New Reviews

Haunted Dreams: Fantasies of Adolescence in Post-Soviet Culture

Haunted Dreams: Fantasies of Adolescence in Post-Soviet Culture. Jenny Kaminer. Ithaca: Northern Illinois University Press, 2022. 204 pages.

Haunted Dreams: Fantasies of Adolescence in Post-Soviet Culture by Jenny Kaminer considers the changes in perceptions of and attitudes to the image of adolescence in Russia and traces the development of this image in relation to the historical and political context. The aim of this monograph is to show how the young adult hero forms the backdrop for the projection of countless fears and fervent hopes in the turbulent years since the dissolution of the USSR. The author seeks to answer the question of whether the Soviet models (especially heroism and martial values) persist in post-Soviet Russia and how the fantasies about youth are reflected in modern Russian culture. Kaminer focuses on two main models—idealization of youth and youth as a threat—and sheds particular light on tropes such as violence, temporality, gender (issues of masculinity and hyperfemininity), and the body. To this end, Kaminer presents an in-depth analysis of individual texts with teenage protagonists, considering literary works as well as plays, films, and TV series of early and modern post-Soviet Russia. The author divides the selection of primary texts into four chapters, each reflecting a different perspective on what Nancy Lesko calls the ‘romance with adolescence’—‘an outsized belief in the potential of youth to ensure progress and the improvement of the human condition’ (2). This concept intertwines adolescence with heroism but, on the other hand, also captures the inverted perception of adolescence as a nightmare.

In Chapter One, ‘The Ghost of Adolescence Past’, Kaminer focuses on writings that present the figure of the adolescent saviour, a self-sacrificing victim detached from violence as a new vision of the Soviet myth of heroism. The author compares the images of the main characters in Svetlana Vasilenko’s 1998 novel Little Fool (Durochka) and Anna Melikian’s 2007 film Mermaid (Rusalka) to the figure of the Soviet martyr Zoya Kosmodemianskaia, one of the ‘wartime ideals’ (7) with which the Soviet state conveyed its values and promoted patriotic sentiments. The opposition of youthful heroes to the consumerism imposed by capitalism is also considered in the context of these works. Furthermore, Kaminer highlights the rejection of corporality as a move against the hyperfemininity characteristic of the post-Soviet space, showing how the Christian values of pre-revolutionary Russia offer a logical path towards post-Soviet development.

In Chapter Two, ‘Adolescence as Nightmare’, Kaminer continues to uncover the persistence of Soviet myths about adolescence in contemporary Russia. The author begins her analysis by examining the myth of martyrdom in the horror genre in Anna Starobinets’s 2005 story An Awkward Age (Perekhodnyi Vozrast). She concludes by describing the immoral (and even murderous) consequences of adults’ mistaken belief in and empowerment of a false saviour-teenager in Marina Liubakova’s 2007 film Cruelty (Zhestokost’) and Kirill Serebrennikov’s 2016 film The Student (Uchenik), along with his earlier 2014 play The Martyr (Muchenik), on which the film is based. In this way, the author manages to trace the transition from martyrdom to violence in the portrayal of the youthful protagonists. These works reveal an increasingly disturbing vision of Lesko’s ‘romance with adolescence’, leading into the theme of the threat of adolescence.

Chapter Three, ‘Violent Imaginings’, analyses three plays written by Russian authors—Vasily Sigarev, Iury Klavdiev and Iaroslava Pulinovich—in the 2000s. Adolescence is not treated retrospectively in these works: It has no clear connection to adult reality because the authors, who were in their early twenties at the time, have only recently left adolescence behind themselves. Kaminer highlights the characteristic feature of these texts, namely the combination of heroism (not on the level of the collective, as in the texts described in Chapter One, but on the personal level, as the teenager strives to become the hero of his own life) and violence both on the part of the teenager and on the part of society. Considering the plays as ‘universal texts’ (Bolotian 38), the author incorporates psychoanalytical ideas that focus on the central role of fantasy in the teenager’s development. According to Kaminer, ‘the heroes of contemporary youth literature overcome the banality and limited agency of their everyday lives by wielding power in fantastic realms’ (89). She distinguishes between the passive ‘dreaminess’ characterised by isolation and withdrawal and the more active ‘creative imagination’ that seeks embodiment in reality (Vygotsky 41). Kaminer focuses on how the ‘creative’ violent dreams herald ‘the mutation of “romance with adolescence” into adolescence as nightmare’ (102) and cloud the promise of the post-Soviet future.

In the final chapter, ‘Specters in the Schoolhouse’, the author examines the scandalous series School (Shkola) by Valeria Gai Germanika, which aired on state television in 2010. She analyses it in the context of Lesko’s concepts of the ‘panoptical time’, which foregrounds the need ‘to fulfill a prescribed temporal narrative’ (Kaminer 11) in order to achieve the goal towards which all adolescents must move (adulthood), and the ‘panoptical gaze’ from the outside, which aims to regulate this development, highlighting the fine line between adolescence and adulthood. In her discussion of Gai Germanika’s vision of youth, Kaminer describes the volatile and often harmful consequences of allowing people of all ages freedom from the constraints of the panoptical time, outlining that the boundaries between youth and adulthood need to be strengthened. Furthermore, Kaminer asserts that modern Russian adolescents cannot get rid of the Soviet past; however, the consumerist future also remains out of reach for them, which results in what she calls a ‘chronotopic dilemma’ (106). The everlasting presence of the Soviet legacy is particularly highlighted in her comparison of shots from the School series with frames from the Soviet film Scarecrow (Chuchelo) (1983, dir. Rolan Bykov), both of which show an almost identical classroom. As an indicator of the strong influence of the Soviet heritage, this detail, alongside other similar episodes, noticeably clashes with the need for development and progress in post-Soviet Russia.

Based on the above analysis, Kaminer concludes that the ‘romance with adolescence’ has clearly survived in twenty-first century Russia. To further confirm this idea, she cites as an example the Russian public’s indifferent attitude towards the figure of Greta Thunberg as a ‘false prophet’ (129) and highlights real-life events that reflect fictional insights into adolescent fantasy as a cause of youthful aggression. In the context of emulating Soviet models, the author concludes that it remains to be seen whether the state will succeed in enforcing its fantasies or whether young people will be able to pursue their own dreams on their own terms. The dubiousness of the latter option becomes clear when one follows the fate of Philip, the hero of Andrei Loshak’s 2018 documentary Age of Dissent (Vozrast nesoglasiia), mentioned in the introduction, who is presented as a teenager dreaming of ‘saving Russia’. Kaminer’s conclusion reflects how, after Philip spends a few days in prison, this dream turns into a desire to leave the country. Thus, the author comes to a fair conclusion that the future of Russia remains undetermined.

Overall, this book offers a profound and multi-faceted analysis of the different ways in which the figure of the Russian teenager is perceived, tracing the changing attitudes towards it from the collapse of the USSR to the present. Kaminer provides a deep insight into Russian culture, citing not only primary texts but also numerous references to works in various media genres. Moreover, she addresses the peculiarities of the language of these texts by explaining the meaning of some Russian words and expressions that may not be familiar to English-speaking readers. The book also contributes to the discussion on the image of the teenager in culture in general, with a focus on the post-Soviet context. Some of the themes presented in the book, such as heroism and the state-imposed militarisation of youth, as well as the question of Russia’s uncertain future, take on greater significance considering the recent events of 2022. In light of the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, the importance of engaging with the discussions and conclusions initiated by Kaminer’s book becomes ever more necessary.

Iana Nikitenko
University of Glasgow

Works Cited

Bolotian, Ilmira. ‘“Novaia drama” kak teatral’no-dramaturgicheskoe dvizhenie’. Noveishaia russkaia drama i kul’turnyi kontekst. Eds. S. P. Lavlinskii, I. V. Podkovyrin. Kemerovo: Kemerovskii gosudarstvennyi universitet, 2010, 26–50.

Lesko, Nancy. Act Your Age! A Cultural Construction of Adolescence. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Vygotsky, Lev. ‘Imagination and Creativity in Childhood’. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology 42, no. 1 (2004): 7–97.