Cinema June 2009

From Russia, With Self-Loathing

Meet Agniya Kuznetsova, the It Girl for a poorer, darker, angrier Russia.
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Image courtesy of CTB Film Company

Vladimir Putin’s tenure as Russian president was defined, among other things, by the parade of “It Girls” catapulted to local—and in a few cases, like that of Ksenia Sobchak, global—fame under his watch: young women whose unofficial job was to broadcast the exuberance, the strut, the sexual prowess of a reviving superpower. A few of these starlets actually did something (for example, Dasha Zhukova opened an art gallery); almost all were beneficiaries of powerful fathers and/or significant others. Like Paris Hilton, they were famous for being famous.

Now the oil boom is over, and the economic kreezis has tossed oligarchs off Forbes’s annual list of billionaires, halted skyscrapers mid-storey, and sparked Communist demonstrations in Vladivostok and Moscow. A new inwardness, a discontent, is seeping across the country.

A leading indicator of this psychic shift is the rise of the Anti–It Girl Agniya Kuznetsova, dubbed “the face of a generation” by the blockbuster movie producer Elena Yatsura and touted by GQ Russia as one of a handful of young actors to look out for. “There is no artist who is so young who has succeeded so fabulously in terms of projects and directors,” gushed Anton Dolin, a leading Moscow film critic.

Unlike her mostly blond predecessors, almost all of whom come from Moscow or St. Petersburg, Kuznetsova is from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, three time zones east of the capital, in the very heart of the Russian steppe. More important, perhaps, her success has not been imposed from on high, by some oligarch or government minister. It springs in large part from her role in Cargo 200, a film by Alexey Balabanov, one of Russia’s most radical directors.


Watch the trailer for Cargo 200

Set in a provincial Russian town in 1984, during the Afghan conflict, Cargo 200 (released in Russia in 2007 and in the United States earlier this year) depicts the abduction and rape of the young daughter of a local Communist Party chieftain. It is terrifying, grim, and absurd: most of the characters, including the young woman around whom the movie revolves, Angelica (played by Kuznetsova), seem too tired to grasp what is happening to them. Kuznetsova’s girlishness—the 23-year-old actress is five foot two and 101 pounds, and giggles frequently—coupled with an upbeat sound track, featuring the Soviet band Kino, compound this sense of upside-downness.

Ostensibly, Cargo 200 is a critique of the late-Soviet period. But it also casts light on Russia today—which may explain why Russian authorities tried to keep the film out of theaters. Over a glass of wine at the Ritz-Carlton’s 02 Lounge, on Tverskaya Ulitsa, Moscow’s main drag, Kuznetsova notes that it is no coincidence that the culprit behind Angelica’s kidnapping is the vodka-swilling, deal-making punk Valery (played by Kuznetsova’s boyfriend, Leonid Bichevin). Valery looks 17 or 18, meaning he’d be in his early 40s today—about the same age as Roman Abramovich, Mikhail Prokhorov, Mikhail Fridman, and other oligarchs who, for several years, have been running Russia in conjunction with the Kremlin. “That’s Balabanov’s take,” Kuznetsova says. “It is the boyfriend who will eventually be the man of money. He will be the New Russian.” Cargo 200—the title is Soviet-army code for dead soldiers being shipped home from the front—is meant to be not a period piece but a window onto the origins of the iniquities of the post-Soviet era.

And Kuznetsova, with her dark hair and plaintive eyes and sometimes obnoxious laugh, has become a new emblem—an emblem not of suffering, but of anger with the place that Russia has become, a parallel world cordoned off from Europe and the United States that lacks drinkable tap water and a genuinely independent judiciary, and is led by a criminal regime driven by the puniest of ambitions: theft.

Peter Savodnik is a writer living in New York.
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Peter Savodnik’s book, The Interloper, about Lee Harvey Oswald’s years in the Soviet Union, will be published next year.

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