In the films of Kirill Serebrennikov, space is represented as having a consciousness of its own, where the social and cultural norms of a given environment often render the characters helpless and passive, making them ultimately succumb to the dominant rhetoric. The importance of space is perhaps a result of Serebrennikov’s theatre background, which has translated into his choice of setting and story. In his films, action is limited to select and secluded locations, which only enhances the feelings of the protagonist being trapped within the given situation. The film, Yuri’s Day (2008) tells a story about the famous opera singer Lyubov, who arrives with her son to visit her birthplace town before her departure to Germany for her new job. What at first seems to be a sentimental trip down memory lane soon turns out to be a horror scenario, when her teenage son Andrew mysteriously disappears during their visit to the museum. The events of the film then concern the never-ending quest of Lyubov to find her missing son, in the nightmare-like atmosphere of a provincial Russian town. And while the trope of a small and unfriendly town is a common one in horror films, here one needs to understand the socio-cultural context behind the film. In Russia, provincial towns that are geographically disconnected from the urban centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg, are also fundamentally disconnected on the level of ideology. Abandoned into decay and poverty by corrupt governments, the people in these towns have, for the most part, accepted their conditions of life and are more concerned with survival than anything else. In Yuri’s Day, Serebrennikov captures the very essence of such existence. The town is almost represented as a live organism, which not only consumes the protagonist but transforms her into a passive figure who has given up on her previous life.
The film opens with Lyubov and her son arriving in the town named Yuryev-Polsky, a derelict symbol of historical heritage two-hundred kilometers away from Moscow. And while the protagonist deals with her teenage son’s attitude, the viewer is presented with a cold and unwelcoming environment. The scenery almost resembles a generic horror film opening, with snowstorms and fog obscuring the view of nature. The people from the town also appear as cold and unfriendly, giving Lyubov dirty looks and avoiding her when she attempts to ask a question about the name of the river. Lyubov stands out among people in the city with her fashionable clothes and chatty attitude, while the people around her are either afraid or resentful of her evident wealth and class. The son, on the contrary, seems to be enamored with the city, which perhaps foreshadows his disappearance later in the film.
Apart from their coldness, the female inhabitants of the town have another thing in common, their cheap chemically orange-dyed hair, which we later find out is the local fashion. While the stores and streets appear to be abandoned, the only place of attraction turns out to be the local bar, where the protagonist arrives in an attempt to find her son. At the bar, she gets mistaken by a local police officer for someone by the name of Lyusya, who as we find out, is a thief and cleaning lady at the local hospital. The atmosphere of the warm and noisy bar is drastically different from the bitter cold outside. Here, criminals and police officers seem to be enjoying a drink together, which creates a space for a certain community, even if it is rooted in alcohol and violence. One aspect that is essential to understand about this portrayal is that for a provincial town like this, a prison sentence, addiction, or violence are not reasons to be excluded from society; they are perceived more as personality traits, and therefore accepted as a norm. For example, later in the film Lyubov’s new friend, and roommate, Tatiana refuses to call the police when her drunk ex-husband comes to harass her, because in her words, “Whatever God gives, Lyuba (diminutive of Lyubov), was meant to be”. This ideology establishes structures like religion and government as superior to people, therefore, the population is rendered passive in their belief or inability to revolt or resist against them. And while Lyubov at first is resentful towards this attitude, the power of the town gradually destroys her metropolitan character.
After her son disappears, Lyubov makes several fruitless attempts to find him through the police and locals. She is essentially denied any help as people are more interested in finding out how much money she makes or celebrity gossip rather than looking for her son. Both animosity and fascination with Moscow are important aspects of provincial life, as on one hand there is bitterness about Muscovites’ elitism, and, on the other hand, their desire to be one of them. Lyubov soon becomes bound to this city, lodging at the house of the museum worker, Tatiana, and even picking up her shift as a form of gratitude. As Lyubov refuses to leave until she finds her son, the slow process of irreversible transformation begins. First, her phone stops working, and she loses any contact with the outside world. Secondly, the wheels get taken off her car, so she is quite literally stranded in the city. Thirdly, she loses her voice, and by proxy, her occupation as an opera singer. However, there is a particular breaking moment that sets off Lyubov’s transition into the new identity. When Lyubov walks around the city at night, she comes across a burning pile in one of the courtyards. Intrigued, she looks into the apartment window where the TV is projecting one of her performances. The camera moves slowly from the TV to the outside, layering fire over the image of Lyubov singing, signifying the erasure of her success and career.
The police officer from the bar mentioned earlier, also partakes in the descent of Lyubov into this new persona, as he is constantly suspicious of her, thinking that she only pretends to be an opera singer when in reality, she is Lyusya. At some point, he withholds her passport from her, almost treating her as a criminal in the situation. At the same time, he is the only one who helps her look for the son, even if their relationship is borderline abusive. Unfortunately, all the leads that have the same name and age appear to lead nowhere, whether it is a body washed up on the riverbank, a runaway novice at the monastery, or a sick man at the prison hospital. The film repeatedly recreates the cycle of hope and disappointment, making both Lyubov and the viewer believe that she finally has found her child. This continuous disappointment mentally exhausts the protagonist, as she ultimately gives up on the activity of searching and decides that she is going to stay in town to wait for her son to come back.
The theme of passivity and resignation is central to understanding the conditions of life in this town and the provincial towns like it in Russia. Being disconnected from the urban centers and abandoned by the government, people are left to their own devices. However, with no money, no work, and no way of getting out many people have accepted this way of life and just continue living without attempting to make any changes. Being from Moscow, I have always had more privilege, opportunities, and access to the opinions other than TV propaganda, and now living in Canada allows me to have a concrete and open political stance, something that would not be possible in Russia. However, my father comes from a small town like the one in the film, and he in his life had to put a lot of effort to get out of there, as now most of the people he knew are either dead or in prison. This example is not unique to Russia, of course, however in this national context, it is also tightly connected to the political and social status of the individual, who either has to fight their way out of the periphery or conform and become the helpless tool of the bigger structures. In his film, Serebrennikov demonstrates this state through the character of Lyubov, who in the beginning is ready to fight and look for her son. However, the longer she spends in the town, the more at peace she becomes with the fact that he is missing, and prefers to continue living with this trauma as her new life purpose. At the end of the film, she becomes exactly who the detective mistook her for – Luysya, the cleaning lady at the hospital, with bright orange hair like everyone around her, and a bitter attitude towards life. She even becomes a symbolic mother figure to one of the prisoners when he is attacked by the others. The final scene of the film shows Lyubov coming to the church choir to join them, as she starts singing again. And while some may read it as a positive ending, this is a final nail in the coffin of Lyubov’s passivity. Lyubov has essentially rebuilt her life on a different scale, accepting and fitting into the role of Lyusya and the local norms.
With the one-year mark approaching of the occupation and invasion in Ukraine I still do ask myself the question of why, for so many years, the majority of the population did not protest Putin’s regime. Why, even now, when they or their relatives are being sent to this criminal war, is there no objection from the masses? People who are being drafted now are predominantly the ones from provincial regions, where the level of poverty is skyrocketing and people are forced to live in inhumane conditions, while at the same time-consuming propaganda about Russia’s greatness from TV. And the answer to my question, as much as I do not want to admit it, is this very notion of passive acceptance which comes from blind faith in the structures of government and church. The film Yuri’s Day, symbolically borrowing the title from a holiday when peasants could change their master in Czar Russia, demonstrates how no one is immune from becoming the product of this habitat of passivity. And we can see how the years of silence and acceptance from the people of one country have emerged into violence and destruction for millions of people from another.