Russian Cinematic Černuxa and the Aesthetics of Post-Socialist Realism

The Russian slang term černuxa (from the root čern- ‘black’ plus the pejorative suffix -uxa) is a descriptive term for images of extreme violence, cruelty, bodily ugliness, domestic squalor, familial discord, and emotional desperation, often accompanied by rampant substance abuse. Although present (with a different connotation) in Soviet prison slang for decades, the term came into common usage only during perestrojka. Initially applied to literature, since 1988 it has been used primarily in reference to film. Three crucial elements of “hardcore” cinematic černuxa are: (1) indiscriminate and ostentatious rejection of ideals; (2) no possibility for redemption, which signifies an essential philosophical fatalism; and (3) subordination of the verbal signifier (dialogue, voice-over, song lyrics) to the visual (or non-verbal auditory) image. Physicality is of central importance. Peter Brooks’s description of melodrama as an artistic “mode” is a useful category for film černuxa, as well. Brooks analyzes melodrama as a form of artistic excess that arose transgenerically in response to a perceived “social and ethical upheaval.” If melodrama is defined by a compensatory excess of emotional expressionism, by “ever more concentrated and totally expressive gestures and statements,” then černuxa is a form of naturalistic melodrama in which exaggerated emotionality is supplanted by concentrated physicality.

Many commentators (A. Plaxov, T. Xlopjankina, I. Luxšin, et al.) observed that the černuxa “aesthetic” had become by 1989 the dominant one in Soviet film. Although by 1992 many were announcing the end of the trend’s dominance and the rise of the genre film (in response to the demands of the nascent market), černuxa remains a topic of discussion in Russian film circles. At the 1997 Moscow Film Festival, for example, the journal Iskusstvo kino organized a roundtable discussion of černuxa, with contributions by prominent writers, directors, artists, and film specialists (published in IK 3–4 [1998]).

My paper examines the significance of černuxa in Russian films and film discourse from the early days of perestrojka (1986) to the present. My main questions: How has the polemic over the trend been reflected artistically, i.e., within films themselves? What is cinematic anti-černuxa? How has the debate over černuxa’s origins and effects changed as the Russian film industry and Russian culture in general have evolved? What are its implications for film as a medium for the expression of cultural values? What is its place in the still largely amorphous generic taxonomy of post-Soviet cinema? The divisive issue of černuxa in film is symptomatic of a larger, culture-wide crisis of representation. In a society in which the tradition of “realism” is so deep, how do cultural producers fulfill the task of depicting Russian “reality,” with its myriad problems, without resorting to černuxa? My analysis draws on the strategies and premises of Cultural Studies, especially that appoach’s equal attention to intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of cultural texts and its sensitivity to the politics and economics of cultural production.

After a brief look at černuxa’s cinematic and non-cinematic textual provenance, I shall discuss several perestrojka and post-Soviet films in varying degrees of detail. Films employing černuxa imagery (some of which were singled out and attacked for doing so) include: Ol′ga Naruckaja’s Tamara Aleksandrovna’s Husband and Daughter (1989), Kira Muratova’s Asthenic Syndrome (1990), Vasilij Pičul’s Little Vera (1988), Stanislav Govoruxin’s This is No Way to Live (1990), Vjačeslav Krištofovič’s Adam’s Rib (1991), Aleksej Balabanov’s Brother (1997), and Petr Lucik’s Outskirts (1998). As examples of cinematic representations of Russian society that implicitly address the problem of černuxa, I shall select from the following films (some of which I would categorize as “anti-černuxa”): Krištofovič’s Lonely Woman Seeks Life Companion (1987), Jurij Mamin’s Window to Paris (1993), Sergej Ovčarov’s The Drumiad (1993), Balabanov’s Of Freaks and Men (1998), Vladimir Xotinenko’s Strastnoj Boulevard (1999), and Nikita Mixalkov’s Burnt by the Sun (1994) and The Barber of Siberia (1999). I will show brief clips of three or four films.