Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Different flags – same motherfuckers

ACTIVISM / A rough but cheerful taxi driver and vlogger becomes an unlikely dissident in Russia’s eastern corner.

Viktor Toroptsev seems an unlikely hero to feature in Far Eastern Golgotha, a documentary about radical grassroots activism in Russia’s Far East. A 30-something taxi driver who describes himself as not very intelligent or educated, Viktor is a chain-smoking, rabble-rousing redneck living in a small apartment in Siberia’s Khabarovsky Krai (region) with his two sons and wife Maria, whom he describes as coming from classic «peasant» stock.

But Viktor is aware of the inequalities of today’s Russia – particularly for those living in the hardscrabble towns of the Far East, a vast area that borders Russia’s Pacific coast and so far from Moscow that many describe European Russia as «the mainland».

Far Eastern Golgotha, a film by Julia Sergina
Far Eastern Golgotha, a film by Julia Sergina

Cheerful and stubborn

Julia Sergina’s engaging, almost monochrome film (interiors and winter exteriors seem uniformly near black and white, and the colour-grading seems as close to uncorrected as one can get away with) opens with Viktor giving viewers a Cook’s Tour of his hometown of Amursk, pointing out abandoned apartment blocks. Later in the film, when his car is impounded by the police on a flimsy pretext they admit is designed to punish him for his political activism, Viktor turns to scrap metal collection from the ruins of deserted villages to scratch a living with the help of a borrowed flat-bed truck.

What Viktor lacks in formal education or finesse – his rugged features and toothless grin (he lost his front teeth in a fight during his military days) project a cheerful menace – he makes up for in stubbornness.

He can see for himself how neglected his part of Russia is. So neglected that in the past 30 years the Far East has lost 22% of its population—amounting to around 1.8 million people. It is this neglect, and the political corruption and stagnation he sees all around, that drives him to set up his own YouTube channel to promote people power in the Far East – a region he swears he will never leave. His intention, as he puts it, is «to get between people».

As many as ten times zones further east than Russia’s westernmost region – Kaliningrad (formerly East Prussia)—the Far East’s potential may be lost on Moscow, but not on the Chinese, who since 2020 have spent $30 billion to fund and implement commercial projects that include vast timber and marketing operations. Such is the impact of Chinese projects and settlement in the Far East that there are legitimate fears that China has territorial ambitions, which have spurred efforts by the Kremlin to attract Russians to live on and work the land in the region.

many describe European Russia as «the mainland».

A natural

Viktor is a natural on camera, but his act could do with some polishing, as a regional activist for Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, Misha, realises. Seeing Viktor declaring «this place is fucked; different flags, same motherfuckers» Misha pings him a message saying he can help get greater reach and have more impact. Soon, an unlikely friendship is formed between Misha, a sensitive more intellectual character, and Viktor’s take-me-as-I-am-persona.

Viktor has some good lines: «Before your eyes our territory is being plundered and destroyed»… «A person that does not bind his future to his land is a traitor»… but is initially distrustful of tying his colours to those of Navalny (who Russia-watchers will know subsequently was poisoned with military grade never agent, Novichok, in 2020 while visiting western Siberia, was treated in Germany, but returned to Russia where he has since been imprisoned).

Won over by the professionalism Misha is able to inculcate in him, and seeing rising viewership, Viktor throws himself into an anti-Kremlin campaign in the months running up to the March 2018 presidential election.

He proves good on the stump, speaking to crowds in improvised meetings in snowy squares, and takes up various popular issues, such as the poor quality of reconstructed housing provided for people made homeless for devastating floods in the Khabarovsk region.

in the past 30 years the Far East has lost 22% of its population

Never dull

Part of the zeitgeist of the time in the Far East – where a popular governor Sergei Furgal embarks on an anti-corruption drive, before ultimately succumbing to Kremlin politics and being arrested on (probably trumped up) historic murder charges—Viktor soon comes to the attention of the authorities and finds himself imprisoned on charges over airing a video of a funeral procession of a popular local mafia boss that was attended by a regional Interior Ministry chief.

Not always sharp enough to keep his mouth shut, Viktor implicates Misha in the uploading of the video and both face criminal charges, though only Viktor is eventually sent down for 10 days of «administrative detention»—a commonly used device to take opposition figures off the streets.

The film meanders to a close by attempting to compare Viktor’s (somewhat aimless) activism with that of Furgal, concluding with passages looking at Viktor’s hopelessness after his brush with the authorities and a confusing section where he appears to collapse live on camera on his channel from a heart attack. A subsequent section showing him skipping over ice floes and across coastal rocks declaring – «finally a great place to play» is a little confusing, prompting this viewer to search the internet for clues as to whether Viktor is still alive or not.

The pluses in Sergina’s film outweigh the minuses and this is an interesting and well-observed glimpse into life in a part of Russia that is both majestic and squalid, but never dull.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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