Letter to Brezhnev

letter to brezhnev

Elaine and Peter: love and the iron curtain

So One Hot Summer in St. Petersburg came to an end and I was left sulking somewhat.  There is is always a battle that rages while reading a very good book, on one hand you you want to spend every spare second reading it – and on the other you want to slow things down because you don’t want it to end.  Then eventually it does, and all these lively characters and beautiful places and moments dissolve back into the void and you feel kind of sad and lonely now that they aren’t around anymore.

Post One Hot Summer I was looking for something to fill the void and I remembered Letter to Brezhnev, a nice follow on as it features another affair with a young russian sailor.  I’ll alert you now that there is going to be a SPOLER! in this blog entry as I would like to comment on the end of the film.

Two Soviet sailors, Peter and Sergei, dock in Liverpool and hit the town for the one night they are there.  In a nightclub they meet local working class girls Elaine and Teresa and spend a wild night drinking and dancing before finally heading back to a hotel with the girls.  While Sergei (who speaks no English at all) is busy getting it on with Teresa (who has spent all day stuffing chickens in a factory) Peter and Elaine stay up talking, looking at the stars and falling in love.  They spend the next day together wandering around Liverpool before Sergei has to return to the ship, they confess their love to each other and Sergei asks Elaine to be his wife.  He gives  her a necklace which belonged to his grandfather, promising that they would meet again.  Determined not to let her love disappear into the sunset Elaine finally resolves to write a plea to President Brezhnev (President of the Soviet Union 1964-1982) to allow her to go to Russia and search for Peter.  To the surprise of all Brezhnev replies and invites her to the Soviet Union.

The film opens with a a panoramic shot of a grey city, clearly pre perestroika era and looking decidedly impoverished and communist.  Is it Moscow?  St. Petersburg?  Nope, it’s Thatcher era Liverpool of course.  Plenty of ingrained industrial grime, urban poverty and even a few ‘COAL NOT DOLE’ posters.  Elaine and Theresa are our working heroes (or Elaine would be, but she’s unemployed).  Both of them are looking for an escape from the drudgery of daily life, and while this starts as a Friday night on the town it ends with dreams of Moscow.

There’s a lot to be said here for self imposed working class limitations, the life you would like to have, the life you actually have and the grey area between the two.  It takes a lot of courage for Elaine to remain true to her convictions and remain determined to go to Russia when all are against her – only Teresa is encouraging throughout the fight.  It is difficult if not impossible to defend a place you have never been to and know little about, even more so when it is surrounded by a wall of secrecy and propaganda, and that’s before you rule out the long standing suspicion and animosity from the west.  Saying goodbye at the airport Elaine suggests that Teresa could get away as well, and do whatever she wanted if she put her mind to it – but no – Teresa says that she knows her place, and although she can dream it is life in Liverpool at the chicken factory that will endure.

I’m inclined to wonder how much better Elaine’s life would have been in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.  Better than being working class and unemployed in Liverpool?  Or just different?  Or is different enough?  Poignantly Elaine asks Peter about food shortages and long queues for food in Russia, he says they are told the same thing about Britain.  Her move to the Soviet Union is a leap of blind faith, few go in, or out, no guidebooks, no accurate stats but plenty of propaganda – even love is not a certainty, but it’s enough to get her on the plane.  Of course this is where the films ends, and the lady vanishes behind the iron curtain – never to be seen or heard from again.

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