The Prince is Back

Year: 1999
Country: Russia
Running time: 60 mins
Director/Screenplay/Photography/Sound: Marina Goldovskaya
Production co: Dune/GoldFilms
Producers: Chantal Bernheim, Georg Herzfeld
Editor: Tatiana Samoilova
Sound: Nano Chesnais
Music: Marina Kroutojarskaja

With: Prince Evgeny Meshchersky
In Russian with English subtitles
“Mr Meshchersky, an engineer, returned to Russia from the Ukraine in 1996, looking to settle on his family’s former estate in Abalino, 35 miles southwest of Moscow. The family palace, built in 1775, had been blown up by the Communists to provide rubble for a road and was a hollow shell. Soon after the revolution, the Meshchersky palace was looted of a priceless art collection, which included paintings by Botticelli and Velázquez. In the 1930s, it was turned into a holding camp for political prisoners. After World War II, the estate was abandoned. The ruins were declared a national monument in 1964, but nothing was done to stop the continuing decay or looting.

“Enter the returning prince, emboldened by Russia’s democratic changes and by a new Constitution that for the first time guaranteed the right to own and inherit property. He moved his family into one of the four gatehouses at the corners of the ruined palace, with no water, no plumbing, no electricity and no heat…” — Celestine Bohlen, NY Times, 8/1/00

Although there is no policy of restitution of property in post-Communist Russia, Evgeny decided to move his family back into the ruins of the Meshchersky Palace, dispossessing in his turn the homeless alcoholics who had been squatting there. With the aid of bemused friends and neighbours, and a loyal but sceptical family, the ‘Prince’ sets about knocking the shockingly neglected estate into shape.

Grand pianos, despite the best efforts of the surrealists, have long been unfairly charged with hefty symbolic baggage. Nevertheless, there’s something horribly apposite, even iconic, in the image of several unenthusiastic men dragging one through the mud and rain towards the shell of the Meshchersky Palace. That image becomes even more charged with irony when we learn that the family may not have enough money to continue the reluctant princess’ piano lessons. The Prince is Back is a portrait of one man’s dogged determination – or, if you prefer, paternalistic pigheadedness – pitched against the weight of history. — Andrew Langridge