The dark charm of Russian nihilistic entertainment

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The leader of the Universe gang, Vova — Marat’s brother — has just come back from the harrowing Soviet-Afghan war. Despite the horrors he witnessed, he appears unaffected, and his peers show no curiosity about his experiences. This sets the tone for the series: a world so void of meaning that it becomes impenetrable. Director Zhora Kryzhovnikov confines the camera to the stark, rectilinear apartment blocks, never venturing beyond. While the period details are strikingly accurate, the true essence of Kazan remains elusive. The plot oscillates between frenetic activity and inertia.

The play unfolds during a pivotal moment in history. Everyone senses the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, yet the future remains uncertain. In a rare moment of effective irony, Vova muses about what lies ahead. “I listened to Gorbachev,” he says. “They say in a year or two we’ll be like America. Or maybe better.” My family emigrated in 1989, and I vividly recall the disappointment and humiliation of those years. We should have had VCRs, but instead, gangsterism filled the void left by the collapsed institutions. The “Kazan phenomenon” of the 1980s evolved into the Russian mafia of the 1990s, which ravaged post-Soviet democracy until a frustrated Kremlin ceded power to Vladimir Putin, who essentially turned organized crime into a form of governance. Today, his worldview, which emphasizes strength over weakness, is deeply entrenched in the national psyche.

Critiquing bad Russian TV is easy, but “The Boy’s Word” has a deeply unsettling core: it serves as a warning about the erosion of moral reasoning to the point where violence becomes the default response. In a scathing online review, critic Platon Besedin remarked 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 critiques: we may not fight over VCRs, but Besedin would likely find little to praise in “Street Fighter 6” or “Deadpool & Wolverine.” And if he’s unaware of “MILF Manor,” it’s best not to enlighten him.

In the final scene of “The Boy’s Word,” Andrey is in a penal colony, playing the piano as the boys in front of him sing. The scene is tense, controlled, yet almost unbalanced, and may be the show’s best. Andrey emerges as a new man, poised for the new world he has helped shape. He finishes with a glissando, his fingers gliding across the keyboard. Then the show ends, and Russia begins.

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