Are Soviet films used by Russians to critique the political, social, and moral order of the present? Why do certain films spark a greater sense of nostalgia than others? Prospekt Magazine looks at three iconic films from the Brezhnev era and explores how they’re employed in post-Soviet identity building.
The year 2016 was great for Russian films specifically and the box office generally in Russia. Ticket sales grew by 9.5% to 49 billion roubles ($727 million), and highly anticipated Russian films such as Andrey Kravchuk’s historical epic Viking ranked among the top 10 best-selling films in the country.
Nevertheless, contemporary Russian films often face harsh feedback from critics, and it would be fair to say that the majority of Russians believe that contemporary filmography is inferior to its American counterpart. However, this has not always been the case. Soviet filmography was widely regarded as being on par with that of its cold war enemy, and the films of this era continue to evoke visibly positive reactions among Russians today. Having spent several years immersed in Russian culture, one thing that particularly fascinated me was the pervasive popular attachment to Soviet films. I was fortunate enough to be encouraged by my Russian professors at university to delve into this world of intelligent and heart warming satire, which I, along with many Russians, can’t help but love and enjoy.
Soviet cinema of the Brezhnev era strove to assist the construction of new socialist and Soviet identities while establishing a space for collective amusement. Though popular Western narratives of Soviet life tended to emphasise state hegemony, political centralization, and repression, the films mentioned in this article shed light on lesser known aspects of Soviet life. They explore how citizens of the Brezhnev era attempted to reconcile the complex relationship of a highly centralized political and cultural system with their ordinary ways of life. In this way, Soviet cinema under Brezhnev provided a refreshing depiction of the normality of life during the 1970s, albeit within the framework of a communist state seeking to consolidate its power.
Historiographically, the Brezhnev era is talked about quite negatively, but those who lived through it credit it for its consistency, good level of social security, and a sense of ‘confidence in tomorrow.’ Even today, Brezhnev’s popular legacy is apparent. In a recent study by the Levada Center, 56% of respondents expressed ‘positive feelings about Brezhnev’, a statistic which clearly shows there is a certain ongoing attachment to this period of Soviet history. Unlike his predecessors, Leonid Brezhnev built his legitimacy and popularity by giving greater focus to consumer demands, one of which was greater access and approval of Soviet filmography. It was this reduction in state-oriented efforts to restrict consumerism that allowed Soviet cinema to accurately explore the everyday lives of Soviet citizens in ways which had never been attempted before on the big screen. This everyday life (byt in Russian) attracted audiences then and continues to draw crowds today—of people who feel nostalgia for the Soviet period.
But how do we explain this nostalgia? It is not to say that post-Soviet citizens of today yearn for a return to the old political order, food rationing, or compulsory dispatching for potato harvesting during the holidays. Instead, the nostalgia evoked by these films seems to be a used as a counterweight to the social and moral order of the present. During the Brezhnev era, state power depended less on Soviet citizens’ belief in the communist ideology, and more on their simulation of that belief, and thus Soviet cinema of this time was able to both mock and celebrate the seemingly ridiculous nature of the state apparatus so long as the pretence of supporting the regime was clear.
Demonstrating new social themes that were particularly relevant to the Brezhnev era, these light-hearted satirical comedies created heroes whose faults tended to lie in their own ignorance and unwillingness to do wrong, rather than serving as state-sponsored propaganda for political gain. Soviet cinema was a portal to a different way of life and was a quiet way to reject the system whilst conforming to most of its demands. Thus, Soviet filmmakers attempted to establish a more or less popular imagery and narrative of what it meant to be ordinary in Soviet society during the 1970s. In today’s Russia, these films continue to provide a means to move away from the homogenisation of contemporary life and reminisce about the positive aspects of the past. The warm nature of the characters and the positive storylines of these films help people remember and reflect on what was noteworthy about this so-called ‘era of stagnation’, and draw attention to the joy and humour which prevailed in the country, despite the circumstances. In a way, the films are a testament to the courage, charisma and character of ordinary Soviet citizens living under Brezhnev’s rule.
Prospekt Magazine examines the works of three directors, each of whom is iconic to this era of film. Leonid Gaidai, Eldar Ryazanov, and Georgy Daneliya are famous for both writing (often without credit) and directing screenplays during the Brezhnev era with distinguishing trademarks and satirical styles. All three films are highly entertaining regardless of your attitudes towards the Soviet Union and can be found on www.mosfilm.ru with English subtitles.
1. Eldar Ryazanov’s Office Romance (Russian: Служебный роман). 1977.
Perhaps most famous for the classic New Year’s film Irony of Fate, Eldar Ryazanov’s Office Romance is a 1970s romantic comedy poking fun at the Brezhnev era. The film draws on how—despite strong social stratification within the Soviet Union—everyone was seen as ‘a comrade’. The unlikely romance between the director of a large statistical bureau in Moscow and one of her clumsy employees is both cringe-worthy and heart-warming. Ryazanov’s film depicts how an uptight, career-driven boss awakens to life and develops an intimate relationship with the film’s protagonist, Anatoly Yefremovich Novoseltsev. Office Romance explores several important moral issues from the period—such as the seemingly omnipresent obligation to the collective—while remaining extremely humorous throughout.
2. Georgiy Daneliya’s Autumn Marathon (Russian: Осенний марафон). 1979.
A staple melodramatic comedy from the Brezhnev era. Though lacking a strong plot, the film provides an interesting look at how people struggled through the mundane reality of Soviet life. The film follows the life of Andrey Buzykin, a member the Soviet intelligentsia who works as an instructor and translator at a university. He has a good job, lives in a nice apartment with his family, and has a close circle of friends. His life seems perfect, however, something is always missing for him. Through its satirical presentation, Autumn Marathon critiques the conformity of the Brezhnev era and offers a glimpse into the complexities of life at the time.
3. Leonid Gaidai’s The Diamond Arm (Russian: Бриллиантовая рука). 1969.
Though the words ‘Soviet’ and ‘comedy’ may seem to be an uncommon phrase to some, this film really does bring out the best of Gaidai’s vivacious style of slapstick humour. When Semyon Gobunkov goes on a cruise with a smuggler on board and accidentally breaks his arm, what he doesn’t know is that this is a signal for a gang of smugglers. What entails is a non-stop series of amusing sequences, which at the time were enjoyed by 76.7 million people, making it the box-office hit of Soviet cinema in 1969.
What all these films have in common and seem to reflect is the widely held belief that Brezhnev’s era shouldn’t simply be associated with stagnation—a label that many historians and economists all too willingly attach to it. In the popular imagination, the films reference a good period in which life was calm and there was a certain element of stability and confidence in the following day. Similarly, the films reflect traits that are still relevant—Russians, like us all, still want to believe in a fairer future and a time in which there is friendship between people. Perhaps it is exactly this enduring relevance that draws Russians to Soviet cinema to this day.