Moscow on the Hudson (1984) Review

A Russian guy walks into Bloomingdales in New York in the 80. to buy a pair of jeans and walks out with African-American pal, Italian girlfriend and Cuban lawyer (to paraphrase the movie’s poster). It is a premise to more than thirty years old still strikingly honest and complexed but a raw portrait of a political immigrant from the Soviet Union, beautifully painted by late Paul Mazursky. Not being an immigrant himself (his grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine) Mazursky managed to capture a deep and intimate mixture of emotions swirling in one’s mind in such fragile circumstances.

Vladimir Ivanoff (exceptionally well portraited by Robin WIlliams) is a saxophone player working in the Moscow circus. Vladimir and his friend Anatoly (ever wonderful Elya Baskin) are living their absurdly codified lives in the Soviet Union during The Cold War. The social scene is as brutal as Russian winters – the queues for basic necessities are endless when the stagnant people are waiting patiently for their turn to brighten up the day. Usually, they end up with nothing as the food shortages lead to truly horrifying outcomes in The Soviet Block. The cold winter is intensified by cold-blooded looks and random checks performed by the communist party members. They start to sniff around the circus staff too, trying to identify the ones who pose a threat to the socialist miracle. The rush and truly orwell-ish atmosphere in the circus is induced by the troupes’ upcoming visit to New York. Anatoly, who’s the circus clown, is very vocal about his plans to escape the Soviet regime during the tour in America. He is determined to practice his English and he’s not wasting any occasion to shout out loud and write the word freedom everywhere he goes. Ivanoff is more reserved and afraid of doing such thing.

Defecting the Soviet Union was a practice performed by many Russian artists during 70s and 80. Seeking political shelter was a reality for Michail Baryshnikov who defected the Soviet Union while touring in Canada.

“Yesterday I bought my first pair of American shoes. They were made in Italy”.

Mazursky conducted a thorough research on the realm of life behind The Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union depicted in the movie gives a justice to what was it like back in the days. Perhaps some of the scenes,  like the crazy group dive into the blue jeans section at Bloomingdales, require some specific cultural competence. During The Cold War blue jeans were extremely valuable currency in the Soviet Block. They served as a symbol, a materialisation of nostalgia for something one can only dream of… freedom. A pair of jeans symbolised democracy, people who managed to get a hold of them, wore them with the same pride as one would wave a flag on a national holiday. It gave hope that maybe someday one could go to America or bring freedom to a homeland.

Ivanoff is drawn into the American lifestyle on the spot and soon begins to pursue his version of the American Dream, until it all becomes an American reality. He works numerous jobs, meets an Italian girl and quickly upgrades his life by renting independently an apartment in East Village. As it turns out being an alien in the strange land has a price tag of its own. America is nothing that it promised to be. Thanks to Mr. Williams and Mr. Mazursky we witness how true American Dream is unraveling before Woyia’s (short for Vladimir) eyes and we observe all the little nuances concerning the flip side of the given, not fought, freedom. Vladimir starts to suffer from panic attacks and anger issues. Coping with being a foreigner, an alien is never easy. America is nothing that it promised to be. He is now convinced that the saddest thing in the world is life. He longs for his pain he felt back home, the pain of entrapment, the lack of freedom. It was the only thing he could hold onto all his life.

In Moscow we fought for an inch of freedom! Here you take it and pour shit all over it.

He’s confused who’s the bandits here – back in Moscow, he says, he could differentiate them easily. Now he’s a nomad. Not being an American yet, while never be able to go to USRR again. Vladimir is in limbo, stuck somewhere in between. Robin Williams in a leading role of Vladimir Ivanoff is really giving the justice to the depth of Russian soul. His Russian accent is flawless and his pain is real. Williams’ performance landed him a Golden Globe nomination; Ivanoff’s character is still cherished as one of his best dramatic roles.

In the midst of globalisation and everlasting migrations, Moscow on the Hudson touches a rare and delicate side of alienation and exclusion seasoned with outbursts of what it means to be human. It seems oddly current and relevant. The movie serves as a backdrop to many existential questions there are in modern society: is it the country that should equip you with independence or is it that no matter where you are you have to allow yourself to feel the independence coming from within? What are our duties and what are our freedoms as citizens of any country? And how one would look for a line where freedom ends and oppression begins?

©  2018 Anna Jozwiak

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