Death Wish and Vorošilovskij strelok: Ideological Contexts of the Revenge Fantasy

Avram Brown, University of California, Davis

Implying urban crime could be “eliminated […] if every upright […] middle-aged citizen got […] a gun” (Canby), Death Wish (1974) inaugurated the Hollywood revenge fantasy era. Twenty-five years later, Stanislav Govoruxin’s Vorošilovskij strelok became the “epicenter of [Russian] public attention.” A grandfather and veteran, “personify[ing] the rage of all present-day injured and insulted” (Stišova), procures a rifle and punishes his granddaughter’s “New Russian” rapists. Many cried “reactionary garbage!” (Volovik). But Strelok shows post-Soviet official pseudo-liberalism, unfortunately, all too amenable to the revenge fantasy genre.

Vigilante literature plays upon the same “public rage [at] problems without solutions” (Ruehlmann) – in Death Wish, the unsolved murder of architect Paul’s wife by addicts – that inspired frontier vigilantism. The frontier now an urban “gauntlet,” Death Wish makes explicit Paul’s ties to “cowboys” and “our.. lone hero... mythology” (Ray). This mythology was re-enabled by early 1970s “deteriorating confidence in institutions” (Lipset, Schneider). As “response” to “malaise,” Death Wish and imitators – and the Bernhard Goetz shootings – are vitiated by anarchist / proto-fascist implications.

MP Govoruxin’s stark political theorizing (Velikaja kriminal’naja revoljucija), and red-browns’ applauding Strelok’s assault on Russia’s “liberal” “occupationist regime” (Zavtra), lend the film conspiracy-theory overtones typifying post-Communist alienation (Tong). But the fact remains: post-Soviet Russia unfortunately pumps new life into the revenge fantasy’s seemingly moribund generic requirements:

1) The avenger acts in lieu of “ineffective communities” (Ray). Low-level police salute Paul; but the department in general is “on the take.” Not low-rank officers but the “system” fails Strelok’s rape victim Katja (one assailant has connections). A Hollywood cliché, yes – but Strelok appeared as the public regarded “practically all socio-political institutions... meant to ensure social stability – the courts, the public prosecutor... the police... as beyond redemption” (Gudkov; Satter).

2) Enraged by “revolving-door courts,” Paul “knows” violence is “the only language... criminals understand.” Govoruxin celebrates as the (soon-to-be-thwarted) low-rank officers beat confessions from the rape suspects. Via Hollywood convention, American “legal nihilism” here joins its historically deeper (Stišova) Russian counterpart, as well as “cynicism” fostered by state socialism and post-Soviet “liberalism,” which gives many the impression jurisprudence is “rules by which they are kicked” (Tong; Smirnov).

3) “Bewildered” by “drastic” social “changes,” the middle-aged Paul champions “his generation.” The grandfather Ivan’s veteran-pensioner status is perfect. The moralistic Soviet patriarch/hero, recently eclipsed by the amoral Brother (Beumers), is restored. Further, Ivan avenges market reformers’ ideological hostility toward the elderly as – along with public investment – hopelessly “Soviet.” This Vorošilovskij strelok harks to generational sacrifices of blood to defeat Nazism and construct industrial infrastructure, now privatized, most consider, fraudulently (Smirnov; Daniels; Reddaway, Glinski).

Ivan’s “God supports me” belief not only recalls traditional vigilantism but also demonstrates red-brown conflation of “Communism” with Orthodoxy (Gladil’ščikov; Parland). This righteous gunman underscores Russia’s civic “illness” (Naletov) and ideological confusion. “The more... the government, seeking some ideological justification for its actions, takes the word ‘democracy’ in vain,” the more “social paranoia” will seep into the “ideological vacuum” (Pastuxov 2001).