Thursday, December 27, 2012

O Rio, Rio

Thanks to two early Soviet authors, Ilyia Ilf and Evgenij Petrov, probably every Russian over thirty years old has dreamed of setting foot in Rio de Janeiro. The dream is not a particularly specific one--to a Russian raised behind the Iron Curtain, Rio stood for everything exciting and beautiful that existed in the world completely inaccessible to Soviet citizens. The plot of Ilf and Petrov's great satirical novel, The Twelve Chairs (1927), is predicated on the main character's dream to escape USSR for Rio. Here's a clip from 1976 Soviet movie where great Andrei Mironov terribly overacts and sings an ode to Rio: "O Rio, Rio, there's sun and music all around--there's everything one needs for happiness, except... me--I'm not there."

In the 1920s, when Ilf and Petrov's character Ostap Bender dreamed of going there, Rio was a rapidly expanding city - then still the capital of Brazil. The swamps were drained, the population increasing rapidly, great theatres, hippodromes, and hotels were built--the famous Hotel Copacabana opened in 1923. Advertisements for the city must have circulated in all the European newspapers and made it all the way to Soviet Russia--"perhaps I trusted the brochures and pamphlets too much," sings Mironov, impersonating Bender. The lyrics are from the 1970s, but the 1920s novel is the close source material. Rio was the ultimate destination, a combination of a Wild West spirit and Euro-style luxury. Ostap, a Quixotic character of sorts, never got to Rio. Today we are a million miles removed from the era of the Iron Curtain. None of this is at all relevant to our contemporary experience of Rio, and yet I find that it still needs to be mentioned and remembered. The Ostap Bender Rio connection.

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