Analysis of Interview with Sergei Belen’kii.
Conducted by Sasha Prokhorov (interviewer) and Lena Prokhorova (camera and sound) in December 2015.
Transcribed and translated by ???? (Gabri will write the list of team members) in Spring 2017.
Analysis written by Molly Charles in Spring 2017.
Transcription of the interview (Bailey and John will post in the media archive and create a link)
In December 2015, Sasha Prokhorov and Elena Prokhorova interviewed Sergei Belen’kii in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The interview was transcribed and translated by Vitaly Himenyuk, Bailey Orr, Molly Charles, Daniel Sheaffer, Hannah Hampton, Joshua Greenfield, and John Hoskins in Spring 2017 as part of the Russian Movie Theater Project.
Sergei Belen’kii was born in 1955 in Moscow and grew up in the Arbat neighborhood, a historical region of Moscow. He is from a well-educated Jewish family, and his parents were both from Moscow and grew up in Arbat as well. Belen’kii says that his father was very well educated, with many different degrees. He first graduated from law school, but could not become a lawyer due to “a number of historical political reasons” – namely, anti-Semitism. He then became an engineer, then an economist, then managed a research department in the design center Mosproekt-4. His mother was a schoolteacher, and taught geography. Belen’kii also mentions the well-known school she attended in Moscow, as well as the fact that she lived across from the Spaso-Haus, the residence of the American ambassador William Bullitt, and, as he recollects, played with Bullitt’s children in kindergarten. Prestige seems to play a significant role in Belen’kii’s memories throughout the interview – in response to the very first question, for example, about when and where he grew up, he says that he was born in the famous maternity clinic Grauerman, where, as he puts it jokingly, “practically all good Russian Jews” were born.
Belen’kii is well-educated himself. He attended a prestigious high school where English was taught, and where many children and grandchildren of famous Soviet party leaders also studied (several of whom he name-drops during the interview). He then graduated from a medical institute in Moscow worked as a pulmonologist for many years in the Botkin Hospital before emigrating in 1990 to the United States. He jokes that this was “the biggest hospital in the world,” since during that time everything in the Soviet Union was talked about as being the biggest and the best.
Belen’kii was exposed to theater from a young age. His housekeeper, who looked after him nearly every day before he started school, had a passion for cinema and would often take him to movies. There were three theaters located near his house– the Theater of the Young Viewer, the Strela (Arrow), and the Khudozhestvennyi Theater (the Art Theater). As is typical for childhood, he remembers Strela best because in that theater there were delicious shortcakes sold, which he often treated himself to.
As for genres of movies Belen’kii remembers best, he mentions watching war films in his childhood and discussing them with his father, who was a veteran. He also remembers watching educational and documentary films in school. Later, when he began studying English in school, he was very interested in English language and American movies, especially growing up during the Cold War, though, as he says, he himself existed in a fairly artificial world, without a strong influence of Soviet ideology. He was able to watch foreign movies more easily than many because he went to a “privileged high school,” which was allowed to get ahold of and watch these films. Of course, he also remembers watching Russian movies, for example, the 1969 Soviet film adaptation of Fedor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
In addition, Belen’kii mentions one friend of his mother’s who somehow had access to showings of new American films which weren’t even shown in festivals. He describes how these films were shown in an ordinary, two-story building with a small viewing room, where, he says, there were few people, and those who went almost always already knew each other. Belen’kii remembers seeing the movie Slap Shot there, and maybe one or two other films, but says he rarely took advantage of this opportunity. His father, who loved cinema, went more often. These films were not translated, because most people who knew about these films or had access to them already knew English fairly well.
Another memorable moviegoing experience for Belen’kii was attending film festivals in Moscow during the summer. He remembers going with his father and watching French and American films. There were always large crowds at these festivals, as they were and continue to be big events. He describes how at the festival, there was a simultaneous translation for foreign-language films, which was usually done very well– though he says there were always a lot of anecdotes/jokes about these.
During the Soviet Union, tickets to the movies were very cheap, costing only about 35 kopecks. Tickets for foreign films, which were in higher demand, were often sold by scalpers, but Belen’kii says he never had to buy tickets this way, because he was usually invited by friends or his father. In fact, he doesn’t remember whether he even paid for tickets or not.
Belen’kii brings up cultural differences between Soviet and foreign cinema while telling a funny story about a girl who invited him to the movies while they were studying in university. The movie they watched was Italian and portrayed romantic relations more openly than was common in Soviet movies, and he remembers that this was very awkward for her (because, as he says, “girls are fairly shy”).
He also recalls when television first appeared in his home. He lived in a communal apartment with eight rooms, one of which was the hallway, where the television was set up. He describes his first memory of watching television– in November 1963, everyone was let out of school to watch John F. Kennedy’s funeral. He thinks it was a mass order from a Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who, as he later learned, was captivated by this event. In addition to television, he vividly remembers the appearance of VCRs, and mentions watching Michael Jackson’s music videos on a friend’s VCR that he brought from America.
Belen’kii’s style of speech is hard to follow, as he often goes off on tangents, telling anecdotes and stories that are sometimes only vaguely related to the question he was asked. In many ways, however, this is representative of human memories, which oral history seeks to preserve.