A Personal Apocalypse in the Russian Arctic–How I Ended This Summer
Welcome back to our regular series on survival “literature,” where we take a novel, a film, a game, etc. and frame it within the context of The Long Dark. In this entry I look at Alexei Popogrebsky’s 2010 film How I Ended This Summer. Set in the remote Russian arctic, it deals with the psychological tension that surfaces when trying to survive in one of the world’s most isolated places. -Patrick Carlson
“Honestly, my motivation was the desire not only to make this film but to have the experience of a lifetime.” –Director Alexei Popogrebsky on his film How I Ended This Summer
Great survival stories scale themselves to the particular horizon of the characters involved. There are planetary threats and then are threats that remain far more discreet and personal. But these smaller challenges are—in their way—just as difficult to overcome. Of course, this experience is central to my engagement with The Long Dark. In wandering through its chilly sandbox, it’s often the small, discrete decisions I make that work to create the most compelling moments.
These themes also surface in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in the 2010 Russian film How I Ended This Summer. Filmed on location, the drama plays out at a meteorological outpost located deep in the extreme northeastern arctic region of Russia. A place so remote that it can only be reached by helicopter or ice breaker, it’s a suitably barren and weather-beaten backdrop for the tension that emerges between the station’s only residents—Pavel and Sergei.
Sergei is the senior man, a long-time resident of the island where the Soviet—and now Russian—government has collected and relayed weather data for decades. Blunt and disciplined in his approach to his work, Sergei takes pride in the role he plays at the outpost. Indeed, it’s not a place anyone would mistake for a prestige position, but there is a quiet dignity at work in Sergei’s belief in the station’s basic science mission.
Discipline doesn’t come naturally to the much younger Pavel. An intern on the island, he doesn’t seem to grasp the investment in history that the scientific station represents. And his preference for computerized methods of data collection means that his involvement with the arctic landscape remains abstract and distant. Even when he ventures outside their decaying residence, he blasts music through his headphones, plays games among rusting waste barrels, and forgets to bring bullets for the rifle he carries to ward off bears. Pavel’s only commitment seems to be to finishing his stay on the island as quickly as possible. That, and escaping his isolation by booting up his weather station computer and playing STALKER, the now-classic survival game that also helped inspire The Long Dark.
In keeping with director Alexei Popogrebsky’s training in psychology, the harsh environment becomes its own unique type of measuring device for testing the limits of the two men’s personalities. Even during the summer months, the arctic is a cold and unforgiving place that rewards residents who adapt to its dark water, exposed hilltops, and hazy skies. To survive there, it’s obvious that human beings have to look inward for sustaining energy.
Sergei’s introversion comes easy to him. When he needs a break from the endless routine of meteorological data collection, he does what seems most natural and convenient to him—he goes fishing.
Pavel’s experience of detachment on the island ultimately leads to the film’s central problem. Fear and miscommunication surrounding an urgent message from home intended for Sergei causes Pavel to abandon the station. In a remote corner of the world, the mistrust between the two very different men leads to a disaster that neither of them may be able to overcome.
As film scholar Vlad Strukov argues, the expansive polar geography is itself important to the narrower clash of personalities that takes place between Pavel and Sergei. The changing views of arctic scenery in the film point to the altered—and perhaps fractured—nature of their relationship. Strukov writes: “The austere landscape of the island also facilitates a more abstract, mythological interpretation of the story, Sergei and Pavel representing two competing value systems, even two types of gods—a pagan god who lives in harmony with nature and a god of the new technological era.”
The Long Dark also deals with a tension arising from history, technology, and place. Adapting to the present, altered setting of the game’s Canadian wilderness means not looking back to a world that doesn’t exist as it did before. While they don’t encompass the legacy of Sergei’s Soviet predecessors, the absent residents in The Long Dark leave an echo that has its own kind of mythological power. It points to a new value system. Their clothes, homes, and abandoned property exist to sustain a new adventure—my own.
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