views updated


Pessimistic neo-naturalism and muckraking during and after glasnost.

Chernukha is a slang term popularized in the late 1980s, used to describe a tendency toward unrelenting negativity and pessimism both in the arts and in the mass media. Derived from the Russian word for "black" (cherny ), chernukha began as a perestroika phenomenon, a rejection of the enforced optimism of official Soviet culture. It arose simultaneously in three particular areas: "serious" fiction (published in "thick" journals such as Novy mir ), film, and investigative reporting. One of the hallmarks of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost was the open discussion of the misery and violence that was a part of everyday Soviet life, transforming the form and content of the nation's news coverage. In journalism, chernukha was most clearly incarnated in Alexander Nevzorov's evening television program "600 Seconds," which exposed the Soviet viewing audience to some of its first glimpses into the lives of prostitutes and gangsters, never shying away from images of graphic violence.

In literature and film, chernukha refers to the naturalistic depiction of and obsession with bodily functions, sexuality, and often sadistic violence, usually at the expense of more traditional Russian themes, such as emotion and compassion. The most famous examples of artistic chernukha include Sergei Kaledin's 1987 novel The Humble Cemetery, which tells a story about gravediggers in Moscow, and Vasilii Pichul's 1988 Little Vera, a film about a dysfunctional family, complete with alcoholics, knife fights, arrests, and virtually nonstop shouting. Also emblematic was Stanislav Govorukhin's 1990 documentary This Is No Way to Live, whose very title sums up the general critical thrust of chernukha in the glasnost era.

Often condemned by critics across the ideological spectrum as "immoral," chernukha actually played an important part in the shift in values and in the ideological struggles concerning the country's legacy and future course. Intentionally or not, artists, writers, and journalists responded to Gorbachev's call for "openness" with works that exposed the longrepressed underside of Soviet life: the misery of the communal apartment, the daily lives of homeless alcoholics, and the hypocrisy of established authority figures. One of the most prominent themes in the chernukha of the 1980s was Soviet youth, particularly in film and on stage: the new generation was repeatedly depicted as mercantile, hedonistic, and bereft of any moral compass. Yet even if these young people were presented in a fashion calculated to provoke the audience's outrage, blame was almost always attributed to the older generations: to the parents who failed to provide a model worth emulating, and to the system itself, which reduced all human relations to a question of survival and dominance.

Though chernukha was initially a breath of fresh air after decades of sanitized news and entertainment, by the postSoviet era the majority of the purveyors of "highbrow" culture began to reject it in favor of postmodern playfulness or a return to sentimentality. By contrast, variations on chernukha are still a crucial part of Russian popular culture, from the daily news magazines devoted to violent crime and horrible accidents, to the action films and novels where sadistic violence and rape are taken for granted. Though these forms of entertainment are distant from the ideological struggles that helped spawn the phenomenon in the 1980s, they show that the aesthetic of chernukha is still very much a part of the postSoviet landscape.

See also: glasnost; motion pictures; perestroika; television and radios; thick journals


Genis, Alexander. (1999). "Perestroika as a Shift in Literary Paradigm." In Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on PostSoviet Culture, eds. Mikhail Epstein, Alexander Genis, and Slobodanka VladivGlover. New York: Berghan.

Eliot Borenstein

About this article


Updated About content Print Article