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Traces of memory Russian filmmaker Vladlena Savenkova on her new documentary about the victims of Stalin’s terror
In late March, the television channels Dozhd and OstWest premiered the film “Survivors” (“Vyzhivshie” in Russian), a feature-length documentary about a group of young Russians exploring the stories of their family members who fell victim to Stalin’s repressions. The documentary, which is now available on YouTube, was directed by Vladlena Savenkova — who previously shot true crime documentaries for the Russian media company Amurskie Volny and is now attending film school in Berlin. In conversation with Meduza, Savenkova spoke about filming “Survivors” and tried to explain why many people in Russia would rather not talk about Stalin’s terror.
Two years ago, Vladlena Savenkova left Russia to attend film school in Berlin. “I thought, I’m quitting journalism and quitting making documentary films, I’m going to make movies,” she tells Meduza. “Then the pandemic happened and film production paused, and I was offered a job making a documentary about Stalin’s repressions.”
Savenkova says she “decided immediately” that she didn’t want to make a documentary featuring “yellowed pages” and scholars explaining historical events. And she also didn’t want to “torture” the few former gulag prisoners who are still alive with questions they’ve answered countless times before. “We realized that it should be a story told by young people who have a personal story connected with these repressions, the story of their families,” Savenkova explains.
For Savenkova, recent events in Russia have only reinforced the importance of the documentary. “Today I opened my Facebook and I saw three news stories in a row. The first: ‘The human rights organization Gulagu.net has suspended its work in Russia. Its employees were taken to Europe.’ Next, [was] the news that the historical-educational society Memorial is closing its branch in Penza. And the third article: ‘She was five years old when her parents were repressed’,” Savenkova recalls. “Our film had to be shot.”
The filmmaker describes “Survivors” as a film made up of “three full-fledged family sagas.” But although the extensive cast of characters may seem overwhelming, ultimately they all suffered the same fate. “One day they were exiled from their home and banned from returning. For nothing — without a reason, without committing a crime, without being guilty [of anything],” Savenkova tells Meduza. “For me it was important to tell the stories of ordinary people who have been forced to keep silent about this all their lives. And so our characters, the great-grandchildren of the repressed, became the first generation in the history of their families that finally started talking about this terrible past.”
The documentary centers around Anna, a Russian living in Berlin whose grandfather was exiled to the village of Berezovo in the Russian Far-North; twin brothers Oleg and Alexey from Moscow, who are reconstructing the story of their great-grandmother — a poet acquainted with the likes of Leo Tolstoy and Marina Tsvetaeva, who served time in the gulag and was subsequently banished to the town of Maloyaroslavets; and Evgeny, a librarian working in Berlin whose grandfather was exiled to Kazakhstan along with his large family.
Recalling the film crew’s trips to these places of exile, Savenkova says that they often relied on locals for information about the victims of Stalin’s terror. “Repressed people lived in Berezovo, but at the same time there are no monuments, no traces of memories,” Savenkova explains. “[But] for example, a lot of exiles lived in Maloyaroslavets and many of them left their memoirs. Local historian Galina Grishina is studying the city library and is compiling an almanac about the exiles. And she doesn’t even have Internet [access], can you imagine? She does everything by hand.”
Savenkova tells Meduza that these local historians find meaning in preserving the memory of the repressions. “They’re preventing a connection to something big, to the history of the people, from being destroyed. This isn’t just necessary for them, but for all of us,” the filmmaker underscores.
Asked about Russia’s culture of silence surrounding the repressions of the Soviet period, Savenkova says it stems from a combination of official policy and public fear: “Firstly, it’s state policy. It’s simply that our government considers itself the heir to that government, its successor, and therefore it doesn’t condemn the past. Secondly, families didn’t talk about it either, they were afraid. Only today the third generation of descendents of the repressed is starting to wonder about what actually happened.”
That said, while working on the film, Savenkova also saw firsthand that witnesses and even victims of the Stalinist repressions sometimes refuse to denounce Joseph Stalin himself. “For example, one of our characters, Viktor Morozov, is 102 years old,” the director recalls. “He admits that there were inhuman repressions, he saw with his own eyes the train cars that carried innocent people into exile, but for him, there’s still no one better than Stalin.”
“[In the film] the daughter of the repressed Vasily Larin [Evgeny’s grandfather] says she doesn’t condemn the Stalinists. That you can’t judge people categorically,” Savenkova continues. “On camera, she argues with her grandchildren, who grew up in Germany and think that Stalinism and fascism are almost the same phenomenon.”
Savenkova says it’s impossible to say when people in Russia will be able to speak freely about these events, though the scale of the terror makes her believe that there will one day be open discussions. “I think it’s possible, because every family in our country has suffered from repression. Some don’t even know about it,” Savenkova underscores. “We have to realize that this is our common trauma”
“At the same time, it’s terrible to hear statements about how the gulag was a social elevator, that everyone was on board, and [that we should] bring back this practice,” she adds, referring to recent discussion about reviving the use of prison labor for major construction projects in Russia. “This is the absolute, harshest-possible inhumanity.”
This is a summary of Vladlena Savenkova’s interview with Meduza. You can read the full Q&A in Russian here.
Summary by Eilish Hart
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