By Tomáš Tengely-Evans
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Petrov’s Flu — a hallucinatory jaunt through 1990s Russia

This is a film that could only have come out of Russia—but a British audience should identify with its social satire
Issue 2791
Petrov stands on a crowded bus

Petrov is surrounded by all the ills of post-Soviet Russia as he journeys coughing on the bus

Pandemic and social crisis blight ordinary people’s lives while a gaffe-prone alcoholic called Boris has attained the highest office in the land. This backdrop should make Kirill Serebrennikov’s Russian-language film, Petrov’s Flu, relatable to a British audience.

Petrov, his estranged wife Nurlinsa Petrova and their son live in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg. Its name has only recently been restored from Sverdlovsk after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Catching the flu just before New Year’s Eve, the family’s feverish ­hallucinations act as a metaphor for societal collapse in 1990s Russia. Former Stalinist bureaucrats and KGB spooks transformed ­themselves from “Communist” to “democratic” politicians. They amassed vast ­fortunes by looting state assets and natural resources in privatisations.

Billionaires with political ­influence—“oligarchs”—partied while their free market policies drove Russia to the edge of social collapse. Ordinary people faced ­rocketing unemployment, mortality and poverty. Workers waited months for unpaid wages, state infrastructure and services collapse.

Almost all of this is, somehow, ­condensed into the first ten ­minutes as Petrov coughs violently on a bus. Travellers complain how their lives were ruined by Mikhail “Gorby” Gorbachev in the 1980s, then finished off by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s. One person’s rant descends into antisemitic conspiracy.

Petrov steps into some sort of riot, only to have a rifle thrust into his hands. The men—either ­plain-clothed cops, or gangsters, or both—line up a group of oligarchs against the wall. Petrov is hallucinating—perhaps.

The line between reality and ­fiction becomes more blurred. At times, the film begins to feel like a dizzying series of disjointed pieces of social ­commentary. But it speaks to ordinary Russians’ fears and traumas that came out of Stalinism and its collapse.

It’s a film that could only come out of Russia, which still reels from the free market fever-dream of the 1990s. Serebrennikov began writing it while under house arrest. His arrest on charges of embezzling public money came after he spoke out over LGBT+ rights and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea a few years before.

For after Yeltsin, came Vladimir Putin, who promised order and ­stability—and built up the same authoritarian and oligarchic system.

Petrov’s Flu is in cinemas from Friday 11 February

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