A compelling commentary on Russian imperialism: “No Nation Without Culture” at the goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film4 min read
Vladlena Sandu’s No Nation Without Culture provides insight into a leadership cult reminiscent of Soviet times. It criticises Russian imperialism, and draws parallels to the Soviet era, both in terms of personality cults and also in how ethnic minorities are used and disposed of.
The 17-minutes long short film starts with Sandu introducing her hometown of Grozny, the capital city in the Russian republic of Chechnya which she and her family left in 1998 due to the Russo-Chechen war. More than 20 years later, in 2021, Sandu has returned to make a feature film about the war, titled Memory. After this brief introduction, the film cuts to a large portrait of Vladimir Putin overlooking a road, while dramatic orchestral music plays in the background. Images of Putin, the current leader of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, and Kadyrov’s father, also former leader of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, are shown looking down on the population of Chechnya from various buildings: police stations, ministry buildings, a medical college, and various schools. The camera pans over the city, showing us all the places where the leaders of Chechnya and Russia are present, looking down on the inhabitants. Sandu comments on how when she grew up, there were pictures of Lenin everywhere; today, the pictures are of the more recent leaders, but the message is the same.
The film is relatively quiet. There is not much dialogue, which could be understood as a remark on how opposition is silenced in Russia. While the leaders’ watchful eyes are observing you at all times, people are scared into silence. Essentially, the only narration in the film is the address or name of the building where the portraits of the leaders are located. Otherwise, the film is accompanied by orchestral music which grows in various crescendos throughout.
Midway through the film, Sandu changes tack, and looks back to the Chechen and Ingush deportations of the Stalin era. Contrasting stark colours with a dark message, the film relays the past, and illustrates how minorities were violently oppressed. Old archival footage is then screened, showing the happy workers in Grozny and people flocking to place flowers at a statue of Lenin in celebration of May Day. Half a million people were deported during the Soviet time, and the use of the old footage shows the falsehood between the lived experiences of people and the happy propaganda the state showcased. Sandu then returns to showing even more images of the three modern leaders.
Stalin was once portrayed as the father of the Soviet Union and all its people, a message which was broadcasted via posters showing Stalin with various children. Youth organisations like the Pioneers and the Komsomol were part of indoctrinating youth into the Soviet spirit from an early age. In No Nation Without Culture, we see this idea be repeated with both Kadyrov and Putin taking the patriarchal role, as illustrated by their place of prominence in schools. In one classroom in Grozny, there is a “Patriotic Corner” with images of both Kadyrov and Putin. From a young age, children are taught the faces of the leaders, and to revere them.
In Chechnya, they go one step further as these children are also taught to defend their land. At one point, the film shows young children dressed in military gear from a propaganda film released after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The children are shouting, proclaiming how, together with Russia, they are invincible, and that no other power is as mighty as Russia. The scene ends with all the children screaming “We are the reserve.”
History repeating itself also comes back as Sandu focuses in the final minutes of her film on Russia’s war in Ukraine. When the war broke out, 12,000 Chechen soldiers were sent to fight in Ukraine, an action popular with Putin who prefers conscripts from ethnic minorities in the peripheral regions in order to maintain stability in the centres of power. The film highlights the centre-periphery imbalance that exists in Russia, and which existed in the Soviet Union, and the exposed status of minorities in Russia, who end up suffering at the whim of the autocratic leaders of the country.
The film is a protest against Russian imperialism, and how Russia uses its power to destroy entire nations and peoples. It draws on parallels to the Soviet Union, on the leadership cult present then and now, and how ethnic minorities in Russia are used and disposed of by the state. Either through deportations, as in 1944, or through being sent to the frontlines of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Sandu skilfully merges the present with the past and shows us that while it may take different forms, history does repeat itself. The film’s title stems from a quote by Akhmad Kadyrov, “Without culture there is no nation,” and it is clear that this is Russia’s goal in relation to the nations under its influence. Dictatorship and imperialism lead to the destruction of culture, and we need to stop history repeating itself before it’s too late.