Kira Muratova and the Communist Love Triangle

An examination of the political and personal relationships that inhabit the early films of Kira Muratova.
Steffanie Ling

Kira Muratova's Long Farewells (1971) is showing November 5 - December 4, 2020 on MUBI in the United States and Canada.

Above: Long Farewells

The opening scene of Kira Muratova’s first film Brief Encounters (1967) shows Valentina, a local council member in Odessa, writing a speech about agriculture. She reads aloud from her draft, “Comrades,” she begins, “dear Comrades…” 

Valentina is a model Soviet woman. She rises from the table, enters another room and gets her comrade Stepanovich on the phone. She explains to him that she cannot lead the conference, “Why should I? It’s not my area of expertise.” Stepanovich replies, “Sergey is on vacation, Marchenko is sick.” Valentina is already busy dealing with the town’s economy and will soon be leading another conference on the regional water supply. She fires back, “Why don't you lead the conference yourself?” Stepanovich reminds her that he will only report to her once she takes up his post in two years time. In the first five minutes of the film, we learn that she is in line for a promotion and has a phone line installed in her house. She putters around, repeating the salutation, "dear Comrades," trying to find the words to inspire the people. 

Played by Muratova herself, Valentina, or Valya, is married to Maksim, a geologist played by Vladimir Vysotskiy, a beloved Russian bard and anti-establishment figure (who conveys a considerable amount of his musical talents throughout the film). While away from home scouting the countryside for mines, a young server, Nadja, becomes infatuated with him. After he leaves to continue his work elsewhere, she travels to Odessa and is serendipitously sent to work in Valya’s home by a housekeeping agency. During this time, Valya is living alone following a disagreement with Maksim and remains unsure whether or when he will return. 

Muratova’s black and white film proceeds non-chronologically and is punctuated with sixteen flashbacks depicting episodes from Maksim’s relationships with Valya and Nadja. The present tense of the film follows Valya and Nadja’s day-to-day, working, socializing, and each managing their longing for the geologist. As Valya walks up to a building for inspection, a group of men outside chatter about how much they miss the navy because there were never any women in charge, “She is not a woman, she is a responsible representative!” 

Above: Brief Encounters

Valya’s priority is addressing the chronically malfunctioning water systems in Odessa, and she refuses to classify the building as habitable unless water can be reliably pumped to the upper floors. A crowd of people plead with her to give them access to live in what she sees as a compromised housing solution, but she is unmoved. On multiple occasions, Valya refuses or defers requests for improvements or access to state controlled housing, meanwhile the bulk of the political work we observe is manifest in the form of speech writing and paper pushing. What those lumpen navy jokers try to splice is a woman and her authority, but this inefficacy of the managerial class is gender-blind.

Muratova corrupts the high functioning image of the bureaucrat-protagonist by shining light on her human relationships. What is the point of compromising the progressive figure of an empowered Soviet woman by showing her emotional underbelly? When such an image becomes untethered from political use-value, Muratova invites a counterimage to that of the Soviet social realist canon; networks of emotion and attachment are avenues to interrogate the ideology that love competes with. 

One of the flashbacks recollects a fight the married couple have and Maksim fires off, Only you live properly while the others don’t.” It’s an unfortunate thing to say—you are an apparatchik that lives in a big house. Between loves on the Left, calling into question comradeship and accusations of material superfluousness can be devastating and manipulative claims. However, it is hard not to notice how truly huge Valya’s house is in contrast to the apartments that she inspects. When she calls up Stepanovich, the depth of the frame captures three separate rooms in her house: an auxiliary entrance room, then a vestibule where she speaks to Stepanovich on her phone, and her bedroom, where the shot is established. This shot makes apparent that she lives alone in a house large enough to necessitate a housekeeper, while routinely withholding access to social housing from large family units. Valya’s stately living conditions relative to the people around her are a subdued embodiment of the Soviet Union’s broken promises of an egalitarian state. 

Brief Encounters was initially censored for twenty years until Mikhail Gorbachev’s introduction of glasnost in 1987, a policy which loosened restrictions on press and culture. In Elena Gorfinkel’s essay, Kira Muratova’s Searing World, the programmer and scholar cites the mutual disdain between Muratova who “despised state institutions and the hypocrisies of the Soviet intelligentsia class” and the Party censors that “considered her films ‘mannered’, ‘bourgeois’, ‘lacking in realism and motivation’ and having a ‘deliberately complicated style.”1 The fractured temporality of the film also messes with the rhythm of the cultivated collective consciousness. Film historian Lilya Kaganovsky writes that, “Time no longer flows in one direction (always toward a clear Utopian future) but is halted, frozen, rewound, fragmented, and erased.”2 While the cinematic language was regarded as opaque, what the film starkly depicts is a material disparity between the citizens of a provincial town and the Soviet bureaucratic class that governs it—a class that would ostensibly include members of a censorship board. 

I watched the film on separate occasions with different sets of subtitles and noticed a difference in the translation of Valya and Maksim’s exchange, “Only you live in the right, others do not.” So, the fight is not about the scale of her house at odds with the collective lived experience, but rather, what he perceives as her measurement of comradely duty and work ethic against his own. She says, “Imagine, I run around because I like it, not out of a sense of duty.”  The romantic tension in the initial translation seem bound up in a material ethics, the latter, an ideological one, but both translations put strain on the legibility of Valentina’s social autonomy against Maksim’s insecurity about living like a proper comrade. It can’t be resolved, so she tenderly diffuses the argument—“Why do we always quarrel. Let’s stop fighting.” His reply attached to the first translation is, “It’s because you’re also a boss.” In the second, “You are like in my head.” They kiss, and I wonder about dialectical materialism. 

The romantic drama and the structure of the love triangle in Brief Encounters permeates Muratova’s filmography. It appears in Getting to Know The Big Wide World (1980), after she is transferred to Lenfilm from Odessa Studios following the censorship of Brief Encounters, and in Long Farewells (1971). The love triangle is also encrypted in her last feature Eternal Homecoming (2012). For the majority of the film, we watch different actors conduct the same dialogue between a woman and a married man who solicits her for advice about his love affair. 

Above: Getting to Know The Big Wide World

If Muratova’s films are set against typical Soviet backdrops—the small provincial town, construction site, speech halls—I question whether romance between comrades can be anything but a love triangle with the state, the collective? How might intimate relationship struggles become entangled in advances towards a political horizon? Do comrades and romantic partners share the same kind of relationship goals? 

In Jodie Dean’s essay Comrade, she theorizes the comrade as a figure of a relation that locates us as fundamentally on the same side. Although Dean distinguishes the comrade from any other type of relation (friendship, kinship, citizenship, neighbor), she describes a kind of political belonging that parallels typically romantic aspirations. Dean writes that the comrade relation has “a degree of joy, discipline, expectation that gives us something that you can’t get by yourself.”3 So, the comrade relation fundamentally implies two. The term “predates its use by communists and socialists. In romance languages, comrade first appears in the sixteenth century to designate one who shares a room with another.”4 An extrapolation of the etymological aspect appoints comradeship to the two women, Valya and Nadja, more than any other relation depicted in the film. Nadja accompanies Valya during building inspections, listens to her recite speech drafts, and tidies the rooms she moves through. But, as Dean emphasizes, the comrade is not an identity we simply inhabit, but a human practice that orients us towards the communist horizon. Telling someone you love them, claiming solidarity, addressing someone as a comrade—it’s aspirational until, or unless, it isn’t. The comrade is a figure that maintains a distinct relation, and it is the relation, not the individual comrade themself, that we interrogate. The women must share more than a room, but a political horizon and struggle, but the only horizon they seem to share is Maksim, the love of a bohemian geologist. 

Muratova’s second film, Long Farewells is often referred to as companion piece to Brief Encounters. Yevgenia, an accomplished translator, and her teenage son Sasha, quite literally share a one-room apartment in Odessa. However, after Sasha spends the summer with his father, an archeologist who works in Novosibirsk, he begins plotting to move away from home, which sends his mother into an emotional spiral of helicopter parenting. While Yevgenia is popular among her colleagues, naturally good at sports, and expresses that she has many admirers, after she begins to suspect her son may leave her — she is driven to spying on her son and stealing or hiding his belongings and money. In relationship terms, this is plainly toxic behavior. 

Long Farewells shares similar cinematic qualities with Brief Encounters but instead of the recounting structure of flashbacks, it handles recurrence with a repetitive construction. Dialogue is repeated, as if reperformed without cutting, which gives the impression that the film has skipped or is repeating—or that history has stalled. Characters in the film are also prone to reiterating what they are saying, as if desperate to be heard. When confronted with bad telecommunications and a narrow emotional vocabulary, they resort to uttering the same thing over again, but at greater subsequent volumes. 

The film’s lack of cinematic convention with Social Realism naturally kept it firmly on the shelf until after perestroika and was released in 1986, but the censors also cited Sasha’s desire to live with his father in a University town as a disparaging to his mother, an office worker in provincial Odessa5 —the Russian nation state is broadly personified as the Motherland—although both of his parents share a similar urbane status among the Soviet intelligentsia. Perhaps more offensive than that is the character of Yevgenia, the mother figure, who is presented as overbearing, possessive, controlling and not unlike how Russia behaved towards its satellite states during the Cold War. The notion of straying, not from the lover, but from the Mother, for the father, problematizes that vertex of the love triangle. Nationhood and family inscribe us with a preconditioned set of relations—instructions, if you will—that of the citizen, and son, rather than that of the comrade, which commands something more romantic than merely inhabiting and committing to the given apparatuses of social reproduction—but to compromise and invent, as people in love, easily do. 

Many of Muratova’s female characters put a premium on marriage that might offend contemporary Left sentiments (family abolition or the economic and institutional function of marriage), however, it perpetually fails, with romantic protagonists expressing chronic loneliness in their coupling. The love triangle in Getting To Know The Big Wide World is between laborers on a factory construction site, Lyuba and Kolya and the stoic Misha. Misha gives a ride to the couple, who have volunteered to organize and speak at a Komsomol wedding, a Communist youth field day.6 Lyuba stands on the hood of Misha’s truck and delivers a treatise on love before a crowd of young men and women dressed as brides and grooms for this performative mass marriage ritual. She declares:

Houses can be big, houses can be small, but it doesn’t really matter. The most important thing is a happiness that is genuine. They don’t make it at factories, even the best ones.

Lyuba’s romantic speech to the communist youth contrasts with Valya’s staunch materialism so starkly.  But her speech suggests that housing is presumed or deprioritized, and happiness is what universally eludes us. 

Her remarks remain aspirational rather than convicted. Following her address, she turns to Kolya and asks gleefully if he loves her, to which he replies that love is a temporary passion. Her mood dampens, she disembarks from her makeshift podium and exits between parked vehicles muttering, “I know this but I don’t want to,” while young couples commune and kiss all around her. Lyuba misses her brother who is away at sea, who Misha apparently resembles. She describes her brother as someone who is in love, and she repeats Kolya’s words to Misha, “I tell him, love is a temporary passion.” Misha replies, “Life is also temporary.”

Muratova animates the construction site with gossip between workers, moments of frenetic playfulness, interludes of theatrical monologues and costume play, and quiet acts of tenderness in the half-built environment that feels inhabited more than laboured upon. This convivial environment is punctuated with spats between the couple. Lyuba is perpetually fleeing and returning to Kolya, a possessive and chronic showman who addresses her with possessiveness, Misha with territorial aggression, and all other characters with playful charms. The prospect of divesting from this toxic relationship seems to be an interminable internal conflict for Lyuba until Misha invites her to get in a queue with him, the longest queue there is—the one to the registry office, “We need to line up. Do you know how long people stand there? The main thing is to queue up.” The society Muratova projects in this film, is one in which the longest line is not the grocery store, the furniture store, but to get married. 

Susie Bright once said, that “Workers of the World Unite!” is an erotic sentiment and Jodie Dean’s condition of a fundamental alignment “on the same side” advocates for the mutual identification of a common enemy that fosters a kind of intimacy that is occasioned by the choosing of a side.7 If there is a possible, or general conflation of romantic love and comradeship it must reside in the principle of aligning yourself with happiness over immiseration, and the agreement to accompany and be accompanied in the deep struggle that both arenas of relation entails. Misha’s proposal to “get in line” is delivered without glamour but with the intent to co-advance—together we will get in the longest line and wait there, maybe for a long time, for the possibility of a future better than this one—requisite to the most romantic of all political relations, the comrade. The main thing is to queue up.

 1. Elena Gorfinkel, “Kira Muratova’s Searing World”, Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival (September 2019).

 2. Lilya Kaganovsky, “Ways of Seeing: On Kira Muratova’s “Brief Encounters” and Larisa Shepit’ko’s “Wings””, The Russian Review 71 no. 3 (July 2012): 487. Quoted by Chloe Papadopoulos “Film Review: Brief Encounters”

3. Dean. Ibid.

4.  Ibid.

5.  Valeria Mutc, “Film Review: The Long Farewell” Yale University. (November 15, 2018)

6. “In the fight against drinking in the mid-1980s, for example, “alcohol-free” Komsomol weddings were heavily promoted. They also performed free labor and volunteer work – like helping poor or weak collective farmers with the autumn harvest. Surprisingly, such activities were fun for most of the young Komsomol members, as they didn’t have to go to school or university while performing these tasks.”

7.  Behind the News: Jodie Dean on Political Belonging. Jacobin Radio. Podcast

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