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The peredvizhniki and perestroika

May 14, 2020

I’ve recently started exploring perestroika movies and television and found some dialogue on nineteenth-century art that I wanted to keep here. It’s from two short films that tell the same story about four 1980s teenagers, first from the point of view of their teacher, then from the point of view of one of the kids.

The stories A Riddle (Загадка, 1984) and The Answer to the Riddle (Разгадка, 1985), by onetime Serapion Brother Veniamin Kaverin (1902–1989), were combined into the novella Sweet Sixteen (Шестнадцатилетие, 1985) and then made into the pair of TV movies I watched, also called A Riddle and The Answer to the Riddle, in 1988, directed by Tamara Pavliuchenko (b. 1941) with screenplays by Viktor Erofeev (b. 1947). Here’s a scene where the teacher is paying a call on the alcoholic father of a troubled student:

Petya’s father: Pyotr, someone’s come to see you!

Galina Petrovna: I’m sorry, but you’re the one I wanted to talk to.

Petya’s father: Well, all right, let’s talk. (Washes his face.) Only I have no idea what about. Forgive me for receiving you in this condition. Don’t be shocked. I’m a victim, don’t you see. The victim of an entirely incorrect cultural policy. I am an artist. (Dries his face.)

Galina Petrovna: I didn’t know that.

Petya’s father: I was a good artist, my dear woman, but my paintings were not in demand. Meanwhile, the police considered me a parasite. As a person of culture, you can see that it’s terrible when it’s the police who decide if I’m talented or not. (Drinks water from the teapot.) The police would have put Vrubel on the list of parasites too, believe you me. They told me, if you’re an artist, then draw posters for the movies. Well, all right, I did make one. The whole city ran to see it. But overnight the poster was taken down.

Galina Petrovna: Just what did you put on the poster?

Petya’s father: Not a thing. Pure abstraction. I was never a peredvizhnik, don’t you see. Once abstract artists were attacked by Khrushchev, and now I am by the chief of police. And Mother is no Decembrist’s wife. She left me. She works as a nurse’s aide at the hospital with Dr. Plakhov. Yeah. Want me to show you that famous poster of mine? It’s kept in my storage facility. In the shed, that is. Although… although… it’s dark there now! All right, another time then. So… what was I talking about? Ah, Dr. Plakhov. Well, he’s garbage. Though he and I were once friends. He turned his back on me and even said I should go in for treatment. Called me weak-willed. Me, weak-willed? Me? I’d sooner sell my cabinet than become a peredvizhnik.

Galina Petrovna: You know, I respect your principles, but I would like…

Petya’s father: I’m sorry, who are you again?

Galina Petrovna: I’m Petya’s teacher. Galina Petrovna. I seem to have come at a bad time, I’ll come some other time.

Petya’s father: Why another time? I’m listening.

Galina Petrovna: Your Petya is a very complicated teenager.

Petya’s father: What of it? What was it Mayakovsky said… “He who is constantly… something or other… he, in my view, is merely stupid.” Don’t you agree?

Galina Petronva: No, I didn’t come to complain about him. I would like it if you and I could find the key to his character, or whatever you might call it. So he could look at himself critically, you see.

Petya’s father: And what’s he doing? Causing trouble?

Galina Petrovna: That doesn’t begin to describe it! He doesn’t come to school, and if he does, he invariably misbehaves. He insults the girls. Did you know he wrote an essay on swear words?

Petya’s father: Swear words?

Galina Petrovna: Yes, and what’s more, he cites you as an authority.

Petya’s father: He does? Strange. I don’t swear at all… that is, I seldom do, when I’m sober.

Galina Petrovna: And to top it all off, he got in a fight today.

Petya’s father: Who did he get in a fight with, comrade?

Galina Petrovna: With a boy in his class, Perov. Who is a talented artist, by the way.

Petya’s father: Now why are you talking to me about Perov? He’s… he’s a peredvizhnik!

Galina Petrovna: No, you’ve misunderstood, it’s just a boy with the same last name.

Petya’s father: It doesn’t matter. Artists… you can’t hit artists. Pyotr. Pyotr! Your teacher just informed me that you got in a fight with an artist. (37:18–42:26; Russian text)

The missing word in the Mayakovsky quotation is ясен ‘bright, clear, evident, logical, obvious.’

I won’t ruin it, but I love the way Erofeev and/or Pavliuchenko and/or Kaverin keep changing the way we see Petya’s father and teacher, first in this scene, which ends with the father about to whip his son in a baroque and cruel way, then in another scene in A Riddle where the teacher acts out what her student went through, then in a third scene in The Answer to the Riddle that forces us to start over.

The filmmakers also do an excellent job setting us up to expect a story about Galina Petrovna’s loneliness. She is single, 40, convinced she is ugly, and in fact mocked by her students behind her back for her appearance.  They let us think her protestations that her students’ lives are all the personal life she needs are a defensive lie, only to give us a movie where her students’ lives are all the personal life she needs.

There are four students who matter: Pasha Perov, the impossibly kind artist with the same name as a peredvizhnik, who copies frescoes in the local monastery; Petya Bugaev, the passionate, earnest, and poor son of the alcoholic artist; Oleg Riazantsev, the calculating son of a privileged Soviet family; and Nina Pronina, the girl all three boys are in love with. Interestingly, in the story from the female teacher’s point of view, Nina comes across as not much more than a prize to be won, while from Petya’s point of view, she seems like a human being with a personality. In both she is seen as choosing between Oleg and Pasha, with Petya having no chance.

Perestroika elements: Oleg shocks Galina Petrovna by asking her questions about AIDS and homosexuality; Petya gets a 5 on his paper about swear words from the new literature teacher who wears fashionable clothes and “likes metal”; there are occasional (though not really vindicated) suggestions that Nina is tempted to rebel against Soviet values by bartering sexual attractiveness for economic luxury (cf. Katya’s tirade in the 1986 movie The Courier: “I dream of being very beautiful so all men find me attractive. And I also want to ride in a beautiful sports car…”).

Nineteenth-century connections: besides the talk of Perov, Vrubel, and the peredvizhniki, there’s some nice acerbic banter between Oleg and Galina Petrovna about whether the people on top in the Soviet Union are a hereditary caste like the pre-revolutionary nobility (25:05–28:33 in A Riddle).

Other art talk: Oleg tells Petya that Petya’s father is “a student of Malevich’s,” that the authorities were right to have criticized him for being too abstract, but that now his paintings should be in the local museum, because today’s stronger USSR no longer needs to be afraid of abstract art (conversation starts at 3:02 in The Answer to the Riddle).


8 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    May 14, 2020 8:42 am

    Kaverin is an interesting (and courageous) writer I’ve been wanting to investigate for some time; it’s too bad he’s known almost exclusively for Два капитана.

    • May 14, 2020 10:41 am

      He hadn’t been on my radar at all (apart from the occasional LH post!), but I’m more interested in him—and in Viktor Erofeev, who I previously knew mainly as an Echo of Moscow guest—after watching this. If this is what Kaverin was writing in his 80s, what was he doing earlier?

  2. languagehat permalink
    May 14, 2020 11:15 am

    «Конец Хазы» sounds like fun (NEP gangsters in Leningrad); «Скандалист, или Вечера на Васильевском острове» is a roman à clef with Viktor Nekrylov as Shklovsky; I’m very interested in reading «Художник неизвестен» (available here in pdf), his most dissident novel (it’s been called “one of the last and most significant experiments with form in early Soviet literature”); «Перед зеркалом», about the fate, especially in emigration, of a Russian woman painter during the period from 1910 to 1932, has been called “very valuable” and apparently was considered by Kaverin his best prose; and his various memoirs are said to be excellent. When I get around to reading him I’ll be posting about it…

    • May 19, 2020 12:00 am

      Belated thanks for this list! I look forward to reading Kaverin and to reading your posts about him!

  3. May 28, 2020 3:48 am

    Another art talk from the film: at the home lesson Oleg tells to Galina Petrovna about Perov: ” he stands all days long in shi*t[dirt] up to his knees copying down fresco paintings from our half-ruined monastery…” As far as I know, copying down art pieces is one of popular teaching techniques. So, from the words of Oleg, Perov seeks not only skills in modern portreit paintings or landscapes (Perov himself explains he only draws a Kremlin tower), but goes to his cultural roots turning to spiritual art of Middle Ages. Please notice the films settings: an old Russian city (probabily, Novgorod Velikij?) with a Kremlin (a fortress). When Galina Petrovna and her cousin visit th Kremlin and meet Perov, we can see a churchman all in black long robe going down a stairs.
    Vrubel is also famous for his fresco paitings in several churches and monasteries in Kyiv.
    Another feature of 80s: Galina’s sister brings her a new fancy dress ‘from Leningrad’ as a gift. It wasn’t that easy at that times to get something fancy, you had to доставать вещь using your acquaintances.

    • May 28, 2020 11:08 am

      Good points, thank you! I read somewhere that Pskov was also a city that could have inspired the film’s setting. And yes, Perov the Soviet high school student seems perhaps more akin to Vrubel or V. Vasnetsov than to Kramskoi or his namesake Perov.

      • May 28, 2020 2:16 pm

        You’re right, it’s Pskov in the film, you can have a look at the Kremlin of Pskov
        streetview on Google Maps (or Yandex Maps). It turns out Kaverin was born in Pskov and lived there for around 16 years, but you knew that of course 🙂

  4. languagehat permalink
    June 2, 2021 11:41 am

    I might as well link to my Kaverin reviews here: «Перед зеркалом», «Скандалист».

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