Exploring the Immigrant Mentality in Post-Soviet Cinema

Still from “A Room and a Half”.  kinopoisk.ru

By Zinaida Osipova

Concluding the Havighurst Center’s lecture series on “Russia Abroad,” Miami University welcomed Oleg Sulkin on November 12, a well-known film critic, who discussed immigrant mentality in Post-Soviet cinema. Sulkin focused on the works of Otar Iosseliani, Andrey Tarkovsky, Leonid Gaidai, Valery Fokin and Andrey Khrzhanovsky. He analyzed a common discourse present in movies about émigrés, arguing that they exhibit a theme of pain, equivalent to the one coming from a body part that is no longer there. In Room and a Half, based on an eponymous essay by Joseph Brodsky, Khrzhanovsky emphasized the poet’s Soviet life, demonstrating eternal longing for home of the exiled writer. Emigré cinema exhibits a theme of timelessness and nostalgia transmitted through recollections of the lively past and the loneliness of the present immigrant life.

Sulkin introduced the topic by explaining the hurdles that exiled directors face: in addition to the loss of native language and the need to reinvent themselves with which we are familiar from learning about Russia abroad writers, there is the harsh reality of business production. Sulkin noted that an author could “write for the drawer,” but a director cannot produce a movie without finding a budget for it. He explained that only a few of the many directors who have left have succeeded. In post-Soviet movies about émigrés, Sergey Dovlatov and Joseph Brodky are the two figures that have been most often filmed, and it is their Soviet life, not immigrant present, that interests the directors. Thus, we see that some film-makers found their “niches” by showing nostalgia through lives of prominent Russian exiles.

In the case with Joseph Brodsky, nostalgia is closely tied to the memories of his childhood and family. The essay Room and a Half was written shortly after his parents died, but long after he had been exiled, which shows a sustained internal connection to his past. Valeria Luiselli argues that a person has only two permanent residences – the childhood home and the grave – which is one of the reasons why a separation from homeland is especially painful: exiles lose the only place of lifelong belonging.[1] As Sulkin noted, the theme of departure and death is traditional to émigré culture, as emigration is a “little death.” In the movie, we see that after death, Brodsky returns to Saint Petersburg through the power of poetic imagination. The sense of satisfaction from his return is reversed when the audience realizes that it was only imaginary.

In the movie, the lines between facts, fiction, documentary and spatio-temporal distance are gradually blurred, demonstrating what exile can do to the sense of self.[2] In the film, Brodsky’s life in emigration only gains prominence in the connection to his motherland – either his circle of Soviet friends or his telephone call to his mother. In the poet’s own words, a writer in exile is “a retrospective and retroactive being,” with retrospection “overshadowing his reality.”[3] He says that he never had the hope, but he always had the desire to come back home, which grew stronger over the years.[4] The retrospective and the desire to return were combined in Khrzhanovsky’s film: during his way back, Brodsky’s recollections occupy his mind.

Sulkin exemplified the theme of the search for something unattainable with several other films. In Valery Fokin’s Funeral Party, the main character sees imaginary friends that he left in Russia. In Geogry Gavrilov’s Permanent Residence, three women from different émigré generations search for men of their dreams, trying to overcome their loneliness and find happiness where it cannot be found. Sulkin demonstrated that the existential motif of alienation is present in the cinema production about Russian emigration.

Sulkin concluded that globalization undermines exilic drama that has existed since the times of Alexander Herzen. However, post-Soviet directors embraced the theme of exile by turning to émigré figures of the recent past. Brodsky’s recollections of childhood juxtaposed with his distaste for minutiae of American life, such as a breakfast (“Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit”) bring out an underlying theme of nostalgia.[5] Room and a Half demonstrates that the legacy of exiles’ unquenched melancholy remains.


Brodsky, Joseph. “May 24, 1980.” In Collected Poems in English, edited by Ann Kjellberg. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Brodsky, Joseph. “The Condition We Call Exile or Acorns Aweigh.” In On Grief and Reason: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.

Glad, John. “Joseph Brodsky.” In Conversations in Exile: Russian Writers Abroad, edited by John Glad. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993.

Luiselli, Valeria. “Brodsky’s Room and a Half.” Granta 118 (2012).

MacFayden, David. “Review of Room and a Half.” KinoKultura, no. 25 (2009).

[1] Valeria Luiselli, “Brodsky’s Room and a Half,” Granta 118 (2012).

[2] David MacFayden, “Review of Room and a Half,” KinoKultura, no. 25 (2009).

[3] Joseph Brodsky, “The Condition We Call Exile or Acorns Aweigh,” In On Grief and Reason: Essays. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 27.

[4] John Glad, “Joseph Brodsky,” In Conversations in Exile: Russian Writers Abroad, edited by John Glad, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993), 108

[5] Joseph Brodsky, “May 24, 1980,” In Collected Poems in English, edited by Ann Kjellberg. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), 211.

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