Want to understand Russians? Watch the film 'Irony of Fate'

The protagonist, Zhenya, is played by Andrei Myagkov, one of Ryazanov’s favorite actors, no doubt for his brilliant interpretation of an ordinary, shy, “insignificant” person, the Soviet “little man,” who, when faced with extraordinary circumstances, has to show his extraordinary qualities. Source: kinopoisk.ru

The protagonist, Zhenya, is played by Andrei Myagkov, one of Ryazanov’s favorite actors, no doubt for his brilliant interpretation of an ordinary, shy, “insignificant” person, the Soviet “little man,” who, when faced with extraordinary circumstances, has to show his extraordinary qualities. Source: kinopoisk.ru

"What every Russian Knows (And You Don't)" by Olga Fedina is a new book that helps you crack the Russian cultural code; this excerpt illuminates the vintage Soviet film that unites Russia for a few hours every year.

“The Irony of Fate (or, Enjoy Your Bath!)”

New Year’s Eve in Russia can be a stressful day. Cooks are hoping not to be hit by a power cut just as they put the pies in the oven as the electricity grid is overwhelmed with demand. Young people are wondering how to manage both to please their families and get to central Moscow in time for the street parties. Businessmen are feverishly trying to remember whether they have confused their presents for their long-suffering wives with those for their 18-year-old girlfriends. The president is getting ready to persuade the people in his New Year’s speech that the dawning year will be at least a little bit better than the one that is finishing.

A book of twelve essays brings the essence of Soviet and Russian culture to readers. Source: whateveryrussianknows.com

Every new year is unpredictable. This is doubly true in Russia, where – as comedian Mikhail Zadornov said in the 1990s, when the KGB’s archives were being opened and previously unknown facts exposed – not just the future but the past, too, is unpredictable. But one thing is certain: every year on December 31 on Russian TV at least one channel will show the three-hour long 1975 film “The Irony of Fate,” (or “Enjoy Your Bath!”) (Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром!).

The film’s plot is this: it is New Year’s Eve in 1970s Moscow. The protagonist, Zhenya Lukashin, a 30-something doctor who lives with and obeys his mother (a completely normal situation in Russia) is for the first time preparing to celebrate the New Year with his fiancée, a bossy and possessive young woman. The doctor is shy and scared of commitment, but it seems that now he is finally about to tie the knot.

However, he has other obligations, too. Every year his friends and he go to the banya (steam-bath) together. This is a tradition he cannot break, not even for his fiancée.

“To Zhenya’s wedding!”, “To Zhenya’s fiancée!”, “To friendship!”, “To the bachelor life!” – in the banya one toast follows another until the men get completely plastered. The two who have managed to stay conscious remember that one of the lads was supposed to be flying to Leningrad. But which one? They decide it must have been Zhenya, and get him on a plane.

On the plane he spends his time sleeping on the shoulder of an irritated passenger and poking his face with a bundle of birch twigs (which banya-goers use to lash one another with to get the muck out of their pores). This irritated passenger (played by the film director Eldar Ryazanov) grumpily helps our hero off the plane in Leningrad. Still half-asleep, Zhenya gets in a taxi and gives the driver the address: 3rd Builders’ Street, block 25, flat 12.

– “Fourth floor,” he adds as he is falling asleep again. “Хоть пятый”“Четвёртый этаж”

– “Fifth, if you want,” replies the taxi driver, with the deadpan irony of taxi drivers everywhere.

Zhenya arrives at his destination; the streets are lined with typical, endless, identical Soviet tower blocks. He could be in any Soviet city. He enters the building, the key fits in the lock, and the Polish furniture in the flat is much the same as his. It seems only that someone has moved it around, but our hero is still too drunk to pay much attention. He gets into bed and falls asleep… only to be found and woken up by the beautiful Nadya, a schoolteacher preparing to celebrate New Year’s Eve with her serious, well-to-do and extremely jealous boyfriend, who, in her heart of hearts, she does not love, but… she is 34 and the years are flying by. And Ippolit – the boyfriend (the actor Yury Yakovlev, who I insist looks just like John Cleese, though readers may disagree) – is so dependable, and gives her presents of “real French perfume.”

Source: YouTube/Have Fun With Russian

This is how the story unfolds… And I will not say any more, because you must see this film, and I do not want to spoil it for you. (…)

The director, Eldar Ryazanov, is one of Russia’s most popular filmmakers. His first film, in 1956, was “Night of the Carnival (Карнавальная ночь), which immediately made him famous. He subsequently made a couple of dozen brilliant films, including “Beware of the Car” (Берегись автомобиля) and “Office Romance” (Служебный роман), mostly comedies (although always with a serious, or even tragic, streak). A man of charisma and bubbling energy, in the 1980s and 1990s his immediately recognizable stout figure was ubiquitous on television, whether as presenter, interviewer or interviewee. Ryazanov is now in his 80s, living in Moscow and still making films, even though he always swears to God he will retire after the next movie.

The protagonist, Zhenya, is played by Andrei Myagkov, one of Ryazanov’s favorite actors, no doubt for his brilliant interpretation of an ordinary, shy, “insignificant” person, the Soviet “little man,” who, when faced with extraordinary circumstances, has to show his extraordinary qualities.

Mikael Tariverdiev, who wrote the music for the film, is a serious classical composer (and a student of Khachaturian) who subsequently became better known for writing music for numerous films, many of them very famous. The film is full of ballad-style songs to lyrics by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina, Marina Tsvetaeva – all wonderful and well-known poets.

Source: YouTube/Have Fun With Russian

The film was a huge success with the public immediately on being shown in 1975, and year after year, as families prepare to celebrate New Year, they watch this film. Russians who live abroad are very likely to have it on DVD.

When I lived in Moscow, I watched “The Irony of Fate” as everyone would – between chopping the boiled carrots, potatoes, chicken, gherkins and eggs for the olivier salad, an indispensable dish on the New Year table. Knowing the plot by heart, you could start watching it at any point, get distracted, then come back again.

This film is a perfect Soviet Christmas fairy tale. In the atheist Soviet Union New Year’s Eve replaced Christmas as a family holiday with the decorated tree and children getting their presents. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with the rediscovery of Christmas, New Year’s Eve still occupies a much more important place in the life of the Russians. It probably has something to do with the fact that Russian Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7, so it is celebrated after New Year and not before. That, and the lack of a Christmas tradition, have led to January 7 being treated mainly as a day of rest from the excesses of the New Year period. (…)

But, getting back to our film – what is it that has made it such a beloved Christmas fairy tale for more than a generation of Russians?  The director takes quite a conventional plot, a comedy of errors. In a typical romantic comedy narrative device, two lonely people are brought together in unusual circumstances, and end up spending New Year’s night together.

This story is set against the background of 1970s Moscow; the mid-70s, since labeled the “Era of Stagnation.” This was the hangover after the excitement of the 1960s: the Khrushchev Thaw, a time of creativity, poetry and hope, when after Stalin’s death it seemed as though the Soviet Union could come to terms with and repent its awful past, and become a different and renewed state. In the 1970s the country sank quickly into a grey decade of bureaucratic state rule and the triumph of mediocrity.

RBTH team quoting 'Irony of Fate'. Source: RBTH / Darya Donina

But, even under those circumstances, human feelings survive, and people are still able to believe in magic, that everything can be new and different, and that a twist of fate on New Year’s Eve can connect people who have been unconsciously yearning for each other.

The mixture of the real and unreal, the magic of Russian winter with its snow, fur hats and the smell of Christmas trees, the poetry and the prose of day-to-day life…

Taking the film from comedy into drama and back into comedy, the director and his crew created a perfect fairy tale through that mysterious film-making alchemy that is so hard to achieve, or to replicate on purpose.

The protagonists of this film are not the usual Soviet “heroes”: they are not tractor drivers going off to plough virgin lands to give the country more grain; not Arctic explorers withstanding hellish conditions to advance Soviet science; nor farmers who harvest 3,000 tons of wheat instead of the 1,000 tons they are required to gather according to the Five-Year Plan. The protagonists are slightly chaotic, weak-willed city dwellers, both living with their mothers, both lost in the world and not very happy. Moreover, Zhenya is terrified of commitment and Nadya is a dreadful cook.

Some Westerners, when they first see this film, are surprised that something so subversive was not only allowed to appear under the Soviet regime, but was shown on TV every year. The film starts with an animated cartoon showing an architect looking contentedly at his project for a new apartment block. In the process of going from one bureaucrat’s door to another, the draft loses all its original features one by one, until by the time it is approved all that is left is a typical Soviet rectangular apartment block.

Source: YouTube/Have Fun With Russian

Oddly, none of this ever gave the film censorship problems in the USSR. Ryazanov did have trouble getting government sponsorship (the only sponsorship available in the Soviet Union) because the storyline of this film was seen as being apolitical, and the story of a drunken doctor finding love when landing in the wrong city was regarded as lacking a moral lesson.The film is not only making fun of the uniformity of Soviet aesthetics (“In the old days, finding himself in a strange town, a person would feel lonely and lost. Everything around was strange: different houses, different streets, different life. And now it is a different matter! You go to any town for the first time and you feel at home!”). It also points out the uniformity of thinking, the greyness of day-to-day life where a miracle can happen only on New Year’s Eve.

It is ironic that this film was indeed banned for a couple of years, but this occurred during perestroika or, to be more precise, Gorbachev’s anti-alcoholism campaign of 1985–87, when it was deemed to be promoting drunkenness.

This campaign is not very well known in the West. But in Russia Gorbachev is very much remembered for his (needless to say, unsuccessful) attempts to reduce alcohol consumption by diktat, and one of his nicknames in Russia is “Lemonade Joe” after the protagonist of a comic Czech Western, a cowboy who drinks nothing but lemonade. As tends to happen in Russia (and many other places, too, as far as I can see), what sounded like a good idea quickly fell victim to the law of unintended consequences. The lack of available vodka led to the widespread production of samogon, homemade hooch of varying quality (some not properly distilled and literally deadly) and the complete disappearance from food shops of the sugar, which was needed for this purpose. Many vineyards in the south of Russia, Ukraine and Georgia were destroyed, some containing unique varieties of grapes. A leading expert on wine and grapes, Pavel Golodriga, seeing the fruit of his life’s work ploughed under, committed suicide.

Scenes where characters were drinking alcohol were cut from movies during the campaign. With “The Irony of Fate” this would have been difficult, given that without the drunkenness scene it would be hard to justify the protagonist’s sudden relocation to Leningrad. So the film was simply not shown for a couple of years.

Source: YouTube/Have Fun With Russian

Apart from this prohibition-related problem, one thing that surprises you watching Ryazanov’s films, and thinking about the times when he made them – from the late 1950s onwards – is that his work wasn’t more assiduously censored. The impression one gets is that under the Soviet regime he was somehow able to do exactly what he wanted. Many of his films seem so critical of Soviet reality that you wonder how they were ever allowed to be shown.

But this effortlessness is superficial. Ryazanov later on admitted in an interview that every time he made a film he had to “squeeze a slave out of myself and overcome my fear of the Soviet authorities.” Westerners, when getting acquainted with Soviet-era culture, are sometimes surprised to find that many satirical works of art wriggled through the censorship. The idea that the West has of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian state does not make much distinction between the Stalin era and the – not exactly liberal, but certainly less harsh – times that followed. Moreover, the satirical exposure of the “shortcomings” and “diseases” of society (such as alcoholism, bribery, bureaucracy) was officially encouraged as it was seen as a way of getting rid of these “shortcomings.”

Apart from being satirical and funny, this film has sad overtones, mostly in the songs. All the songs in this movie are sad, and they are all about loss, broken ties, the fragility of happiness and the cruelty of fate. This contrasts sharply with what should be a happy plot of finding true love on New Year’s Eve. Just listen to this song to a poem by Bella Akhmadulina:

For a few years now on my street

I have heard the footsteps of my friends leaving.

This slow departure of my friends

Is pleasing to that darkness beyond my windows.

O solitude, you are so stern!

The iron compasses glint,

And you close your circle so coldly

Without listening to my useless pleas.

Do we dare to believe that on New Year’s Eve fate, usually so heartless and cruel, might bring people together rather than tear them apart? Can we believe that a moment of magic can free us from the trap of this uniform life, when one is living in a uniform flat, with uniform furniture and has uniform salads on the table? Soviet uniformity is gone, but the need for New Year’s magic remains. This is why we keep watching this film.

Read more: What have we learned from Eldar Ryazanov's movies?

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