For the first time in twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the workers and engineers of the Soviet ZIL car factory in Moscow receive a special order from the Russian Ministry of Defence.
Three brand new trademark ZIL limousines have been commissioned for the Victory Day Parade on Red Square. In times past they would have had 5 years to make these, but now they only have 2.
The team feels it has a chance to show their specialist skills, despite the fact that the workforce is depleted and the machinery is obsolete. Professionals are called out of retirement to help, and migrant workers are called on to meet the deadline. They all cling to their routines, out of pride, out of desperation, and out of a basic need to survive.
The writing is on the wall for the factory: the government has plans to ‘re-assign’ the factory land. This could be the last order the factory fulfils. And once the final checks are made and the limousines are ready to star in the parade, the order is cancelled for no reason. This is Russian tragicomedy at its best.
By Daria Khlestkina
This Last Russian Limousine was inspired by an old university project entitled “I am a worker”, which my former film school teacher Marina Razbezhkina introduced me to.
She had asked her students to investigate what had become of the working class, who used to be talked about so much during the Soviet period but disappeared from TV screens in the new capitalist Russia.
Being of one of the last generations which had grown up in the Soviet Union, the idea appealed to me. But I wanted to make a film about workers and what had become of the working class in Moscow, a major industrial centre in Soviet times. Now it was a quintessentially post-industrial town of offices, banks, executives, civil servants and entertainment industries.
What is left of Moscow’s industries is either on the brink of bankruptcy or slated for relocation to outside the city limits.
My idea was to film at one of these factories how people dealt with the fundamental changes to their lives brought by the closure of the factory. My eye soon fell on the ZIL automotive plant, a flagman of Soviet industry which churned out millions of trucks for the entire Soviet bloc but also produced the trademark ZIL limousines for Soviet leaders which traditionally opened the Victory Day military parades on Red Square.
My interest only intensified when I read in the paper that for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union the factory had received an order to build 3 of these limousines, to take part in the Victory day parade of military hardware which had only just been reinstated by Putin.
Gaining access was not easy and the press service had absolutely no intention of letting documentary filmmakers in. But I managed to get in without a camera. For about 2 months I roamed the factory grounds, poked my nose around the different shops and struck up acquaintances, some of whom are among the main characters of the film. Eventually I managed to obtain all the necessary paperwork, not without some help of the people I had met at ZIL, who had come to like the idea of the film. In the winter of 2010 we started shooting.
As we started filming I soon realised that this was a story much larger than the factory or even the working class. What we witnessed at ZIL was the death of a civilisation. Whereas in my immediate environment the Soviet Union had swiftly disappeared during my youth and early adulthood, at ZIL we captured the final stages of a slowly drawn-out process of decline, a process which had set in at that very same time, over twenty years ago.
Once an example of Soviet industrial might, the factory was now unprofitable and unable to exist in the new circumstances. The workforce had been greatly reduced and replaced by unskilled, cheap migrant labour from the former Soviet republics. The factory’s continued existence depended above all on the protection of Moscow authorities and the efforts of a handful of aging specialists and engineers who had dedicated most of their life to the plant, which is still a great source of pride to them.
This film had to be about their drama. Imagine that everything you have stood for and achieved in your work is now suddenly worthless; that is what happened to Mikhail, Nina, Andrey, Nadia and Vladimir.
People grew up in one system and under the new realities everything became different. This film is about people who want to feel needed, who want to do something that makes sense, but the more they try, the less sense it makes. Whereas the limousine order initially provided a spark of hope, the actual production of the 3 cars and everything that accompanies it cruelly exposes the many problems, falling standards, and declining expertise at the factory.
In the end the order only brings disillusion, as it is cancelled at the very last moment, when the limousines are ready to be driven out to the parade. Not only the out-dated trucks it produces, but even ZIL’s handmade limousines turn out to be no longer needed.
The absurd and the tragic are never very far apart in Russia and this offers the key to understanding how people cope with change, uncertainty and hardship. Nothing but the great characters portrayed in this film could better illustrate this insight.