from Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, and Society since Gorbachev
Adele Marie Barker

...Vladimir Khotinenko's Moslem offers a very different and more controversial view of Russianness in its tale of a young Russian, Kolya Ivanov (Yevgeny Mironov), who converted to Islam during sever years as a prisoner of war in Afghanistan, then returns to his village home to live with his mother, Sonya (Nina Usatova) and alcoholic brother, Fedya (Aleksandr Baluev). The film's opening scene – a long shot of a young Orthodox priest striding through a field and singing a hymn – sets the stage for what the viewer might expect to be a story of spiritual renewal based in rural life, something like Vasily Shukshin's Red Guelder Rose (Kalina krasnaya, 1974). As the film unfolds, however, it presents a vision of contemporary Russian village life that polemicizes with the idealized portrait of rural "folk" values offered in films like those made by Shukshin or works of "village prose." While these earlier works of film and fiction present village life as a repository of traditional, spiritual values, Khotinenko's film demythologizes the Russian village and Russian Orthodoxy as a way out of the impasse in which contemporary Russia finds itself. Nor does the film, as some critics have argued, present the "Moslem" Kolya as the "best Christian of all."

As many Russian critics quickly observed, Moslem is not about a competition between opposing systems of religious belief. "The religious conflicts in [Moslem] are irrelevant," Zara Abdullayeva argues in her review. "They are simply a pseudonym for the everyday, not the ideological ... opposition ... of diverse culture-multures [sic]." Both Dmitry Bykov and V. Belopolskaya see Kolya's ardent practice of Islam as proof of his Russianness. Bykov claims that the film has nothing to do with the conflict between Islam and Christianity because "this Moslem is himself a Russian ... [and a] Russian does everything by extremes: if he is a Moslem, then he will be the most methodical and zealous [of Moslems], refusing to back off an inch from his faith." Similarly, Belopolskaya argues that Kolya's religious zeal is "simply a means of rebirth ... In the figure of the praying Kolya, the passion, stoic independence, and self-sacrificial yearnings of Boyarina Morozova and Archpriest Avvakum are clearly visible." For these and other critics, the film is essentially about the intolerance of the "Russian character;" or, in the words of Valery Turovsky: "In Moslem [we see] the struggle between those who are like everyone else and someone who doesn't resemble them." In short, this film has less to do with particular differences than the Russians' intolerance for difference as such. As several critics, and the filmmakers themselves, have noted, the principal difference at stake in the film is that between characters who believe "sincerely" in some God and those who do not; the precise name by which that God is addressed is unimportant.

Although critic Lev Anninsky reproaches the filmmakers for their frivolous metaphorical use of a conflict that is a "geopolitical reality," Khotinenko and his scriptwriter, Valery Zalotukha, state unequivocally – and unashamedly – that Kolya's conversion to Islam is only a "provocation," and that "we weren't intending at all to make a film about a Moslem, we know almost nothing about Moslems. ... We made the film about something completely different. The hero himself is not ideological. He simply lives according to rules." Zalotukha claims that they "didn't want to insult anyone – neither Moslems nor Russian Orthodox believers." Instead, they envisioned their film as "an investigation of the Russian spirit today, an investigation of the state of the Russian soul."

As "an investigation of the Russian soul," Moslem would not appear at first to offer much in the way of "conciliation." Kolya's newfound religious beliefs and his single-minded adherence to them place him at odds with his village and his family, especially his violent ex-convict brother, Fedya. In a key scene, Sonia invites the Orthodox priest from the film's opening sequence to dinner in hopes of effecting a reconciliation between her two sons. Moved by the priest's homily about the importance of family harmony, Fedya proposes that Kolya kiss a family icon as a sign of their renewed commitment to brotherly love. Kolya's refusal triggers one of the film's most vicious fight scenes, as the much larger Fedya shoves his brother's face into the icon, breaking the glass that protects the holy image. Kolya turns to grab an ax, then marches outside and starts furiously chopping wood, more faithful to his unorthodox religious principles than is his brother to those of his native church.

Fedya is not the only murderous "brother" whose anger threatens Kolya in the film. Kolya is stalked throughout the film by a mysterious stranger whom the final scene reveals to be one of his former "brothers in arms," the lieutenant in charge of political instruction in Kolya's former army unit in Afghanistan. The nameless ex-lieutenant had intended to kill Kolya to avenge the death of a soldier who perished trying to rescue Kolya from the Afghan soldiers who had taken him captive. Convinced that Kolya allowed himself to be captured deliberately, the lieutenant initially considers him a traitor, but after watching Kolya for a month, decides not to kill him. The lieutenant's change of heart is inspired, he claims, by his recent conversion to Russian Orthodoxy and reading of the New Testament. To seal his reconciliation with Kolya, however, the lieutenant wants Kolya to make the sign of the cross "like all normal people," because, he says, that is what has "saved" them both. When Kolya refuses, the lieutenant clutches his head in pain and threatens Kolya with his revolver. As he falls to his knees, still clutching his head and covering his eyes with the gun in his hand, the lieutenant squeezes off a shot. While he seems not to be aiming, or even intending to shoot, the lieutenant kills Kolya in an almost accidental, reflexive gesture of defense against the threat that Kolya's religious convictions pose to the security of his own fragile system of newly acquired beliefs.

The film presents the conflict between Kolya's beliefs and those of the nominally Russian Orthodox villagers, his family, and the ex-lieutenant as a parable about the dangerous futility of attempting to construct a community – whether local, national, or confessional – on the foundation of any single code of rules. When Kolya's former lieutenant explains that he crosses himself with his left hand rather than his right (as is traditional in the Russian Orthodox Church) because he does everything left-handed, "even shooting," it is clear that the lieutenant's beliefs are more lethal than life-giving. Similarly, when the lieutenant argues that many of the principles in that "little book," the New Testament, are "outmoded," and gives as an example the pointlessness of "turning the other cheek" in a world in which people use guns rather than hands to "smite" one another, his words indicate the vast distance between the beliefs by which most of the film's characters claim to live and their actions.

This distance between what Homi Bhabha has discussed as the "pedagogy" and "performance" of national identity is particularly marked in Khotinenko's Moslem. Of the film's characters, only Kolya lives a life that conforms to his religious beliefs: he refuses to steal, drink vodka, or have sec before marriage; and, most of the time, he also refuses to fight with his brother. He is driven by the desire both to avoid sin and to have "everything be as it should." As he tells Vera, his former girlfriend and now the village floozy, "when [people] learn the real name of God, then everything will be different, everything will be good, everything will be as it should be" (vsyo budet pravil'no). Kolya admits that he doesn't know when this will occur, but "it will definitely happen."

Kolya's confidence in a future that will be better than the present sets him even further apart from his family and fellow villagers, who are characterized less by their lip service to a particular set of beliefs than by their inability to believe in anything. The fatal consequences, as well as the origins, of this lack of belief are most marked in the character of Fedya. An alcoholic like his father, Fedya tries to hang himself from the same hook on which his father hanged himself several years previously, apparently because he, too, sees no reason to live. Kolya cuts him down in the nick of time, then, praying for strength from Allah, yanks the hook from the ceiling and exhorts the assembled villagers not to hang themselves "anymore."

Ironically, Kolya's confidence in a better future and his certainty that "there is no reason to hang yourself" have come to him through his alienation from his "native" environment. The film presents the village as a place of great natural beauty, but one that has been literally "sold down the river" for American dollars by a corrupt bureaucrat to nameless and faceless figures in a military helicopter who are, as the bureaucrat says, "practically not people but gods." On his way home one evening with a briefcase full of dollars, the bureaucrat stops to take a brief swim. A gigantic pig's head rises up out of the water and hovers over him, terrifying him so that he drops the briefcase in his terror, spilling its contents into the river. The next morning, all of the village's inhabitants – except Kolya – race pell-mell to the river to retrieve the magical dollars that have appeared, as one puts it, like "manna from heaven." On the one hand, in these scenes the film suggests, none too subtly, that Western materialism has displaced traditional Russian rural, religious values; and it attributes this confusion of the secular with the spiritual to the invasion of the Russian countryside by Western capital and cultural influences. On the other, the vision of the pig's head links the villagers' greed to their Soviet past.