Watch these movies and you will get a pretty good idea of what the mentality of a Soviet person was like. War and spy dramas, action films about pirates, melodramas and comedies all thrilled Soviet audiences.
Cinema was one of the favorite forms of entertainment for Soviet people. It was affordable and easily available since even the smallest towns had movie theaters. This may be the reason behind the staggering viewership figures that some Soviet films enjoyed. Many of them remain solid favorites with people of different generations to this day.
10. The Dawns Here Are Quiet… (1973)
Stanislav Rostotsky/Gorky film studio
Arguably, this is one of the most poignant Russian films about World War II. Based on the eponymous novella by Soviet writer Boris Vasilyev, the film does not feature any impressive battle scenes or raw depictions of the horrors of war. It is a story of a young warrant officer who is put in charge of a unit consisting of five young women: in the swamps and forests of northern Russia, the six of them fight an unequal battle with Nazis, who greatly outnumber them. One by one, the girls are killed in most heart-breaking circumstances. In the end, only he survives. The movie, directed by Stanislav Rostotsky, became the highest-grossing Soviet film of 1973: it was watched by about 66 million people. In 2015, director Renat Davletyarov filmed a remake.
9. New Adventures of the Elusive (1969)
The first film in the series, The Elusive Avengers, was released in 1966. The adventures of four teenage revolutionaries during the Russian Civil War and their fight against supporters of the tsarist regime became a real blockbuster and a huge hit with young Soviet viewers. Producers literally begged the director, Edmond Keosayan, to make a sequel, and New Adventures of the Elusive became one of the highest-grossing films of 1968, watched by 66.2 million people.
The film’s soundtrack deserves a special mention – the songs The Chase and Russian Field by composer Yan Frenkel became hits in their own right. In 1971, the third instalment in the series – Crown of Russian Empire, or the Elusive Again – was released.
8. The Shield and the Sword (1968)
The film tells the story of an undercover Soviet agent operating among Nazis, and the whole country followed it with bated breath. He manages to rise to the rank of an SS Hauptsturmführer and continues to pass top secrets back to the Soviet HQ. This film is widely seen as one of the most realistic accounts of the incredibly difficult and dangerous work that intelligence officers did during the Second World War. The movie was watched by over 68 million people. Its success was followed by that of the cult TV series Seventeen Moments of Spring about a Soviet spy, Max Otto von Stierlitz, operating in Berlin.
7. Operation ‘Y’ & Shurik’s Other Adventures (1965)
This comedy is a compilation of three short films – Partner, Obsession and Operation ‘Y’ – each having a different plot but all sharing the main character: naive, but kind, honest and well-educated Shurik. He is a new-generation Soviet intellectual, who one day works at a construction site with a bully partner, another day crams for an exam in a stranger’s apartment, and in the third novella, encounters real crooks planning a burglary.
One of director Leonid Gaidai’s best-known comedies has long become a source of popular quotes and cultural references, and is now considered a Soviet classic. It became the highest-grossing film of 1965, watched by 69 million people. Inspired by its success, the following year, Gaidai began filming a sequel, Kidnapping Caucasian Style, or Shurik’s New Adventures.
6. Air Crew (1980)
Alexander Mitta/Mosfilm/Global Look Press
Air Crew was one of the first Soviet disaster films, and remains extremely watchable. The first part tells the personal stories of the crew members, who each have their difficulties. In the second part of the film, they all board a plane, which ends up being sent on a rescue mission to an earthquake-hit town in a foreign country and after an extremely dangerous take-off suffers a decompression incident. The pilots act as real heroes, trying to save the passengers despite the risk to their own lives. The experience alters each of them and, upon their return from that mission, each member of the crew becomes a slightly different person and manages to tackle their problems.
It is believed that director Alexander Mitta’s film was inspired by the success of Arthur Hailey’s book Airport and its Hollywood adaptation. Air Crew became the highest-grossing Soviet film of 1980, watched by 71 million people. In 2016, Nikolai Lebedev directed a remake of it, titled Flight Crew, starring Danila Kozlovsky.
5. Wedding in Malinovka (1967)
The film is set during the Russian Civil War. Almost all the men in the village of Malinovka have gone to the front to fight for the Red Army. While the women are waiting for their men to come back, a local mobster and his gang decide to take over the village and begin to rob its residents. The mobster also wants to marry the beautiful young Irinka, who is in love with the shepherd. This musical comedy was watched by 74.6 million people and yet it became only the second highest-grossing film of 1967… That year’s box office record was broken by Kidnapping Caucasian Style, or Shurik’s New Adventures, which featured an already familiar and loved protagonist.
4. Kidnapping Caucasian Style, or Shurik’s New Adventures (1967)
The sequel about the young student’s adventures directed by Leonid Gaidai was watched by 76.5 million people. Unlike the original Shurik movie, which consisted of three novellas, this one is a full-length film about how Shurik travels to the Caucasus to study local customs and where – by accident – he gets involved in a re-enactment of one such tradition, namely bride kidnapping. The result is an amazingly funny comedy, which too has become a source of popular quotes and cultural references.
3. The Diamond Arm (1969)
The plot of this cult comedy revolves around a mistaken identity: by accident, smugglers confuse a modest and law-abiding Soviet citizen with one of their own and hide diamonds in a plaster cast on his broken arm. While the criminals are trying to retrieve the diamonds, the Soviet militia persuades the protagonist to cooperate with them and help them catch the gang. The script of the film was written with the famous actor Yuri Nikulin in mind for the main character. Another leading part in it was played Soviet sex symbol Andrei Mironov, who also sings and dances in the movie.
Yuri Nikulin’s character depicted a typical Soviet person: kind, simple-minded, selfless, a good family man. The Diamond Arm is yet another cult comedy by Leonid Gaidai, which enjoys enduring popularity and is a source of endless cultural references. In the year it was released, the film was watched by 76.7 million people.
2. Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1980)
The film consists of two parts. In the first, the main character is a modest girl from the provinces, who lives in a hostel in Moscow, works at a factory and is planning to enrol in a college. Following a friend’s lead, she pretends to be a professor’s daughter and starts an affair with a handsome Muscovite from a middle-class family. When she gets pregnant, he dumps her.
In the second part, which is set 20 years later, the main character is a successful woman, a director of a large enterprise, who has managed to overcome all difficulties, raise a child alone and make a brilliant career. It is only her love life that has been left on the backburner. Then one day her life changes: she falls in love with a man she meets on a train, who turns out to be an ordinary locksmith.
This melodrama directed by Vladimir Menshov not only became a box office hit of 1980 (it was watched by 84 million viewers), and went onto win an Oscar for best foreign language film.
1. Pirates of the 20th Century (1980)
Boris Durov/Gorky film studio
Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, a Soviet dry cargo ship is seized by pirates attracted by a batch of opium that the ship is transporting to the USSR for use in the pharmaceutical industry. Unarmed Soviet sailors manage to escape and fight the pirates. This very “Western” film and the first Soviet action movie was directed by Boris Durov. In 1980, it was watched by over 87 million people! It became the highest-grossing Soviet film ever, overtaking even the Oscar-winning melodrama Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, which was released the same year.