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Reimagining The Russian Classics, Without All That 'Existential Gloom'

Why the sad face? Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky

Russia's controversial culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, has said that his country's Oscar-nominated film Leviathan is not a "purely Russian story."

In an interview with Izvestia, Medinsky said that he does not see himself, his colleagues, and his friends in the gloomy movie's cast of characters. Dipping into the language of Soviet-era Socialist Realism, Medinsky laments that there are no "positive heroes" in the film.

Medinsky expresses the hope that the "talented" Andrei Zvyagintsev -- Leviathan's director -- will in the future make films without "existential gloom." He hopes to see "movies after which you want to get up and go out into the street and do something good and just without waiting -- right here and right now."

Reading Medinsky's advice to the filmmaker, we couldn't help but wonder how he might have helped other Russian artists over the years to purge their works of "existential gloom" and make them more Russian...

Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoi

Lev Tolstoy
Lev Tolstoy

"I know you weren't completely happy with the way your last novel, Peace, came out. But this one shows a lot of improvement. Take the first sentence -- the first half is pure genius. Why can't you just write "All happy families are alike," and leave it at that? The rest is just confusing.

"And what about Anna? First of all, I don't see my friends in this story. How about we call her Alina and give her a career -- say, rhythmic gymnastics? So she jumps in front of a train -- but what's her motivation? It needs to be clearer. Say, for instance, she sees a problem on the track that could have derailed the train. And say the train is carrying Russian orphans who had been rescued from a bunch of gay foreigners who were raising them to be free-market economists.

"So she jumps down and fixes the track and, because she's a gymnast, she's able to pop back up onto the platform into the arms of a prince who is waiting to transport a pair of ancient Greek amphoras to a museum in Moscow. Can you get me a rewrite by Thursday?"

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

"Fedya, Fedya, Fedya! Don't you remember anything I told you when we were rewriting your Notes From The House Of Those Being Joyfully Reeducated? This one is going to need a new title, for sure.

"I like your basic plot structure, but we need a few changes. I see this Raskolnikov guy responding to a St. Petersburg government suggestion that people clear their streets of snow themselves. So he's out there shoveling and this old pawnbroker sees him. She's so moved by his strong self-reliance that she converts to Orthodoxy and donates her ill-gotten gains for the construction of a new church.

"The drunkard Marmeladov is able to get a job there laying tiles. He earns enough money to send his daughter to Seliger summer camp. There she meets some nice people who teach her English and send her abroad to marry an Englishman and work as a sleeper agent."

The Bronze Horseman by Aleksandr Pushkin

Aleksandr Pushkin
Aleksandr Pushkin

"I love the opening, Aleksandr Sergeyevich! And I don't mind the flood so much. Floods happen. But I don't see myself in this Yevgeny character. What if we call him Vladimir. It scans better.

"And the madness bit? What's that? Who goes mad from a flood, even if their lover is killed? It would be more in the spirit of the times if Vladimir comes out after the flood and picks up the trash around the base of the statue. And then the Bronze Horseman, in recognition of his service, gives him a nice dacha and puts him in charge of the national railway."

Swan Lake by Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Tchaikovsky

"This isn't going to work, Pyotr Ilych. Living in the forest, naked. Jumping around. Cohabitating with swans. It all smacks of a nontraditional lifestyle. There's no way we can show this to the children. Mizulina would have a cow.

"But I have an idea. Instead of swans, I see endangered cranes! The good prince, let's call him Vladimir, wants to help them migrate to Kazakhstan, but some hardworking hunters from Gazprom swoop in in a helicopter with Kalashnikovs blazing! It ends with me and my friends...I mean, the hunters sitting around the campfire, eating the cranes, and discussing how now the airways are safe for our fifth-generation fighters.

"I see Rogozin dancing the finale with a corps de ballet representing the military-industrial complex! The whole thing just writes itself, Pyotr Ilych. The children will love it."

Black Square by Kazimir Malevich

"Black Square" by Kazimir Malevich
"Black Square" by Kazimir Malevich

"OK, Malevich. Very funny. A black square on a blank white field. You call this a painting? I showed it to Glazunov the other day and he almost wet himself.

"But, hey, I'm a modern kind of guy. I think we can fix this, get rid of some of the gloom. You have to admit, black is a gloomy sort of color. We need something more cheerful...Yellow? No, pink! Yes, pink.

"And a square? It seems so bleakly existential, going nowhere. Just sitting there. We need something progressive! Something that points to a brighter future, something that makes people want to get out in the street and march with joy. A triangle! That's perfect. A pink triangle!

"You paint me a pink triangle, and I'll call Milonov up to arrange an exhibition in St. Petersburg."

Andrei Rublyov by Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky

"Well, Tarkovsky, I have to admit I couldn't sit through the whole thing. All that blather about the essence of art and the role of the artist and artistic freedom -- I mean, who cares?

"I'm the culture minister and, frankly, I don't care. But I sign the checks, and I want to see myself and my friends. I don't know anyone who paints icons or makes bells. Do you? And I don't know about having these guys learn from Theophanes the Greek. Doesn't that make them foreign agents? What do Greeks have to do with Orthodoxy anyway?

"I liked the part about poking the dead bird with a stick -- I saw myself in that bit. But it didn't make me want to run out into the street and do good things. We need to work on that."