In 2023, the movie “Tetris” captured the attention of audiences worldwide with its dramatic portrayal of Nintendo’s battle to buy the gaming-license from Soviet Russia.
The movie does something magical: it transforms something as dry as IP rights into a thrilling tale of spies, corruption, and the intellible human desire for freedom.
But, for many Vietnamese viewers, the film hits closer to home, with a vivid depiction life under communism – a reality that many in the country experienced not too long ago. As a Vietnamese person myself, I was struck by the similarities between the scenes in the movie and my own childhood memories.
Many of the Russian details and scenes are lost on a Western audience. So, in this blog post, I will explore 8 fascinating details from the movie that provide insight into the bleakness of life under command-and-control economics, and how they resonate with the experiences of many Vietnamese.
1) Hailing Taxis with Cigarettes – Economic Disincentives Under Communism
In the movie “Tetris,” set in Soviet Russia, there is a poignant scene where the main character, Henk Rogers, struggles to hail a taxi in Moscow. Despite his efforts, the government-run cab-drivers ignore him until a local passerby manages to hale a cab successfully by holding up a pack of cigarettes. This seemingly innocuous bribe was necessary because the cab-drivers had no incentive to work, reflecting the economic disincentives pervasive under communism. This phenomenon was not unique to Soviet Russia; it was also prevalent in centrally-planned Vietnam, where government workers, including cab-drivers, lacked motivation to perform their duties efficiently.
In such systems, the state controlled the means of production and distribution of goods and services, and individuals lacked motivation to work diligently, as there were no rewards or consequences based on their performance. Vietnamese people recognize very well the movie’s anecdotes of cab-drivers requiring a small bribe in the form of cigarettes.
The reliance on bribes or “gift-giving” has morphed over time. Today, free-market cab-drivers compete fiercely for riders in modern-day Vietnam, but there are many businesses and government services that still require luxury items or favors to expedite processes, such as obtaining permits or licenses. Instead of cigarettes for small services, it may be aged whiskies, rare wines, holiday trips, or a free apartment as part of a large condo development project.
Many Western businesses trying to get a foot-hold in Vietnam fail to understand this system, and end-up confused and immobilized, much like Henk Rogers failing to hail a taxi in the Tetris Movie.
2) “We Want Levis!” — Secret Rock ‘n Roll Night-Clubs in Moscow
In the movie Tetris, one corny scene depicts an illegal rock-club in Moscow where American 80’s rock ballads like “The Final Countdown” pump through the speakers. When the American, Henk Rogers, shows up wearing Levi jeans, a drunk patron excitedly cries-out, “We want Levis!” in the same breath as she gives a mawkish speech about the desire for freedom of speech.
While this may seem like a corny exaggeration to Western viewers, the scene captures the real longing most Soviet people had for Western goods and the freedoms they symbolize — as opposed to the bleak, cookie-cutter, limited offerings that the centrally-planned industries could provide (and it could barely provide those).
Vietnamese know this well: the centrally-planned economies imposed by the governments led to a lack of product variety and limited access to Western goods. During the “Subsidy era” of Vietnam, you got coupons from the government to get fabric from the government shop, which was the same (as in literally identical) as everyone. This uniformity and scarity created a strong desire for Western fashion, music, radios, and other symbols of liberalism, but expressing such desires openly was forbidden. In fact, there were also underground rock ‘n roll bars in Vietnam where people could face imprisonment for listening to Western music and dancing in Western styles, similar to the secret nightclub depicted in “Tetris”.
By showcasing the yearning for Western luxuries in a repressed society, “Tetris” provides a poignant glimpse into the bleakness of life under communism in Russia and Vietnam.
3) Illegal to Host Foreigners in Your Home
In the movie Tetris, we see game-ethusiast Henk Rogers trying to have dinner and socialize with his idol, Alexey Pazhitnov, the inventor of Tetris. However, Alexey is cold and standoffish: he explains that it is illegal for Russians to have foreigners in their homes.
Communists had strict restrictions on Western influences in Soviet society. The movie depiction resonates with the historical reality of life under communism in countries like Vietnam, particularly in the north. It was prohibited to host foreigners in your home, listen to Western music, or possess Western clothing, as these were considered acts of dissent against the state. The government closely monitored and controlled interactions with foreigners, and individuals could be reported by their neighbors for such activities, leading to repercussions.
This portrayal in Tetris reflects the broader context of the economic disincentives and political oppression that were prevalent in centrally-planned economies. These restrictions on personal freedoms and limitations on interactions with foreigners were common strategies employed by communist regimes to maintain control and suppress Western influences. Today, Vietnam has undergone significant changes, with greater openness to Western influences and a more vibrant exchange of ideas and cultures (Tran, 2018) — nearly every neighbourhood has at least one or two residents who’ve either lived in the West or are married with a Westerner.
Tran, T. (2018). From Communism to Capitalism: A Journey of Vietnam’s Economic Transformation. Routledge.
4) Punish the Children for Sins of the Father
As Henk Rogers and Alexey Pazhitnov race to out-manoeuvre the government’s duplicitous insiders to secure the international licensing rights to Tetris, the authorities become increasingly paranoid about the possibility of losing control over a valuable asset. To make an example of Alexey, they take the unimaginable step of punishing his innocent children.
In a heart-wrenching scene, we see the government not only fire Alexey from his job but also remove his two boys from their school. This is a prime example of the Soviet’s despicable practice of “collective punishment,” where the sins of the father flowed through generations and punished the innocent. In “Subsidy Era” Vietnam, a similar practice existed, whereby the government would punish whole families for the perceived crimes of one member. It was a chilling reminder that, under communism, forming close-partnerships and marriages were risky ventures, with the chance of guilt by association always looming.
The sad truth is that, in these centrally planned economies, the government had all-encompassing power to control the lives of its citizens. The government could and did intervene in every aspect of life, and the people had no recourse but to accept it or face dire consequences. It was a reality where individual liberties and freedoms were secondary to the collective goals of the state.
5) The Hotel is Watching and Reporting on You
In one scene, Henk Rogers checks into a hotel and asks the receptionist about the address to the software company where he can find the Tetris creator. The taciturn receptionist feigns ignorance; Henk Rogers walks away dissappointed.
Next, an unusual thing happens: the receptionist calls the government to report on Henk Rogers. To Western viewers, this may seem like a weak plot point (“oh wait, so the receptionist just happens to be a spy?“) but in Soviet Russia and Subsidy-Era Vietnam, it was a grim reality. In these societies, citizens were incentivized to watch and report on each other to gain favor with the government and avoid suspicion themselves.
Hotels, in particular, were hotbeds of surveillance. Hotels were often frequented by foreigners, political dissidents, people having love-affairs, and others else deemed “suspicious” by the government. In communist Vietnam, hotels were required to report the identity and movements of all guests to the police, a practice that still persists today. Most foreigners in Vietnam have had the chilling experience of forfeiting their passport to hotel receptionist in order to stay the night — a reminder of the legacy system of surveillance and people-tracking.
This practice of government surveillance is not unique to communist regimes. In the United States, the FBI famously conducted surveillance on civil rights leaders, anti-war activists, and other political dissidents during the Cold War era. However, in communist societies, the fear and paranoia were amplified by the centralized control of the government and the lack of individual freedoms. As we watch “Tetris” and marvel at the absurdity of the receptionist’s actions, we must remember that for many people living under communism, this kind of surveillance was a daily reality.
6) Magnificient Parades
At the climax of the Tetris movie, we seen a massive communist parade. Elder Vietnamese will immediately recognize the parade and its importance to the movie’s Soviet characters.
Communists love parades — its a demonstration of might, unity, patriotism, and overall sense of “look how organized and we are!”
If you’ve grown up in the West, you’ve never seen a real parade — tens of thousands of police, cadets, military-men, nurses, students, etc. Communists will practice for months to perfect a march.
7) Read Between the Lines – A Communist Skill
Throughout the Tetris movie, we see plenty of scenes of where people can’t say what they really mean. Vague and threatening speech is wrapped in seeming niceties. This type of speech was endemic in Socialist countries, where ghoulish people could wield it for intimidation and influence.
In contrast, the naive frankness of Americans and Dutch characters, like Henk Rogers, led them to be perennially confused when interacting with Russian people, even among friendlies.
The most poignant example in the Tetris movie the scene where a smiling KGB officer is ostensibly teaching Alexey’s children about gravity through “experiments” on a highrise balcony — things of different mass fall and crash to the ground at the same speed. The children are delighted and mesmerized, but Alexey is horrified — he clearly understands the implied threat against his children. Literally, of course, the Soviet officer wasn’t really threatening Alexey’s children — he was just showing them an experiment, and look how happy they were!
More generally, even in banal situations, people couldn’t say what they really meant — an ever expanding list of topics would become taboo (like hunger, corruption, the mismanaged system). Many laws were dilliberately written vaguely so that literally everyone could be found guilty, at the Party’s discretion. Also, laws and principles, like who were considered the “good-guys” and “bad-guys”, were always changing.
The social impacts were profound — you never knew if some innocuous opinion today would get you in trouble tomorrow. And, because everyone was watching and reporting everyone else, you had to tread very carefully in speech.
As an aside, there is similar oppressive atmosphere of “political correctness” in today’s American and Canadian workplaces. Many Vietnamese (and other international students) have confided to us that they feel more free to speak their mind back home in Vietnam than in North America. As a funny example, read more about “fat” in Vietnam.
Long Lines and No Food at Government-Run Shops
In the movie Tetris, we are given a glimpse into the bleakness of life under communism as poor Moscovites wait in line to procure meat, only to be told that there is no more food by the shopkeeper. The disappointment on their faces is palpable, and one woman pleads with the shopkeeper for food, explaining that she has hungry children. Alexey Pazhitnov, our Tetris-designer, steps in to give her some of his food.
This scene sheds light on the harsh reality of food scarcity and the inefficiencies of a centrally-planned economy under communism. Similar to Vietnam under communism, where government-run food stores were the main source of food for the population, long lines and scarcity were common occurrences. Patrons who arrived late often received spoiled, moldy or even rotten food, contributing to widespread malnutrition and stunted growth. People would start queuing early in the morning to ensure they could receive food of sufficient quality. The black market, with its inflated prices, became a necessary alternative for many to obtain enough food to survive.
Historical facts and studies have shown that centrally planned economies, like those under communism, often face challenges in efficiently allocating resources, including food. Inefficiencies, corruption, and lack of incentives for productivity can lead to shortages and poor quality goods. The portrayal of food coupons, long lines, and running out of food in Tetris serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of a centrally-planned economy on the daily lives of ordinary citizens, including those in Vietnam during its communist era.