Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
At the weekend, I watched The Scarecrow — Rolan Bykov’s landmark film of 1983 — for the second time. The first time was fifteen years ago in the library of London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. I gave the call number to the librarian, received a remote control, and shuffled off to my allocated TV in the viewing room. Yesterday, I watched it at home with my family for a different set of reasons and from a completely changed perspective.
The Scarecrow (Чучело / Chuchelo) is set deep in the Russian provinces near the end of the Brezhnev era. A 13-year-old girl, Lena, has come to stay with her grandfather. He wears a patched-up coat, lives in a creaking wooden house, collects local paintings, and cannot quite protect her in time. At the local school, Lena is unworldly and slightly different — enough for bullies to take notice. A bit clumsy, perhaps not getting the joke, she either doesn’t sense her vulnerability or is desperate to blend in. When the class bunks off a lesson, Lena’s friend ends up telling all to the teacher. The class’s much-anticipated trip to Moscow is cancelled. Lena is so fond of her friend that she takes the rap for his betrayal. The whole class gangs up on her. She is ‘boycotted’ as a ‘scarecrow’ and encircled by her tormentors. The bullying reaches a terrifying crescendo.
When I was working on my PhD in Soviet history, I often watched films or read novels against the grain, looking not at what the director or writer wanted to evoke, but at the background that they took for granted: the buildings, the clothes, the streets, and the references to everyday trivia in the dialogue. In Chuchelo, there are fascinating references to school routines, the Pioneers, property ownership, animal welfare, and the hinterland of family memory that stretched from serfdom to the Nazi invasion.
But Chuchelo is much more than a collection of historian’s scraps. Like Lord of the Flies, it shows the dictatorship of a group of children briefly freed from outside constraints. One of the darkest characters is a small girl — an ‘iron button’, or ‘iron shorty’ — who respects strength, humiliates weakness, and destroys variety. The film was criticized for its negative portrayal of Soviet childhood. But it was very popular, the work of one of the country’s most revered filmmakers, featuring top actors and child stars alike. Lena’s decisions and instincts are presented with such subtlety that they can be endlessly debated. There is a chink of light, as Lena not only strikes back, but learns about herself.
The film is deeply unsettling, perhaps especially if you watch it with a child. But I was uneasy for another reason, too. My first viewing of the film seemed far out of focus. The Scarecrow is about cruelty, betrayal, and cowardice, and how a child faces these things. It is a source of insight into a child’s psychology, not a fund of incidental references to the Soviet experience, circa 1980.