The Cold War battle over Tetris

As for the name Tetris, that came from Pajitnov combining the Greek word tetra (meaning four, like the number of squares in each of the game’s falling blocks) and his favourite sport of tennis. There’s a hint to its creator’s nationality in the  use of Korobeiniki, a Russian folk song, as the Tetris theme tune in many incarnations of the game, beginning with the GameBoy version. “In lots of games you destroy things, but in Tetris you have the illusion that you’re building something all the time,” Pajitnov explained in a 2019 interview with Polygon. “It’s constructive and positive and it makes you feel smart.”

The heart of the new Tetris film is the relationship between Rogers (Egerton) and Pajitnov (played by actor Nikita Efremov), who come together despite their cultural differences and succeed in getting a video game out from behind the Iron Curtain at a time where the country’s politics were anti-capitalist. With the duo teaming up to thwart UK publishing mogul Robert Maxwell (a pitch perfect, hilarious impression by The Thick of It star Roger Allam) from getting the rights and persuading President Mikhail Gorbachev himself to let Tetris be sold across the world, their partnership flips Hollywood’s long clichéd depiction of combative US and Russian relations on its head. 

Tetris and the Cold War

Rather than wanting to make a film about Tetris the video game as such, Tetris director Jon S Baird was fascinated by this human story that pushed the game into existence. “The original title of the film was actually Falling Blocs, just like the Eastern blocs that dissolved when the Soviet Union collapsed. I thought it was a really great title. To me, Tetris is a buddy movie and this Cold War thriller, but at the heart of it is this human story between two guys who come from polar opposites of the world and are incredibly different, yet manage to create this magnificent game.

“The only reason Henk found Tetris was because it was pirated illegally out of the country,” Baird continues. “It wasn’t even supposed to leave the Soviet Union. Pirating something back then meant it had to be smuggled out of the country on a floppy disk. It shows you the power of gaming and how it has a global language that transcends political differences.”

In the movie, Rogers is depicted as someone who believed Tetris would not only be a hit game, but, the film goes as far to suggest, a trigger for Russia to cool off the Cold War and embrace global capitalism. In one scene, he cockily asks a KGB officer: “Don’t you want to show the world the Soviet Union is about more than missiles and military might?”

But was Rogers really not just another opportunistic businessman attempting to take a slice out of a game he never created? “Henk really came through with his promise to Alexey,” Baird counters to BBC Culture. “There’s a line in the film where he says: ‘I will make you a millionaire!’ And he did! In fact, he turned Alexey into a multimillionaire. I got the chance to spend time with them both [at the SXSW Festival, where the film premiered] and it was clear Tetris had created this enduring friendship. Their families still break bread together.”

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