Hot Docs

Soviet Barbara Review: Postmodernism vs. Putin

Hot Docs 2023

3 mins read

Soviet Barbara: The Story of Ragnar Kjartansson in Moscow
(Iceland, 90 min.)
Dir. Gaukur Ulfarsson
Programme: Artscapes (World Premiere)


How does contemporary art fit into the complex political and economic reality we’re confronting today? Soviet Barbara: The Story of Ragnar Kjartansson in Moscow is a cleverly realized doc about a brilliant Icelandic artist, who takes over a huge power plant in Moscow that has been completely renovated by the great architect Renzo Piano’s firm. The place, which is absolutely massive, 20,000 m2, with areas to explore on four levels, is owned by one of Putin’s cronies, Leonid Mikhelson, who has made billions from Novatek, his huge petrochemical company.

We don’t see much of the manipulating hands of Mikhelson and Putin throughout the film except for one major moment; instead, our gaze is focused on the brilliant Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson, who is the subject of the inaugural show at GES- 2—House of Culture, the name of the renovated power plant.

He’s a great choice, as Kjartansson has been creating wonderful work in video, painting, drawings, theatre and music for a couple of decades. Kjartansson’s signature style is repetition: his finest work, The Visitors, has nine people in different locations, performing variations on the same song, a ballad, which reaches an apex, when all of them sing it together while walking in tandem down a hill at the end. Audiences and even art critics have found the work to be so emotional that they’ve cried by the end—not the normal result in postmodern art.

Working with Russian curators. Kjartansson assembles an immense retrospective of his work but he knows that he has create a new one. Kjartansson decides to recreate Santa Barbara, a U.S. primetime soap opera which had become an unexpected hit in Russia in the early years of Yeltsin’s regime after Gorbachev lost power. His deconstruction of the American soap brought back intense memories for a generation of Russians and Kjartansson even brought the aging creators of the soap for the art opening.

The show could have been extraordinary, but the Icelandic artist found himself confronted with the reality of Putin’s power when he brought in Masha from the revolutionary group Pussy Riot, who questioned whether his post-modernist approach was valid. Her misgivings are reinforced when Putin insists on seeing the show in advance of the opening, accompanied by Mikhelson. Kjartansson, who loves Russian art and culture, held on to the show until Putin invaded Ukraine. Suddenly, art could no longer co-exist with immoral politics.

Soviet Barbara is an extraordinary film, which combines art, politics and critical thinking in smart and incisive ways.

Soviet Barbara screened at Hot Docs 2023.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.


Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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