I studied Russian for six years. So when a bunch of non-Russians affect Russian accents, I tend to find that distracting. This only was an issue for the trio of Shiv, Vlad, and Yegor. Oscar Isaac’s accent as Shiv was quite good. Jason Flemyng’s accent as Vlad was okay and Jordan Long’s accent as Yegor was pretty laughable, but so was his character, so that actually fit nicely. This was 1995 and the three of them are what was known as Novy Russkis or New Russians. The most common occupation of a Novy Russki was a biznesm’en (бизнесмен), which is not the same as what we call a businessman.1 I already knew this, but watching this movie helped really paint an accurate picture of the wild west nature of late 1990s Moscow. When I arrived in the Winter of 2003 that culture was dying, but it had certainly left a mark on the people who had just lived through it.
The other locale for this film is Skotoprigonyevsk-16, a fictitious closed city in Russia.2 There an accident happens in the nuclear reactor, and technician Timofey—Paddy Considine, Hot Fuzz—saves the day. Timofey has a caring, former technician Marina—Radha Mitchell, Phonebooth—for his wife and the mother of his son. Both Considine and Mitchell were excellent in their roles. The original name for this HBO film was “The Half Life of Timofey Berezin”. Because, yes, despite the lies the administration tells Timofey, he received a lethal dose of radiation. They suspend him, say it may have been his fault, and offer him essentially nothing, despite the obvious nature of the accident and their culpability. This is necessary because it forces Timofey’s hand into doing something desperate.
In the opening scene of the film Timofey stands in a market with a sign that says Pu-239, which references an isotope of plutonium. This particular isotope is especially sought after as it has two uses: firstly it can be combined with uranium to power a nuclear reactor, and secondly it is the most common isotope for nuclear weapons. So Shiv approaches him and then it cuts to two days earlier. If this all sounds like a horribly depressing premise, well it certainly is. Even scenes that take place in a sunny field have little joy about them. But I cared for Timofey and his family, just as I began to care for the idiot Shiv, who, together with his friends, needs to find $6,000 so their boss will not kill them in two days. The film gets so dark that the Moscow ending might actually be meant as a joke, but I could not tell as my body had gone from aching to laugh to being physically unable to do so.
The hands on the clock are waving goodbye. It was my grandfather’s watch. The dial was painted by hand in America during Word War I. The brides of soldiers seated at long tables dutifully making luminous little sixes and eights to help keep the world free. The eights were particularly hard to make; so the women sucked on the tips of the paintbrushes to bring them to a fine point. One by one, their mouths began to fill with cancer. The radium-based paint they had swallowed bombarded their brains and bones with alpha and beta particles. The women who painted the watch faces sued the US Radium Corporation of West Orange, New Jersey. Had the trial been at night, the breath they used to say goodbye to the world would have glowed like moonlit fog. They were given ten thousand dollars for their lives.
1 Biznesm’en engaged in biznes (бизнес), which is like a whiter version of hustling or being in the game in urban America.↩
2 A “closed city” was a place in the Soviet Union where permission was required to enter. Unlike Americans with driver’s licenses and state ID card, Soviet citizens had internal passports. So if you did not have a reason to be in a closed city, you would be in hot water. I have been to a former closed city, Nizhny Novgorod, which was known as Gorky in the USSR. In 1989 it had a population of over 1.4 million. Imagine a city that size, with its own football/soccer team that you could not visit. Approximately one in four residents lived there by order of the state and under surveillance. Skotoprigonyevsk-16 is not like Nizhny Novgorod, it is meant to be like Chelyabinsk-70, a closed city for a nuclear reactor. ↩