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.

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