The Dark, Nihilistic Spectacle Russians Can't Stop Watching

The leader of the The whole world gang — Marat’s brother, Vova — has also just returned from battle, having served in the brutal Soviet-Afghan war. He seems unfazed by what he saw there. None of his peers seem curious, either. Such is the aesthetic world of the series: empty to the point of being impenetrable. The director, Zhora Kryzhovnikov, rarely lets the camera wander beyond the rectilinear confines of the apartment blocks. The period details are eerily accurate, but I still have no idea what Kazan actually looks like. The plot is somehow frenetic and inert.

The play is set at a critical moment. Everyone knows the Soviet Union is collapsing, but no one knows what will happen next. In one of his few moments of effective irony, Vova reflects on the future. “I listened to Gorbachev,” he says. “They say in a year or two we’ll be like America. Or maybe better.” My family left the country in 1989, and I remember the disappointment and humiliation of those years with exceptional clarity. We should all have had VCRs. Instead, gangsterism filled a void left by collapsed institutions. The “Kazan phenomenon” of the 1980s morphed into the Russian mafia of the 1990s, which pillaged post-Soviet democracy until an exasperated Kremlin handed power to Vladimir Putin, who effectively converted organized crime into a form of government. Today, his worldview, with its fixation on strength prevailing over weakness, is ingrained in the national consciousness.

It’s easy enough to criticize bad Russian TV, but “The Boy’s Word” has something truly rotten at its core: It’s a warning about what happens when our capacity for moral reasoning becomes so impoverished that the most direct response to any situation is to punch someone in the face. In a scathing online review, critic Platon Besedin wrote, with typical Russian restraint, that the series “could only be demanded by a sick and ill-mannered society that walks in circles like a tired and sick pony.” American culture is not immune to such criticism: We may not have to fight over VCRs, but I doubt Besedin would take Street Fighter 6 and “Deadpool & Wolverine” as evidence of a culture on the rise, and if he doesn’t know anything about “MILF Manor,” don’t tell him.

In the final scene of “The Boy's Word,” Andrey is in a penal colony. He is playing the piano, while the boys lined up in front of him sing. The scene is tense, controlled but almost unbalanced, and it may be the best of the show. Andrey is a new man, ready for the new world he has helped create. He ends with a glissando, his long fingers sliding across the keyboard. Then the show ends and Russia begins.

Alexander Nazaryan writes about culture and politics.

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