“Èx, dorogi”: Conflicting Paths in Pavel Čuxraj’s Vor

Pavel Čuxraj chooses an historical theme for his film Vor (1997), but one with strong implications for present-day Russia. Čuxraj, born in 1946 (as is his fictional protagonist, Sanja, in the movie), has discussed Vor as a study of his own generation and of the generation now in power in Russia. This paper presents a close analysis of Čuxraj’s film (in its variant versions) in the context of post-Soviet Russian debates on the Soviet legacy and Russia’s future. I will concentrate on three issues: Čuxraj’s points about blood relationships versus surrogate parentage, the competing sets of images evoked by the movie’s two recurring songs, and the use of road and rudder imagery as symbolic of choices (both individual and national).

Stalin is a constant presence in the daily life presented in the movie, both in portraits, toasts, and other references, and in the figure of Toljan, the thief and surrogate father figure to Sanja. Much of the movie deals with the struggle inside Sanja between his vision of a father he never knew and this interloper in his family. Toljan claims that Stalin is his father, and emphasizes the blood relationship to Sanja with the use of “rodnoj.” Similarly, Toljan insists that Sanja treat him as a real father; throughout much of the movie Sanja resists, but as Toljan is driven away to the camps the boy runs after him crying “Papka rodnen′kij.” My paper explores Čuxraj’s symbolic use of this contrast.

Paralleling Mixalkov’s use of the tango “Utomlennoe solnce” in Utomlennye solncem, Čuxraj weaves two songs through Vor. These songs do more than simply evoke the period through its music. Both are closely linked to Toljan, but to two very different aspects of what he represents in the movie. The minor-key verses of “Èx, Dorogi” (words L. Osanin, music A. Novikov) let Toljan, in his guise of Red Army soldier, appropriate the hardships in the song for himself and join in comradeship with others. It is one of the key elements in creating the illusion of solidarity on which Toljan relies. The Russian version of “La Paloma,” on the other hand, is linked in the movie to the contrasts between surface and essence that Toljan embodies and the wish-fulfillment that he offers from the movie’s first scene. Its associations are escapism but also the degradation inherent in Toljan’s deception.

Čuxraj uses recurring imagery of roads, railways, and rudders to raise issues of Sanja’s future path and that of his country. Toljan (who pays only passing attention to Sanja’s mother Katja) seems genuinely interested in instructing the boy. Sanja, seen near the end with a bicycle handlebar (rul′), seems to be following the path of his Stalinesque mentor—and of Stalin the Helmsman himself. In considering Čuxraj’s commentary on his generation and on contemporary Russia’s plight, I analyze the implications of the scenes missing from the American release of the movie (most importantly the ending scene set in the post-Soviet Russia).