Movies: The Vanished Empire

Take a trip with into nostalgia me to the vanished empire that is the Soviet Union of the 1970s. this movie is all about it. You can watch it on Netflix.

Or, if you’re lucky, it’s already been playing, like a memory you have of a time you never experienced, in your head for the last 24 years.

Watch Sergei, an 18-year-old student at Moscow State University, as he grows up in Moscow, and realize that this is the way your parents grew up. Marvel at the fact that someone took a piece of stencil paper and traced your father’s youth as he bought Western records on the black market, played the bass in a rock band, and chainsmoked in dimly-lit auditoriums, and then took that traced piece of paper and created a movie out of it.

Take a look at his clothes and at the clothes of his love interest, Lyuda (Ludmilla), and notice the hair up in a bun. The 70s scarf.  The Soviet propaganda billboard behind them.  Marvel at how familiar it all feels.

See Sergei stand in line for beer with one of his friends.  Understand the Soviet ocheredi (queues) and the shortages. Not only understand them, but feel them, because you were in them.

Watch Sergei go to classes with his best friend Styepa (Stepan) at Moscow State University.  Understand the sweaters.  Not only understand the sweaters, but feel them.  You know these sweaters.  Your dad and your grandpa wore these sweaters.  There are many men at the Russian grocery store who still wear these sweaters, 20 years later, these distinctly Soviet sweaters.

Look at the black and white photographs in Lyuda’s parents’ apartment. Understand the hair styles and the facial expressions.  Feel the hairstyle.  The wallpaper, oh God, the wallpaper.

In fact, you had the same pictures taken when you were little, with the same Soviet toys.  The reason you are wearing a hat is because Russian girls are not allowed to go outside with their hair uncovered. They might catch a cold.

Look at your husband, age three. That shirt. That black and white camera film.

Look at the movie that Sergei and Lyuda go to see on a date. Ivan Vasilievich Menyaet Professiu (Ivan Vasilievich Changes Careers).  You watched this movie yesterday. And four months ago. And last year.  You watch all the Soviet movies.  Nothing in Russia changes, because these movies, these beautiful funny movies that were created 30 years ago, are still being shown and parodied in comedy sketches today.

Look at Lyuda’s parents’ apartment.  The stenka (wall unit.) Oh God, stenka.  Everyone had a wall unit.  Everyone has a wall unit here.  The stenka is the dream of all immigrants. You can put all of your books in it.  Having a lot of books is important because it means your family is educated. The books all have thick leather bindings and there are American titles translated into Russian, as well as Bulgakov and Tolstoy.

Watch in disbelief as the movie systematically matches everything you understand about where you came from and how you perceive it.  Cry because it is such a beautiful movie, about the vanished empire, but not just about that. About love, about how life works out differently than we expect it to.

Listen to the song, ” ‘My Address is the Soviet Union,” which was a popular patriotic song at the time containing the chorus, “My adress is neither a house nor a street, but the Soviet Union.” Your address is the Soviet Union. It’s not a physical address.

Gaze at Alexandr Lyapin, who plays Sergei.  But surreptitiously, because your husband is watching the movie with you.  Pretend your husband is Alexandr Lyapin. Your husband is Alexandr Lyapin.

Alexandr Lyapin.




8 thoughts on “Movies: The Vanished Empire

  1. My husband and I watched it last night in lieu of the Oscars. He said, “I don’t care if he learns a valuable lesson in the end, he’s still a jerk.” Seryozha lost him early… stealing your girlfriends’ book and selling it on the black market? A capital offense in my husband’s world. I kept being distracted by the subtitles. I thought the translator did a sloppy job. Lot of nuance was lost. And the whining at the end… there is just so much whining I can stand. Yes, your life did not go the way you expected. The country you grew up in is gone. You and almost every other human being on Earth. Deal. Move on. Don’t steal anymore books.

    1. I also gasped when he took the Bulgakov and sold it. But was it really his girlfriend’s book that he sold, or his mother’s? Because she found him out. So for me it was unclear. It was really hard for me to stop reading the translations so I had to force myself to look at the middle of the screen so I wouldn’t see the titles.

      The end, I thought it wasn’t as much whining as Russian reflection. I see this a lot in my family and my parents’ friends. I thought the movie was incredible because it captured their youth, or at least how they related it to me, so extremely and precisely well, and how hard it is for even Russians growing up today to understand the Soviet Union. I don’t know, the movie resonated a lot with me and I thought the guy was just being an asshole at the beginning but was a completely changed person at the end.

      What did your husband think from an American perspective? I’m always curious as to how Americans read the nuances that we sometimes pick up on .

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