Dissenting Laughter: The Soviet Films of Comic Filmmaker Leonid Gaidai
Leonid Gaidai, often hailed as the King of Soviet Comedy, was a director who dominated the Russian film scene in the 1960s with comedic movies that combined slapstick gags, satire, and nonsensical dialogue with contemporary backdrops of a socialist Russia. In movies like Operation Y and Kidnapping, Caucasian Style, Gaidai abandoned the strict Stalin-era narratives of filmmaking through subverted tropes and multi-dimensional stock characters to great success — these films went on to become the biggest box office hits of 1965 and 1967, respectively. Gaidai drew his viewers in by capturing everyday life with familiar “visual and auditory signs of late socialist culture.” Then, replacing the norm with eccentric flair, he kept audiences in their seats by making them laugh. Unfortunately, if the stagnation years were the Golden Age of Leonid Gaidai, the ‘80s and perestroika were the Stagnation Age of Leonid Gaidai. Most of his films were well received, but never reached the status that his ‘60s films still hold to this day. Which prompts the question: why were Gaidai’s works no longer as funny or successful in the 1980s?
Before delving into the scholarship on Gaidai in his prime, we must examine the periods where his full-length films thrived: 1965 to 1973, or, in terms of his films, Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures (Операция «Ы» и другие приключения Шурика), to Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (Иван Васильевич меняет профессию), ostensibly the last film Gaidai directed that earned a place in the annals of classic Soviet films.
Gaidai’s rise in popularity in 1965 falls right on the cusp of two drastically different eras and scholarship cannot quite come to an agreement on when Nikita Khrushchev’s Thaw ended and Leonid Brezhnev’s Stagnation began, at least for creators of art, film, literature. Birgit Beumers, who has published and edited collections of significant scholarship on the overall history of the Soviet Union through the lens of cinema, marks the division at 1966 with the trial and sentencing of writers Andrei Siniavsky and Yuli Daniel for their publication of “anti-Soviet” works. Dina Spechler sets the turn of the eras back even further to 1965: she argues that while Nikita Khrushchev’s removal from power in 1964 did not immediately change the less restrictive, de-Stalinization-driven atmosphere that many enjoyed after Stalin’s death in 1953, Leonid Brezhnev and his new regime had made their more orthodox stance quite clear by fall 1965 when Siniavsky and Daniel’s arrest became publicly known. In short, however, both scholars stress that “the Stagnation led to a dearth of activity in Soviet cultural life” and that “the 1960s were governed by clampdowns, censorship, and bans” that were quick-acting, harsh, and thorough.
Operation Y landed in theaters in August 1965, at the very loose beginning of the Stagnation, just as the country was beginning to understand the new regime Brezhnev was ushering in. Gaidai may have written and created the film while still enjoying the permissible public discourse of the late Thaw years, but it would have been clear to him that the liberalization of cultural politics had just begun to crack and shatter around him. The Communist Party and the Soviet state were set on “[resurrecting] socialist realism’s monopoly” in the film industry, going so far as to issue a decree demanding that filmmakers “raise the ideological and creative level of film.” The positive social effects of Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” were ending, and the permitted scrutiny of the Soviet Union that filmmakers had been enjoying turned on its head — now, the Soviet Union began to openly scrutinize them. Gaidai was no exception. His wildly popular films were labeled, at best, as mildly mocking, and at worst, as anti-Soviet, while other films were being banned and the writers of Novy Mir were being sentenced to labor camps.
Gaidai and His Slapstick
While Leonid Gaidai is fairly prevalent in discourse regarding Soviet-era cinema, Elena Prokhorova, Alexander Prokhorov, Seth Graham, and Saša Milić have made significant, in-depth contributions to scholarship regarding the director, his film-making techniques, and his visual comedy that made him famous. Prokhorov, Prokhorova, and Milić all point out that Gaidai’s slapstick devices, while perhaps low-brow and superficially simple, should not be so quickly dismissed. Inspired by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films, “Gaidai’s comedies of the 1960s owed their phenomenal success to the visual style of his humor, with its stark contrasts to the verbal instantiations of official Soviet ideology within narrative-driven Soviet cinema.” Milić posits that Gaidai’s sight gags construct an alternative “situation” model for Soviet viewers: the audience is thrust into a diegetic, alternative reality with slapstick, simultaneously separating and disconnecting them from reality.
Mikhail Brashinskii, as quoted by Prokhorov, probably gives Gaidai’s humor the most credit as arguing that the director was more than his gag humor:
Gaidai did not create slapstick but sought its manifestations in Soviet life and transposed them onto the screen. By means of lighthearted physical comedy, Gaidai explored the changing role of the individual and the collective in Soviet culture after Stalin’s death and commented indirectly on the repressive nature of the Soviet regime.
To the general public entering the Stagnation era, Gaidai’s films were, perhaps, not as meaningful as modern scholarship now argues, but they truly embodied what Russian humor had become. As Christie Davis points out in her discussion of Soviet humor, citizens in the Soviet Union had developed a culture of humor shaped by their society’s ideologies and the regimes and leaders they lived under. Jokes told under communism were “mocking and critical… of the entire social and political system and its ideology, rituals, and myths.” They were “genuinely people’s humor,” a collective product of the “powerless against the absolutely powerful.” More importantly, it’s clear that the humor Gaidai was injecting into his films not only reflected that culture of humor, but it served a purpose: “[j]okes were used because they had force as well as because they gave pleasure… Jokes were used under communism as a means of conveying insight.” Gadai’s insight was “the deconstruction the fundamental mechanisms underlying Soviet cinema as an ideological institution” and the creation of a carnival-esque mise-en-scène with absurd plot and dialogue that ultimately underscored and scrutinized aspects of Soviet culture.
Gaidai the Satirist
Gaidai did not become the King of Comedy through visual gags alone — many, like David Gillespie, argue that it was the satirical element of his comedies that truly earned him his popularity. Audiences loved to pick up on the subtle asides, caricatures, and soft mockeries that they felt were only for them and made them laugh, either at the expense of authority, or, as Valentin Tolstykh posits, in indignation. In essence, everyone was thinking it, even secretly joking about it, but Gaidai, as Paula Michaels notes, was openly making films that “[expressed] a critical message and [spoke] to the popular, pessimistic mood, while still working within the state-sanctioned film industry.” Gaidai himself stated that he purposely used satiric devices “to fight the flaws which still sometimes hinder the lives of Soviet people,” and Eldar Riazanov, a fellow director, agreed, declaring that “just because we [himself and Gaidai] make comedies does not mean we do not raise important, socially meaningful issues.
Indeed, considering that most of Gaidai’s great successes were released in a time when oppression was on the rise and criticism of Stalin had essentially been criminalized again, Gaidai’s subtle critiques of Stalinist ideological logos, institutional corruption, and moralism often left audiences wondering how his films ever cleared the censorship committee. (The answer is that he often used red herrings to throw off censors and get the elements he wanted to keep on through to the final product.)
Milić and Brashinskii both establish that his sight gags and slapstick routines were, on their own, a form of satire, if only “lighthearted” and “indirect,” respectively. Michaels, Prokhorov, and Prokhorova find other elements that highlighted how far or how subtly the Soviet director defied censors to get the film he wanted on the silver screen:
Gaidai did everything that Soviet film ideologues frowned upon. His characters drink, slack off, engage in brawls — and do it with gusto and with no didactic purpose. His villains, starting with the comedic trio of ViNiMor, are more relatable than positive heroes. Authorities and representatives of respectable Soviet institutions — police, doctors, housing superintendents, local administrators — are dupes of the crooks at best, or are themselves corrupt, tyrannical monsters. The dialogue — the anchor of Soviet ideological discourse — is sparse, reduced to memorable one-liners.
Rejecting the expected format of how films were expected to be constructed to avoid a ban or heavy censorship, Gaidai subverted the traditional Soviet film model and essentially redefined the hero, the villain, and the happy ending in Soviet cinema. Gaidai strips many of his protagonists, like Shurik, of many of the shining ideals of a Stalin-era protagonist, and, as Mark Lipovetsky mentions, even turns him into the mythological trickster, an embodiment of a “deceiver, rogue, or creative idiot” and a far-cry from the idealistic, pure hero the audiences were expecting. Furthermore, Gaidai adds dimensions to traditional villains like ViNiMor and makes them relatable rather than abhorrent, leaving his audience without a perfectly optimistic ending, in clear defiance of what is typically expected in movies of that era and the firm support of socialist realism that the government and censorship boards wanted audiences to be seeing.
Prokohorova also notes that Gaidai extensively critiqued Soviet normalcy and modernization through his cinematography. While Gaidai regularly shot films in a modern setting, he often used this vision of a familiar Soviet backdrop to highlight the arbitrary and reveal the horror beneath: the policeman, serving the people, is exposed as corrupt through his actions; the modernity Russia has achieved is skin-deep at best and beneath the shiny new plastic, the old ways are still as prevalent as ever.
In addition, Brashinskii points out Gaidai’s Aesopian themes and dialogue when discussing his mild social commentary: Gaidai enjoyed sneaking double-readings regarding current affairs and allusions to political leaders into his works, in particular to avoid detection from Mosfilm administrators. Prokhorov also makes a good point on how Gaidai also flourished in his redefining of the role of songs in Soviet film: typically, most film tunes were sung by the protagonist to convey a clear, ideological message through some cheerful parable that could be packaged and distributed to the entire USSR. Gaidai’s most popular songs, however, are sung by the villains who replace Socialist creed with prohibited topics, parodies, and unconventional opinions (“If I Were a Sultan” from Kidnapping, Caucasian Style and “The Island of Bad Luck” from The Diamond Arm are two great examples). The songs, Prokhorov notes, “played a crucial role in articulating the perception of Soviet life as ‘normalized absurdity.’” Gaidai, while never quite the wielder of sharp satire like Riazanov, nonetheless used the humor of his choice to satirize contemporary Soviet Russia and its ideals. His work, at least in the early Stagnation period, sometimes pushed him into the realm of dissent, wherein elements of his satiric insight lapsed into dissident tones.
The question again arises: if Gaidai’s films rose to staggering popularity and record-breaking sales in the early Stagnation era, what happened in the next 10-15 years that ultimately dethroned the King of Comedy?
Stagnation of Innovation
By the mid to late ‘80s, the stagnation had ground many creative works in the USSR to a halt and the fiery rebelliousness of the 1960s had become weak embers. As Beumers puts it: “this stagnation of innovation, experiment, and search for new paths that dominated the 1970s led to an atmosphere of resignation, fear, and entropy. Comedies were treading very careful ground and lost their comic appeal; satires became impossible, and if attempted, they were banned.” Gaidai acutely felt the change. Golden days behind him, Gaidai’s later works are generally deemed as “just Soviet comedies,” ordinary and easily forgotten. There is a significant lack of scholarship on 1980s Gaidai. In fact, most scholars who discuss comedy in late Stagnation/pre-Perestroika don’t even mention him, despite the fact that the man was still making movies to general, if not somewhat lukewarm, success. Even scholars with intimate knowledge of Gaidai’s films write off most of his later works with brief reviews citing “lethargic pacing and bland dialogue.” Gaidai, it seemed, like many other comedians of the time, was simply going through the motions now. His works, as Otto Boele mentions, had begun to lean on the crutch of “state-appropriated laughter” that was actually typical of the Stalin-era: his jokes were no longer quite as subversive, and the satire that was present relied on official Soviet tropes. “The cultural freeze of the 1970s affected Gaidai where he previously excelled the most: in seeing the comic sides of Russia’s struggles with modernization.” Now, USSR’s failure to properly modernize wasn’t the butt of the joke — the people were: they had come to realize that not much of their situation had changed for the better since Stalin’s death. As Seth Graham mentions, “comedy… had lost most of [its] enthusiasm, playfulness, and idealism.”
So, had Gaidai failed to woo his audience with his comedies because his jokes were no longer funny? Potentially, yes, but it appears that while Gaidai had seemingly stuck to his usual methods with regards to filmmaking, his later productions lost one key ingredient: dissent. His work no longer fit the loose definition of “the refusal to assent to an established or imposed set of ideas.” If anything, Gaidai had very much assented to the imposed norms and his films. While he may have still been reflecting the public’s opinion on the Soviet state (arguably to the point of rubbing their noses in it rather than commiserating), he no longer appeared to find serious faults in it. The Golden Age of Gaidai ridiculed these flaws and lifted them up to be judged by the people. Gaidai in the 1980s sees the issues, but now all he can do is shrug and sigh. And for Soviet audiences, that was hardly enough. With movies like Sportloto-82 (1982) and Dangerous For Your Life! (1985), Gaidai had all but condoned the issues. The depth to the slapstick was gone. The King of Comedy had dethroned himself with shallow humor and hollow, played out criticisms that no longer held meaning for his audience and kept him from achieving critical success again.
A quick comparison between two of Gaidai’s films Kidnapping, Caucasian Style (1967), which represents Golden Age/Early Stagnation Gaidai, and the less successful Dangerous for your Life! (1985), or Late Stagnation/Pre-Perestroika-era Gaidai proves the noticeable decline in his filmmaking.
Kidnapping, Caucasian Style follows the story of Gaidai’s protagonist from Operation Y, an ethnography student named Shurik who travels to the Caucasus to study ancient customs and traditions practiced by the locals. Along the way, he meets Nina, a beautiful Komsomolka, and immediately falls in love. This sets the stage for the rest of the film, which involves Saahkov, the most powerful man in town, entangling Shurik in a plot to make Nina his bride. Knowing that Nina will never agree to the marriage, Saahkov employs the Coward, the Fool, and the Pro (three Stooge-like characters that appear in many of Gaidai’s films) to kidnap her whilst assuring Shurik that bride kidnappings are part of Caucasian tradition. Hijinks and absurd twists are scattered through the film, including a scene of Shurik getting committed to a psychiatric ward after he gets drunk. Ultimately, Saakhov is arrested and put on trial for his illegal activities and the film ends ambiguously, with Shurik walking Nina to a bus and then following after her on his donkey.
In Kidnapping, Gaidai weaves social commentary effortlessly through subverted film tropes to create a satisfying, funny film that audiences could enjoy not only for the visual gags, but also for the dissident themes throughout the plot that highlighted flaws in the Soviet system. As mentioned before, Gaidai rejected the happy ending trope — at least in the Stalin model that expected moral stories about Communism to have a satisfying close that highlighted the bright and promising future — and left his endings vague and ambiguous. This is exactly the case in Kidnapping: the hero doesn’t get the girl, nor does he truly fulfill his mission of learning more about Caucasus traditions. Instead, he rides off into the sunset on a donkey, without a specific goal or destination. The villains also don’t get their full comeuppance — the audience isn’t even certain if they are punished or cleared of all charges. It is hardly an unsatisfying ending, but it lacks the rallying, nationalist punch that audiences had grown accustomed to. Overall, Kidnapping is an ideal representation of Gaidai’s success in the 1960s. It embodies his comedic style and effectively utilizes satirical devices. His underlying themes of anti-Stalinism, abuse of power by leaders, and weakness of ordinary man before injustice underscore his dissident views, and his representation of Soviet “normalcy” underline many of the flaws he saw in Soviet society.
Dangerous For Your Life! introduces us to Spartak Molodstov, a dutiful, strait-laced, detail-oriented man who prioritizes order and organization and expects the same from sister, Katerina, and his nephew, Klimenti. He’s the kind of man who tacks public posters back up if they’ve slumped (it slumps back down once he leaves), he puts manhole covers back on if they’re left open (at the cost of trapping a construction worker inside), and, at the core of the plot, he finds a dangerous, exposed wire hanging out in public and decides to stand guard over it the entirety of the movie to protect others from touching it. The film revolves around Molodstov standing by the wire, meeting Chokolov the alcoholic, a police officer, and Tamara, an owner of an ice cream truck. Meanwhile, at work, his colleagues struggle to find him because without him, all productivity has ground to a halt. Ultimately, it’s revealed that the wire was never active and that the electric company had shut down that particular electrical pole a week ago.
Molodstov, devastated that he wasted an entire day standing guard over something absolutely harmless, goes home and the film seems to reset, resuming from the exact same opening shot and music as seen in the beginning. With a few key differences: he’s no longer as organized; his hair isn’t as well-combed; that manhole from before, too, has a warning sign over it when he walks past. Yet, just as it seems that things have changed for the better for our hero, he returns to the scene of the loose wire to discover what at first appears to be a natural spring. As he marvels over it, the spring reveals itself to be a broken pipe that starts to gush out water. The film ends with Molodstov throwing himself onto the geyser in an attempt to stop it, only to get pushed higher and higher into the sky until it seems that he is ascending.
The formula that Brezhnev’s regime demanded in the mid-1960s would have been satisfied in the form of Molodstov as a protagonist. However, even if we forgive Gaidai for falling back on tired character tropes, he denies us even the satisfaction of a happy ending for our morally righteous character. The last few minutes of the movie, Molodstov seems to question his behavior from the previous day. Then, discarding the potential lesson he had learned from the wire incident, he proceeds to attempt to do the morally correct (but pointless) thing again. If Gaidai’s ending had been clear and unquestionably favorable for Molodstov, then the audience would have at least been satisfied to mull over the possibility that attempting to be an ideal citizen may also work out positively for them. However, Gaidai ends the film ambiguously: is Molodstov happy? Is he rising to heaven? Perhaps he’s going to be killed by the water pressure, or somehow trapped atop an absurdly huge geyser for however long it will take police to muddle through their tangled bureaucracy and help Molodstov down. The lesson to be learned, if there even is one, is unclear, especially since there is no obvious villain in the film. The ending is neither happy nor is it open-ended; it’s unsatisfying and leaves the audience at odds of how to interpret the film. With Molodstov as his own worst enemy, seemingly, the conclusion is as uncertain as the character’s morally motivated actions.
In Dangerous for Your Life!, Gaidai appears to lose touch with the three satirical themes that had brought him success in the ‘60s. His Aesopian double-readings are flimsy at best and difficult to parse at worst. His attempts to depict Soviet “normalcy” also backfire: no longer is he creating a contemporary backdrop that exposes the horrors of reality when you peel back the corners. The backdrop is gone in Dangerous; the horrors completely exposed. There’s little even casually pleasant blanket to throw over the grim reality of an alcoholic reduced to looking for scraps so he can spend his last kopeks on spirits. Finally, Gaidai’s half-hearted film model subversions do more harm than good, contradicting each other to create utterly confusing characters and an obstruse conclusion.
There are a number of reasons why Dangerous For Your Life! was not successful in comparison to Kidnapping Caucasian Style, but the main culprit seems to lie in the difference in effectiveness of the satirical devices of both films. It is quite apparent that Gaidai lost much of his popularity because he was no longer using his satirical devices of the ‘60s successfully in the ‘80s. Without even those basic ingredients of comedy and satire, dissidence never truly had a chance of being utilized in the first place. After such wild success in the beginning of his career, pre-Perestroika Gaidai was left with nothing to do but reuse old, tired jokes. In all respects, the King of Comedy surrendered his crown to the Stagnation which overtook the full breadth of the USSR, such that by the time Perestroika reared its head to awaken the masses, there was literally nothing to laugh at anymore.
Lera Toropin is a SlavX host and graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, having received both a Master's in Global Studies and Master's in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies in spring 2022. Listen to her February 2022 interview (in Russian) with Vladimir Kara-Murza and select other episodes below:
Interview with Artyom Tonoyan - September 21, 2022
Interview with José Vergara - December 11, 2021
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