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From Moscow to Pietushki (1990)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of From Moscow to Pietushki (1990)
BBC2, tx. 4/4/1990
50 mins, colour
DirectorPaul Pawlikowski
Production CompanyBBC
Executive ProducerNigel Williams
ProducerRoger Thompson
ScriptMichael Narduzzo
 Vladimir Prilensky
PhotographyWit Dabal

Reader: Bernard Hill

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A look at Benedict Yerofeyev, the elusive author of the Russian underground classic From Moscow to Pietushki, who has existed on the fringes of Soviet society for most of his life.

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Until Pawel Pawlikowski's 1991 documentary, the Russian samizdat writer Benedict Yerofeyev remained a highly mysterious and elusive figure. His book Moscow to the End of the Line was written in 1967, but was published for the first time only twenty years later. 'From Moscow to Pietushki' continued Pawlikowski's series of documentaries about Eastern European writers for BBC2's Bookmark, which had already offered up distinctive profiles of Tadeusz Konwicki ('Palace Life', tx 23/3/1988) and Vaclav Havel ('Vaclav Havel: A Czech Drama', tx 22/2/1989).

Pawlikowski creates his portrait of this unique writer by reconstructing moments from his book. At the start, 'Benny' Yerofeyev is a cable fitter in Sheremetievo. One day he sends out graphs measuring his colleagues' work rate against the amount of alcohol they have consumed. He loses his job, but an inner voice tells him that in Pietushki he will find 'salvation and joy'. He spends his days travelling from Moscow to Pietushki and back: 240 kilometres in total. He lives on trains and writes. Yerofeyev's book is a poetic monologue of a perceptive alcoholic, extolling on philosophy, politics, love and angels. The author criticises his beloved Russia in the style of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and both writers laugh at the absurdity of everyday life.

Among many comic moments, Benny and his friends discuss their inventive (and alarming) cocktails: 'Balsam of Canaan' combines methylated spirits, velvet beer and refined furniture polish, while 'Lily of the Valley' is white lilac, athlete's foot remedy, Zhiguli beer and alcohol varnish. As in Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, the friends have memorised works of literature. When they run out of alcohol, whoever quotes a work incorrectly has to fetch more. This game can take some time, since they know page after page by heart; for them literature is an escape from reality.

Pawlikowski's documentary is a touching portrait of the author, who was already dying of throat cancer when filming began (he died in 1988). The most striking sequences are interviews with Yerofeyev, using a microphone against his throat to be heard. These are intercut with shocking sequences of patients being treated for alcoholic delirium, underlining the scale of Russia's alcohol problem. Rehearsals for the play of Moscow-Pietushki suggest that life in Russia is so ridiculous that it verges on the surreal. The film presents Yerofeyev's life as a determined escape, and his most sustained work of fiction.

Kamila Kuc

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Video Clips
1. Cocktails (0:41)
2. Benny (3:06)
3. The Personal Work Graph (2:48)
4. Supply and demand (2:57)
5. End of the line (3:30)
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