Homo Sovieticus Dispossessed III: Abandonement by the Mother

July 14, 2008 at 5:59 am

I do not intend to go in detail here as this is a different topic, but still need to mention that the cinematic Russian fathers are typically shown as absent, unreliable, or untrustworthy. I can think of some exceptions where paternal concern is the leading motive of shattering dramas, but they are typically found in films that feature men from the other nationalities of the former Soviet Union, like the Georgian Father of the Soldier (Djariskatsis mama/ Otets soldata, 1965) and the Kazakh Land of the Fathers (Zemlya otzov, 1966). A persuasive portrayal of a slippery and treacherous Russian ‘father’ is developed in Pavel Chukhraj’s film Thief (Vor, 1997).

Mothers are a different thing. As I want to keep focused on theme of migration, I am mostly thinking of the complex daughter-mother relationship in one of the last Soviet era blockbusters, Pyotr Todorovsky’s Intergirl (Interdevochka, 1989). Raised by her mother (the father is typically absent), Tanya has the respectable job of a nurse but makes much more by prostituting herself to foreign businessmen. Her mother, the respectable teacher Alla Sergeevna, is completely unaware of this aspect of her daughter’s life. Tanya marries one of her clients and moves to Sweden, a position that improves her own financial situation significantly and enables her to help the mother’s finances from a distance. But rather than settling for this seemingly happy solution, both women wane by the day. Tania’s guilt for having abandoned the mother grows irreversibly, parallel with her growing disillusionment with the alienated capitalist West and the arrogance of the husband. The mother, who silently condemns Tania’s lifestyle and decision to leave, grows more and more withdrawn and, when she belatedly comes to learn the commonly-known fact of her daughter’s ‘occupation’, resorts to committing suicide. In the final, extremely tense sequence of the film, Tanya is shown rushing back home through border checks and suffocating rain, desperate to get to her mother, the retired teacher. But it is too late. She is left crying at the closed door of their small communal apartment. But there is no one to open up for her, no one who could forgive her. Tanya betrayed mother Russia and is now punished, pushed away, left knocking at a closed door.

It took only a few years for this whole take on mothers/children relationship to change in the cinematic narrative. By the late 1990s it were the mothers that started betraying their children and leaving them behind (or at least this is the case if we judge by what we see in films). Once the powerful migratory push was unleashed, mothers seem to have been abandoning their children in droves (usually, by temporarily leaving them in the first instance, without a clear commitment to a ‘collection date’). Kolya of the eponymous film (1996), for example, has been dragged to the granny in Prague by his Russian mother, but then left behind when the mother takes off on the next leg of the journey to Germany, and finds himself fully dependent on the kindness of strangers already at the fragile age of five.

The most intensely painful film where the teenage protagonist’s downfall is entirely predicated on an abandonment by the mother is Lukas Moodysson’s Lilja 4-ever (2002). The plot is well-known: 16-year old Lilja is left alone in a provincial town in Russia, then trafficked to Sweden and forced into prostitution. We see her at the beginning of the film running to her death (she will commit suicide by jumping from a high bridge), and then told her harrowing story in an extended flashback.

There are many devastating moments in this brutally graphic film, but none as shattering as the scenes delineating Lilja’s abandonment by her mother (as usual, the father is absent by default): the mother announces the departure to America with her new boyfriend; the mother informing Lilja that she will have to ‘temporarily’ stay behind; the mother departing (and Lilja running after the car in desperation); the mother sending a letter denouncing her parental rights.

Lilja’s forced ‘weaning’ goes through different stages: She attempts to struggle to keep the mother by parading her fragility, she then displays openly her feeling of betrayal, to end up in downfall and resignation. At 16 she is completely alone, acquiescently available to all those who may want to use up her teenage body. Her only friend is an angel-like pre-pubescent boy, who is similarly alone and whose death she is unable to acknowledge.

There is no end in sight. The closed door of Intergirl hangs open with a wide berth in Lilja.* But no one is knocking and no one is around; the home is empty.

* For a critical comparison of the two films, see Kristensen, Lars. Divergent Accounts of Equivalent Narratives: Russian-Swedish Interdevochka Meets Swedish-Russian Lilya 4-ever. PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, July 2007. Belorussian critic Elmira Osmanova has also written on these issues.

© Dina Iordanova
14 July 2008