In the biting cold of the Arctic, on the northeastern-most edge of the earth—that is, in the Territory— the search for gold puts to the test the best geologists and engineers of the Soviet Union. Alexandr Melnik’s film The Territory, an adaptation Oleg Kuvayev’s famous Soviet novel of the same title, brings to cinematic life the author’s romantika severa (romance of the north) set in Chukotka province, USSR.
Alexandr Melnik’s film adaptation of Oleg Kuvayev’s classic Soviet novel frames its story in history outside History, or a history on the periphery of History. The film is set in 1960, a time between epochs: after the end of World War II, nearing the cusp of the Cold War’s arms and space race apogee. It was a time of change within the USSR. With de-Stalinization spreading across the Soviet republics, USSR was in search of a new collective narrative with tensions outside the USSR (namely, a former ally the United States) adding further political pressure.
The Territory takes a step away from the drama of global developments, and instead delves into what is happening in the oft-overlooked history of what took place away from the USSR’s metropolitan centers. Soviet geologists and engineers are caught in the USSR’s moment of transition, retreating into themselves as they search for gold in the remote Arctic province of Chukotka.
They are led by Ilya Chinkov, the chief engineer of the Geological Department, who insists on mining gold despite the administration’s rebukes that scientific fact renders it impossible for gold to be present in Chukotka. Chinkov, also known as “Buddha,” leads his brigade using his moral strength and sound belief that gold can be found. He navigates their diverse personalities to bring out in them the belief he has in himself, standing as their moral pillar.
But blind belief is not enough. The men of Chinkov’s brigade—some of the lower-classes, some of the metropolitan intelligentsia, some young and in search of adventure and love, some looking to redeem their government careers, some still coping with painful losses from the past war—all must navigate a multitude of conflicting personal, political, and moral forces as they commit to the search for gold.
The film paints a subtle but also rich psychological portrait of the geologists, illustrated more by quiet gestures rather than dialogue. As the director puts it, “Real feelings and real tests are needed. Real men are needed. In these places, it’s impossible to cheat another person or deceive oneself. Everything is real there… In this world, one may be oneself, real, natural, correct to oneself, to one’s friends and to one’s circumstances.”
The gorgeous backdrop of the Chukotka tundra seems to follow the unfolding of events. Opening with summertime on the tundra, The Territory opens with the surprisingly lush greenery of the Arctic. But the green forestry slowly progresses to icy tundra as summer gives way to autumn, autumn to late winter, and finally, the onset of spring. More is at stake, and doubt infects the group. On the icy tundra, the question the men face becomes: What shall be my next step? Each man’s decision making has a ripple effect throughout the group. Some continue; some fall. Individual survival and collective triumph do not always converge.
“All this occurred in another century, on another earth,” says Sergushova, the journalist from Leningrad who acts as the knowledgeable narrator, in the film’s final scene. At first, her words seem to throw the story back into the formless abyss of history. But the phrase has an opposite effect, instead coaxing the viewer to reexamine and reflect on the story’s historical context. Melnik invites a conversation about the past.
Rather than asking viewers to assign who was on the “right” or “wrong” side of History, Melnik’s masterpiece instead illustrates the historical agency of a group of men on the periphery, fleshing out the complexities of their decisions and their lives as if it all happened just yesterday—in this century, on this earth.