The Soviets Had a Sense of Humor Too
. . . and they made one of my favorite movies.
Making my Russian professor laugh is not easy, which means making jokes in class is a gamble. Russians are notoriously serious, especially Russians who grew up in the Soviet Union. Last week, we were discussing illness, the vocabulary used to communicate with doctors, and how to describe symptoms. When it came time to play the doctor and pretend to ask the imaginary patient questions, I asked, “У вас завещание?” (Do you have a will?) It was a dumb joke, but I’ve never heard her laugh harder.
Sophomore year (I’ve been taking Russian for two years and it has absolutely nothing to do with my major, and I had no better reason to take a Russian class than “it sounded like fun”), we were allowed to watch a Russian movie for our cultural assignment. Some friends and I bought peanut M&M’s, reserved a room in the library, and settled down to watch our first Soviet comedy. Yes, you read that correctly: a Soviet comedy. While Brezhnev and Johnson were at each other’s throats, a Russian film giant was making a cinematic masterpiece, dear even to Russians who didn’t grow up in the regime.
While Mosfilm (Мосфильм по-русски) has made thousands of films since it was founded in 1923, my favorite so far is Kidnapping: Caucasian Style. The male lead, Shurik, is an idiot whose lack of common sense gets him into all sorts of trouble. The female lead, Nina, is independent, savvy, and frankly too good for Shurik (say what you will about the Soviets, but at least they were equal-opportunity).
The movie opens with one of the tightest bands I’ve ever heard playing over the credits, and the music itself doesn’t sound unfamiliar. On a dirt road in the mountains, Shurik’s too-small donkey won’t budge, and neither will a car stopped on the side of the road, until Nina walks past. While I won’t spoil too much of the movie, except to say that it taught me the only dance move I know, this one is worth watching. There are a couple, uh, morally questionable scenes later on, but most of the movie feels like something you'd find in your grandma's shelf of DVDs and VHS tapes.
Later, Shurik is tricked into kidnapping Nina by the villain. My favorite but admittedly very awkward scene comes when she's absentmindedly humming "student folklore" and Shurik asks her to sing the whole song. Be warned: A Song about Bears will probably be stuck in your head for days or weeks to come. Two years after I first saw the movie, I still can't get the damn thing out of my head, and the cigarette butt dance still gets me every time.
Kidnapping: Caucasian Style has a familiar sense of humor, and isn't afraid to poke fun at tradition. If you're a fan of American comedies from the '50s and '60s, you'll probably like the Soviets' answer. Aside from the comedy, which doesn't degrade no matter how many times you watch it, the movie is a nice place to revisit. The color palette, mountain setting, and bumbling villains make worries melt away for an hour and twenty minutes. Kidnapping: Caucasian Style and other Mosfilm productions are available to watch with subtitles on YouTube, and they'll change your preconceptions of the Soviet Union.
The truth is, every Soviet outside the government was just a normal person trying to live life. They liked to laugh just like we did. Watching the movie, which is obviously one of my favorites now, one question weighed on my mind: are Russia and the United States damned to be enemies until the end of time? We share a sense of humor, a desire for adventure, and a love of pancakes. They even have a pancake week (it's a little more than a pancake week, but it definitely sounds like something Americans would do). We may have been on two different sides of the Cold War, but Americans and Russians have a lot in common.