The Baku of Brilliyantovaya Ruka

Mark Elliott
Image: screen grab from a movie

Known in English as The Diamond Arm, Brilliyantovaya Ruka is a 1960s Soviet comedy that remains one of the most popular of its era. The movie starts with a group of cruise ship tourists from the USSR getting off for a brief visit to ‘Istanbul’. One of the passengers, a suave young chap called Gennadiy “Gesha” Kozodoyev (played by Andrei Mironov), is actually there as a smuggler, expecting to make a pre-arranged pickup of jewellery and gold coins to take back to mafia connections in Russia.


Image: screen grab from a movie

The plan is that Gesha will happen to slip over and ‘break an arm’ right outside the Chikanuk pharmacy on ‘Fish Street’ where co-conspirators will swiftly bandage the limb with a cast into which the contraband is set.


Image: screen grab from a movie

The comical twist is that Gesha gets lost in the maze of back alleys while his naively unassuming cabin mate, Semyon Gorbunkov (played by Yuri Nikulin) ends up slipping on a watermelon skin in the exact place where Gesha was supposed to take the tumble. Semyon gets bundled into the pharmacy when the waiting ‘Turkish’ smuggler contacts[1] hear him say the code words “Chyort poberi” (чёрт побери). That’s a mild curse in Russian, meaning something like “Damn it!”[2], which Semyon happens to splutter out simply because his arm has been painfully sprained... A silly coincidence but one that is played with amusing comic effect.


Image: screen grab from a movie

The unwitting hero ostensibly passes out while the gems are plastered onto his arm.


When law-abiding Semyon comes around and realizes what has happened, he tries to hand himself in to the authorities but nobody’s interested, and he arrives back in the USSR with the booty intact in the plaster on his ‘diamond arm’. The rest of the film continues as a Louis de Funes-style action-farce as the inept smugglers try a whole series of half-cocked plans to get back the contraband.


The movie went on to become a classic, not just because of its humour and occasionally surreal cinematic touches but also for its gentle mocking of the hypocrisy of the Soviet system that lies not far beneath the surface.


Baku Connections

What makes the film doubly interesting for those interested in the Caspian Region, however, is that the Soviet film crew were not able to film the opening section in Istanbul itself – replacing the perceived exoticism of Turkey for the fabulously timeless cobbled streets of Baku’s medieval walled city.


Although Baku only features for about six minutes towards the start of the movie, several of these scenes are highly memorable and to this day, tourists from across the former USSR come to pay homage.


Image: Mark Elliott

The building that was used as the set for the Chikanuk Pharmacy is now marked with a red cross sign and the oft-quoted password “чёрт побери.”


Outside, Kichik Qala street parallels the historic Old City walls, and is still recognizable from how it looked back in 1968 when the film crews were here[3]. Today it’s quite common to find tourists sitting in the middle of the road.



They’ll be taking photos of each other pretending to have fallen over, matching as closely as possible the pose of Seymon Gorbunkov.


Image: Mark Elliott

And yes – I’ve done it myself too!


Image: Mark Elliott

Entered around the back of the ‘pharmacy,’ you can now find the ‘Brilliantovaya Ruka’ café. It’s a pretty simple place but comes with mannequins of the key protagonists and is another must-see for fans of the film.


Other Baku Scenes From the Film

For those wanting more, they can seek out many other fleetingly visible Baku scenes that appeared in the film. For example, the establishing shots of ‘Istanbul’ are actually filmed on Baku’s Zeynalli Street.


Image: screen grab from a movie

Signs in Latin and Arabic scripts had been added for the film, and extras were half-heartedly clad in mostly white clothing that was supposed to evoke Turkey. Apparently, the bearded, white-capped policeman deftly directing traffic in these early scenes was not an actor but a real-life road cop playing himself. If you look carefully at the upper left of these shots, you can see the lower half of Baku’s Maiden’s Tower at the end of the road.


Image: screen grab from a movie

And an earlier full frame shot of the same scene on a contrastingly quiet rainy day shows the whole tower complete. That would have been a giveaway for anyone who knows Azerbaijan, as it’s the capital’s most distinctive ancient landmark.


Image: screen grab from a movie

Near the start of their visit to ‘Istanbul,’ Gesha and Seymon are shown outside a building that is identifiably Baku’s 1899 Juma Mosque, a building which at that time was being used as a carpet museum. Outside, Seymon snaps a photo of a camel being ridden at high speed. Only after it has passed does Gesha point out that Seymon’s camera had its lens cap on throughout – a motif that helps underline the latter’s bumbling simplicity to the cinema audience.


The next time we see minarets Gesha, is checking his watch as the rendezvous hour approaches.


Image: screen grab from a movie

The set location is Baku’s Shirvanshah Palace complex, and today, the scene looks pretty much the same as it did during the filming.


Image: screen grab from a movie

Gesha needs to get away from the group but as he dashes down a covered stone stairway, Semyon comes after him. 


With a modicum of searching, you’ll be able to find the same stairway perfectly intact within the Shirvanshah Palace complex today. What has changed is the once fairly ruinous state of many of the Old City lanes and alleyways into which Gesha makes a dash to escape from Semyon’s company.


Image: screen grab from a movie

While today they still form much the same maze that causes Gesha to get lost, there has been considerable gentrification of the facades since the 1990s, so the scenes today are no longer as tumbledown as they were in 1968.


Russo Turisto Obliko Morali

As any true fan of the movie will have noticed, we have missed one other classic scene that occurs before all this.  As the whole group of cruise passengers are being guided along an upper section of Kichik Qala Street, they walk past a red-haired woman idling in front of a doorway. Her dress and demeanour signal that she is a sex worker.


Image: screen grab from a movie

Except, that is to innocent minded Gorbunkov who thinks that she might be a damsel in distress. As he lingers, she tries to entice then almost drag him into her parlour. Like the other ‘Turks’ in these scenes, she speaks in a bizarre language[4], which seems to be vaguely Italian in its intonation. As he’s being dragged in, Semyon is pulled back by Gesha.


Image: screen grab from a movie

Addressing the lady in his own kind of Italianised Russian, Gesha insists, “Russo turisto obliko morali” – a wonderfully mangled sentence but one that is understandable as meaning something like “Russian tourists are moral.” ‘Well, at least in public’, the audience might have chuckled! The phrase “Russo turisto obliko morali” went on to become a popular catchphrase trotted out humorously in Soviet/post-Soviet society when anyone tried to exaggerate their claims to a moral high ground. It’s still used to this day.


It’s yet another way in which this timeless classic lives on in the hearts of millions.




[1] the two waiting men, played by Leonid Kanevsky and Grigory Shpigel, speak a mysterious foreign language that’s essentially gibberish created by Kanevsky

[2] though in English subtitles, the translation is usually rendered as “Damned melon”

[3] Though it’s now cobbled, following the removal of Soviet-era asphalt

[4] Actually an invented language created by the director