The Adventures of Shurik – An Introduction to a Timeless Soviet Classic
Meet Shurik, a typical student with atypical adventures. He falls in love at first sight with someone he has just spent an entire day with without realising it, gets roped into kidnapping someone by being convinced it’s customary and consensual, and even invents a time machine which allows him to meet Ivan the Terrible. This man could not walk down a street without something unusual happening to him.
This is usually as a result of his sweet and gullible nature which often puts him in the middle of some kind of trouble. Despite being a magnet for all sorts of unusual events, he can always find a way out once he gets his bearings and partly because he is… Shurik. In other words, he is sort of like MacGyver, but with the elements of Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chaplin-esque humour thrown in for good measure.
Even now, decades later, Shurik is arguably still the most famous student known to all Russian language speakers. The films have become infinitely quotable classics. One can still hear many quotes used as idioms in everyday language among Russian speakers. It is also worth noting that these films are the products of director and screenwriter Leonid Gaidai, one of the best directors of the Soviet period. He even received the Golden Ticket award posthumously for The Diamond Arm (1968), which was chosen as the best Soviet comedy in 1995.
A Note on Soviet Films:
Soviet films are famous for their spot-on acting, clever dialogue, and exquisite music and Shurik’s Adventures are no different. What makes these films infinitely re-watchable though is their kindness. It’s a kindness specific to old films and is somehow very difficult to re-create in modern films. Some modern features do succeed at this, but it’s a very small percentage compared to the volume of films that comes out in theaters every year.
Most Soviet films had several musical numbers in them without counting the films as proper musicals. This was why they were grounded enough in reality while allowing the viewer the pleasure of the occasional musical performance. Some of these even included dancing. You will come across several such performances in these films.
N.B. Shurik and Sasha are both nicknames for Alexander in Russia.
Let’s dive into the films!
(In chronological order.)
This was the beginning of the nation’s love of Shurik. It started with three short stories put together to make a feature-length film.
#1 The (Uncooperative) Partner – The re-education of Fyodor
Fyodor: “Listen, have you had any accidents at this construction site?”
Shurik: “No. We haven’t had any yet.”
Fyodor: “You will.”
After some ungentlemanly behaviour on a bus, which included an altercation with Shurik, Fyodor gets sentenced to 15 days of community service. Naturally, he ends up doing this service at the same construction site where Shurik is working. Fyodor continues to push the boundaries of Shurik’s patience until he’s had enough. What follows is an almost Tom and Jerry-esque chase across the construction site.
#2 Strange Impression (A more fitting title for this might even be Déjà vu) – A snippet of a typical student’s life
Shurik: Does this ever happen to you? You come somewhere for the first time, but you feel as if you’ve already been there before? Everything looks familiar: objects, smells, sounds…
Girl: No, it doesn’t. I always remember where I’ve been, when, and with whom.
We visit a local university campus where exams are in full swing. Some are sighing with relief at just having completed theirs; others are in the middle of thorough preparations for cheating during their exams. It must be said that the amount of time and effort spent on inventing new cheating methods could have just as easily been spent on actually preparing for the exams properly but wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. The rest are running around like crazy trying to get in some last-minute revision. Shurik falls into the latter category as he tries to find a summary of the lecture notes with only a few hours to spare before his own exam.
Having given up and gotten an enormous book out of the library, a miracle happens: Someone else on the tram is reading the notes he’s been looking for. As if dragged by an invisible force, his eyes become glued to the notes as he follows said person everywhere without paying attention to who it is. The girl he is tagging along after is just as concentrated on her revision that she mistakes Shurik for her female study friend. What follows is one of the sweetest and funniest love stories I have ever come across!
#3 Operation “Y” – Preventing the crime of the century
“It’s as simple as can be. All you need to do is simulate a robbery. You’ll break the lock, enter the storage facility, leave traces of the goods having been stolen, and calmly leave without taking a single thing. Understood?”
The supervisor of a storage facility finds himself three crooks to simulate a break-in since he has already done away with a lot of the goods and now needs a cover story before the inspector shows up and discovers discrepancies in the stock. So they plan everything out beforehand and have fun practicing for the event. After all, even the guard on duty that night will only be a harmless granny armed with an old hunting rifle loaded with blanks.
That is the plan but, as many well laid plans, it goes slightly awry when Shurik asks to stand in for the granny as the guard instead of babysitting her hyperactive grandchild. He would rather stay out in the cold than keep trying to get the little girl to sleep. After all, he knows how to pick his battles! What follows is a spontaneous Plan B.
Let’s just say that by the time Shurik was done defending the place from burglars (by using anything he could get his hands on) it may as well have been burgled for real.
Content Note (applies to all the films in this article):
These are not rated, but would probably be something along the lines of 12 today. They are harmless fun without profanity or nudity. The opening titles jokingly state that children under 16 are to be admitted.
Where to Watch:
All of Shurik’s adventures are available to buy on DVD. However, you can also watch them for free with English subtitles on Mosfilm’s official YouTube channel.
Shurik and his trusted donkey go to the Caucasus mountains on an ethnographic expedition, where the plan is to make a note of the local customs, traditions, legends, and toasts. As soon as he mentions collecting toasts the locals are more than happy to oblige. Suddenly everyone has a toast or three to share with him and this is, of course, followed by a large helping of wine.
In between collecting the toasts he still finds the time to meet and fall in love with Nina, a local beauty. However, unbeknownst to both Shurik and Nina, her uncle has just sold her for 20 sheep and a fridge to a local big shot. Furthermore, knowing that she will not willingly consent to this marriage, the uncle and groom arrange to have her kidnapped. They even get Shurik to help by describing this as a beautiful custom that he can document and even participate in, insisting that Nina loves the groom and that she personally requested that Shurik is the one to help them with this custom. Make no mistake, Nina is no damsel in distress! She doesn’t make life easy for her kidnappers and knows how to stand up for herself.
Shurik: Who’s the groom?
Nina’s aunt: People usually only find that out after the wedding.
Shurik: There will be no wedding! I’m the one who took her, so I’ll be the one to return her!
When it becomes evident that this was a real kidnapping, Shurik is determined to right his wrongs. However, rescuing the girl turns out to be trickier than expected. Especially since her influential groom to be is placing roadblocks in his way. Shurik even winds up in a psych ward during his attempts to save her where nobody takes him seriously.
Shurik: Can I see a prosecutor?
Doctor: Sure, where’s our prosecutor?
Nurse: In Ward 6, where Napoleon used to be.
Where to Watch:
This play is one of the lesser-known works of Mikhail Bulgakov. Notably, Bulgakov is best known for writing The Master and Margarita, Heart of a Dog, and the autobiographical A Country Doctor’s Notebook. The latter of these was even adapted into an eight-episode-series starring Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe.
“An experimental artistic association presents a non-science-fiction, not quite realistic and not strictly historical film based on M. Bulgakov’s play Ivan Vassiliyevich.”
The director turns this play into something extraordinary and laugh-out-loud funny. That introductory quote alone practically shouts at the viewer to get ready for plenty of laughs and not to take things too seriously. In case people mistakenly think that there is talk of actual time travel here, we have a clear distinction between the real and dream worlds. The reality is filmed in Black & White while the dream happens entirely in Colour. Basically, think Wizard of Oz.
In this dream sequence that spans almost the entirety of the film, Shurik’s time machine opens a window straight into the palace of Ivan the Terrible. In all the confusion that ensues, the tsar ends up in the modern world while a neighbour and an unexpected guest get stuck in the past.
Related Post: Kate and Leopold (2001) – Time-Travel, Fairytale Romance Collide in Contemporary New York
As the tsar is agonising that his lands will be taken away while he is away from the throne, the visitors from the future try their best to survive. So they end up dressing up in local garbs. In addition to this, one of them is even forced to impersonate the tsar much to his horror. This horror stems from his nature as a strict rule follower. After all, for someone like that this charade is torture. However, it works pretty well since both characters are played by the same actor.
It is a lot of fun watching the events in both timelines play out as Shurik tries to put everyone back where they belong.
Where to Watch:
A Note on the Trio: The Coward, The Fool, and The Professional
Even though they are never called by these names, they are a popular trio who appeared in several other short films from the same director and even a musical cartoon called The Bremen Musicians. They appear in Shurik’s Operation “Y” and Abduction in the Caucasus. They are meant to represent a hapless group of crooks that one should be able to stumble upon wherever one goes. Whenever they decide to do something, they only get in each other’s way in the most comical fashion. However, they have delighted the viewers with their silliness to such an extent over the years that there are even at least two statues erected in their honour.
The Coward is probably my personal favourite. There is something about hypochondriacs that always makes me laugh, especially this romantic hypochondriac who literally stops to smell the flowers.
If you enjoy watching this trio, do check out these short films with them. There are no subtitles necessary since these are wordless comedies set to music. It’s all about the physical comedy and comic timing with these shorts.
If you are a fan of kind old-fashioned comedies with a touch of romance thrown in, I strongly recommend watching all three of these films. As a consequence of being so funny, kind, and romantic, they are infinitely re-watchable. The films can be watched in any order even though they are presented in chronological order here. That is to say, they are all simply stories that happened to the central character Shurik. Therefore they are not a trilogy in the strictest sense of the word.
Have you seen these films? What did you think of them? Do you have a favourite Soviet comedy?
Photo Credits: Mosfilm
Original film titles: Операция “Ы” и другие приключения Шурика (1965); Кавказская пленница, или Новые приключения Шурика (1967); Иван Васильевич меняет профессию (1973)
“The stuff that dreams are made of.”
“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.
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