The story of a small provincial town
We started filming the documentary about Yelnya in 2014. We wanted to tell the story of a town that remains stuck deep in the Soviet past and has no desire to break out of it.
It’s as if time froze here sometime at the end of the 80s, and it’s reflected both in the outer appearance of the city and in the mentality of its people. For example, you might meet Pioneers on their way from school, just like in Soviet times, and there are constant rallies with red banners on the main square to celebrate Stalin, who defeated fascism with his own hands. Even in their daily conversations people nostalgically reminisce about the Soviet era.
The Smolensk region, in which Yelnya is located, is among the bleakest areas in Russia. It’s a traditional part of the so-called “Red Belt” – a region where leftist tendencies prevail, and the Communist Party has a strong influence to this day.
With the fall of the USSR, Soviet citizens lost their main life goal – the building of a brighter communist tomorrow – and with it disappeared all jobs, prospects for the future, and hope. Yelnya and its inhabitants were suddenly forgotten by all. The only thing left for them to do was to preserve the memory of their illustrious past and one event in particular, to which the town most likely owes its existence today.
In September 1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi troops, the Red Army was almost completely demoralised and was in constant retreat. In the space of one month, the Germans covered two-thirds of the distance to Moscow. Few still believed in the possibility of stopping them, much less defeating them. They were in dire need of a strong propagandistic jolt – any victory at any cost. And Yelnya became the site of that first victory. On Stalin’s own order, the at that time little-known General Zhukov liberated the city, which had fewer than 10,000 inhabitants, at the cost of the lives of 40,000 Soviet soldiers and volunteers. The victory had almost no strategical significance and was only important in terms of propaganda. Foreign correspondents were allowed to visit the front lines for the first time to view the first destroyed Nazi tanks and captured Nazi flags. State propaganda then jubilantly informed the entire country that the Soviet people had finally managed to halt their enemy. However, less than a month later, the German army resumed its campaign toward Moscow. For the following two years Yelnya and the entire Smolensk region then fell to German occupation.
Town of Glory
After its final liberation in 1943, the town was almost completely destroyed. The surrounding area was littered with the corpses of fallen soldiers. Famine followed. People survived on rotten potatoes from the fields of old collective farms and the decomposing flesh of dead military horses. It was the hardest and most terrible period in the history of the town. The following years weren’t easy either, but the state was able to at least secure people stable work and basic social securities. The generation that had lived through the war was able to overcome anything – difficult work, the injustice of the Soviet regime, limited freedom of movement, poverty. Over the long years, the central principle became simply: As long as there’s no war. Life returned to business as usual, and people once again had their goal – communism.
However, at the beginning of the 90s this modest, stable world collapsed. In order to survive, many able-bodied residents were forced to leave their homes and move to larger cities. Since this time, the town has been populated mainly by seniors and mothers with children. Their husbands and fathers earn a living far away from their families. Most of the houses in the town are old and slowly falling apart, as are the paths and streets, which look as if the war happened only yesterday. From its citizens we felt the pain of being forgotten, a desire for new, greater ambitions, and an animosity toward us, who came with our cameras from “lavish” Moscow. All of this together created a unique aesthetic on which we planned to construct our narrative.
Our guide to this strange microcosm of a town was to be Sergej, one of the local volunteers who searches for the remains of fallen soldiers in the ground around Yelnya. Every year on the anniversary of that first victory, the entire city ceremoniously inters the remains in a common grave. Through Sergej’s personal story we were to discover how the entire city lives.
We began filming in 2014, right around the time of the Ukrainian revolution and the annexation of Crimea. We only shot a few test scenes then, and then we put the project on hold until 2016. However, in the two intervening years a lot changed in Yelnya. The town that for 70 years had preserved the memory of the horrors of war and had lived effectively isolated from the civilized world suddenly willingly came to believe in the existence of a new fascism cultivated by the Americans in secret NATO labs.
We became witness to a cynical manipulation in which state powers took advantage of the genetically coded fear of a people who had lived through fascism once already and convinced them that we are standing on the brink of another war, and that only one single person can possibly protect their homeland from an attack by this new enemy.
However, the adult citizens of the town are occupied with a more pressing issue – how to get by on a miserable salary or pension – which is why they decided to send their children to war with the fascist NATO. They swapped their red flags for portraits of Putin and their Pioneer bandanas for military uniforms. That’s when it became clear that our film had to be about something completely different. Similar changes were happening not only in Yelnya, but all over Russia. Yet here, in a small, closed community, these processes occur much more noticeably and graphically.
Town of Glory
At one of the military concerts at the local community centre we caught a performance by 16-year-old Masha. Dressed in a military uniform, she was singing about the war with such sincere enthusiasm that we wanted to find out what motivated her. And so we found her mother, who gladly promised to work with us. When she arrived at our first meeting, with the words, “So this is my daughter,” she placed a large folder on the table with all of Masha’s awards and certificates for countless performances in patriotic competitions. That was the moment we realised the heroines of our film had to be Masha and her mother. Later, as we got to know them better, a horrifying picture of violence and manipulation began to emerge, and we saw the way that Masha’s mother completely suppressed her daughter’s free will and devastated her personality. Their home was ruled by a de facto military dictatorship. In their relationship we uncovered a deep artistic picture reflecting everything happening in the town and all over present-day Russia.
We filmed with breaks over a period of six months. The entire shoot was extremely arduous, as before every scene we had to consult with the mother. She insisted on personally preparing Masha every time and thoroughly rehearsing everything she would say and do in front of the camera. Catching a glimpse of their normal life was practically impossible. The situation reminded me a little of Vitaly Mansky’s film Under the Sun about North Korea. When we finally started to push them to let us look deeper into their everyday lives, the mother simply refused any further filming.
In the film we don’t mention anything that happened behind the scenes, and while filming we only had a single opportunity to speak with Masha freely without her mother’s supervision. It was a long conversation, in which we did most of the talking, and Masha listened. However, it allowed her to relax a little and make one single sincere confession – that the thing she fears above all else is the death of her mother.
Nevertheless, the material we had filmed was enough for us to gain financial support for the film. In 2017 we presented our project at the East European Forum in Prague, where we quite unexpectedly won the first prize, and the film garnered the interest of many producers and TV representatives. It was at that time that Czech director and producer Filip Remunda took an interest, and he eventually came to be co-producer of the film. The project also received support from Czech Television and the Czech Film Fund. Some time later we also caught the attention of the German TV channel ZDF/ARTE and producer Simone Baumann, who specialises in films about Russia.
From the very beginning we were aware that there was almost zero chance of the film ever being shown in Russia, which is why from the outset we aimed more for a Western audience. We contacted Canadian-Swedish editor Phil Jandaly, and in 2019 at the studio of Hypermarket Film in Prague we began working on the edit, which altogether took three months. Czech dramaturge Jan Gogola Jr. actively helped us with writing the screenplay, and Jan Čeněk took charge of sound editing.
The Czech premier at this year’s One World Festival was unfortunately cancelled due to the coronavirus, but the film was available to stream for a short time on the DAFilms portal in the One World Online section. Nevertheless, our producer is planning the film’s distribution in Czech cinemas, and it will also likely be shown on Czech Television this fall.
Translated by Brian D. Vondrak