Issue 49 (2015)

Timur Bekmambetov, Iurii Bykov, Aleksandr Kaprilovskii, Andrei Kavun, Dmitrii Kiselev, Aleksandr Kott, Ekaterina Telegina, Zaur Zaseev: Yolki 1914 (Elki 1914, 2015)

reviewed by Beach Gray© 2015

yolki1914Yolki 1914 (no international release title, literally “Fir Trees 1914”) is the fourth installment in a series of films that began in 2010 and could go on indefinitely. It is similar to the previous Yolki films in that the plot is composed of several interlocking vignettes that tell stories about romantic love on the eve of the New Year. The production model also remains: each of the six episodes is filmed independently with its own director, cinematographer, screenwriter, set designer, and cast. Two differences from the previous three films stand out: Yolki 1914 is set one hundred years in the past and the rampant product placement that previously has characterized the series is completely absent.

These differences are by no means superficial—they have deep repercussions for the ideological valence of the film. As remakes and sequels become more widespread in the Russian commercial cinematic landscape, Yolki stands at the vanguard for its viability and longevity. Although the film did not do as well at the box office as its predecessors, it still made a respectable 12 million dollars, a sizeable profit in light of its less than 3 million dollar budget (Anon. 2015). Yolki has literally become a franchise, a subset of the Bazelevs studio. The brand has become so recognizable that the film no longer needs product placements, which have been replaced with references to the previous three films. In this regard, the end of the film is indicative of what kind of product Yolki 1914 is. A voiceover by Konstantin Khabenskii reminds the audience that, despite many (unnamed) changes in the past one hundred years, the essence of the New Year celebration is the same. After all of the vignettes from Yolki 1914 have been happily resolved, a montage of the romantic conclusions of many of the episodes from the previous Yolki films overtly supports Khabenskii’s verbal message. The New Year has always been a magical moment that brings people together. The New Year’s fir tree, the yolka, is an empty, seemingly apolitical, signifier that connotes all of the positive associations of the holiday without the religious overtones.

yolki1914The self-branding comes not only from the montage of footage from previous films, but the decision to feature many of the same actors, most notably Ivan Urgant and Sergei Svetliakov. Urgant and Svetliakov have become part and parcel of the brand, appearing together on the DVD cover and theatrical release poster for both Yolki 3 and Yolki 1914. They hold the series together and remind spectators that Yolki is primarily a family-friendly comedy, devoid of vulgarity and controversial politics.

The political valence of this film and the entire series is a subtle game that represents the present moment as the ideal time in Russian history. Nostalgia for the Russian Empire is so intense that despite the World War I setting there is no indication of impending trauma. The seeds of the 1917 Revolution are absent, and the Soviet experience is in no way directly referenced, despite the fact that the film begins and ends in the present. A key example occurs in the difference between where the episodes were shot and where they are set. Although filming occurred in several cities (including Irkutsk, Krasnoiarsk, Omsk, Perm', and Saratov, among others), many of the cities that appear in the vignettes are those whose names were changed during the Soviet period and have now returned: Ekaterinburg (once Sverdlovsk), Petrograd (now St. Petersburg again, once Leningrad), Nizhnii Novgorod (once Gor'kii). The name of each city, in addition to the names of the actors in the credits, are written with pre-revolutionary spelling that suggests an affinity of the present Russian regime to the old Russian Empire. The Soviet period, by implication, is an aberration.

The attitude to empire comes across in each episode as well, but most especially in the map of Russia that functions as a transition between vignettes. The map appears in each Yolki film and in this one it is appropriate to the time period: paper, rather than digital, and pinned with small note-cards indicating major cities. The spelling is of course pre-revolutionary, but the map functions in the same way as it has in the previous films. Ostensibly, it is a way to remind the spectator where each vignette is located, but it also reifies the notion of Russian empire and the idea that all of these locations are similar despite ethnic, geographic, and economic differences.

yolki1914The clearest indication of a connection between past and present Russian Empires, though, comes with the appearance of Tsar Nicholas II at the end of one of the episodes. An injured soldier in a make-shift military hospital in Konstantinov Palace, Petrograd, feels despondent that there is no fir tree (yolka) for the upcoming Christmas holiday. The tradition of the fir tree has been cancelled since it is associated with Germany. He vows to the nurse (on whom he has a crush) to gather enough signatures to reverse the trend and convince the authorities to reinstate the tradition. In the end, the Tsar writes the word “nonsense” (chepukha) and his signature across a paper copy of the law against fir trees. The face of Tsar Nicholas II is never shown in its entirety. A medium close-up includes only half of his face, from the nose down—enough to recognize Nicholas II’s characteristic beard and mustache.  The subtle addition of the Tsar, who makes the holiday possible, is similar to the inclusion of (then) President Dmitrii Medvedev in Six Degrees of Celebration (Elki 1), who also functions as the benevolent leader, the Deus ex Machina that resolves the conflict and brings two would-be lovers together. Tsar Nicholas II is depicted as a paternal do-gooder, rather than the incompetent leader who contributed to the failure of the Romanov dynasty, the chaos of World War I, and the beginning of the Soviet Revolution.

Representations of state authority are not limited to the Tsar. Dmitrii and Fedor are young cadets in the Russian Imperial army who have joined the ranks by their own free will. They vie for the interests of Katia and together venture to her home to say their farewells before leaving for the front. In place of Katia, they find two identical letters, in each of which Katia requests accompaniment of her grandmother from Ekaterinburg to Perm'. Both Dmitrii and Fedor are eager to win her loyalty, and the two begrudgingly oblige. After many shenanigans in which they entrust the grandmother to hooligans in exchange for the grandmother’s gold teeth, they have a change of heart and track the grandmother down, who, comically, ends up thwarting the hooligans in their stead. They are reunited with Katia, who blesses them both individually before they leave for the front.

yolki1914Dmitrii and Fedor have appeared in previous Yolki films. These characters have “matured” over the course of the series. They began as spontaneous teenagers, a snowboarder and a skier who challenge each other to ride down the stairwell in their building as if it were a snow-covered mountain. In Yolki 3 they are draft dodgers who get sent to the Island of Rotmanov, and despite their misgivings, end up enjoying the New Year with Katia and the grandmother. Even though these episodes take place in the current day, their 1914 counterparts seem to be the logical progression in their character formation. They are now volunteers in the army, rather than draft dodgers. Despite their irresponsible behavior, they are likable young men who never doubt their reasons for going to war.

A similar narrative is true for the police officer played by Artur Smol'ianinov, who attempts to win the affections of a young woman by figure skating with her at an international competition in Moscow.  At a constructivist art exhibition, the young woman finds out that her ice skating partner is in fact a police officer, whose commander disapproves of the young man’s interest in the sport. At the international competition, the police officer hesitates to join his partner, but decides to break away from his police ranks to don the gaudy yellow constructivist outfit that the woman has chosen for them. They win the competition and the approval of the commander. They seal their mutual affection with a kiss. In Yolki I, Smol'ianinov plays a thief who escapes from jail and poses as a police officer before he is caught, but then released for preventing a robbery. Just as in the episode with the volunteer soldiers, Smol'ianinov’s character in 1914 is the reformed teenager of the current day, who now represents the stability of state authority.

yolki1914The conservative ideological valence of the film comes through in other ways aimed at maintaining the status quo, and more specifically, the position of the wealthy. The one percent is to be praised or pitied in Yolki 1914, not overthrown in the cause of a social revolution. This message comes across clearly in three episodes. In Anapa on the Black Sea, new money meets old money when Boris (played by Urgant) arrives in a car with a top hat, tuxedo, and fiancée to the estate of Evgenii (played by Svetliakov). Evgenii has not told his large multi-generational family, all of whom have gathered in the house for the Christmas holiday, that he has sold the estate to Boris to avoid bankruptcy. When Boris arrives, Evgenii tells the family that Boris is a country doctor who has come to visit. Boris plays along and infuriates his fiancée, who gives him a day to evict the family while she stays in a hotel.  In an effort to get the family out of the house before Christmas, Boris and Evgenii open all of the Christmas presents, eat or destroy the Christmas feast, and rip a page off the house calendar while the rest of the family is taking a leisurely nap. They then try to convince everyone that they have already celebrated Christmas together and it is time to depart on the train. Eventually the ploy falls through, and Boris’ fiancée leaves him. The family member for whom everyone mistook the fiancée, Olia, arrives. Instead of kicking the family out of the house, the film implies that Boris will marry Olia and become a member of the family. In this way, the wealthy characters of the film, new money and old money, are united. The film creates sympathy for Boris since he has no one but a demanding fiancée to support him, and also for the aristocratic, Chekhovian family, that has lost all of its money. The conclusion favors both parties.

yolki1914This support of class structure extends to another episode, Dickinsonian in nature, about a prepubescent girl and her younger brother, whose mother is ill and needs expensive medicine. Since they have no money, the two sing carols in the street to gather enough to purchase the medicine. The kind-hearted young boy, however, misses two opportunities to buy the cure-all: first, he returns a wallet full of money that a rich man drops; and second, after they have earned enough by street performance for the medicine, he freely gives the money away to a needy woman. The young girl is furious at him, and the two begin to sing again to raise money. They are saved by the rich man who had his wallet returned; it turns out he is also a professional opera singer. His beautiful singing not only brings money to the two youngsters, but it also softens the heart of the apothecary, who gives the medicine to the children for free. At the conclusion of the vignette, the mother makes a full recovery and the young girl sings with the rich man in the opera house. It is a fairy tale that depends on the illogical kindness of a rich stranger. 

Perhaps the most telling episode is the one in which a live bear is the protagonist. A peasant has a pet bear that he loves even more than his wife. The animal, played by “Stepan” the trained bear, falls into the hands of a local nobleman, who is perpetually drunk. The nobleman sees the bear as an easy opportunity to gain favor with the local count (played by Viktor Verzhbitskii), who has always wanted to go bear hunting. The count finds the bear in the woods. As he raises his rifle to shoot the bear, the bear claps as if he were human. The count decides to spare the bear’s life and send both the bear and the peasant to the circus. 

The episode not only advocates a pre-revolutionary Russian Imperial status quo and class system, it also anachronistically plays on the cuteness of anthropomorphized animals, a feature of Internet culture, co-opted here for a youth audience. It is a continuation of the aesthetic of Yolki 3, in which the central vignette follows two dogs that eventually are united in a romantic relationship, as if they were human. One of the trained dogs, Pirate, even makes a cameo appearance in the Dickinsonian episode with the rich opera singer who saves the day. Internet and smart-phone culture is not merely suggested, though—it is overt. The link to the past is made in the beginning of the film with a switch from present day to 1914. The woman who later becomes a nurse refuses to dance with the soldier and cites her need to study. She pulls out a hand-held rectangular item from her dress that has the shape and size of a smart phone, but turns out to be her anatomy notebook, from which she is studying to be a surgeon. Additionally, Internet fandom takes over in the first and last moments of the film, in which a high-angle shot features a large audience in the Konstantinov Palace in present-day St. Petersburg. The footage constitutes the largest selfie that has been taken in Russia (Anon. 2014). The potential audience is included within the film itself, a crowd that is depicted taking selfies on their smart-phones. The move is part of a greater marketing campaign that becomes more and more interactive. In addition to Facebook and VKontakte pages for Yolki, a simple computer game in the style of Candy Crush Saga may be downloaded for free from the Yolki website. The past is merely a forum for advocating contemporary values, garnering a youth audience, and resurrecting Russian Empire in service of the present regime.

Beach Gray
University of Pitsburgh

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Works Cited

Anon. (2014), “’Elki 1914’ voshli v Knigu rekordov Rossii,” OK! 25 November

Anon. (2015), “Elki 1914,”

Yolki 1914, Russia 2014
Color, 106 minutes
Directors: Timur Bekmambetov, Iurii Bykov, Aleksandr Kaprilovskii, Andrei Kavun, Dmitrii Kiselev, Aleksandr Kott, Ekaterina Telegina, Zaur Zaseev
Screenplay: Sergei Aref'ev, Konstantin Bushmanov, Timur Ezugbaia, Alesia Kazantseva, Ol'ga Kharina, Oleg Malovichko, Igor' Meerson, Anna Matison, Sergei Sysoev, Il'ia Tsofin
Cinematography:Anton Belov, Petr Dukhovskoi, Evgenii Ermolenko, Iurii Korobeinikov, Mikhail Milashin, Sergei Trofimov
Set Design: Elina Burdo, Dmitrii Onishchenko, Elena Travkina, Raisa Zaslav, Elena Zhukova
Music: Iurii Poteenko
Cast: Anton Bogdanov, Anastasiia Cheshkina, Dar'ia Kudrina, Aleksandr Pal', Vera Panfilova, Mariia Poroshina, Katerina Shpitsa, Artur Smol'ianinov, Sergei Svetlakov, Ian Tsapnik, Ivan Urgant, Viktor Verzhbitskii
Producers: Sergei Ageev, Timur Bekmambetov, Ol'ga Kharina, Anna Matison
Production: Bazelevs

Timur Bekmambetov, Iurii Bykov, Aleksandr Kaprilovskii, Andrei Kavun, Dmitrii Kiselev, Aleksandr Kott, Ekaterina Telegina, Zaur Zaseev: Yolki 1914 (Elki 1914, 2015)

reviewed by Beach Gray© 2015