The People’s Secret Speech: Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures, 1965
Of the twenty highest-grossing films in the history of the Soviet box office, just under half were comedies. 1 But only a few comedies are included in this Senses of Cinema dossier.
Comedy generally tends to fly under the radar of canon formation. As Linda Williams famously argued, it belongs to the underrated category of “bodily” genres, its effects insufficiently Platonic to be taken seriously. 2
What comedy performs is also more difficult to register within a canon whose parameters are technical or stylistic innovation. Soviet cinema enters at one point as montage and at another as spooky modernism. Soviet comedy adds little to the achievements of Chaplin and Keaton in the silent period, or to those of the two Jackies, Tati and Chan, in the era of color and sound.
Another canon in which comedy tends to underperform is one that comprises films expressing what outsiders believe to be essential about different cultures. Peter Kaufman, executive director of Read Russia, was recently quoted as saying: “A lot of people have this view of Russian lit of being long, depressing, macabre, but it also can be short and depressing and macabre. It reflects a history that is full of war and religion and faith and famine, crises…”3 The popularity of “In Soviet Russia…” jokes lets us know that the Soviet experience is funny for outsiders, but the idea of Soviet Russia as hilarious from the inside gets little play.
Perhaps, it should.
Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures (Leonid Gayday, 1965) was the most-watched film of 1965, and the seventh most-watched film in Soviet history. It remains popular because its gags are good and the jokes have become catchphrases; but a much more impressive accomplishment is its use of doublespeak. It is outrageously subversive at the same time that it is in perfect chorus with Soviet propaganda.
In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev marked the end of an era by denouncing Stalin’s various purges and cult of personality in the so-called “secret speech”. Stalin’s body and name were removed from the mausoleum on Red Square. Political prisoners were released from labour camps and “rehabilitated”. But this was not enough. The emergence of tamizdat (e.g. the unsanctioned publication of the anti-Bolshevik Doctor Zhivago in Italy in 1957) showed the people had more to say than what had been said on their behalf behind closed doors by Khrushchev. But blowing off steam was easier said than done. The revolt in Hungary in 1956 showed the Soviet government did not possess the legitimacy necessary for the renewal of a social contract in good faith. There was the need for a bloodletting, but also the danger of bleeding out.
The solution was to coopt these contradictions by creating a political language in which every problem was current and solvable as long as everyone got with the program. Operation Y exemplifies and subverts this strategy. On the one hand, it is set in the historical present and deals with contemporary problems like alcoholism, truancy, antisocial behavior, and corruption. At the same time, Operation Y is an Aesopian critique of the system as a whole, with alcoholism, truancy, antisocial behavior, and corruption only the superficial effects of an otherwise failed, desperate system.
The film consists of three sketches, the last of which, “Operation Y”, gives the total work its name. In this sketch, the manager of a market who has been stealing government property from his warehouses wants to cover up his tracks, so he hires three criminals to stage a break-in to account for the missing goods. The surface message is that petty corruption stands in the way of general welfare. The deeper message is that a smaller crime is being used to distract from a bigger one: Stalinism is being used as a scapegoat for a system that is wholly illegitimate. The “Operation” is actually a covert mission to indict the system in plain sight, a kind of People’s Secret Speech. Its objective is to do at home what Doctor Zhivago did abroad, a bold effort worth reflecting on, and perhaps canonising.
As an introduction to this effort, I offer a close reading of the first sketch in the film, “The Partner”, and conclude with another close reading, this time of a scene from “Operation Y” which delivers one of the most shocking images in Soviet Cinema.
Fedya (Aleksey Smirnov) is drunk on a bus and refuses to give up his seat to a pregnant woman. A student named Shurik (Aleksandr Demyanenko) tricks him into getting up by posing as an invalid. A brawl ensues when his cover is blown. Fedya is arrested and sentenced to fifteen days of community service at a construction site. The foreman randomly assigns him a partner, who turns out to be Shurik, working part-time to supplement his university stipend. Fedya unsuccessfully tries to exact revenge. By the end of a long slapstick routine, Shurik’s retaliations transform Fedya into a conscientious worker.
The construction site setting reflects the official party idiom that Soviet citizens are “builders of communism”. The gags revolve around bricklaying, cement mixing, shaving and varnishing parquet floors, and other activities that matter-of-factly parade Soviet achievements in public housing. The foreman (Mikhail Pugovkin) brags to Fedya that stacking all the floors on top of one another would result in a structure taller than the decadent and impractical Notre Dame. “The Partner” is also true to the Marxist-Lutheran principle that work is a cleansing ritual and a scientific, rational process. The protagonist Shurik is a student and a worker, a performer of both academic and manual labor, who whips his Goliath-like partner into a contributing member of society.
Now the doublespeak.
While the overt framing metaphor is that the Soviet Union is a construction site for the common good, an even larger institution enables its functioning. The police are minor characters who shepherd Fedya from his fall to his redemption, arresting him, assigning him a job, providing him temporary housing, delivering him to and from the worksite, and feeding him several meals a day. Without drawing particular attention to the fact, Gayday shows that the “builders of communism” live in a police state, where law enforcement agencies direct the entire spectrum of human activity.
The motif of coercive state power weaves together the themes of forced labor and rehabilitation. Besides the foreman, we see no professional workers. Shurik is a student and works part-time. Fedya is clocking hours for disorderly conduct. In the official sense, “rehabilitation” meant the exoneration of falsely accused political prisoners, i.e. the intelligentsia represented by the educated, decent Shurik. Stalin’s effort to eradicate this social class involved putting political prisoners in the same facilities as ordinary criminals, a situation which is reenacted in Shurik and Fedya’s partnership and which foregrounded class antagonism. As “The Partner” shows, de-Stalinisation did not dismantle the Gulag system, which served the dual purpose of social cleansing and cheap labour, but merely blurred its boundaries. The only significant change is that in the new paradigm the class antagonism works backwards: it is the intelligentsia that eradicates the thug class.
The absurdity of this idealistic paternalism is enunciated through the character of the foreman, who both delivers and undermines the propagandistic messages for which he is scripted to be the mouthpiece. With his wide-ranging erudition, humanism and obsequiousness, he does not fit the roughneck stereotype of a foreman at a construction site. This is the doublespeak: he is the flattering image of the new regime, but also completely out of touch with the reality of a country shaped by its predecessor. Before comparing the scale of the housing project with Notre Dame, he politely asks Fedya, a provincial drunk from a country whose borders have been closed for decades: “Have you ever been to Paris?” His worldliness is also used to caricature the hypocritical role played by the Soviet Union in international politics. He wears a cork hat, an iconic element of British colonial garb, which he says is “a present from Africa”. Later in the sketch, we see Fedya chasing Shurik in blackface, wielding a spear. In the era of decolonisation, Gayday compares British colonial subjects to those of the Soviet empire, an equally vast and diverse population terrorised in the name of civilisation. The argument and title of Aleksandr Etkind’s recent monograph on the Russian state aptly describe Gayday’s metaphor: “Internal Colonisation”.
The new paternalism also overlooks the effects of the old paternalism on the rising generation, represented by Shurik. On the surface, he is hardworking, decent, reliable, willing to risk his personal safety for the welfare of others, so upstanding that he has been accepted into the Komsomol, the communist party’s youth organisation. This was no ordinary feat, requiring intense political loyalty, glowing character assessments, and stellar academic performance. The komsomolets was a secretly reviled social type, and not just because success breeds envy. Komsomol was the youth organisation of a party that over the course of the previous forty years had, among other things, provoked a civil war, destroyed swathes of the peasant class and intelligentsia, purged its own military, and killed millions in orchestrated famines and forced migrations. The archetypal young communist in the Soviet Union was Pavlik Morozov, a boy who turned his own father over to the secret police for hoarding grain during dekulakisation. He became the subject of a nationwide cult of personality, and his name, privately, the synonym for traitor. Shurik echoes Pavlik in name and deed, in his capacity for extreme violence in the name of the party. At one point in the sketch, Shurik rolls up Fedya in a tube of wallpaper, and cuts a large hole around his derrière. Fedya, old enough to be Shurik’s father, implores: “Maybe we don’t have to?” Shurik pauses. “We have to, Fedya,” he says reluctantly, as if he has to hurt a relative, “We have to!”
I want to conclude this short essay by describing an unbelievable episode of Soviet film, possibly more disturbing than the “Odessa Steps” sequence because it is so much less expected than Tsarist violence against revolutionaries. The scene in Operation Y catches both the characters and audience off-guard, appearing to violate the film’s hitherto ordinary comedic conventions and political orthodoxy.
Transport yourself to “Operation Y”, the sketch about three criminals caught in the act of staging a break-in. Imagine Shurik chasing one of them, Jackass (Yury Nikulin), around the warehouse. The slapstick routine involves various stockpiled objects – spices, washbasins, musical instruments. At one point, Shurik comes at Jackass with a rapier and makes contact. Jackass, who wears a coat reminiscent of what was standard issue for Gulag inmates, reaches his hand down and comes back covered in blood. Has the unthinkable happened and we have seen a victim of Stalinism on the Soviet screen? Shurik is stunned. Tears stream down his face. Comedy has become tragedy. We are in a moment of saturnalia, a reversal of roles and social situations. The perpetrators of violence are suddenly punished by the sight of their victims… Then order is quickly restored: Shurik has only pierced a wine bottle that Jackass had hidden in his coat. The chase is back on. Hilarity resumes. The rupture has an alibi. But for a moment, the terrorised masses have had their reckoning.
The power of a filmic moment like this comes from the dual property of its material. It only exists in motion as part of a sequence: what comes before and after it acts as an effective denial of its subversive message. But the materiality of a filmic moment also allows it to be repeated, over and over, an infinite indictment: the people’s secret speech.
- Sergey Kudryavtsev, “Otechestvennye filmy v Sovetskom Kinoprokate”, Livejournal, 4 July 2006, kinanet.livejournal.com/14172.html. ↩
- Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess”, Film Quarterly 44:4 (1991): 2-13. ↩
- Dennis Abrams, “Columbia University Press Takes Over Read Russia Translation Project”, Publishing Perspectives, 14 Sept. 2015, publishingperspectives.com/2015/09/columbia-university-press-takes-over-read-russia-translation-project/. ↩