New Reviews

Haunted Dreams: Fantasies of Adolescence in Post-Soviet Culture

Haunted Dreams: Fantasies of Adolescence in Post-Soviet Culture. Jenny Kaminer. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2022. 162 pages.

Jenny Kaminer’s Haunted Dreams: Fantasies of Adolescence in Post-Soviet Culture provides an excellent examination of contemporary Russian cultural productions featuring young people across diverse popular genres. She reinforces her discussions with sophisticated presentations of historical contexts and comparative analyses of primary sources across the four chapters. Importantly, these texts do not merely address an adolescent audience but also represent the broader landscape of Russian culture. Widely drawing on European and Anglo-American studies about adolescence and youth, Kaminer’s book presents the cultural construction of Russian adolescence and comprehensively engages in conversations across fields, including girlhood studies, media studies, and popular culture studies.p>

Kaminer mainly addresses the prevalent and ongoing mythologies of adolescents which position them either as revolutionaries driving social improvement or as aggravators disrupting the established social order. Concerns caused by this split lie in the great capability for agency that adolescents are endowed with by adults. Youth agency manifests itself in diverse positive ways, ranging from youth-led movements throughout Soviet history to contemporary youth activists’ engagement in socio-political issues across post-Soviet regions, such as pro-Putin youth movements. Yet youth agency could also be highly destructive, especially if it turns into juvenile delinquency, which requires surveillance and even judicial intervention. Critically weaving the past with the present, Kaminer’s book explores the endurance of Soviet fantasies of heroic adolescence in post-Soviet literature, film, drama, and television series. The author’s examination of youth heroism also considers the construction of time, space, and gender by engaging Russian and Anglophone scholarship on adolescence.

Kaminer first contextualizes the contradictive fantasies of Russian adolescence -- as the hope and as the nightmare -- within the Soviet legacy of adolescent heroism and examines contemporary reflections of this haunted relationship. The first two chapters investigate the connection between adolescence and heroism from two perspectives. Chapter One explores the hopeful characterization and contends that the continuing “romance with adolescence” positions heroic adolescents as the hope for contemporary society. While utilizing the iconic Soviet figure of the teenage girl-martyr, Svetlana Vasilenko’s novella Little Fool (Durochka, 1998) and Anna Melikian’s film Mermaid (Rusalka, 2007), as the selected works, tear off the Soviet message and present a new teen heroine model for the post-Soviet era. Kaminer notes that these reconfigured adolescent heroines are characterized as embracing pre-Revolutionary and Christian value systems as ideals. Furthermore, they are purposely differentiated from the dominant Soviet adolescent figure who is primarily male and characterized by idealized military traits and behaviours This new version of adolescent heroism is constructive because of its detachment from violence, but also vague in that it does not necessarily point towards a definite future.

Chapter Two re-examines the fantasy of youthful heroism from a rather bleak perspective. Kaminer analyses Anna Starobinets’s story “An Awkward Age” (Perekhodnyi vozrast, 2005), Marina Liubakova’s film Cruelty (Zhestokost, 2007), and Kirill Serebrennikov’s film The Student (Uchenik, 2016) and its dramatic production. Kaminer’s critical close reading of these representative works unmasks an internal logic underlying the seemingly promising linkage of adolescence and heroism: that is, the language of self-sacrifice is interchangeably expressed as a language of violence. On the one hand, the imposed heroism turns teenagers into sacrificial victims. Kaminer notices that the expected heroic sacrifice of teenage protagonists inevitably leads to their death without safeguarding or symbolizing the future. On the other hand, adolescents may be represented as resorting to violence, which facilitates their destructive behaviours.

The following two chapters continue examining anxieties about adolescence with a focus on the dire consequences engendered by the heroic myth and deviations from the normative development model. Foregrounding teenager characters’ fantasies of their lives and futures in the youthful heroism model, Chapter Three further unveils the negative outcomes of fulfilling one’s desires and needs through violence. Kaminer argues that one of the recurring anxieties concerns the ways in which external influences manipulate adolescent imaginations towards violence and aggression. Continuing the discourses initiated during the Cold War, the youth of post-Soviet Russia persistently served as an important ideological battlefield and the return of the “youth as victims of the West” paradigm (Kaminer 9, 18). In line with the implications exemplified in the works discussed in the previous two chapters, the three dramatic representations -- Vasily Sigarev’s Plasticine (2000), Iury Klavdiev’s The Bullet Collector (2004), and Iaroslava Pulinovich’s Natasha’s Dream (2009) -- reflect a similar doubt toward the post-communist Russian environment marked by self-interest, materialism, and consumerism.

In Chapter Four, Kaminer further contemplates the question of the ideal developing trajectory of post-Soviet youth proposed by a recent and influential type of documentary television series School (Shkola) (dir. V. Gai Germanika) broadcasted around the 2010s. Responding to Nancy Lesko’s concept of “panoptical time” emphasizing “the endings toward which youth are expected to progress”, Kaminer disassembles the representations of adolescence with a focus on gender and temporal-spatial aspects (11, 105). In terms of gender, the normative regulation of the maturation process mainly targets disciplining adolescent girls’ precocious sexuality. In the School series, adolescents are unable to challenge the age-based boundary because teens’ “crossing” behaviours, such as drinking, smoking, and early sexual behaviours, are interpreted merely as the immoral or wicked behaviours of the adult world, ultimately leading to self-defeat. To a certain extent, this series questions the linear development model of adolescence by displaying the focused group of high school students in “the chronotopic dilemma” (106). This means that contemporary teens experience remnants of the Soviet reality, such as the physical school building and home arrangement, and are simultaneously held back from embracing the desirable consumerist culture. In addition to material realities, the curriculum remains Soviet-centralised with the author Maksim Gorky and the poet Alexander Pushkin holding a significant portion of literature lessons. Triggering wider attention and debates, the show displays this unsettling and liminal chronotope of post-Soviet adolescence. More importantly, through her close analysis, Kaminer reveals the conservative ideology conveyed in the series by depicting a productive post-Soviet future which is ultimately contingent upon Russian adolescents’ normative development and embracing of humanistic values.

Kaminer’s critical focus on the intersection between time and gender exposes a deeply hidden and entrenched patriarchal system. This cultural aspect deserves further scrutiny as its haunting influence runs through the contemporary reworkings of the Soviet heroic adolescent model discussed in the four chapters. Ageism foregrounds the solid boundary between adolescence and adulthood, perpetuating linear progress in the conceptualization of normative adolescent development. This adolescence persistently operates under the heterosexual framework and affirms the disciplining and exclusion of other non-normative genders and sexualities. For example, in Chapter Four, the female protagonist Ania Nosova from School attempts to claim her own temporal order deviating from the panoptical time by committing suicide, which verifies the punishment of female sexuality, as she is sexually active outside of heterosexual marriage. Correspondingly, the logic of violence drives male adolescents to achieve self-fulfilment only through conforming to masculinity and heroism. For example, in Anna Starobinets’s story “An Awkward Age” from Chapter Two, the feminized male protagonist Maksim is colonized and silenced by the ants with the growth of a reproductive function and therefore victimized as weakening the masculinity.

Kaminer’s book centralizes the contested image of youth as both promising and threatening in a comparative framework of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. She problematizes the expected glory in the established heroic adolescence as demonstrated in contemporary reworkings of the Soviet model. In dismantling anxieties about adolescence, she illuminates the underlying distrust in post-Soviet society’s ability to nurture the younger generation towards a productive future, which indicates a return to a conservative normalization of youth development. This book contributes to the ongoing fascination with adolescence’s controversial cultural identities from an under-researched context and engages with youth studies by attending to violence, militarization, temporality, spatiality, ageism, gender, and sexuality.

Lidong Xiang

Rutgers University-Camden