Book review by Daria Kabanova.

Yana Hashamova’s short, but engaging volume brings together psychoanalysis, cultural studies and film to examine the challenges to the post-Soviet Russian national identity that the fall of the Soviet Union brought about. Hashamova constructs a very elegant methodological framework for approaching the issue at stake, namely, the role of the West as the Russian Other as reflected in the post-Soviet film. The ‘West’, which has become an immensely problematic term in American cultural and film criticism over the last ten-odd years, nonetheless emerges in the volume as a valid analytical construct, defined as “a cultural, political, and economic imaginary, which the Russian collective mind situates beyond the Iron Curtain” (10). While the introduction notes the importance of the mechanisms of othering for the construction of national identity, Hashamova is well aware of the methodological problems that her analysis of the category of the national presents in the contemporary critical paradigm. This is why she is careful enough to offer a critique of Arjun Appadurai’s “insistence on the disappearance of the nation-state and its sentiments” (59), arguing that, at least in the Russian case, “the collective imagination as a social practice… cannot exist independently of national passions constructed and carried around the idea of a nation-state” (59).

Targeted at diverse audiences, from psychoanalytically inclined film critics to cultural scholars to Slavists, the volume carefully avoids overindulging in theoretical jargon and makes every attempt to be accessible to the non-professionals, perhaps rightly acknowledging that “this study can frustrate [each of these readers’ categories]. The theoretical concepts and their elaboration may appear concise to some and lengthy to others” (17). A reader willing to deal with this minor frustration from time to time, however, is bound to discover exceptionally lucid analyses and elegant conclusions.

Hashamova uses the concept of fantasy to describe the mechanisms of constructing Russia’s Other, and sees the challenges to the integrity of national identity in the post-Soviet cultural space in that the distance that separated the subject and the object of the fantasy symbolically collapsed. Hashamova follows Jacques Lacan and Melanie Klein, suggesting that “when the distance between the subject and fantasy disappears, fantasy breaks down” (28), and therefore the fantasy of the West needed to be resurrected in some way to provide a renewed basis for identity formation. The stages of this resurrection are the subject of the volume’s five chapters.

Hashamova compares the shifting Russian attitudes towards the West during the 1990s to the stages of development of human psyche, using Klein’s theory of adolescent psychology; even as Hashamova notes that such analogy may be “culturally suspect” (12), the Russian “teenage mentalit(y)” (13) that emerges from her analysis is probably even more problematic than Hashamova herself would want to acknowledge. The question remains open as to what the cultural or political analogy of Kleinian “adulthood” would be in terms of national identity.

The films Hashamova analyses range from first post-Soviet blockbusters like Brother (Brat, 1997) and The Barber of Siberia (Sibirskii Tsiriul’nik, 1998) to lesser known The Window to Paris (Okno v Parizh, 1994) and The Frenchman (Frantsuz, 1998). The history of the post-Soviet cinema, Hashamova argues, reflects changing cultural attitudes towards the West in the 1990s, from early wish-fulfilling fantasy of becoming a part of the West to rejection of the Western Other fueled by nationalist impulses, to, finally, coming to terms with the difference by “traversing the fantasy” of the West. Hashamova analyzes the varying cinematic techniques of othering and examines their ideological implications for the production of national identity. She starts with a historical overview of the Russian attitudes towards the West in her first chapter, The Western Other (Foe and Friend): Screening Temptations and Fears, duly noting the ambivalence of the relationship. Russia falls in love with the West immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Hashamova argues upon reading the early post-Soviet films that appropriate the West by familiarizing the cinematic space coded as Western. Just as easily, Hashamova continues in her second chapter, Russia then falls out of love by producing a series of masochistic fantasies of wounded national pride through establishing a new type of idealized, hyper-masculine hero who opposes the series of external and domestic Others, projecting the paranoid energies of his identity crisis outwards. Hashamova then moves on to examine a range of films that glorify the national past, seeking the “internal positive forces… to promote Russia’s cultural independence in the global world” (80). It is worth noting that this analysis leaves out an important possibility of Russia’s past being, in a way, a historical Other, resurrected upon the failure of the contemporary Other, the West, to fulfill its identity-producing function.

Hashamova then revisits the gender question, by examining the issue of the gaze in her next chapter, where she argues that the relationship between Russia and the West is heavily sexualized in a number of films from the 1990s, whereupon the West emerges as the feminine object of the gaze, which fits well with the masculinization of Russian national fantasy that she discussed previously. She concludes with reading the “symptoms of maturity” (97) of Russian national identity as presented in both ‘serious’ and popular film, arguing that the Russian collective imagination is able, to an extent, to come to terms with ambivalence of attitude towards its Other.

Interestingly, the actual conclusion to the volume deals with another theme that emerges in the post-Soviet Russian cinema, namely, the relationship between fathers and sons, resolved as a possibility of “imagining the future of society with strong sons in the absence of mighty fathers” (120). Coming out of the ongoing discussion in the field of Slavic studies about the cultural significance of the dissolution of the paternal metaphor in the post-Soviet cultural space, the “resolution” of the paternal conflict that Hashamova proposes strikes one as just another stage in working through the failure of the paternal metaphor – as another, somewhat psychotic and wish-fulfilling fantasy of being able to live without the paternal metaphor, which probably does not signify any sort of “maturity”, much less a possibility of enjoying one’s symptom without modifying it through fantasy. Nonetheless, Hashamova’s desire to go beyond the “Russia versus the West” framework proves to be a very sensible interpretative move, as the volume ties together Russian history, the issues of cinema and representation and critical theory in a way that is bound to engage any reader interested in these subjects.

Daria Kabanova is a Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include post-Communist literature and cinema, issues of cinematic representation of history and film theory.

Book Details

Pride and Panic: Russian Imagination of the West in Post-Soviet Film, Yana Hashamova, (2007)
Bristol/Chicago: Intellect Books, The University of Chicago Press, 144 pp., ISBN: 9781841501567, £29.95

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