Eastern Blokh is a monthly column by Danya Blokh about Eastern European art and culture.
This New Year’s Eve, as on most others, my family gathered in the kitchen to celebrate the occasion in the Soviet way: with alcohol, salat olivier, and movies. New Year’s is the most momentous of all holidays in my family, as I suspect it is among most post-Soviet households—May Day and International Women’s Day somewhat diminished by the fall of the Marxist-Leninist state, and Victory Day having recently become uncomfortable in light of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. By contrast, New Year’s can still be wholeheartedly celebrated. When I was young, it was replete with all the festivities it had absorbed as a secular Soviet alternative to Christmas: a Santa-like ded moroz and a Mrs. Claus-like snegurochka delivering presents overnight to uncover the next morning. As I grew up, the exciting ritual transformed into the more adult activity of watching movies by that powerhouse of New Year’s comedies, Eldar Ryazanov. This year, instead of The Irony of Fate or Zigzag of Success, we chose Ryazanov’s directorial debut: Carnival Night.
Superficially, Carnival Night is a merry tale about employees of a cultural clubhouse staging a New Year’s party brimming with clowns, dance numbers, and jazz performances. The heroes are two workers, Grisha and Lena, who flirt throughout the movie, and eventually kiss after the successful performance at the end of the film. Yet this feel-good romance is tangential to the character who drives the film: the show’s director, Ogurstov (literally “Pickles”), who arrives at the cultural clubhouse to drain every vestige of fun out of the show. He tells the jazz band to “pick a more serious repertoire,” instructs the clowns to use their regular surnames instead of their stage names “Tip” and “Top,” and attempts to add an educational lecture (“not long—just forty minutes”) into the program. Nearly every gag is derived from the blundering Ogurtsov’s absurd commands and the workers’ collective thwarting of his plans: stealing the text for his speech, trapping him in the basement, and plying his guest lecturer with alcohol. At the film’s conclusion, the vanquished Ogurtsov angrily dictates a letter to his leadership condemning the workers’ jocularity, but forgets that he has left the microphone on in his office. Everyone at the party hears the message and laughs, including Ogurtsov’s higher-ups. We understand that his complaint will fall on deaf ears, and that this puritanical buzz-kill has no place in the merry revelry of Soviet society.
The flagellation of Ogurtsov was politically resonant: it was an obvious allegory for the denunciation of Stalinist bureaucracy during the Khrushchev Thaw. Stalin died three years before the film’s release, and the new leadership was steering the Soviet Union in a different direction, as announced by Khrushchev’s “secret speech” at the 20th Party Congress. Khrushchev’s leadership made countless changes, including the closure of the gulag and the posthumous pardoning of many victims of Stalin’s purges, but the development most relevant to Carnival Night is the relaxation of government restriction on artistic production. Artists of the Stalinist epoch were expected to adhere to tenets of so-called ‘socialist realist’ style, a ritualized genre which, by the post-war period, had been reduced to colorless portrayals of idealized citizens dutifully serving the state. These strict limitations obviously contradicted the socialist idea that the producer, liberated from capitalism, might at last exercise true freedom over their product. Stalinist authorities had merely substituted market control of production with bureaucratic control. Bertolt Brecht privately accused the socialist-realist theorists and literary authorities of being “enemies of production… Production makes them uncomfortable… production is the unforeseeable.” This unpredictability of production is precisely what Ogurtsov attempts to excise from the New Year’s show. He wants to eradicate all traces of spontaneity from the performance, justifying his decisions by saying, “This way it will be more typical.”
Ogurtsov’s values embody the tenets of Stalinist art critiqued in Vladimir Pomerantsev’s 1953 article “On Sincerity in Literature,” a seminal text which ushered in a phase of “new sincerity” in Russian art. According to Pomerantsev, Stalinist art was too concerned with propoved’ (advocacy) rather than ispoved’ (confession), suppressing earnesty by forcing art into a mold (as when Ogurtsov attempts to replace the young extravagant musicians with old predictable pensioners) and expounding Party values instead of conveying genuine emotions (as when Ogurtsov revises the lyric “I’m alone, completely alone” to read “I’m alone, completely alone, with my wonderful collective”). The triumph of the workers’ jubilant performance over Ogurtsov’s boring artificiality represents a symbolic overcoming of Stalinist norms and the flourishing of the creative tenets advocated by Pomerantsev: sincerity, emotionality, and creative agency.
It is ironic that the main weakness of Carnival Night is its generally predictable and undistinguished heroes, while its primary strength lies in its detestable antagonist, whose bureaucratic predictability is pushed to such creative extremes as to become, paradoxically, unpredictable. Yet, once happily liberated from their Ogurtsovs, it wouldn’t take Soviet artists too long to seize on their newfound freedom and portray new characters of unforeseen complexity. Ten years after Carnival Night, Ryazanov released one of my favorite Soviet films of all time, Beware of the Car. The protagonist of this comedy is a naive but well-meaning car thief, who is ultimately imprisoned for his crimes—far from Stalinist cinema’s stories of righteous heroes triumphing over all adversity. As time went on, cultural conservatism continued to pose challenges to filmmakers, at times leading to re-edits and shelvings of many masterpieces. Nonetheless, the breath of fresh air which entered the state would produce such paradigm-shifting works of art as Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Parajanov’s Color of Pomegranates, and Shepitko’s The Ascent in the medium of cinema alone. In this sense, Carnival Night, a symbolic breaking point in Soviet cinema, struck me as a perfect New Year’s film: produced during a genuine historical rupture with a stagnant past, and full of unbridled hope for the possibilities of the future.