The Soviet reality shown in the film brought about a great deal of laughter and even more bewilderment from the US audience five decades ago. However, as MOSLENTA has recently found out, the old video about Moscow continues to amuse American viewers as some of the funny things captured by the US journalists are still relevant today, despite all the dramatic changes Russia’s capital has undergone over the last 56 years.
Pioneers of the Genre
The American proto-reality show Candid Camera, which first aired in 1948, remained immensely popular for 56 years. Its catchphrase “Smile, you're on candid camera” is now used in several Russian versions of the show. Most episodes of Candid Camera featured practical jokes; however, a number of specials were also shot abroad in a tongue-in-cheek study of foreign habits.
By 1961, after the show had filmed unaware French, Germans, Britons, Danes and Italians with the help of a camera hidden in a cardboard box, someone came up with the idea to travel to the Soviet Union. As there were a lot of concerns about possible government interference, the journalists duly informed the Soviet authorities of the purpose of the visit as well as the filming time and location. However, despite their worries, the TV shoots went without a hitch.
“Taking pictures with a hidden camera is challenging anywhere, but we were in a strange country with strange customs. We tried to obey their rules… And were surprised that they allowed us the freedom they did. As tourists we were allowed to photograph people and we were naturally not interested in any sensitive areas, so we had things set up in our usual way… But it was scary,” one of the show's presenters says.
The crew carefully avoided any off-limits areas and made the whole story in a “tiny part of the vast Russian country just a few square miles around the Kremlin,” which has always been a popular walking spot for both residents and guests of Moscow.
The first thing that shocked the journalists on the way from the airport to the National Hotel was the nearly empty roads. A video of a guard single-handedly directing the traffic on a 14-lane motorway made Americans roar with laughter. The road held approximately the same number of cars then as the illegal parking spot in front of the Historical Museum does today.
Standing on the balcony of the National Hotel, the Americans spotted another typical feature of Soviet life, namely the enormous number of women doing all kinds of cleaning, gardening and repair jobs in the streets. The bulky women wearing orange high-visibility vests are still a regular sight in Moscow today, however most of them manage cleaning teams made up of migrant workers rather than doing the dirty work themselves.
“This is a most unusual street cleaner with a broom who looks like a witch. She is cleaning this enormous intersection as if it’s a tiny part of her home.”
Eventually the camera crew plucked up enough courage to visit the Kremlin, where they captured Russians having their pictures taken in front of the gigantic Tsar Cannon. “They never smile. Never. That's against the rules. They may not be serious by nature, but that’s the way they take a picture” the presenter said showing the footage the cameraman had shot from behind the photographer. Amazingly enough, Russians coming to see the enormous but useless cannon today also keep a straight face during their photoshoots.
From the Kremlin, the reporters proceeded to Gorky Park, where young couples went to dance. “Boogie and rock are strictly forbidden, but they do have a Russian version of something with a bit of life to it,” the presenters in the studio commented on the melancholic movements of the dancers. Today, Gorky Park reverberates to the sounds of modern music and the atmosphere in general is much more relaxed. The Park became a popular venue again after its major reconstruction of 2011-2012, when authorities dismantled the park’s rides and removed the entrance fee.
From Gorky Park the crew headed along the embankment towards Luzhniki Stadium (then Lenin Stadium), where a track-and-field competition between the American and Russian teams was being held. Although “it was the day when Russians broke the world record,” the 130,000-seat stadium was unusually quiet: instead of cheers, the response from the fans was seemingly only polite applause.
Luzhniki Stadium is currently undergoing renovation. As for present-day Russian fans, they clearly prefer to express admiration for their favourite teams by letting off flares.
In the GUM department store the TV crew filmed some shoppers buying fur hats at the height of the summer season. The Americans were probably unaware of the fact that the persistent shortages in Soviet shops made consumers buy something they did not need immediately – just in case. Moreover, in the Soviet era, a hat could cost as much as an average monthly wage and therefore constituted a fairly important investment.
The Soviet shopping pattern has recently become relevant with the rapid devaluation of the rouble as Russian consumers are increasingly seen to spend their whole monthly salaries on staple goods and even take out bank loans in order to stock up for the future.
There are traditional trick props in the video as well, but we'll leave it up to your imagination to decide how modern Muscovites would respond to them.
Author: Ignat Oma