Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
Stuck inside your own four walls during lockdown, you might have found solace from imagining the domestic interiors of past civilizations. The wooden houses of Meiji Japan! The villas of ancient Rome!
Or the many rooms of the Soviet Union.
No one did more to make Soviet interior space of the 1970s and 1980s into an art form than the filmmaker Eldar Riazanov. Some of his films are so distinctive because they largely take place inside a single room or apartment. Watching them takes you inside the four walls of a past world.
The Irony of Fate, or Congratulations on a Light Steam! (1975) is a New Year classic. (The second half of the title — s legkim parom! — is the salutation one offers to someone emerging from the Russian bathhouse.) Four thirty-something male friends get drunk at the banya on 31 December. Utterly incapacitated, one of them mistakenly takes his friend’s place on a plane from Moscow to Leningrad. Still blind drunk on arrival, he gets to his address and opens the door (the key fits). The apartment is laid out like his own, he assumes he is at home, and romantic comedy ensues. Rooms themselves are partly the subject of the film: the instantly familiar seventies apartment is itself the plot device. Nobody talks about socialism, but it seems capable of delivering happy outcomes.
Four years later, Riazanov directed The Garage (1979). One evening, members of a housing cooperative hold a fraught meeting at the zoological research institute to which they are connected. The meeting concerns the garages which the cooperative has been constructing on their behalf. Suddenly faced with a reduction in the number of garages, cooperative members must decide who will lose out. As the doors are locked, and an all-night session ensues, badinage alternates with cruelty in a confined, interior space. The zoological displays in the room suggest virtuous learning, but the comedy is about materialist oneupmanship, corruption and possessions. Soviet ideology is absent.
By the late 1980s, the comedic value of the Soviet interior had vanished for Riazanov. In Dear Elena Sergeyevna (1988), four high school pupils, about to take their final exams, turn up at their teacher’s apartment, apparently to thank her and celebrate their time at school. Inside, the mood soon darkens. The pupils offer her an apparently irresistible inducement to help one of them get through the exams. Soviet life — the manners of the teacher, the sacredness of learning, the classic domestic interior — has been broken from within by the sudden changes of perestroika. Inside this claustrophobic, dangerous interior space, a young psychopath has the opportunity to pursue his desire to control and humiliate others. The rooms are entirely Soviet; his mental illness is completely human.
These three rooms illustrate the destabilization of Soviet assumptions between the mid-1970s and the late 1980s. Yet like so many cultural artefacts from the period, Riazanov’s films are not just evidence for an historical argument. Any set of four walls might be culturally specific, but the drama and laughter that unfold within them — no doubt made acute during our recent lockdown — are surely universal.