If you blinked, you almost certainly missed it. But some of the most notable films coming out of Russia this past decade all centered on its past. More specifically, the first half of the twentieth century, and the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany during the Great Patriotic War 1941-45.
My Good Hans (2015), White Tiger (2012), Panfilov’s 28 Men (2015), Rubezh (2018), Matilda (2017), Bretskaya Krepost’ (2010) and most recently, T-34 (2019), have all caught the attention of outside observers. The quality of each varies widely. White Tiger borders on ludicrous whereas Matilda was challenging in Russia’s conservative circles. Panfilov’s 28 Men is based on a Soviet myth and Bretskaya Krepost’ on true events. Some received huge state backing and funding, whereas others caused terrible controversy and were nearly banned.
There is a clear logic to the appearance of said films, however. Their popularity is nothing to be that surprised about.
First, the 2010s witnessed several anniversaries. A number of centenaries were reached, including the beginning and end of the First World War, the 1917 revolutions and the Civil War. Though not anniversaries, it has also been 100 years since the murder of the Romanov’s and eighty years since the Great Terror. In 2015, it was seventy-five years since the victory in the Great Patriotic War. A six-part TV series Rasputin even aired in 2014 on a federal channel marking his passing. Overall, it was fertile ground for historical cinema.
The plots of some films will leave viewers puzzled. White Tiger is about a soldier who can control tanks with his mind. Hitler also has a meeting with Satan in the film. Matilda chose to focus on the Tsar’s affair with a Polish ballet dancer. Though based on a true story, it too delved into fantasy elements. Yet, like My Good Hans, it touched on a delicate subject in an attempt to deal with it. It tells a story of Russian and German soldiers co-operating during the Second World War.
The timeliness of the anniversaries meant that the Russian population had to finally come to terms with more difficult aspects of its past. Nicholas is a Saint in the Orthodox Church, but he was also a deeply flawed leader. The Molotov – Ribbentrop pact is a taboo in contemporary Russia, as it stains the Russian state’s diplomatic record. Nevertheless, it is also true that the Western powers left the USSR out of its own security agreements.
Another reason has to do with national pride, patriotism and loyalty to one’s ancestors. At least four of the above films are tales of heroism, sacrifice and immense bravery of the Soviet people. This is particularly true of the most recent two films. In Rubezh, a cynical young businessman ends up back in time meeting his great grandfather at Stalingrad. T-34 meanwhile, tells the story of a group of Soviet soldiers who escape a Nazi concentration camp inside a T-34 tank. It is loosely based on real events, was state funded and praised by the ministry of defence.
This leads onto the third point. All of these films have been released during a time of declining relations and heightened tensions with the West. Victory in the Great Patriotic War is at the core of Russia’s new patriotism in the twenty first century. The military in general is also synonymous with patriotism in Russia. In 2014, Putin directly blamed the West for robbing Russia of a victory in the First World War and influencing the revolutionaries.
Historical cinema can reacquaint Russians with a past that is becoming lost. Those who fought and lived through the Great Patriotic War get fewer each year. Those who remember the Russian Empire are no more. Much like any historical reconstruction, films are designed to provide us with a view into the past. Instead, they often reflect how we prefer to view it. No reconstruction can ignore memory and nostalgia.
What these films show in Russia today is a clear message. Despite the last 100 years, we persist. We went through this together and are now stronger. More importantly, nobody, especially the decadent West, will rob us of our victory. To the reader wondering whether the Russian population supports such a message, I will end on a figure. T-34 drew eight million Russians and was the second highest grossing film since the Soviet collapse.