Miniseries Realism: Aleksandr Chervinskii’s Cinemanovel’ Shishkin les

Gerald McCausland, University of Pittsburgh

Russia has in the past several years seen a significant wave of new films and miniseries based on works of Russian literature, whether these works are the popular novels of Boris Akunin or the classical works of writers such as Fedor Dostoevskii, the television version of whose “Idiot” is perhaps the most famous example to date. Screenwriter Aleksandr Chervinskii, has recently been working on the script for a television version of Dostoevskii’s Brothers Karamazov. Chervinskii recently gained new notoriety as the author of a screenplay that will almost certainly never be filmed by virtue of the fact that it slyly parodies the history of one of the most untouchable clans of Soviet and post-Soviet culture. Thus the publication of this novel reverses the usual flow of the cultural food-chain: rather than a cinematization of literature, “Shishkin les” is a literaturization of a film text. While the publication of film scripts in book form is nothing new, the transformation of “Shishkin les” into a text that is being marketed as (the most Russian novel of the past ten years’ betrays much more about the past ten years than its author probably intended.

This paper attempts to analyze the novel with an eye to its genesis and structure in the context of the 21st century, during which Russia has transformed itself, as one journalist has quipped, (from the most reading nation on Earth to the most TV-watching.’ The style of the text betrays its allegiance to the visual: there is virtually no attention to language as such and no pretensions to verbal art. The prose serves its narrative function and nothing more. The substance of the work is in its content: the story of five generations of a single family, the Nikolkins, from the time of Alexander II to Putin. This narrative line in interwoven with two others: a murder mystery in the present and banal philosophical ruminations with pretensions to timelessness. The first-person narrator is the murder victim himself, who perishes on the first page of the novel and then continues to tell his family’s story in the next four hundred pages. The ontological problems presented by a dead first-person narrator are much less disturbing when in the form of an off-screen (zakadrovyi) voice then in a tightly-structured literary work. The substance and narrative form of “Shishkin les” reveal themselves to be intimately related to both the form of the television miniseries and to the themes of good and evil and the omnipresent return of The Patriarch as a figure in contemporary Russian mass-culture. It thus highlights the direct link between these two phenomena and the paper will end with a brief consideration of the interrelations between the structure and thematics of (miniseries realism’ and cultural politics in the age of Putin, particularly as manifest in the emergence of the venerable Stepa Nikolkin as a positive hero for a new Russia.