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.
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.