Wear fur. Stuff your face with herring and Olivier salad. Drown your guts in vodka and sweet champagne and tune in to listen to Putin because it wouldn’t be a truly Russian new year without his presidential address. And then, to top it off, find a good old television set, grab your best drunk buddy and treat yourself to some of the Russian classic holiday movies.
The Irony of Fate (1976)
“I remember it exactly… ” Dr. Sergey Ilchenko of TV and Radio Department of Journalism Faculty in Petersburg says and looks at his watch, “17:45, January 1st1976. We turned the TV on , and it came on.” It was the premier of Eldar Ryazanov’s The Irony of Fate (Ирония судьбы), a three-hour-long TV movie that later on made its way to the Soviet cinemas and became a cult favorite.
“We sat there transfixed and when it was over, it was time for the nine o’clock news program.” Sergey recalls the minute details. His girlfriend was there, the whole family was there. And now exactly 40 years later, though the Soviet Union is no more, the Soviet fantasy lives on and is well-loved just like Ryazanov himself who defined Russian generations with his satirical take of the daily Soviet Union life. Watching The Irony… has become a New Year’s tradition in Russia and you just need to sit down in front of a TV set and browse through the state-run channels to catch the beginning here, one song there and the ending someplace else.
Lines from the movie have become part of the Russian jargon and Sergey acts out the scenes where each line was articulated with such passion it makes you want to be a little bit Russian and a little bit drunk in a banya (bathhouse) in Moscow where our hero, Zhenya (Andrey Myagkov) becomes a little too drunk celebrating his engagement to Galya (Olga Naumenko). He ends up on a flight to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), turns up at Nadya (Barbara Brylska)’s place who is waiting for her own fiancé, Ippolit (Yuri Yakovlev) on New Year’s Eve. Sparks fly and the central dilemma is set in motion. It is a fairy tale, a Soviet romantic fantasy with comic elements of how a key to an apartment in Moscow opens the door to an exact-looking apartment in Leningrad. It is a world filled with identical, unimaginative multistory apartment buildings of the sort found in every city, town, and suburb across the former Soviet Union. And those complexes still exist in Petersburg, somewhere off Kapitanskaya on Vasilievsky Island.
Do not expect to find moral choices of the kind Tatyana makes in Pushkin’s verse masterpiece Eugene Onegin (1833) where she turns away the advances of the titular character in favor of fidelity to her husband. This is a fantastical comedy with great songs played by the titular characters on the guitar. There are traditional Russian New Year’s salads and drinks and funny scenes of drunkenness. Watching it takes you back to a simpler, albeit Soviet, time with identical-looking apartment complexes and bathhouses where pals would get drunk and do stupid things like flying to another city and falling in love.
Carnival Night (1956)
Before changing fates, Eldar Ryazanov had already made waves in the Soviet cinema by his first feature film, Carnival Night (1956). Karnavalnaya noch is groundbreaking and sensational not only in its flamboyant depiction of New Year’s festivities in a Soviet state office but also in its clever satirical tone, slapstick comic situations and quick wit as it pokes fun at Soviet idealism and dry moralism. Here, stage veteran Igor Ilyinsky plays Sefarim Ogurtsov the new director of a governmental office who feels that the scheduled party numbers and performances are over-the-top, immoral, and a little too cheerful. He would rather have himself give a short 40-minute speech reporting the annual progress of the institute, a scientist addressing the existence or non-existence of life on Mars and a veteran band playing a sullen tune. Now it is up to the jolly employees namely the gorgeous headstrong Lena (Lyudmila Gurchenko) and her shy admirer Grisha (Yuri Belov) to stop the new director from ruining the glorious festival night.
Just like The Irony of Fate, lines from the Carnival have ended up becoming part of everyday speech. Sergey is especially fond of the “40-minute speech” which he says is still employed as a tongue-in-cheek by directors and lecturers all over Russia. Lightheartedly he also explains the scene where our ‘Mars’ scientist finally gives his speech having had a drink too many. Looking through some imaginary telescope lens, stars start multiplying in his eyes. The script cleverly refers to cognac drinks as being graded as having two, three, four, or even better five stars and the scientist gleefully declares:
“Life on Mars…does it exist or not? Who knows?”