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2010s vs. 2000s

July 17, 2020

Sometime in the late 2010s, I heard a liberal guest on Echo of Moscow demonstrate how much Russian politics had changed by reading pro-democracy rhetoric, which now sounded dated and radical, off a politician’s website from the 2000s, the punchline being that it was the site for one of Vladimir Putin’s campaigns. I had the same feeling when, after months of watching Russian detective shows from 2015–20, I went back and watched The Call (Вызов, 2004–09).

It’s usually easy to see tons of implicit social commentary in any contemporary, realistic, hour-long drama about crime, but the recent shows seem to focus on ethics as a matter of personal conduct. In an episode of Working Theory (Версия, 2018), the shortcomings of a racist teenage bully result from his father leaving his mother and starting a new family with another woman in the same apartment building. It’s true there’s also an episode where a traffic control officer kills his partner because the latter is too principled to take bribes, but it feels like an individual moral failing by the would-be bribe-taker. Gender roles are a popular topic. The conventions of the genre mean that half the crimes in Russia are solved by beautiful 27-year-old women, and these women tend to be committed to some difficult professional path (not always the police), of which their mothers or grandmothers disapprove, thinking they should prioritize getting married instead. I’m pretty sure I remember some version of this intergenerational argument in both Death in Focus (Смерть в объективе, 2020) and Lawful Duet (Дуэт по праву, 2018). Whether and when women should forgive their unfaithful husbands comes up in Lawful Duet and Working Theory.

Khromov (left) looks skeptically at Shapovalov (right) in the secret private prison

The Call felt different. It took itself less seriously, with occasional dialogue making fun of the genre. It had a pattern of X-Files–style fantastic plots (giant radioactive rats, teleportation, zombies), except they usually turned out to have a rational explanation. And it went in for social commentary that indicted the system rather than individuals, playing Dobroliubov (condemning systemic problems) to the 2015–20 serials’ young Saltykov-Shchedrin (exposing individual evildoers). Most strikingly, the solution to the giant rat story revolves around an ex-cop, Shapovalov, who is so disillusioned with the Russian justice system that he starts his own underground private prison and is paid to kidnap criminals who’ve escaped justice: he fakes their deaths and keeps them on suicide watch forever. Shapovalov explains his motives to the hero Khromov, a phlegmatic detective from Moscow:

After I buried my wife and daughter, I went from one courthouse to another for two years until I realized there’s no such thing as disinterested justice in our country! I worked for the police and had all the evidence of the murderer’s guilt, and I still couldn’t put him behind bars. Even a petition to the Supreme Court didn’t help! That’s when I lost faith in the fairness of our justice system and God’s providence once and for all, and there are a lot of people like me! Take Major Zakharov here—he has his own story, but it’s a lot like mine.

Когда я схоронил свою жену и дочь, я два года ходил по судам, пока не понял, что беспристрастного суда у нас и в помине не существует! Я, работник милиции, имея все доказательства вины убийцы на руках, не смог его засадить за решетку. Даже обращение в Верховный суд не помогло! Вот тогда я и потерял окончательно веру в справедливость нашего правосудия и Божьего провидения, и таких, как я, много! Вот майор Захаров, у него своя история, но очень похожая на мою. (33:47–34:24)

At this point we cut to Khromov’s colleagues, who are independently learning the story: Major Zakharov’s daughter was raped and died by suicide, and though the rapists were caught and tried, they were allowed to go free, because, as Zakharov himself explains,

Their parents turned out to be very influential people. And I was just a plain old defender of the fatherland.

Их родители оказались очень влиятельными людьми. А я всего лишь простым защитником отечества. (34:48–34:55)

Shapovalov explains that another of his assistants saw the other side of the Russian justice system:

Yes, Spiridonov did time for murder. For a murder he didn’t commit. We have a fantastic system of justice, you know. It doesn’t just let criminals go, it also puts innocent people in prison.

Да, Спиридонов сидел за убийство. За убийство, которого не совершал. У нас ведь замечательное правосудие. Оно не только отпускает преступников, но еще и сажает невиновных. (35:15–35:27)

Khromov himself doesn’t disagree, saying “Possibly. But that doesn’t justify what you’re doing” (Возможно. Но это вас не оправдывает).

This critique of Russian courts isn’t unique, and I doubt it made waves when it was broadcast (The Call was the most popular show in Russia for a while, before the Great Recession caused it to wrap up early), but it made me notice the rarity of scenes like this in more recent mainstream shows.

Another moment that now feels like it’s from another time: Khromov gets in an argument with a less sympathetic law enforcement type and quotes “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

[Update 7/23/20: One more example: a key plot point in Bright Future in a Suitcase (Саквояж со светлым будущим, 2006), based on a novel by Tat’iana Ustinova, involves a twelve-year-old boy walking in on two gay men in a compromising situation. Almost all the characters are straight in the mysteries I’ve watched from 2015–20. A 2013 law might be why.]

2 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    July 17, 2020 8:17 am

    Are you going to be changing the name to XXI век? (I kid, I kid! This is fascinating stuff.)

    • July 17, 2020 12:01 pm

      I didn’t quite manage to frame the post as commentary on the lasting influence of Dobroliubov and Saltykov-Shchedrin, did I?

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