The Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema

The Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema

The Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema

The Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema


The collapse of the USSR seemed to spell the end of the empire, yet it by no means foreclosed on Russia's enduring imperial preoccupations, which had extended from the reign of Ivan IV over four and a half centuries. Examining a host of films from contemporary Russian cinema, Nancy Condee argues that we cannot make sense of current Russian culture without accounting for the region's habits of imperial identification. But is this something made legible through narrative alone-Chechen wars at the periphery, costume dramas set in the capital-or could an imperial trace be sought in other, more embedded qualities, such as the structure of representation, the conditions of production, or the preoccupations of its filmmakers? This expansive study takes up this complex question through a commanding analysis of the late Soviet and post-Soviet period auteurists, Kira Muratova, Vadim Abdrashitov, Nikita Mikhalkov, Aleksei German, Aleksandr Sokurov and Aleksei Balabanov.


Britain had an empire, but Russia was an empire.

— Geoffrey Hosking, “The Freudian Frontier,” 1995

Russian democrats destroyed the “empire”—that is, their own country.

—Aleksandr Tsipko, Nezavisimaia gaztta,
January 31, 1995

In this volume I anchor my argument in two overlapping fields. First, I investigate the core concerns of six major Russian directors who weathered the collapse of the USSR—and with it, the collapse of their own industry—yet managed to work from the early 1990s onward under very different professional and artistic conditions. Nikita Mikhalkov, Kira Muratova, Vadim Abdrashitov, Aleksandr Sokurov, Aleksei German, and Aleksei Balabanov are arguably Russia’s lead filmmakers. Of these six, Mikhalkov and Balabanov are best known for their commercial cinema. Muratova, Abdrashitov, Sokurov, and German are widely considered the country’s key art house directors, however much they have at times resisted that designation. They span a quarter-century, from Muratova’s birth in 1934 to Balabanov’s birth in 1959, and more than forty years of film production, from 1967 to the present.

Occupying a central place in recent Russo-Soviet film, these six directors represent a critical cultural continuum from the late Soviet to the post-Soviet . . .

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