Trans-Siberian Brooklyn by Sophie Pinkham

How the films in BAM’s TransCultural Express: American and Russian Arts Today shed light on the similarity between Siberia and Brooklyn.


On one of the first hot days of summer, I sank into an armchair in the swanky Soho House screening room. Beside me was an Upper East Side type with big gold earrings, slicked-back gray hair, and massive sunglasses. The women of the West Village, overdressed as always but more naked than usual, were strolling down the street outside; I propped my feet up on an ottoman and watched a Belarusian peasant dig his own grave. The film was In the Fog, Sergei Loznitsa’s rather heavy-handed morality tale about World War II partisans and collaborators. (Spoiler alert: collaborators will be punished.)

This exercise in contrasts, organized for those of us too lazy to go to Brooklyn, was part of TransCultural Express: American and Russian Arts Today, a three-year “cultural exchange” between the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Russia’s Mikhail Prokhorov Fund. In the words of Irina Prokhorova, Mikhail’s older sister and one of Moscow’s most prominent intellectuals, the exchange is “not between Washington and Moscow, but between Brooklyn and Siberia.” This year, BAM is hosting screenings of new Russian films and a new print of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia; an original project by Russian artist Irina Korina; and a talk by prominent Russian opposition journalist Masha Gessen and her little brother Keith. Meanwhile, Siberian institutions are hosting American dance performances and films, a project by Brooklyn artist Rachel Owens, and a talk by The New Yorker’s Ian Frazier, who wrote a book about traveling in Siberia.

Prokhorov—who ran for president in Russia’s last election and is best known in New York for having bought the Nets, and for investing heavily in the Barclays Center—is a controversial figure. Some consider him an example of the “pocket opposition,” pacifying liberals by creating the illusion of democracy. Others object to his unapologetic capitalism, and energetic efforts to dismantle Russia’s remaining worker benefits. Some hate him on principle, feeling that it is not possible to be an oligarch without being a criminal. But others admire his (or perhaps his sister’s) much-needed support of high culture, free speech, and civil society. (Read more on the Prokhorovs’ philanthropy here)

Appropriately enough, the BAM series opened with a movie about a Brooklynite’s travels across Siberia. In 2000, the musician John Forte, a native of Brownsville, was arrested at Newark International Airport with a suitcase full of liquid cocaine. He served seven years before having his sentence commuted. In 2011, with the permission of his parole officer, Forte made a tour through Russia, performing and recording with a variety of artists and making a documentary, The Russian Winter. The documentary is shot like a music video, but it’s full of moving moments. With his huge dreadlocks, Forte stands in Red Square in the snow, talking about how lucky he felt to be released from prison; throughout the film, he has a touchingly sad, hesitant look. As a black American in Russia, Forte ought to be a stranger in a strange land. There are the inevitable quarrels about punctuality, complaints about the food. But Forte emphasizes not his sense of foreignness, but his alienation from his own country, and his identification with Russians. In one scene, the famous Russian rock critic Artemy Troitsky says he admires Russian women, but has a low opinion of Russian men, who drink heavily, work rarely, and go to seed early. Forte takes a more sympathetic view, observing a certain similarity with young black men who struggle with drugs and alcohol and have trouble finding a place in American society.

Some of the TransCultural Express films were remarkably good illustrations of the idea of cultural exchange, and of the clash between different sectors of Russian society. Kokoko, a parable about the fraught relationship between Russia’s intelligentsia and “common people,” was witty and well observed, playing cleverly on cultural stereotypes. It is the story of Liza, an ethnographer and typical St. Petersburg intellectual (liberal, repressed, frumpy) and Vika, a provincial woman of low morals (foul-mouthed, promiscuous, good at scrubbing floors). After the women are robbed on a train, Liza, whose previous fixer-uppers include a tubercular, alcoholic Aleut, invites Vika to stay, setting out to teach her about art and literature and find her a classy job. Liza’s efforts, which seem spurred as much by ethnographic curiosity as by compassion, do not end well. The film was directed and co-written by Avdotya Smirnova, a prominent figure in Russian film; it is a good reminder of the fresh perspective brought by women directors and screenwriters.

Prokhorov told the New York Post, “For me, it’s very sad to see the U.S. relationship [with Russia] is getting worse and worse all the time…We have a lot in common…we’re countries with big territory, multi-national, and a very good level of culture.” This is true. But there are other, darker similarities. Like the United States, Russia is a country of prisons, with extraordinarily high incarceration rates due largely to misguided drug policies. Forte learned to sing and play guitar in prison; I wonder if he ever learned about Russia’s long tradition of prison music. When Forte says, toward the end of The Russian Winter, “I felt more love here than I felt at home in the two years since I got out of prison,” it’s a testament to his ability to see what the United States and Russia have in common, rather than what divides them.

TransCultural Express: American and Russian Arts Today is the product of a new partnership between the Mikhail Prokhorov Fund and BAM. View the full program for the series here

Sophie Pinkham studies Russian literature and culture at Columbia University.

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