City Tales (Part 1)

Podkidysh (The Founding) – 1940

Podkidysh directed by Tatyana Lukashevich meets all the expectations of a film shot under Stalin’s rule. There are friendly people at every turn, dutiful policemen ready to save the day and a charming toddler singing the praises of the October Revolution.

Originally shot in black and white, the film is painted red with references to socialist bliss and yet Lukashevich delivers a story that is somewhat fantastic without being caricatural.

Source: still from the colorized version of Podkidysh (1940), Mosfilm studios

Having defied her brother’s authority, five-year-old Natasha leaves the house and embarks on an urban odyssey. Throughout the day, she wanders in and out of strangers’ lives leaving all of Moscow looking for her.

Conquering the City

The theme of ingenuous youths conquering Moscow with some help from kind urbanites is “very characteristic of early soviet cinema” explains film critic and editor at Seance magazine, Andrei Kartashov.

Boris Barnet told a similar story in his silent comedy The House on Trubnaya (1928). The film follows Parasha, a provincial girl who arrives in the capital and slowly makes a new life for herself by joining a workers’ union.

Like Lukashevich’s character, city tale heroes wander through the streets of Moscow lost or in search of purpose but unlike Natasha, they are usually young adults who have relocated from the village. Against the backdrop of skyscrapers and large avenues, these heroes often come out as naive and infantile.

In The Girl Without an Address (1957), Katya moves to Moscow in hopes of becoming an operetta singer while the three heroines in Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1980) have idealistic notions of love until reality catches up with them over the course of twenty years.

In comparison, young Natasha displays an audacity that distinguishes her from the previous characters. She holds the reins of her own story deciding when to go and when to stay in the care of the people she meets throughout her journey.

The one aspect, however, where Lukashevich’s film aligns with the average Moscow tale is in its treatment of the city as an essential part of the intrigue.

A Walk through 1940s Moscow

In Eldar Ryazanov’s fan-favorite movies, the urban landscape is in turn an obstacle to a happy ending and a plot facilitator like in The Irony of Fate (1975). In later films, the standardized buildings of the 1970s come to emphasize the characters’ solitude but in early pictures, as in Podkidysh, the capital is new and vibrant. It is a symbol of Soviet modernity and Lukashevich makes a point of featuring its most famous landmarks.

Natasha’s adventure begins on Chistoprudny Boulevard with her walking along the Clean Ponds and ends on the railway platform of the Belorusskiy Station. In between, she is almost run over by a car on Tverskaya Street and later she is seen passing by the Leninka, today’s Russian State Library, located a few steps from the Red Square.

Her brother’s search party, on the other hand, extends well beyond central Moscow to the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition. The latter was built under Stalin’s close supervision and opened with great success in 1939, the same year Podkidysh was in production.

Besides a sightseeing tour, the film also offers a glimpse into the private lives of Muscovites. St. Petersburg had been the capital of the Russian Empire for nearly two centuries before Lenin gave the title back to Moscow in 1918. Over the following decades, Soviet leaders would reshape the city to fit the country’s new socialist ideals.

Communal housing where Natasha lives with her brother and their mother is a case in point. These were large apartments where several families shared a kitchen and a bathroom, and where each family lived in one room. An article in Russia Beyond the Headlines described them as a place where “the peasants of yesterday were the new neighbors of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia.” This system was supposed to erase class hierarchy.

Basic humanity 101
Source: still from the colorized version of Podkidysh (1940), Mosfilm studios

“Every last person, in this grand city of ours, treats a child with care,” sings Natasha’s mother at the end of the movie. The lyrics sum up the film perfectly as Podkidysh is first and foremost a story about kindness, especially the kindness of strangers.

The heroine is never alone and the title, which translates as ‘abandoned child,’ is therefore misleading. In fact she ricochets from one benefactor to the next and though one may wonder if she will find her way home, there is never a doubt over her safety and wellbeing.

According to film historian Alexander Pozdnyakov, this innocence is the very pillar of Soviet storytelling. ‘There was an enthusiasm for human solidarity, family oriented values and a sense of helping one’s kin,’ he argues before concluding that these are ‘the main values, the message of Soviet films.’

Further Watchlist

  • Bed and Sofa, Tretya meshchanskaya, 1927, Abram Room
  • The House on Trubnaya, Dom na Trubnoi, 1928, Boris Barnet
  • Tanya, Svetly put (literally ‘Shining Path’), 1940, Gregori Alexandrov
  • The Girl Without an Address, Devushka bez adresa, 1957, Eldar Ryazanov
  • Walking the Streets of Moscow, Ya shagayu po Moskve, 1963, Georgiy Daneliya
  • Moscow Does not Believe in Tears, Moskva slezam ne verit, 1975, Vladimir Menshov
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