Sep 132011

Over at Cape Girardeau History and Photos, Ken Steinhoff posted a 1960s photo of a man wearing a straw cap of what I call the French Foreign Legion style.   It elicited some admiring comments.

It also reminded me of another type of hat from the same era — A type of dress hat that I’ve seen in at least two Russian movies.   These are not movies from the 1960s, but are set in the late 50s and 60s.   The first is Serye Volki, in which Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan are wearing see-through dress hats.  I presume these were considered good for the relatively warm weather of Crimea, although in this case it was October 1964 and Khrushchev was in the process of being removed from power.

The hat is so transparent that you can even see Khrushchev’s (Rolan Bykov’s) bald head through it.

This hat, worn by the Savva Ignatevich character in Povrovskiye Vorota, is not quite as transparent, but in the movie (as opposed to screenshots) you can more easily see that it’s a porous material.   It goes well with his white summer suit.

Were hats like these ever worn in the United States?   I don’t recall ever seeing any, but then, where I lived as a kid I  never saw a man wearing a white summer suit, either.   I’m pretty sure they existed.

One thing we didn’t have in the U.S. (unfortunately) is the kind of Ukrainian shirt the Khrushchev and Ignatevich characters are wearing.  I presume there’s a name for it but I don’t know what it is.  (I’m not even sure it’s Ukrainian, as opposed to Russian.)

Dec 192010

I’ve watched Pokrovskiye Vorota at least twice before, but on my latest watching, toward the end, I detected a fleeting smile from Lyudochka that I was sure I had seen before.   It comes just as she’s about to kiss Lev Khobotov (Anatoli Ravikovich) again.   It’s hard to capture in a screenshot, but it’s a little different from anything else she has done in this film.

After a half-hour of scratching my head, I remembered.    The woman who plays Marta in That Very Munchausen has a smile like that.

And sure enough, it’s the same actress, Yelena Koreneva.   That’s pretty good for her to play those very different characters in very different ways.

Nov 272009


The first time I watched Pokrov Gate, maybe a year ago or so, I thought it was just entertainment — a movie-length situation comedy. After all, while it isn’t hard to imagine that a communal apartment would be a rich source of material, it’s not easy to imagine this situation in real life. (BTW, there are spoilers here. You have been warned.)

Margarita Khobotova dumped her absent-minded, klutzy husband for another guy who was home when her husband wasn’t — dumped a brainy, literary guy for a brawny worker. It’s not too hard to imagine opportunities for that to happen in a kommunalka, though there wasn’t much you could do that your neighbors didn’t know about. But her ex continued to live in the same kommunalka with shared kitchen and bath, though he also had a separate room for himself. It’s a little far-fetched, but there were housing shortages back in the 50s, so people did what they had to do.

And she continued to run her ex’s life, including his attempts at a love life. Well, there is no shortage of domineering women (or men) in the world. If we have them here in America, why not in Russia, too? And there is no shortage of men (or women) who allow themselves to be dominated, though this seems to be an extreme case. But for Margarita’s new guy to be an active participant in this project? It starts to get a little silly, but it’s entertaining in a way that would be possible only if there is some slight connection to reality. And it does have that.

So I thought it was an entertaining film about personal relationships — one that was worth watching again, which we’ve done just this week.

But we weren’t far into it on my 2nd watching when I started to get the idea that this is an allegory of our political situation in the U.S. Margarita Khobotova is like the nanny-staters who think people aren’t competent to make their own decisions and run their own lives. Those people seem to be winning out, even though they have all the charm and finesse of Margarita.

But then, at the very end, I began to suspect that the comparison is not just something that I came up with by myself. The film is not just about personal relationships. Either the writer (Leonid Zorin) or the director (Mikhail Zozakov) or perhaps both had put in a subtle political message, too. (This was in 1982 when there were still limits on what they could say.)

All the way through the film is full of laughs. But suddenly, at the end, it gets a bit serious. In the screen shot above, Margarita Khobotova complains to those who helped her ex get away from her clutches: “You doomed him to sure death.”


And for the first and only time in the film, Kostik gets serious. He has up to this time been having a great time as a student who has come to the big city to study history. His aunt dotes on him, the communal phone rings constantly with the calls of his many girlfriends, and he is full of jokes and one-liners. But suddenly he quits joking when Margarita accuses him of being too young to know better. He tells her, “Yes, I’m young. But believe a historian. You can’t make someone happy against his own free will.”

“Believe a historian.” Ah, yes. We all know of historical examples of attempts to do just that. Some of us have had to live with them.

Jul 192009

Best find of the month: “Communal Living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Soviet Everyday Life.” I learned about it at English Russia.

There are video clips of Ilya, who no longer lives in a kommunalka, but who takes his two young children back to see where he once lived. The English voice-over is good in that it doesn’t completely obliterate the Russian speaking. Sometimes it follows the Russian, and sometimes precedes it. Very good for language learning. There are also bilingual, side-by-side transcripts in Russian and in English translation.

There is also a page with clips from feature films that show kommunalka life. Two of these films I’ve already seen: The Pokrovsky Gate and A Dog’s Heart. I thought Pokrovsky Gate was especially good in giving an idea of what kommunalka life might have been like. I don’t know how true to life the movie is, but it makes one think about what it would be like to live in such intimate association with other families, and what it would do to the intimacy of the life of the nuclear family. It was a film that sparked some of my interest in the topic. I suggested to the web contact that another good film to add would be Vor (Thief). There are no young children in The Pokrovsky Gate, but there is one in Vor.

I would not care to live in a kommunalka, but it’s not as simple as communal apartments bad, private residences good. I found it interesting that in the book, “The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia” (Orlando Figes, 2007) that not all people thought these apartments were a thing from which to escape. He quotes one old woman:

Life under Stalin was spiritually richer–we lived more peacefully and happily. Because we were all equally poor, we didn’t place much emphasis on material values but had a lot of fun–everything was open, everything was shared, between friends and families. People helped each other. We lived in each other’s rooms and celebrated holidays with everyone together on the street. Today every family lives only for itself.

That book, btw, would be a good one to add to the list of those on the web site. In the book there are diagrams showing how some of the apartments were laid out. There are lots of stories of how life was in them — mostly of how difficult it was. The woman quoted above is an exception to the general rule, though not the only exception.

A few other things I think about in connection with this topic:

  1. In his book “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis portrayed hell (metaphorically) as a place where, when there are conflicts between neighbors, instead of reconciling, the people just move farther apart from each other. It’s a lonely place. If there is any doubt that Lewis’s portrayal is a parable we can note that when families are forced to live close together, that too can be hell.
  2. At The Spokesrider I blog about my visits to sites of old Indian villages in the U.S. I sometimes think about what it would be like to live in such a village, where when you wake up in the morning and get ready for the day, you’re in the midst of other families doing the same thing – men, women, and children. There would have been very little privacy. One can sometimes get a little bit of that on a camping outing, but what if that is the way you live all the time? It’s worth noting that European-American captives often came to prefer that life style by the time they had a chance to choose. I personally doubt it was the more communal life in close proximity that they preferred, though that may have been a part of it.
  3. My mother tells about how during WW-II, she and her father went out to North Dakota to help his brother out on his ranch-farm, while his son was away in the Pacific. Electricity had not yet reached that part of the U.S., and she says at night they’d all sit around the table by kerosene lantern light, talking, making music on a guitar or piano, and singing. There wasn’t good enough light for the people in the household to go their separate ways to separate rooms. It was a togetherness that was partly forced on them by technology, or lack thereof. I once described this to one of the leftier persons on a political e-mail list. He said it sounded to him like hell. But I think those who took part and are still alive have fond memories of the time.

By mentioning these things I’m not drawing any conclusions or making any grand summaries. I’m just trying to give an idea of why I find these communal apartments to be fascinating. I’m glad for the opportunity to learn about them safely, from a distance.