Vanished Empire, The

(Ischeznuvshaya Imperiya) Russian Film

By Lark Aldrin-Clement

“The Vanished Empire,” the new drama from veteran director Karen Shakhnazarov, tells the story of 18-Year-Old Sergey Narbekov (Alexander Lyapin) as he is consumed by first love, struggles with academics, and seeks the respect of his chums.

A recognizable coming-of-age story, Sergey’s narrative is told against the backdrop of a crumbling Soviet Union in 1973. Similar to Shakhnazarov’s 1987 release “Kurer”, the new film again paints a story about bewildered youth during the volatile time of Communist Russia.
Consistently inebriated, Sergey pursues Lyuda (Lidiya Milyuzina), a pretty and angelic student at the local Moscow University that he and his friend, Stepan (Yegor Baranovsky) attend. With a swagger and an irresistible charm, he manages to entice Lyuda to date him. Although their relationship is rife with romantic tension, Sergey gets caught up in hooligan behavior with his friends and repeatedly disappoints his new girlfriend. She finally becomes so disenchanted with him that she ends up with Stepan who quietly and secretly pines for her while witnessing each painful moment.
A self-proclaimed dissident, Sergey continually engages in rebelliousness not only incorporating his personal politics but also his home life. When approached by his mother who accuses him of selling the rare books that belong to his grandfather, she takes the Rubles stuffed in the back pocket of his designer jeans and gives it to her father. Ironically he gives it back to Sergey to further indulge his desire for Western culture including black market LP’s of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Pink Floyd.
Sergey’s house- bound grandfather is a retired archaeologist who was partly responsible for unearthing the Ancient Khorezm, located in the modern republic of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. This early culture is also known as the “vanished empire” which is depicted as a surreal reference that represents a historical civilization that the Russian people are trying to hold on to. Random panning shots of the stone palaces are interspersed as Sergey splurges on vodka and marijuana. Inspired by his grandfather, he makes a pilgrimage to Khorezm as he feels his soul needs a recharge when his mother dies from stomach cancer and Lyuda announces that she is going to marry Stepan.
One of the film's most pertinent themes addresses the influence of American and British pop culture and the taboo of purchasing music albums surreptitiously from black marketers, while the Soviet Police pursue the offenders like drug addicts and their dealers. Sergey himself purchases what is promised to be a copy of the Stones’ newest album, “Goats Head Soup”, for Lyuda’s 18th birthday. Hoping to impress her, he excitedly sets the needle of the record player only to hear the melodious sounds of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”. It is one of the most poignant yet comedic moments of the film.
Newcomer Alexander Lyapin portrays Sergey with inherent knack for capturing the hot-headedness and tenderness that his conflicted character possesses. Although his character development is superbly crafted, to much chagrin, the supporting cast lacks expository growth. It is a far reach when Lyuda announces that she and Stepan are romantically involved. The people in Sergey’s world move like pieces on a chess board as he picks each one up and discards them. After he becomes drunk at a party, he forgets to meet Lyuda at a theater for a date. Too embarrassed to apologize, he goes on a trip with a pretty and free spirited girl, Katya (Yanina Kalganova) to the Black Sea. After a weekend romp, he realizes that he truly loves Lyuda, and abandons his fling with not a care in the world.
Shakhnazarov's directorial style is sharp as each event cuts dramatically to the next. Sergey is faced with a number of shocking discoveries and perhaps this is an attempt for the viewer to feel like a band-aid is being ripped off their own arm. Although, every occurrence is artfully presented with a tremendous authenticity of a sepia toned society brushed with a symbolic coat of red. The drabness of the cold streets and dull clothing are results of exemplary art direction. The film looks and feels like it was created in the 1970’s, but has a certain crispness that contemporary Russian films exemplify. With a modern flair, surrealism is kept to a minimum and only appears when the color red is used to represent communism, the devil, and the deep desire to return to what no longer exists.
As Sergey experiences trials and tribulations, his grandfather watches news footage, which lends a documentary-like timeline. From the 1973 Chilean coup resulting in the suicide of Marxist Socialist President Salvador Allende to the involvement of the U.S. in the Vietnam War, “The Vanished Empire” balances a tale of love and angst against the background of world relations and the crumbling of walls between them.
Cut to thirty years later, when a man presumed to be Sergey runs into his old friend Stepan at an airport. With cell phone in hand, they reminisce about the motherland and remind each other of the dissolution of their humble beginnings. Their “Vanished Empire” had truly disbanded.
Sergey Narbekov (Alexander Lyapin)
Lyuda Beletskaya (Lidiya Milyuzina)
Stepan Molodsov (Yegor Baranovsky)
Katia (Yanina Kalganova)

Director: Karen Shakhnazarov
Distributor: Kino International
Executive Producers: Galina Shadur
Producer: Karen Shakhnazarov
Screenplay: Sergey Rokotov, Evgeny Nikishov
Cinematography: Shandor Berkeshi
Production Design: Lyudmila Kusakova

Running time: 100 minutes