Moscow on the Hudson (1984): Robin Williams as Russian Defector

Moscow_on_the_Hudson_5_williams_mazurskyIn Paul Mazursky’s light comedy of culture collision, the young Robin Williams, on the verge of becoming a major star, plays Vladimir Ivanoff, a Russian saxophon player working with the Moscow circus.

The tale is set against the backdrop of the Cold War of the early 1980s prior to perestroika.  The charming ensemble includes María Conchita Alonso (in her film debut), Elya Baskin as the circus clown, Savely Kramarov as one of two KGB apparatchiks, Alejandro Rey as the musician’s immigration attorney, and Cleavant Derricks as his first American host and friend.

Moscow_on_the_Hudson_3_williams_mazurskyVladimir’s life of quiet desperation with his colorful family does not compensate for his feelings of repression and frustration. Opportunity knocks, when the circus comes to New York City, and Vladimir goes on a shopping trip to Bloomingdale’s, where he announces his intention to defect.

His adoptive country is kind and generous. Befriended by security guard Lionel Witherspoon (Cleavant Derricks), Vladimir makes the slow transition from Russian to American citizen.

His journey of assimilation is helped by the charming fellow immigrant, Lucia Lombardo (Maria Conchita Alonso), and immigration attorney and Cuban refugee Orlando Ramirez (Alejandro Rey).

The film is too conventional and obvious to qualify as a poignant comedy, especially by the high standards of Mazursky, who previously mad the poignant serio-comedy, “An Unmarraied Woman,”” with Jill Clayburgh.

But the film exudes humanity and charm and there are enough touching moments and endearing performances to justify its viewing.

Detailed Plot:

Moscow_on_the_Hudson_1_williams_mazurskyThe story begins with Vladimir advising a newly arrived Frenchman that he is on the wrong New York bus and giving him instructions on how to get to his destination. He then begins remembering his own arrival to New York from Russia, and the scene shifts to Vladimir riding on a Russian bus.

Vladimir witnesses three people holding signs being accosted by KGB agents or secret police, forcing them into a nearby car and confiscating their signs. He joins the queue and obtains three pairs of shoes in the only size (38) now available.

Lionel Witherspoon (Cleavant Derricks), an African American security guard who has just protected Vladimir during Vladimir’s defection at Bloomingdale’s, takes him home to Harlem to live with Lionel’s mother, unemployed father, sister, and grandfather, a living arrangement all too similar to that of Vladimir’s family back in Moscow.

Moscow_on_the_Hudson_4_williams_mazurskyA sympathetic immigration attorney, Orlando Ramirez (Alejandro Rey), originally from Cuba, helps Vladimir to adapt to life in America. Vladimir attempts to find work despite speaking little English, forced to take low-paying jobs, fast-food service, limousine driver, and sidewalk merchant.

Vladimir starts a relationship with Lucia, and at a party for her American citizenship, he proposes but she refuses. Lionel decides to move to Alabama to be with his young son, and Vladimir learns that his beloved grandfather back home in Moscow has died. Lucia reunites with Vladimir, and Lionel moves back from Alabama and takes over Vladimir’s job driving a limo.

In the end, Vladimir gets a job as a saxophonist in the band at the Russian nightclub, allowing time to play the music he loves during the day. He encounters the former apparatchik Boris operating a hot dog stand, who gives him a free hot dog, to show his appreciation for his new American life.


Robin Williams as Vladimir Ivanoff

María Conchita Alonso as Lucia Lombardo

Cleavant Derricks as Lionel Witherspoon

Alejandro Rey as Orlando Ramirez

Savely Kramarov as Boris

Elya Baskin as Anatoly

Yakov Smirnoff as Lev


Running time: 118 Minutes