Vlad Strukov: Contemporary Russian Cinema: Symbols of a New Era

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016, ISBN: 9781474425957, 276 p.

Marija Weste
Alain Badiou; Gilles Deleuze; Umberto Eco; contemporary Russian cinema; philosophy; symbolic mode.

The author of the book reviewed here, Vlad Strukov, is a multidisciplinary researcher and cultural practitioner in art, media, and history, who acts internationally. Apart from his projects in the UK and Russia, he is currently carrying out a major research on contemporary queer visual culture, funded by the Swedish Research Council. In the twelve chapters of his Contemporary Russian Cinema, Strukov presents his original theoretical approach showcased in the discussion of 320 Russian films made in the first decade of the twenty-first century, more precisely – between the years 2000 and 2015. His selection of films aims to capture the cinematic sensibility of “the Putin era” that manifests itself in the “symbolic mode” – a particular mode of expression that permeates contemporary Russian cinema. In this book, he presents case studies of the films that most vividly illustrate this cinematographic phenomenon. I employ the term ‘phenomenon’ because in Strukov’s manuscript, it becomes increasingly obvious that cinematography cannot be limited neither to its expressive, nor to its enunciative functions, and that it is interrelated with multiple dimensions and spheres of human life and consciousness.

Strukov begins his discussion of contemporary Russian cinema with an analysis of the history of film funding. As the Soviet film industry was destroyed almost entirely in the 1990s, Russian cinema was reborn out of its failures during “the Putin’s Era,” which, at the macro-level of changes, is marked by the growing dominance of private capital in the country’s economy and social life as well as in cultural production (Strukov 2016: 2). Cinema’s ‘rebirth’ was marked by the success of Andrei Zviagintsev’s Vozvrashchenie / The Return (2003, Russia) at the Venice Film Festival in 2003 (ibid.: 4). According to Strukov, cinema’s development during “the Putin’s era” is related to the position television gained in Russia. As television sets became increasingly affordable for private households, television became a dominantly state controlled and government-subsidised channel of mass communication. The funding of films now depends not on the anticipated box office, but on the planned frequent television screenings. In this way, the television supported the metamorphosis of contemporary Russian cinema because it acted as the main channel of its distribution. By starting discussion on contemporary Russian cinema with its economic history, Strukov links developments in film stylistics and the reality of living in contemporary Russia to film funding.

In order to demonstrate that Strukov does not define the funding, either state or private, as the only force that shapes contemporary Russian cinema, let me put the book on the agenda here within the context of Strukov’s later research. In one of his following publications, “Russian Cinema in the Era of Globalization” in The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader 2005-2016 edited by Rimgalia Salys, Strukov further elaborates on his argument already established in the 2016 book on our agenda. In this version of the Russian film-scape, Strukov distinguished styles of filmic expression, based on differences in the individual aesthetics and philosophies of contemporary Russian filmmakers. In this later publication, alongside the films of the “symbolic mode,” he identifies another group of Russian films – the “new quiet cinema.” For Strukov, these two concepts form a dichotomy in contemporary Russian cinema. The “new cinema” employs stylistics and genres, such as gags, obscene language, sex scenes, and genres of comedy and romcom, associated with popular culture in order to appeal to a larger audience (Strukov 2019: 15). These films, although conventional in their reliance on film genre tropes and intended for the mainstream audience, are small-scale, intimate productions with a distinct laconic visual style (Strukov 2019: 8). The films of the “symbolic mode” imply the use of highly abstract concepts and visual language in the exploration of social concerns (Strukov 2019: 13). It can be concluded that Strukov divides the films, and not their authors-filmmakers, into two groups: the cinema of “symbolic mode” and the “new cinema,” not motivated by funding, but according to their stylistic differences.

Before turning to the analysis of stylistics and ideas of “symbolic mode” cinema, Strukov establishes a continuity in the visual modes that characterise contemporary Russian cinema: from socialist realism, to the reflection on socialist realism, to naturalism (‘chernukha’), postmodernism, necrorealism, to the “new sincerity” and glamour (Strukov 2016: 22). He grounds his approach to contemporary Russian cinema in the analysis of stylistic trends in films of the first decades of the twenty-first century. In order to understand and decode the cinema of the “symbolic mode” not only familiarity with symbols of ‘high culture’, but also expertise in philosophy and religion is required. The latter, namely, acquaintance with contemporary French philosophy is necessary to fully appreciate Strukov’s volume.

Strukov’s motivation in linking French philosophy and Russian film is his search for an approach that would explain the processes of the turbulent twentieth century and contemporary moment of Russian/Soviet/Russian history by turning to history studies and/or political science. Dissatisfied with the ‘transitology’ approach to history, Strukov turns to French neomarxist Alain Badiou, whose philosophical focus is on the periods of “excitement and rupture” (Strukov 2019: 5). Interestingly, Badiou defines the twentieth century as “the Soviet century.” His analysis of a poem “The Age” (1922) by Osip Mandelstam as a demonstration of the way the century relates to itself inspires Strukov to check if this argument is also true in the case of cinema (Strukov 2016: 3–4). Strukov’s main questions studying Russian cinema are philosophical: What is the relation of the subject to itself? What is intemporality, negative discontinuity, and rupture? He sees similarities between Russia’s social and political life and the evolution of Russian cinema (ibid.).

Strukov’s focus on financial rather than political changes in his description of “the Putin era” allows him to find the foundation, where developments in society, politics, and thought in the Russian society are comparable – to a certain extent even parallel – and interrelated. Strukov avoids taking a commonplace approach of ‘transitology’ in favour of Badiou’s preoccupation with periods of rupture and discontinuity (ibid.: 3). To depict these processes in social and political life in Russia, Strukov employs a metaphor of a zigzag pointing at both progressive and regressive developments not only in politics, but in cultural production as well. After a detailed overview of the Russian media landscape and defining reasons for the particular downfall of the previously productive Soviet, now Russian, film industry, Strukov reflects upon a common denominator for contemporary Russian filmmakers. In his film analysis, he arrives at the conclusion that in spite of enormous differences among directors, there are similarities in the modes of presentation and the modes of thinking about the contemporary moment (ibid.: 9). The aim of his study is to examine these modes. Strukov describes the new style as characterised by highly abstract concepts and symbolically charged visual language (ibid.: 22). He names three aspects of this “symbolic mode”: (1) outstanding visual style, (2) plots and ideas influenced by philosophical issues and (3) sensibility affecting both consciousness and emotions. This sensibility should not be confused with sensitivity based on emotional reactions. Further on, Strukov argues for a film of the “symbolic mode” to be a thought rather than a narrative or an image. As a thought, a film simultaneously functions a film reflection on film as necessarily being a thought. The meaning in the films of the new mode emerges through an event in a constructed world, not through an emotionally coloured representation (ibid.: 28). Strukov’s ideas belong to the Deleuzian non-representational theories. He analyses films as an enunciation of a specific subjectivity that is derived from the philosophical tradition. In each of the twenty chapters, Strukov focuses on a particular philosophical concept related to the concept of subjectivity in the “symbolic mode” and to cinema’s expressive means, which allow for a cinematic discourse on void and discontinuities in history and in political culture of Russia (ibid.: 33).

Each chapter presents one film and its reception analysed through the lens of Badiou’s philosophy. Badiou figures in Strukov’s manuscript both as a philosopher of the void and a theorist of Russian and Soviet political culture (ibit.: 33). Strukov emphasises that his book is not a catalogue or classification of rhetorical devices employed in contemporary Russian cinema. Rather, it is a manner of “seeing as”, where the viewer co-creates, that is, participates in assigning meaning and interpretation of cinematic images (ibid.: 55). The first chapter of Strukov’s book is devoted to the analysis of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Telets / Taurus (2001, Russia) that is intended as the precedent for the analysis of film in the “symbolic mode” (ibid.: 38). In Sokurov’s film, Strukov is particularly interested in mortality and morality of the subject as well as the infinite knowledge-worlds as matters of relation and intentionality (ibid.: 37). Sokurov’s films frame the historical period of Strukov’s interest – the first decade of “the Putin era” – and therefore, in this chapter, the author both praises Sokurov’s films as showcases of the “symbolic mode” and distances himself from analysing solely Sokurov’s oeuvre because the “symbolic mode” is at work in films by a whole range of directors (ibid.: 38). Strukov’s second chapter presents an analysis of Aleksand Proshkin’s Chudo / The Miracle (2009, Russia). In this chapter, besides the description of further aspects of the “symbolic mode,” Strukov discusses the historic context of his object of study and the subject of Russian culture. The film is situated at the intersection of Soviet, post-Soviet, and classical Hollywood cinematic traditions as a combination of mock socialist realism, melodrama, and horror. This combination allows Strukov to discuss the cultural memory in contemporary Russian cinema through the prism of exploration of the man-god, the parent-child, and finally the voice-non speaking relations, where these figures do not denote the action, but the impossibility to overcome trauma (ibid.: 68).

In the third chapter, Strukov analyses Aleksei Balabanov’s film Morfii / Morphine (2008, Russia) and explores the origins of the term “symbolic mode.” After his discussion of the concept originally introduced by Umberto Eco, Strukov explains how his definition of this term differs. The key difference is, I believe, that Strukov assigns power and responsibility in reading of the symbols to the viewer. For Eco, the subject’s engagement with the text is a matter of attribution; for Strukov, this relation requires work in order to advance signification (ibid.:75–76). Balabanov’s film as a film adaptation of Bulgakov’s autobiographical stories has an intermedial position with an ability to connect to other forms of discourse. By detachment in time and distance from metropoles, the space and time are artificially suspended in order to examine the structure of the subjectivity (ibid.: 77). The film is Balabanov’s tribute to his friend and colleague Sergei Bodrov Jr., who tragically died in 2002. The film’s protagonist dies in a cinema theater while watching a suicide on the screen. These features of the film allow Strukov to conclude that Balabanov’s intention is to explore the aesthetic potential of the production of (cinematic) truth - as a rhetoricised performance (ibid.: 84) Here, the truth(s) is authorised by visualisations and performances, not represented. The analysis of Balabanov’s film contributes to the definition of the “symbolic mode” as focused on invention, memory, and supposition, and truth relies on performance, violence, and the “sensualisation” of discourse (ibid.: 85).

In the following two chapters, Strukov addresses Andrei Zviagintsev’s Elena (2011, Russia) and Nikolai Khomeriki’s Skazka pro temnotu / A Tale About Darkness (2009, Russia). Kirill Serebrenikov’s Iur’ev den’ / St. George’s Day (2008, Russia) is used by Strukov to demonstrate how the re-positioning of the subject between the world and the event (the ‘event’ here refers to the situatedness of the subjectivity) constructs the world in which such an event may appear and promotes a sense of distinctness and obscurity (ibid.: 129). The theme of posthumous subjectivity reappears in chapters on Boginia: kak ia poliubila/ Goddess: How I Fell in Love (Renata Litvinova, 2004, Russia), Nirvana (Proshkin, 2008, Russia) and Zhivoi / Alive (Aleksandr Veledinskii, 2006, Russia). The eleventh chapter is an analysis of the 2008 film Dikoe pole / The Wild Field (Mikhail Kalatozishvili, 2008, Russia).

Strukov demonstrates borders of the world based on representation and subjectivity based on knowledge. These borders of representation and subjectivity, also articulated in the films by constructing temporal and geographical borders of the Soviet empire, are “where the murkiness of non-knowledge becomes apparent” (ibid.: 218). The last chapter’s treatment of Mishen’ / Target (Aleksandr Zeldovich, 2010, Russia) provides a summary of Strukov’s main argument on the “symbolic mode” of contemporary Russian cinema. Namely, in the “symbolic mode,” the film appears as a knowledge production from the position of the void that both defines its position and its relation to itself. It focuses on the emergence of meaning through an event in a constructed world (ibid.: 254).

Strukov defines the “symbolic mode” as a new form of film sensibility and a new interpretative system. This switch of perspective on the film drastically changes the way the film is constructed. It is not organised chronologically or hierarchically. The reader is encouraged to read it in an iterative, not linear, way. Thanks to multiple cross-references, one does not lose their way in the book. It is aimed at two groups of scholarly audiences – scholars who study Russian culture and film theoreticians (ibid.: 14). I believe that this book would also be of interest to a broader audience, as Strukov offers not only an extensive overview of his field of study, namely, Russian cinema and culture, but also an original approach to film analysis exemplified by his case studies of contemporary Russian cinema.

Marija Weste
Linköping University, Sweden


Marija Weste is a PhD student at Institute for Language and Communication at Linköping University, Sweden. Her thesis deals with analysis of timespace constructions in feature films on the instance of Soviet Latvian films in the 1960s.


Strukov, Vlad. 2016. Contemporary Russian Cinema: Symbols of a New Era. Edinburgh.

Strukov, Vlad. 2019. “Introduction: Russian Cinema in the Era of Globalization”. In The Contemporary Russian Cinema Reader: 2005-2016, edited by Salys, Rimgalia Boston.

Suggested Citation

Marija Weste. 2021. Review: “Vlad Strukov: Contemporary Russian Cinema: Symbols of a New Era.” Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 13. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2021.00013.234

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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