Brother 2 as a political melodrama. Twenty years later, Balabanov’s film serves to justify war with Ukraine
July 11, 2022
Mark Lipovetsky
Professor, Department of Slavic Languages, Columbia University
In the melodramatic narrative of Brother 2, writes Mark Lipovetsky, a cold-blooded killer embodies “Russian truth” - the belief in the superiority of “us” over “them" and the contempt for human life if that life isn’t connected with Russia.
Director Alexey Balabanov, 2010. Source: Wiki Commons
“When Hollywood companies began withdrawing their films from Russian cinemas in the early days of the war, CTB Film Company announced that it would rerelease Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000) by Alexei Balabanov. They are the two most popular and beloved films in post-Soviet Russia, two clots of imperial ressentiment that had been building up for more than 30 years and at end-February 2022 burst as rockets came down on the peaceful cities of Ukraine, once part of (and for many in Russia still part of) the empire,” wrote Maria Kuvshinova, the author of the best, though quite apologetic, critical biography of Balabanov (2015), a month after the war with Ukraine started. 

She recalls that in 2000, when Brother 2 was first released, Komsomolskaya Pravdanewspaper had an advertising campaign with billboards on the streets: "Danila is our brother, Putin is our president.” In 2014, “You’ll answer for Sevastopol!”, one of the most famous lines from the second part of the sequel – which was met with an ovation at the Moscow premiere back in 2000 – became the unofficial motto of the occupation of Crimea. No, it’s not for nothing that so many have remembered this film: in this artistic expression, for the first time the narrative with which both the regime and mass consciousness justify the bloody war against Ukraine took shape.
Astonishing popularity 

In Brother 2, Ukrainians and Americans are explicitly given the role of Russia’s enemies. It is them that the Bagrov brothers, having arrived in America, bravely take on. Interestingly, the Russian oligarch who is the real cause of all the troubles is completely forgotten by the characters, the writers and the audience. No doubt, a useful turn of events! Moreover, many phrases and formulations used by modern Russian propaganda come from the film: “What is strength, brother?”; “Truth is strength. Whoever is right is stronger.”; “We don’t leave our own behind!”; “Russians don’t surrender!”; “Bunch of bastards!” (about Americans); “Are you gangsters? No, we're Russians.” Even Putin's “BEnderites” (instead of the correct “BAnderites”) seems to have come from Brother 2

Brother 2 seems to have formed the political unconscious (the term of Fredric Jameson) of several post-Soviet generations, remaining invariably in favor and in the air.
“It is no coincidence that the same phrases from the film have been used as election slogans for decades by parties like United Russia, the LDPR and even Just Cause."
The astonishing popularity of Brother 2 contrasts with its rather shabby artistic merits. I'm not talking about the lack of special effects expected in an action film – the writers aren’t to blame for the fact that the film's budget was limited. But even such an obvious plus as there being constant music throughout the film becomes a minus, as it gives rise to an excess of “empty” scenes – e.g. walking, riding in a car – which serve as nothing more than a visual backdrop for the best rock songs of the late 1990s.

Virulent racism 

The plot of Brother 2 is full of absurdities. In the film, on the orders of a Russian oligarch with the suspicious patronym "Edgarovich” a friend and fellow soldier of the protagonist Danila is killed. The oligarch deceives Danila, putting the blame for the murder on his American partner Mennis.

Danila goes to America and instead of avenging the death of his friend – for an action film this would be logical – forces Mennis to pay the twin brother of his murdered friend, an NHL player – greedy and under the influence of “soulless America” – the money stolen from him under a protection racket. That is, explicitly disagreeing with the idea that strength is money, Danila is actually fixated on money as he basically forgets about the death of his friend.

As if realizing this, Balabanov puts forward another motivation. After Danila breaks into the Chicago nightclub and, in search of Mennis's office, shoots, as in a computer game, everyone in his way – mostly unarmed and unresisting Americans – he enters a room in the basement where a video of a Russian girl being raped plays on the TV, allegedly made on the order of the American millionaire. America is raping Russia, entertaining itself with the suffering of the latter. Danila shoots the TV, an act of symbolic retribution. Unclear only is why this part of Mennis's activities doesn’t interest Danila at all, either before or after this episode. It doesn’t add up...

In Brother, Danila Bagrov, the main character played by Sergei Bodrov, who quickly became a favorite of millions, is remembered for his hatred of Chechens and suspicious attitude toward Jews. In the sequel, the “folk hero’s” truth involves even more virulent racism – this time mostly directed at African Americans, though of course some is reserved for Ukrainians and Jews too.

The racism in relation to African Americans is presented as something elementary and beyond doubt: “Yeah, that’s what they taught me in school,” says Danila. Racism is woven into the hero's rescue of the prostitute Dasha, who had been blown away by the wind of perestroika to the slums of Chicago. (Subsequently, actress Darya Yurgens, who played Dasha, for decades played a special forces soldier fighting all Russia’s enemies in the TV series Sea Devils (Morskie dyavoly) – which looks like a logical follow-up to Brother 2.) Chicago African-American TV host Lisa Jeffries, who hits Danila with her car, hosts him, seemingly undermining the racist logic of Brother 2 – she even seems to be depicted not without sympathy; however, this is only at first glance: although Danila doesn’t kill her, he just uses her for sex (his courting is limited to “Come on, huh?”). He isn’t just a racist but also a real macho man sure of his irresistibility (and the writers of the film seem to agree with him).
“The fact that Brother 2 resonates so deeply with today's 'rashism' isn’t surprising."
It merely indicates that the political agenda that led to the war with Ukraine and the rest of the world took shape back in the 1990s and hasn’t changed much over the past decades. There is still no nostalgia for the USSR in this film, and judging by Cargo 200, Balabanov was not inclined to it at all. But Brother 2 is permeated with the imperial consciousness of the a priori superiority of "us" over the “khokhols” and “black asses,” which is carried over to African Americans. This isn’t even conscious, but a reflex, an automatic reaction, completely organic for a simple guy, and more so for one who fought in the colonial war in Chechnya. Balabanov himself of course was no simple guy (though he constantly emphasized his break with the intelligentsia), but as a military translator (his first education) he took part in late Soviet colonial operations in Africa.
Shoot from "Brother 2" film, 2000. Source: VK
Resentment of America 

A natural extension of this complex is resentment of America, which is supposedly no better than Russia and in many aspects even worse. “America is kaput” is a theme even from the first Brother. “Kaput” because “we” are by definition stronger, smarter and generally always right. The defeat in the Cold War isn’t regarded by the characters in Brother as a defeat but as a global injustice. Note that the lyric about the Cold War from the Bi-2 song “No one writes the colonel” is the only time in the entire film where it’s mentioned.

This complex is of course inherited from Soviet culture, though not entirely official culture. Contempt for the “friendship of peoples” and “proletarian internationalism” appears defiant in the Soviet context, but it is the kind of defiance that has been mainstream ever since Stalin’s anti-cosmopolitan campaign. Indeed, instead of “proletarian internationalism” – which remained in official documents and slogans – post-war Soviet culture in practice promoted precisely Soviet nationalism (“how lucky we were to be born in the USSR”), which since the anti-cosmopolitan campaign has very organically mixed with Russian chauvinism and anti-Semitism (see Evgeny Dobrenko's Late Stalinism and Nikolai Mitrokhin's The Russian Party). In practice this is systemic anti-Semitism, cursing people from the Caucasus for exorbitant prices for food at markets, hazing in the army based on nationality. Of course, the “friendship of peoples” and “proletarian internationalism” were empty rhetoric already in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, during perestroika and especially in the 1990s an inferiority complex of the Soviet relative to the Western emerged. In earlier Soviet times it aroused a secret envy of material wealth, while during perestroika the Western world is imagined as a realized utopia.
“The secret of the popularity of Brother 2 apparently lies in how Danila overcomes this inferiority complex with a sense of righteousness, which is in fact baseless and poorly justified within the film."
Mikhail Kozyrev, who composed the soundtrack for the film, said in 2020: “After all, Bodrov doesn’t say a word about what truth is, what it is. Is the truth that money is evil? That you should love your neighbor? That human life is the most important thing? There isn’t any such explanation anywhere.”

The true conflict of Balabanov's melodrama 

I suppose the secret of the film’s popularity is not its clumsy plot or even beautiful songs – it’s the form of Brother 2. It is the form that will be inherited by today's troubadours of war.

The form is melodramatic. After all, the melodramatic mode, as literary theory teaches (for example, see Peter Brooks’ classic Melodramatic Imagination), is distinguished by moral polarization and schematic construction of characters. In Brother 2 both are found in abundance. Balabanov (the director and scriptwriter) constantly doubles the characters, thereby doubling the polarization: there are two oligarchs (both villains) and two pairs of brothers (in each one is good and one bad), Danila has two mistresses and there are even two evil taxi drivers.

Another important element of melodrama is outright wickedness, offended virtue and the final victory over evil. The villains in Brother 2 do every sort of evil besides eating babies. Virtue regularly suffers: Danila is twice (again for symmetry) beaten to the bone, he, the poor fellow, suffers in the rain without shelter and without money, waiting for his unfaithful brother, who in the meantime is rotting away in the brothels of Chicago. But all ends well, of course.

The melodramatic imagination is also characterized by “the indulgence of strong emotionalism.” At first glance, this is not the case in Brother 2 – on the contrary, the main character is basically unemotional and invariably cool. However, this emotionality is removed from the characters and put into the background – namely the soundtrack and poetic accompaniment. 

The powerful soundtrack greatly enhances the emotional component of the film, headlined by “Goodbye, America!” by Vyacheslav Butusov, which is first sung by a children's choir in the frame and then in the finale plays in the background as the characters return home. But Balabanov goes even further, weaving into the fabric of the film a nursery rhyme by an unknown author about how "I love everyone on earth." (In the credits, the author isn't indicated. Originally it was thought to be the children's poet Vladimir Orlov. Later a slightly different version of the text was found in the magazine Kolobok, where the Yukaghir poet Nikolai Kurilev [Mikalai Kurileu] was listed as the author, with the translation by Mikhail Yasnov).

Having heard it once sung by the son of the oligarch, Danila is so imbued with poetic thought that he repeats the rhyme like a mantra, both when he’s preparing to shoot black gangsters and when he climbs the fire escape to punish the vile Mennis. If the message of "Goodbye, America!" is unambiguous, then the rhyme is a little more complicated. In the latter is a manifestation of entirely pure affection for the surrounding natural world, but in the context of combat the peaceful children's poem is turned into a militant hymn to nationalism, the logic of which is that only “everything of ours, everything native” is worthy of love and we’ll shoot up whatever isn’t without mercy. Such is the logic of any ultra-nationalism, not only Russian, of course.
“These accents clearly point to the true conflict of Balabanov's melodrama – the conflict between Russia and America, where Russia is given a virtuous role, suffering but triumphant in the end,"
while America is portrayed as the global evil. Essentially, the whole melodramatic construction with the polarization of good and evil and heightened emotionality is needed to substantiate this simple juxtaposition. Substantiate not logically, but morally. For, as Peter Brooks argues, melodramatic modality arises in response to moral panic caused by the downfall of authority and old value systems: “a vertiginous feeling of standing over the abyss created when the necessary center of things was evacuated and dispersed.”

Melodrama plugs this hole with what Brooks calls the “moral occult:” “The melodramatic mode in large measure exists to locate and to articulate the moral occult.” According to Brooks, the moral occult is neither a system nor a narrative: “it is rather the repository of the fragmentary and desacralized remnants of sacred myths. It bears comparison to unconscious mind, for it is a sphere of being where our most basic desires and interdictions lie, a realm which in quotidian existence may appear closed off from us, but which we must accede to since it is the realm of meaning and value."

In other words, the "moral occult" is an illusion that the melodramatic form creates from the debris and fragments of old values. But thanks to this illusion virtually anything can be surrounded by an aura of moral righteousness.
Danila Bagrov in USA, 2000. Source: VK
The righteousness of the hero and the melodramatic mode 

Moreover, powerful melodramatic devices allow the reader or viewer to both empathize with the hero and to feel upon themselves, to share the moral occult with him. The righteousness of the hero becomes the righteousness of the spectator not abstractly but on the level of feelings and emotions. 

This is exactly what happens in Balabanov's film. The melodramatic elements elevate a cold-blooded killer to the personification of Russia and the embodiment of "Russian truth" – in other words, they give him an aura of the “moral occult.” 

As already mentioned, what exactly Danila's truth is is completely incomprehensible, but he is a priori right – that much is clear. It is the effect of shared a priori righteousness that explains the success of Brother 2. The melodramatic occult embraces nationalism, racism, sexism, the belief in the superiority of "us" over everyone else, contempt for human life if it isn’t connected with Russia, and a rigid division of the world into “us” (necessarily good) and “them” (with rare exceptions, wrong and bad), etc. All these anti-values are presented as components of the hero’s moral righteousness. Moreover, this illusion is taken as comforting proof of the existence of a “moral universe,” which is why it is so in demand, basically becoming an area of agreement between various political forces. 

Thus today, when Russian atrocities are on display for the whole world to see, Russian propaganda continues with particular intensity to stress the melodramatic narrative about “our” centuries-old suffering at the hands of the unjust “collective West,” framing the destruction of Ukrainian cities and murder of civilians as a triumph of virtue that is saving the very victims of the Russian aggression from rule by “Nazis.”

For example, Boris Gryzlov, a stalwart veteran of United Russia, posted an article on the party website in which he angrily (offended virtue!) denies accusations of genocide against the Ukrainian people: no, he writes, the bombing and shelling of Ukrainian villages and cities by Russian troops is necessary to stop the genocide of the Ukrainian people carried out by the Ukrainian government! “…The actions taken under the Russian special military operation not only do not correspond with the ‘labels’ slapped on them by the West, but on the contrary are aimed at combating the genocidal actions of the authorities, armed forces and nationalist groups in Ukraine against their own population – the Ukrainian people, who are brothers for us, Russians.” Of course, the article is called “Russia’s Strength is Truth.”

Postmodernist patterns           

But perhaps the main achievement and even discovery of Balabanov is that he was the first to mask melodramatic manipulations with the help of irony and postmodernist techniques. By saturating the film with cameos of famous figures and rolling out a formulaic plot against the backdrop of rock songs, including Ukrainian ones, that are far from any ideology, Balabanov protected his film from ideological criticism. Meanwhile,
“Since its release quite liberal defenders of Brother 2 have convinced themselves that it represents banter, irony aimed at literal interpretation, that Balabanov created a parody of nationalism rather than an explicit nationalist expression."
Indeed, isn’t the phrase uttered by a character called Fascist (Konstantin Murzenko) – “Our brothers are our brothers, whether we want it or not. A fascist folk saying.” – a parody of the entire logic of the film? And does the dialogue about Russians as “born gangsters” not smack of self-irony?

But it is precisely on such motifs that modern political and especially illiberal discourse is built. The most cannibalistic ideas are wrapped in irony and even self-irony. On this principle, in essence, modern trolling is based. Putin and the stars of his agitprop like Vladimir Solovyov, Dmitry Kiselev, Maria Zakharova and Margarita Simonyan, among others, have proven themselves to be masters of the genre. The inability to distinguish the statement of a view from a parody of it and vice versa has become known in internet jargon as “Poe's law:” “without a clear indicator of the author's intent, every parody of extreme views can be mistaken by some readers for a sincere expression of the views being parodied.” Overall, Brother 2 has a real chance to serve as confirmation of Russia's superiority over the "collective West" in the arena of trolling. "Poe's law" was formulated a full five years after the film was released.

Twenty years ago I ended my review of Brother 2 with the phrase: "A disgusting film." The editors asked me to remove it, saying it was too judgmental, and I agreed. It's time to correct this mistake, but of course it's too late.
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