Documenting Russia was a three-part film series that highlighted Soviet and post-Soviet Russian experiences from a variety of perspectives. Held at IU Cinema and sponsored by the Russian and East European Institute with co-sponsors Russian Studies Workshop and the Center for Documentary Research and Practice, the series garnered widespread attention in the community, drawing crowds of students, faculty members, and Bloomington residents with interests in Russia. Love is Potatoes (2017) screened on Sunday, September 30; Red Army (2014) on Monday, October 22; and Oleg’s Choice (2016) on Monday, November 26 with commentary from film director and international correspondent Elena Volochine.
Through REEI and the Russian Studies Workshop, a steady stream of short-term and long-term visiting scholars (many of them from Russia) have come through campus this fall to deliver lectures on Russia, consult with students about research projects, and collaborate with faculty colleagues. This burgeoning activity around Russian Studies has built a lot of excitement about all things Russian among faculty, students, and community members at a time when Russian-US relations are more strained than they have been in years. The Documenting Russia film series focused on the “little histories” of everyday Soviet people as they brush up against powerful institutional forces. Each of these documentary films takes the perspective of very different individuals—eleven hockey players, six village sisters, and two volunteer soldiers—to explore deep questions of human frailty, resilience, and survival in the face of state violence, persecution, and propaganda. Their stories bring nuance to how viewers understand the role of “the state” in everyday citizens’ lives in contemporary Russia.
When director and filmmaker Aliona van der Horst (“Love is Potatoes”) inherited one-sixth of a small, wooden house in the Russian countryside where her mother grew up, she was launched on a journey to the past. Through what distinguished Professor Emerita of Slavic Languages and Literature Nina Perlina describes as “intermedia genre,” van der Horst engages in a “skillful and original way” with fear, famine, and war in Stalin’s Russia as experienced by her Russian mother and her mother’s five sisters. Accompanied by the magical animation of Italian artist Simone Mass, Love is Potatoes is ultimately the tale of ordinary people and Soviet terror, immense bravery and lasting fear. The film does not speak to a universal Soviet experience; rather, van der Horst “was interested in an open-ended composition and avoided any opportunity of a definitive Yes or No answer,” Perlina said. “Documentary precision was not her goal, and everything that we see is the combined and contrastive effect and product of memory and amnesia (fear of remembering and understanding the truth.)” Van der Horst declined to use film archive, instead employing Massi’s animation to visualize the terrifying memories of her mother and grandmother in jarring black and white crayons, bringing her family’s stories back to life.