Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mikhail Bulgakov and Ivan Vasilyevich

Its no mystery why Leonid Gaidai’s Иван Васильевич меняет профессию (“Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession”) became a Soviet box office hit. The movie has everything: antic comedy and gags, songs, a pretender to the throne, Ivan the Terrible, satire on Soviet bureaucracy, a geeky hero named Shurik, a time machine, and more. This YouTube video of one of the first scenes will give you a sense of its now-retro feel.

Several of Gaidai’s movies remain so popular that many Russian can recite famous lines -- I knew a couple from “Ivan Vasilyevich” without realizing where they came from! The screenplay for “Ivan Vasilyevich” is particularly rich with humor because it’s based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s play Ivan Vasilyevich, written in 1935-1936. The movie retains much of the play’s dialogue despite transferring action from the 1930s to the 1970s. I can’t find evidence that the play is available in English, but it shares characters, including Ivan the Terrible, and motifs with a predecessor, Bulgakov’s 1934 Блаженство, available in English as Bliss.

Readers of Bulgakov’s novel Мастер и Маргарита (Master and Margarita) will recognize some familiar elements, albeit on a smaller scale, in “Ivan Vasilyevich.” Although the two works may not seem to have much in common, both involve demons, witches, and unclean spirits, either as characters or superstitions. Both also center around mysterious occurrences and neighbors in Soviet apartment buildings. Though Ivan Vasilyevich, at 40 pages, lacks the richness of M&M, its contrasts – historical and contemporary, reality and fantasy – encourage thought along with the fun.

I loved watching the movie and highly recommend it to students of Russian language, literature, and culture. Even if you don’t enjoy Soviet humor – it’s an acquired taste for many westerners – or catch cultural references, “Ivan Vasilyevich” is worth watching. It’s an important remnant of Soviet popular culture and an example of Mikhail Bulgakov’s wonderful imagination and comedy. Best of all, you can sample clips on YouTube, then add the DVD to your Netflix list! It is now known as "Ivan Vasilievich - Back to the Future" in English.

In this posting:

Mikhail Bulgakov on Amazon
Leonid Gaidai on Amazon (all four are classics)


  1. Dear Lisa,

    I want to say that you blog is absolutely wonderful! Your blog has been so helpful to me in my Russian studies. This semester we are studying the plays of Булгаков, and we are just finishing "Иван Васильевич". We had the privilege of both translating the play and watching the movie. I am writing to ask two things. First, what is the name of the book in the above picture? Second, would you happen to have a link to the text version of "“Дни Турбиных"? Your links to "Иван Васильевич" and "Собачье сердце" were so nice, thank you!

  2. Dear Sarah,

    I'm glad the blog has been helpful to you in your studies! I'm even gladder to hear about your interest in Bulgakov. To answer your questions:

    The book I photographed is called Пьесы. The publisher is Советский писатель, and the year is 1987. It has an interesting combination of works, including Bulgakov's stage versions of novels like War and Peace.

    Дни Турбиных is avialable online here.