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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Only through film can Russia’s soul be captured

A glance at Russian cinema unveils a nation that is both honest and misunderstood

From the early experimental days of silent films to the needless war dramas of today, Russian cinema is, in a word, “Russian.” One viewing is all it takes to unravel the bizarre sense of humor that characterizes the Soviet experience.

For revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, film was “the most important of the arts.” He and other early Bolshevik leaders firmly believed that film could forge a new Soviet identity –– a belief which has proven true with time.

Like any other country’s cinematic collection, Russian films serve as a gateway to the past anxieties and hopes of the Russian people. Films produced during the ‘60s and late ‘80s often carry a steady bleakness that can be found in a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel, washed down with a shot of vodka.

Last winter break, I embarked on a viewing marathon of old Soviet movies with my family. What began on a whim led to the discovery of Russia’s love for slapstick comedy, romance and bittersweet drama. While many of these stories unveiled the hardships of Soviet life, the endings still elicited hope.

         This watching spree carried into the new year, as my family and I watched Eldar Ryazanov’s “The Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath!” –– Russia’s answer to “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

During the Soviet Union’s atheistic rule, New Year’s was more prominent in the life of Russians than Christmas. This is still the case today, even after the Soviet collapse, as Ryazanov’s film plays on Russian television every New Year’s.

Set during Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s “era of stagnation,” the film’s gentle satire touches on the bleak landscape of the USSR following the Khrushchev Thaw. The Thaw, which lasted through the early ‘50s and ‘60s, was a time of creativity and hope after the death of leader Joseph Stalin. For a brief moment, it seemed as though the Soviet Union could leave its past behind and return as a new state.

The 1970s, however, brought a period of bureaucratic state rule and mediocrity. During the film’s famous prologue, the soulless uniformity of Brezhnev-era architecture is critiqued as cartoon politicians demand identical cities, from apartment door keys to street names. 

The film takes place on New Year’s Eve and tells the story of a newly engaged man named Zhenya who gets drunk while celebrating with his friends. Since every building in every city looks the same, he winds up in the wrong apartment, only to fall in love with the rightful tenant, Nadya.

Whereas most American rom-coms feature 20-something-year-old leads, this film hints at the anxieties of getting old and being unmarried. Nadya’s apartment has pictures of her when she was younger, and it becomes clear that she is only with her fiancé because of her age. 

Both characters still live with their mothers (though not unusual in Russian culture), with the hopes of finally settling down in the new year. Once their fiancés leave them, the two are alone in Nadya’s apartment, watching the snowfall as the clock strikes midnight. 

         The protagonists are not heroic by any means –– just average, weak-willed city dwellers caught in unusual circumstances. This fairy tale-like story, therefore, invokes a sense of hope for Russians during an uneventful period like the stagnation. It suggests that a miracle, such as finding love on New Year’s, can happen even in the grayness of Soviet life.

         “When contemporary Russians express nostalgia for the Soviet Union — which many do — they are most often referring to the relative stability of the Stagnation era, and it is

the culture of this period — namely, the films of Ryazanov and others — that elicits the most nostalgic sentiment,” said Jenny Kaminer, an associate professor of Russian at UC Davis, in an email.

         “The Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath!,” like many other Soviet classics, serves as a relic of a time long gone but still deeply longed after.

In 1985, before his first meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, U.S. President Ronald Reagan watched the film “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” at least eight times to better understand the Russian spirit. 

         The Oscar-winning film introduced protagonist Katya as an embodiment of Soviet womanhood. Throughout the film, the audience sees Katya and her two friends flirt with different social classes (in an otherwise classless society) while struggling to build families and careers.

A sympathetic and vulnerable character like Katya contrasts with the many Russian characters I’ve seen portrayed in Western movies growing up. Films like “From Russia With Love” often characterized Russians as evil Soviet villains, wielding a hammer in one hand and a sickle in the other.

What makes “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” so poignant is that it shows an underrepresented side of Russian culture.

“Russian humor is often described with the phrase ‘laughter through tears,’ which comes from a work by the great 19th-century author Nikolai Gogol, who wrote biting satires about Imperial Russian society,” Kaminer said via email. “The directors of the 20th-century were continuing, I think, the great tradition of satire and ‘laughter through tears’ inherited from the masters of Russian literature.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union, director Aleksei Balabanov produced the cult classic “Brother,” which chronicled the experience of Russia’s disenfranchised youth during the late 1990s. 

Considered the worst decade in modern Russian history, the ‘90s plunged Russians, who had spent their entire lives under communism, into a capitalist system. Many had no idea how to manage their finances and often lost everything to pyramid schemes and shady banks. Police corruption and gang wars were rampant. 

While gangster films were especially common in Russia during the ’90s, “Brother” stands out through its blatant authenticity.

The film follows Danila Bagrov, a young man who returns from war and gets in trouble with a local gang. He is far from perfect, but his undying loyalty to his brother makes him an admirable character throughout the film. But what makes “Brother” unique is that it does not attempt to glorify violence or contain countless shooting galleries.

Many of the deaths happen off screen, and Danila never rises as an impenetrable marksman. In one scene, he barely escapes death, thanks to his MP3 player, which acts as a bulletproof vest.

The cinematography depicting the Russian cityscape in this film is particularly honest. St. Petersburg is portrayed as run down and unkempt, with broken gates and graffitied walls — a stark contrast to the renovated city it is today.

         “Brother” speaks to and for a damaged generation of Russians, who felt let down by their country. Years later, the film is a mirror to an era that is both detested and aestheticized.

Films are a constant reminder of history, whether it’s a family rewatching “The Irony of Fate” for the millionth time, or a younger generation discovering “Brother.” It’s the reels of melancholy, ambition and chaos that best explain the enigmatic Russian soul.

Written by: Julietta Bisharyan — jsbisharyan@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie


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