Reinventing the Soviet Past: Actor Pavel Derevyanko’s “Positive Heroes”

Amanda Lerner is a sixth-year PhD candidate in the department of Slavic Languages and Literature at Yale University. She currently works as a Development Coordinator in Yale’s Office of Development.

The characters of contemporary Russian actor Pavel Derevyanko travel impressive distances. Recent popular successes have seen him journey through time to 1979, then back through an alternate time stream to a still-Soviet Moscow in 2011. Another character of his has gone to space via a Salyut spacecraft likely not to make it back to Earth, its failed mission providing the brave cosmonauts aboard a chance to sacrifice themselves for the good of the Motherland. In short, Pavel Derevyanko’s roles offer the Russian public a familiar sort of hero: the good old Soviet kind.

Derevyanko’s furthest-flung success to date is his turn as flight engineer Viktor Alyokhin in the 2017 film Salyut-7, directed by Klim Shipenko. The film is loosely based on the 1985 mission of Soyuz T-13, whose aim was to repair the Soviet space station Salyut-7. Derevyanko’s Alyokhin, based on real-life Salyut cosmonaut Viktor Savinykh, plays sidekick to Vladimir Vdovichenkov’s Vladimir Fyodorov (a fictionalized Vladimir Dzhanibekov). Though Fyodorov, as the cosmonaut without whom the entire mission would be impossible, is the film’s nominal protagonist, his success owes much to Alyokhin’s help and loyalty.

Alyokhin, for his part, is a much humbler hero. When called to duty at the last minute, he is willing to leave his pregnant wife behind to fulfill his mission for his country. When he and Fyodorov run into serious problems that may prevent their safe return, they refuse any help — most notably from the Americans. Perhaps most “heroically,” when Fyodorov presents Alyokhin with the chance to return home on a one-seater escape rocket, he refuses. Like any good Soviet hero of stage or screen, he is loath to leave a man behind. Instead, he and his mission commander find a way to save the space station — and themselves — together. In so doing, Derevyanko’s Alyokhin becomes a different kind of positive Soviet hero: one who disappears into the collective (and, for a while, outer space). In the process, he manages to bolster the reputation not only of the Soviet space program, but of the USSR as a whole. The film itself engages in what Svetlana Boym might have called “reflective nostalgia,” building a narrative based in what should have or might have been.

Meanwhile, Viktor Alyokhin’s real-life counterpart, Viktor Savinykh, weighed in on the film in a September 2017 interview:

Neither the writers nor the director approached me with any questions or requests for consultation while working on the film. […] It seems they had no interest in learning the truth about that flight. They had another goal: to earn money at the box office. I believe they took their information from my book Notes from the Dead Station and decided that was enough for them. Well, that’s their call. But I have no interest in seeing the film!

Savinykh’s refusal to see the film is understandable: indeed, it is clear that Shipenko chose to sacrifice the details of the cosmonaut’s life in favor of what he considered larger, more universal truths. Soviet-era courage, victory against the odds, and great personal sacrifice come together to tell a compelling tale. Whether the film is strictly faithful to biographical truth matters little in the genesis of a Soviet hero.

By now, Derevyanko is adept at bringing to life  brings heroes willing to risk everything, from family to life to even country, in the name of uncovering the truth. Since 2011, Derevyanko has played Mikhail Mikhailovich Soloviev on Dark Side of the Moon [Obratnaia storona luny], which airs on Pervyi kanal. Dark Side derives from the BBC’s Life on Mars (2006-7), which has also spawned American and Spanish imitations. Unlike its counterparts, however, the Russian version of Life hews far more closely to the UK series original plot, at least in its first season. Set in Moscow in 2011, Dark Side follows the exploits of police captain Mikhail Mikhailovich Soloviev. After pursuing a serial murderer on foot through Moscow, Soloviev gets hit by a car in front of the recently renovated Cathedral of Christ the Savior. He loses consciousness and, went he comes to, finds himself in a hospital in the year 1979. Following the British model, our main character is no longer Mikhail Mikhailovich, but Mikhail Ivanovich — his own father.

The creators of Dark Side have argued that the show is neither about nostalgia nor nostalgic in tone — all while discussing their own quest for the perfect nostalgia-objects. In a 2012 interview with Elena Afanasyeva of Ekho Moskvy, series director Aleksandr Kott relayed the story of sourcing a specific type of Soviet pen. Afanasyeva wondered if Kott’s personal feelings [oshchushcheniia] colored his approach to the series, asking specifically about any objects he insisted on including. Kott responded,

Well, yes, for me it all goes back to the fact that…well, ok, not everything, but I will say that this show is all in the details. And so, for example, we spent a long time tracking down that famous kind of pen, that school pen that everyone had, to the exclusion of any other kind. It consisted of two halves: the lower, ribbed, in white, and then the cap was blue. But now they’re practically impossible to find.

In the end, Kott’s team managed to find the pens — a feat he declared “unbelievable.” Though the props department is able to work magic, Kott insisted that some things had to be found rather than recreated. Technically speaking, of course, this is not true: the props department could almost certainly have produced a set of replica pens for the show’s schoolchildren. Yet because Kott felt so strongly about this particular aspect of the year 1979, one that he personally remembered, no substitutes would do. Kott seems to identify intensely with these pens, which, for him, become an irreplaceable a nostalgia-object. Similarly, every authentic detail of Dark Side’s mise-en-scène is a potential nostalgia-object, with each object actually present in 1979 possessing the ability to trigger feelings of nostalgia in a certain types of viewer. The success of the entire television series, then, hinges on the achievement of this authentic tone — which occasionally, as Kott suggested, comes down to sourcing the right kind of writing implement.

One of nostalgia’s cruel realities is its ephemeral nature, which derives from the impossibility of ever returning to the experience for which one is nostalgic. Yet in order to engage the viewer, Dark Side uses authentic details like the pen to imbue the Soviet 1970s with depth and nuance — ultimately, in order to underscore that the grass was not, in fact, greener on the viewer’s side of the Soviet/Post-Soviet divide. Paradoxically, arriving at this insight requires Soloviev to display the traits of what Katerina Clark calls the “positive hero” of socialist realism. For Clark, writing in The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual, 

The [socialist realist] novel takes as its focus a relatively modest figure, usually a Soviet worker, administrator, or soldier. This subject is then known as the ‘positive hero.’ However modest he may be, the phases of his life symbolically recapitulate the stages of historical progress as described in Marxist-Leninist theory.

In Dark Side, Kott uses the career of an ordinary police officer as a springboard for a positive hero capable of transforming the post-Soviet future. He is, after all, acting not as his real self, but as a member of the preceding generation. As such, he attempts to persuade his “son,” actually Soloviev himself as a young boy, not to become a police officer (an effort we know Soloviev ultimately foils). Soloviev-as-his-own-father also injures the boy who later becomes the murderer of Dark Side’s premise, scarring the boy’s face and subsequently affecting the course of events in 2011. Throughout the series, Soloviev writes notes that are then found in 2011, makes comments to characters that they are then shown to remember, and sets off the chain of events that sends him to 1979 in the first place. Through his pursuit of the murderer, Soloviev transforms into something greater than himself — in particular, a kind of redeemer for the Soviet state as a whole (which he actually resurrects in the show’s second season).

As in Salyut-7, historical and biographical truth take a backseat to the aesthetic and ideological needs of the present in Dark Side. What matters more are the hero’s personal values: Derevyanko, in both the film and the TV series, plays a man who understands Soviet values, puts country and duty above personal desires, and does not waver in the face of the impossible. Though not “real” in a strict sense, Soloviev and Alyokhin exist to satisfy the needs of post-Soviet Soviet nostalgia.


Bunnypuss of the Day, by Linor Goralik

Translated by Giula Dossi and Abigail Weil

Excerpted from Found Life: Poems, Stories, Comics, a Play, & an Interview by Linor Goralik. Edited by Ainsley Morse, Maria Vassileva, and Maya Vinokour. Translation © 2018 Ainsley Morse, Maria Vassileva, and Maya Vinokour. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.