Laughter in Leningrad

Source: Dorothea Eltenton, Laughter in Leningrad: An English Family in Russia 1933-1938 (privately printed, 1998), pp. 141-142

Text: Lil and l had planned to go and see Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times which was showing in town, and as Sasha was still with us I suggested he come too. He was delighted. The film was having a terrific success (Shura, who, by the way, very much reminded us of Chaplin, had seen it in Moscow six times), but we were there early and got good seats.

It was wonderful to see Chaplin again, Chaplin better than ever but with those same touches of human vulgarity which he is unable to resist in every film. Lil and I were helpless with laughter, our sides were aching and still we went on. But at times I noticed that we were the only ones in the audience laughing, and sometimes even someone would look round as though we were laughing when we shouldn’t. Sasha was very solemn, not all the way through, for the whole audience thoroughly enjoyed the film and roared with laughter, but there were lots of places were Lil and I laughed and they didn’t.

I was out of breath when it was over. We stood up. Sasha’s face was sad. He sighed.

‘A tragic picture,’ he said slowly.

‘You mustn’t take it so seriously,’ I said.

You mustn’t take it so lightly,’ he replied. ‘It’s far too real to take lightly. You see so clearly the tragedy of the “little fellow” being kicked around.’ He sighed again, ‘A tragic picture.’

But Lil and I couldn’t help laughing all the way home as we recalled the funniest bits. The feeding machine in the factory, the conveyor belt.

‘And yet it is tragic, Lil,’ I said.

‘I know it is.’

Comments: Dorothea Eltenton (1904-2001) was born Ada Dorothea Hamilton in Manchester and lived in the Soviet Union with her physicist husband George Eltenton 1933-1938. They subsequently moved to San Francisco where she worked for the American Russian Institute for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union. Both came under suspicion from the FBI for communist sympathies. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (USA 1936) is a comic picture of the plight of a little man in an industrialised world.

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