Punitive Patriarchy: “A Holiday Fairytale”

by Masha Kisel


Masha Kisel is a Lecturer in the English Department at the University of Dayton.

A recent Holiday commercial by Russia’s Moscow Credit Bank (Moskovskiy Kreditnyi Bank) has stirred outrage and disbelief.

Called “possibly the creepiest ad of all time” by the Moscow Times, “A New Year’s Fairytale” (“Novogodniaia skazka”) vilifies working mothers and condones violence against women.

The fairytale begins with a sad little girl, neglected by her working single mother. She writes a sweet plea to Ded Moroz (Father Frost, who is incidentally both morose, and by the end of the story, dead).  In response, he kidnaps her mom. Dragging the mother by a rope, he forces her to trek through the perilous wilderness (in heels)! Ded Moroz remains silent throughout the ordeal, communicating only with reproachful stares. But when he suddenly suffers a heart attack in the forest, he hands the daughter’s letter to the mother, who tearfully repents for her selfish ways and evidently finally comes to understand the true meaning of Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, or something… (For an explanation of why Russians still give presents on New Year’s Eve see here.)

What is perhaps most disturbing about this ad is that it ascribes moral righteousness to Ded Moroz’s criminal cruelty. The narrative of an inattentive mother punished by a wise patriarch supports punitive “rehabilitation” as a necessity for the restoration of family values. The viewer is meant to believe that the mother “deserved it” and that both she and her daughter are better off afterwards. With no mention of a father or even a babushka, the ad places the sole responsibility for raising children on the mother.

Although I must admit that the advertisement and its implied message initially shocked me, I found its narrative and imagery oddly familiar. The patriarchy and sexism are the most offensively glaring features of the ad. But as a lifelong student of Russian culture and literature, I can’t help but recognize a moralizing framework much bigger and older than the shaming of working mothers.  Motherhood is tangled up in a complex nexus of Russianness, physical suffering, emotional authenticity and nature. [1]

“The New Year’s Fairy Tale” is a story of conversion and spiritual rebirth that recalls Leo Tolsoy’s didactic tales for the upper class reader. Visually and narratively, it creates a contrast between the city and the countryside, representing Westernized urbanity and Russian culture respectively. This implied concern about the loss of Russian identity and consequently traditional moral values dates back centuries. Peter the Great’s Westernization efforts in the eighteenth century created St. Petersburg, the perfectly planned, geometric “window to the West” and a material symbol generations of Russian nobility estranged from Russian language and culture.  For many Russian thinkers, like Tolstoy, this cultural estrangement meant a kind of “Whorfian” psychological change in ways of feeling and thinking, which in turn led to the erosion of authentic human connections. In post-conversion stories like Kholstomer (1886), Three Deaths (1859) and The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) Tolstoy postulates that the upper classes have much to learn about emotional authenticity from the simple life of Russian peasants. The Tolstoyan notion that the urbanized upper classes must be “awakened” from the slumber of their artificial existence plays out in the ad as Ded Moroz, who looks like Tolstoy, but acts like a muzhik (peasant) “helps” the mother re-learn to love her daughter by making her suffer in nature.

Glass Houses

The ad opens on a narrow hallway in a luxury condominium. This dystopian domestic space is the archetype of Western architecture in the Russian imagination. Sterile geometry dominates, with few signs of natural life. Even the Christmas tree is made of green blocks.  A little girl draws alone on the floor of a narrow hallway. Her mother, perpetually glued to her phone, stomps by in designer heels and nearly trips on a crayon. She briefly pauses to makes eye contact with her child, who pleads “Mama!” But mama only scowls maliciously and barks at her daughter to pick up her things.

The petulant child, whose only companion is a robo-dog, unhappily spends her time watching TV static and riding a mini hover-board down long corridors.

In a voice-over narration, the little girl pens a letter to Ded Moroz. She informs him that she already has plenty of toys and wants her “mamochka” as a gift.

Cut to Ded Moroz, a doppleganger for Leo Tolstoy in his last days, but dressed in the modern Russian-strong-man-ribbed-sweater: the perfect uniform for teaching tough life lessons to the morally weak. Ded Moroz/Ded Tolstoy watches Russia’s city dwellers through a network of hidden cameras. Amid the din of children’s requests for presents, in English and in Russian, Ded Moroz zeroes in on the “bad mother.”

Posing as a driver, he waits for the mom, as she emerges from a glass high-rise, phone in hand, telling the babysitter that she will not be there to tuck in her daughter. Again.

As Ded Moroz turns to reveal his face, the mother’s steely expression transforms animated horror and she desperately bangs on the cab’s window, screaming “Mama!”

This scream for help from behind glass, mirrors her daughter’s earlier call for mother, who is similarly trapped, alone, behind the glass of the apartment. This kidnapping is in a sense the daughter’s doing. The gift of getting her mother back requires a change of heart, as is often the case in Christmas-time narratives about scrooges/workaholic parents. But this is no Christmas Carol, the Russian Ded Moroz has his own way of making scrooges feel the magic of the holidays.

Sweater Weather

Ded Moroz drags the kidnapped mother by a rope through forests, broken bridges, swamps and snowy hills. Her high heels prove just as unsuitable for navigating treacherous wilderness as they were for walking around scattered crayons (read: motherhood!) She must beat down her heel on a rock to survive in the wilderness and to become a good mother again. When her heels are gone, beautiful clothes are tattered, her make up is smeared, Ded Moroz brings out a knife. But instead of slashing the throat of the “bad mother,” he cuts the rope. [2] The mother symbolically accepts Ded Moroz’s teachings when she gratefully takes food from him and borrows his red coat.

This moralistic ad has cinematic parallels in Zviagintsev’s The Return (2003) and Popogrebskiy’s How I Ended This Summer (2011), which similarly justify punitive patriarchy in the wilderness as a means to teach core values of courage, independence and self-sacrifice.  As in the “New Year’s Fairy Tale,” both films feature ribbed-turtleneck-sweater-clad bullying father figures who turn out to be martyred guardians of morality.

In The Return a menacing father returns after a long absence and takes his sons on a camping trip to teach them how to be men. The sons mistrust him until he dies trying to save one of them.  How I Ended this Summer similarly surprises the viewer when the alpha male Sergei, a geophysicist stationed in the Arctic, mercilessly hazes a young intern, but ultimately teaches him a lesson about resilience and forgiveness. Although in these films women are marginal, the young men receiving harsh life lessons in the wilderness require patriarchal guidance as they have been emasculated and softened by urban comforts.

Like the punitive patriarchs in The Return and How I Ended This Summer, Ded Moroz suffers bodily harm while transmitting his wisdom. As he suffers a heart attack, he hands the tearful mother the letter from her daughter. The viewer realizes that this journey was physically arduous for Ded Moroz, who is now a Dead Moroz.

Unlike the failed American “Tough Love” wilderness excursions for troubled teens Ded Moroz’s rehabilitation program for bad mothers proves successful. This fairy-tale ending extols the therapeutic merits of trauma and torture, which is perhaps the most terrifying part, as it flies in the face of everything we know about human psychology.

The mother and daughter escape from behind the glass of their modern life, and enjoy authentic bonding on the very spot where the mother was tortured. But this time, she wears much more sensible shoes.

Notes

[1] Of course motherhood itself is a national idea in Russia. Please see Jenny Kaminer’s Women with a Thirst for Destruction: The Bad Mother in Russian Literature (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2014).

[2] This scene is oddly reminiscent of Roald Jaffe’s film The Mission (1986) in which a murderous mercenary (played by Robert DeNiro) repents for his sins by dragging the weight of his armor, tied to him by a rope. He earns redemption when one of the Guarani, a people whom he had been mercilessly killing and capturing into slavery, cuts the rope with a knife.

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