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Prophetic Soviet Action Film 'Cold Summer of 1953'

A prophetic movie of Russia's politics of the past decade

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This article originally appeared at Fort Russ


Made in 1987, the movie takes place at a fishing village on a major lake or river shortly after the death of Stalin and the arrest of Beria in...1953. It is a well-done production, with solid acting in all the major roles that earned USSR State Premiums for the movie as a whole and for many of its actors. The entire movie, with English subtitles, is available here: 

<figcaption>A classic!</figcaption>
A classic!

OK, and now for the spoilers.

On the face of it, the movie deals with de-Stalinization and superficially seems like a critique of Stalin and Stalinism. If anything, it appears to attribute the flaws of the system to the people who came after Stalin (the early scene when the Harbor Master, for example, attempts to fit a frame around the portrait of Stalin), and there's hardly any criticism of Stalin voiced by any of the characters, with the main (off-screen) villain being Beria and his policies of liberalization (and that is a historically accurate statement). However, in actuality it is more of a critique of Gorbachev's Perestroika, and it ends up arguing that the country is simply not ready for that kind of transformation. In that respect, it should be watched in the context of two other movies reviewed earlier, Brother, which feels almost like a sequel to the Cold Summer, and The Return, which is filmed from an entirely opposite point of view. 

The reason why the country is not ready for Perestroika is that, should USSR liberalize itself, the crooks will soon take over. Which, indeed, they do, as a band of recently amnestied organized criminals, led by a "vor v zakone" (literally "thief in law", the equivalent of a "made guy") by the nickname of Baron shows up and takes over the fishing village. 

The institutions of the Soviet state, represented by militia officer Mankov,  harbor master Fadeyich, and trading post manager Zotov, simply are not up to the task of dealing with them. Zotov, who presumably represents the Soviet economic management elite, sides with them outright, and his betrayal costs the Mankov his life and leaves the Fadeyich helpless to stop the thugs from taking over the harbor. 

Baron's crew represents Russia's emerging oligarch class, and their effect on the village is depict in a very telling way: they imprison the village's inhabitants in their own homes, loot the place, and are looking to make a getaway (not clear where to, but that's beside the point). The concern that the oligarch class will simply strip Russia of everything valuable after it completes its takeover of the state, then split to enjoy their ill-gotten gains in some offshore haven is very palpable in this film. In fact, the young girl Shura's death (the only daughter of a deaf-mute woman who seems to be a stand-in for the Soviet people deprived of voice by the Soviet state) at the hands of Baron suggests the oligarchs are a threat to the very continuity of Russia as a nation. 

But it is the Soviet state that is ultimately at fault for this situation, because it allowed relatively weak, mediocre, opportunistic, and corrupt individuals (especially Fadeyich and Zotov) to assume positions of authority. It is their weakness and mediocrity that made organized crime a necessary component of the late Soviet economy in order to compensate for the inefficiency of the Five-Year Plans. Finally, the Soviet state stands accused of marginalizing and even persecuting Russia's true elites, who in the film are represented by two former Gulag prisoners now serving out their "internal exile" sentences (it was a common practice to limit the newly freed Gulag zeks to a specific geographical location, usually far away from their home town). They are Luzga (Chaff), or Sergey Basargin, a Red Army captain and the commander of regimental reconnaissance company (played by Valeriy Priyomykhov who won a State Premium for that role), and Kopalych, or Nikolay Starobogatov (played by Anatoliy Papanov who also won a State Premium), an accomplished engineer who personally knew Sergo Ordzhonikidze during the good old days of the first Five Year Plans. Their characters represent two historically important, even dominant, segments of the Russian elite, namely the Soldier and the Technocrat, and the movie makes it clear that the ideal state of affairs is for Russia is to be in the hands of these classes of people. Note, for example, the remarkably idealized and seemingly utterly superfluous scene with the soldier-filled steamer Krasin passing through the harbor with Soviet patriotic music blaring from its loudspeakers, even as the old deaf-mute woman trying to attract its attention. The Krasin passes tantalizingly close to the village pier, yet remains just out of reach...

However, the movie suggests Russia is about to restore the true balance of elites. Even though Starobogatov dies in combat with the thugs, in the final scene of the movie Basargin is seen lighting a cigarette of a perfect stranger, whose bearded appearance suggests intellectual pursuits, and whose "made in the gulag" briefcase identical to the one carried by Basargin is a dead giveaway that he, too, spent some time on the Archipelago. So the signs that Russia is slowly returning to normal are already there...

But it will take a couple of decades and a few movies along the way. Brother simply picks up where Cold Summer left off, so much so that one can imagine Basargin take Bagrov's place, minus the Russian nationalism, of course (and in fact Brother with a Basargin-like character would be pretty close to late '90s Russian reality). The Return, on the other hand, leaves the impression of being filmed from the perspective of the Baron-coopted Zotov, because that aspect of Russia's "liberalization", the thieving oligarch class which was creation of the "liberal" reformers is entirely invisible in Zvyagintsev's movie. Even though the two brothers are actually robbed by a street gang, with their money recovered and culprits apprehended by the Basargin-like Father (who, incidentally, also spent a goodly chunk of his life in prison), the movie still portrays him as a villain for having done so. It's the equivalent of endorsing the depredations by Baron and his gang, since the Father's return disrupts the status quo. The passive-aggressive nature of so many of Russia's liberals who actually seem to enjoy seeing Russians suffer at the hands of "market forces", is at full view here. 

But in the final account, it's the Cold Summer of 1953 that's the most prophetic of the three movies, as Russia's politics in the last decade and a half have been charting a course between the two extremes staked out by Brother and The Return. If one is to consider the main characters of the three movies, it is Basargin who is the most Putin-like of them all, not Bagrov or even The Return's Father.


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