Model Home, Model Citizens

Model Home, Model Citizens

by Susan Downing

Lately I’ve been watching a recent Russian mini-series, a 22-part saga of the lives of several families living a fancy apartment building, beginning in Soviet times in 1924, and running up into the post-Soviet period.  I’d translate its literal title “The Building with the Exemplary Content” as “Model Home, Model Citizens.” This title doesn’t refer to an empty apartment potential residents can view.  Rather, it suggests that this building and those who inhabit it are exemplary role models of architecture and citizenry.  A variety of families moves in and out of these apartments, but the main family we follow is the Mirskys.  It is Dmitry – husband and father and celebrated architect – who designed this apartment building, this “model home.”

When Mirsky brings his soon-to-be wife Rosa to his apartment for the first time, in 1924, she is in awe of her much older husband’s art collection, which includes a Picasso given to him by the artist himself, as well as a Chagall and many other paintings by prominent Russian masters. These paintings play a prominent role not only in the later part of the series, when a cunning mafia band manages to steal them, but earlier, too.

Dmitry’s talents bring him to the attention of Stalin’s inner circle, and he is offered the opportunity to head up the work on Moscow’s most central architectural projects during the 1930s.  Although these projects run counter to his own creative vision, he tells Rosa that to refuse would jeopardize his future as an architect.  And so, Mirsky compromises his principles and accepts the position.  Nonetheless, he continues to be plagued by reservations, by doubts, by dissatisfaction, and by the fear that despite this compromise, everything will come crashing down around him.

He has good reason to be afraid.  We are now in the time of Stalin’s purges.  The Mirksys, along with their friends, relatives, colleagues and neighbors, are living under the very real threat that they’ll be targeted by government officials advancing their own political agendas or denounced by fellow model citizens looking to safeguard their own positions, arrested, and put in prison for a decade or two, their families left with little or no information about them.

The model home’s residents are all afraid, so afraid that, essentially, they can’t think straight.  So, they employ a variety of methods to try to both keep both fear and danger at bay. Some drink. Some inform on others.  Some steal.  Some compromise in other ways, both professionally and personally.  Others, like Dmitry, take refuge in a series of lovers.  Only Rosa (who, by the way, is just as afraid as everyone else) concentrates her energy on preserving her family, keeping her young son Borya close, and doing what she can to help others.

Manipulating others’ fear in order to advance his own career is a specialty of model home resident Gleb Ivanovich Chapaikin, who moves steadily upward in the government internal security structures, i.e., the KGB.  In the course of the series, he is directly or indirectly responsible for the arrests or deaths of more than 10 of the building’s residents and their relatives or colleagues.  And he’s friends with the Mirskys, particularly with the Mirskys’ live-in housekeeper Zina, who, in a fit of pique (over Dmitry’s rejection of her and his unborn child she’s carrying) pens a denunciation of Dmitry.

No matter that she regrets what she’s done as soon as she’s done it. She can’t undo it.  It’s 1941, and her denunciation leads to Dmitry’s arrest. When Rosa visits the prison to try to get news of him, she learns that he’s been sentenced to 10 years in prison without the right to correspondence. She returns home to her son Borya in the model apartment building (the housekeeper has fled to her home village) and begins to find a way to live, a way to sustain her family without her husband.

It’s now more important than ever for Rosa to avoid compromising herself, because with Dmitry in prison, it’s up to her to find a job and keep the family afloat. But that’s not all.  It’s wartime, and everyone in the building is affected: she and Borya have to evacuate to Tashkent; two young men in their building die fighting the Germans, one of them leaving behind a wife and baby; Chapaikin moves up the career ladder and feels pressure to enhance his status as his young family grows; the building superintendent uses a forged docuemtn to take over Rosa’s apartment and pays off some workmen with one of Mirksy’s paintings. So when Rosa and Borya return, the first thing they notice when they manage to get their apartment back is the blank spot on the wall. The painting is restored to them, but not without additional threats and heartaches and not before Dmitry’s brother is nearly sent away after making a false confession that he had stolen the painting.

In other words, Rosa, like everyone else, has been facing a long series of unthinkable challenges, and yet her devotion to her imprisoned husband and her son enables her (and thus, Borya, too) to stay afloat while those around them spin out of control in an ongoing cycle of betrayal and unhappiness.

It is now 1950. We see Rosa standing in her apartment, holding an official envelope.  She opens and finds an official letter notifying her that Dmitry’s sentence has been extended for 10 year.  Borya walks into the room.  When he sees his mother starting to cry, and asks what’s happened, she says to him,”Borya, our Papa is alive.”

We viewers realize that for 9 years, from the time Rosa and Borya found out Dmitry had been sentenced to his initial 10 years, they have had no news of or from him at all, until right now.  But for Rosa at this moment, there is no sadness.  No focus on the fact that her beloved husband’s sentence has been extended. He is simply alive, and right now, she can feel nothing but gratitude.

But that’s not all.   In the last episode, after Rosa’s own son, grandson and great-grandson all willingly sacrifice others’ welfare for their own personal or professional gain; after her great-grandson Mitya steals the prized Picasso and Chagall to pay off a debt to his fellow gangsters and is himself then killed by them to secure his silence, leaving his pregnant wife; after Chapaikin in a fit of conscience during a giant family dinner where all the remaining live relatives are in attendance, confides to Rosa that his own ambition led to Zina’s denunciation and Dmitry’s arrest and spills the beans about how Dmitry was the father of Zina’s daughter, whose own daughter and grandchildren Rosa has just taken in… After learning all of this, Rosa  simply says, happily, “I always said that I wanted a big family, and now I have one.”

Maybe it seems unbelievable or unrealistic that Rosa was able to muster the strength to cultivate and nourish and maintain her habit of gratitude and decency in the face of the distraction of terror or the lure of personal gain.  But she was able to, and she did it by developing a practice of sorts for herself: she learned how to consistently redirect her mind from focusing on fear to focusing on love and gratitude.  And she used this technique to move through all the horrible events of her life with her compassion and principles and relationships intact.  Rosa, it turns out, is the most model of model citizens, and the other characters in the series recognize and admire that in her.  And the youngest generation strives to emulate her.

As we all can.

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