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Interview with Volkov, Sergei (2017)

Analysis of Interview with Sergei Volkov.
Conducted by Hannah Hampton (interviewer) and Daniel Sheaffer (camera and sound) in June 2017.
Transcribed and translated by John Hoskins, Bailey Orr, Joshua Greenfield, and Madison Zolper in Fall 2017.
Analysis written by Bailey Orr and John Hoskins in Fall 2017.

Analytical Note

In June 2017, Hannah Hampton and Daniel Scheaffer interviewed Sergei Volkov in St. Petersburg, Russia. The interview was transcribed and translated by Josh Greenfield, John Hoskins, Bailey Orr, and Madison Zolper during the Fall 2017 as part of the Russian Movie Theater Project.

Sergei Volkov was born in St. Petersburg, in 1959. He grew up in a communal apartment, with both of his parents working as professors at Saint Petersburg University. He is the youngest child (20:29) and worked part-time delivering mail from the age of 14 (19:19). Volkov says that he has lived in St. Petersburg his entire life, though loves to travel around Russia. He graduated from Leningrad State University in 1981 from the Department of Philology, Russian Language, and Literature. Following in his parents footsteps, he now also works at Saint Petersburg State University teaching Russian Language.

Volkov is particularly interested in depicting cinema as a social event that brought all strata of Soviet society together. He emphasizes that everyone, even old women in the countryside, went to the movie theater and integrated it in their daily social interactions (20:58). As Volkov puts it, «кино-это было всё, имеет категорию всеобще, всеобщего» (“cinema was everything, it was a universal category” (23:23), partially due to the inexpensive tickets of the Soviet era (23:41). He emphasizes that going to the movies was an event, a special occasion (18:12). He several times mentions that he would go with his friends or family, and they would spend time before or after the show to eat snacks, socialize, or play games.

Still, Volkov is cognizant and even (somewhat) critical of the state’s use of cinema as an ideological tool. He voices dislike for the popular “socialist realist” films on this basis (35:06) and is quite forthcoming about censorship, pointing to “shelved films” that were unable to get distribution because of their questionable ideological content (40:04). Moreover, Volkov displays knowledge of the logistics behind filmmaking during the Soviet era, mentioning film archive Gosfilmofond (12:30) and late Soviet chief ideologue Mikhail Suslov, whose Ideological Department supervised and modernized  movie theaters with amenities like air conditioning because they brought in a lot of profit (30:17).

In addition to socialist ideology, Volkov shows an interesting awareness of the influence Western, particularly American, cinema played in the production of Soviet films. For example, he cites the understated, but significant impact of Charlie Chaplin on Leonid Gaidai’s comedy Бриллиантовая рука (The Diamond Arm) (14:09). He also expresses praise for American Westerns, like Mackenna’s Goldstarring “the great” Omar Sharif and his favorite film The Magnificent Seven (16:00). However, Volkov explains that, due to political reasons, the most commonly shown international films were either from the Soviet bloc or from France (36:21). Because of the Cold War hostilities, the USSR imported few commercial films from the US.  French action and comedies and Indian musicals and melodramas filled the lacunae in the Soviet genre system.  Volkov shares an amusing anecdote about not being let into one of the Fantomas movies, while his older siblings were able to see and enjoy it (37:45).

Like past interviewees, Volkov also highlights the Soviet fascination with Bollywood films, although he emphasizes a personal dislike for them. He sometimes seeks to distance himself from “less cultured” movie-govers by praising the films of Andrei Tarkovskii and Elem Klimov, talking about the first time he saw Solaris in the theater (31:54) and encouraging the interviewer to watch Klimov’s work (24:09).

In general, however, Volkov expresses nostalgia for the communal and intellectual aspects of going to the movies in the Soviet era. As he puts it, «какая-то старая аура потеряна» (“a sort of aura has been lost”) (28:25). For instance, he mentions being able to listen to short lectures about the film before its screening (14:09) and mentions old hang-outs for aspiring artists that no longer exist (10:45) . He even seems nostalgic about waiting in line, pointing out that you won’t see a queue these days because tickets can be bought online (12:30). While acknowledging the beauty of modern theaters, Volkov, like past interviewees, dislikes the smell of popcorn (29:37)

Throughout the interview, Volkov employs complex grammatical constructions and sometimes provides English translations of words to emphasize his level of education and work in academia. As he has experience teaching William & Mary students, his pronunciation is clear and he often engages directly with the interviewee, calling her by her name. He also frequently repeats himself, which can either be attributed to his teaching background or a personal linguistic quirk. Nevertheless, he will sometimes fixate on a specific aspect of movie-going, such as ice cream, water, or arcade games (5:39) or delve into a long-winded summary of a film, such as Мимино (Mimino) (21:32). In these instances, his speech becomes excited and animated, if unorganized and difficult to follow.

Ultimately, Volkov serves as a useful subject due to his nuanced and educated view of Soviet cinema. He speaks of enjoying the movies, while at the same time acknowledging the censorship and propaganda that was extremely common during the Soviet Union. He was born and raised in Saint Petersburg and so has a robust perspective on how the intellectual world of the city has changed.

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