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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: St. Petersburg the Capital of New Type of Hero




It is a story that is nearly 300 years old, the story of our two capitals - Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is an ancient competition, a long-lived dialogue, a shifting counterbalance between two opposite poles, two different peaks. The famous "Travel From St. Petersburg to Moscow" by 18th-century writer Alexander Radishchev - in which he describes the fate of Russia's development - can now be traversed in a single night on the legendary train Krasnaya Strela, the Red Arrow. Still, over the years our two capitals haven't grown any closer.


What springs to mind when you hear the word "Leningrad"? You think of the battleship Avrora, the Smolny Institute, the assassination of Sergei Kirov, the brutal, 900-day siege of Leningrad, the hounding of poet Anna Akhmatova and writer Mikhail Zoshchenko, the infamous Kresty prison.


And then there are the renowned theaters: the Mariinka, the Bolshoi Drama Theater and its famous director, Georgy Tovstonogov. There's the brilliant conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, the fabled halls of the Hermitage Museum. We all know the names, but still they're always somehow in the shadows, always somehow eclipsed by the country's first capital.


Now a new day is dawning in St. Petersburg: The president is from that city, and vague rumors circulate about moving the State Duma, maybe even the whole capital, there.


There's also a new theme, which in recent years has been cultivated by the mass media: that of St. Petersburg as the criminal capital of the country. They call it "the second Chicago," a place of myriad contract killings that have acquired a political cast. A certain social and cultural myth is being created. It's not surprising that today's new TV crime series have sprung from St. Petersburg's soil.


For a long time, post-Soviet television tried agonizingly but with great determination to create the culture of the TV serial. The standard set during the Soviet period was the cult film "17 Moments in Spring," with those sympathetic Gestapo types and the suave Soviet spy Stirlitz, who, over 12 installments, virtuosically wove a web of bureaucratic intrigues in the enemy's camp.


Despite a certain artificiality of situation, the level of psychological verisimilitude in this series was striking (thanks, of course, to the first-rate actors, stars of Soviet cinema). In the last decade, we have learned how to effectively film shoot-outs and swearing on screen. But creating heroes who are truly interesting to the viewer has been much harder.


Our new national serial was formed not only in competition with Hollywood, but also against the backdrop of Latin American soap operas, which won over viewers through their naive sentimentality. We had to craft our own version of these.


First there was the serial "Peterburgskie Tainy" ("Petersburg Secrets"), about the malefactors of the 19th century, then "Ulitsa Razbitykh Fonarei" ("Streets of Broken Lamps," also known as "Menty" or "Cops") "National Security Agent" and, finally, "Banditsky Peterburg," or "Criminal Petersburg." The breakthrough happened in "Cops;" the actors successfully created their own somewhat simple, nonheroic personas, but they soon quickly lapsed into standard roles. Nevertheless, "Cops" showed that the TV serial could be both commercially successful and prestigious. After low-budget and almost amateur efforts (in terms of their technical mastery), the makers of "Cops" received big money for their project.


"Criminal Petersburg" took the serial to a higher level. It showed that you could make a film and sympathize with the heroes, even though there were no heroic police officers or noble criminals among them. The forces of law and order here are ineffective and corrupt. But even the most noble thugs still do their dirty work. The lack of ideal heroes created an opportunity for returning psychological drama to the screen.


"Criminal Petersburg" consciously emphasizes its link with other television series, primarily with "Petersburg Secrets." But a more powerful artistic analogy can be drawn with "17 Moments in Spring."


The similarity between these two shows includes the famous "voiceover," the subject matter, and the frank exchanges between characters. However, if in "17 Moments of Spring" we were spared in large part the bloody details - we didn't know just what intrigues Stirlitz was fomenting against the Reich (though, if you think about it, he was involved in some dirty dealing) - in "Criminal Petersburg," the affairs of the attorney Chelishchev, who temporarily becomes a thug and earns his criminal badge, is, frankly, unsympathetic.


In "Criminal Petersburg," there is also a noticeable absence of mimicking American film canons, which dictate that the heroes - the good guys - aren't supposed to die. Here, though, almost everyone who elicited some kind of sympathy does in fact die. But, then, what kind of hero does the actor Dmitry Pevtsov, who plays Chelishchev, embody? It's hard to call him a good guy. True, he avenges his parents, but along the way he becomes a criminal, and his "moral profile" is not without reproach.


After killing off Chelishchev and Chelishchev's friend Oleg, who is also a criminal - although he had wanted to turn over a new leaf - the creators of the film thus somehow reestablished justice. The hero is punished.


The new Petersburg serial stands in stark contrast not only to classical Soviet cinema, but also to the Hollywood standard. Strange as it may seem, the filmmakers rejected that part of the Soviet canon that had borrowed from Hollywood: The good guys didn't win in the end.


The serial also decided a very important cultural task: It needed to create a generation of new stars, and it needed to do it fast. Here the choice of Dmitry Pevtsov was apt; this actor will long excite the imagination of our young lady viewers.


Many people now think that Petersburg theater life is much more interesting and rich than it is in Moscow. Perhaps cinematography, like the stage, will develop into a more dynamic form in the city founded centuries ago by Peter the Great along the banks of the Neva.


It seems that St. Petersburg has started to take advantage of its reputation as the criminal capital. And the criminal myth is becoming a reality of the culture.


Irina Glushchenko is a theater critic and freelance journalist. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.