from Goodbye Baby Lenin

About 8 or 10 years ago my sister was in a used movie and CD store near downtown Dayton, Ohio, where we are from. She was scanning through all of the movies which lined the walls there, mostly stocked at that time with VHS, DVD having not yet rendered them obsolete. She would in that patrol of the shelves reach up with her hand to read the back of a Russian film with a curious title, Burnt by the Sun, which had recently won an Oscar for best foreign film in, I believe, 1993. Feeling satisfied with the summary of the film on the back and the exoticism of a Russian film, which at that point was rather unexplored territory in our family, she would proceed to buy this movie and show it to me, her 17 year-old, basketball-playing and rap music-listening brother with only a mild and latent interest in art or literature, or really thought of any stripe.

This movie, while admittedly just a very good movie and nothing more, has completely changed the course of my life. After watching it at my sister's apartment those 8 years ago, it became the brightest image in my mind of Russia, and this image stuck with me as something very different and distinct from America, something romantic and complicated. It seemed a whole different world, which, unlike Europe which always seemed so clearly stereotyped (snobbish, pretentious French, drunken, genial Irish, etc) and understandable, and unlike Asia whose people looked and seemed so uniform and culturally flat (admittedly, this was a completely uninformed opinion), Russia was full of interesting, intelligent, emotional people and beautiful nature, and seemed to promise much more that was still unknown.

The world, I think, had become a bit stale to me already. It is strange for a 17 year-old to be so world-weary, but, in short, some unfortunate things happened in my family when I was young and these things instilled in me a hefty amount of skepticism. As the years passed and I went on to study Russian language in university and finally, this year, to live an entire year in Siberia, I never completely understood why the sudden interest in something so foreign and far away. Something that I had no particular ties to. And this was a question that was posed to me possibly more than any other– why are you studying this? And my answers, while generally seeming to satisfy the listener, always felt to me rather incomplete and rote. After already devoting 5 years of my life to this area and changing completely my career path and other things, I finally understand how I ended up here. While there were several more logical reasons, such as my deep appreciation of Russian literature (in particular, the writers Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Nabokov, Chekhov, Turgenev, Blok), the main underlying impulse was precisely to explore that unknown world and to leave the one which had become so familiar and unpromising to me. And if I hadn't watched Burnt by the Sun that cool summer night in my sister's old apartment, I might never have had that bright image of a beautiful, faraway world that held some promise for me.

The movie Burnt by the Sun is something remarkable, not just relative to the Russian film industry in which it germinated – an industry that is, when compared to American and European film traditions, a bit undeveloped and weak, in my opinion–but as something that can stand alone as a beautiful encapsulation of a crucial moment in history. The idea of the film is truly excellent and was very topical in the 1990s, following the fall of the USSR. And who better to make a film of such epic proportions which re-evaluates the nuances of that system and that life than a real Russian muzhik like Nikita Mikhalkov, a man who had a long string of successful films behind him and who was widely respected for his bravado and depth as an actor and director? It all came together perfectly, the idea, the script, the imagery and metaphor of people being "burnt by the sun of the revolution" and the great song of same name, which is played and sung throughout the film. All of the characters are flawed, everyone is guilty except the 6-year-old daughter in the film. There is no hero. The general and the NKVD spy both have lied and betrayed out of necessity and at the end all you can do is empathize with everyone and lament that people ever had to live in such a way.

I have at times felt that I too had been burnt by the bright sun of Russia. I've regretted at times that I've given up a career as a programmer to pursue this academic field. I've regretted at certain moments that it's pulled me away from a serious relationship, my friends and family, and that I've spent one of the primest of my prime years living in a country that is uncomfortable and foreign in many ways. But unlike the characters in Mikhalkov's masterpiece, I don't think this world will lead to my ruin or failure. This year in Siberia, while turbulent, has impacted me in a big and positive way. And although I may end up some professor analyzing contemporary Russian films or living in the obscurity of untranslated Russian poetry, these things really do continue to be for me that beautiful, unknown world I dreamt about all those years ago.