“Assa”: The Film that Brought Down the Soviet Union

December 31, 2021   •   By Sam Kahn

Assa, for its first two-and-a-half-hours, is a perfectly great movie. Released in 1987 by the Soviet state film agency MosFilm and set in the crumbling, seaside town of Yalta, the plot centers, essentially, on a love triangle: a charming middle-aged gangster Krymov, his impressionable young girlfriend Alika, and her new love interest, ‘Bananan,’ a sweet local boy with a standing gig at a local dance hall playing very silly, free-spirited music. This story ends — as all such stories must — with the gangster Krymov ordering his henchmen to brutally murder Bananan and discard his body in the sea. Then there’s revenge and drama, a fairly neat conclusion, and then, just before the credits start to roll, something very remarkable and unexpected happens. “But that’s not the end of the story. It would be unfair to not show you what happened next,” says an on-screen supertitle.

There’s now an opening at the dance hall and Bananan’s saxophonist bandmate recommends a new musician — the rock star Viktor Tsoi, 24 years old at the time of shooting, playing himself. Tsoi is interviewed by the apparatchik doing administrative duties for the club. “There is no employment for anyone without a certificate of housing and a diploma from a music conservatory,” she says. “Do you have either?” Tsoi says that he does not. She asks what he does for a living, and the bandmate says that he’s a “born musician,” although Tsoi clarifies that he makes his living as a boiler attendant. The administrator reads the rules of performance and, midway through, Tsoi stretches his legs and walks — and then nearly sprints — out of the room and to the stage. The song he plays (the band is already assembled, a bit like in the magical costume change at the end of The Music Man) is called ‘Peremen’ — Changes — and it’s very difficult to fight the urge to write out every single word of the song, but the key lyric is: “Our hearts demand change, our eyes demand change, change is in our joys and in our tears and in our pulsing veins.”

The camera is on Tsoi, singing his heart out — long hair, flowers on his leather jacket, like a creature from some distant galaxy inhabited solely by him and David Bowie — then pans across the rest of the band, in ascending order of coolness: the drummer in a muscle shirt and high jeans that are like the essence of 1987; then the saxophonist, somewhat worse for wear from his adventures over the course of the movie; then a couple of guitarists — one from Tsoi’s band Kino, one borrowed from another band — in sunglasses and cosmopolitan haircuts; and then — in the greatest camera pan that has ever been — out to the audience. The seedy dance hall has, through a trick of cinema, been replaced by a vast, electrified crowd waving candles and screaming for the band. The film ends on a frenetic tracking shot that journeys across the band and the crowd in a frenzy of youth and freedom and possibility.

It’s not so easy to get back into the mindset of the Soviet Union in 1987 and to comprehend how startling this sequence was and how it reverberated around the culture. Gorbachev himself was far from immune and said, as a kind of kickoff to glasnost, “Tsoi is singing ‘we demand change’ in concerts, it’s dangerous to start major changes in our country, dangerous and risky, but we have to begin.” But the power of this moment is very much still there. As I watched that scene, in the pits of the COVID winter at the start of 2021, I sat, for long minutes, with my jaw hanging open. All the miracles that followed in the next few years seemed to be perfectly encapsulated in that shot — the Baltic Chain, the string of non-violent protests, Yeltsin on top of the tank — like the collapse of the Soviet Union itself was an afterthought of that movie, of the force of Tsoi’s music, of the intensity of that need for change.

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2021 was, on almost all fronts, a miserable year, and, more than anything else, it was that scene that got me through it — watching it, who knows, some decent percentage of its 4,000 English-language YouTube views, hanging onto it by like fingernails, as a taste of something that I wanted from my life that was very different from what seemed to be on offer. Then, on December 13, Sergei Solovyov, Assa’s director, died — which seemed like the final insult-added-to-injury of the lousy year and also the right moment to take stock.

I want to go in three directions with this.

First — that there is a cache of great late Soviet art with which most Americans are almost perfectly unfamiliar. Art from the Stalinist era — Bulgakov, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, etc — has become a kind of hipster cult object. And then, for the next several decades, a sort of artistic wasteland — in school, I think I assumed that the culture was so deeply propagandistic and repressed that nobody produced anything interesting. If I hadn’t dated a Russian the last few years, I never would have discovered the MosFilm collection: The Irony of Fate (1976), Office Romance (1977), Moscow Doesn’t Believe In Tears (1980), the hot streak of surprisingly outspoken films that the state film agency produced at the end of the Brezhnev era; or the treasure trove of Russian rock music, including Nautilus Pompilius, Grebenschikov, and Tsoi’s band Kino, which Assa helped to spotlight, all of which is really great music and just as soulful and subversive as rock ‘n’ roll always claims to be and rarely is; or the cynical, coruscating artwork that surrounded the collapse of the Soviet Union, films including Assa and Brat, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya’s short stories, Victor Pelevin’s novel Buddha’s Little Finger, etc.

The American indifference to Soviet art from this period has a good excuse in limitations in artistic exchange across the Iron Curtain and a less-good excuse in a kind of smugness about the outcome of the Cold War, a belief that it somehow demonstrated the superiority of a “Western way of life.” What this misses — I contend — is how, at a deep psychic level, America and Russia are yoked together, and the demise of the Soviet Union was like losing a sibling. At a superficial level, American politics kind of goes crazy without the counterweight of Russia — as evinced by the ways in which we dedicated the last four years to bizarre fantasies about Putin. At a deeper level, the commonality is that America and Russia attempted radical experiments on the principle of equality. The Soviet Union’s extreme version of it devolved into the kind of kleptocracy that Assa so astutely depicts in the figure of Krymov. But the American version is looking shakier than might have been expected: widening inequality, the collapse of checks-and-balances in government, and the collapse of foundational liberal values (this being the subject of some longer essay) under the weight of certain internal contradictions.

Second — a sense of the enormity of all that was lost in the extinguishing of hope in Russia in the ’90s and ’00s. My conviction is that the rise in illiberalism we’re seeing all around the world is an extension of what the powers-that-be in China and especially Russia felt that they learned in the ’90s — the open society doesn’t work, so time to return to more familiar patterns.

Assa is best watched accompanied by the documentary Kino Vino Domino, which nicely captures Solovyov’s personality and all the various romantic and political entanglements surrounding Assa’s production. (Best line: the actress Tatyana Drubich, who plays Alika and was married to Solovyov at the time, when asked if she fell in love with Solovyov at first sight, looks quizzically at the interviewer and says, “Have you seen Solovyov? Would you fall in love with him at first sight?”). In the documentary, Solovyov tells the story of Assa’s final scene. He had wanted to make a film about Russian rock but, not knowing much about it, ended up mixing-and-matching musicians from various bands. For the shoot, he set up a concert in Moscow’s Gorky Park and asked the musicians to find him an audience. He didn’t know if anyone would turn up but — I’m having chills as I write this — around ten thousand people went through some kind of hole in a fence and showed up in the park. The camera crew passed around matches for the candles and everybody, of course, said Solovyov, tried to set each other on fire with them. Tsoi was summoned to restore peace and came out, put his hand up, said, in a perfectly conversational voice, something to the effect of, we are the guests of these guys who are trying to shoot a movie and we should play nice by them, and — chills again — the crowd roared, “We’ve got you Viktor, anything you say,” and, from then on, were perfectly behaved until the moment in the scene where Tsoi comes out on stage and were allowed to go insane.

Tsoi died three years after that. The story is that he was recording his new album — since released as The Black Album — into a tape recorder in the passenger’s seat of his car, and he took his eyes off the road. Apparently, around 60 Russians committed suicide in the immediate aftermath of that. Everybody else from Assa went on to make their various compromises with the new powers-that-be — the actor playing Bananan became a prominent Putinist, which is really heartbreaking if you watch him in Assa. The feeling is that there was a moment — and maybe literally that, a single pan from singer to band to crowd — when everything was possible. After that, the world as run by Krymovs.

Third — a sense of urgency. I mean, look, it’s possible that I just had a bad year in 2021, but I kind of know that that’s not the extent of it. The culture has gotten to a terrible place. This is the year — speaking from the perspective of, vaguely, the Left — when we all turned on each other: the vaccine rollout, debates over “cancel culture,” the new realities of internet censorship. The collapse of institutions continues apace (c.f. Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public for the underlying causes), and a movie like Assa strikes a chord. I’ve spent the whole year carrying around the feeling I had when first watching it, like a kind of talisman. The premise throughout the film is of a hollowed-out society inured to corruption — Krymov, a perfectly regular person, controls “well, just about everything,” he says at one point. He is under surveillance by the state security apparatus, the KGB, but the KGB turns out to be singularly inept. Any challenge to the current reality comes from a completely different direction, from Bananan and from Tsoi, from some spirit of the new.

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Tsoi and Solovyev were, ultimately, just voices of protest. In the longer arc of history, apparently, their moment led to nothing. Solovyov was sardonic about it. “Not a single person in that crowd [at Assa’s filming] wanted the changes that later took place,” he said in a 2008 interview, “and I came to feel like a liar, like some asshole provocateur shouting ‘changes’ while the crowd was led away to the slaughterhouse.” And so it goes on — ‘Peremen’ drafted as a protest song for all kinds of reform movements in the Russian-speaking world. (If you really want to see a potent combination, watch this video of Peremen accompanied by bagpipes as part of recent, stifled protests in Belarus). But, as Assa’s supertitle put it, “that’s not the end of the story,” and this is, you know, the point of art: on YouTube, or for eternity, give or take, there’s Tsoi stretching his legs and walking out on the administrator as she discusses the protocols for the club’s performers, Tsoi striding to the microphone like that’s where he’s born to be, Tsoi singing:

Cigarettes in our hands
and tea on the table
Everything taken care of
Everything is within us
CHANGE!
Our hearts demand change
CHANGE!
Our eyes demand change
In our laughter and in our tears and our pulsing veins
CHANGE!
We wait for change.

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Sam Kahn’s writing includes the novel Kaleidoscope, the short story collections Altered States and Dirty Stories, the plays Chatter and Ultraviolence, and essays in AGNI, The Awl, and elsewhere. As a producer he has had work air on Netflix, Showtime, and Paramount+.