A Severe Young Man (Suvoryi Yunak)

"A Severe Young Man" is a projection into the nearest Communist future where Soviet people are idealized, Komsomol members are trying to develop the topical moral and ethical code and keep ongoing discussions about the dialectics of power.

‘Characters are loitering about in this piece of art, come across each other, feel bored, start devising their moral complex because of idling, and, frowning, clarify whether an ordinary Komsomol member has the right to love professor’s wife’. That comment made by Arkadiy Belenkov about the literary source of the movie contains both a small hint at the fact how to watch this movie in order to get viewer’s satisfaction. And little is needed – to forget about the linear plot, about logic and justification of actions, about depth and psychology of characters. Since A Severe Young Man is not a realistic movie, it does not even represent social realism. That is a poetic movie not that much about the new Soviet reality and daily life in the 1930s as about the idealized world of the nearest classless future; a movie about futuristic ideas and images filmed mainly in Odesa.  

At the age of three the would-be script writer of A Severe Young Man, Yuriy Olesha, comes from Yelysavetgrad (now Kropyvnytskyi) to Odesa. Having finished the Richelieu grammar school with honours, he starts writing verses, at the same time he studies jurisprudence at Odesa University, plays football rather well. It is on the football field that Olesha gets acquainted with writer Valentyn Katayev, the elder brother of Yevhen Petrov – future co-author of Illia Ilf. They became the core of the ‘collective of poets’, a creative association of post-revolutionary Odesa admirers of verse form. They would also all work in the Moscow railroaders’ newspaper Hudok.    


Yuriy Olesha writes a script for a film / cinema play in 1934 and publishes it in the August edition of Novyi Mir. He writes it for a specific film director Abram Room – a graduate of Petrograd Institute of Psycho-Neurology (where a lot of outstanding Kulturtragers of that epoch studied like Dzyga Vertov, Mikhail Koltsov and Georgiy Tasin – a film director and director of Odesa and Yalta Film Factories), he was trained to become a doctor, but became one of the most famous Soviet film directors. The main female part – that of professor Stepanov’s wife – was written for his 35-year-old wife Olga Zhizneva. And one of Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s favourite actors Petro Masokh failed in the casting for the role of the ‘severe young man’. Finally, Dmitry Konsovskyi started playing the part of the Komsomol member, and after his arrest (the actor was detained almost during the film production upon the accusation of the murder of Kirov) was replaced at the filming location by Dmitry Dorlian.  A graduate of operator department of Odesa Film Technical School Yuriy Yekelchyk was in charge of the visual organization of the movie, and by that time he had already worked with Danylo Demutskyi at Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s Ivan.

A Severe Young Man is a projection into the nearest Communist future where Soviet people are idealized, Komsomol members are trying to develop the topical moral and ethical code and keep ongoing discussions about the dialectics of power. The plot intrigue of the movie is based on the love triangle: professor Stepanov, his wife Masha and Komsomol member Grisha Fokin. Masha, on getting into a trap between the past order, embodied in her husband, and the new social regime, represented by the ‘severe young man’ Fokin, is trying to find a way out of this irritating situation throughout the movie.

It was not the first time that Room worked with this topic. As of the moment A Severe Young Man was created, the director was already notorious for his scandalous movie Tretia Mishchanska of 1927 – the screen version of the script written by a formalist Viktor Shklovskyi.

Inspired by a real dramatic story by Mayakovskiy, Osip and Lilia Brik, Room offered his viewers the study of the ‘dull daily life of ordinary people’, new sexual policy and ethics that did away with the conservative bourgeois project of nuclear family and heterosexual marriage.

And still, in spite of the single love triangle, there is a political and aesthetic abyss between Tretia Mishchanska and A Severe Young Man – lying in Soviet daily life issues. It was by no accident that one of the first titles of A Severe Young Man was Daily Life Commissar (Pobutovyi Komisar). It was in the 1930s that the image of the Soviet hero changed as the result of critical remarks claiming that daily life prevents from revealing the true essence of the new Soviet individual. Since a real Soviet individual is much better than his or her withered daily copy. Modern heroics is just buried under the thick layer of daily life, getting rid of which the Soviet individual will appear in a new, poetic image. Both Olesha and Room reject daily life and reality in favour of the utopian and imaginary world of Soviet antiquity. In 1934 the script was unanimously approved in Kyiv and Moscow and included in advance to the outstanding movies that would come out in the first quarter of 1935.

According to Olesha’s intention, one could film ideal people and utopian world only in Odesa – the city of his childhood. In the spring of 1935 the main nature grounds were already filmed: ‘stadium’, railway station, city locations (former dacha of Ashkenazi on the French Boulevard; Strohanov bridge; Shevchenko Park; the stairs of the Opera House; child TB sanatorium on the Fountain Road). The film was also shot later in the pavilions of the Kyiv Film Studio, and the work at the movie was completed in the second quarter of 1936. But already on June 10 – after revision of a rough copy of edited A Severe Young Man – there appeared the resolution of Ukrayinfilm with the accusation of the absence of the ideological core in the movie, of philosophical pessimism and deviation from the socialist realism style. So, the movie that had been contrived as the ‘right’ one, topical and that of social realism was banned and shelved.

 A Severe Young Man, called at the preparatory stages Discoball, Daily Life Commissar (Pobutovyi Komisar) and Fairy-Tale Komsomol Member (Kazkovyi Komsomolets), cannot be fancied in the 1920s. And vice versa, Room’s movie was highly sensitive to the cultural and political agenda and perfectly illustrated the transformations taking place with Soviet individuals not just at the ideological, but at the aesthetic, bodily and cinematographic levels in mid-1930s. 

In the early 1930s the revolutionary romantic project of comparative Communism was replaced with a traditionally nationally, imperial, police and hierarchical project of Stalinism. It was in that period that history was re-written: loyalty to the revolutionary moment was replaced for the rehabilitation of the Tsar autocracy.

The first Soviet ideologists rejected historical narratives and commemoration practices of the Russian Empire. Even more: they rejected the very notion of ‘national history’, urging to do away with the past.

The new regime went even further, proclaiming history as unnecessary, removing it from Soviet school curricula and introducing ‘society studies’ and ‘political literacy’ instead. In 1931 classical history was brought back to schools. Stalin ideologists started actively rehabilitating the notion of ‘patriotism’ – Russian, though. And it was in spite of the fact that only in the previous decade, in the 1920s, the first Soviet encyclopaedia defined it as ‘reactionary ideology’. Russian classical music and literature, condemned before as those of ‘nobility’ or ‘bourgeoisie’, were also supported by the regime.

In Petrov’s Peter the Great (Petro Pershyi) of 1937, Eisenstein’s Aleksander Nevsky of 1938 the image of the leader – Stalin – could easily be recognized. In the 1920s romanticization of the monarchical hero would inadvertently lead to a row since the revolutionary masses were the then Soviet hero. At the same time rehabilitation of Danylo Halytskyi and Bohdan Khmelnytskyi (filmed by Igor Savchenko in 1941) was launched in the Soviet Ukraine.

While the main pathos of ideological and cultural projects of the 1920s lies in equality, and not that of classes, but urbanistic, sexual and biological one (communal space, new theories of emancipated sexuality), approximately since 1931 a large-scale campaign aimed at criticizing and discrediting of ‘leveling’ was launched.  ‘Leveling in the domain of needs and daily life is a reactionary nonsense invented by petty bourgeoisie. To say that everybody must wear the same clothes and eat the same dishes means to neglect Marxism’, – said Stalin, hinting at the appearance of a new social norm. Or rather legitimization of social inequality and appearance of new Soviet ‘aristocracy’ that would live not in communal apartments, but in ‘Stalinkas’ (Stalin-era buildings) which started being actively built.

A Severe Young Man seems to reflect all those trends, and professor Stepanov is a perfect representative of the new intelligentsia who reached the top of the social hierarchy. Rather illustrative is the dialogue in the movie between Grisha Fokin and his friend Discoball about the desirable and perfect power of one individual over another one, the power of a genius and outstanding socialism architects is rather illustrative. Behind all those euphemisms, certainly, the image of Stalin himself is hidden. ‘He is not a banker – he is a great scientist, a genius, do you get it?.. The influence of an elevated mind stands for perfect authority’. Such dogmatic approval of creative genius and new inequality by an ideal Komsomol member Grisha Fokin constitutes a fanciful elaboration of Stalin’s new language. However, Room, in the opinion of Ukrayinfilm, did not cope with the task and depicted doctor Stepanov, an outstanding representative of Soviet intelligentsia (read Stalin) Soviet youth were admiring as an arrogant and dim-witted whip-cracker.  

At the same time erotic and aesthetic canons of the Soviet culture were changing. Libertarianism and free sexuality of the 1920s (one should meet his or her sexual wishes without following any conventionalities, like one quenches thirst) are disappearing from culture and cinema. Love plotlines get dull in the background of production and daily problems and are criticized as the tribute to vulgar Americanism. Body is de-eroticized en masses, naked body disappeared from the public space, from fashion magazines and from advertisements. Sexuality is disciplined and normalized. Monogamy is idealized, while out-of-marriage relations (the sign of progressive sexuality of the 1920s) are discredited. Over three years homosexualism (in 1934), pornography (in 1935) and abortions (in 1936) were criminalized. The very understanding of beauty is re-conceived – primarily, female beauty. A non-pretty androgynous woman wearing a kerchief and an unfashioned work uniform – a star of the 1930s – is struggling not that much for love as for emancipation. Even more than that, beauty is a mirage and a drug, the first symptom of the social. In the 1930s the newly appointed head of the cinematography committee Boris Shumiatskyi already demands to depict Soviet individuals as handsome unlike the bourgeosie iconography that depicted proletarians and peasants as ugly people, ‘Vankas’ and ‘Matrioshkas’. Eroticism, respectively, is projected into the production field, and the only orgasm of a Soviet individual is orgasm at the lathe. 

What art could most fully reproduce the new social reality? In 1932 transition was made from constructivism to neoclassicism, and since 1933 ‘mastering of the classical heritage’ is announced in ‘regular ‘creative discussions’ to be the only working method of Soviet architects. The term ‘socialist realism’ was approved at the 1st All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, where Gorky had a speech about the new method as a creative program aiming to implement humanistic ideas. Rather vague definitions were confusing and blurred the expectations of those who anticipated some clear signals from the top. Still, some formal features of social realism were rooted in personal aesthetic tastes of Stalin who felt confident and comfortable in the world of Russian classics, antiquity, renaissance and Russian realistic painting art of the XIXth century. Within the framework of classical culture rehabilitation the works written by literature classics started being re-published, and theatres were proclaimed to be followers of the great traditions of the domestic culture – Little, the Bolshoi Theatre, and also the Moscow Academic Art Theater. Thus, the social realism project appeared to be literally conservative, while ‘the Soviet Union remained the only keeper of cultural heritage given up by the bourgeoisie’.

What is the recipe of the right movie of social realism style? Primarily, its ‘cinematographic nature’ should be neutralized, the medium should be made transparent, clear and authentic, it should be subordinated to the plot function. With this in view it is necessary to restore the integrity of the character, classicistic unity of place, action and time, ‘destroyed’ by the revolutionary art. Such transfer stands for rejection of avant-garde experiments with their depiction and commencement of the domination of classical narrative film  following the best Hollywood samples.

One cannot find all this in A Severe Young Man since, as we remember, ‘characters are loitering about in this piece of art’. The neo-classical turn of the Stalin culture is represented in the movie about the Communist future with ancient iconography. Here not just architecture and sculpture are meant, but also excess of naked body and shot composition. Soviet Komsomol members are not just loitering in the movie – as real Olympic sportsmen they drive kvadrigas and get some training in discus throwing. But they do all that very slowly, surprising the viewer brought up in the traditions of the Soviet edited movie. Slowed down bodily movements, restrained editing and operator’s work make cinematographic Komsomol members reanimated statues – a bright illustration of the assumed Stalin’s reconciliation between the past and the present. 

Still, in spite of the use of topical cultural trends of Stalinism, A Severe Young Man is a failed social realism film. And not the least due to a non-trivial operator Yuriy Yekelchyk who skillfully deforms the space and the perspective, changes the proportions and lighting. But, in the opinion of Stalin critics, he does this without any grounds, even formalistically. And the very anti-formalistic, as well as anti- bourgeois, anti-nationalist campaign was launched in that very 1936 when a hard-hitting article was published in Pravda against Ivan Kavaleridze’s Prometheus. And already Yekelchyk was accused by party censors of gross deviations from the style of social realism, formalistic tricks, pursuit of outer beauty and mystic unbodily nature of forms. Finally, the history of the ban of A Severe Young Man is the story of a surrealistic movie that got stuck somewhere in between two political and aesthetic projects (avant-garde and Stalinism). The old world was disappearing, and the promised utopia was never brought into life.