Russian Underground and Its (Present) “Future” as a Documentary Film: A Discussion between Tomas Glanc and Jana Klenhova

Tomas Glanc is professor of Russian literature and culture at Charles University in Prague. In 1998 – 2000, he prepared for Czech Television two hour-long documentaries mapping out theRussian underground art of the 1960s – 1990s: “Notes from the Underground” and “The Heroes of Our Time”.

JK: Two parts of a series about Russian underground art, the running time of each almost one hour – it is not a very usual topic for TV broadcasting in a Central-European post-communist country. How did the idea arise?

TG: One day in 1999 Petr Slavík, a director, who worked on a project about “Alternative Culture” for Czech Television, asked me for an appointment. His standpoint was very broad – he made films about the beat generation, about unofficial Czech painters and poets from the 1950s – 1960s, about the punk movement, the Living Theatre, Grotowski etc.

Later on, we had disputes about the fuzzy contours of the position “to be against the establishment.”

But the first conversation was about the “alternative culture” in Russia. He intended to devote one film to the Soviet unofficial culture and was referred to me by the Czech embassy in Moscow, where he wanted to interview Jurii Liubimov.

His assumption was that there was no real underground in the USSR, except for Vladimir Vysotsky and the Taganka Theatre.

I tried to clarify the situation, the truth about the prominent position of Vysotsky and the outline of the real and extremely many-sided context of Russian art, never published or officially exhibited before Perestroika.

And he decided to change the reporter he normally worked with and to do the Russian part with me.

JK: Did you elaborate a set of criteria, aspects and perspectives for the conception of the screenplay? Even though the given length was generous, considering the TV patterns, you still had to choose only a few topics out of dozens or hundreds.

TG: To work for the movie media is exciting and at the same time permanently frustrating. You are obviously always limited when you want to say something within any framework – you are given twenty minutes for a talk at a conference, a thousand words for an article etc.

However, in television there are different and stricter requirements. No more than seven main authors were allowed for each part because too many names and faces would be confusing; everything that is spoken about demands visualization.

The interviewees are not allowed to mention other people without explaining who they are, because there is no chance to comment on it; there are no footnotes. Another problem is the required model of a viewer who needs pure, fully understandable facts and reflections. Besides, you cannot interview dead people…

JK: And your solution?

TG: Any selection has to be an axiological one. And here we were confronted with many “physical” obstacles like absent people, people who are speaking too chaotically etc.

In the first part we showed Vsevolod Nekrasov (speaking also about O. Rabin, I. Kholin, G. Sapgir a.o.) – a Lianozovo school poet; Andrei Monastyrskii – the founder of the “Collective Actions” group (1978), a performer and a writer;

Il´ia Kabakov (in an archive record) – a painter, a conceptualist, the author of the “total installation” genre; Andrei Jerofeev – the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art – speaking about L. Nusberg, E. Bulatov, L. Sokov a.o. Viktor Miziano – the editor in chief of the Khudozhestvennyi zhurnal (Art Magazine) and an art critic;

Igor Makarevich – a painter, an author of installations, a member of the “Collective Actions” group; Michail Aizenberg – a poet, the editor of the “Lichnoe delo” (Private Matter) almanac – 1990, 1999; Lev Rubinshtein – a conceptualist poet writing poems on library cards, and a journalist; Sergei Gandlevski – a poet working with a mixture of traditional and avant-garde techniques;

Timur Kibirov – a post-conceptualist poet writing in a “private” stylistics; Gennadii Ajgi – the “poet of silence,” follower of Malevich´s non-objectivity in art, a minimalist;

Jurii Mamleev – a writer, a novelist. His main topic is the dark side and metaphysics of the human soul; Nikolai Sheptulin – the editor in chief of the “Mesto pechati” (the place of stamp or of printing) journal.

JK: It is a very multifarious mixture of generations, kinds of aesthetics, fields of culture. What made you avoid a more perspicuous configuration, especially if you had two separate films to make?

TG: At the beginning we did not know we would have a chance to prepare a second part as well. This offer appeared only after the successful presentation of the first part.

I do not mean a commercial success but just the fact that the TV management liked it. That is why we wanted to start from the post-war situation in the first part, to show the heroic period of the Lianozovo School, the early Mamleev and the young Sokov or Nusberg – and to reach the present day – with statements of the leading critics and art publishers, curators like Miziano or Sheptulin.

There are thousands of ways to present – very briefly and fragmentally – a few streams, tendencies and canons. We chose one of them.

JK: From your point of view, what are the main deficits of the final shape?

TG: There is no Petersburg in the movie – with Afrika, the Kabinet, the Necrorealists, Timur Novikov and many other parts of its underground heritage.

There is no music, no theatre, and almost no history of samizdat. Unintentionally, there are no women in the movie – although there were a lot of significant female authors in the unofficial culture – Potapova, Masterkova, Kisina, Khlebnikova, Konstantinova, Klimova and others. But one would need much more time for all this stuff.

JK: And what was the aim of the second part?

TG: The intention was to sketch the post-history of the unofficial subculture – the context of the 1990s. We began in the monstrous Cereteli complex on Gruzinskaya Square in Moscow – in the center of Luzhkov´s artistic neo-imperial establishment.

In the second part, the poet Dmitri Prigov and the whole conceptualism are the subject of re-thinking, provocation, and criticism.

We show his present excellent Wagnerian performance The Death of Gods, but in the contemporary context he is an old regime, the canon.

Similarly, Konstantin Zvezdochotov, a painter working with the Soviet and pop-culture clichés, enunciates his misunderstanding and confrontation with young artists in our interview.

The movie also includes Vladimir Sorokin – one of the most significant and controversial writers of the contemporary literature; Pavel Pepperstein – a novelist, poet, theorist, critic, author of installations, thinker – and his father, a painter Viktor Pivovarov, who lives in Prague;

Oleg Kulik – a radical and provocative performer, a painter working with digital technology; Alexander Brener – an author of political and nihilist performances, poet, theorist of the contemporary “engage” art;
Avdej Ter-Oganian – the author of blasphemous performances, mocking features of modernism;

Anatoly Osmolovski – a theorist of the new performative radical art in the 1990s; Alexander Shaburov – the author of experimental performances from everyday life.

JK: Would it be possible to put together another set of significant personalities and movements and to show the milieu of unofficial art scene from a different but also meaningful point of view?

TG: Sure, one could talk about the poetry of Stratanovskyi, Krivulin, Zhdanov, Parshchikov – and of the younger generation – Fanailova, Petrova and many others.

One could talk about the spiritual post-avant-garde art of Iankilevski, Shteinberg, Masterkova. We chose just one view without declaring that we show the only values and the full screen. But it could be a basis for continuation – critical or just additional.

JK: Do you think film has a chance to mediate a specific message about the topic?

TG: I can imagine film as a very singular instrument of narrative; it would be possible to find an equivalent type of film expression for each personality and for each kind of art.

In our case the form was the same for the whole series – sequences with interviews, illustrations of what we are speaking about, shots of the ambience, commentaries.

The form is intelligent and comprehensible, but I am sure that the capacity of the film media could be employed much more and that it would be possible to get a separate level of meaning just through the way the material is shaped.

There are for example no questions in the interviews, only answers – and the best conversation is usually the dialogical one, isn’t it?

JK: Do you have some concrete plans for next films in this line?

TG: A great topic would be the Russian New York – with its past and present. There are so many excellent figures and themes concentrated there during the last thirty years – not only Kabakov, Bruskin, Neizvestnyi, Komar, and Melamid, but many others – a whole part of progressive Russian culture moved to New York at the end of the twentieth century.

And we already did several interviews with various people like the painters Leonid Sokov, Alexander Kosolapov, Vitalyi Komar, a conceptualist Vagrich Bakhchanian, with Alexander Ocheretianskyi, the publisher of the Chernovik journal devoted to experimental poetry.

And the very young scene is exciting too. It is a question to what extent these artists are connected to their cultural background. We spoke with poets, performers and publishers, but at the moment there is no purchase order for it.

We also thought about a film mapping the independent Russian culture in Israel, Berlin, or in Russian province, but without financial cover these are only very theoretical dreams.

JK: Did the Czech TV sell the series? Was it showed in other countries? Is it possible to buy it?

TG: No. I was asked at a few American universities where I presented the movie about the possibility of buying it for the library or just for education, as a document.

But Czech TV has no saleable version of it at the moment. We are discussing a digital version, and one of the potential customers is the archive of the Post-communist Condition project in Karlsruhe in Germany, but until now it was not showed or sold anywhere, except for a small documentary film festival in a small Czech town Jihlava, where the first film was awarded by the Ewald Schorm Prize.

Jana Klenhova is a graduate student of Russian and American literature at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.