Ivan Vasilievich (from the early 1970s)

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6 min readMay 27, 2021

We’ll discuss the film Ivan Vasilievich (from the early 1970s) and its surprising relationship to Bulgakov’s Bliss (from the 1930s). This connection will help us understand the fate of the Soviet project as SF

1. Your SF definitions (part 2) will be due by 5pm on W 3–3!

Bulgakov’s SF also passes the Suvinian definitional text with flying colors! Like Čapek, Bulgakov makes use of SF estrangement (through a set of nova) primarily to facilitate a strong cognitive turn.

When you analyze your chosen SF work in terms of Suvin’s definition, will you decide that it lives up to the Suvinian potential of SF as a genre? If so, how exactly? If not, where does it fail?

1. Guide questions to the film.Contributions?

1. The script for this film is based on Bulgakov’s rewrite of Bliss. How is this film’s plot different from and similar to the plot of the play that we’ve alreadyread?

2. How is the humor different from what we saw in Bliss? What is the effect of the humor in this film?

3. Who(m) and what does this film satirize? How does it doso?

4. How does this work fit into Suvin’s framework for SF as cognitiveestrangement?

Introductory quote to our lecture part of class

“I know: having seen the title of this film, you’re probably thinking some variation of, ‘so what’s that then?’ Well, it’s only a better sci-fi film than Aliens , 2001 , Metropolis , Blade Runner ,

or Solaris ! It’s only a better comedy than Monty Python and the Holy Grail , Sherlock Jr. , Some Like It Hot , It Happened One Night , or The Kid ! Only a better adventure movie than North by Northwest , Lawrence of Arabia , The Treasure of the Sierra Madre , Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade , or The Bridge on the River Kwai ! Only the best musical ever made that isn’t The Lion King , and the 8th greatest film of one of cinema’s defining decades, the ‘70s-that’s what!”

After all, it’s a self-proclaimed nenauchno-fantastika(ie, “non-science-fiction”) film. It’s a light- hearted comedy if not a farce… or is it?

Bulgakov is a key writer in that tradition. This film is a homage to Bulgakov or rather an updating of Bulgakov to the Soviet reality of the 1970s. The film was also hugely popular and has an enduring legacy in the Russian context.

The three texts of Ivan Vasilievich

We are dealing with three texts: Bliss (1934); Bulgakov’s rewrite of Bliss, called Ivan Vasilievich (1934–35); the 1973 film version of the second. The film is generally faithful to the language of Bulgakov’s play-with sociocultural updating (e.g., a tape player instead of a phonograph to play VladimirVysotsky).

When Bliss was rejected by the Moscow Satire Theatre, Bulgakov rewrote it to make it lighter, less satirical. The rewritten play was accepted by the theatre, and it reached the stage of rehearsals. It was, however, ultimately cancelled by authorities on the eve of its premiere.

Bulgakov was in disfavor, and that’s probably the main reason, but there’s another reason for the cancellation and it has to do with Ivan the Terrible (more in a moment).

It’s more or less the same cast, minus the future residents of Bliss. It also has the same major plot points: there’s an engineer who invents a time machine and who is undergoing a divorce. But Rein (the “pure” scientist) has become the more parochial Timofeev, and the action takes place in the present and the past, not in future. Ivan the Terrible has a major role while he only made a funny cameo in Bliss.

The film reveals the whole time-traveling adventure to be a mere dream (or does it?), and note here the difference senses of the word “dream,” which the film plays with, hinting (perhaps) at a sophisticated awareness of Bulgakov’s oeuvre. The film is also a musical comedy!

One aspect of this is not accessible to non-Russian speakers: addressing others as товарищи or “comrades.”

The film reveals the whole time-traveling adventure to be a mere dream (or does it?), and note here the difference senses of the word “dream,” which the film plays with, hinting (perhaps) at a sophisticated awareness of Bulgakov’s oeuvre. The film is also a musical comedy!

One aspect of this is not accessible to non-Russian speakers: addressing others as товарищи or “comrades.”

It sold more than 60 million tickets: it was a blockbuster!

Certain lines from the film (and the original play) have become “winged phrases” ( krylatye vyrazheniya). In a 2003 online poll of the most popular quotes from Soviet and Russian films, the number one quote was from this film was “I demand continuation of the banquet!” (Я требую продолжения банкета!), which, in Bulgakov’s original play, was “I demand continuation of the dance.”

He lived from 1530–1584 and was “Tsar of all the Russias” from 1547 until his death. He was an autocratic ruler who transformed Russia into an empire.

He also set up an elaborate bureaucracy to control this empire. He was famously prone to anger and mental instability.

It was in the 1930s that Stalin had begun to “rehabilitate” Ivan the Terrible. Sergey Eisenstein planned a three-film tribute.

The same things as the film does, but less pointedly: petty bureaucracy, state control over everything. This was subversive in the Soviet context, especially of the 1930s but also, at least officially, of the 1970s. Perhaps more on this in our end-of-class discussion?

The engineer awakens as if from a dream, but does this dream revelation undermine the work? We could disagree here, but one point might be that it’s a way of not arousing the suspicions of censors: it’s a way of dressing up the film as pure comedy with no serious satirical or critical intentions. The dream cliché at the end doesn’t so much undermine the work as much as it strives to hide the critique, although it also probably emphasizes it at the same time by suggesting: if only we could all wake up from that dream/nightmare!

1. Gelfenboym, “Iosif Vissarionovich Changes Profession.” Contributions?

We’re now going to pull the time-machine trick and venture back to the early 1920s, but we’ll stay in a (newly) Soviet Russia. We’ll read one of the major novels of the 20 thcentury: its first dystopia, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Raise your Zoom hand if you’ve read it before!

The novel is written in the form of a diary by the main character, whose “name” is D-503. It’s deeply compelling and disturbing-and there’s lots of estrangement!

Your homework is on the week-by-week syllabus, but… finish reading Zamyatin’s We (look at the guide questions first) and be sure to take the Canvas quiz on it before the start of next class.

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