Katerina Clark

Aleksei Uchitel's Dreaming of Space, which won the prize for Best Film "the Golden St. George" at the Moscow International Film Festival in 2005, provides yet another recreation of the Soviet past. But thanks in no small measure to Aleksandr Mindadze's script, this film is no exercise in nostalgia, nor does it present a conventional exposè of the evils of the Stalin era. Though there are some somewhat understated instances of repression in it, the critique is conducted at a more philosophical level, one hinted at in the title, which in a more literal (and better) translation would be "Space As Presentiment."

The film's action takes place between the launch of the first Sputnik in October 1957 and Gagarin's triumphal return in April 1961 from the first manned space flight. Thus, it is set in what some might identify as the high point of Soviet power, a time of optimism and expectations writ large as a "presentiment" of the vast potential of "space." The location is a remote provincial town, more specifically a gritty northern seaport-cum-industrial center located right next to the Norwegian border (notionally Murmansk, though that is never made explicit). The central character, played by Yevgeny Mironov, is nicknamed Konyok. This name is rendered as "Horsey" in the subtitles, which not only sounds stilted but does not convey the fact that konyok in Russian slang means someone who is somewhat naive but good-natured, who is selfless, loyal, reliable, responsive, and always ready to help or get someone out of a situation, but often taken advantage of, a description that more or less sums up Konyok in the film. For the Russian audience "Konyok" is also associated with Konyok-gorbunok from folklore, a small and beautiful horse with a long tail who always helps Ivanushka-durachok (Ivan-the-Simpleton) out of situations, ultimately saving his life. This ambiguity in the name Konyok – hapless simpleton/savior – captures the paradoxical nature of this film, whose plot is a tissue of inversions, doublings, and parody, where intentions and "intimations" go largely unrealized or at any rate are only ambiguously so.

Konyok works as a cook at a local restaurant where his girlfriend, Lara, and her sister Rima are waitresses. But he falls under the influence of a mysterious figure from out of town who works as a fitter and whom Konyok first encounters as a chance sparring partner at the local amateur boxing club. This character, Gherman, is more skilled as a boxer and more up on the world generally, a total foil to Konyok whom he readily exploits. Konyok's new friend is bent on defecting to the West by sea. He trains himself for this by swimming in the ice-encrusted water and by learning foreign phrases. In Gherman's apartment, Konyok comes across a map marked with border locations and a transistor radio through which he hears broadcasts in English. The strange words (which he is able to parrot effectively) and seductive music that issue from the transistor give "presentiments" of a different other world, a world that for Gherman also beckons with the lights of a foreign ship anchored out in the harbor. The gullible Konyok does not realize what his friend is planning and is totally taken in by his claim to be on a secret state assignment. Konyok blabs all the details about Gherman to an operative who asks him to keep close tabs on his new friend, thus he unwittingly functions as an informer.

The film's director, Uchitel, began his career in the 1970s as a documentary filmmaker, and in this film he sought faithfully to recreate that time and place, not just in specific details – such as the druzhinniki (volunteer vigilantes) and the distinctive headgear the characters wear – but also in conveying the mood of the times. The mood is to some extent created by the camera work, which confines most scenes to a relentless gray on blue-gray color scheme to suggest the bleak, frozen world in which the characters live, but makes sudden shifts to predominantly warm colors (mostly for interiors), starkly black, partially lit scenes at night or, more rarely, full technicolor.

This highly mannered shifting back and forth points to the way the film's documentary earnestness is deceptive. As was so often the case with Mindadze's earlier scripts, the plot is not entirely coherent; it contains several jumps and poorly motivated events as it plays with the conventions of a generic Soviet plot. Many stock features of the Soviet hero accrue to the would-be defector: "hardening oneself" (zakalka) to triumph over extreme cold, which was conventionally represented as part of the conditioning of the loyal Party operative, the radio operator in the remote North who vigilantly guards the border. A more mature hero would present a theoretical tract to someone less politically aware, an act that would set in motion his conversion to political consciousness. But here, the book Gherman presents to Konyok is just a collection of foreign phrases.

Mindadze has said that he deliberately made the overriding structure of the plot chiastic, reversing narrative expectations. For all that Konyok is naive and his friend worldly wise, it is Konyok who prospers at the end while Gherman literally flounders. The simple cook from the provinces goes to Moscow to train for a diplomatic career (given his "polyglot" abilities), which will enable him to enjoy that very "other world" that cruelly eluded Gherman. This career is a parody of that standard plot of Soviet culture, what might be called the road-to-Moscow plot (to be found most blatantly in Grigory Aleksandrov's musical The Radiant Path (Svetlyi put', 1940). In fact, Konyok's biography potentially provides a realization of Lenin's maxim: "Every Cook Will Rule the State." The word Lenin used for "cook," kukharka, something closer to a scullery maid, was also suggested in an episode from an earlier film with a Mindadze script, The Servant (Sluga, dir. Vadim Abdrashitov, 1988), though there the kukharka was a dishwasher and a woman, hence more literally realizing the slogan. But Konyok is at times feminized; the ambiguous and shifting gender and sexual roles we see in this film are typical of a Mindadze script. The two sisters are not sharply differentiated and prove relatively interchangeable as Konyok moves from one to the other, which undermines the force of the heterosexual love plot. The two men begin to resemble each other as Konyok starts to style himself on Gherman, but they remain polar opposites in character and far from interchangeable. The focus is on the male/male relationship, as in almost all Mindadze's scripts, which generally feature typically male activities (in this case boxing), periodic outbursts of scantily motivated, virtually gratuitous violence, and intimations of a homosexual attraction that is never followed through.

This element of the gratuitous and the arbitrary runs throughout the film but is most evident in the way the names of the two heroes appear to be determining their life's trajectories. Konyok does not understand the significance of Gherman's name, but the audience could be counted on to recognize it as the name of the ill-fated protagonist of Pushkin's Queen of Spades. And, somewhat like his literary predecessor, this film's Gherman is obsessive: everything he does, including his sexual encounters and his friendship with Konyok, is subordinated to the one goal, which he pursues single-mindedly and in a calculated way. But, as with his literary predecessor, at the crucial moment on which he has staked his all, luck is not on his side. As for Konyok, it emerges that his real name is Vitya (Viktor), so that again the name in effect presages his life's course.

Konyok's triumph could be taken as a commentary on Soviet society where, as it were, the hapless simpleton, the idiot who can parrot phrases, will prosper. But I would say rather that the film is anti-teleological or at any rate a-teleological. We do not actually know if Konyok has a meteoric career ending up as a Moscow diplomat; this is only the prognostication made by his ambitious wife as they leave town. His own account has it that he is going to Kustanai, which – at different points in the film – is identified as the site of space launches and as a place of labor camps.

The promise of "space" provides a trajectory for the nation, but Uchitel by his own account avoids showing us the sky so that we experience space only as the "presentiments" of the characters. These come mostly in libidinal moments, while making love or while experiencing the vertigo of a ride at the fun fair. As the four main characters ride one, they cry out to each other ecstatically, "Higher!", the great political slogan of the Stalin era, particularly associated with flight but used here for a simulacrum. Is it any accident that, as Uchitel has pointed out, the film was largely shot in Volkhov, the site of Volkhovstroi, the first power station built for Lenin's project to electrify the country and an earlier emblem of the same promise to transform Russia (the transformative agent then was not to be space flight but electricity)?

Is this film just built on a fatuous plot made up of conventional elements that lead nowhere, as do the two moments of Soviet triumph in space that, the contemporary audience knows, led nowhere and that provide the bookends of the film (the flights of Sputnik and of Gagarin)? The theme of space flight as national-cum-personal self-realization is played out in the final scenes. En route to Moscow by train, Konyok encounters a modest young pilot, Yuri. Later we see documentary footage of Yuri Gagarin's state reception by Khrushchev on his return from space. Konyok is convinced that Gagarin is the same Yuri whom he met in the train (this possibility is reinforced by the fact that on both occasions the Yuri figure has forgotten to tie the shoelace on his right foot). As Gagarin drives with Khrushchev in a motorcade through the cheering throngs, Konyok goes up to him and presents him with a bouquet. Critics have found this scene improbable: anyone who approached the motorcade of a Soviet leader would be shot. But Uchitel has said that just such a scene was in fact captured in a documentary of the event, but it was a Negro who approached Gagarin's open car so that in order to use this footage they had to change the face from black to white. This scene, then, breaks down the border between documentary realism and the improbable. It is as if the fidelity to documenting the old reality is deceptive, chimerical – like the Soviet promise of "space."