Let’s Talk about The Irony of Fate

Ian Scott McCormick

Happy New Years, Jabronis.

***Editors note: I realize this is the 2nd of January, and not in fact, the 1st. I’d written this to go up on Jan 1, but I got started on it late- about 1pm on Jan 1, and I decided to take a minute to, you know, make it better. The unfortunate side effect is that this is now published on the 2nd and you’re probably sick and tired of things about New Year’s. Sorry***

A few years ago, I married into a Russian family. In fact, I had a kid with them, so I am now in deep with this Russian family, which means that I am absolutely booked for New Year’s Eve for the considerable future. Having a killer New Year’s Eve party? Sick. I can’t go. Because New Year’s Eve is a really big deal to the Russians. It’s effectively both New Year’s Eve and also Christmas.

I’m not exaggerating.

They have a Christmas tree. A man who is ostensibly Santa Claus breaks into your house at night to drop off Russian presents. Also, for whatever reason he has some little girl helper with him. I don’t know if it’s a simple intern thing or a child bride, but it’s Russia and he’s dealing with cheap labor, so let’s just assume child bride, and move on. Tragic, but you know…what are you going to do, am I right?

Anyway, I now make the trek out to the wilds of New Jersey to spend New Year’s Eve with in-laws. A few years ago I watched the classic film The Irony of Fates (Or possibly just Irony of Fates. Don’t @ me with your take on Russian translation, comrade.) a few years ago, and now I would like to talk about it, because this movie is batshit.

As it happens, it’s also totally available on YouTube with English subtitles. Do you want to watch The Irony of Fates, and have hours and hours to kill? Well, С новым годом, bitches. 

Here’s part 1

And Part 2

I’m not going to BS you, this is a long ass movie. We watched it in two parts, the first on New Year’s Eve, and the second on New Year’s Day. Honestly, if you need to break it into five pieces, go right ahead. It’s created for the people who thought Scarface had a little too brisk of a pace. If you want, you could easily justify watching this movie as a New Year’s resolution, because it is quite the undertaking. But the movie is fascinating, because you learn a little bit about life in Soviet Union, and a lot about the strange morality code of their people.

The movie starts out with a simple premise: That Russia is being designed into cookie cutter cities, with cookie cutter buildings. Every city will have streets with identical names, and on those streets, they will have identical buildings, with identical layouts. In fact the house keys given to somebody who lives at an address in Moscow, will unlock the door to somebody who lives in the identical address in Leningrad (Or as it is now known today, St. Petersburg, Florida). Given that and the cute little cartoon at the beginning of the movie, you might get the impression that this will be an absurdist farce in the spirit of Brazil or something to that effect. It isn’t. That’s all you get. Here’s the deal, this whole movie hinges on that premise, but the rest of the movie is played straight.

Zhenya is a simple man with simple tastes. He lives in Moscow, and his girlfriend Galya is starting to wonder when he’s going to pop the question.

Galya seems pretty nice. She’s pretty. Sure, she’s ready for him to get off his ass and make a commitment, but she’s not a bitch about it. She doesn’t hound him over it. She makes him the fucking crab salad that he likes. She’s happy to listen to him play the guitar while they set up for the big night. Hopefully you are as well, because this movie is roughly 35% unedited songs. These bastards sing more than the good people of Whoville. She’s not super stoked that he suddenly gets the call to go get pie eyed with his friends at a sauna, but she lets the player play. His mom seems to like her as well. Really, she checks off a lot of boxes. If you’re picking up a tone in how I describe the two of them, that’s because in my opinion Galya gets a raw deal. In terms of movie logic, Galya gets fucked over pretty hard here. I want to establish right off the bat that I am absolutely #TeamGalya. What is shocking is that I am apparently the only person who feels this way. The Russians who grew up on this story are absolutely #TeamZhenya. This is madness.

Anyway, after The Big Ж tells her that he’s going to propose at midnight, he goes off to the bathhouse with his boys, as one does in Mother Russia. Zhenya tells friends that he’s got big plans that night, and agrees to have just one drink. As is the case when anybody says that in a movie, he proceeds to get absolutely ruined. After driving vodka down for a few hours, the boys go to the airport. One of them has to get to Leningrad because…who cares? It’s not important, really, and I haven’t seen this movie in two years. But because everybody is stone cold drunk, Ж-Dog gets on the plane instead, and flies out to Leningrad.

After arriving in Leningrad, Zhenya takes those oh so familiar streets to what would have been his address in Moscow. He gets to what would be his apartment, unlocks the door, and passes out in what is not at all his bed. That bed, and entire apartment, really, belongs to Nadya. Before we get any further, Nadya is marginally hotter than Galya.

Maybe? I’m not sure. She strikes me as more overtly sensual. Maybe that’s because she seems angrier. I’m still on Galya’s side here, but let’s be real, Nadya in the opinion of the movie, is portrayed as somewhat more attractive.

She also has some goddamn plans of her own. Her boyfriend is going to propose to her that night, and she’s laid out a spread. It’s gonna be lit. There are a great many differences between Russians and Americans during the Cold War, but drunkenly passing out in a stranger’s bed on a night when they have life changing plans is gauche in any culture. Unfortunately for Nadya, Zhenya is only metaphorically “tossed to the curb.” In reality he is unable to be roused and sent on his way before Nadya’s bf Ippolit shows up. Ippolit is probably less thrilled to see a new, drunk man sleeping in Nadya’s bed. Again, I’m kind of on #TeamIppolit here, fully seeing his perspective in this complex misunderstanding. Ippolit says deuces. Nadya is pissed. Eventually she wakes Zhenya’s drunk ass up, and they decide to debate facts in a classic “I live here/No you don’t” back and forth.

***Update: My wife is insisting that Zhenya is in fact awake when Ippolit shows up. Fine. But I believe he was still drunk/disoriented enough to be completely useless in a conflict. But maybe not technically still sleeping. WHATEVER.***

Zhenya spends most of the rest of the movie trying to get back to Moscow, but those pesky fates keep sending him back to Nadya’s place. Zhenya tries to call Galya in Moscow, but long distance calling in Soviet Russia is ass. It’s a whole thing, and by the time he gets her on the phone Galya ain’t having it. Ippolit tries to call Nadya, but Zhenya answers the phone. Again, man, that looks pretty damn bad from Ippolit’s POV.

Eventually Zhenya and Nadya decide to spend New Year’s Eve together, slowing coming to the realization that holy shit, they could totally just dump their bf’s and gf’s and start banging for real.

Zhenya realizes that Nadya makes him feel alive in a way his marginally less attractive gf ever did. He is done with Galya, and he is done with wearing glasses. Forever. Maybe he stops cutting his hair with a machete? Perhaps. Anything is possible now that he has a smokey eyed blonde lady.

I call bullshit. Vodka made him feel more alive than Galya. Galya might be willing to just give him more vodka if he agreed to stop chasing down strange. It’s Russia, my man. You can score vodka whenever you want. Nadya also decides that Ippolit is kind of a dick. To be honest, we don’t actually have a lot of evidence. He does seem surly, but let’s be real, who wouldn’t be under these circumstances. Are you going to be super chill when you see a drunk stranger from not around here, kicking it with your girl? You’re not going to have even a little bite in your tone? You live in Soviet Russia. Under ideal circumstances, things are pretty meh. You are probably having a bad night. Half a star, would not recommend to a friend.

Zhenya and Nadya get down. Everybody can feel that it’s about to happen. Galya can sense it, and she’s all the way down in Moscow.

That’s her calling for Zhenya and getting Nadya. She lets her know that she knows exactly what’s going down and that she is not cool with it at all. Again, this woman is supposed to be…the villain? An inconvenient reality? I don’t know, but that is her, dressed for a proposal and coming to terms with the fact that her man is about to plow some other girl. I’ll tell you what, the movie told from her perspective sucks.

The next morning Nadya realizes, hey wait a tick. Maybe we shouldn’t have? (You probably shouldn’t have, you goddamn sewer rat). Ippolit actually shows up and seems like a changed man (drunk?). Tellingly, he seems happy. Well, Russian happy.

Maybe he’s fine with losing Nadya. Maybe he’s cracking up. But he gives his blessing and moves on. Then Zhenya goes home. But then Nadya says “But maybe it is love.” And she flies down to Moscow, presumably to live with Zhenya for ever and ever, until somebody is inevitably fingered as a dissident and sent to a goddamn gulag. Of course there is the matter of impressing Zhenya’s mother, who lives in the same building (Apartment? I can’t remember off hand). Zhenya’s mom quickly realizes that Nadya is in fact, hotter than Galya. That’s about all that she needs. She’s in. Zhenya’s mom is not much of a hurdle. My own in laws were relatively easy to please, but they didn’t just let me into their family after a three minute conversation. I had to prove myself at least a little. This woman wanted her son to marry that nice girl Galya, found out that wasn’t happening, and moved right on to this new girl, who she knows nothing about instantly. Why is this woman a character to begin with? What tension does she bring to the movie? Is she simply there to vouch for their decision, so that we the audience don’t look at these people like irresponsible dopes? Because I think that’s all that she does.

So what is the big takeaway here? I don’t know. The heart wants what it wants? Look, I’m no stranger to the traditional Rom Com, and this is not the first story about people leaving their significant others for something new. But there are rules, goddamn it. In the movie world, the dumped have to give you, you know, an actual reason to move on. Because the audience needs to identify with the decisions made by the protagonists. Otherwise, your decision just looks kind of selfish (even if that is the way these things actually play out). What this movie posits is, what if you don’t play by the rules? What if you just make selfish people make selfish decisions. Here’s the weirdest part: None of these people are real. You could paint Galya as any type of person, so why would you make her somebody who seems nice if a little dull, when you could make her some manipulative bitch. Maybe she doesn’t make his crab salad. Maybe she tells him the truth about his hair. Maybe she tells him that he can’t hang out with his friends, that his mother’s cooking sucks, and that she wishes she were with some American man instead of his pretentious Russian ass. Because then I would at least understand Zhenya’s goals. There would be something for me to root for. I could watch two strangers slowly hook up without thinking, “Yeah, but what the fuck, man. You seemed pretty damn happy before. What are you doing with your life? You are using the nuclear option to solve something that wasn’t even clearly defined as a problem earlier in the movie.” It’s just a weird choice. This movie is very strange, but not in a “Everything is shot crazy, and there are wild twists and turns.” It’s strange in a “Really? That’s the fucking moral of the story? I root for these people? But why?”

Anyway, this movie is a classic in Russia. My wife’s family looked at me as if I was insane for continuing to bring up Galya. She could have been eaten by a bear for as much as they cared about her character. And yet, if I’d stepped out on their daughter, the story wouldn’t have been so cute. I love them, but Russians are strange.

Happy New Year’s

***Editors note: Again, this was intended for January 1st. But as you know, it’s the 2nd, so we can stop saying Happy New Years. If you don’t stop now, it might become a thing and then who knows how long you’ll keep doing it. We don’t want to be nerds.***

 

Ian Scott McCormick
Ian Scott McCormick
Ian is a New Yorker, a father, a husband, a sports fan. He covers a variety of subjects but really only appreciates burgers and cola.
https://ianscottmccormick.com/
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Zhenya
Zhenya

Feeling sorry for Galya is like feeling sorry for Susan in Seinfeld.

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RussianRocket
RussianRocket

So… here is this American guy who is married to a Russian girl for two seconds. He was invited to be a part of a Russian tradition on New Year’s and watch a 40 year old Russian classic. 2 part movie, that is a part of a Magic that New Year brings. ( Since religion was separate from State in Russia, people put the ” magic of Christmas” into ” magic of New Year”. Because Christmas was forbidden religious holiday. And you just can’t live without this Magic….every now and then…) And that is why New Year’s is a big deal to Russians.
Long story short: this guy Ian watches the movie (with horrible English subtitles btw) and gives us a two page ” skinny” on his understanding of it, Russian cinematography, New Year’s tradition and not so clever Russian nation.
Dear Ian…I wish you had better guide for your movie experience! Let me fix it for you!
You see, Russian people were privileged to superb public school education back in the day, when the movie was made. (God knows what is happening with education system there now, that they trying to copy a flawed to begin with American system) Anyway…. we were taught to think and analyze the material we see, watch or hear and make our own opinion about it. We were taught to understand Aesop language, that writers had to use to avoid censorship. As far as your confusion with Russian Santa: it’s Grandfather Frost with his granddaughter Snow Maiden knocking on doors to give you presents. Can’t quite see how it may look so ” Bad Santa” to you with B&E and child’s bride….Not sure if the old pervert, enslaving little elf children and riding obviously infected reindeer with red nose is any better… especially when you could end up with a coal for Christmas….but ok, let’s put it aside.
Moscow, December 31st, 1976.
Main character Zhenya is a thirty- something pediatric surgeon, that neglects his love life and sometimes his hair, because he is a workaholic. He is currently dating Galya, who is “just an ok nice girl” with her clock ticking to fulfill a societal norm of having a husband. Zhenya’s Mom is a practical woman, who realizes, that he is better off to be taken care of by the woman who will pretend that she loves him, than being alone. She understands that not everyone gets to experience True Love. However, she honestly answers his question “Should I marry Galya?” by ” I am not the one who is marrying her….” Which means that Zhenya really needs to answer this question for himself. Note how they talk about Galya being nice and checking ” all the boxes”? When you are in love, you are sure and you don’t need anyone’s advice or opinion.
And if he would’ve proposed, they would’ve married because ” by this age you should”.
So following tradition they have for many years, Zhenya and his friends go to the sauna, or bathhouse, where “accidentally on purpose” guys get drunk. I’d imagine, Zhenya’s excuse is somewhat similar to Carry Grant’s in “North by Northwest”…”this two fellows put a bottle of bourbon in me”. One of the guys was supposed to go to Leningrad ( now again “St. Petersburg in the honor of Saint Peter) Following drunken logic, friends put wrong guy on the plane to Leningrad where our main character gets a cab and goes, as he thinks, home. Due to a simplicity of the cookie cutter approach in architecture those days, his keys open standard lock, and soon he is fast asleep on the couch.
The flat in Leningrad belongs to school teacher Nadya, who had plans to celebrate New Year’s with her older controlling boyfriend Ippolit. Couple also was in ” should we settle because it’s time?” relationship. ” Meet- cute” happens when Nadya finds Zhenya on her couch. From that point on our characters thrown into a whirlpool of life changing events at the backdrop of most magical night of the year, that is fast running out. Both realize that relationships they are currently in is morally wrong for all involved. Because by being with the wrong person you prevent them and yourself from finding true love and happiness.( I agree with Ian, that Russians and Americans had our fair share of differences, but a wedding planner stealing a groom for herself is a gauche in any culture as well :))
Back to Nadya and Zhenya, who fall in love undoubtedly fast, accompanied by beautiful, meaningful songs, that were so carelessly butchered in English translation. Throughout a hectic night couple doesn’t even share a kiss, Zhenya flyes back to Moscow with the permission of giving her a phone call. I don’t see where you could mistake it for :” let’s ditch our halfs and bang”. Silly to think, that Nadya, who is now in love with Zhenya, could possibly get through to Galya, explaining the comical irony of fate. Galya is fast to jump to conclusions and give out the blame, unlike his True Love, who’s selfless act is to let him go. I am sure many of couples in movies and real life found themselves at a threshold of :” What if?” And we see that our heroine flyes to Moscow to get an answer to this question and return a bag that Zhenya forgot at her place. Lucky for everyone architectural cookie cutter approach comes handy. Zhenya introduces her to his Mom and friends as “My Nadya”, and frankly, that is the shortest phrase, describing two soulmates reunited. And now his mother’s heart is content.
#TeamLove

I’d like to think it helps you to realize what is a takeaway here. If I were you, I wouldn’t throw words like ” dissident” and “Gulag” so lightly and out of place. Please continue to prove yourself even just a little to the Russian family, you are married to. And I wish you and your family a Happy Old New Year! You probably already familiar with this tradition as well.

ballsofsteelandfury

This makes total sense to me and I can understand why the movie means so much to Russians.

And you’re totally right about the “My Nadya”. That phrase reunited me with my soulmate.

RussianRocket
RussianRocket

Thank you! It just seemed to me that it deserves better explanation. And I am glad that you are with your soulmate #TeamLove

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dmitrybrant
dmitrybrant

This was very interesting to read, especially for a Russian-American person who was basically indoctrinated into loving this movie since childhood. If I actually think objectively about the plight of the characters, then I couldn’t agree more with your breakdown. But I wouldn’t dare bring any of this up with my my family!

Did you know, by the way, that there is a sequel to The Irony of Fate from 2007, which was much-despised and is virtually forgotten by Russians at this point, as most sequels are. But it does give us a glimpse of what happens with Zhenya and Nadya in the future:
[spoilers]

Nadya dumps Zhenya’s ass very shortly thereafter and goes back to Ippolit, and they have a daughter who is also called Nadya. Meanwhile Zhenya has a son named Kostya, presumably with another unknown woman who also left him. Thirty years later, Kostya gets drunk with his Dad’s friends (the very same friends from the first movie), and they send him to St. Petersburg, where the exact same events happen between him and the young Nadya.

At the end of the movie, Zhenya and the older Nadya (both in their late 60s) hook back up, because apparently they’ve learned nothing.

ballsofsteelandfury

It’s nice to know that both in the US and Russia, filmmakers tend to suck at making sequels.

Senor Weaselo

Irony of Fate>Hands of Fate

Wakezilla

The Rooskies sound like they like to make films similar to the Quebecois. Though, usually in Quebec, lady luck shows up to tell you who to root for, so you accept it, or, they drop a subtle hint about the person getting punted was kind of a dick

Beerguyrob

My Latvian in-laws are really upset about my wearing a Tretiak jersey to the Russia-Slovakia game tonight.

scotchnaut

Tell ’em your Vladimir Dzurilla kit is in the wash.

/this first cut is the deepest

Wakezilla

Should have went with Irbe

scotchnaut

“Would’ve been better if maybe Galya had turned into a bug or something. Just sayin’.”

-F. Kafka, movie critic

SonOfSpam

Alls I knows is both of these ladies are more attractive than Maria Butina.

Rikki-Tikki-Deadly

They probably also complain a lot less about having to have sex with NRA losers as part of their job as a spy.

ballsofsteelandfury

I have a book titled “What every Russian knows (and you don’t)” and the very first chapter is devoted to this movie.

ballsofsteelandfury

Interestingly, the Russian author of the book is a female and portrays Galya as a nag and pushy.

I don’t know if that says more about Russia or the US…

upuha
upuha

So having grown up in the USSR and watched this movie all throughout my life, including after having moved to the US many many years ago, I think there might have been some info lost in translation. I didnt even know this was based on the book, however I would accurately describe my perception of Galya as a nag and pushy. She’s not necessarily nagging the big ZH about marriage specifically, its more like she’s pushy about whom Zhenya will spend his New Years with, and what his mom’s role in their life will be once they are married. The mom overhears this, but stays quiet. Nadya is portrayed more “helpless”, more of your “damsel in distress” and in need of a “strong man” just not a STRONG man like Ippolit. He comes across as a total douche canoe, as he states things like “you are so messy/disorganized… only you could end up with a strange man in your bed and not know about it”. If you notice, Zhenya does become that Strong savior in the middle of the movie, as he becomes more assertive, protective of Nadya, etc etc, all the BS that Soviet women were believed to need in a man.

ballsofsteelandfury

This is very insightful and makes a lot of sense. Thanks for joining in!

BrettFavresColonoscopy

Having not seen it, is it an existential movie? Nothing matters anyway type of thing?

BrettFavresColonoscopy

Happy New Year

King Hippo

I read about Russian infatuation with this movie, I think it was in “The Russians” that I bought off Amazon last year (in my Rooooooskie phase).

Ian, have you read all 1400-ish pages of “And Quiet Flows The Don?” If you really loved your Svetlana, you TOTES would. A Russian acquaintance told me to read that if I wanted to get a good sense of the Russian soul/life experience.

I somehow finished in under 2 months. Being a recluse helps.