Religious fundamentalism in post-socialist Russia

Russian cinema today explores capitalism against the backdrop of a past socialist experience. Open-minded visitors to former socialist states, and particularly to Russia, will come across this living memory and frequently an acknowledgement of the loss of humanist values since the defeat of socialism in Europe.

It is interesting too, in this context, that the much-favoured Western, seriously reductionist identification of socialism with Stalin is not the way it is remembered where it was once lived. Instead the recollection is more multi-faceted; and uppermost for many is a more people-oriented society, with work, homes, and a future. Many of those who were educated in this social system retain a general understanding of Marxism from their school or university days.

This is the context for contemporary Russian cinema and specifically for Kirill Serebrennikov’s film The Student (2016), available now on DVD.

Based on Marius von Mayerburg’s play Märtyrer (Martyr), it is the story of a teenage secondary school pupil, Venya, who causes havoc from his literal interpretation of the Bible. He has not been exposed to religion by his atheist single mother but by the school’s religion teacher.

The film shows just how fundamentalist the Christian Bible can be read. Venya demands, and achieves, a change in the girls’ swimwear for swimming classes. He correctly identifies the school’s young biology teacher, Elena, as his natural enemy, whose death he will consider. She is the only force within the school who actively opposes this new-found ideology.

Elena uses scientific arguments against a growing Christian fundamentalist force within the school. The priest and the religion teacher, on the other hand, actively encourage Venya. Instead of sharing the biology teacher’s scientific standpoint, the principal suggests to her, following a protest by Venya against Darwin’s theory of evolution: “Why don’t you discuss this with the holy father? . . . To teach the children both creation theories . . . You should really talk to the father to find a compromise.”

This scene, which develops hilariously, shows where such irrational ideological “pluralism” can lead. Past knowledge is surrendered because the arguments have been lost, or are suppressed.

When Venya begins sermonising in the history class the teacher comments: “People used to believe in something, but everything changed, they needed money, and they forgot about communism. Now there is something to believe in again.”

At least half of Venya’s lines are direct quotations from the Bible, and chapter and verse are always blended on the screen. Some of these quotations go like this: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have come to bring the sword, to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother. As for my enemies who didn’t want me to rule over them, slaughter them in my presence. (Matthew 10:34)”

Thus the film is a refreshing reminder that any accusations of fundamentalism in non-Christian religions must be seen in the context of the past history and the continuing potential for, indeed the reality of, Christian fundamentalism.

While the youthful Venya comes across as even more fundamentalist than the priest, the latter nevertheless encourages him to join the priesthood, as it needs men like him.

The film possesses a distinctly realist feel. This is achieved, for example, by many unbroken long, restless takes by the highly acclaimed director of photography Vladislav Opelyants, as well as hand-held sequences. The lighting is notably realistic and captures the cool natural daylight of Baltic Kaliningrad, where the film is set. The concrete breakwaters of Kaliningrad’s pier suggest ruins, in the context perhaps the ruins of the Soviet Union.

In addition, Serebrennikov used a large number of non-professional actors. The musical score communicates dissonant and tragic elements that contrast ironically with the sinister-sounding Slovenian metal rock hit “God is God” over the opening menu and closing credits.

Increasingly, the school appears to be changing into a church. The teaching staff, with the exception of Elena, have no arguments to counter the growth of fundamentalist religious ideas, no ideological defence. What hope is there? Only the film can tell.