Exploring Russian History and Culture Through Cinema

Russia has a rich and long cultural history in the fields of literature, architecture, ballet, and classical music. A lot of language learners fell in love with beautiful and fascinating Russian culture and start to learn Russian. What made you first want to learn Russian? In this article, I'd like to share with you some of my recommended Russian films.

Here are my 5 recommended Russian films:

#1: Alexander Nevsky / Александр Невский (1938)

"The Battle of the Ice" – the film’s most celebrated sequence

Alexander Nevsky is one of Russia’s most celebrated medieval figures. During the 12th century, he governed Kievan Rus’ and was then canonized a saint by the Orthodox Church a few centuries later. Today, if you visit St. Petersburg, you’ll find the main street, Nevsky Prospect, named after him.

Portrait of Alexander Nevsky | Source: Wikipedia

The primary reason for Nevsky’s fame is his role in repelling Germanic invaders. Without his military victories over them, much of northern and western Russia would perhaps today not speak Russian.

As you can imagine, such historic Slavic victories over Germanic invaders made for great propaganda during the middle of the 20th century. The most famous invocation of Nevsky for this purpose was Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film, Alexander Nevsky.

The movie’s plot follows the Teutonic Knights’ invasion of the region roughly around today’s St. Petersburg. Unwittingly, this plot, which predates Nazi Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, has many parallels to World War Two.

Just like the Nazis in the Second World War, the Teutons are able to invade deep into Alexander Nevsky’s territory. They do so with the help of local traitors (as the Soviet authorities would later similarly claim). Subsequently, the common people of Nevsky’s Novgorod rise up to defeat the Teutons in a battle over a frozen lake. Here, the parallel with the Soviets’ defeat over the Germans in the winter is clear.

#2: Ekaterina / Екатерина (2014)

This is actually a TV series! You can find it on Prime Video.

Catherine II, or “the Great,” was one of Russia’s most successful rulers. A German princess by birth, she ascended to the throne after the overthrow of her husband, Peter III. It is widely believed that this was a coup approved of by Catherine herself. As you can imagine, then, a TV show about her life and times makes for interesting viewing!

Released in 2014, the first season of Ekaterina covers the story of the future Empress’s move to Russia, the overthrow of her husband, and her installment on the imperial throne. The second season of the show, released in 2017, covers her impressive rule as Empress.

Catherine’s reign, 1762-1796, marked a golden age for imperial Russia. Catherine’s support for enlightenment ideas, promotion of decentralization, and hand behind enormous territorial expansion introduced Russia to true great power status.

A champion of enlightenment ideals, Catherine enjoyed a decades-long correspondence with Voltaire. Her granting of powers to the nobility and towns gave the vast Russian Empire the more decentralized governance it needed to function. Her territorial acquisitions significantly expanded the empire and severely diminished the power of two important rivals, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire.

#3: Union of Salvation / Союз спасения (2019)

This film comes out in December. Here’s its trailer.

Union of Salvation is a new Russian movie, released December 26th, 2019. The movie tells the story of a group of 3,000 Russian soldiers, the “Decembrists” or the “Union of Salvation.” These men refused to recognize the new tsar, Nicholas I. Instead they wanted to turn the Russian Empire into a constitutional monarchy and abolish serfdom.

The roots of the Decembrist revolt lay in the Napoleonic Wars. Many of the soldiers who had served in western Europe returned home after the war excited by the liberalism they had witnessed during their campaigns there. Thus, when Emperor Alexander I died on December 1st, 1825, they spotted an opportunity. On December 26th, 1825, 3,000 Decembrist soldiers amassed in St. Petersburg’s Senate Square, St. Petersburg. They proclaimed their own constitution and rejection of the new tsar, hoping more soldiers would join their cause.

However, it soon became clear that no more soldiers would join them. In fact, they were instead outnumbered by the arrival of 9,000 soldiers loyal to the regime. Worst yet, the Decembrists’ two most senior leaders deserted.

After a day of standoffs and fights, the conflict spilled into widespread bloodshed. The emperor’s soldiers opened artillery fire onto the rebels. Then, when the rebels attempted to flee across the frozen River Neva, the artillery fire pursued them and caused the ice to shatter underneath their feet.

And so, the Decembrist revolt ended in failure and Russia entered a new era of reactionary autocracy. I’m very interested to see how Union of Salvation portrays this important moment in history.

#4: Come and See / Иди и смотри (1985)

The trailer of Come and See

Come and See is truly one of the most harrowing war films there is. It depicts the Second World War, specifically the Nazi invasion and occupation of Soviet Belarus. The plot follows a Belarussian teenager, Flyora, who joins the local partisans, and the horrible atrocities that take place around him.

According to Russian historian Vadim Erlikman, Belarus suffered a higher casualty rate than any other country in the world during World War Two. He calculated that Belarus lost 25% of its population to the war, versus a still appalling average of 14% for the Soviet Union as a whole. Come and See makes this too-awful-to-imagine statistic more real.

In the film, the main character, Flyora, witnesses this all up close. His entire village, including his family, is brutally murdered. Then, the village next door is rounded up and burnt alive in a church.

Disturbing stuff. So disturbing that the actor who played Flyora, 13-year-old Aleksei Kravchenko, developed grey hair from the stress of filming.

#5: Brother / Брат (1997)

Brother trailer

Brother is a cult classic crime film that depicts the wild and grim 1990s that post-Soviet Russia experienced. The movie’s main character, Danila, quickly became an icon for Russian values during a period when what it meant to be Russian came under question.

The movie begins with Danila wandering around aimlessly, much like 1990s Russia. Danila has just finished his military service during the Chechnya War. Now, however, he has nothing to do and there are clearly few opportunities. Following a run in with the local police, Danila is urged by his mother to go to St. Petersburg. The hope is that his older brother, Viktor, can help him land on his feet.

Unable to meet with his brother, Danila wanders the streets of St. Petersburg. These grey scenes depict a tired city, long unacquainted with its glory days. At the same time, St. Petersburg shows itself to have an austere, timeless beauty.

Eventually, Danila makes contact with his brother, Viktor. As it turns out, he is a hitman.

Viktor immediately invites Danila into his criminal underworld. However, he ends up deceiving Danila twice. Because of this, Danila soon has two criminal groups chasing him around the city: a Chechen gang and Viktor’s Russian boss.

In between attempts at his life, Danila develops two love interests and settles into big city life. As you can imagine, this is an entertaining movie with many memorable moments. The movie’s cult status soon spun off a sequel – Brother 2 – which takes Danila and Viktor to the USA.

To find and watch more great Russian movies, check out Russian Film Hub!

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