April 28, 2015
Movie of the Week: Brother
This is a weekly Fort Russ feature. To view earlier installments, please click on the Movie of the Week tab above the title.
Brother (Brat) is without a doubt one of the major cult hits of the post-Soviet Russian cinema. Everyone in the country seems to have seen it, and the references to its characters and their script lines abound in the Russian social media. Here’s the movie, in 10-minute chunks, with subtitles:
OK, and now for the spoilers. This is a densely populated movie, and it’s the characters and their interaction that bring out its “hidden” meaning, its rather disturbing political message.
So, for starters, the titular “Brother”. Named Danilo Sergeyevich Bagrov, born 1976, a semi-orphan whose father died in prison and who subsequently looked up to his older brother, only to ultimately surpass him in his understanding of the world. In that regard his biography is exactly the same as that of Sasha Akimov in Brest Fortress, or Andrey in The Return. Granted, we don’t know for certain what happened to Sasha Akimov’s parents, we are only told they were killed in the Spanish Civil War in 1937, after going there as advisors to the Republicans. Still, 1937 is the year of Yezhovshchina, of the worst of the Great Purge, so it’s highly likely the parents perished in the Purge (because what is the likelihood of his mother dying in combat in Spain???), but that fact was kept from the young Akimov who tells us only that which he was told. That (and the fact all three are played by baby-faced actors, two of whom are actually kids), however, is about as far as the similarities go.
Because Danilo Bagrov, a Chechen War veteran, hates everyone who is not an ethnic Russian, be they Chechens, Jews, Western tourists, etc. One of the most interesting scenes of the movie takes place close to the beginning, where Danilo carries out a veritable ethnic cleansing of the street car, ejecting “caucasians” who insist on riding without paying the required fare. Notice what Danilo tells one of the “caucasians” after he refers to him as “brother”: “You are no brother to me, you blackassed louse.” The subtitles say “worm,” but in reality the term used by Danilo refers to lice. This is not a minor difference: worms, while low in the social hierarchy, are useful creatures, whereas lice are parasites. And that’s what the movie insists the Chechens, the Dagestanis, pretty much all other non-Russian minorities are–parasites, to be cleansed off Russia’s body. The “you are no brother to me, you blackassed louse” is a phrase that launched a thousand memes, and quite possibly got it unofficially banned from Russian state TV channels:
There are also topical variations, such as “you are no brother to me, you American whore”:
…and, most recently, “you are no brother to me, you banderite louse”.
It’s only natural that Putin would be a stand-in for Bagrov–indeed, when the movie came out the country was pining for someone like Bagrov in charge, to re-establish order in a country that was plunged into chaos. As if to make that point utterly impossible to miss, the movie ends with Danilo hitching a ride with a truck driver who wears
the telnyashka, the white-blue striped t-shirt worn by the Naval
Infantry and the VDV, in other words, who like Danilo is a veteran of an
elite military formation, and who’s heading for Moscow, much as Putin is about to make a move from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Not the first, and certainly not the last, time life imitated Russian art. The last words uttered by Bagrov in the movie are “look
how much snow has fallen,” as if to draw attention to the magnitude of the job that he would face in Moscow.
Needless to say, Putin is not quite Bagrov, so in that regard Russian nationalists are disappointed with Russia’s president who has consistently and forcefully advocated for a multi-ethnic, diverse Russia in which “Russianness” is defined in the same way as it has been since at least the time of Peter I the Great, namely through service to the Russian state. However, in other respects the similarity is uncanny.
Quite possibly the second most important figure in the movie is Hoffman who, being a
non-Nazi German in a Russian movie, is almost certainly a stand-in for
Karl Marx, specifically the bankrupt Marxist-Leninist ideology which had
failed in Russia, according to the movie, for one simple reason: it was not innate to it.
It was a foreign invention and, as Hoffman says more than once, “what’s good for a Russian is lethal to a German”. With the implication being that the well-being of Russia demanded the death of the Marxist ideology, and Hoffman’s calling a cemetery his home underscores this point nicely. That is not to say that Marxism has not rendered useful services to Russia, which the movie points out when Hoffman fixes
up Danilo after he is wounded in a shootout. However, Hoffman refuses the stash of dollars Danilo is willing to give him as he
prepares to leave St. Petersburg, an apparent representation of
Communism’s inability to tap into the “Russian Soul”.
The destructive nature of Western influences is best shown through the figure of Viktor, Danilo’s brother who used to be strong, even used to be Danilo’s father figure, but
then the city, the civilization had made him soft and weak, so much so that Danilo has to rescue him from getting killed by the mobsters.
Kat: the embodiment of all that is Western. She speaks English, eats at
McDonald’s, goes to rave parties, does drugs, is sexually promiscuous, knows what’s hip and
what’s not, but at the same the only thing that matters to her is money.
Though Danilo has feelings for her, she is simply incapable of
reciprocating them. A sad statement on the state of the relationship
between Russia and the West. Still, like Hoffman, she too is useful to Danilo in that she helps him negotiate the new, post-Communist world, a service that is amply rewarded when Danilo gives her the dollars he took from the mobsters. One can’t help but think that the pro-Western economic liberals in the Russian government are playing a similar role to Kat–they help Russia interact with the West, and are well rewarded for it, but that’s as far as the relationship goes.
And finally, Sveta, an operator of a hollow streetcar, whose decrepit nature no doubt is meant to be a reflection of the condition of the Russian state in the 1990s. Her weakness is further illustrated by the abuse she gets from her husband, Pavel Yevgrafovich (given that Yevgraf is a rare first name in Russia, is this meant to be a reference to the Chekist Yevgraf Zhivago from Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago?), and even brutally raped by mobsters. Tellingly, toward the end of the movie she rejects the Russian nationalist Danilo’s advances (even though she cries after he leaves her behind) and prefers to stay with her Pavel Yevgrafovich, which almost comes across as a criticism of the prominent role of KGB veterans in the post-Soviet Russian state.
In that respect, Brother represents “the road not taken.” Russia did not take the destructive path toward ethnic nationalism (and ethnic cleansing) that Brother advocated. Instead, it turned out that the Chekist Pavel Yevgrafovich was far more effective at protecting Sveta from mobsters and at bringing her streetcar to its former glory by steering a middle course between the extremes advocated by The Return and Brother.