As an integral part of the cultural elite, Russian film-makers have an exclusive sense of mission, and have always proudly considered themselves the consciousness of the nation. And while many are still obsessed with the fallen idols of totalitarianism, others have accepted the challenge to answer the eternal Russian question "What is to be done?" Should Russia follow its own Slavic path or take the Western way towards modernisation? It seems impossible to stay away from the notorious dispute between Westerners and Slavophiles, raging in Duma and dating back to the times when Peter the Great forced his grand boyars to cut off their beards as tribute to Westernisation. Taking sides in this dispute could be a risky enterprise for a film-maker. Nikita Mikhalkov, for example, was severely punished for his nationalist fling with the Slavophile political wing in Parliament. Russian critics met his film Burnt By the Sun with open contempt, which did not soften even after the film received an Oscar. A post-modernist salon, on the other hand, has noisily proclaimed itself as the only proponent of Western values, thus alienating most of the filmmakers who happen to think and believe otherwise. Andrei Konchalovsky made his contribution to the heated dispute about Russia's future with Ryaba, My Little Hen (1994). According to his pseudo-folk fable about the woes of transition to market economy, Russia should look for its own way out of the crisis. Liberalism and democracy are Western inventions, and are therefore alien to the Russian people. They will fail in Russia, as Marxism did.

Directors like Nikita Mikhalkov, Vadim Abdrashitov (Play For a Passenger, 1995), and Vladimir Khotinenko (Moslem, 1995) prefer to ask first "What have we done?" before pondering what to do next. None of them offers a global solution. What emerges, however, is an attempt to see Russia's current spiritual and moral crisis as a cumulative effect of misguided best intentions and total absence of individual responsibility. It is not the West and its ideologies that have caused Russia's woes. It is not Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, neither Lenin nor Stalin. It is not God, not the Jews either. It is the fault of each and every Russian who has ignored his or her common sense in the name of grand delusions.

Against the backdrop of a huge portrait of Stalin, unfurled under the bright sun, the hand-cuffed enemy of the people, former Bolshevik Commander Kotov, breaks down at the realisation that he is a victim of his own deeds and in a way – no better than his hired torturers. His noble social delusions have blinded him and turned him into a zealous instrument of the evil that is destroying him and his country (Burnt By the Sun).

Nikolai from Play For... is obsessed with revenge against the judge who had sent him to prison years ago. In the process, however, he inflicts much more suffering on himself and his loved ones than he could ever inflict on the malicious judge.

An Afghanistan war hero comes home after having been declared missing for years. His arrival causes a shock: he has become a Moslem. His life style has become so pious that he becomes an embarrassment for his family, for the village folks, possessed with post-perestroika consumerism, and for his war buddies who consider him traitor. The genre of these films could be loosely defined as moral parable, with a simple, somewhat apocalyptic message – what goes around, comes around. This message could be also concisely expressed in any famous quote from the Bible: thou shalt not kill; whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; turn the other cheek; be thy brother's keeper.

In tune with the 19th century Russian literary and artistic tradition, the presence of God is strongly felt in these films. God is the redeeming image of a fiery ball that crosses the frame at each crucial turn of the narrative (Burnt By the Sun). The mystical merge of personalities in Play For... comes directly from Manichean Christianity. Nikolai takes the role of the judge, punishes the judge, becomes the judge. The chain of injustices is closed. The chastiser and the chastised, God and Devil, all in one.

In the grand eloquent mannerism of Mikhalkov's sensual universe, God is the absolute moral imperative existing outside the world of his characters. Whether they would recognise his existence or not is irrelevant to the deity's existence, while the act of religious awakening is purely a voluntary one, an expression of personal responsibility.

In Abdrashitov's ascetic world of pure reason, God is a higher moral principle, existing within his characters. They could choose to respect it and live in harmony with their conscience, or ignore it and face the consequences. The recognition of this higher principle is also a question of personal responsibility.

Not so, says Khotinenko. In his eclectic film experience, religion is a will power. It requires special energy to believe in God and become a responsible human being. It is a strenuous act, alienating most people. If you have the stamina to believe, you will find your God sooner or later. Khotinenko makes sure several times over that this is what he meant and has his Moslem to repeat it: "God is one, only His names are different!"

It is much safer for Mikhalkov and Abdrashitov to resolve issues of tragic or intentional guilt in clear-cut historical situations: the Great Terror from 1934-37 or the period of stagnation ('70s and '80s). Khotinenko's task is much more difficult – he treads the volatile post-Soviet reality. Khotinenko therefore prefers to create an original conflict situation and then watch it develop, without much venturing into philosophical or theological realms. He is brilliant, however, when examining the "idiocy" of village life or when revealing the mechanism of Russian xenophobia. The villagers openly hate the Moslem for being different and yet one of their own. But most of all they hate him for reminding them with his very presence how corrupt they are. Even his own mother says with reproach: "We know it is bad to steal, you do not have to remind us!" Paradoxically, the Moslem is a post-modern reincarnation of Christ himself – loving, forgiving, suffering for the sins of others, and finally murdered by them. But here Khotinenko's search for God runs out of steam. He cannot make his Moslem a Messiah since he doubts a priori his villagers' propensity for acts requiring will power – they drift with the flow. And even if some of them do find stamina to believe, Khotinenko would not know what to do with them.

Khotinenko is reluctant to take any responsibility for the further developments in the life of the Moslem or the villagers. He has his hero killed, but somewhat reluctantly, to preserve his integrity. In any case, the Moslem is doomed both on the existential level and on the level of narrative. After all, what could he do with him if he stays alive and does wake pious feelings in the villagers? It would not have been a good idea considering the current political circumstances and all these tensions amongst Russians and Moslems in the former Soviet Republics. Khotinenko certainly would not have liked to see the villagers building a Moslem community or sending a regiment of volunteers to Bosnia – he would not go for such cheap resolutions. That is why he leaves the advent of the Moslem and his death without any effect on the infantile villagers. They will go on stealing, lazing around, drinking themselves into oblivion, and waiting for another chance to find dollar bills swirling down the river. With the only difference that there will be no one around to point out how irresponsible they are. Only rarely, on a full moon night, they would wake up to the sight of a huge grinning head of a pig rising from the dark waters. It is unlikely, however, they would recognise their guilty conscience in it.