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USSR Blockbuster: '20th Century Pirates'

In August 1980, a new film was released in the Soviet Union, shattering any blockbuster records in the USSR and becoming an iconic feat of Soviet cinematography - "Pirati 20 Veka (20th Century Pirates). This was the first domestically produced "boyevik" - an action thriller - and it became an instant and long-lasting success.

The film, almost three-decades old, has the feel of being "ripped off the headlines." Today's Russia is taking an active role in combat international piracy off the coast of Somalia. Its Navy is participating in protection, search and destroy missions, and along with its American and British counterparts, and has already enjoyed limited success.

Russia's mission is important for at least two reasons. First, after months of belligerency with the West over its war in US-backed Georgia, Russia is seen as a responsible stakeholder and a key state providing security in violent seaways. Second, the fact that Russian blue-water navy is operating freely half-way around the world brings much-needed pride to the Navy that has been slow to modernize, slow to change and has only recently begun to assume its Cold War swagger of being capable of operating anywhere around the globe.

"20th Century Pirates" literally exploded on the domestic scene - the film had a very "un-Soviet" look to it. 'Till that time, the action thriller style has been a solely Western monopoly, and films with chases, explosions, gun fights, outright violence and international intrigue- all taking place in exotic locations- were never before produced in the USSR.

The film plot could have been taken from today's newspapers - or from the headlines 30 years ago. A Soviet tanker with a large load of opium for the pharmaceutical industry is leaving a South Asian port through the Straits of Malacca. Shortly afterward, its crew picks up a shipwreck survivor. All was not what it seemed - the actor playing the survivor was "Soviet Bruce Lee"- Talgat Nigmatulin, a USSR martial arts champion. His character secretly destroys the ships' communication equipment as the Russian ship is suddenly attacked by what appeared to be large luxury yacht passing near by. Most Soviet crew dies in a violent gun battle with the well-armed pirates. The opium is transferred on the pirate ship, while the Soviet vessel is sunk.

However, a few crew members manage to survive and decide to track down and exact revenge on the pirates. The Soviet survivors make their way to the pirate hideout, somewhere amidst numerous islands near the Indonesian archipelago. There, the real action starts.

The film thrilled the Soviet moviegoers of all ages. Practically every teenager in the USSR in the 1980s has seen the film at least several times. According to official data, every third person in the USSR managed to see the film in its year of release. With repeat viewers, that number reached almost 100 million people. After the first screening of the film for the state censorship agency in the Central Communist Party Committee of the USSR, the film was "cursed out" and almost shelved. The probable reason was the movie's very "American" look and absence of any real Communist propaganda of any type.

However, one of the agency's officials took the matters into his own hands and sent the copy of the film to the summer home of Leonid Brezhnev, then leader of the Soviet Union. Brezhnev got very excited after watching the action thriller, and shortly afterward the film was released country-wide. That year, Soviet officials often had to cancel morning showings, since students of all ages would skip school just to watch the film.

"20th Century Pirates" remains the highest-grossing and most-attended film for the entire 70 years of Soviet cinema. Not surprisingly, it still looks modern even today. And while some parts of it now may seem "campy," it is still relevant to today's global events, when every week, newspapers report of yet another international vessel captured by the Somali pirates, prompting US, European or Russian naval vessels to give chase. It would not be surprising that a sequel to the Soviet film is somewhere in the works or is on the drawing map in Hollywood- after all, the story simply writes itself.