Marketing Moscow: Vladimir Sorokin’s Ochered’ and Aleksandr Zel’dovich’s Moskva

Brinton Tench Coxe, Columbia University

Vladimir Sorokin’s 1985 novel Ochered’ renders an image of stagnation-era Moscow entirely via lines of dialogue that read like a screenplay. Perhaps that is part of the idea; Moscow in the culture of lack is an ideologically empty urban space that resembles an empty marketplace, and the people standing in the queue don’t even know what product is being offered—or if they will even get anything at all for their time. Ten years later, Sorokin writes the screenplay for Aleksandr Zel’dovich’s film Moskva, which displays exactly the opposite impulse: Moscow here is saturated with goods and conspicuous consumption. Indeed, the city itself is shown as a kind of ominous brand-name product in numerous ways within the film. How is one to reconcile these oppositions? What kinds of images of Moscow emerge in both verbal and visual forms? What do these forms say about the urban environment? How is one to read these images of merchant Moscow? In my paper, I will first briefly contextualize the long-standing urban myth of merchant Moscow and demonstrate how Sorokin’s and Zel’dovich’s texts reveal a close affinity to this myth. Next, through close critical readings of key scenes from both the novel and the film, I will suggest that Sorokin’s written work contains a graphic quality akin to many Moscow Conceptualist texts. Zel’dovich’s film, on the other hand, bears a close resemblance to richly produced television advertisements, which problematizes its value as a creative product in the genre of subversive ‘art’ film while questioning its very mode of production. These texts thus not only memorialize the epoch of their inception, but also document the dynamic, transformative urban space of Moscow: the empty visuality of Ochered’ defines stagnation-era Moscow, while the densely decorated frames of Moskva invoke the commercialized consumer culture of the 1990s urban population. Both Sorokin and Zel’dovich thus market an image of Moscow in art forms which demand that the reader or viewer must negotiate urban space directly. Finally, I will offer conclusions about how the film and the novel extend the ways to read the Moscow text, and, as such, perhaps advance our understanding of Moscow itself.