Life of Ivanna

The most ironic aspect of the 2021 documentary Life of Ivanna is Ivanna’s dream of having her own place, which actually pushes the film along its main trajectory. This claim requires a little context.

Ivanna is a twenty-six-year-old Nenets mother of five living, at the beginning of the film, on the Taimyr Peninsula in the Krasnoyarsk region of northwest Siberia. She and her children are portrayed as living an in-between life among the reindeer herders of the far north. They sometimes move with the herders but sometimes stay put, crammed into their container-sized dwelling on skies amid the gale force winds flapping the canvas walls.

They speak a mixture of Russian and Nenets, moving back and forth in much the same way that they seem perched between a traditional and largely communal life on the tundra, on the one hand, and Ivanna’s dream, on the other, which we learn of in one of the sparse voice-over explanations in which she talks about her experiences and her desire to “have her own apartment” (svoia kvartira), “everything her own” (vse svoe).

The screening at the IU Cinema featured a delightfully intimate filmed opening by director Renato Borrayo Serrano, introducing the film, enjoining us to watch it with empathy and openness to a bodily experience, and thanking “Tatiana” for organizing the screening. It was at this moment that the 30-40 of us in the audience understood that he had made this filmed opening explicitly for us as he was referring to Tatiana Saburova (also in the audience), co-director of the Russian Studies Workshop, which had organized the screening. A helpful Q&A with Dr. Marya Rozanova-Smith and Prof. Stephanie Kane followed the film.

There was no need for him to encourage us to be open to a bodily experience. Indeed, it would be difficult to watch this film on a big screen otherwise. I found myself focused on the wood-burning stove, what Evgeny Zamyatin refers to as the “short-legged, rusty-red, stocky, greedy, cave god” in his story “The Cave.” In one scene, one of Ivanna’s little boys comes in crying from the frigid outside, holding up his gloveless hands, as she asks casually why he went out without his clothes on, and tells him to warm up his little hands at the stove. He obviously knows not to put his hands on the stove, but I still found myself squirming as he got close, just as I did when that boy or another (they blend together sometimes in the film) whacks away happily at a stick with a knife whose blade is as long as his forearm.

I found myself thinking that mixture could be a powerful theme, as Ivanna and her children are on the cusp of two worlds. But their active hybridizing (including their use of language) remains largely in the background, and points of difference are highlighted instead. Two stand out.

In one, a young reindeer seems to know what’s coming, as a Nenets man prepares to slaughter it. This is followed by a communal feast in which members of the group crouch on the snowy ground, the children reaching out hungrily for choice bites of raw liver or a cup of the fresh blood. In the other, after Ivanna and her children have made their way to the city, two of the boys are exploring and see an Orthodox church on a hill. The camera follows them up as one says, “You think maybe the head guy lives there?” At the entrance, the younger of the two sees a depiction of Jesus on the cross and asks his brother, “What’s that guy doing hanging there?”

The scenes are striking, of course, and certainly work well together to show difference, cultural heterogeneity, and the contrast to “traditional” Russian culture, especially of the sort that links religion to Russianness in the manner of the Muscovite princes (or Vladimir Putin, in his own cynical manner). But I couldn’t help feeling the scenes were too weighted towards pointing out the otherness of Ivanna and her children, especially given her very palpable dream of transitioning to city life, which means not the indigenous life where these ways of thinking and behaving would be routine. Even at the start, as I noted above, they are not entirely in that culture, they are already partly out of it, and the in-between space is what attracted me most in the film.

This is where the irony of her dreamed of future life, which could be in the process of being fulfilled by the end of the film, becomes a question. This irony, for me at least, comes from the broader Soviet goal of emancipating indigenous women and enlisting their support in the building of the Soviet state. This was a policy that began in the 1930s and continued for decades under Soviet social planners. It’s the background to Ivanna’s current position. Having identified women in traditional (patriarchal) cultures as something of a “surrogate proletariat,” an oppressed class that could help to build socialism, Soviet planners set out to educate them, give them equal rights, provide them with economic and professional opportunities. This was a modernization campaign, of course, but also an ideological one.

It did enable many women to become successful professionals in the new system, but it also destroyed traditional cultures across the USSR in the process. I suppose this means that, for Soviet planners at least, it was successful on the modernization front — destroying traditional cultures was acceptable and even perhaps part of the goal. But looked at as an ideological project, Ivanna’s desire for her own place suggests that the long-term impact was something very different from what they had hoped. Basically, they created the conditions for what the early Soviets would have called “petit bourgeois” thinking, where the goal is getting your own.

Ivanna ends up thinking like the sort of peasants with whom the Bolsheviks strategized an alliance in order to gain power, with the goal of transforming them into “new people” down the road. This leaves her in yet another in-between place, one it’s hard to imagine her getting out of anytime soon.

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