represent the social-
historical world – asking, in effect, whether we can really believe what we see. Mock-
documentary addresses itself to an audience which is not only familiar with the
expectations associated with documentary but is ready to explore the much more
complex issue of factuality itself. Its intervention ranges from parody, via critique, to
deconstruction of the basic assumptions of documentary. The issue of truth is central
to its development.
No wonder that mock-documentary has been finally appropriated by Russian
filmmakers. The issue of truth has equally become a central theme of post-Soviet
Russian art, a large proportion of which rightly goes under the heading of Russian
postmodernism. The definitive moment in its emergence and development was the
collapse of the Soviet empire – an empire that relied for its existence on the
production and maintenance of a complex and elaborate system of lies, producing an
effect that Mikhail Epstein aptly termed ‘Soviet hyperreality’. The first years of
Gorbachev’s glasnost took on the task of ‘revealing the truth about the past’ in a
serious and passionate way, re-playing Khrushchev’s thaw on a larger scale. From
publication of Alexandr Soljenistsin’s Gulag Archipelago and Nadejda Mandelshtam’s
memoirs, to the release of such feature films as Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance (made
in 1984 and released in 1987) and such documentaries as Marina Goldovskay’s The
Power of Solovki, the nation engaged in the task of facing its dramatic and traumatic
past in a thorough way, with an expected and appropriate reaction of shock and horror.
However, no one can stay paralysed by horror for too long, and, as in the
therapeutic progression, the former Soviet people moved to the next stage of ‘working
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through’. For the first time, Russian art displayed irony without bitterness towards the
Soviet past, engaging in a playful manipulation of both the content and forms of the
previous period. In the novels and short stories of Pelevin and Sorokin, the
mechanisms of Soviet power were not only exposed, but also ridiculed; not from a
position of an already defeated and overpowered-by–the-system underdog (typical for
Russian artists of the Soviet era) but from the position of an equal. For the first time,
people were able to laugh at their past – demonstrating the liberating effect of laugher
as a catalyst for historical change, and proving once again Bakhtin’s insight on this
issue.
Such was the situation in the ‘90s, when the newly established freedom of
speech was tested to its limit in Russia . However, this was paralleled by an almost
complete evaporation of law and order in the country; a general anarchy that became
the most visible characteristic of the Elstin era. It should be kept in mind that, as well
as establishing free-market economy and experimenting with other Western-style
institutions, the decade led the majority of Russian people to levels of poverty without
precedent even in the Soviet era; educational, medical and housing systems were
generally dismantled, and the hidden effects of those deprivations in human lives
reached an estimated ten million. The words democracy and reform became
synonymous with thievery, gangsterism and oligarchy. Significantly, such disillusion
was achieved in less than ten years – a record revolutionary burnout that would be the
envy of any anti-Bolshevik, as political analyst Nina Khrushcheva remarked. (2) It
was out of these circumstances that nostalgia for the Soviet era emerged, coupled with
longing for a stronger power – thus facilitating Putin’s ascent to the position of
President. This marked a definitive turn back towards at least partial re-installment of
a Soviet-type system. Pelevin captured the essence of the time aptly in the title of his
2003 novel Dialectic of the Transition Period (From Out-of-Nowhere and Going-
Nowhere).
This was accompanied by a strong impulse to reclaim the past from
iconoclastic attacks of the previous decade and rehabilitate Soviet culture – at least
symbolically. From toppling down Soviet monuments people went on to their
glorification. Vera Muchina’s sculptures started to become integrated with images of
glamour and the power of New Russians’ style. Pictures in the socialist-realist manner
became prized possessions and preferred décor in the offices of politicians and
businessmen. Films such as Pavel Chuchrai’s A Driver for Vera (2004) and Stanislav
Govoruchin’s Not by Bread Alone (2005), both of which were enthusiastically
received by the audience and acclaimed by the critics, captured this mood particularly
well. They delivered a new view of the Soviet system – though not unproblematic, at
least overwhelmingly ‘ours’– and they tried to depict the Soviet officials not as
soulless parts of the machine, but real human beings with feelings, problems and
ethical dilemmas. Negative moments in the functioning of the Soviet state were not
attributed to the system as such, but conceptualised as bad deeds of individuals, all the
while putting strong emphasis on the powerful, protective and fair empire – something
to be proud of. There has been a strong drive to rehabilitate the ‘common people’,
their naïve enthusiasm, their idealistic belief system, their aspirations and hopes.
Some parallels can be established with recent developments in German cinema –
particularly those films that deal with the legacy of Eastern Germany, such as
Wolfgang Becker’s Good-bye Lenin! (2003) and Florian Henckel von
Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006).
The theme of space exploration or Cosmos (as it was called in Russia) has
emerged as a powerful nostalgic presence in recent Russian cinema. Aleksei Uchitel’s
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highly successful Dreaming of Space (Koсмос как предчуствие) (2005) articulated


this nostalgia by alluding to the immense feeling of optimism that filled the Soviet
people when the Soviet Union launched its first satellite into space in 1957. In
Uchitel’s film, Cosmos is presented as a rather vague background, as transcontinental
and extraterrestrial ‘otherness’ – but more real and accessible for the Soviet people
than any other territory on Earth, as the very existence of such territories were
routinely doubted by homo soveticus, separated from the rest of the world by the Iron
Curtain.
However, the Soviet mythology of Cosmos represented a rich and
multilayered system and, as such, could be exploited in a variety of ways. Cosmos
provided an ideal setting for projecting Soviet utopian ideals. Not limited by physical
borders, Cosmos was open for conquest, providing an unlimited space for advancing
the progressive Soviet ideology. In theory, it could allow an extension of revolution
from the planetary to the inter-planetary level – ideas favored by such Russian
intellectuals as Khlebnikov, Zabolotsky and Platonov. While developing his theory of
space flight, Tsiolkovsky also advocated the idea that society and personality could be
completely transformed through escape into Space, where cells, molecules and atoms
comprising human beings would unite in a more sophisticated, harmonious way. Veil
and Genis argued that spacecrafts, with their forcefully established vertical
orientation, provided the only viable alternative to the archetype of the cathedral –
which, after the Russian church was destroyed in the physical and symbolic sense, no
Soviet institution managed to replace successfully. (3) Cosmos became a sacred space,
untouched by blood, cynicism and corruption. It was a perfect receptacle for the most
precious Soviet ideals. And, of course, it was closely linked with scientific
development, technological advances and competition with the West.
Five years after the final act of the space race was played out, when the Soviet
station Mir was finally put out of action – thus delivering one of the final blows to an
already badly injured Russian self-esteem – Fedorchenko’s First on the Moon, being
made on a relatively large budget for Russian cinema industry (one million dollars),
re-articulated the grand narrative of conquest of Space in its classic Soviet form. The
advertising posters claimed boldly ‘We were there first!’ – i.e., Russian men were first
on the Moon. The film reconstructs and investigates the allegedly ‘unknown’ Soviet
space program, which is said to have begun in 1937.
The story line is simple: while the genius constructor Suprun builds and tests
the first manned space ship, four carefully selected cosmonauts undergo their training
and finally, on the 16th March 1938, one of them, Ivan Kharlamov, is sent to the moon.
Although contact with the space craft is lost after the first two minutes, we
learn later that Kharlamov not only made it to the moon, but got back to Earth,
landing in Chile . From there he traveled across the Pacific, and then across China to
Mongolia , until he was finally captured by the NKVD (the Internal Affairs agency)
and sent to a psychiatric ward. Eventually, he escaped from his cell and, assuming a
series of false identities, survived for a while until his traces were finally lost.
It is not the plot, however, but the careful and skilful use of numerous codes
and devices associated with documentary that elevates the film to a level of serious
statement. The film is constructed as an investigative journalistic enterprise
combining expositional, observational and interactive documentary modes. Each of
them is presented through a specific type of material. The most important is the
historical archival material that allegedly comes from the archive of the FSB – the
heir to the KGB, which secretly filmed every step of every character in the story. In
the opening scene, the archivist declares that ‘Everything that happened was
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recorded’, and then goes on to articulate one of the major assumptions of the
documentary mode: ‘And if it is recorded – it means that it really happened’ (Все что
было - должно быть снято, а если снято – то значит было). Every piece of this
‘film-footage’ comes with its made-up history: a skilful imitation of defects or (on the
contrary) their absence suggests how each was shot and where it was stored. (4) Apart
from archival surveillance footage, documents and alleged official newsreels of the
time, the director interviews some survivors and sends expeditions to the places
associated with the launch and landing of the space-ship, from Crimea to Chile.
Finally, there is a team of experts from one of Moscow ’s academic Physics
Institutes examining the drawings of the original spacecraft, even building and testing
a model. While the interviews and the scientists at work are shot in the neutral,
contemporary manner of impersonal journalism, Fedorchenko, in creating his pseudo-
archival materials, meticulously reproduces the norms of officious film-journals of the
‘30s: shots of the official parade are different from those of a sports parade; the
political leadership is filmed in one way, ordinary citizens in another. This is all
accompanied by narration constructed exclusively in the artificial language of
contrived Soviet clichés. Naturally, the footage is in black and white—which seems to
carry more authority and authenticity.
The tone of the film is absolutely serious, the general mood nostalgic. In
Fedorchenko’s words: ‘The element of irony is very small, perhaps about five
percent’. (5) The film succeeds alarmingly well in creating a glorified and
romanticised image of the epoch and its dominant aesthetic. There is a powerful
empire in the background; it looks after its sons and daughters well. Even surveillance
is depicted as something acceptable: the citizens are constantly watched, but they are
watched like little children by their caring mother who is only concerned for their
wellbeing. The people are happy, enthusiastic, hardworking, prepared to sacrifice their
lives for their country and the common good. Occasionally they can be locked up in a
psychiatric hospital, where they will be treated – but only for their own good, for they
will get better.
This naively optimistic picture of Soviet reality created by Fedorchenko –
bordering on idiocy – is much scarier than Orwell’s 1984, Kafka’s The Trial and
Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading combined because, unlike in those works, the
moment of reflexivity, criticism or resistance to the oppressing power machine is
completely removed. It is a Foucauldian nightmare: society has moved to the stage of
internalised control, where human beings begin to function as their own guardians,
actively engaging in operations to forge themselves into ‘docile bodies’. Fedorchenko
spends a fair share of his footage presenting exactly the type of operations which
Foucault described so meticulously: as Soviet ideology always argued, the collective
overrides the individual in Soviet society. Consequently, people are presented mainly
as members of various groups. They are not separate persons but scientists and
engineers, sportsmen and sportswomen, children in the kindergarten and nurses who
care for them. In the context of selecting potential astronauts for the space program,
the screening procedures include the measurement of heights, weights, strength,
endurance. Medical tests are shown in detail. Dozens of people of both sexes pass
before the viewers’ eyes on the screen, being gradually undressed, measured,
classified and dismissed. The process of de-individuation is meticulously depicted –
but it is accepted by its participants without question, even enthusiastically. As the
only surviving astronaut recalls later on: ‘Chances of survival were small, very small,
but we were not afraid’.
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Later, a detailed depiction of the functioning of a psychiatric hospital is


presented: here, variously disturbed patients submit themselves with a weak smile to
treatment methods ranging from art-therapy (dancing) and work-therapy (tree-felling,
which is more commonly associated in the Russian mentality with the routine
preoccupations of Gulag inmates) to the administration of insulin coma. Wherever
they are – in a psychiatric hospital or outside of it – people in Fedorchenko’s world
live under constant surveillance: as we learn in the beginning, most of the footage is
NKVD recordings. It is a society of complete transparency, implemented through the
use of constant video-monitoring: people are filmed on the streets and in their
bedrooms, during collective festivities and in individual moments of pensive self-
reflection. In the opening shots of the film, there is a fragment from a ‘manual on the
usage of hand-held cameras’ for NKVD observers: first the camera is presented with a
list of its technical characteristics, then the instructions are given on how to use it
discreetly and unobtrusively under various circumstances. It is not clear whether
people are aware that they are constantly filmed or not, but there is a sense that, even
if they had been, they would not protest.
It appears that distinctions between good and evil, just and unjust, are
eradicated in this world; it is a space beyond morality and ethics. As such, it comes
alarmingly close to the image and idea of the camp as it has been manifested on
several occasions throughout the history of the twentieth century, and reflected in
philosophical writing from Hannah Arendt to Giorgio Agamben. The emergence of
this picture in the film is probably accidental as – paradoxically – it goes against the
director’s declared wish to pay ‘homage to the generation of our fathers and
grandfathers, including their honesty, their genuine belief in an ideal’. (6)
Fedorchenko tries very hard to gloss over any contradictions of the Stalinist era, to
eradicate any references to negative moments, to avoid any value judgments or critical
statements.
He also tries to rescue and reinstate the lost, disgraced ideals of the Soviet
epoch – making a passionate statement against the postmodern smear campaign
against the Soviet era. To achieve this, the film uses intertextual references of two
kinds: it vigorously deconstructs the postmodern take on Soviet reality (especially
Pelevin’s work), and lovingly recreates a kind of socialist realism (the dominant
aesthetic of the ‘30s) with inherent aspects of neoclassicism and the sublime. In 1991,
Pelevin delivered a chilling, sarcastic take on the Soviet space program in his novel
Omon Ra (the title reflects the transformation of the name of the protagonist, a young
Soviet astronaut, named by his father after the Soviet OMON, the Interior Ministry
riot police, who later adopts the name Ra – the Egyptian sun god), dedicated to the
Heroes of the Soviet Cosmos. In the novel, Pelevin exposes the underlying mechanics
of the Soviet space program which supposedly launches automated, manless
spacecrafts, but in fact uses human bodies as parts for its machines. Like hundreds of
astronauts before him, Omon is ordered to make the ultimate sacrifice by killing
himself, after secretly piloting a supposedly unmanned lunar expedition. The program
plays an important part in the operation of the Soviet propaganda machine, the
simulacra-like nature of which is further reinforced by the final discovery of the
protagonist: everything he experienced in fact took place in a gigantic hangar
(reminiscent of the setting of The Truman Show [1998], Philip K. Dick’s novel Time
Out of Joint or J.G. Ballard’s story ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’), and nobody ever left
Earth (here, traces of conspiracy theory can be easily detected, expanding Pelevin’s
critique beyond Russian borders). The twisted logic of this enterprise is best captured
by a KGB Colonel’s words: ‘The more consciously you perform your feat of heroism,
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the greater will be the degree of truth’. If Pelevin’s account was aimed at exposing the
illusory nature of Soviet reality and discrediting the macabre mechanisms of
producing the collective consciousness of the Soviet people, Fedorchenko’s aim is
exactly the opposite: he passionately defends and glorifies illusions.
As in the previous stage of Russian postmodernism, First on the Moon re-uses
and re-cycles tropes, themes and clichés of socialist realism. This time, however, they
are not transformed into objects of semiotic play, not used as a means of pastiche or
allusion – rather, it is direct repetition. And to paraphrase Linda Hutcheon, (7) it is not
a repetition that includes difference: in Fedorchenko’s narrative structure, there is no
double-voicing signalling the difference between the parodic and the discourse which
is parodied. The film is astonishingly flat, mimicking so successfully the documentary
mode that it was awarded first prize at the 20065 Venice Film Festival in the
documentary genre! The question to ask is whether this reflects genuine confusion
over genre boundaries and definitions – prompting a deserved homage to the craft of
the DOP Anatolii Lesnikov and set designer Nikolai Pavlov – or whether it reveals the
complete loss of critical distance in the director’s appropriation of methods and (more
worryingly) in taking the ideological position of the past that these methods served to
articulate.
The use of the mock-documentary format requires special consideration since,
although (as in any work of art) form is not separable from content, here form is the
film’s main performative medium. If, in the West, mock-documentary takes a critical
stance towards documentary truth-claims, in Russia the situation is further
complicated by the fact that such documentary claims have already been seriously
compromised (if not totally dismantled) by the seventy-odd years of the use of
documentary and journalism for the purpose of Soviet propaganda. Individual
attempts to use mass media to tell the truth have persisted throughout Soviet history,
ensuring that the nation’s ethical value-system endured and the moral health of the
nation survived. However, those heroic individual efforts could not alter the dominant
way that the Soviet propaganda machine operated. Official Soviet documentary,
particularly of the period Fedorchenko has re-created so lovingly, contained not a
single speck of truth: while optimistic happy crowds were marching on the Red square
in the footage of film-journals, much larger and sadder crowds were marching
towards Siberian prison/death camps; while on the screens of cinemas across the
country lines of combines were harvesting wheat, millions were dying from
government-staged starvation in Ukraine and Kazakhstan; while news reports were
celebrating Soviet achievements in art and science, the best of Russian intelligentsia
were persecuted, tortured and killed. In a way, documentary in the Soviet Union has
always been mock-documentary. Consequently, in Russia the use of mock-
documentary responds to a questioning previously undertaken, making a paradoxical
argument in favour of rather than against the fully constructed or artificial
representation of reality. While the director claims that his intention was to pay tribute
to real people, the only thing that his film pays tribute to is the mesmerising power of
illusions.
The years over which Fedorchenko chose to position his narrative deliberately
test the re-interpretation of history to its limits. The years 1937 and 1938 mark the
darkest period in Soviet history, becoming synonymous with Stalin’s terror itself. To
present, in 2005, a glamorous and romantic image of those particular years goes far
beyond an amusing spoof, or simply a provocative statement – rather, it seems
designed to promote amnesia and repression, hardly the most constructive ways of
dealing with a traumatic past. However, perhaps the underlying intention of the film
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can be better linked with a different symptomatology: false memory syndrome, which
has become a much more popular diagnostic category in psychology over the last two
decades. Its increasing explanatory power is closely linked with the constructivist
perspective gaining prominence in social science: false memory syndrome
demonstrates not only that it is impossible to distinguish between ‘real’ memories and
artificially (albeit unconsciously constructed) ones, but also, more importantly, that
perhaps the very distinction is unnecessary. As Jung noted more than a century ago,
psychological reality knows no lies. For all intents and purposes, false memories can
work just as well as real ones.
First on the Moon responds quite accurately to this need to be reassured – a
need which is acutely felt by a substantial segment of the Russian population. It
articulates a nostalgia for a past which, after the turmoil of perestroika, has become
idealised. It also corresponds to the growing centralisation of power and curtailing of
freedom of speech in Russia under Putin. Not only its content matter, but also the
carefully recreated Soviet aesthetic, serves this purpose particularly well. As Jean-
François Lyotard noted in The Postmodern Explained: ‘“correct images”, “correct”
narratives – the correct forms that the party solicits, selects and distributes – must
procure a public that will desire them as the appropriate medicine for the depression
and anxiety it feels’. (8) On one level, the film’s message can be read as a verdict on
the period of postmodern experimentation, as well as a revision of Soviet history –
both of which seem to be over.
However, the uneasy and disturbing feeling that film produces stems not only
from its open and passionate desire to re-instate the old Soviet ideology. The mock-
documentary format allows Fedorchenko to take a postmodern insight about the
constructed and relativistic character of the world fully on board, in accordance with
the famous dialectical law of cyclical development advocated by classical Marxism
and Leninism. The film does not simply pursue a polemic about Soviet history on
objective grounds – it is not arguing about access to reality and its accurate
representation. The power of the film’s statement comes from its skilful adoption of
the postmodern paradigm, since effectively it is saying that, in this fully constructed
world, we are free to choose a version of the past and the present to live by. This
makes the fact that Fedorchenko willingly advocates the most monstrous version of
the totalitarian regime doubly scary. The much-celebrated sensitivity to difference
turns against its postmodern founding fathers’ aspirations here, demonstrating how
easily postmodern means and devices can be adopted to deliver the most suffocating
ideological message. Reflecting on another Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky,
Ingmar Bergman once said: ‘When film is not a document, it is dream’. First on the
Moon has a quality of a nightmare – a nightmare which, one hopes, will never be
repeated.

References

1. Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight, Faking It: Mock-Documentary and the Subversion of
Actuality ( Manchester University Press, 2001).
2. Nina Khrushcheva, ‘Money and Wealth in Russia : Politics and Perceptions’,
International Affairs Working Paper 2006-06 (April 2006); text no longer on-line.
3. P. Weil and A. Genis, The 1960s: The World of the Soviet People (Moscow: Novoe
Literaturnoe Obosrenie, 1996).
4. Oleg Kovalov, ‘Aleksei Fedorchenko: First on the Moon’, KinoKultura, no. 11
(2006).<http://www.kinokultura.com/2006/11r-firstmoon1.shtml>.
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5. Fedorchenko interview cited in T. Birchenough, ‘Inspired Lunacy’, Moscow Times


(30 September 2005).
6. Ibid.
7. Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art
Forms (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), p. 37.
8. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence 1982-1985
(Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), p. 7. (This book has
also appeared under the title The Postmodern Explained to Children.)

© Julia Vassilieva and Rouge October 2008. Cannot be reprinted without permission
of the author and editors.