A Tram Runs Through the City (Leningrad, 1973)

Moving along from street to street, the tram gains speed, brakes, stops and lets passengers out and on. They make for a seat or stay on their feet, leaning against the doors or hanging from the handles above. Then the tram gets underway, off to the next stop. The down-to-earth driver talks about her job and her life in St. Petersburg (still known as Leningrad when the film was made), the second biggest city in Russia. As she drives, she is filmed from above so we get to look her in the eye. The expressions of her passengers are also captured as they peer out the window, look at one another, read the paper, daydream or just stare off into space. This is all about observing and being observed, a game that Russian documentarian Lyudmila Stanukinas loves to play. She intercuts the microcosm of the tram with telling observations from outside: a statue filmed through the trees, and the rippling water of the Neva River, the bubbling heart of the city. Stanukinas develops a Russian variation on direct cinema, combining it with the visual poetry of city symphonies from the 1930s, made by countrymen such as Dziga Vertov. Though this is the Soviet Union of the 1970s, communism seems far away for the moment. For now, it’s all about the day-to-day goings on in the tram. (Kinoglaz)

A Tram Runs Through the City (Leningrad, 1973)

[Title] Lyudmila Grigorovich, a driver based at the Leonov Tram Depot

[Title] Monday shift: 6:13 a.m. to 12:52 p.m

[Voiceover] That’s how it goes. I drive myself around in the morning, the car is half-empty. Familiar places that I ran around as a child. Before the war, my mother also worked on the trams as a conductor out of the Leonov Depot.

That is where I went to kindergarten.

I love my tram, I love it more than any other job. If you do a good job of getting ready and get a good night’s sleep, it’s a joy to work. I’m rarely in a bad mood. Although one of our drivers says that going to work is like walking uphill. For me, it’s like walking downhill.

[Loudspeaker] “Gavanskaya Street!”

It’s always quiet in the car in the morning. My passengers are half asleep, half dozing. They’re not talkative now. That’s okay: by evening, they’ll be talking up a storm. It’s quiet. They’re reading newspapers.

My kids, Zhenka and Galya, also want to be tram drivers. Zhenka can oversleep and be late for school, but s/he will come to meet my tram, even at night. 

[Newspaper headline] “A strategy for peaceful coexistence”

I know that man. He works somewhere at the Baltic Shipyard.

[Loudspeaker] “The next stop is Baltic Shipyard!”

Oh, look how many people the subway has coughed up: it’s a throng.

Sometimes, a passenger is coming to getting on my tram, supposedly, but they move so lazily, in no hurry, flailing around trying to figure out what door to enter. I immediately get angry and close the doors. You have to decide right away whether you’re getting on or not. A passenger who is slow on the uptake. In the evening, I wait for all of them to get on: they have to make it home. It’s a long wait between trams.

Soon the commercial workers will go to work: their time is approaching.

What’s it going to be, old woman? Are you and I going to avoid a collision?

People are like pigeons. They don’t hurry and they don’t fly. And they walk on the tracks. I read them. I don’t take my eyes off them. They always run out onto the tram tracks, thinking it’s a safe area. So, I have to think for them in order to save their lives. You need to have a sense of pedestrians, of which ones will run out on the tracks, and which won’t.

I love the morning shift. At twelve o’clock that’s it: you have the whole day ahead of you. You still have time to cook lunch.

[Loudspeaker] “The next stop is Nevsky Prospect. . . Transit tickets are available for sale.”

They keep traveling. Some have caught up on their sleep, while others are headed to the night shift. Why do they keep on traveling? Where are they going?

Our interactions with people are very limited. That’s why I suffer heart and soul over the fact I can’t chat with them. I watch them in silence: that is my only way of interacting and getting to know them.

Our work is not so nerve-wracking. It just requires maximum concentration. Basically, you have to like people. If you don’t like them you might jam them in the doors. You have to keep your eyes peeled the whole time. When I sneeze and my eyes close, I get scared. When I close my eyes, the car can travel eight meters in that instant, but there is no way I can sneeze with my eyes open. Soon the tram would be going sixty kilometers an hour, and then, I think, I could run someone over.

[Loudspeaker] “The next stop is Piskarevsky Prospect.”

I remember the war, the Siege [of Leningrad]. I remember that Mom would lock me in our room. I was very afraid when the sky blazed red. The neighbor lady would be cooking wood glue [to eat], and it smelled really delicious.

[Title] Wednesday: shift from 1:06 p.m. to 5:41 p.m.

What weather today! It’s the most typical Leningrad weather.

Now there are more female passengers, including old women, wallets in hand, going to the market. They’re a cagey lot: potential nannies, who are in short supply.

[Loudspeaker] “Peace Square.”

Here, on the fifth floor, my child draws blueprints. It’s been a month since my daughter Galka became an adult.

Everybody bothers the elderly passengers. Why are you traveling during working hours? Are you having trouble sleeping? Once, this one old woman was standing next to the door. People kept asking whether she was getting off. She kept answering, “I’m thinking about whether this is my stop.” Finally, everyone lost their cool and told her to get off. She said, “I’ll get off, I’ll get off, dears, it’s a big day.” It was like a comedy.

I think I’m the first to see “natural phenomena”: how people dress, what the fashions are, what the trends in colors are. It all happens right before my eyes. I manage to see everything. If a housewife is drinking tea on the second floor, I see what she’s having with it.

[Loudspeaker] “Field of Mars.”

Galka and I often talk about life and love. Galya keeps asking me, “How do you get to know a person?” Spend more time talking to them, I tell her. Their personality will come out, they’ll reveal themselves.

[Loudspeaker] “Institute of Technology.”

[Loudspeaker] “Elektrosila subway station. Next stop is the Moscow Gate.”

[Title] Friday: shift from 6:30 p.m. to 12:49 a.m.

My No. 40 tram sails through the city. People keep waiting and waiting. They keep putting their hands over their eyes to see whether the tram is coming.

When my children were little, I would tell them poetically,  “When dusk descends on the city, the tram’s green eyes light up.” Yes, she’s a fashionable one, my No. 40. [Leningrad-Petersburg trams use a system of two lights and a combination of four colors—red, blue, green, and yellow—to indicate their numbers in the dark. The code for Tram No. 40 is two green lights.]

I tell Galka that, in my opinion, unofficially, behind the scenes, a matriarchy exists: you have to raise not only your kids, but your husband as well. You’ve got to plan the weekend. He’s not going to think about where to go, what to take along. You have to make all the preparations and discuss everything. Basically, the way the woman organizes life is how it’s going to be.

How marvelous! The cold is so palpable. When there are fireworks here, we travel slowly along this section, and even the passengers don’t want me to go faster. You can see how beautiful it is. Just imagine: our city stands on one hundred islands. And all the bridges: there are almost six hundred of them. Where else can you find a marvel like our city?

In the evening, there is light in the windows and you see what kind of furniture people have, how they’ve decorated their places in their own way, the way they feel it. On Science Prospect there is a small room whose walls are lined with bookcases. When I drive by in the evening, I always look at it.

[Loudspeaker] “Theater Square.”

We really love the opera, we go to the ballet and to hear music. When we go to a concert and take Zhenka with us, and I see on the program that there will be an evening of organ music, I manage to read the entire program, trying to calculate when Galka and I will have an evening off.

My Galka doesn’t use make-up or paint her face. That’s my influence. By the way, she doesn’t like perfume or cologne. She likes it when people don’t smell of anything, like clean dishes.

[Loudspeaker] “The next stop is Kamennoostrovsky Prospect. . . Please don’t forget to pay your fare.”

It happens that, when you’re returning to the depot in the evening or even late at night, some people feel like chatting, but usually acquaintances are not struck up then. Sometimes, though, you look in the mirror, to take a break for a second, and wink back. The drivers sometimes make eyes at each other, too. It’s okay—if they like each other’s looks, if they’re working the same route. Generally, though, I put on a strict, official face: when I’m driving I don’t give anyone cause to make eyes at me.

[Loudspeaker] “The next stop is Labor Square.”

Those two will be out all night. The wanderers and the strays ride the trams in the evening.

[Loudspeaker] “The next stop is Lieutenant Schmidt Embankment.”

It’s not a talkative job: you’re always rattling off the same stops like a parrot.

[Loudspeaker] “This tram is going to the Leonov Depot.”

What’s the point in crying? All the same it’s good to be alive. The tram will be around for a long time to come.

If the trams stopped tonmorrow, everyone would be upset. Trams make frequent stops and crawl to all the ends of the city. Although they’re crowded inside, tram’s are still good a good thing.

Screenplay: Maya Merkel
Director: Lyudmila Stanukinas
Camera: Yuri Zanin
Sound: Nina Zinina
Music: Vladimir Arzumanov and Alexander Knaifel
Editor: Taisa Yanson

Leningrad Studio of Documentary Films

Transcribed and translated by the Russian Reader, with timely assistance from Comrade Koganzon. To help me continue translating and editing this website you can donate at your discretion at paypal.me/avvakum.

Lyudmila Stanukinas, the film’s director, died in Jerusalem on July 8, 2020, at the age of 89. Her distinguished career as a documentary filmmaker included a series of films about famous Soviet writers, actors, and musicians, as well as Moving Day (1970), which won a Silver Dragon at the 7th Krakow International Short Film Festival. Viktor Kossakovsky has made a film about Stanukinas and her husband the filmmaker Pavel Kogan, the award-winning Pavel and Lyalya (1998).

The 1973 Leningrad Public Transport Route Map. Although Lyudmila Grigorovich, the narrator and heroine of A Tram Runs Through the City, says that she is driving the No. 40 tram, its route, neither nowadays nor in 1973, has ever passed through all the stops she calls out in the film, which are located in very different parts of the city.

Down the Streets the Trams Were Rolling

Ivan Burkov, “Saint Petersburg: Ligovsky Prospekt from the Cab of a Tram,” August 27, 2016. (Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up.)

Nol, “Down the Streets the Trams Were Rolling”

Early in the month of May one spring
Rumbling, screeching, dusty godsends
Down the streets the trams were rolling
They were going off to die
Down the streets the trams were rolling
They were going off to die

But up ahead the rumbling cars were racing
The cars were smelly, the cars were filthy
And the trees they cried and sobbed
While, spitting shit, the tires whispered

And the trees they cried and sobbed
While, spitting shit, the tires whispered

Such, my friends, was the whim of nature
Everyone had to run to work on foot
Down the streets the trams were rolling
They were going off to die
Down the streets the trams were rolling
Heading down to the depot to die

Fyodor Chistyakov and Nol performing “Trams” in 1992

Children of the Soviet Union

This fascinating documentary, made by Disney in 1987, gives its putative US television audience a glimpse into the daily life of a Leningrad schoolboy, Alyosha Trusov. Alyosha attends Leningrad School No. 185, an English-language magnet school that my boon companion had graduated only a few years before this film was made.

Thanks to Yelena Yoffe for the heads-up.

 

Everything Is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid, a recent memoir by the narrator and protagonist’s older half-brother Sergey Grechishkin, also gets my seal of approval. I would especially recommend it to university lecturers teaching courses about everyday life in the late-Soviet period and anyone else who wants to know what childhood was really like for what anthropologist Alexei Yurchak has rightly called “the last Soviet generation.”

Don’t be scared off by Grechiskin’s explicitly pro-capitalist, pro-western stance: he is too good a writer to let that get in the way of the story he has to tell, which he tells much more honestly than most of his compatriots and, certainly, nearly all westerners who have written about the period.

Thanks (again) to Yelena Yoffe for the heads-up. Grechishkin’s book turned several long bus trips in December into supremely pleasant journeys.

grechishkin

This book is both a memoir and a social history. On one hand, it is a light-hearted worm’s-eye-view of the USSR through one middle-class Soviet childhood in the 1970s–1980s. On the other hand, it is a reflection on the mundane deprivations and existential terrors of day-to-day life in Leningrad in the decades preceding the collapse of the USSR.

The author occupies a peculiar place in the Soviet world. He is the son of a dissident father and also the stepson of a politically favored Leningrad University professor and Party member. He also occupies a peculiar place in the literal geographic sense — both his home and school are only a few blocks away from the city’s KGB headquarters, where a yet-unknown officer called Vladimir Putin is learning his trade.

His world is a world without flavor. Food is unseasoned. Bananas are a once a year treat. A pack of instant coffee is precious enough to be more useful as a bribe to a Party official than a consumable. Parents on business trips thousands of miles away from home schlep precious and scarce bottles of soda across the Soviet empire for their kids. Everything is bland: TV, radio, books, music, politics — life itself. The author staves away boredom the best he can, with a little help from his friends. They play in the streets of their beautiful city, still resplendent with pre-Revolutionary glory; make their own toys and gadgets; and, when they get older, pass around forbidden novels and books of poetry.

But occasionally, an infinitely more exciting world makes itself briefly known. A piece of foreign bubble gum with a Disney wrapper. A short Yugoslavian cartoon. A smuggled cassette tape with mind-blowing music by someone named Michael Jackson. And these hints of a completely different life introduce small cracks into the author’s all-pervading late-Soviet boredom — cracks that widen and widen, until reality itself shatters, and a brand new world rushes in.

Crisis Art

E.I. Liskovich, Capitalism in the Grips of Crisis, 1932. May Day installation on the Obvodny Canal, Leningrad
E.I. Liskovich, Capitalism in the Grips of Crisis, 1932. May Day installation on the Obvodny Canal, Leningrad. Photo courtesy of Andrey Pomulev

“Echoing the Moscow satirical installations is E.I. Liskovich’s composition Dying Capitalism, erected on the Obvodny Canal in perfect harmony with the surrounding landscape. It features the huge plywood figure of a capitalist, half submerged in the water of the canal and calling for help.”

Source: The Artistic Design of Mass Celebrations, 1918–1931 (Moscow & Leningrad: OGIZ & IZOGIZ, 1932)

Thanks to Comrade NO for the heads-up