For past generations It’s a Wonderful Life was the classic Christmas movie, whereas now it might be Home Alone or Love Actually. In Russia, where New Year and not Christmas is the big winter celebration, the most popular seasonal film is one that starts in a banya on New Year’s Eve. The Irony of Fate, or With Light Steam was released in 1976 and has become one of the most beloved Russian films of all time.
Zhenya, a 36-year-old Muscovite doctor, meets a group of friends at a typical urban banya every 31st of December so as to bring in the New Year clean and refreshed. He lives with his mother in a new apartment block on a newly constructed street in a new suburb, all of which closely resemble apartment blocks, streets and suburbs in many other Soviet cities. His mother and girlfriend are both nagging him to marry and perhaps the only refuge for him from this domestic pressure as well as the banality of Soviet existence is the banya.
There, draped in sheets and relaxed from the steam, Zhenya and his friends discuss the merits of the banya relative to the bath tub and conclude that, while a bath in every apartment is right and civilised and a good way of getting rid of dirt, in the banya the business of washing becomes an art form. Zhenya and his friends also discuss Zhenya’s potential marriage and one produces a bottle of vodka to celebrate. Another follows and in the ensuing drunken confusion, the friends mistakenly put Zhenya on a plane to Leningrad in the place of one of their group. There, believing he is still in Moscow, he takes a taxi to his address. Not only do all apartment blocks, streets and suburbs look the same, but it turns out that his key opens the lock to the Leningrad flat he believes is his Moscow apartment. He collapses into bed.
When Nadya, whose flat it is, returns, she discovers Zhenya in her bed. Her fiancé soon arrives and is furious at what he finds. Zhenya and Nadya end up spending New Year’s Eve together rather than with their respective partners and they fall in love. The next morning Zhenya reluctantly leaves for Moscow and their lives look set to return to normality. Nadya however, decides that a life with Zhenya might be her chance at happiness and flies to Moscow, where she knows exactly where to find him.
The film satirises the uniformity and drabness of Soviet society and it is the banya, that eternal Russian practice where old friends can meet and talk freely, that breaks through all of that. It has altered the course of the characters’ lives and transformed them in a way that a simple bath never could have.
Watch the film and remember that the banya can change your life.