In the early 1970s, the governments of Nixon and Khrushchev made a deal: America would begin importing Soviet brand Stolichnaya vodka and the Soviet Union would allow Pepsi to be manufactured and sold on red soil. The deal not only provided a boon for Pepsi, but it also gave rise to a new generation of Russians.
Neither like their parents, who joined the ranks of Komsomol (youth ranks of the Communist Party) and wore the Lenin pin, nor the current Russian youth who listen to “emo” and track videos on MTV, the Pepsi generation, born in the late 70s and early 80s, came of age in the 1990s, a time of chaos and schism. Raised in the Soviet Union, this group has matured in post-Soviet Russia, thus straddling a historical divide. Such a vantage point could lead a generation into schizophrenic disarray, or function as the breeding ground for balanced interpretations and analysis of Russia’s past and present.
Judging by three documentary short films screened at Anthology Film Archives in early April, generation “Pepski” projects a new view of Russia, one that seeks to meld the past with the fast-changing present. The New York screening concluded the end of a two-week U.S. tour of the filmmakers, Maria Miroshnichenko and Sergey Kachkin, and two organizers of prominent documentary film festivals in Russia, Victor Fedoseev and Anna Tarkhova. In today’s Russia, Tarkhova explained, “More and more young people are attracted to documentary films, because they are honest but at the same time shocking, but it is a shocking you can believe.” Instead of special effects, these filmmakers prefer gritty close-ups and rely on individual histories. “The style of documentary film,” Fedoseev added, “is more true to narrative.”
In exploring true stories, Miroshnichenko, Kachkin, and Alexandra Strelyanaya (whose work was screened, but who was not present) look at contemporary Russia with the new lens. Their subjects range from old wedding rituals in village communities, to the life of coal miners in the Urals, to a brief meeting with a forgotten Soviet director; in so doing, all three films serve as conduits between a not-so-distant past and an increasingly progressive future.
In Coal Dust, Miroshnichenko follows “the day in the life of a young coal miner” living in a mining community in her ancestral village of Kopeisk near the Urals. Miroshnichenko’s camera travels down the mine shaft, while the main character’s voice tells of the miners’ plight: they earn 100 dollars a month, and retirees get a 30-dollar monthly pension. In the Q & A after the screening, Miroshnichenko said that she had specifically looked for a worker around her age—22—who was from a family rooted in mining. Coal Dust acknowledges that there were some benefits within the Soviet system. In the film, the miner notes that where coal workers were once valorized, nowadays “People treat coal miners – not bad, not good – like dust.”
Similar in its exploration of a now-mythical Soviet past, Kachkin’s film Being Director Berezovsky tells of the life of the once-famous Soviet director Konstantin Berezovsky. According to Kachkin, the film was shot over a few visits to the director’s dacha outside Perm. The visits were informal, and the film shows the director pealing potatoes, gardening, and taking a bare-chested repose while smoking a cigarette. Berezovsky’s most famous film Three and a half days in the life of Ivan Semyonov had been Kachkin’s favorite as a child. “Every one in Perm had seen this film,” he said. Berezovsky’s film, a Russian version of Denis the Menace, was instantly popular in Russia and abroad, a feat not attained by many Soviet films of the 1960s. Twenty capitalist countries requested the film. However, Berezovsky staunchly refused to join the Communist Party. As a result, the sound was “misplaced” by the studio in Moscow, nullifying international distribution. A victim of Soviet censorship, the director quickly fell out of sight.
The final film in the series, Strelyanaya’s Sarafan, records the ancient wedding rituals of a village marriage. Thee is a matchmaker, giving black bread to ravens to ward off evil spirits, and traveling groups of old women minstrels. These traditions, once as essential to a marriage as a white dress, are quickly being forgotten. In a final scene of the film, the voice of one of the many old women mourns, “There was good and bad. Everything’s all gone to weeds, no?”
Such topics could tilt these films into the realm of nostalgia, but the filmmakers resist such a trap. What they record is obviously incongruous with the cosmopolitan, iPod-infused culture of Moscow or St. Petersburg. In Fedoseev’s view, this approach is both the purpose of documentary film and the task of the Pepsi Generation—“to expose real life.” The traditions and stories depicted in these films are unknown to the vast majority of Russian youth. However, as is made evident by the growing popularity of documentary film festivals in Novosibirsk, St. Petersburg, and Moscow, such are finding growing audiences in contemporary Russia. According to Tarkhova and Fedoseey, every year the screening halls at the festivals become more tightly packed with groups of kids watching documentaries “more intensely, more frantically than [they would] traditional narratives.”
Armed with the electronics of the digital age and encouraged by a burgeoning cultural scene, these new Russian filmmakers have spurned the pessimistic predictions of writers like Victor Pelevin, who prophesized that the Pepsi Generation would be a generation split in two. With bold, honest narratives, Russian filmmakers are embracing their ancestral schism, using it to fashion a completely original future, one that remembers its roots.
Ashley Cleek is a writer based in Brooklyn.