Lost in Transition - Memory, Trauma and the Image in Larisa Shepitko's "Wings" [1966]

Research Paper (undergraduate) 2009 14 Pages

Communications - Movies and Television


Table of Contents


The Thaw and the 'Third Space'

Dressed in Borrowed Robes

Adopted Children, Orphaned Mothers

The Objects of Memory

Intimate Pasts

Incommensurable Distances

Performance and enactment



~ Introduction

The so-called 'Thaw period' of Soviet cinema which followed the death of Stalin in 1953 and the radical redirection of Soviet cultural life under the first years of Khrushchev, saw an unprecedented departure in terms of subject matter and cinematic styles away from the despotic and paradoxical strictures of socialist realism of the war years and the late 1940s. (Woll:2000:4-7.) Seminal films of the period such as Marlen Khutsiev's July Rain ( Iulskii dozhd', 1967) and I am Twenty ( Mne dvatsat' let, 1965) as well as the film under discussion here, Larisa Shepitko's Wings ( Kryl'ia, 1966) offered Soviet audiences very different narratives and protagonists from those they had previously been accustomed to under the Stalinist fiats of socialist realism.(Woll:2000:210) Crucially the conventional presentation of a 'positive hero' was largely absent in the films of the time. As more complex characters emerged free from such formulaic ideological imperatives, other narrative tensions in the form of generational conflicts and social disaffection were able to be explored. In this essay I would like to explore how Larisa Shepitko's choice of protagonist reflects a contested idea of the Thaw in Soviet culture in which the war acts as a pivotal point of dramatic reference.

Graduating in 1963 having been under Alexander Dovzhenko's tutelage at the VGIK directors institute in Moscow, Larisa Shepitko's controversial first film Heat ( Znoy, 1963) addressed political and generational conflict in the rural hardships of the barren steppes. Her second film Wings was released in 1966 and presented an even more controversial treatment of her central subject. Eliciting a quiet and baronial performance from Maya Bulgakova as Petrukhina, a disenchanted schoolmistress in a provincial town, Shepitko addresses the personal tragedy of her protagonist, a former wartime fighter pilot whose lover is killed in action, within the contexts of generational disconnection and alienation of mid-1960s Soviet society.

~ The Thaw and the 'Third Space'

The release of Wings in 1966 could not have come at a more culturally contested time in the Soviet Union. While it is common to speak of the Thaw as having effectively ended as a political force with the fall of Khrushchev in 1964, to speak of there being such a thing as a distinct period called 'The Thaw' is perhaps misleading insofar as it over simplifies the cultural and political dynamics of the period. To distinguish the Thaw period as a time of 'greater tolerance for diversity, ambiguity, particularity and difference ' (Condee:2000:163) might well be equally reflective of an uncertainty about a clear direction for Soviet culture in the years after 1964 than it is about any sense of a movement of liberalisation before it. Khrushchev's leadership was crucially premised on a rejection of the repressive political inheritance of Stalin. This had a profound impact on Soviet culture and the arts. The process of liberalisation which followed the disavowals of Stalinism in the secret speech of 1956 was made possible by the removal of restrictive party constraints on culture; this also had the potentially dangerous side-effect of removing ideological certainty from Soviet life. (Tumarkin:1994:132)

Although official descriptions of cultural activity were still set out in symbolically combative terms,[1] these attempts at official circumscription were not met in kind by a post-war generation eager to establish a youth movement rather than just live in an era of less restriction. The Sixties youth taking part in the more vital cultural exchanges of the Thaw strove to reject official forms of cultural discourse which were still couched in the militaristic terms of the older generation. (Condee:2000:164) The tension between the war generation and the desire for change of those not old enough to have fought at the front was not cast in the preferred oppositional terms of the older generation. The Thaw generation's encounter with authority took the form of a 'lateral shift' (Condee:2000:165) in the terms of political engagement; none more so than in the new terms of artistic discourse. These new discourses necessitated new protagonists who undermined the old totalizing ideological tropes of the heroic and the epic. The new emphasis was on the individual and the particular, privileging the subjective voice of present experience over an appeal to narratives about collective memory and positive heroes.

One of the principal aims of Khrushchev's political address of 1956 was to establish an authoritative political 'Third Space' (Condee: 2000:168) for an older generation who were eager to be seen as both a legitimate authority figures as well as being new in their thinking, thereby neither recklessly young and counter-revolutionary or responsible for the repressive excesses of a Stalinist past. This shift of ideological focus towards a 'Third Space' might be taken as being as much about the Realpolitik of the retention of political legitimacy during the project of de-Stalinisation than one of a genuine desire for greater cultural liberalisation. The Thaw as characterised by greater tolerance for self-expression, although instigated by a desire for greater and fresher expressions of a post-personality cult, and modern Soviet Union by Khrushchev, was not lead by him. Ultimately the Thaw was regarded as having taken on a life of its own and was quashed.

Insofar as there can be said to be a failure of adherents of this 'Third Space' to maintain control over the expressions of artistic freedom and non-conformity they sanctioned without resorting to authoritarian measures (Condee:2000:160-161) during Khrushchev's leadership, one might argue that a reversion to type was well under way by the time of Brezhnev's victory day speech in 1965 praising Stalin.

Critical disapproval in official circles meant that Wings was initially only shown to an audience of around 8 million within the USSR. (Woll: 2000: 218-9) However the strength of Maya Bulgakova's performance ensured she was the emphatic winner of the 1966 national award for best actress. Official discomfort about the treatment of the war and the dissatisfaction with ordinary life depicted in the film could itself be said to be a reflection of the themes explored by Shepitko's drama. The certainty of wartime moral purpose and the high regard for a paternalistic authority in the form of Stalin were hard to separate in the minds of those who lived through the war. Equally, the post-war generation saw an awkward rigidity and naivety in the conservative instincts of their parents' generation. Shepitko's heroine is ill at ease in a society that regards complexity and ambiguity as progressive and liberating. In the sense that she is a woman out of place in the modern Soviet Union, it might be argued that Petrukhina represents an image of the failure of an authority figure whose generational heritage and self-definition had become classed as pejorative and was therefore unable to fit in with the Thaw period.


[1] Slogans such as “warriors on the ideological front” (Condee:2000:164)


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University of Cambridge – Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages
soviet cinema larisa shepitko 1966 thaw period Wings Memory Loss Cinema soviet union USSR VGIK WW2



Title: Lost in Transition - Memory, Trauma and the Image in Larisa Shepitko's "Wings" [1966]