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Cargo 200: Alexei Balabanov’s Message About the Soviet Union

Cargo 200: Alexei Balabanov’s Message About the Soviet Union

I recently watched the famous Russian director Alexei Balabanov’s 2007 movie Cargo 200 (or Gruz 200 in Russian). This blog entry is an attempt to explore and uncover the director’s message behind his artistic choice of making a visually, morally and emotionally poignant – if not shockingly grotesque – movie about the mid-80s in the Soviet Union, a seemingly odd and unusual choice of time period for a modern Russian director. Attention: spoiler alert.

I think that Alexei Balabanov deliberately chose to make a film about the final decade of the Soviet Union to send a message to all of those who view the USSR in a positive light and look back with fondness. The director’s intention comes through clear in Cargo 200 and his goal is to set the record straight – the Soviet Union was an awful place in the 1980s – and he does an excellent job at achieving this effect.

Alexei Balabanov is an acclaimed and prolific contemporary Russian director, well known for his “anti-everything non-Russian” movie depicting the Russian mafia Brat (1997) and its blockbuster sequence Brat-2 (2000), both starring talented late Sergei Bodrov Jr. as its main character, Danila. The movie War (2002) was another well received (in Russia) anti-Western film that also criticized the Second Chechen War and the impotence of the Russian state. Of Freaks and Men (1998), a retro sepia style movie set in the early 20th century St. Petersburg, is probably one of his most successful and critically acclaimed works.

Alexei Balabanov’s 11th movie, Cargo 200 (2007) was far less positively received, especially in Russia, but it nonetheless won a few awards and has a small following. It is mainly criticized for the gratuitous and repeated sexual abuse of a young girl showed in the movie, going beyond the sensibilities of a typical Russian viewer. On some level, it reminds one of the shockingly violent American films that caught the post-communist audience by surprise and evoked disgust with Western society considering there were no R-rated Soviet movies. It is also reminiscent of “chernukha,” a Soviet film genre of low budget and quality movies mainly produced in the ‘80s and the early ‘90s, hyperbolizing the ills of Soviet society. To some, this association was a turn off while others focused on the movie’s negative portrayal of the Soviet Union, dismissing the film altogether because of Balabanov’s bias. Simply put, Cargo 200’s shock value was too much to swallow for some while not adding anything substantive to the movie.

“Cargo 200” is Soviet military slang/code name for cargo delivering bodies of dead Soviet soldiers from Afghanistan. The choice of the title for the movie is significant because the director is underlining the importance of the war as the backdrop for the plot – Soviet citizens had no say in the deadly conflict conducted by the government. Instead, they had to accept Cargo 200s and cope with the tremendous human life losses and trauma. The plot of the movie is rather straightforward and easy to follow. In addition, Balabanov does not employ a complex use of the dialogue, but instead uses short but effective exchanges between the characters and heavily relies on symbols, imagery, and music. The movie is allegedly based on a true story and takes place over just a few days in late August 1984. At the time the aging Konstantin Chernenko is the General Secretary of the Communist party, the Soviets are deeply embroiled in the Afghan conflict, the stagnation and rotting of Soviet society could not have been more obvious or pervasive. The daughter of the district Communist party committee boss, Angelika, is kidnapped by the deranged Soviet police captain Zhurov who sexually assaults her and keeps her in captivity. The tragedy of the situation is simple – there are witnesses so if only one person was willing to act with integrity, Angelika would have been saved and the captain punished. But then again, even that scenario is dubious because the system is broken and corrupt. Zhurov is part of the establishment and perhaps others realized that theirs is a lost cause even if they did have the courage to speak up. In fact, it is better to keep quiet or chances are one could end up without a job, apartment or worse in a labor camp.

The movie Cargo 200 begins with two adult brothers, Mikhail and Artiom Kazakov, sitting on Mikhail’s balcony eating dry fish, drinking beer and chatting about mundane things. Just after watching the opening scene, the temporal context of the movie becomes clear to the Russian viewer or anyone who knows Soviet history. Artem, who is the Department Head of Scientific Atheism at the Leningrad University, mentions that things have changed after Yuri Andropov’s death, thus signaling to the audience that the movie takes place sometime during Chernenko’s premiership, the year is 1984. Other details revealed in a casual conversation point to grave problems Soviet society was grappling with in the mid-80s. Artiom mentions that his son is not interested in school even though he was able to pull some strings and get the kid accepted to a university and saved him from being conscripted into the Afghan war. Mikhail, a colonel in the Soviet army, comments about his daughter’s boyfriend Valery: he is not sure what the guy does, but he makes three times as much money as the colonel and has a way nicer car than Artiom. Mikhail tells his brother that even though Valery is not a student, he has not been conscripted because Mikhail has helped him to avoid the draft. Deeply disturbed Mikhail shares that his military base is about to receive “Cargo 200” with 26 coffins, adding that they are just one provincial town in the vast Soviet Union. As Artiom is ready to go on his way, Mikhail thanks his brother for helping his daughter with her acceptance to the university to which Artiom replies that Lisa is a smart girl and she would have passed the exams on her own anyway. Mikhail also thanks Artiom for the groceries saying, “for some reason it has become very hard with that too.”

Although short, the opening scene described above sends a powerful message about every day life in the Soviet Union. It is especially effective because it also rings true with those who lived through those times; the director did not make anything up. Everybody knows that good grades did not guarantee an entry to a university. Here, for example, Lisa, a bright young girl still needed her uncle’s connections to get accepted because the level of corruption was so pervasive that even the brightest and the most talented could not make it based on their own merit. Moreover, people who dealt on the black market were better off than those who worked hard all their lives as educated professionals, like the Kazakov brothers. Balabanov’s assault on everything Soviet is effective not only because he accurately portrays socio-political circumstances during the late Soviet period, but also because he bombards the modern viewer with the visual images of appalling living conditions and destitution that are no less accurate.

Alexei Balabanov’s mastery of showing, for lack of a better word in English, what the Russians call byt (everyday living) in 1984 is superb. Everybody lives in crowded run down apartments with paint chipping off the walls, gross public bathrooms, and electrical wires hanging loosely. The fictional city of Leninsk reminds the viewer of a post-apocalyptic monstrosity of an industrial town, but also of a typically Soviet place with potholes filled with rainwater, a Soviet-style telephone both and a post box. There are no good quality cars, TVs, furniture, appliances, or even clothes. The radio that is shown in the back of Valery’s car looks like something of 1960s America. Interestingly, Balabanov does not fixate on the general poverty, but rather focuses on the characters and the drama that takes place in the movie; however, it is impossible not to notice these details because they are so inalienably Soviet and familiar to anybody who remembers the 1980s. Aside from staying true to the Soviet byt, the director does take artistic freedom and gives the movie a raw and gritty feel. Captain Zhurov is not a pleasant looking individual, his mother is untidy and psychopathic like him. She drinks vodka and they live with a fly infestation in their disgusting apartment. The Kalaevo household is no less unpleasant to look at.

Cargo 200 goes beyond aesthetically unpleasant, it is also upsetting on a moral level. Artiom, a staunch atheist, is facing a dilemma of consciousness: he was in Kalaevo at the night of the murder, knows the Vietnamese worker who was shot and could testify to help the police, but he chooses not to because he is worried about his job at the university. Same goes for Valery, who leaves Angelika alone in the car while getting drunk with questionable people. She gets kidnapped and assaulted at night and in the morning he takes off without even looking for her. But the bigger question raised by Balabanov is the impunity with which the authorities conduct their everyday business. Captain Zhurov is a criminal in a position of power because he is in the police. He has no whims about killing people on the spot and then faking police reports citing resistance, he is fine with letting a prisoner on the loose and than filling out fraudulent escape paperwork. Zhurov is the one who killed the Vietnamese, kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and kept Angelika prisoner. He served a prison sentence before and continues to illegally speculate with alcohol. Thus, the question remains: how is that possible that criminals are not only allowed to walk freely but are also in the position of authority. Balabanov’s answer to this question comes through strongly in the movie – only in the Soviet Union.

The movie shocks the audience with over the top violence. Angelika gets kidnapped, gets raped, her dead fiancé’s body that was on the incoming “Cargo 200” plane is dumped in the bed where she is chained (there is also another dead body in the bed). Captain Zhurov retrieves old letters from her fiancé from Afghanistan after going to her parents’ house in his capacity as a policeman requesting them as evidence and assuring the parents that the police is doing their best to find their daughter. He reads them out loud to wailing Angelika, still chained and still with two other dead bodies lying in the bed. Finally Zhukov is shot by a woman from Kalaevo in front of Angelika, leaving her in shock from everything that has happened to her in just a few days.

The gory killings, decomposing bodies, and violence are contrasted by the beautiful music in the movie. Cargo 200’s soundtrack if full of some of the best known and loved Soviet music:

Юрий Лоза – Плот. YouTube Link
ВИА “Ариэль” – В краю магнолий. YouTube Link
Голубые молнии – Дембельская. YouTube Link
Земляне – Трава у дома. YouTube Link
Afric Simone – Hafanana. YouTube Link
Кино – Время есть, а денег нет. YouTube Link

This is done intentionally by Balabanov. Many who feel nostalgic for the Soviet Union love the songs from that epoch and associate warm and fuzzy feelings with their favorite music. The director puts this concept on its head and by negating it his message is unequivocal: beautiful music does not mean that the Soviet Union was a good place or something worth to be nostalgic after.

In Cargo 200, Alexei Balabanov attempts to refute all of those who look back at the 1980s in the Soviet Union with fondness – they have obviously forgotten what it was really like. His message comes across loud and clear: there was nothing positive about the USSR, but instead it was a dark place full of moral degradation, hopelessness, and poverty. In retrospect, the viewer knows that as the year 1985 was approaching things were about to change. In a way, despite the general “chernukha” feeling Cargo 200 does offer a glimmer of hope. It is a message of “we have been there, we lived through this paid with our lives and let’s not repeat this again.” But before we could get to that point in history we had to sit through a grotesque movie full of deranged psychopathic characters, people without moral integrity, and feel the pain and anguish of the victims.

Watch part of the movie in which the director is utilizing Soviet music (Plot by Yuri Loza)

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Christya Riedel

Christya Riedel graduated cum laude from UCLA with degrees in Political Science (Comparative Politics concentration) and International Development Studies and is currently a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin focusing on Central Asia and Russia. She has traveled, lived and worked in Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Central Asia. She speaks fluent Ukrainian and Russian as well as intermediate-high Turkish.