Cinematryoshka: Rolan Bykov's Scarecrow, bullying on Soviet screens

November 12, 2014, marked the 85th anniversary of the birth of actor and director Rolan Bykov. Bykov made his directorial debut in 1962, back then Bykov did not know that his name and creativity would become a symbol of children’s cinema. All his movies were for and about children (with the exception of his film adaptation of Gogol’s short story “The Nose”), and were generally good-natured tales, but his most important and renowned piece was 1983’s bitingly social and hard-hitting “Scarecrow.”

The theme of juvenile cruelty and bullying attracts directors, mass cinema, and the so-called art house in equal measure. The Estonian film “Class” by Ingmar Raag, which made a splash at international film festivals throughout 2007, Gus van Sant’s “Elephant,” Brian De Palma’s “Carrie,” “The Karate Kid” (1984 and the 2010 remake), “Let Me In” (dir. Tomas Alfredson, 2004 ), and even straight-forward comedies shorn of big ideas, like “Mean Girls,” are infused with the motif of bullying at school/college. In Russia, this year saw the release of “Correction Class” directed by Ivan Tverdovsky, who came from the world of documentary-making, as did the infamous Valeria Gai-Germanika with her “Everybody Dies But Me” (2009). But the first who ventured to speak on this dangerous topic was Rolan Bykov.

In Soviet cinema, the depiction of bullying was frowned upon. A pioneer was a small, but exemplary Soviet citizen. Yes, in films about pioneers there were petty tyrants and sneaks, but at the fairy-tale end they all got their comeuppance. Good always prevailed.

A child could only be embittered and cruel through external circumstances, but never a result of natural egoism and sense of impunity. The primary cause of cruelty in children was the treatment they got from adults. For example, in the film “Ivan's Childhood” (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962) and “Come and See” (dir. Elem Klimov, 1985) children became hardened and desensitized by war.

The plot of the "Starecrow" is briefly observed in the video. The scene where her classmates chase Lena through the town, skipping along to a song by Alla Pugacheva, and then burn an effigy of Lena bearing the words “Scarecrow – traitor” on a bonfire is memorable too for the fact that Lena is played by Kristina Orbakaite, Alla Pugacheva’s daughter. The filmmakers and Kristina claim that it was pure coincidence, and that the director did not even know who Kristina’s mother was when selecting her for the role, since her grandmother took her to the audition. The truth will never be known, but it’s an interesting nugget.

Besides Pugacheva, who at that time was a superstar and raised no eyebrows among the public, the film featured music that was highly un-Soviet, such as “A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done” by Sonny and Cher, and “Venus” by Shocking Blue. Not only did the soundtrack list foreign pop and rock groups, but the songs accompanied scenes with Iron Tack and her gang, as if emphasizing their pioneer anti-heroism.

The film caused a furore among the Soviet movie-going public, which split into two camps: one demanding that the film be destroyed, since it “blackened the honor of Soviet children,” while others praised Bykov’s “boldness” and asserted that it was a true reflection of what the pioneer organization had sunk to over its 60 years of existence. The film grossed about 40 million rubles, and was one of the last hits of the period of “stagnation.” In 1986 “Scarecrow” was awarded a State Prize, a sign that times had changed.

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