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The Nest of the Wood Grouse

August 17, 2020

I can’t get over how much Russian and Soviet culture is on the internet for anyone to enjoy. I’ve still been watching perestroika-era things occasionally, and I recommend The Nest of the Wood Grouse (Гнездо глухаря), a 1987 film based on a 1979 play of the same title by Viktor Rozov (1913–2004). (A wood grouse or capercaillie is a bird in the same family as the peacock, turkey, and ruffed grouse, but from a genus found only in Europe and northern Asia. Here’s one in Russia.)

(Video also available on culture.ru)

It’s easy to see why the Moscow Academic Theater of Satire wanted to put on this play in the 1980s. For one thing, it draws parallels between the Soviet nomenklatura and the pre-revolutionary aristocracy as explicitly as A Riddle (Загадка, 1984) and The Answer to the Riddle (Разгадка, 1985). Prov, the son of a privileged Soviet family with a six-room apartment in downtown Moscow, is dating Zoia, whose mother works at a corner store and whose father is in prison for having a knife on him during a fight; when Prov’s father is scandalized, Prov says he might marry Zoia “for the sake of the health of [our] social estate,” для оздоровления сословия.

The dramatic method of making you feel a certain way about a character, then showing the same character from a new point of view that forces you to consciously revise your opinion of them also made me think of The Riddle and its sequel, though in The Nest of the Wood Grouse the technique felt less gimmicky.

At first I thought the critique of the Soviet elite must have been played up for the 1987 film—could you really say all that in the open under Brezhnev? But the text of the 1979 play seems to be the same as what I watched. It’s too simple to think of post-Stalin Soviet culture as alternating freezes and thaws with sharp borders and homogeneous contents, and my sense of what would or wouldn’t have been allowed under Khrushchev or Brezhnev or Gorbachev is often wrong. That said, I think of 1970s mainstream Soviet culture as being fairly open about the minor inconveniences of everyday life, but focusing on the drama of individual lives instead of social critique. An extreme example is Leonid Filatov’s light and silly The Cuckoo Clock (Часы с кукушкой, 1978), but the same is true of more famous things like Office Romance (Служебный роман, 1978), where Samokhvalov’s luxurious lifestyle is peripheral to the story, a product of his personal flaws as much as the country’s, and associated with his time in Switzerland. So the 1979 text of The Nest of the Wood Grouse, where the central characters are implicated in an unjust society that’s Soviet, not Western at second hand, stands out a bit.

Based on this play, Rozov reminded me of Pisemskii (and I promise not everything does, even though I’ve been immersing myself in Pisemskii this summer!). Part of the plot concerns maneuverings and betrayals to get a much-desired position in a government office, just like Pisemskii’s The Plunderers (Хищники, 1873). And like The Masons (Масоны, 1880), Rozov’s play combines some fairly harsh satire against people born into privilege with a harsher attack on successful social climbers. The closest thing to a villain in The Nest of the Wood Grouse is Prov’s brother-in-law Egor, who went from humble origins to a series of better and better posts, and who (until a reversal at the end) is poised to marry a series of young women whose fathers can help him advance higher and higher professionally. This improbable rise that depends on talent, ambition, marrying well-placed people, and possibly lying is exactly like pseudo-Tuluzov in The Masons, the calculating man who probably started out as a serf, uses the real Tuluzov’s documents to get free raznochinets status, becomes a nobleman through a position as a provincial teacher, and after marrying Catherine Krapchik/Chentsova gets promoted all the way to actual state councillor.

The Nest of the Wood Grouse was translated by Susan Layton and produced in New York in 1984, according to this review in New York magazine by John Simon. Simon’s review is readable and interesting and explains the wood grouse metaphor admirably, though calling the play “a love letter to the bourgeois world” is pretty far from my own understanding of it. The play was revived in 2018 at the Cheliabinsk Chamber Theater, and blogger Penelopa Urgumova liked it, finding it “so topical it’s disgusting […] if anything has changed, it’s whose portraits are on the wall.” Urgumova also says the play had trouble getting past the Brezhnev-era censor, so that wasn’t just me.

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