From an early age Victor Kossakovsky has found life rather confusing. "At the age of four, I said to my parents, `I am not me. I must have been exchanged at the hospital. Take me back and find the real people I belong to.'"
Why was he born on a Wednesday and not another day of the week? Why in Leningrad and not somewhere else? What had become of the others born on that day? If they were to meet, would they have anything in common? Or would their shared birthday be a meaningless coincidence?
The result of this obsession is Wednesday, a unique documentary snapshot of the lives of the 102 people born in Leningrad on Wednesday 19 July 1961: 50 females and 51 males (including one stillborn), plus Kossakovsky. The project took him several years to research and a year to film. "Finding them in St Petersburg's jumbled mass of Soviet archives was a nightmare. I tracked them down by methodically checking registration documents all over the city," Kossakovsky says. Some people's births had been registered in one area, but when Leningrad became St Petersburg all the areas were re-defined, so it was all very complicated." Around 70 of the original hundred still live in St Petersburg. Others have emigrated: three to Chad, eight to Vladivostock, others to the West. Two died natural deaths in their twenties. Two men were killed in the war in Afghanistan.
Once Kossakovsky had found all the potential participants -some of them took four years to find - he set about persuading them to be filmed. "I would call and leave my name and a short message: `How are you?' Some didn't call me back for a couple of months, but most of them phoned eventually. No one had ever asked them that question with genuine interest before, so they were flattered that someone wanted to know." Some refused to be filmed. A few women were not allowed to appear. "Their husbands couldn't understand why anyone would make to make such a film. They thought it must be a hoax and that I must be the wife's secret lover wanting to make `some other kind of film' as they put it."
Two police officers also turned camera shy. "They thought I would accuse them of corruption and immorality."
Eventually a bizarre collective emerged: a stationmaster, the wife of a meat packer, a victim of police brutality, an asylum patient, a dentist with a defective drill, a man imprisoned for stealing a packet of cigarettes from his mother...
Kossakovsky was relieved at their relative ordinariness. "Some people have wanted to see it as a poor reflection on St Petersburg, or on Russia, that none of the people born on that day has turned out to be a world- class composer, philosopher or literary genius," he says. "To me it is far more important that none of them is a murderer or mafioso. They may not be brilliant but they're not evil either."
Perhaps surprisingly, the group yields only one textbook example of a New Russian: Andrei Chestukhin, complete with mobile phone, Godfather- style suit and bottle-blonde accessory wife. Chestukhin shows the film crew around his "yacht", a clapped-out Soviet navy vessel he is converting into a mini cruise-liner. A year on, the yacht is a "great success - we entertained at least a dozen paying guests on the gulf of Finland last summer." At the time of filming, Chestukhin was making a fortune out of importing frozen chicken legs, but now, he says, he has moved on to "other quality merchandise". He resents the idea of being seen as the New Russian of the bunch: "I detest that term. I am an Old Russian just making the best of things. The yacht is just a hobby."
Some of the participants are reluctant (one changes her mind and slams the door in Kossakovsky's face), others refreshingly unselfconscious. An astonishing number allow their most intimate moments to be filmed: a grieving woman lays roubles over the eyes of a dead relative, another weeps as she brushes snow off her child's grave, a man vomits blood after drinking dodgy vodka. Two women are filmed giving birth. The film returns to one of them, Alexandra Schastlivaya, at intervals during her pregnancy. An impoverished, chain-smoking alcoholic, whose surname, ironically enough, means "Happy", she battles with her drug addict husband to keep the baby. Kossakovsky follows he through a painful, anxious labour. "I agreed to be filmed because I really don't care about that sort of thing. I wasn't embarrassed," says Schastlivaya. "It was a bit of a shock when I saw the film, though. I mean, I never thought I was a great beauty or anything, but I really do look hideous, fat and puffy. I don't regret doing it though; it's art."
Kossakovsky held a party for everyone involved to meet each other. Alexandra Schastlivaya said: "I had a special kind of connection to those people from the moment I saw them. You might not be able to tell from the outside that we were born on the same day, but there's definitely something on the inside that's the same."
Kossakovsky himself is not entirely satisfied with the end result. "I enjoyed meeting them all and I did feel a certain bond with a lot of them. But the film has made me confused. I intended to make a more optimistic film, just showing what it's like to live in New Russia, but it turned out that New Russia was not such an optimistic place to live."
Alexandra Schastlivaya, whose husband has now quit heroin since the birth of their child, disagrees: "Superficially, the film is pessimistic because it depicts life in Russia, which is a pretty depressing experience. But, on a deeper level, it's optimistic, because it's an expression of life. And you have to think of life as being essentially optimistic or you might as well just kill yourself."
Perhaps most depressing of all, is that Kossakovsky's fears of being a non-person were confirmed after all. "I could find no record of myself anywhere. Despite discovering every single other person who was born on the same day as me, it is as if I don't exist. "
`Wednesday (19.07.61)' is on BBC2, 10pm, tomorrow as part of the Storyville documentary seriesReuse content