Forget the totalitarian terror: Merkulova and Chupov’s Captain Volkonogov Escaped

P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.


Forget the totalitarian terror – this is worse – and here lies the true genius of Merkulova and Chupov’s Captain Volkonogov Escaped (2021).

‘The horror! The horror!’ The words of the doomed Kurtz from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) – echoing Joseph Conrad’s iconic novel Heart of Darkness (1899) – haunt us once more. What else can you say about a midnight tram-ride through mean Moscow streets with only the heaping dead for company, or the executioner’s gunshots discretely muffled by the dispiriting rattle of an urban tractor?

The repeated phrase expresses the despair beyond all meaning – and it is here where words fail us that it is most important to let the pictures speak. That’s why Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov’s Captain Volkonogov Escaped is indispensable, and rightly spared from that bluntest of all instruments of reprisal, the cultural boycott. There is no more timely reworking of the familiar modernist nightmare than this. It should not – cannot – be avoided! Watch! Reflect! Repeat!

«Captain Volkonogov Escaped».

It is a mixture of dismay, incomprehension, and impotence that Conrad’s immortal phrase obliquely and imperfectly evokes, the quintessential response to the full depravity of modern excess: The end of thought, the descent into repetition, from the pages of the modernist novel par excellence to the dying breath of Marlon Brando’s masterly incarnation of the notorious Kurtz – transplanted to the inferno of the Vietnam War. In the shape of Kurtz, Conrad has also given us the definitive and perfectly paradoxical antihero, the only viable properly modern hero. The antihero demands our outright condemnation and yet also elicits our grudging sympathy. His hands are dirty – so are ours. In modern times everyone is compromised; innocence is dead – or soon will be.

Enter, in the nick of time – with a nod Ukraine-wards – a new antihero for our times, a captain and functionary just doing his job as best he can for Russia – Stalin’s Russia, that is. His story is an epic modernist fairy-tale or, perhaps, its close relative, the biblical lesson. It is in any case an awful long way from Hans Christian Andersen, or even the genteel horrors of the brothers Grimm. This is more ‘George Orwell meets Hieronymus Bosch’, our worst, full-spectrum contemporary dystopia with its true mediaeval roots exposed in all their filthy, earthly squalor.

The Captain’s own worst nightmare has come true: the hunter become the hunted. The dark shadow of institutionalised paranoia has finally fallen on him, and suddenly he’s a fugitive from the horrors he knows all too well. Yet it becomes clear that this mortal fear is not what drives him, as he runs, Lola style, from his tormentors. It’s more that the time is up and there’s none to lose in seeking redemption and deliverance from the eternity of punishment which awaits him in the afterlife. What follows resembles a series of trials in almost chivalric style, to seek out the nearest and dearest of his many victims and beg their forgiveness, while eluding the authorities bent on silencing and destroying him.

«Captain Volkonogov Escaped».

Through his series of unwonted assignations across the teeming, grovelling city, a picture of society withering on the vine comes into startling focus. The classified folder to which he clings for dear life is his guide, leading him to the dreary margins inhabited by those guilty by association with those already falsely condemned. One is the discredited doctor heaving corpses in the morgue. In an exquisitely ironical twist, she ends up examining Volkonogov’s consumptive pursuer, who dare not acknowledge weakness to the authorities he serves.

The self-imposed trials of the Captain are made no less daunting by their air of futility, emphasised by the proverbial truth-telling child as she feeds a sad little bonfire of ruined souvenirs. ‘No-one is going to forgive you,’ she says. And yet somehow his quest does take on a sort of meaning, some part to play in the canon of human redemption. He and indeed most of the denizens of this poisonous environment are rotten to the core. Somewhere deep inside – the Captain – anyone – the rot must be stopped, in the moment when fear and self-preservation finally give way to genuine remorse. It is this moment that forms the movie’s extraordinary denouement. Abhorrence of plot spoilers prevents further elaboration, so please just follow my advice as previously stated: Watch! Reflect! Repeat!

Captain Volkonogov Escaped is visual storytelling at its finest. The ugliness and beauty, in continual gravity-defying equipoise, are the necessary and extraordinary foil to the desperate compulsion of the chase. Striking images, like fragments of dreams, linger on: The professional thugs losing their volleyball among the decorative chandeliers, a grandiose office carpeted with straw to minimise the mess and fuss of torture and homicide, the same thugs singing and dancing exquisitely and one, in particular, forced to reprise his loveliest song as the vicious jibe and soundtrack of his own annihilation.

Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty in «Blade Runner» (1982).

The apprehension of the fugitive on a rooftop recalls Roy Batty and Decker in that fabled scene from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Indeed, it emulates the genius of that cult classic in capturing a moment of pure human-political self-expression. For an instant the symmetry and unity of hunter and prey is manifest. They share the guilt and pathos of cogs in the machine suddenly self-aware, here on one more rooftop, if only for one bitter-sweet cinematic moment. Here lies the elusive spark of utopia, the first and final word of any manifesto of true emancipation.

It would be a tragedy to bury the story of Captain Volkonogov in a misguided effort to strike at the despised invaders. It is hard to imagine a more piercing attack on tyranny than this very film, made and funded in Russia by Russians. This makes it even more courageous. For make no mistake! Captain Volkonogov Escaped represents as direct an attack on Putin’s Russia as one could possibly make from the inside. Its spiritual theme is a clear swipe at the corruption of sheer dogma, religious or quasi-religious, harnessed in the service of Putin’s authoritarian agenda. The film tells us emphatically and extraordinarily eloquently, in the language of film, that this is the anathema – the extinction – of genuine spirit, be it human or divine.

«The Death of Stalin».

Its contemporary relevance and importance aside, the film serendipitously – and perhaps inadvertently – provides an especially penetrating account of Stalin’s Soviet Union, a tragic complement to the comedic realism of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin (2017). The rhetoric of the Cold War dealt routinely, strangely enough, in the hysteria of the totalitarian menace. The reality was doubtless more mundane but no less wretched. Merkulova and Chupov paint a picture of a messy, improvised brutality, no less effective for all that. They’re getting the job done, one way or another: Muffle the gunshots with that tractor, soak up the blood with some straw, pile the corpses in a tram… And so on, and so on.

The common denominator, infusing every moment of this brilliant movie, is fear. The victims may be innocent but no matter! They are all potential future threats and must therefore be sacrificed. The Ukrainians are minding their own business just now (ca. 2021 anyway) but what will happen when they join the EU – or NATO? Better act now, whatever the cost, whatever the carnage, and assuage those fears, just like the Americans, defending themselves against the coming Communist menace among the once serene villages of Vietnam, or the Belgians, creating the ‘heart of an immense darkness’ for one and all in the dreaded African interior. Oh, the horror! The horror!

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