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The Bizarre Soviet Movie That Predicted Putinism

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It could have been any sleepy industrial town anywhere across the old Soviet Union. A weary out-of-town businessman enters the office of the local factory manager and gets his first hint that things aren’t quite right when he sees the manager’s secretary typing away, completely naked. When the dumbstruck visitor alerts the manager that his secretary is completely nude, the manager looks and dismissively shrugs — “well, so she is” — before continuing with business as usual.

Thus begins the main character’s descent into an increasingly bizarre realm where he, along with the audience, struggles to determine what is real and what is not.

The surrealist 1989 film “City Zero (Gorod Zero in Russian) is a hidden gem of late-Soviet cinema. It is among that rare breed of eerily prophetic films that were written as dark satire in their own time but which now shine a bright light on our contemporary political reality. Like Sidney Lumet’s 1976 fictional Network, which presaged the rise ofsensationalist “infotainment” news media and its impacts on American politics, City Zero seems strikingly prescient of contemporary Russian political dynamics — including the distinctive societal worldview Russian President Vladimir Putin has invoked for waging war on Ukraine in 2022.

City Zero, sometimes translated as “Zerograd,” was written and filmed at the height of glasnost’-era artistic freedom. Soviet-style communism was crumbling across Eastern Europe and Putin was a young, anonymous KGB agent stationed in Dresden, East Germany. As the confused and weary protagonist of City Zero confronts each plot twist and turn, the film lays bare a crumbling sociopolitical system based more in fantasy than reality, one that’s struggling to maintain its identity, its purpose, and its hold over its captive population through blunt propaganda and distortions of reality, both naked and subtle.

What was true of the Soviet Union in its death throes in the late 1980s seems even more applicable to Putin’s Russia today, where policies are justified with paeans to an official nationalism known as Russkii mir, or “Russian world.” This Kremlin-sanctioned worldview suggests Russia is no ordinary nation-state but a unique, conservative “civilization,” historically distinct and even genetically superior to its European neighbors. Since returning to the presidency in 2012, Putin has increasingly invoked this civilizational discourse to champion the interests of ethnic Russians, Russian speakers, and civilizational compatriots beyond Russia’s geopolitical borders. Russia’s 2008 war in Georgia, 2014 annexation of Crimea and proxy war in Donbas, and the all-out invasion of Ukraine in 2022 have all been justified in terms of Russia’s supposedly unique civilizational mission. Consequently — rather than just a fig leaf for the Kremlin’s neocolonial ambitions — Russkii mir is a concept worth comprehending in its own right.

Conceptually, Russkii mir rests on three pillars: 1) a resentment-filled Russian national chauvinism at odds with Europe and the West, 2) an illiberal statism, in which the individual and society serve the interests of the state (rather than the state serving the people), and 3) official control over information and historical narratives, which bolsters this state-serving national identity. This kind of information autocracy was well described in Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, in which Kremlin-run state media twists both current events and historical narratives to serve the interests of the ruling regime. Westerners got but a glimpse of this with Putin’s effective declaration of war against Ukraine in February in an angry, hour-long alt-history lecture in which he asserted that Ukrainian statehood never existed.

There may be no better introduction to what this kind of dark, surrealist statism feels like than City Zero, which is steeped in the same, persistent unease familiar to Western visitors to Putin’s Russia: that beyond the veneer of a normally functioning society, everything seems just a little bit “off.”

At the risk of spoiling a 33-year-old foreign film: there is ultimately no way out of City Zero. The mild-mannered everyman protagonist, whose name is Alexei Varakin, has become trapped in Russkii mir without knowing it.

Unnerved from his encounter with the naked secretary and planning for a speedy return to Moscow, Varakin stops by a local restaurant for a quick lunch to find the chef has somehow prepared........

© Politico

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