‘Empty Is My Native Land’: The Problem of the Absent Center in Aleksandr Zel'dovich’s Moscow

Keith Livers, University of Texas

Aleksandr Zel'dovich’s film Moskva (2000) reflects a cultural and historical situation in which the individual, irreversibly loosed from the comfortable moorings of a ?oherent past, appears permanently banished from his/her primordial homeland. As a result, the post-historical subject is left with a keen nostalgia for a past that precludes the very possibility of its recovery. As Jean Baudrillard writes of Eastern Europe in the 1990s, the landscape of post-utopia “is borne by nothing and bears nothing, but only opens onto a confused desert left vacant by the retreat of history and immediately invaded by its refuse” (Baudrillard, 1996, 75). Meanwhile, Zel'dovich’s Moskva is nothing if not a reflection on this “historical desert”, on the cosmic homelessness that has afflicted an entire country from which “eternity” itself has fled (Pelevin, 1998, 17). Moreover, to the extent that Moscow functioned throughout the Soviet period as the primary forge of historical reality, it follows that the “disappearance” of that reality should be most keenly felt in the former “city-hero.” As Zeldovich remarks, Moscow of the 1990s became “the capital of post-historic space…. Moscow is like a polygon—the funnel created by an explosion. After the explosion a draft blows through the funnel-hole. The result is an emptying out of consciousness” (Zel'dovich, 2000, 46). Suffused with Chekhovian melancholy and an equally Chekhovian feeling for the quixotic unattainability of its characters’ aspirations (the film is littered with references to Chekhov), Zel'dovich evokes the metaphysical void that occupies the heart of the post-Soviet, and now post-capitalist metropolis. Indeed, the figure of the void seems in many ways to constitute the organizing metaphor of Moskva, manifesting itself in the disastrously unfulfilled lives of its protagonists, the emptiness of physical space depicted throughout the film and, most importantly, in the movie’s consistent deconstruction of various cultural/ideological signs. In the last case, Zel'dovich accomplishes this through his nods to the cinema of the Stalinist 30s, as well as to that of the early Thaw period. As I will argue, such allusions are essential to Zel'dovich’s overall strategy, which portrays the Russian capital as a metaphysical and spiritual vortex, one that hollows out not only the lives of its inhabitants but the very mythology of the capital city itself. We see this, for instance, in the film’s portrayal of the Moscow metro (formerly one of the city’s most important monuments and a potent reminder its status within the utopian narrative of Stalinism), where the subway acquires the characteristics of spectral underworld. Likewise, in one of the key scenes of the film two characters engage in dispassionate sex, using a map with the city of Moscow cut of it as a kind of partition. Here the city’s status as a “sacral center” in the Soviet mapping of world history is ruthlessly undermined. By the same token, Moscow at the beginning of the 21st century appears not so much as a “city hero” but as a city-cum-anti-hero.


Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Happen. Bloomington. University of Indiana Press, 1996.

Pelevin, Viktor. Generation P. Moskva. Vagrius, 1999.

Zel'dovich, Aleksandr. “‘Zhizn' avangardnee kul'tury.’” Iskusstvo kino 11 (2000): 46.