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The Irony of Fate

1,286 words

If you did an internet search of movies about or taking place on New Year’s Eve, the majority would most likely fall under the romantic comedy genre. Which makes sense, given that when you think about New Year’s Eve, your first thoughts are probably of drinking parties with friends, and more importantly, waiting for the clock to strike midnight with your significant other.

The Irony of Fate was a Soviet made-for-television romantic comedy that aired throughout the Soviet Union on January 1st, 1976. Despite its length (180 minutes broken into two 90-minute episodes), it became an instant hit and has been played on television every New Year’s Eve in Russia and other former Soviet states for the last 40 years. Moreover, the film gives insight into a period of Soviet culture that remains an object of nostalgia for many people who were old enough to experience it.

In order to fully appreciate the film, it is necessary to understand the history and culture of the Soviet Union in the 1970s, particularly the stagnation and social policies of the later Brezhnev era. To put it simply, the Soviet Union’s economy slowed down in the 1970s, and to counter the apparent signs of economic decline, Brezhnev attempted to improve living standards through housing and social benefits. This led to the construction of large apartment complexes where each small apartment would have the exact same layout, furniture, and features.

This concept is perfectly depicted through the film’s short cartoon, animated by Vitaly Peskov, which shows how these large, identical apartment complexes spread from city to city, country to country, finally engulfing the whole world. While the cartoon has quite a bit of humor, watching it in our current times is eerie, for we face the same issues today, as many scenic countrysides of the past are being replaced by endless apartment complexes and Starbucks.

The plot of the film is rather straightforward. Zhenya (Andrey Myagkov) is planning his future wedding with his fiancée Galya (Olga Naumenko) in Moscow right before New Year’s Eve. During their talk, Zhenya explains that he goes to the local banya (Russian bathhouse) every New Year’s Eve with his friends. While we get the sense that Galya disapproves of both his friends and their yearly ritual, the film follows Zhenya as he meets and gets drunk with his friends at the banya. After a long period of drinking vodka, they realize that one of their friends at the banya with them has a flight to Leningrad (St. Petersburg) that evening. So naturally, they all go to the airport together.

Through a very funny dialogue, they incorrectly assume that it is Zhenya that needs to fly to Leningrad and they help him board the plane, despite Zhenya being borderline unconscious from drinking. He eventually wakes up at the Leningrad airport, thinking it’s still Moscow. Zhenya then gives a taxi driver his address to take him home. Yet due to the Brezhnev-era city architecture, he still doesn’t notice that he’s in Leningrad because all the buildings look the same. Zhenya eventually goes to an apartment complex and gets into an apartment because his Moscow apartment key also works in the Leningrad apartment. Zhenya then passes out in the apartment’s bed, thinking that it’s his bed.

As you probably have guessed, the owner of the apartment, Nadya (Barbara Brylska), is shocked to arrive home to find a strange man in her bed. To make matters worse, before Nadya can kick Zhenya out of the apartment (he still thinks that he’s in his Moscow apartment), Nadya’s boyfriend, Ippolit (Yuri Yakovlev), catches them together, albeit arguing. Naturally, Ippolit finds it hard to believe that a stranger from Moscow could end up in Nadya’s apartment. Ippolit then starts to think that Nadya is romantically involved with Zhenya. To make matters worse, Galya, who is still back in Moscow, starts to become worried because she hasn’t heard from Zhenya since he went to the banya.

This is the main plot and the rest of the film plays out in many ways like a typical romantic comedy. There are some notable exceptions however. Right away, you get the sense that the film feels like a play, as the locations are limited to a few settings, often with heavy dialogue. This is because the director of The Irony of Fate, Elder Ryazanov, based the film on a play he had written in 1971 called Once On New Year’s Eve.

The next thing you notice throughout the film is the music. There are several songs that the characters (Zhenya and Nadya) sing throughout the film. The songs, along with the cinematic score, were written by Mikael Tariverdiev. The songs can best be described as Russian folk songs mixed with some ballads. The songs are very catchy, and the lyrics of each song often relate to the thoughts and emotions that Zhenya and Nadya are experiencing at that moment. The main theme of the film is even worked into one of the most popular songs performed in the film, “If You Don’t Have an Aunt” (если у вас нету тёти). While I greatly enjoy all the songs of the film, this song is definitely my favorite and I’ve been known to sing it (after a few drinks) at New Year’s Eve parties I’ve attended in the past.

So why am I writing a movie review about a romantic comedy made in the Soviet Union in the 1970s? Or better yet, why would I recommend the film to readers of this website? Because this film has historical importance, the music is memorable, and it has become a tradition in my life to watch this film every New Year’s Eve, regardless of my location each year.

I mentioned that many people in older generations have nostalgia for both this film and the period it was from. This is not to say that life was easy or pleasant in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s. For all the social benefits or living standard improvements that some Soviet citizens experienced, it is well-documented that there were many citizens who found themselves homeless and starving due to the period’s economic decline. Many citizens were also censored and imprisoned through Brezhnev’s crackdown on dissent, led by then-KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov.

Nevertheless, many polls have shown that older Russian citizens have much more favorable opinions and views of the late Brezhnev era than of what has come since. Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost policies created many economic and social challenges during the 1980s. Moreover, Yeltsin’s policies for transitioning the new Russian nation into a capitalist economy in the 1990s (known fittingly as “Shock Therapy”) would only further increase the social and economic problems for its citizens. So this film can be seen as a historical and cultural relic before the noticeable decline of Soviet life.

In my opinion, the film’s music score could easily have competed with some of the Oscar-winning musical scores of Hollywood during that same period. The songs also have a lot of lyrics that mix humor and wisdom. Having seen it on TV year after year, even younger generations of Russians know most of these songs by heart.

Before US President Reagan met with Gorbachev, Reagan stated that he watched the Soviet film Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears several times in order to understand the “Russian soul.” While that film is an important Soviet film, I think Reagan should have also watched The Irony of Fate for the same reason. It’s a film that always puts me in the holiday spirit, and whether I’m with friends or alone, I always have a great New Year’s Eve watching it, just as many Russian souls have and continue to do so year after year.

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  1. John Wilkinson
    Posted December 31, 2019 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Americans are so brainwashed about communism (in some ways, rightly so of course) that many of us aren’t able to visualize that the former Soviet Union was a nation of people…with all the same relationships, challenges, ups, downs, wants, desires, etc. Americans (especially older ones) have a hard time separating the propaganda from the truth. The USSR will always be a caricature of reality, focused on the things that that ultimately don’t matter (like military parades through Moscow) without acknowledging the things that do…music, art, family, culture, etc.

    It’s also a hurdle for westerners…we rightly fear and loathe communism. Few of us would want the oppression and dissent punishment. Everyone living in cold, sterile, Spartan apartments provided by the state would also be depressing. But boiling the USSR down to these negative stereotypes is unfair to the good things that happened. It couldn’t have been ALL bad.

    • Andris
      Posted December 31, 2019 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

      It was mostly bad. You are spewing the same nonsense that ethnic Russians do in the nations they invaded, oppressed and tried to russify. Russians that moan about the 90s “evil capitalism and drugs” somehow like to forget the genocide, mass graves, livestock wagons to Siberia and and the backwards economics of the pro-Russian Soviet Union (yes, cry me a river, aut-righter).
      The US and other Western countries were better then and are better now. Overly privileged “dissident” or “revolutionary” are the only ones that can’t see that from comfortable “activism”.
      I’m guessing life in North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba and China isn’t that bad as well?
      The nostalgia of the Soviet Union is the most disgusting thing that only an animal could experience.

    • Veritas
      Posted January 1, 2020 at 12:06 am | Permalink

      Excellent commentary, John — especially on the people of velikaya Rus

      I totally agree.

  2. Lesley
    Posted December 31, 2019 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Just watched the film with my wife, as we do every year. Neither of us is from the post-Soviet space, but the film is simply the best choice for a NY traditional evening at home.

    Last year a zoomer friend,European, said he watched Irony of Fate with his girlfriend, and was surprised at how good it was. Maybe in the near future more and more people will rediscover vintage Soviet, French, and Italian cinematic classics, as modern Hollywood becomes increasingly irredeemable.

    Silver lining, and all that.
    Just like it’s hard to remember for modern Westerners that today’s Russia has the best quality of life in all of Russian history, it’s also hard to remember that the previous “kindly emperor golden age”—the two decades of Brezhnev’s rule—were also a period of the best ever quality of life up to then.

    And the softest political oppression. It was like the liberast West today—the wrong joke, or an inability to realize that yesterday’s OK position is today’s “fascist” position can all destroy your life, but if you’re well adapted to this bullshit, you’re all set. All you need to worry about is being randomly stabbed by a thug on the street, in spite of there “being no crime increase”, or getting dead early due to crap “universal free healthcare” because someone was having a bad day and your bribe didn’t work.
    Also, Brezhnev’s “kindly emperor golden age” should be an eternal warning to the West today. Because from 1960 to 1980 it really did look on the outside that perhaps the USSR is winning. That the system is stable, the economy provides for everyone, the quality of life is constantly rising, science is marching triumphantly forward, sports victories, “virility showcase” public parades…

    Around 1960, the space race had been won on all fronts by the Soviets. Then Kennedy got killed. Then the Vietnam War started for real, race riots started for real, counter culture. Students fighting the police, blacks torching cities… The young generation infiltrated by commies and terrorists… In the 1970’s the economy nosediving… Inflation soaring… Crime exploding… Drug addiction epidemics… Blackouts…

    Especially during the 1970’s decade, it looked like the reds are maybe the more stable option, compared to all the crap so visibly eating away at the West.
    Yet crap was also eating away at the East, albeit invisibly. And while in the West, when reformers like Reagan and Thatcher took over, they turned everything around in the course of a single mandate, in the East, when reformer Gorbachev took over, it was too late.

    The system had been completely hollowed out, and the only subsystems that truly functioned well were a) the criminal networks that grew around the omnipresent black market the compensated the deficiencies of the planned economy, and b) the “institutional networks” in the KGB, the army, manufacturing, etc., where everybody did everybody else favors, in order to circumvent the slow rules and keep the country rolling along.

    Once the macroscopic framework of the system collapsed, what remained was the criminal and institutional subsystem networks. Now THEY were the system. Out of the first grew the “wild 1990’s”, out of the second, after a protracted struggle, grew Putin.
    After 70 years of war, famine, and totalitarianism, and, let’s be honest, a thousand years of the same before that, and then a decade of “wild capitalism”, there wasn’t much left from which to build a new Russian identity, to keep the nation from simply dissolving with a whimper.

    So Putin used anything he could. A shred of imperial nostalgia to plug this hole, a splinter of Soviet nostalgia to plug that hole, a burst of Orthodox Christian sentiment to try and tie it all together, some military worship ala Prussia as a shield against GloboHomo, and so on. Ivan Ilyin’s “Russian Fascism” third way, Dugin’s anthropological mystical geopolitics. Even “western liberalism” in medicinal doses.

    Let’s say it took him one human generation, but in the end Putin managed to swing it. He became an old man, but he managed to swing it. He managed to rebuild a national protective conceptual framework from odds and ends, and cover up the void once more.
    But let this be a warning to the West, and especially the Anglosphere.

    It may look like you’re in your best years, and the system will work forever—like it did for the USSR in its golden decades—but sometimes below the surface everything has been hollowed out by cynical special interest groups, and a simple sneeze is all it takes to collapse the whole house of cards.

    And sometimes, after certain people have managed to destroy every single value, moral, and traditional framework, which served both as a spine and a shield to society and the individual, leaving him powerless and at the mercy of corporate and state brainwashing and manipulation, and any local or foreign predator—to build another spine and another shield, you’ll have to use everything you can get. Any crumb you can find.

    And lastly, sometimes, in order to make the transition from “dysfunctional empire” to “functional nation”, the cost of this transition is losing not only the imperial influence that used to take up half the world, but also losing half your own imperial territory, population, and economical capacity, and shrinking all the way to the basic core. Peacefully, if things go right.
    ‘Moscow Does not Believe in Tears’ is possibly the best melodrama known to man. Also I’d recommend ‘White Sun of the Desert’, ‘Gentlemen of Fortune’, and ‘The Diamond Arm’, from the vintage golden age Soviet films. Truly excellent stuff.

  3. R_is_my_R
    Posted December 31, 2019 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Maybe we in the west could use some time in spartan apartments to focus our minds away from our disgusting consumerism and egalitarianism. Sign me up. Oh wait. I am already living that life – waiting for the rest of you soft eggheads to catch up. Less reading, more breeding.

  4. Posted January 2, 2020 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    Communist era films always make me consider that for most people living under said regimes, the communism was probably not the most pressing concern. People still lived, fell in love, got married, had children and drunken misadventures in their Brezhnevite housing.

  5. Bertram
    Posted January 8, 2020 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    The original Indo-European people were, according to the latest information, the Khvalynsk culture around 4,500 B.C. on the Middle Volga. Not far from the place where the battle of Stalingrad took place.

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