Out and About, and Some Russian Films

Bishkek Travel Blog

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Water-cannon at the ready outside the White House
All quiet in Bishkek today, but walking past the White House we saw water-cannon at strategic places ready to quell unrest at the first sign of trouble. I had always imagined water-cannon to be quite small - like bits of artillery in the Crimean War - but these were bright red and the size of a tank. They must use vast quantities of water - not that Bishkek is short of that - and I would very much not want to be caught in front of one going at full blast. We also saw some incredibly battered old buses that, Irina thought, had been used to ferry protesters in from the surrounding countryside, which is where a lot of the unrest originated.

The day was searingly hot, with temperatures well into the nineties, so I bought a cup of maksym, one of the refreshing drinks that are available from roadside sellers.
A beat-up old bus used to ferry rioters in from the countryside: the Erkindik Monument is behind
It is a traditonal Kyrgyz beverage made from wheat, but factory-produced by the Shoro company, and is always fresh as it is delivered in drums to the sellers early in the morning. In fact it is impossible to go more than a couple of hundred yards in Bishkek without encountering a cheerful Shoro girl in a crisp blue-and-white uniform sitting under a big umbrella and serving maksym for a few som; although whether the main attraction is the maksym or the cheerful girl I am none too sure. There are water-sellers also, but these should be avoided by the foreigner as the water is dispensed from dirty old machines in glasses that are re-used and cleaned between customers with a horrid little mechanical rotating brush. What a bacteriology test would show I dread to think, and the water should be left for locals whose stomachs are inured to it.
A Bishkek ambulance
However, maksym and the other branded drinks are perfectly safe.

On our way home we took a diversion to Ataturk Park, a pleasaunce near home dedicated to Kamil Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. The park is a little on the wild side, offering agreeable walks in field and wood; and there is also, rather unexpectedly, a modest fun-fair - I chickened-out of having a ride on anything, fearing mechanical failure. And so home, to more DVDs of Soviet-era films.

I had never before seen any Russian films from this period, and I was amazed at how subversive and funny some of them were. Carnival Night, produced in 1956 - only a few years after the death of Stalin - was an astonishing achievement. At that time there were huge industrial and commercial combines that employed tens of thousands of workers, and provided all the social facilties that they and their families needed.
With the temperature in the upper 90s, Irina is enjoying the spray from the fountains in Ala-Too Square
The film, set in such a combine, deals with the Christmas entertainment being planned by the Theatre Club. At the last moment they have foisted on them a new administrator who is horrified by the levity of the proposed show, and is determined to replace it with a serious celebration of the year's work and the workers' meeting of their production targets. Naturally, the performers have no intention of allowing him to sabotage their carefully planned and rehearsed entertainment, and the film shows their hilarious and ultimately successful attempts to thwart him. What is so surprising is that, at the height of the cold war, a film could be made and distributed that mocked such essential ingredients of the Soviet system as central planning and the army of faceless bureaucrats who faithfully carried out orders from above, however ridiculous.
A roadside Shoro stall dispensing maksym, and me drinking some
It was hugely popular, and deservedly so.

Another film, this time from 1975 and from the same director - Eldar Ryazanov - is so beloved by Russians that it is now traditionally watched every New Year's Eve in millions of homes, but it too mocks an important aspect of Soviet life. Irony of Fate begins in Moscow on New Year's Eve with a group of friends, two of whom pass out through drink. The other friends know that one of them should be travelling to Leningrad, but which one? They guess wrong, and put the wrong guy on a plane - he should have been going back to his Moscow apartment, where his fiancee is preparing a special New Year's Eve meal. The central joke of the film is that all Soviet cities, being centrally planned, look the same; so when the guy staggers off the plane, with no memory of what has happened, he does not realise that he is not in Moscow.
Irina getting up close and personal with her best buddy Kamil Ataturk
He falls into a taxi, gives his street name: there is such a street in Leningrad, just as there is in Moscow. All the apartment blocks look the same: when he gets to the address he cannot tell that he has not arrived home; his key even turns the lock of the apartment's front door. The apartment is empty, but looks identical to his own: he passes out on the bed in a drunken stupor. Then the apartment's real occupant, an attractive young woman, arrives home, and - to cut a long story short - romance develops. It would all be funny and charming, were it not for the undercurrent of - in my view - cruelty in the treatment of the guy's fiancee back in Moscow, who becomes increasingly despairing as her beloved fails to show up: she is forced to spend New Year's Eve alone, after she has worked so hard to make a perfect celebration for the two of them.
A field in Ataturk Park
Apparently for Russians this aspect of the story just adds to the fun - Irina couldn't understand what I was upset about - whereas it really spoilt the film for me: I just wanted the guy to die a horrible death for treating his lovely fiancee so badly, whereas he finishes up happy in the arms of his new girlfriend, and we are all supposed to cheer.

Other Soviet era films were - astonishingly - an excellent production of Twelfth Night (in Russian, of course), a very funny version of that great old Victorian farce Charley's Aunt, and some episodes from a Sherlock Holmes series that was hugely successful on Soviet television in the 1970s and 1980s: in fact, Irina proved to be an unlikely repository of Sherlock Holmes trivia in consequence. My enjoyment of all these films was only made possible by her skill as a translator, giving just sufficient information to allow the plot to be followed, but not so much as to interrupt the narrative.
One of the modest rides in Ataturk Park
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Water-cannon at the ready outside …
Water-cannon at the ready outside…
A beat-up old bus used to ferry ri…
A beat-up old bus used to ferry r…
A Bishkek ambulance
A Bishkek ambulance
With the temperature in the upper …
With the temperature in the upper…
A roadside Shoro stall dispensing …
A roadside Shoro stall dispensing…
Irina getting up close and persona…
Irina getting up close and person…
A field in Ataturk Park
A field in Ataturk Park
One of the modest rides in Ataturk…
One of the modest rides in Atatur…
More fountains in Ala-Too Square
More fountains in Ala-Too Square
In Ataturk Park, a Biggish Wheel
In Ataturk Park, a Biggish Wheel
photo by: londonstudent