Russians mourn the loss of a hero of Soviet comedy

The World

You can tell something about a country by its popular cultural icons. Think how the likes of Steven Spielberg or Woody Allen have given the world an insight into American life.

Well, Russia lost one of those icons this week, also a movie director. Eldar Ryazanov died Monday Nov. 30, at the age of 88.

“I just completely burst into tears,” says Moscow-based Russian American writer Natalia Antonova, talking about the moment when she heard the news. “Because I love him.”

“It’s funny,” she adds, “because I always ridicule people who cry when someone famous — who they don’t really know — dies. I guess I’m in for a taste of my own medicine.”

Ryazanov’s movie-making career spanned more than 50 years. He specialized in tragi-comedies that satirized daily life in the old USSR.

“He’s one of those people whose art is so enduring,” says Antonova. “My grandparents loved him. Both my Ukrainian grandparents and my Russian grandparents. My parents loved him. I grew up in the States and I love him. He was a person, basically, whose work you could share with everyone.”

One of his most famous movies was “Irony of Fate” (1975), which is set on New Year’s Eve, and is rewatched by millions every year.

“The thing about his movies, especially Irony of Fate, is that they have this funny outer core that most Russians will get. But if you look deeper, you see that they have this heart of sadness to them. And there’s a good deal of — some would say gentle, but I would say actually very precise and subtle — social critique that goes on in his movies.”

“Irony of Fate starts out with this notion that the Soviet Union, in its desire to standardize the lives of its citizens, is basically destroying uniqueness and culture and spirit.”

The movie’s premise is about a guy from Moscow who gets drunk, wakes up in St Petersburg, and grabs a cab home.  Because the urban landscape is so dull and homogenous under the Soviets, he doesn’t realize that he’s in a different city. The address is the same, the building is the same. Even the key.  “And he basically invades someone else’s apartment,” says Antonova. “It’s a love story, because what happens then, is that the woman who’s living in that apartment – first she’s like who is this creepy drunk guy, and by the end of it they fall in love.”

Sometimes he went too far, and some of Ryazanov’s movies were censored under the Soviets. But he was still awarded honors by the state.

Here's a clip from the Irony of Fate: