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Goodbye Soviet Union (Hüvasti, NSVL)

This nostalgic and bittersweet look at life behind the Iron Curtain radiates with charm — live from Tallinn


A coming-of-age story set against the waning years of the USSR, Goodbye Soviet Union is a nostalgic and heartfelt invocation of a unique time and place. Likely to be a hit in both Estonia and Finland (tickets were sold out for the public screening here in Tallinn), it breathes new life into the teen indie drama.

Johannes (Niklas Kouzmitchev) and his family are Ingrian Finns. Neither Russian or Estonian, they occupy a strange place in the multicultural patchwork of the ESSR. His mother (Nika Savolainen) never reveals the identity of Johannes’ father, leaving them to put none other than Lenin as the father. Johannes Leninovitch grows up with his parents in the closed city of Leningrad 3, an idealised Soviet space hiding a secret radiation facility. But they are kicked out and sent to Tallinn after a dangerous accident.

If Leningrad 3 felt like a remnant of the 50s, Tallinn in the 1980s is a land full of paradoxes, best expressed by Johannes’ beloved Lenin statues being defaced by punks wearing Kino jackets. This is a marked contrast with the earlier sweetness of Johannes playing with Gena the crocodile, an iconic figure of animation, whom he calls his best friend. After his Gena doll is destroyed, he becomes friends with a young Chechen with the same name and falls in love with his sister Vera (Elene Baratashvili). Together he must navigate between his new-found love and desire to discover the freedom of the West.

The drab colours one may associate with Western depictions of the Soviet Union are replaced by a bright and expressive ’80s palette: from the deep blue pioneer school uniforms to the yellow of a Gorbachev doll’s sweater. The soundtrack, a mixture of 80s Estonian punk like “Tere Perestroika”, the Soviet National anthem played on a music box, and Russian pop songs like Anne Veski’s “Love Island”, truly immerses you into the era, giving the film that authentic coming-of-age feel.

This is a deeply personal story from debut Finnish director Lauri Randla. Born in Estonia in 1981 before taking the boat to Helsinki, he revisits his youth with great tenderness. The use of voiceover gives the film an intimate feel, as if he is simply recounting this story in person. But this sense of nostalgia doesn’t cloak the difficulties of the time nor the importance of freedom for all people.

Eventually, Randla places love over any sense of country, Johannes boldly stating that with love, all you need in life is the air you breathe. With shades of youth classics like Submarine (2010) and Lady Bird (2017)— also contrasting bold children against a place they want to escape — Goodbye Soviet Union ups the stakes by situating this mostly comic genre within a dying republic and focusing on a marginalised ethnic group rarely seen in contemporary cinema. The Soviet Union might be on the way out, but the lessons learned are truly universal. Hopefully it sees the same recognition as the dozens of American and British bildungsromane we see every year.

Goodbye Soviet Union plays as part of the First Feature competition at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, running from 13th to 29th November.

By Redmond Bacon - 19-11-2020

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