Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 29, 2008

Cargo 200; My Mexican Shivah

Filed under: Film,Jewish question,ussr — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Movies about the Jewish subculture in Mexico City and the social rot of the USSR in 1984 would have nothing in common except that both are worth viewing. “My Mexican Shivah” was directed by Alejandro Springall, a Mexican with a Jewish grandmother, and produced by John Sayles, the leftist U.S. film-maker who has worked with Springall before. “My Mexican Shivah” should be available from Netflix before long, while Alexei Balabanov’s “Cargo 200” opens at the Cinema Village in NYC on January 2nd.

Balabanov’s movie can best be described as a very dark comedy that views the USSR as a cesspool of corruption. In a 2007 interview with the WSJ, Balabanov described “Cargo 200” as follows: “I show what filth we lived in. Society was sick from 1917 onwards.” It would be a mistake to view Balabanov as the typical anti-Communist since his breakthrough 1997 film “Brother”  is just as critical of newly “liberated” capitalist Russia. Leaving aside his politics, one can say with some certainty that he is one of the most interesting Russia film-makers on the scene today who simply seeks to mine the USSR and post-Soviet society for the same kind of material that is found in one of Quentin Tarentino’s more interesting productions. The Russian bureaucrat or gangster is less a subject for a probing social analysis than he is as a comic villain, like the hit men in “Pulp Fiction”.

Cargo 200 is a euphemism for the zinc coffins that contained the corpses of Russian soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Such double talk appears to have been widespread in 1984, at least on the basis of the evidence of Artem, the Professor of Scientific Atheism who we meet in the initial scene. For Artem, the discourse of “base-superstructure” that he sprinkles in conversation has less to do with any kind of deeply felt Marxist convictions than it does as cant necessary for career advancement.

Late one night his car breaks down on a country road and he seeks help from Alexei, a nearby farmer who makes a living mostly from selling vodka on the black market. He will help fix Artem’s car but only in exchange for sharing some drinks with him as they debate the relative virtues of communism versus Alexei’s vodka-laced faith. In accord with Balabanov’s finely-honed nihilism, Alexei’s home-grown ideology has nothing to offer the Russian people except a powerful hangover, just like his home-grown booze.

As Alexei’s farm is a well known beacon for Russians desperate for a late night drink after the bars and liquor stores have closed, a thirsty youth named Valera (Leonid Bichevin) shows up just after Artem has departed. Valera is accompanied by Angelika, the teenage daughter of a local Communist official. Just after Valera has passed out from one drink too many, a sinister character shows up and carries off Angelika into a shed. He is Zhurov (Alexei Poluyan), a local cop who is friends with Alexei as well as a sadistic psychopath.

When Alexei’s wife discovers that Zhurov has seized Angelika, she sends their Vietnamese hired hand to rescue her. Zhurov kills him with a shotgun on the spot and then dumps a handcuffed Angelika into the sidecar of his motorcycle, and next drives her to the house he shares with his booze-addled mother. In captivity, she alternates between pleading to be released and threatening him with retribution, warning him that her father is a powerful functionary and that her boy friend is a paratrooper in Afghanistan who will kill him as soon as he returns to Russia. She does not realize, however, that he is in the process of being returned only as Cargo 200.

I can certainly recommend “Cargo 200” but its overwhelming negativity left a bitter taste in my mouth. I much preferred “Brother” since the main character, a veteran of the Chechen wars, was a sympathetic character who was adept at knocking off bad guys in more or less the same style as the samurai hero of “Yojimbo”. With “Cargo 200”, there are no good guys–only the “filth” alluded to in Balabanov’s interview with the WSJ. If you are willing to accept the film on its own terms, you will certainly appreciate the director’s dark comic sensibility as well as his gift for story-telling.

“My Mexican Shivah” is a delight from beginning to end. Using ritual mourning as a plot device is fairly well-established. From 1983’s “The Big Chill” to last year’s “Death at a Funeral”, it allows the living to recreate the character of the dead as well as interact with each other in typically cathartic fashion.

In that respect, “My Mexican Shivah” has a strong affinity with the 2006 “Go For Zucker“, a 2006 German film about the impact of a mother’s death on two brothers; one is a pious Jew and the other a Communist sportswriter. It also evokes the 2004 Uruguayan movie “Whiskey” whose main character was a 60 year old Jewish businessman who is organizing the unveiling of his mother’s tombstone, a ceremony that I too observed only two months ago.

In the opening scene of “My Mexican Shivah”, a tumultuous party is in progress in Polanco, Mexico City’s tiny Jewish neighborhood. While dancing to the tune of a klezmer band, the 75 year old Moishe Tartakovsky keels over and dies instantly of a heart attack.

As is customary in observant Jewish families, they sit shivah (or mourn) for seven days-the word shivah is Hebrew for seven. Although beloved by friends and families, Moishe had a tendency to pit people against each other, especially his middle-aged daughter Esther who promises to kill his father’s long-time shiksah (non-Jewish) mistress if she has the nerve to show up for the shivah.

Esther’s brother Ricardo has clearly inherited his father’s wandering eye and attempts to persuade a mourner, a physician by trade, to do an abortion for his own mistress when he isn’t busy putting the make on his father’s mistress who eventually shows up.

Ricardo’s son Nicolas is an ultra-orthodox Jew who lives in Israel and who would seem to be cut from a different cloth the rest of the clan, at least on first blush. We soon learn that he ended up in Israel to avoid a prison term for drug dealing. We also learn that he has eyes for his first cousin Galia, Esther’s daughter, who also has eyes for him. Nicolas might observe all the 613 mitzvahs (commandments) that are incumbent on religious Jews but apparently screwing one’s first cousin is not one of them.

One morning only 9 mourners have materialized, one short of a minyan (quorum for a service). Rubinstein, an elderly Jew standing on the sideline, notes their quandary and volunteers to be the tenth man, even though he is an atheist and a Communist. It turns out that long ago Moishe helped save his life when he was imprisoned.

Trying to decide whether the inclusion of a red atheist is in keeping with the Talmud, two angels debate the merits. They are invisible to the mourners, but we see them as two long-bearded old men in Hasidic garb who speak to each other in Yiddish. This is one of the casting coups of this remarkable film, since they appear for all purposes in real life to be identical to their characters, namely elderly Hasidim.

The original title of “My Mexican Shivah” is Morirse está en hebreo, which is the title of the Ilan Stavans short story that it is based on. According to the wiki on Stavans, a Mexican Jew who now teaches at Amherst College in Massachusetts: “He has portrayed Jewish-American identity as Eurocentric and parochial. He has been a critic of the nostalgia generated by life in the Eastern European shtetl of the 19th century.”

He also counts Edmund Wilson and Walter Benjamin, two Marxist intellectuals, as primary influences. He also claims to be influenced by Argentina fiction writer Jorge Luis Borges but trying to find his own voice in the early stages of his career decided to burn all his Borges books. Having read some of Borges’s preciously obscurantist work at a much earlier point in my life, I can’t say I blame him entirely although my motivations obviously would have been entirely different from Stavan’s.


In light of the debate about Balabanov taking place in the comments section, it might be useful to have a look at the clip below from his movie “Brother”. When two thugs refuse to pay their fare on a trolley car, the movie’s anti-hero steps in. As I tried to point out, “Cargo 200” lacks such a figure. In essence, all the characters are like the thugs on the trolley car.


  1. You might want to read a little more about Balabanov before embracing him. No wonder the Russian leftists have left Marxmail or at least stopped contributing to it. You think a reactionary piece of trash makes good films. If you like this guy’s films it has to be because you find them entertaining, you should reconsider your views on Eastwood probably and aim for some consistency.

    Comment by Reader — December 29, 2008 @ 9:19 pm

  2. My problem with Eastwood is not his politics, but his crappy movies. John Ford made racist movies about American Indians, but they remain classics. I have no idea about Russian Marxmail subscribers. There was one guy who had all sorts of Trotskyist pretensions. Another was a crypto-Stalinist/nationalist. If Marxmail is any kind of barometer of Russian Marxism, then your co-thinkers need to shape up.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 29, 2008 @ 9:24 pm

  3. Balabanov is a bastard tsarist who is a foaming-at-the-mouth racist against the peoples of the Caucasus and, naturally (like all fascists), black people. If the sympathetic neo-nazi character in Brat didn’t tip you off, you should read his commentary on the sequel where he complains about how black people ruin America by making white people afraid to be racist.


    “If Brat 2’s patronising and “colonial” attitude to blacks is dubious, the film’s Russian-language website spells out Balabanov’s attitude plainly on a page entitled (in English) “Black & White”. Under the pretext of attacking “political correctness” it basically describes how, in the USA, white people are terrified of blacks but are completely unable to do or say anything about it for fear of being labelled racists. As the height of absurdity, they give the example that Americans can’t say “watermelon” any more because, apparently, that was once a slang term for negroes. Balabanov himself is quoted as saying: “There are a lot of drug dealers amongst the blacks, they are on social security, they don’t want to work.””

    I agree completely with the first commenter, and I’ll one up that. Support Balabanov, and one might as well lend credence to Solzhenitsyn and his colonial designs for Africa and the rest of the third world, since all these idiots are cut from the same tsarist cloth.

    Comment by cad — December 30, 2008 @ 2:07 am

  4. Haven’t you people ever seen a John Ford western? Or read Rudyard Kipling? Art operates on a different plane than politics, even when it comes to popular culture. For that matter, there’s no bigger reactionary than Dostoievski.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 30, 2008 @ 2:15 am

  5. Well, you’re SOL because I don’t like John Ford, Rudyard Kipling, or Dostoyevsky.

    Comment by cad — December 30, 2008 @ 2:25 am

  6. Well, we’re talking about fucking movies after all. Go watch what you want, just don’t try to turn a movie into a litmus test as if it were the Kronstadt revolt.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 30, 2008 @ 2:31 am

  7. The problem, dear Reader, is that Balabanov is not simply a reactionary, but a quite “productive” reactionary whose films are almost always two steps ahead of the Zeitgeist here in Russia-for better and for worse. And Louis is right to point to a certain resemblance in Balabanov’s filmmaking practice to Tarantino’s because almost all Balabanov’s films are riffs on western film genres transposed on post-Soviet reality. As practically the first person outside the film crew to see “Brother” (I subtitled it) I can say that the film does fit with the way a whole lot of people were experiencing the nineties here. (And it gave its audience the kind of hit soundtrack they’d previously enjoyed in “Pulp Fiction,” which I would argue was the most popular film in Russia in the nineties. I think that says a lot in itself.)

    This experience-reactionary, yes, but no less real for that-gave way to the Putinism the country is mired in now. And “Cargo 200” is quite obviously a reactionary reaction to Putinism, a fable for the decade of the “zeros,” no matter what Balabanov himself says about the film’s sources in his own travels around the Soviet Union in the eighties. This is not to mention the massive scandal the film has generated-from the demarche of the critics, pro and con, when it was premiered in Sochi, to the amazing battering Balabanov took when the film was shown on Channel One as part of the “Closed Screening” program, in which directors and their casts of new Russian films face critics and defenders alike. By the end of that brutal discussion, Balabanov was literally weeping. And since the bulk of the criticism thrown in his face boiled down to his allegedly having slandered Soviet society, I understand what nerve he had hit and why he had made the film, warts and all. The cultural and political elites that now finds themselves back in power are simply unable to understand the degree of degradation experienced by ordinary people here, especially in the provinces, since at least the seventies on and are thus unable to admit their own role in perpetuating and deepening that degradation under the new banner of “national patriotic” capitalism and “sovereign democracy.” This is something that any real Russian Marxist understands, although I hardly expect any of them to “embrace” Balabanov. There is no need for that. Balabanov’s films are (disturbing) symptoms.

    “Cad” is absolutely right about Balabanov’s racist attitudes, which are in full view in “Brother 2” and “War.” But if I’m not mistaken, Louis is reviewing “Cargo 200” here, not those films. And it is meaningless to talk about Solzhenitsyn and his “colonial designs for Africa” in this context because a) Solzhenitsyn is dead b) whatever you can say about his ridiculous ideas about everything else, his main achievement was as a chronicler of the gulags. Any Marxist who can’t understand what a blow that system was to socialism and, especially, to prospects for socialist democracy here in Russia is just nuts. If you don’t understand this, read Shalamov (who was anything but a “tsarist”).

    As for racism in Russia in general, so many people here are “foaming at the mouth” racists that it’s really hard to know where to begin to fight that particular menace. A lot of that racism has its roots not in “tsarism,” but in the hypocrisy (and real discrimination, suffering, mass deportations, etc.) perpretrated by the Soviet regime, which for all its lip service to “equal opportunity” was at least by half an imperialist/colonialist project. And that half of the project lives on in current racist attitudes, which are a reaction to the total political, social and economic instability of the last twenty years, and resentment at the “independence” of those republics that broke away and resentment against the “mobility” of the former subject peoples who have “flooded” Russian cities. Since there is practically no social justice movement to help defend them themselves from the predations of oligarchic capitalism, it’s hardly surprising that people’s insecurity and rage find this outlet. Especially when members of the cultural elite like Balabanov have been helping to fan those flames. But Balabanov hardly created these attitudes.

    Finally, I also have no idea about Russian Marxmail subscribers. The leftist movement here is extraordinarily weak right now, and one side effect of that weakness is disconnection from the varieties of western Marxism represented on the list. It’s also just the case that many Russian leftists are still working through the legacies of pre-Revolutionary and Soviet Marxism in a way that’s impossible for those of us who come to those histories from the outside. And it’s also the case-as Louis points out-that among those leftists you’ll find a good number of people who are unreformed Stalinists and nationalists, or are caught up in Trotskyist sectarianism. It’s not a pretty picture.

    That being said, any real Russian Marxist will still find a lot worth reading on Marxmail. It would be even better if some of them found the time to contribute. But the language and cultural-historical barriers are significant.

    Comment by Thomas Campbell — December 30, 2008 @ 2:45 am

  8. This is most likely my last comment regarding this issue. Thomas Campbell brings to light a number of important points concerning the reading of Balabanov as a symptom, which is an interesting perspective of analysis. The value of such an exercise–whether it is “productive” or not–is debatable, though that’s a whole other can of worms.

    Regarding the issue of tsarist racism, I would say that the point of bringing up the patronizing racism of the Soviet Union is largely irrelevant. Nor is the label of colonial/imperialist applied to the Soviet project anything more than a reductive brush. Such attitudes to which I am referring are a manifestly different phenomenon than what you are describing. I used the term “tsarist” to denote a resurgent chauvinist Russian nationalism largely based upon the view of a pre-1917 Utopia rooted in the ideology of the Orthodox Church. This model quite easily reflects the ideology of artists like Balabanov and Solzhenitsyn (who for all his subjective and experiential truth is of little value when it comes to hard facts).

    Comment by cad — December 30, 2008 @ 4:19 am

  9. A brief note about the clip. First, those thugs are Caucasian, and a Russian audience will interpret that scene in invariably racial terms. Second, while there are no positive characters in Cargo 200, one could argue that the scene in the Orthodox Church at the end is the only glimmer of hope in the entire film. It doesn’t take much to recognize Balabanov’s ideological slant, especially in light of his statements against everything that has occurred since 1917.

    That said, when I wrote of “tsarism,” I meant literally tsarism. It always amuses me how certain Western leftists are fixated on evoking the ghost of Stalin–so they can demonstrate just how adept they are at slaying the beast.

    Comment by cad — December 30, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

  10. Once again, we are talking at cross-purposes. I am *not* interested in Balabanov’s ideology. I am interested in his films as film. When you have no sympathetic characters in a movie, it is more difficult to be engaged with it. By analogy, John Ford’s “The Searchers” works because the main character played by John Wayne is interesting and three-dimensional. If you want to deal with John Ford’s ideology, you will of course be forced to conclude that it is racist and reactionary. The more I see of cad’s posts on this thread, the more I am convinced that he is simply not interested in whether a film succeeds as drama. It is like attacking Shakespeare because he believed in the divine rights of kings, or T.S. Eliot because he was an anti-Semite and royalist. What is the point?

    Comment by louisproyect — December 30, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

  11. Of course I am interested whether or not works of fiction succeed aesthetically or dramatically. I just see no point in evaluating the shock and exploitation garbage of a ham-fisted “artist” like Balabanov. While I could concede that he is at least a technically competent director, his slavish aping of Hollywood makes him in more ways than not a derivative hack.

    Some would debate the aesthetic and dramatic merit of necrophiliac rape; I’d prefer not to. Save the literary analysis for works actually deserving of it.

    Comment by cad — December 30, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

  12. Here’s an interesting review of “Brother” that appeared in “Sight and Sound”, the journal of the British Film Institute:


    Comment by louisproyect — December 30, 2008 @ 11:00 pm

  13. I wanted to add a last comment if I could, at the risk of perhaps beating a dead horse. I wanted to say a few things pertaining to the discussion and Balabanov’s films.

    -I’ll just go ahead and clear up a misconception and maybe disappoint you: I’m not Russian by ethnic origin or current residence(although, I know the Russian language). I’m a young, high school teacher in Texas, and I know your blog and the Marxmail site because I’ve been reading them both more or less regularly for a couple of years or so.

    I’ve seen three of Balabanov’s films and Cargo 200 is not one of them, and the description of the film given by you reinforced my already existing inclination not to see it. The synopsis of the film I read before you made your review convinced me that it was an example of one of the typical hyperbolic and hidebound anti-Soviet screeds that I’ve come across in other Russian language publications. What Cad pointed out about Balabanov’s feverish imagination of the totalitarian impulses in American political correctness does not surprise me. Balabanov is obviously not the only Russian who looks to the West and has Western themes contained in his work. From what I’ve seen, the Russian far right is willing to take the ridiculous notions that the US far right cooks up about its own society (with respect to ideas about the economic character of US society, minorities and minority rights, women, etc.) and to simply translate them into Russian as a homegrown critique of the West.

    The prevalence of rightwing themes in Balabanov (the best exception I can think of would be the taxi driver in Brat 2) is the most salient point of analysis for critiquing his films for Cad and me. I am willing to admit that both the Brother movies and Balabanov’s film Zhmurki entertaining. In my opinion, the point of disagreement between yourself and Cad and I is that the reactionary character of a cultural product more than being an aspect of content analysis and political criticism can be a legitimate reason to condemn a work, even to the extent of condemning it as trash and worthy of censorship. I considered leaving off the mention of censorship but I think that would be a mistake as it misses the point of what it means to condemn even a masterpiece as reactionary trash.

    The review by the British Film Institute definitely highlighted some things I hadn’t quite thought about. I wouldn’t know if the BFI is particularly leftwing but it wouldn’t surprise me. Your reference to them made me want to look up a review I read of my favorite gangster movie, King of New York, in which the film was heavily praised and received a leftwing reading. I remembered correctly, the same journal had the review. What this kind of says to me is that the cultural-historical barriers that Thomas Campbell brought up related to another point could also explain the more positive interpretation of Balabanov given by Campbell and yourself. Keeping that in mind, it still seems to me that Balabanov’s films aren’t so unique in their political stance and anti-communism and use and Campbell have argued they are. (What would a typical anti-communist film be? Something preachy with a mustachioed dictator and party automatons?)

    This isn’t the best forum for doing so, but I would like to ask Thomas Campbell (if he happens to return to the thread) what he thinks of Russian leftists like Oleg Arin, Sergei Kara-Murza, Iuri Semenov, the contr-tv.ru, and the left.ru websites. Those writers and websites (although contr-tv.ru allows on some rightwing freaks) don’t exhibit a huge concern with socialist democracy (mainly the democracy part) but I would consider those of them that call themselves Marxists to be real Marxists.

    And one more question: an editorial addendum to a positive review of Brat-2 on left.ru critically described the movie as the screen embodiment (экранизация) of the ideology of Eduard Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party. I don’t know the biographical history of Balabanov well enough but I do know that Limonov has been engaging in a strange blend of right/left politics for quite a while and that the NBP’s (as it formally existed, not as the acronym Наша Борба Продолжается) ideology and publications have been similar. For a while I was somewhat fascinated by the NBP (I went to their “Bunker” on Maria Ulyanova in southwest Moscow when I was there in 2005 to meet them and spoke briefly with their “press secretary”). Basically, my second question is what makes Balabanov ahead of the zeitgeist? It seems to me that he (like in the NBP in its recent move to complete and undiluted cretinism by allying or trying to ally with Kasparov, the SPS, etc.) is a more of a cultural transposition of the state of the times onto modern cinema rather than a trailblazing artist in the new Russia.

    I haven’t edited this, so, sorry about the inevitable mistakes. Perhaps my choppy sentence structure in the first comment was what made you think that I was part of your international readership.

    Comment by Reader — December 31, 2008 @ 7:55 am

  14. “Well, we’re talking about fucking movies after all. Go watch what you want, just don’t try to turn a movie into a litmus test as if it were the Kronstadt revolt.”

    This is very funny indeed. I’m still laughing.

    I didn’t watch any of Balabanov’s movies and I certainly will not after reading that he might be the Russian counterpart of Quentin Tarantino. Repeating Louis, I am not interested in Tarantino’s ideology. I dislike his movies as movies because his movies are deprived of the necessary detachment from his ideology to make us perceive the reality from the outside, or more precisely from a distance inside that ideology. Here, I am referring to Althusser’s famous letter to André Daspre (A Letter on Art) where he mentions the works of Balzac and points out that, it is the reactionary political position itself that plays a crucial role in production of the content of his novels enables us to see the active ‘lived experience’ of capitalist society in a critical form. He says: “It is certainly possible to say that it is an ‘effect’ of their art as novelists that it produces this distance inside their ideology, which makes us ‘perceive’ it, but it is not possible to say, as you do, that art ‘has its own logic’ which ‘made Balzac abandon his political conceptions ‘. On the contrary, only because he retained them could he produce his work, only because he stuck to his political ideology could he produce in it this internal ‘distance’ which gives us a critical ‘view’ of it.”

    As I understand from what I read here, the problem of Balabanov’s movies is not that he is an anti-communist, racist or “bastard tsarist” and so on, contrary maybe he is not anti-communist or racist enough to reflect these ideologies in action as a ‘lived experience’. It is discernible from his words, “I show what filth we lived in. Society was sick from 1917 onwards.” Perhaps his statement sums up why his or Tarantino’s movies are not in the category which Althusser called as ‘authentic art’ i.e. the art that does not provide us knowledge as it is but “what it gives us does nevertheless maintain a certain specific relationship with knowledge”. In this sense his movies, as far as I learned from the debate here, is the pornographic caricaturization post-Soviet reality.

    Comment by Mehmet Çagatay — December 31, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

  15. Since Reader has kindly asked me to chime in again on this thread, I’ll add another two cents’ worth. However, I’ll try to be as brief as possible, although this topic calls for a full-fledged dissertation.

    I can think of no film more worthy of condemnation than Balabanov’s “Brother 2,” which is not only a right-wing screed, but bad filmmaking. (This cannot be said of “Brother,” “Cargo 2” and other of his films.) Unlike “Brother” (which I first saw in Balabanov’s office at Lenfilm), “Brother 2” I saw at the Minneapolis home of a newly arrived young immigrant whom I was tutoring as a volunteer for Jewish Family and Children’s Services, in 2000. I was shocked by its crudeness and virulent racism, anti-Americanism, anti-Ukrainianism, etc. I was even more shocked, when I came back to Petersburg that summer, to find that the film was a wild hit, with Danila Bagrov posters, calendars, t-shirts, etc., on sale in every kiosk. The film continues to be popular, especially after the tragic death (in a landslide) of the lead actor, Sergei Bodrov, Jr. (I should mention here that Bodrov was the last co-host of the perestroika-era weekly news analysis and talk program Vzgliad (The View), which reveals how much his own views were at variance with his most popular film role.)

    I don’t know what calls for censorship could possibly mean in the context of our discussion here. Do you mean that “Cargo 200” should be censored here in Russia? Or back home in the States? To what end?

    Whether his film are worthy of being censored or not, Balabanov is not a “trailblazing artist.” That wasn’t my argument. My argument is that many of his films-especially the “Brother” films, but also “Cargo 200”-are the kind of symptomatic quality trash that allow us, at least partially, to take the pulse of society. In some cases, Balabanov takes this pulse (and makes it quicken) a couple years ahead of events that make it clear that his “diagnosis” showed correctly where the society was headed.

    Cad is completely right about the clip from “Brother” that Louis appended to his original post. But what else should we say about it? First, these “Caucasian thugs” are being confronted by a Chechen War vet (Danila) in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s defeat in that war. Second, this racist (anti-Caucasian) outburst comes several years before the beginning of the Second Chechen War and the flowering of lethal racism (attacks against Transcaucasians, Central Asians, foreigners, anti-fascists, etc) that we have been experiencing here the past five years. Third, this scene typologically reproduces the kind of anecdotal evidence you’ll hear from “everyday” “non-violent” Russian racists: that some “black” verbally abused them at the market, ripped them off, etc. Fourth, this scene is also an ideological template: Transcaucasians and Central Asians are “culturally,” “civilizationally” different from “us,” and one mark of that difference is their inherent criminality. Hence, the pathos of the 2006 anti-Georgian campaign (including deportations and raids on Georgian “criminal” businesses-casinos, etc.), and the certainty (stoked by Russian politicians, neo-fascist groups like DPNI, and pro-Kremlin “youth movements” like the Young Guards) that the current economic crisis will instantly turn the millions of mostly Central Asian and Transcaucasian “gastarbeiters” into roving bands of street criminals, who will prey on “native” Russians.

    However, there is nothing extraordinary about this, aside from the fact that Balabanov anticipated these attitudes by several years and, it should be argued, egged them on.

    As for Balabanov’s “tsarism,” there is not much filmic evidence of that because, with the exception of the short “Trofim” and “Of Freaks and Men,” all his films are set in the present or in the recent past. Cad might be right about the scene, late in “Cargo 200,” where the professor of Marxism-Leninism finds haven and spiritual comfort in an Orthodox church. I would argue, however, that his newfound faith can be seen as a mark of hypocrisy, wishy-washiness, and cowardice. (After all, he retreated from the scene of the crime instead of doing something to save the girl.) That is one retreat from the coming collapse. Another is the “headlong” retreat into pop-culture capitalism, which is where the girl’s boyfriend is headed. He goes to Leningrad, where he attends a Kino concert and is heard discussing his (at that point, black-market) business plans. He is also, pointedly, wearing a “CCCP” t-shirt, which some critics have pointed to as an anachronism. No one wore such shirts in 1984 (this visual point actually became the center of a mini-war amongst the critics), but I’m sure that Balabanov could care less about this verisimilitude. What he had in mind is that a good number of young people wear such shirts now-another instance of hypocrisy and ignorance (in his mind).

    But let’s say for the sake of our argument that Balabanov is a pure, 100% “tsarist.” This is one of the important currents in the political reaction that now grips the country, and it has been strongly encouraged both by elements among the state elites and within the popular culture. The most obvious example that come to mind is the autumn blockbuster “Admiral,” a high-budget rehabilitation of Admiral Kolchak (starring Konstantin Khabensky, best known for his starring roles in two other highly hyped, hugely popular, dizzying zombifications-“Night Watch” and “Day Watch”).

    But pure, unadulterated tsarism is a rare thing. What is less rare-and even more potent-is “great power” nationalism, which freely combines the “good” parts of the pre-tsarist, tsarist, and Soviet eras. Take, for example, the “Name of Russia” competition, which just ended this past weekend on the Russia Channel (Channel Two). Alexander Nevsky won the popular vote, with Stolypin (!) and Stalin coming in a close second and third. The only non-political/military figures amongst the top twelve were Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Mendeleev (Lenin was sixth in the final ranking). Even here one could argue that the only figure relatively untainted by Stalinism/great powerism is Mendeleev, because the contemporary cults of Pushkin and Nevsky are to a great extent creations of Stalinist nationalism (the 1937 Pushkin anniversary celebrations; Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” as anti-Hitlerist/Russian nationalist propaganda).

    Aside from the tsarist elements, the rehabilitation of Stalin and Stalinism is fundamental to the great-powerist project. Hence the controversy over the state-commissioned school history textbook, where the “excesses” of the Stalin period are airbrushed and Stalin himself is, famously, described as an “effective manager.”

    Great powerism not only involves rehabilitating various tsars, White admirals, Stalin, and such dubious figures as the exiled (pro-Hitler) philosopher Ivan Ilyin, but also the forced cultivation of the “civilizationist” discourse, Huntingtonism in reverse. (By the way, Huntington is widely read and admired here.) This discourse argues that the Russian Empire/Soviet Union/”Eurasia” is a unique civilization that is fundamentally, inherently inimical to the west, “liberalism,” democracy (but not, in some variations, “narodovlastie”), western capitalism (but not, in some variations, Putinist state/oligarchic capitalism), etc. All of the varieties of the Russian civilizationist discourse share the narrative that “the west” has been (since time immemorial-the Teutonic Order that Nevsky defeated; the defeat of the Polish “intervention” of the early 17th century whose commemoration has now officially replaced October Revolution Day) and is now engaged in a “vast conspiracy” to enslave and dismember Russia.

    And here is where some of your so-called Russian Marxists come in, Reader. Kara-Murza has been happily and productively engaged in Stalinist rehabilitationalism for some years now. Have you read his “Manifesto for a Party of the Civilizational Type”? (http://www.kara-murza.ru/partija/pravo/art0000.html) The same goes for Oleg Arin. What do you think he means when he writes, “The individualism on which capitalism is based is alien to the Russian frame of mind; by its genetic nature, [this frame of mind] is structured for collectivism. And this nature was especially well developed during Soviet times.” (http://olegarin.com/olegarin/r_51.html) This is Marxism?

    No, this is the same kind of junky reactionary thinking that produces, on the one hand, cultural artifacts like “Cargo 200” and “Admiral,” and, on the other, the great-power “geopolitics” of theorists like Surkov, Kara-Murza, Arin, Dugin, and on and on. And this thinking-I say this as someone who has spent most of the past fifteen years here on the ground-has penetrated the masses to an incredible degree. As someone minimally involved in the housing/anti-“development” movement in Petersburg, I could relate to you conversations I’ve had with grassroots activists (mostly older women) that quickly and unexpectedly have veered into conspiralogical riffs on the “Dulles Plan,” etc. My wife is even more of activist than I am, and she has attended many meetings of the Movement for Civic Initiatives (DGI) where the crowd (not the leadership, who are free of these prejudices) has been verbally seething with anti-Semitic sentiment. Civilizationalism is the great leveller, supplying a “unifying” ideological diversion to cover over deep atomization and a fundamental absence of solidarity, whether international or local.

    Mehmet is perhaps right to call Balabanov’s films a “pornographic caricaturization of post-Soviet reality.” But Balabanov is not alone in this stance, neither among cultural producers nor among so-called Russian Marxists.

    I’ll say it again: it’s not a pretty picture. Nor are Balabanov’s pictures: they are symptoms of everything I’ve described above.

    My apologies to Louis to taking up so much time and space.

    Comment by Thomas Campbell — January 1, 2009 @ 11:36 am

  16. “This is Marxism?”

    I believe this was what Reader wrote:

    “I would consider those of them that call themselves Marxists to be real Marxists.”

    I looked up Kara-Murza and Arin, and I don’t think either of them have ever defined themselves as Marxists, so I don’t see where you get these “so-called Russian Marxists.”

    Comment by cad — January 1, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

  17. I doubt Campbell is very familiar with Arin’s writings. He is very dismissive of “civilizational” geopolitical theories (he mocks Dugin, for instance) and, although I have seen occassional statements from him like the one you quoted, usually his cultural analysis is historical and materialist. His view of the cultural aspects of the Russian Revolution is not primordialist but historical-materialist.

    Why shouldn’t Russia rehabilitate Stalin? Does it have to be the first country on the planet and in history to renounce and denigrate its past and to pull all the skeletons out of the closet? No other country, save for Germany and other communist ones to some extent, has the same expectation placed on it. There’s no big cultural movement in the United States to reevaluate the founding fathers and our past presidents. Just a bunch of liberal jackasses like you and Proyect constantly harping about dermocracy and civil society and the need for new left political movements that denounce everything before them.

    Maybe its just me but a writer who’s said to be two steps ahead of the spirit of the times would be something of a trailblazer. He’s outpacing the swirling array of cultural degradation and regression molding together into the mind of the average Russian.

    The reason I made my original comment, and this is for Louis too, about the lack of a Russian presence on Marxmail was because I have read a not small amount of the older Marxmail posts and looked at the archive for discussion of Russia and watched the flow of the debates and saw which posters disappeared and which didn’t.

    No apologies to Louis for “taking up” his time and space.

    Comment by Reader — January 2, 2009 @ 3:06 am

  18. Why shouldn’t Russia rehabilitate Stalin?

    Because he was primarily responsible for the destruction of the economy, the rural sector in particular; because he murdered people like Bukharin and Trotsky; because he made it impossible for people like Dziga Vertov to make movies; because he sold out revolutions and national liberation in places like Palestine and Vietnam. That’s just for starters.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 2, 2009 @ 4:13 am

  19. Because he was primarily responsible for the destruction of the economy, the rural sector in particular; because he murdered people like Bukharin and Trotsky; because he made it impossible for people like Dziga Vertov to make movies; because he sold out revolutions and national liberation in places like Palestine and Vietnam. That’s just for starters.


    Look at population and GDP numbers for Russia/Soviet Union in 1929 and 1939.

    Bukharin admitted he was guilty (just a little Stalinist humor).

    I cant disagree with you about Vertov.

    “because he sold out revolutions and national liberation in places like Palestine and Vietnam”

    I can never understand Trotskyists/leftists when they criticize Stalin for his policy of socialism in one country and for supposedly abandoning/betraying the struggle for socialism around the globe. You want, on the one hand, to condemn Stalin for killing Soviet citizens, yet, on the other hand, condemn him for not engaging in an extremely aggressive foreign policy, sponsoring and ensuring the success of revolutions around the world. (To note, the Soviet Union did supply the Vietminh with arms in the 1950s, but not red army batallions.) Maybe I’m just too much a Stalinoid retrograde to see the logic, but I think had Stalin stopped the founding of Israel and helped the barely-incipient national liberation movement of the Palestinians and the Vietnamese to remove the military forces of capitalist powers out of the country way before 1975 the capitalist powers might not have taken these actions to lightly, to say that just for starters.

    Comment by Reader — January 2, 2009 @ 6:43 am

  20. This is a good film and clips are good too. I have to say i like it.

    Comment by Maya Rasheed — January 14, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

  21. Maya Rasheed says: “I can never understand Trotskyists/leftists when they criticize Stalin for his policy of socialism in one country and for supposedly abandoning/betraying the struggle for socialism around the globe.”

    That’s because after Stalin engineered Trotsky’s cowardly murder, no subsequest Trotskyist thinker, with the exception of Sam Marcy, truly understood the dialectics of the dual nature of the class character of the Soviet State the way Trotsky tried to teach the 4th International to understand it — dialectically, like a big trade union (with all their contradictions) but one that had suddenly & incredibly seized state power in a bankrupt, illiterate, underdeveloped country choking amidst the dust & ruin of Imperialist turpitude.

    If predictive success is the hallmark of science, I defy anybody to cite an example of a more sociologically accurate analysis of how the Soviet Union got to where it was going than the first 1/3 of Marcy’s book “Perestroika: A Marxist Critique.”

    Written in 1989, the “Introduction” alone (linked below) was back then (and still is today) absolutely riveting reading amidst the fanfare, glee & profound leftist confusion during the beginning of the end of the USSR:


    Unlike Trotsky himself, most Trotsky-ists (particularly in the West where soapbox oratory was fabled tradition) could never really wrap their brains around the idea that real revolutionaries vigorously defended the Soviet Union not because of Stalinism — but despite it.

    Speaking of science & its hallmark being predictive success (something that’s pretty slippery in the social sciences in general & in bourgeois academia — with all its irrelevant statistical crunching of “coital frequency” numbers — in particular) in this calamitous post-Soviet epoch it’s crystal clear that Trotsky’s “Revolution Betrayed” ultimately proved the bankruptcy of Stalin’s “Socialism in One Country.”

    That’s how the inherent contradictions in a dual-natured degenerating workers’ state like the USSR can betray the Spanish Revolution on the one hand, and be indispensible in sustaining, say, the Cuban & Vietnamese revolutions on the other.

    One things’s for certain: the world’s a much shittier place without the Soviet Union to kick around anymore.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 21, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

  22. Correction to last post. It was not Maya Rasheed who wrote what I quoted in the first paragraph of the last post but rather the anonymous “reader” above the Rasheed post.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 21, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

  23. i instinctly knew when i had finished this morbid piece of mind-rape that under no circumstances whatsoever the depicted story could be “based on a true story” as the viewer is informed both at the beginning and the end (“second half of 1984”) and that the characters are not based on a disintegrating society but based on the sickened mind of an author.
    thanks to “aschenker” i have been able to confirm this notion.
    i have been lured into this malicious propaganda piece because of fraudulent advertising.
    had i known that i would be exposed to such an unbearable insult at humanity and film-making i would have rejected even glancing at one minute of it.
    the hypocricy of this film is mind boggling:
    it pretends to mirror a “sick society” when it actually just exploits this “setting” to project the sick constructions of an embittered author (Faulkner) and film-maker onto this setting and into the brain of the viewer.
    i would advise others not to watch this trash for the sake of mental and moral hygiene.

    Comment by joao — August 7, 2011 @ 7:54 am

  24. and i forgot to mention:
    the film-maker has stated in an interview that
    1. cargo 200 is not intended to be humorous whatsoever
    2. brother was made entirely for the sake of financing a more expansive project – in other words it is a dishonest cash grab attempt
    3. the film-maker does not admit ripping his story of cargo 200 off of Faulkner’s sanctuary
    (which was written for financial reasons as well)

    this leaves me with the impression that this particular film-maker is “just in for the $$$”
    and is not making films for a higher cause, thus absolutely irrelevant if not dangerous.

    Comment by joao — August 7, 2011 @ 8:04 am

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