the Valley of the Dead
Russian Life|March/April 2021
On the Trail of a Russian Movie Star
Philipp Lausberg
The Karmadon Gorge and neighboring realms are stunningly beautiful, yet also wrapped in mystery and tragedy. They contain an ancient “city of the dead,” Soviet modernist relics, and the final resting place of Russia’s biggest movie star of the 1990s.

In a vast, half-abandoned valley, amid the imposing Caucasus mountains, there is a monument marking the presumed location where Russia’s biggest movie star of the 1990s perished. A simple marble plate on a rock and the figure of a grieving mother commemorate Sergei Bodrov, Jr. and his film crew, all of whom died here on September 20, 2002.

At around 8:08 pm that day, a 150-meter-thick chunk of the Kolka Glacier, situated on the northern slope of the 5050-meter-high Mount Kazbek, barrelled 32 kilometers down the Karmadon Gorge. Travelling at over 100 kilometers per hour, the avalanche buried several villages and 125 people under a 100-meter-deep outflow of ice, mud and debris. Among them were a 42-member film crew with Sergei Bodrov, Jr., who had come here to direct a new movie. The 30-year-old was at the peak of his popularity, having become a symbol of the new post-Soviet Russia as the main character of the Brother (EPAM) films.

For Russians, Bodrov’s dramatic death made the Karmadon Gorge synonymous with tragedy (his son Alexander had been born just a month before in Moscow, delaying the 10-day shoot by a month). Previously, the remote valley in the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania was little-known to the outside world, and then only for its wild beauty and the mysterious ancient necropolis located nearby. For Bodrov, this had seemed the perfect place for his next film, The Messenger, a philosophical-mystical parable about romantics, travellers and bandits.

This very mix of tragedy, mystery and beauty is what drew me to explore the Karmadon Gorge and its surroundings. So, together with some local friends I rented a car in Vladikavkaz, the regional capital. Although the gorge was just 30 km away, getting there turned out to be quite an adventure. After about 20 km driving on a paved highway, we enter a curvy dirt road that ascends ever higher, along steep cliffs, into the mountains. This requires attentive driving, ideally in a 4x4, as we are reminded when witnessing the rescue efforts for a car that has crashed down into an alpine creek.

The monument to the victims of the mudslide catastrophe is located in the middle of the gorge, on a hill formed by avalanche debris. It commemorates Bodrov and others who are assumed to have been buried beneath the ground on which we stand. Despite the remote location, fans of the film star occasionally make a pilgrimage of sorts here, says a middle-aged man from a nearby farm.

Bodrov’s death in the mountains was a tragic irony, considering his love for the Caucasus. His first movie was shot there – an Oscar nominated film (1996), Prisoner of the Mountains, that was based on the Tolstoy novella of the same name. Bodrov played a Russian soldier imprisoned by local militants in a highland village during the first Chechen war. And the Caucasus played an important role in other films in which he starred: War (2002), and the two Brother films (1997, 2000).

A fixation on the Caucasus is an enduring Russian cultural tradition. The nineteenth-century authors Mikhail Lermontov, Alexander Pushkin, and Leo Tolstoy all portrayed the region as a mythical place of adventure, danger, and soul searching. After the collapse of the USSR, such ideas were once again timely, as the North Caucasus became a hotspot for crime and state failure, where the borders, identities, and values of the new Russia were all contested. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Caucasian terrorist attacks and the wars in Chechnya dominated Russian news, while conflicts in Dagestan and between the Ingush and Ossetian peoples also ravaged the region.

Hardened by fighting in Chechnya, Bodrov’s character in Brother asserts his own personal idea of justice against the bleak backdrop of post-Soviet St. Petersburg’s lawlessness and hypocrisy. In Brother 2, the same principled character mercilessly fights American and Ukrainian gangsters in the US, insisting that Russian “truthfulness” is superior to a perceived American obsession with money. For his roles, Russians hailed Bodrov, the “Caucasus veteran,” as a “hero of our time” and an embodiment of a new Russian confidence in a period of great difficulties.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM RUSSIAN LIFEView All

Sidewalk Art

The lamentable state of Russia’s roads and sidewalks has long been fertile ground for memes and jokes. Irkutsk artist Ivan Kravchenko decided to turn the problem into an art project. For over two years he has been patching ruts in city sidewalks with colorful ceramic tiles.

6 mins read
Russian Life
March/April 2021

Sputnik V: First Place or Long Shot?

The Russian vaccine seems top-notch, but low public trust and a botched rollout remain formidable barriers to returning to normalcy.

5 mins read
Russian Life
March/April 2021

the Valley of the Dead

On the Trail of a Russian Movie Star

10+ mins read
Russian Life
March/April 2021

Food & Drink

Food & Drink

4 mins read
Russian Life
March/April 2021

POLAR YOUTH

Misha Smirnov has the day off. There are the traditional eggs for breakfast and the usual darkness out the window.

9 mins read
Russian Life
March/April 2021

Russian Chronicles

Russian Chronicles

10+ mins read
Russian Life
March/April 2021

A People on the Brink

Over the past century, the ancient people known as the Votes has been exiled twice, has seen its language banned, and has faced the threat of having its villages razed. Today, although teetering on the verge of extinction, it holds fast to one of the last rights it enjoys – the right to bear and to say its own name.

10+ mins read
Russian Life
March/April 2021

Tenders of the Vine

Visiting Russia’s Nascent Wine Region

10+ mins read
Russian Life
January/February 2021

Restoring the Future

A Small Town Gets a Makeover

10+ mins read
Russian Life
January/February 2021

Ascending Anik

Here I stand, on the summit of Anik Mountain, drenched to the bone amid zero visibility, driving rain, and a fierce wind.

10+ mins read
Russian Life
January/February 2021
RELATED STORIES

From Russia With Love

Seen throughout Alaska, the matryoshka nesting dolls are as poignantly meaningful as they are increasingly adorable.

6 mins read
Porthole Cruise Magazine
March/April 2021

China, Russia Agree To Build Lunar Research Station

China and Russia said they will build a lunar research station, possibly on the moon’s surface, marking the start of a new era in space cooperation between the two countries.

2 mins read
AppleMagazine
March 12, 2021

US CHARGES NORTH KOREAN COMPUTER PROGRAMMERS IN GLOBAL HACKS

The Justice Department has charged three North Korean computer programmers in a broad range of global hacks, including a destructive attack targeting an American movie studio, and in the attempted theft and extortion of more than $1.3 billion from banks and companies, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

3 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #486

US STILL UNRAVELING ‘SOPHISTICATED' HACK OF 9 GOV'T AGENCIES

U.S. authorities are still working to unravel the full scope of the likely Russian hack that gave the “sophisticated” actor behind the breach complete access to files and email from at least nine government agencies and about 100 private companies, the top White House cybersecurity official said Wednesday.

2 mins read
Techlife News
Techlife News #486

''Journey Into Thyself''

A key part of my process involves inquiry and reflection.

4 mins read
Lens Magazine
December 2020

VITALY UGOLNIKOV 23-Year-Old Russian Bodybuilding Sensation

It is a great pleasure to feature 23-year-old Russian bodybuilding sensation Vitaly Ugolnikov in Muscular Development. MD readers will discover a new young champion who might be one of the most promising pros in the circuit in the near future.

7 mins read
Muscular Development
February 2021

MICROSOFT SAYS HACKERS VIEWED SOURCE CODE, DIDN'T CHANGE IT

Microsoft said in a blog pos t that hackers tied to a massive intrusion of dozens of U.S. government agencies and private companies sneaked further into its systems than previously thought, although the intrusion doesn’t appear to have caused any additional harm.

1 min read
Techlife News
Techlife News #480

That Hack Is the Sound of Inevitability

A massive data breach is a reminder that in all corners of cyberspace, the advantage is with the attackers

6 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
December 28 - January 04, 2021

Black Ilmenite and “Titanium White”

The bright-white color that we see in everything from highway lines, donut icing, and tooth-paste to paint, paper, plastics, and ceramics comes mostly from titanium dioxide, the world’s most widely used pigment.

3 mins read
Rock&Gem Magazine
January 2021

MEET THE OIL BARONS OF THE WORLD

Here we take a look at oil barons of the past and present.

6 mins read
Industry Leaders
December 2020