Parallels
1:13 pm
Tue December 31, 2013

In Russia, A Soviet-Era Movie To Ring In The New Year

Originally published on Tue December 31, 2013 4:19 pm

Every year on New Year's Eve, at least one TV channel in Russia will show The Irony of Fate, a three-hour movie that was made for TV in 1975.

"It has this slight nostalgia for the Soviet times, when life seems to be easier and simpler," says Olga Fedina, the author of What Every Russian Knows (And You Don't). "There were fewer decisions to be made — all the decisions were kind of made for you."

Those decisions included where you could live, and for city people that meant a flat in one of many identical apartment buildings.

The film begins with an animated sequence, in which an architect is shown finishing his design for a creative and beautiful building. As he takes it to various bureaucrats for approval, it's gradually stripped of every feature that makes it interesting and reduced to the same rectangular block as every other building.

Soviet-Era Satire

Fedina says her Western friends are often surprised that a satirical jab at the sameness of Soviet buildings was allowed on Soviet TV.

"But I think there was a lot more satire in the Soviet Union than is generally perceived," she says.

The fact that the Soviets built identical buildings all over the country is the device that brings our protagonists together, even though they live in different cities.

The hero is Zhenya, a 30-something doctor who lives with his mother in Moscow. Every New Year's Eve, before the festivities start, Zhenya goes to the banya, the Russian bathhouse, with his friends, and this year is no exception. But because Zhenya is about to be married, his friends toast him in alternating mugs of vodka and beer until he and another fellow pass out.

The two friends who remain conscious remember that someone is supposed to be put on a plane to Leningrad, but they can't remember who. The result is that a barely conscious Zhenya is put on the plane by mistake.

When Zhenya gives his address to the taxi driver in Leningrad, he is of course taken to a building that looks exactly like his home in Moscow, so identical that his key even fits the lock of what seems to be his flat.

The apartment where Zhenya is crawling into bed actually belongs to Nadia, a 30-something teacher who is single.

Sad, Even When You're Happy

"In those times in Russia, [that] would mean that she's a woman who should start thinking seriously about getting married, because if she doesn't do it now, she probably is going to stay single forever," Fedina says.

Nadia has arranged an elegant New Year's supper for her boyfriend, a well-to-do, jealous and rather pompous character whom she doesn't love, but who appears to be her last chance for a life partner. She's not happy when she finds a drunken stranger in her bed, and she tries unsuccessfully to get rid of him before the boyfriend arrives.

Most of the rest of the movie plays like an American screwball comedy, but it has a tinge of sadness that's underlined whenever one of the characters breaks into song.

Yes, each of the identical apartments has a guitar, and each of the lead actors sings several songs, based on Russian poetry and dubbed by popular singers of the day.

"That's what Russians like about it as well, because you want to be a little bit sad, even when you [are] happy," Fedina says.

And that's why even today, Russians will stop their preparations for New Year's Eve to watch a favorite scene from The Irony of Fate.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. New Year's Eve in Russia is the time to watch the country's favorite holiday movie, a Soviet-era classic called "The Irony of Fate, or, Enjoy Your Bath." Like the American classic, "It's A Wonderful Life," it captures the magic of the holidays, but does it in a way that is quintessentially Russian. Here's NPR's Corey Flintoff in Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Every year on New Year's Eve, at least one TV channel in Russia will show "The Irony of Fate," a three-hour movie that was made for TV in 1975.

OLGA FEDINA: It has this slight nostalgia for the Soviet times, when life seemed to be easier and simpler. There were fewer decisions to be made. All the decisions were kind of made for you.

FLINTOFF: That's Olga Fedina, the author of "What Every Russian Knows (And You Don't)." Those decisions included where you could live, and for city people, that meant a flat in one of many identical apartment buildings. The film begins with an animated sequence, in which an architect is shown finishing his design for a creative and beautiful building. As he takes it to various bureaucrats for approval, it's gradually stripped of every feature that makes it interesting, and reduced to the same rectangular block as every other building.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLINTOFF: Fedina says her Western friends are often surprised that a satirical jab at the sameness of Soviet buildings was allowed on Soviet TV.

FEDINA: But I think there was a lot more satire in the Soviet Union than is generally perceived.

FLINTOFF: The fact that the Soviets built identical buildings all over the country is the device that brings our protagonists together, even though they live in different cities. The hero is Zhenya, a 30-something doctor who lives with his mother in Moscow. Every New Year's Eve, before the festivities start, Zhenya goes to the banya, the Russia bath-house, with his friends, and this year is no exception.

(LAUGHTER)

FLINTOFF: But because Zhenya is about to be married, his friends toast him in alternating mugs of vodka and beer until he and another fellow pass out.

The two friends who remain conscious remember that someone is supposed to be put on a plane to Leningrad, but they can't remember who.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: The result is that a barely conscious Zhenya is put on the plane by mistake.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLINTOFF: When Zhenya gives his address to the taxi driver in Leningrad, he is, of course, taken to a building that looks exactly like his home in Moscow, so identical that his key even fits the lock of what seems to be his flat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: The apartment where Zhenya is crawling into bed actually belongs to Nadia. Nadia is a teacher, single, and 30-something.

FEDINA: Which in those times in Russia would mean that she's a woman who really, she should start thinking seriously about getting married, because if she doesn't do it now, she probably is going to stay single forever.

FLINTOFF: Nadia has arranged an elegant New Year's supper for her boyfriend, a well-to-do, jealous and rather pompous character whom she doesn't love, but who appears to be her last chance for a life partner.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: She's not happy when she finds a drunken stranger in her bed, and she tries unsuccessfully to get rid of him before the boyfriend arrives.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Most of the rest of the movie plays like an American screwball comedy, but it has a tinge of sadness that's underlined whenever one of the characters breaks into song.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Yes, each of the identical apartments has a guitar, and each of the lead actors sings several songs, based on Russian poetry and dubbed by popular singers of the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)

FEDINA: That's what Russians like about it as well, because you want to be a little bit sad, even when you happy.

FLINTOFF: And that's why even today, Russians will stop their preparations for New Year's Eve to watch a favorite scene from "The Irony of Fate."

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: Or Happy new year. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.