Protest on film (June 2012)

I probably spend too much time looking for hints of dissent in Soviet culture. In what is my latest find, a film satire of late 1980s democracy fever called V znak protesta (1989), there is an abundance of open and murky references to the set of activities that make up dissent in the party-political mainstream. It concerns the local administration’s response to the declaration of a hunger strike undertaken by an otherwise unremarkable factory worker (he is, after all, moral’no ustoichiv and an udarnik kommunisticheskogo truda).

Having left his home dressed as if for a fishing trip, or even as if just returned from prison or exile, Petrov goes to the main square of a provincial centre and sets himself up in front of a Lenin statue. Petrov’s banner declares him against thievery and corruption, in this case regarding the local repair shop’s failure to repair his car. The immediate reaction of the head honcho is classic: ‘They’ve taken power into their own hands! Our power!’ Unsurprisingly, though, they soon start scheming to try and undermine his protest (with some rather amusing results).

Yet whilst the film follows a clear topos of provincial ‘corruption’ and the individual’s journey for justice present in various periods of Soviet culture, it also alludes to positive and negative images of dissident activity.

  1. Use of law. The initial response of the authorities is to send a militsiia squad to get rid of Petrov. Only when they arrive, they find that he has a permit to protest, and that he is fully aware of his rights to do so. The legalist tradition of the human rights and internal Marxist dissidents is well known,
  2. Il’ich. After the first few days of the hunger strike, Petrov begins to speak to the statue of Lenin in a melancholy tone, deploring the state of his town (‘navorotili tut bez tebia, Il’ich’) and the loss of idealism (‘No ved’ kakaia ideia byla!). Petrov is perhaps at the top of the age bracket for shestidesiatnichestvo, and I’d say that this is again a subtle nudge towards the dissenting intelligentsia.
  3. Madness. Half-way through, the possibility is mentioned that Petrov is in fact mad.
  4. Intervention. Although ultimately ‘co-opted’ to ensure the end of his hunger strike, Petrov is used by a shadowy narodnyi front as a symbol. All his movements and sayings are coordinated by their lawyer. At the same time, a bunch of foreign journalists turn up and start asking questions.
  5. Economic. It is on several occasions made clear that Petrov is protesting for economic reasons, not political. Perestroika discourse widened the use of the term dissident considerably, making it possible for mid-ranking party members to become internal party dissidents, or progressive economic thinkers to become economic dissidents by virtue of the rejection of their ideas. Conversely, Petrov’s actions are motivated by personal dissatisfaction, a common topoi of dissident reporting in the 1970s.
  6. Making it our own. The local administration eventually comes up with a plan to disarm the protest, by going on hunger strike itself in aid of democratisation etc (several local factories have already done so, but for different reasons). Famously, Liudmila Alexeeva said that Gorbachev’s speeches reminded her of dissident/shestidesiatnik material. Democracy, glasnost, human rights, freedom of speech and the other dissident hallmarks all became part of the perestroika (another dissident but also party favourite of the 1970s) landscape from at least December 1988 onwards after Gorbachev’s speech at the UN.

The film is ultimately a drama and satire of perestroika, but I think it contains sufficient clues to draw out at least a partial image of a dissident on film outside of the propaganda documentaries on dissidents (albeit the latest one I’ve found is Zagovor protiv strany sovetov part 2, 1987). It is interesting as a picture of civil activity, because whilst Petrov gets all that he wants, he does in the end somewhat ‘forego his principles’. It should be said, as well, that the film does carry a rather limited view of such activity, it is all within the usual boundaries. But as a short film about the pitfalls of perestroika, it’s quite amusing for a Tuesday night


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