Children of the Revolution: Slapstick, Soviet-style in Leonid Gaidai’s Operation ‘Y’ & Shurik’s Other Adventures

Shurik (Alexander Demyanenko, right) and his crush Lida (Natalya Seleznyova, left) in the second segment, "Delusion."

Operation ‘Y’ And Shurik’s Other Adventures (1965) is one of the cult comedies from that time virtually every Russian knows. Other than having a fun time, what can we can learn about life in the Soviet Union of the 1960s from watching the film?

Meet Shurik (Alexander Demyanenko), the nerdy, clumsy, good-natured, and oh so lovable antihero of Leonid Gaidai’s movie Operation ‘Y’ and one of the most beloved characters of Russian cinema. He studies at the polytechnic and guides us through three independent and genuinely funny episodes that also provide an insight into daily life in the Soviet Union.

In the first segment, “Workmate,” Shurik gets into an argument with Fedya the Boor (Alexei Smirnov) when he comes to a pregnant woman’s rescue. Consequentially, the bum is sentenced to fifteen days of community service. As luck has it, Shurik works part time on the building site where Fedya has to serve his term as Shurik’s partner.

The second segment, “Delusion,” is about the summer exams at the university. Shurik is dying for lecture notes. On a streetcar, he eventually sees them in the hands of Lida (Natalya Seleznyova), a beautiful girl from the same polytechnic. Both are so focused on the notes that they do not even notice each other. Mistaking him for her female friend, Lida tells Shurik to join him at her place, where they spend several hours to learn for the exam.

In the final segment, “Operation ‘Y’,” a warehouse manager hires three crooks (Yuri Nikulin, Georgi Vitsin, and Evgeni Morgunov) to cover up his theft by staging a burglary. The building is supposed to be watched over by a granny, Shurik’s landlady, but our hero replaces her in that fateful night. Surprised by the young night guard, the bums’ cleverly devised plan goes wrong.

Operation ‘Y’ is one of the most beloved films of the Soviet Union. Many quotes from the movie have become part of Russian everyday culture. It has spawned two indirect sequels, Kidnapping, Caucasian Style (1966) and Ivan Vasilevich Changes His Job (1973). Both star Demyanenko as Shurik. The crooks from the third episode that recall the American ‘Three Stooges’ also appear in other Gaidai works.

From today’s point of view, Operation ‘Y’ is good clean fun and refreshingly free from propaganda. Its humor is timeless and magical, reminiscent of classic slapstick films, but it is also distinctively Russian in some aspects. As is usual in Soviet movies, there is also a song or two thrown in for good measure. Nikulin, a popular actor and clown, is especially known for such performances in his films. The most famous might be the “Song About Hares” from Gaidai’s The Diamond Arm (1968). Here, he and Vitsin team up for a little soulful tune before they go about their mission. The rest of the soundtrack adds to the movie’s light overall mood.

So what is important about this breakthrough film? A movie like Operation ‘Y’ would not have been possible in the Soviet Union only a decade earlier. Stalin’s death in 1953 affected the culture of the Workers’ State from top to bottom. In the aftermath, Khrushchev proclaimed the destalinization of the country and a less rigorous censorship. The policies, known as ‘Thaw’, allowed artists to express themselves more freely, beyond the rigid socialist realism of the Stalin era. The successes of the era were enough positive propaganda for the Soviet Union. Books and films were finally allowed to serve different purposes.

While it is a work of pure entertainment, Operation ‘Y’ is also a movie that gives us a tremendous glimpse into the daily life of Russians at the time. Although Shurik attends university, he still has to work part time in construction, because his scholarship does not provide enough money to make ends meet. Likewise, Lida lives with her parents, as many Russians still do today. The granny’s home is a typical sparse Soviet flat, and she still has to work night shifts at her age and look after her grandchild because her daughter has a job, too. Another aspect of the ‘Russian culture’ is the jam-packed public transportation. People are squeezed together like sardines in a can, which comes as no surprise to modern Muscovites. The cheeky students reveal a typical Russian character trait as well. They put in a lot of effort to find creative ways of cheating rather than to simply learn.

Many of the characters are mere sketches. While Shurik only drinks milk and water, the crooks crave for alcohol. They believe to be cleverer than the rest. However, it becomes obvious that they are not. Otherwise Shurik would not be able to succeed in duping them time and again. The militia are also made fun of. They fail to discipline the ‘alcoholics, hooligans and parasites’, as one officer labels them. That means it is up to Shurik to put the criminals in their place. Besides, the film lampoons the manager of the construction site, another ‘model’ socialist worker whom neither Fedya nor the audience can take seriously.

Shurik, on the other hand, may be nerdy but he is also a stand-up guy who works and studies hard. He can be seen as a sort of Russian everyman. Shurik tries to help those in need even though he is just a big girl’s blouse. So there is an underlying morality, after all: Be an honest citizen, and you will succeed within the system as long as you hew to the rules. Operation ‘Y’ therefore contains a subtle dose of indoctrination. Yet it does not really take anything away from the pleasure of watching the film because it can be applied as a more universal truth. Do good deeds and you can expect a similar treatment from others.

All in all, Operation ‘Y’ remains a comedy for the ages that will appeal to audiences from all over the world. It has great acting and directing and is more theatrical than Hollywood cinema. On top of that, it is a fun film to watch with kids, and the viewer peeks into the Soviet Union of the 1960s to boot. Tongue-in-cheek, the producers even state that ‘children up to the age of 16’ are admitted to see the movie.

 

Watch Operation ‘Y’ with optional English subtitles on Mosfilm’s YouTube channel.

Watch Operation ‘Y’ with optional English or French subtitles in Mosfilm’s online archive (the website is in Russian and requires Microsoft Silverlight).

 

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