A Leninist party is the enemy of subjectivism and drift in communist construction. Harebrained scheming; premature conclusions; hasty decisions and actions divorced from reality; bragging and bluster; a penchant for management by fiat; an unwillingness to take into account the conclusions of science and practical experience; these are alien to the party (10).Faced with these questions, we realise that the third character in “Co-Worker” provides a much less ambivalent key to the interpretation of the episode. For the main engineer at the construction site is a highly overdetermined incarnation of this description of Khrushchev (neither here nor in the Pravda article mentioned by name) (11). For example, he is wholly oblivious to the total lack of discipline at the place he runs, and he strolls among the unfinished walls of the housing estate incessantly spouting official ideology. To begin with, he compares contemporary production statistics with those of the year 1913, the last peaceful year before the war, which brought the Revolution (12). Later, he brags about scientific successes, “our spaceships which cruise the cosmos”, about surpassing America, and about grandiose schemes for housing projects. In the meantime, the drunk licks his ice-cream, wipes his hands on the main engineer's clothes and spends his time “at work” eating and sleeping. Also, the building site setting of “Co-Worker” has strong links to Khrushchev. He was well known to the domestic audience as the man behind the mass construction of housing in the early 50s, when he initiated the building of a huge number of ugly prefabricated buildings with small flats in order to solve the housing problem in Moscow. The public even nicknamed them “khrushcheby” (from “trushcheby” - slums). As if this were not enough, references to Khrushchev's animosity to religion, as well as to his extensive trips abroad are included. Once we realise that the main engineer wears the same Ukrainian shirt that Khrushchev very often wore in public (also sported by one of the briefly glimpsed jailed hoods at the beginning of the episode), it becomes clear that “Co-Worker” was above all a not-so-gentle farewell to Khrushchev in the most popular Soviet film of 1965. It seems obvious that in “Co-Worker” the construction of an alternative, or extended satiric working model by the viewer proceeds via a series of connected sight gags as defined by Carroll. One situation model controls the meaning of the diegetic characters and events, such as the conflict on the public bus, the relationship between Shurik and the hooligan etc. The alternative, satiric model, which is based on the former, builds a much more abstract network that relates to Khrushchev, to the various social groups, and complex developments in the Soviet society. Every time that the viewer perceives elements which lead him/her to apply the alternative working model to an object-event, a cognitive event comparable to the sight gag takes place. Like in a sight gag, a small detail can shift the viewer's interpretation in the desired direction. The major difference may be found in the degree of surprise: an isolated sight gag that elicits an alternative mental model often causes more astonishment than a corresponding figure which is interpreted according to an already established explanatory pattern. But this need not be the case, as we can see in Operation 'Y' and Other Shurik's Adventures, in which the fast pace of slapstick keeps the viewer continually occupied in constructing a diegetic model from events that develop with breakneck speed. Under these conditions, the uneven pace of the development of a further, abstract working model, which refers to the political questions of the Soviet Union, causes the viewer to repeatedly react with significant surprise, especially as the cues that activate the abstract model already possess a comic potential stemming from their function within the diegetic context. The reference to Khrushchev is not made only through the character of the main engineer (one of the louts has already staked his claim to the Moon); but he is a final trigger helping to establish a firm and consistent abstract working model, which is then reapplied to the preceding incidents of the episode. Shurik's second adventure in “Strange Impression” (“Navazhdenie”) portrays the love life of the young generation and is again inspired by early Keaton, especially The Scarecrow (Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline, 1920). This serves as an interlude before the film returns to the Soviet economy in the third and last movement, “Operation Y” itself. “Operation Y” opens at the “kolkhoz market” at which everything but agricultural products is being sold. At one of the stalls, a man sells wall paintings and the dialogue with the customer clearly mocks Khrushchev's famous dislike of abstract paintings and his prudery. The rest of the episode is devoted to the ploy arranged by the head of the local warehouse and three local thugs. To deceive the arriving inspectorate, they organise a break in, although there is nothing valuable left to steal. In the words of the leader of the gang, Byvalyi (“Old Hand” – or literally, the one who has been around for a long time), whose manners and looks are reminiscent of Khrushchev's: “In our place everything is already stolen.” And so the fictitious burglary takes place at the already burglarised department store, ridiculing the structurally ingrained susceptibility of the Soviet state operated merchandising to thievery. If Khrushchev's work on housing problems was familiar to Soviet audiences, his interest and investment in agriculture was known to be second to none. His involvement in constant changes in agricultural production included a great expansion into the “virgin lands” of Kazakhstan and Siberia during the late '50s, construction of large agro-towns, and cooperation with and promotion of the controversial scientist Lysenko. He was also known for his war against the small private plots on which kolkhoz members actually produced a surplus that they later could sell at the market. Their abolition made food even scarcer, and the introductory scene of “Operation Y” is a clear reference to the sad state of affairs in Soviet agriculture. Constant scheming had already made Khrushchev's collaborators tired and weary even before the dismal harvest of 1963. In addition, in early 1964, just a few months before his downfall, he engaged in a renewed drive against the peasants' private plots and livestock holdings. Thus, it is easy to read “Operation Y” as the final judgment on Khrushchev's contribution to Soviet agriculture. He left the village inefficient and plundered, with peasants engaged in everything but the production of food. The immediate announcements that followed Khrushchev's dismissal on October 16, 1964 referred only to his age and health as reasons, without any details. The newspaper denunciation quoted above, which was published the day after, never mentioned his name. Despite this, and although he was explicitly brought up in the press on only a single occasion before he died in 1971, the claim that “his successors wished to forget that he existed, and clearly...hoped that the public would forget him as well” is belied by Gaidai's films (13). It appears that as he was pensioned off, show trials and ritual party congress attacks were replaced by a much more sophisticated weapon: derision in the very popular, seemingly innocuous Soviet comedy genre films that went into production very soon after his downfall, where the main structural tool used was the sight gag and the “knowledge effect” it produces (14). Primarily because of his immensely popular 1968 comedy Diamond Arm (Brilyantovaya ruka), Gaidai was recently even called the main dissident in the Soviet cinema during its period of stagnation. Along the same lines, one might propose that Operation Y and Other Shurik's Adventures was an episode in his personal crusade against Soviet foibles. However, this seems highly unlikely. Firstly, two screenwriters worked on the script along with Gaidai. Furthermore, knowing the number of hurdles the script had to jump through in order to go into production in the Soviet system, the complex manner in which Khrushchev features in the comedy must have been approved, and even initiated, from a higher place (15). So, if Operation Y was primarily a vehicle to discredit Khrushchev, what are we to say about its references to the inadequate Soviet economic system? Although the economic shortcomings are clearly connected with the departed leader, they are presented as systemic, rather than solely being an outcome of his style of leadership. He did not do much to solve them, but what is the Soviet viewer in the summer of 1965 to perceive as the way out of an obviously existing problem? If the answer seems to be only hinted at, the middle of 1965 was a rare time when the question could have been openly asked. Even if Khrushchev had not been an ardent proponent of the introduction of market instruments, he had opened the space for others to begin asking the question. Operation Y and Other Shurik's Adventures arranges a number of diegetic objects and events that relate to the extra-diegetic reality on many levels. By recognising these relations, the contemporary viewer was able to form a multifarious, abstract and reflexive working model based on a cinematic form apparently as simple as slapstick. It is obviously not a matter of a momentary hint at the social circumstances, but rather a sustained effort, with a complex outcome. Gaidai uses the figure of Shurik, a bespectacled, good-natured student (whose emotional identificatory power comes from outside this filmic text), in order to guide viewers through a more intricate mental model related to their experience of reality outside the theatre. Thus, the viewer faces a complex relationship between abstract concepts, signifiers, and material traits of the text. At the same time, the basic diegetic situational model is a source of strong and vivid emotions that freely circulate and inform the satiric layer of meaning. The rhetorical power of Gaidai's narrative lays exactly in the “eureka” effect of the sight gags, and other associational forms of reasoning, while Shurik replaces the already obsolete worker or peasant from the Soviet films of previous decades, revealing the rising aspirations of the Soviet population and the change in their worldview (16). The basic problem facing filmmakers who wish to make a satire is the relationship between the diegetic world of film narration and the satirical layer of meaning. They both use the same signifying field, and they both rely on the power of recognition in human thinking. The competition of two (or two groups of) working models, one situational, diegetic, and the other satirical, more abstract, in which the individual objects do not stand for themselves, but for the classes of objects, and even more abstract constellations that involve perceptually absent social institutions and relations, means that none of them can be self-enclosed from the moment the viewer begins to form the outlines of the satirical working model. The stronger the narration insists on the relevance and continued existence of the abstract satirical model, the stronger is the possibility that the recognition of object-events will be made too stringently dependent on the inflexible, prescriptive abstract model, which claims higher explanatory competence. But slapstick in Operation Y and Other Shurik's Adventures is utterly untamable, and it constantly keeps the process of recognition alert. On the other hand, instead of openly and early revealing the outlines of his satirical model, Gaidai gradually builds it up in close connection with the events of physical comedy, which takes place on the diegetic level. Some elements of the satirical model are more easily visible than the others: the critique of technocracy, and of socially irresponsible behavior, for example. But only after the viewer brings forward more hidden elements of its structure, can the full dimensions of the abstract model be apprehended. This is where we see the close similarity between the functioning of the sight gag in visual comedy and the moments filled with surprise here, in which the viewer suddenly realises that the function of objects in slapstick simultaneously hides and illuminates the function of the “same” objects in the abstract satirical working model. Interested forces in the Soviet political structure were obviously aware of the tremendous popularity of comedy with domestic audiences, even before the detailed survey conducted in the region of Sverdlovsk in early 1966 (17). The atmosphere of the Thaw, which began soon after Stalin's death in conditions of a power vacuum, persisted, interspersed with periods of tightened control, throughout Khrushchev's reign. His style of leadership seems to have been crucial for this. Never happy with what had already been achieved, dynamic, erratic, crude and rude, yet increasingly removed from Stalin's repressive policies, he created an atmosphere with much more space for the political initiative of others. After his secret speech at the 20th Congress of CPSU and subsequent drives against the “cult of personality”, the dogma of the Party's infallibility could never again have the same power, nor could the position of Socialist Realism in the arts remain the same. Political discourse in the arts thus became much more complex and varied. In the comedies of Gaidai we face works that obviously did not aspire to be dissident in relation to the centers of power. However, the need to influence public opinion in regard to pertinent political questions is evident. In order to explain the reading strategies available to viewers, the answer should be sought in the affinity between the filmmakers and the political agenda of various centres of power. In interpreting these films, it is most profitable to search for the line which divided the ceremonial tribute to the sacred cows of the system from genuine discursive and political innovations in given historical circumstances. However, what makes this process more complicated is that judging by the films discussed, it was obviously perceived that this line should not be consciously identified, since this would diminish the effectiveness of the agenda with wide audiences. Andrew Horton has attempted to distinguish between carnival and lashing satire in Soviet cinema and in general (18). He draws on Mikhail Bakhtin to formulate the notion of carnivalesque laughter as a “folk laughter by the people, for the people, and is, in the spirit of the carnival, a sanctioned, liberating attack on all authority.” On the other hand, “lashing” satire is described as subjecting the ills in society to a devastating critique. Consequently, carnivalesque laughter would be primarily used by the people in their struggle for autonomy from oppressive social institutions. For Bakhtin, the carnivalesque is appropriated by the novel from folk culture, but many caveats are necessary in trying to apply this concept to cinema. While the novel can still be seen as work of a writer, industrial cinema as an activity which demands significant capital for its operation must have very strong links with social institutions throughout the production process. In these conditions, it is hard to see how the state, or the social groups, which control the capital could be excluded from the very substantial involvement in deciding what kind of humour will be used. Alternatively, we could presume that certain social groups would have an interest in using a form of humour, which invokes a spontaneous, joyful satiric laughter of the people. In this case, we would have in front of us an amalgam, a satiric form not wholly immune to the manipulation by the centers of power, while it retains some of the liberating features of the carnivalesque satire. They can be found perhaps not primarily in its meaning, but rather in the general relaxation of relations based on fear, which it brings about, while in addition enabling the viewer to approach the world from mutually exclusive positions. This is a tempting proposition, which would mean that the viewer could selectively discard ideological baggage and appropriate the discourse toward liberating purposes. We would have a form of resistance reading, a notion which has been sometimes hailed as a neat solution to the problems of ideological positioning. The Gaidai films discussed here fit the category of the carnivalesque if any do, yet we have seen to what extent the discourse of ridicule can be appropriated by the centers of power and steered in a desired direction. In other words, no definite point of view can be ascribed to a stylistic form without acknowledging particularities of a discursive situation. Operation Y and Other Shurik's Adventures constructs an alternative “situation” model for Soviet viewers, which strongly engages their working models of reality in the interpretation of the narrative. Gaidai's comedy employs the sight gag in order to involve the figure of Khrushchev, and thus destabilise the primary diegetic network. The doubling of the figure of the engineer lends a particular potency to the semantic elements present in the basic diegetic situation model, and enables the viewer to take a more reflexive position in regard to the work, but more importantly, towards the worldview from which the specific object has been retrieved. In the long run, the rigidity of Socialist Realism as an artistic mode seems to have been incompatible with the widespread popularity of comedy of this kind.
- Noel Carroll, “Notes on the Sight Gag”, Andrew Horton (ed.) Comedy/Cinema/Theory, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1991.
- Daniel Morrow, “Situation Models and Point of View”, Willie van Peer and Seymour Chatman (eds), New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2001.
- Gaidai had already thoroughly satirised “upravdom” in his classic Diamond Arm (Brilyantovaya ruka) (1968). In his play, which he wrote in 1935, Bulgakov envisaged that the roles of “upravdom” Bunsha-Koretskiy and Ivan the Terrible be played by two different actors. This was, of course, dictated by the representational potential of theatre. By using the same actor for two main roles, Gaidai significantly enhanced the expressive strength of Bulgakov's original idea.
- As we have seen, this was a highly characteristic feature of the silent film comedy.
- For the contemporary American release, the company that released the DVD, Ruscico, used the title Ivan the Terrible: Back to the Future. The translation seems very appropriate, for it is a Back to the Future sequel made in the States during the 80s that exemplifies the main principles of assembling a series of internally incoherent situation models from elements, which, if sorted by its position in “story time” originally “belong” to different situation models.
- At the end of Diamond Arm Gaidai masterfully parodies Eisenstein's style in a scene in which the main hero fights two gangsters at the car mechanic's workshop. This is a very good example of how a brief shift in stylistic features may, if noticed, bring about a profound change in the viewer's attitude towards the diegetic characters and events.
- Iskusstvo kino, no. 9, 1996.
- Sergeii Dobrotvorskii, “And his Task is...” (“I zadacha pri nem...”), Iskusstvo kino, no. 9, September 1996.
- “In a free society everything can be published and it is forgotten because it is seen at a glance. Under absolutism everything is hidden, but may be divined; that is what makes it interesting.” Michael Tatu, Power in the Kremlin, Viking Press, New York, 1969, p. 5. Although the differences between free society and absolutism may not be as sharp as implied here, this statement by the Marquis de Custine from 1839 suggests a possible rationale for trying to offer an interpretation of a popular comedy made some 40 years ago.
- Pravda, 17 October 1964.
- Khrushchev and his agricultural policies were also roundly criticised at the March 1965 Central Committee Plenum, although again he was not personally named.
- In Communist countries in general a favourite way to publicly prove the successes of Communism was to officially compare the 1913 (or 1939) statistics with those of the current year. A quantitative claim was sufficient proof to support the argument (which was always the same, that “we” are much better off materially now than under the old regime).
- William J. Tompson, Khrushchev: A Political Life, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1995, p. 277.
- In 2007 the European Space Agency (Esa) will celebrate 50 years of the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, the first manmade Earth satellite, by launching 50 mini-satellites into orbit, each weighing 1 kg. It is irony of fate that this pioneering enterprise, initiated by Khrushchev during his early years in power, was so unambiguously ridiculed in 1965 in this scene from “Co-Worker.”
- In Diamond Arm Gaidai continues to ridicule Khrushchev and his rule. However implausible it may sound, it seems that the fishing scene was inspired by the stories of Khrushchev's guests being guaranteed good fishing luck with the help of adequately placed divers.
- Soviet cinema has from its early years referred to important political figures. In Stalin's time his cult was pervasive in the movies made in the Soviet Union. See Hans Günther, “Wise Father Stalin and His Family in Soviet Cinema,” Socialist Realism Without Shores, Thomas Lahusen and Evgeny Dobrenko (eds), Duke University Press, Durham, 1997. This was also a prominent feature of Montage films, especially those made by Eisenstein, which frequently brought in Lenin to support the validity of their arguments. Even in Battleship Potemkin (1925), which takes place in 1905, a leader of the rebellion Vakulinchuk, who, we are told, “was first to fire a shot,” and among the first to die, after being mortally wounded hovers above the water, which has already become a grave to the officers thrown overboard, just as Lenin, the leader of the revolution, hovered between life and death after his assassination in 1921, until he finally died in 1924. (Equally tellingly, Vakulinchuk in the film looks more like Stalin than like Lenin, although the contest for first place in the Soviet leadership was only just heating up at the time.) The sailors attempt in vain to save him and by the time he is brought up from the sea, he is already dead. Nevertheless, he remains the beacon in the continuing revolutionary struggle, whom thousands of soldiers and grieving citizens pay last respects while he lay in waiting (just as they did to Lenin in 1924).
- Josephine Woll, Real Images: Soviet Cinema and the Thaw, I.B. Tauris, London, 2000, p. 188.
- Andrew Horton, “Introduction: Carnival versus Lashing Laughter in Soviet Cinema”, Horton (ed), Inside Soviet Film Satire, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993.