Where Do You Place on the Pyramid of Happiness? Notes of a Filmmaker/Participant-Observer in a Radical Ukrainian Sect. Part 1.
Article by Gregory Gan
On the palm of the earth, stands the city of the sun.No bad weather or bandits, the city is immersed in the world of kindness
A world of love; the kingdom of wisdom, in the city of the sunLook closer friend, who is your friend and who is your foe?Who obscures the sun by clouds, creating darkness,Wake up!
If you want to live there, creating sunny days of life,Look for your neighbours in the city of the sun.Only a real person will be your friend forever,Happiness will spark for all friends, in the city of the Sun.
This is a translated quote from the song, City of the Sun, composed by Yura Davidov, the founder of the sect, “PORTOS,” The Poetical Altruists for the Development of the Theory of Universal Happiness.
So imagine an idyllic village outside of Khiarkov, Ukraine hosting the modern-day Theoreticians of Happiness. Imagine a country road along a scenic pond bordered by ivies. Children play on the road, villagers throw in fishing lines. At the end of the line, a muddy entrance to a dilapidated property. A large pyramid is painted on the garage. A dog on a chain barks at the entrance. A garage, a shed, a pile of pipes and metal scraps. Every structure has a name. The shed, “Archimedes,” the latrines, “Stalin and Yeltsin,” the main house, “Terem,” an ancient Slavic term for “Hearth,” the upturned truck cabin, “A Dog’s Happiness,” because underneath, there are bowls of dog food. This is a farm that raises pigs and has a herd of 35 cows. They distribute milk to neighbouring villages. Their goal is Universal Happiness. I enter the main house, passing through the tiny, soiled kitchen smelling of gas and enter into the main room. The space is decorated with banners and slogans from floor to ceiling. The slogans read, “Death to Thievery,” “Honour the Heroes of Labour”, “First think of your country, then think of yourself.” I see this slogan on my ceiling every time I open my eyes in the mornings. I share my bedroom with three other men. We sleep in our clothes, smelling of manure. Flies abound, and rats scratch at the walls. Not that there is much sleep to be had. We work long days, 14-18 hours, not to mention our mandatory attendance at nightly meetings, which often take us past midnight or 1 a.m. We get up at 4 a.m. This is how members are introduced into the structure of the organization. Smoking, drinking and swearing are prohibited. There is a dress code, a vest to carry all the essentials; a cell phone, to immediately connect with other members; a notebook, to write down progress reports on all the deeds that we have done throughout the day, the week, our lifetimes. A flashlight, a hat, a long-sleeved shirt, pants; no shorts, so as to remain decent, because sexual relations are also prohibited here. The temperature is hovering just above 40 degrees Celsius. We are prepared because in times of war, one must always be ready for battle. And we are fighting an ideological war against the tyranny of those with a lower degree of Happiness. Those who try to poison the masses with alcohol and tobacco. Those who are in power, and who attempt to dictate how we should lead our lives. But we are vying to be Real people, Great people who are going to enter into history and who will live eternally. Our happiness is classified according to the number of good deeds we have done in our lifetime, with the subtraction of all our mistakes. We can see our placement, our ranking in the hierarchy of the organization, as well as the ranking of every individual on earth on the Pyramid of Happiness. So how do you rate on the Pyramid of Happiness? If you have filled out the questionnaire that I have passed out at the beginning of the seminar, exchange it with your neighbour, and they are going to rate your level of happiness. I will play a few clips to answer some of the questions posed in the questionnaire. The person who appears in front of the camera is Tamara Kostuk, the current leader of the sect and the main character appearing in the film.
Background and History
Two summers ago, while making my last film in Moscow, I met the members of the organization at a political rally. They were friendly and personable, and they handed me a giant volume of poetry, graphics and illustrations entitled “The Theory of Happiness.” Coincidentally, I have it right here. One participant who stands out in particular was Ulia Privedennaya, who was a defendant in a complicated court case, being persecuted by the Russian government for the formation of an illegal, armed organization, for violating minors, and for carrying unlicensed weapons. The organization was founded in Moscow by Yura Davidov in the late 1980s. Its basic ideology hinges on the premise that there are a few Real or, Great People , rating at the top of the Pyramid, who will become part of eternity, and the rest are classified as non-humans, rating at the bottom. The Great few include Jesus, Aristotle, Albert Einstein, Tomas Companella, Mahatma Ghandi, Vladimir Lenin, and Mikhail Gorbachev. A quality of eternity is attributed to each mentor based on his or her attempts to create a brotherhood, a utopia, or a universal principle. Laws of nature determine the way that objects interact. Thus, laws of nature are also applicable to how humans interact. If we do not follow these laws, nature punishes us. Every new revolutionary law that is introduced; meets resistance. And like Galileo, who was persecuted for proposing that the earth revolves around the Sun, the new social order proposed by Davidov must meet resistance before being accepted as an idea of true genius. This guru recruited participants promising them a utopian dream. They were young university and high school students, mostly women, who agreed to participate in building the City of the Sun. The youngest participants were just 14 when they entered the organization. They are now in their late 30s. In the early 1990s, over 150 members as well as paid workers, lived and worked in an industrial hangar in a village just outside of Moscow. They sustained themselves on delivering food to neighbouring Moscow suburbs. But they also conducted charitable activities; distributing free food to war veterans and educating troubled youth who escaped from the homes of alcoholics and drug abusers. They would hold collective activities, such as the yearly exercise, “100 kms in 24 hours,” where each participant had to make a 100 km run. They walked on charcoals, boxed, practiced karate, organized film projections, attended political rallies, and carried out brainstorming sessions to learn on how to resolve the crisis looming over the nation. Or so the story goes. In December 2000, RUBOP, the Russian Institution for Fighting Organized Crime, invaded the City of the Sun lead by Yura Davidov in the village of Mashkovo. According to the court case, they had confiscated mines, grenades and rifles. They had arrested all the participants. Davidov and four other members were immediately charged for forming an illegal, armed organization, for violating minors, and for conspiring against the state. Each person served over five years in various prisons or psychiatric institutions. Yulia Prividennaya was being persecuted under the same case, risking a prison sentence of 12 years. It was widely accepted amongst the Moscow dissidents that the affair was entirely fabricated by the Russian authorities, and that due to the group’s naiveté, they had unwittingly becoming political prisoners.
Myself as a Filmmaker.
Last year in March, the project “The Theory of Happiness” was accepted to a master- class in Brussels, Belgium called Sound Image Culture, that was being conducted by Flemish artists and anthropologists. The program was geared towards helping ten participants in the process of making a personal, subjective ethnographic film. My previous ethnographic work focused on women’s narratives during profound social transformations in Russia at the time of the perestroika. It was my goal to convey a particular, democratic ideal espoused by my participants. However, in this film, the goals of the organization I was going to portray seemed contrary to my very base beliefs. Despite my best attempts of cultural relativism, when I first met P.O.R.T.O.S., I felt a mixture of pity for their idealism, and indignation at their motivation behind a self-imposed Spartan, communist club. As a starting point, I was not planning to study this group with blind fidelity, but rather, with a goal of achieving an understanding of where we want the film to be. They knew I was not about to make a promotional film, and I believed everyone could benefit from the perspective of an ethnographic filmmaker who has also agreed to volunteer on the farm. During our workshops in Brussels, we discussed how all cinema measures the distance. It measures the distance between the filmmaker, the participants and the audience. At one extreme, we have the type of supposedly “expository” documentary, where the filmmaker is absent and the narrative is didactically imposed on the audience; at the other, a navel-gazing approach where the filmmaker becomes a central character, obscuring his or her participants. Both of these seemed unsatisfactory for the style of film I wanted to make. I wanted to find methods that allow for negotiation at the level of filmmaking to take place in order to create a dialogue between myself and the participants. The way I did this was by handing a second camera to my participants, and by allowing myself not only to appear on camera, but to be a participant as well. This way, all the conflicts of the film were going to first run through me. After all, the only power the filmmaker has is that of generosity — of allowing his or her vulnerability to appear either behind or in front of the camera. But I was also concerned about several comments I had received before the shooting began. Interestingly, I was asked why I was making this film about happiness. I would answer now that I was curious, intrigued, I wanted to test myself, to taste the absurd, to pursue a larger idea that I saw behind the film subject. I was also warned that that my subjects are dangerous, and that I should protect myself psychologically. And last summer, over a period of three months after leaving my Flemish haven, I began shooting the film in Russia (documenting the unfolding court case), and the Ukraine (living and working on the farm, as a condition for filming).
So how did it happen that these Theoreticians of Happiness came to be? How did Davidov gain followers with his illusions of grandeur, his ecclectic, graphomaniacal, schizo-discourse of jumbled poetry, non-sensical graphs and bad illustrations? Davidov was born during the epoch of the “Thaw” in 1956, the beginning of the process of de-Stalinization, and a liberal era that attempted to redress many injustices committed by the Soviet state. His father, according to the sect, was a political prisoner of the GULAG. In popular imagination, especially amongst the intelligentsia, political prisoners were considered martyrs of the Soviet state, who suffered innocently for a just cause. Young Davidov studied engineering and became a junior commissioned officer in the Soviet army handling technical equipment. After working for some time in the army, Davidov became increasingly secluded, found sporadic employment and focused most of his time on writing. According to Alexei Yurchak, “During late socialism, especially in the 1970s and early 80s, it became increasingly common among some groups of the last Soviet generation, especially children of intelligentsia families ,to give up more sophisticated professional careers for occupations that offered more free time. The more extreme and telling examples of such jobs included boiler room technicians (kochegar), or street sweepers (dvornik). These jobs kept them busy for only two to three night shifts a week, leaving them plenty of free time for socializing, or for pursuing other interests.” Yura Davidov, the founder of the sect, wrote most of the texts for the “Theory of Happiness,” while employed in menial jobs during the early 80s. This type of hermitic isolation allowed him to pursue many interests, studying, for example, Buddhism, or reading everything from Pythagoras to Companella. But the pursuit of eccentric interests is a double-edged sword. In the late 80s, Davidov was in his mid-30s. He was undoubtedly a charismatic leader who was able to convince students to abandon their former lives, their families and friends, to enter into the organization. He was seen as a martyr and a dissident, winning the hearts of young people astonished by the social and political upheavals of the perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Davidov wins the trust of Tamara Kostiuk in 1990, and she joins the organization at 17. Tania Lamakina drops out of university and joins a year later when she is 19. The same year, Andrei Petrov, thrice married and divorced at 23-years-old, joins the organization. The same year, Zhenia Privalov leaves behind his wife, a young daughter and a factory job. A year later, Nadia Chetaeva, 14, leaves her family and joins the organization. Now, these young people are not so young, and occupy the highest ranks in the organization.
About the Author
Gregory Gan is an independent ethnographic filmmaker who lives and works in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. He is currently completing his second, feature-length ethnographic film entitled “The Theory of Happiness.” To learn more about the filmmaker or the film, visit http://www.theoryofhappiness.com