At the Edge of Russia: a diary/review

April 16, 2011 at 9:28 am (By Amba)

Copying this from my personal journal, where I feel more inclined to write, but still to share.

Erin [my young colleague from Natural History, herself a filmmaker] had given me a choice of two documentary films at this festival, and I picked At the Edge of Russia.  Despite my obvious reasons for picking it, I was slow to feel how very much it reminded me of J and to be flooded by vivid imaginings of how he’d react to it.  He’d have loved and hated it.  TBC in the AM:  I’m dead.

*     *     *

3:50 AM:  The robins have started to sing, and my ears are ringing with exhaustion.  Still I’m having a glass of wine to wash the work out.

*      *      *

7:30 AM  Too early to be up, but the cats weren’t in bed with me and that was enough to wake me.  I don’t know what their problem was. . . . I have no sense of continuity.  I was just in Florida twice, but it feels long ago and far away.  I crashed and slept yesterday between 7:30 and 8:30 PM and woke feeling sad, lonely, and displaced.  Having the place such a mess, and Bob and his girlfriend here yesterday measuring things, may have put a kind of period to “our” life here, which I’m now bringing to an end.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  J was my anchor, and now I don’t have one.  I had kept returning here the way Lucky [cat alert] kept looking in Chili’s carrier — his playmate, his child — for a while after Chili died [age 3 months, 1992] and finally discerned that Chili was gone.

So it’s time to dismantle this staging area, but it’s another layer of goodbye.

I certainly can’t complain of feeling alone in the world — it’s more a matter of belonging everywhere and nowhere.

The Russian movie:  I wasn’t entirely clear that it was a documentary because the men in it had such actor-like expressiveness, but on the other hand some had genuinely missing fingers and teeth, and dirty fingernails not created by a makeup man.  This sweet-natured boy soldier is assigned to this snowy, godforsaken outpost where he joins this crew of sad, scruffy men of various ages, who put him through a sort of halfhearted hazing which he passes.  The men talk about women, with great wounded mistrust, they talk reverently about their mothers, they horse around, play guitar and sing (very well — very melancholy), raise the flag and obviously have feelings as deep about their motherland as their mother.  The camera shows us their expressions of pensiveness and pain that lead us deep into the mystery of wounds that are never explained.  At the end one of them gets drunk and emotional and resumes smoking because he’s about to go home to a wife he fears has been unfaithful.  He’s been out there to pay off a debt.  And that’s it.  At the end we learn that Russia has never been invaded from that border and their being out there at all is sort of quixotic and symbolic — and almost a monasticism of patriotism, a way of being more Russian, of exiling oneself in a sort of all-male sanatorium to recover from heartbreak and to love country/mother/woman from afar.  They speak quite consciously of the Russian soul.  They recite poetry, walk on their hands, chop a hole in the ice and swim nude; they talk about psychic forces and sixth senses — they’re quite mystical in a psi, Kirlian kind of way.  Nobody prays.  You hear “cunt” but not “God” (maybe that shows you who their true Goddess is).

As I remembered to imagine J’s reaction and that flooded in in a delayed way (which scared me — I’m afraid of not keeping him close and his perspective, so beyond reach but so bracing to have close, alive in me), I knew he’d have loved and hated the film, the snow and cold, the contemptible and enviable luxury of new footrags, the useless, competent, pointless Russianness.  These guys had done a lot and were good and inventive at what they did, but they were doing to be, not being to do.  They were all about being and feeling, not doing.  And I realized J had acquired a Russian soul but never gave in to it.  He kept it contained within the walls of his Germanness.  He allowed it to flavor life with its plangency and fatalism, but never to swamp it.  It made him such a unique combination — and then I realized that I resonated with it because I am the same combination — half German half Russian!

[At the Edge of Russia, actually a Polish production, but in Russian, had its North American premiere at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham.  (No, that’s not true, it’s been shown and reviewed at another festival.) One reviewer describes it as “like a Siberian Waiting for Godot.” Where and when it will next surface is unknown, but keep an eye out for it.  It is very much worth seeing.  Oh — here’s the trailer.  Have a taste.]


  1. mockturtle said,

    Wish I had something sympathetic or meaningful in reply. Having had a few close Russian friends, I’ve had a wee glimpse into the Russian character and soul and find it personally compelling. But, then, those of us from a hopelessly Anglo ancestry are always drawn to the vivacity of more colorful cultures.

    But, speaking of Russian, I did, as previously mentioned, finally read ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ a few months ago and found it delightful. Not at all what I expected. The characters were audacious, almost Rabelaisian! The dialogue was rich and plentiful. Other than a couple of overly-long narratives in the middle and near the end it was thoroughly enjoyable. Maybe I’ll read ‘Crime and Punishment’ later this year. :-)

  2. Donna B. said,

    I’m stuck on:

    “doing to be, not being to do. They were all about being and feeling, not doing.”

    I’m wondering how one can know the being and feeling without the doing? Are our imaginations that good?

    I don’t mean that we can’t imagine at all without doing, but that some doing is necessary to take us very far in imagining…. say the difference between imagining in 2D v 3D?

  3. amba12 said,

    I had to struggle not to quote that joke —

    “To be is to do.” ~ Sartre
    “To do is to be.” ~ Camus
    “Do be do be do.” ~ Sinatra

    I just mean the point was not action or accomplishment, the way it seems to be for Americans. They were very active and very competent, these Russian guys, but you had the sense that means and ends were reversed from what they are for us. Their purpose, their point, was to exist and suffer.

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