Why You Should be Watching Soviet Cinema

Introducing the wonderful world of Soviet films, which deserve revisiting and appreciating.

At the height of the Cold War, the film industry played a key role in propaganda for both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. This is often talked about in a simplistic way: that American films advocated for American interests, and Soviet films advocated for Soviet interests (with the relative nefariousness of each depending on your political leanings). But that kind of simple, direct propaganda—straightforwardly advocating for your own interests while demonizing your enemies—is hard to maintain across 50 years: it’s the stuff of hot war, geopolitical enemies that are more visceral than existential. At the most extreme, a Two Minutes Hate stretched to Ninety. Direct propaganda doesn’t exclude the possibility of art—Casablanca is a propaganda film and one of the best films ever made—but the cinematic propaganda of the Cold War operated at a more subtle level, as a kind of meta-propaganda. Direct propaganda contains its message: capitalism is bad or good, depending on who’s arguing. Meta-propaganda is where the existence of the film is the message. The U.S. sought to prove that it was possible to make great art under free market capitalism. The U.S.S.R. sought to prove that it was possible to make great art under centrally planned communism. They were both right.

My interest in Soviet cinema sometimes prompts raised eyebrows. These could be the raised eyebrows of baffled ignorance—did they make movies in the Soviet Union?—or the classic Anglophonic disinterest in cinema made in a non-English language. I have the most sympathy for a certain hostile skepticism—are these movies whitewashing the Soviet regime’s crimes?—which is especially reasonable in the context of the successor Russian state’s current crimes. I have no desire to be associated with the minority of contemporary leftists who romanticize the U.S.S.R. simply because it was communist—or romanticize the resolutely capitalist Russian Federation, seemingly out of habit. At best, these people are embarrassing. More often, they’re actively destructive, to history, memory, and their own political project, either by associating socialism with Soviet-style totalitarian communism or through (wittingly or unwittingly) entering into alliances with the extreme right.

There is a widespread preconception, whether conscious or not, that Soviet cinema is for tankies. Tankie is pejorative for a certain type of communist, coined to describe British communists who defended the Soviet use of tanks to crush the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the 1968 Prague Spring uprising. More broadly, it describes communists who, with their last breath, will deny, defend, or even endorse the crimes of Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, or Pol Pot. For them, mention of the human rights abuses of even the most nominally communist authoritarian regimes, like China, is simply capitalist slander. There aren’t many of these people, but if the version of Soviet cinema in your imagination is staid propaganda about how much the U.S.S.R. rules, it’s hard to imagine why anyone else would enjoy it. And if it’s not for tankies, it’s probably dry, serious, inaccessible. Homework. Definitely for “film bros.” 

The shifting stereotype of the film bro is a cultural bogeyman of the internet. Once conceived of as a guy who loves Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan without interest in what’s outside of the male-dominated canon, the film bro is now mocked daily on TikTok as someone who enjoys anything outside of ultra-mainstream Hollywood fare. These posts turn the world upside down to cast Marvel movies as cinematic underdogs that are perpetually dismissed in favor of black-and-white European art films. The film bro meme “mocks the idea of enjoying anything experimental, complex, old, or foreign,” film critic Gavia Baker-Whitelaw writes. “In turn, this solidifies the idea that certain films are only ‘for’ annoying white guys and/or intellectual snobs, discouraging people from exploring the diversity of non-Hollywood cinema.” Soviet and Eastern European cinema are natural targets, not giving the game away like mocking, say, Indian cinema would: a way to launder your anti-intellectual hostility to other cultures without the risk of being labeled racist. 

It breaks my heart. To cut yourself off from art this way is to self-inflict a tragic wound. Art is how humans tell each other stories that make sense of the world and truths that are too raw to articulate in speech, how we take darkness and boredom and isolation and fill that space with laughter and beauty and connection. It is, above all, terribly human. Soviet cinema, like all art, was made by people—people who were pushed by and pushed against censorship, people who had their own complex internal lives irreducible to, or actively hostile towards, Soviet orthodoxy, and who lived under a totalitarian regime and still made art. Each work made under such conditions is precious. Consider Kira Muratova, a Jewish Ukrainian director who made her films in the U.S.S.R. and was constantly subject to political repression. She took her name off Among Grey Stones (1983) because it was edited without her approval. Or the 1967 film Brief Encounters (1967). A beautiful, aching drama in an Italian neorealist (and not socialist realist) vein, Brief Encounters is rich in metaphors I can’t quite parse, saying things about the Soviet Union—and Ukraine’s place in it—that I can’t articulate but was made to feel. 

Soviet cinema is a vast, varied landscape, much too large to grasp in your hand. But  some of my favorites, presented here, will give you a glimpse beyond secondhand stereotypes—and  a reason to stop cutting yourself off from so much great art. 

Ivan the Terrible, Part 1 (1944) and Part 2 (1958)

Sergei Eisenstein is probably the most famous and acclaimed Soviet filmmaker. Even if you’ve never seen the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin (1925), you’ve seen it a hundred times in parodies and homages and allusions, in everything from The Godfather to Naked Gun 33 ⅓. And even if you haven’t seen direct references to Eisenstein, his mark is deep in cinema’s DNA. He pioneered the editing technique of montage, a core part of the filmic vernacular. 

The only Soviet filmmaker as likely to have an entry on a list of the greatest films of all time is probably Andrei Tarkovsky, director of Solaris (1972), Mirror (1975) and Stalker (1979). But where Tarkovsky had a loudly antagonistic relationship with the Soviet film authorities—defiant, in particular, of the U.S.S.R.’s policy of state atheism—and eventually left Russia altogether, Eisenstein is more closely associated with official Soviet orthodoxy. Battleship Potemkin is a masterpiece, but it is overt, simplistic propaganda for the Russian Revolution, elevated to something greater than itself by its ground-breaking style. October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928) was also conceived as a propaganda film, celebrating a decade since the October Revolution, though Soviet officials criticized Eisenstein’s final product for its excessive “formalism” and demanded that references to Leon Trotsky be removed. By the 1940s, Dwight MacDonald was writing in the Partisan Review, against the idea of the artist “defying the gods of totalitarianism in the name of Art and Culture,” that when “the artist-intellectual has remained within the totalitarian borders, he has reacted pretty much as Eisenstein has, submitting in aesthetic as well as political matters.” Defiance, MacDonald argues, is most safely delivered from a distance.

In the same essay, MacDonald preemptively dismisses Eisenstein’s then-forthcoming Ivan the Terrible biopic, putting it firmly in the category of historical, patriotic, and safe. A retreat into Mother Russia’s womb. But Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible would turn out to be anything but. 

Ivan the Terrible, Part 1 (1944)

Like Shakespeare’s history plays, Ivan the Terrible combines sweeping national epic with intense personal psychodrama. It is a closely observed study of the blurry line between good king and brutal despot. Nikolay Cherkasov plays Ivan with crazed intensity: my brain instinctively sorts it into a category with many of my favorite silent movie performances because it’s the kind of film acting that went south with the invention of synchronized sound. Cherkasov’s performance, like the movie around it, is all big swings, in a way that could—maybe should—be off-putting but overwhelms all doubt. As Roger Ebert wrote in 2012,  Ivan the Terrible “proceeded directly to the status of Great Movie without going through the intermediate stage of being a good movie.”

Stalin was a huge fan of Ivan the Terrible, with whom he strongly identified and who he viewed as a national hero. And he was a huge fan of Ivan the Terrible Part 1 (1944), the first of a planned trilogy. In Part 1, Ivan is, broadly speaking, the “good guy”: the legitimate tsar who wealthy elites want to overthrow for someone they can control and who will be more favorable to them instead of the people. To which, you know, what could Stalin say but “wow, he’s just like me!”? 

Eisenstein finished production on Part 2 in 1946, but it wouldn’t see the light of day until 1958. Stalin was incensed by it, banning the film and halting production on Part 3. In Part 2, Ivan goes all in on secret police and mass executions: “I’ll be exactly what you say I am,” he tells his political enemies, “Terrible.” If Stalin identified with Ivan’s nobility in Part 1, then he was confronted with identifying with Ivan’s brutality in Part 2

The hints—more than hints—were all there in Part 1, even if Stalin missed them. Ivan is the people’s champ, but in a way that’s more akin to Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte than some genuine avatar of the proletariat. Ultimately, he serves at the altar of power for its own sake, not the people. While you don’t root for Ivan’s enemies, it quickly becomes a matter of weighing up the lesser of two evils, and the film leaves you uncertain which is lesser. After being in black-and-white, the film shifts into color for some sequences in the final section of Part 2, and it feels like the scales falling from your eyes. You see Ivan not as a besieged hero or even tragically flawed but as a moral monster ready to crush in his fist anyone who gets in his way. Or anyone who he imagines is getting in his way. 

It is a direct critique of Stalin’s regime, in a film he ordered into production. Defiance without the safety of distance. In 1964, six years after Ivan the Terrible Part 2 was finally released, Elem Klimov directed Welcome, or No Trespassing, a proto-Wes Anderson movie set at a kids’ summer camp that doubles as a loopy, sharp send-up of the U.S.S.R.: “The children own the camp, but they’re not involved in any of the decisions!” Nineteen years after that, Georgian filmmaker Eldar Shengelaia directed Blue Mountains, or an Unbelievable Story, in which a novelist must navigate the labyrinth of Soviet bureaucracy. It’s a blistering satire that, like so many of my favorite Soviet films, begs the question, “How did they let him make this in the U.S.S.R.?” I don’t know, but I’m so glad they did. 

illustration by John Biggs

Dersu Uzala (1975)

A major feature of Soviet filmmaking—a result of its meta-propaganda effect—was the willingness of the Soviet studios to make it rain money, providing productions with lavish budgets. The U.S.S.R. had one of the only film industries outside of Hollywood that was flush with cash. Waterloo (1970), a Soviet-Italian co-production starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington, has battle scenes on an unsurpassed scale, comparable only to the CGI-heavy battles in The Lord of the Rings, but without any special effects. The Soviet army provided 17,000 soldiers to appear as extras for free, and it still was one of the most expensive films ever made. 

In the 1970s, filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was being denied funding by the Japanese film studios. Dodes’ka-den (1970) flopped, contributing to his suicide attempt in 1971. But then along came a project that he’d been interested in since the 1930s: an adaptation of Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev’s memoir about his friendship with Dersu Uzala, a trapper native to Russia’s Far East. Kurosawa had given up on the project since it seemed so unlikely that the U.S.S.R. would allow him access to the taiga region to film it. But in this difficult period of his life and career, they invited him to finally make it. The Soviets wanted him to cast his frequent collaborator Toshiro Mifune as Dersu, but Kurosawa knew better. 

Dersu Uzala has a legitimate claim to being the best film ever made. Maxim Munzuk, co-founder of the Republic of Tuva’s national theatre, plays Dersu Uzala. Yury Solomin plays Arsenyev, his face cracking open with love in an echo of the way his younger brother’s does as Dr. Watson in the delightful Soviet TV adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Captain Arsenyev embarks on a topographic survey expedition near the Russian-Chinese border in the early 1900s, where he meets Dersu, a hunter who knows these forests inside out. The Captain has an instant, abiding respect for Dersu because of his knowledge, intellect, and kindness. Dersu has the resourcefulness to build them shelter and the compassion to leave behind essential provisions for future travelers. He and Arsenyev form such a special connection, a soul bond that transcends their radically different backgrounds. Arsenyev’s men, meanwhile, are smug, racist idiots. They dismiss Dersu’s expertise. They question where Dersu is from—China? Korea?—because the answer—here—doesn’t fit with their suffocatingly narrow conception of what “Russians” look like. It’s not—or not precisely—colonialism, but it is a stinging reminder of the imperial core’s ignorance to its own periphery. But these men, too, learn to respect Dersu. It’s hard not to. 

The film’s first half—where you see this beautiful friendship take shape—would be a satisfying whole, leaving you full and sated and overjoyed. The leads are so perfectly cast that the idea of Mifune in the lead role seems patently absurd. Kurosawa shoots the forest in a rich color palette that words like “green” and “brown” don’t do justice to. Dersu Uzala picks up again five years later, when Arsenyev leads another expedition to the region. He buzzes with the hope of seeing Dersu again, his every nerve ending alive at the thought. Upon seeing their meeting, I punched air. The men on this expedition all respect Dersu instantly without having met him before, and it is obvious that the Captain must have talked about him all the time. 

Dersu Uzala (1975)

But the world to come isn’t built for Dersu or for men like him. He ends up accompanying Arsenyev back to town, and although Dersu is a genius, in the town he’s useless and frustrated. He sees no convenience, only confinement. It’s less that the march of progress has left his knowledge and skills unneeded and more that things are just different here. He gets arrested for cutting down a tree. He is furious at the idea of people selling firewood or water. (The implication, although he doesn’t say it, is that you cannot sell what no one can rightfully own.) The tragedy of it is that the audience knows the future looks a lot more like this town than Dersu’s forest. Right from the opening scene, Arsenyev tells us that a village will be built over Dersu’s grave, the trees that mark it torn up, a willful destruction of nature, a way of life, and this brilliant man’s memory. It’s inevitable. It’s devastating.

Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures (1965), The Diamond Arm (1969), Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession (1973)

Cinema had a meta-propaganda function in the U.S.S.R.—establishing the capacity of communism to produce great films—but the primary target there was international audiences. Back home, they still had to pump out crowd-pleasing entertainment pictures. And nobody did that better than the comedy director Leonid Gaidai. 

Gaidai is little known outside the former Soviet Union, but inside the Soviet Union, his comedies consistently topped the box office throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. The Diamond Arm (1969) sold 76.7 million tickets in the U.S.S.R.. But international audiences have probably never heard of it. Gaidai’s Wikipedia page argues (without citation, admittedly) that this is due to his films’ rootedness in Russian culture—which international audiences can’t understand or appreciate—but all the Gaidai films I’ve seen are total crowd-pleasers, whatever language you speak. The Diamond Arm is a silly slapstick crime caper that’s also kind of a musical. Early on, a title card announces that we are watching Part 1: during the film’s climax, when you’ve forgotten all about there being parts, a title card randomly announces Part 2, a closing stretch of maybe five minutes. In Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession (1973, aka Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future), Shurik (Aleksandr Demyanenko) builds a time machine, and he accidentally sends the superintendent of his apartment building back to Ivan the Terrible’s time, and Ivan the Terrible forward to 1973 Moscow. (Hijinks ensue.) Demyanenko originated the role of Shurik in Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures (1965), an anthology film built on a stylish mix of silent comedy, farce, and live-action renditions of classic cartoons. It’s a winning alchemy. A monument to Shurik reading class notes over a girl’s shoulder was erected at Kuban State Technological University in 2012. 

Gaidai’s movies are really, really funny. They have a classic comedic sensibility that alternately reminds me of Buster Keaton, Looney Tunes, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and American comedies of the 1980s like Ghostbusters or The Blues Brothers. I love them for that alone. But they also give an insight into Soviet life—a society gone with the wind—that no amount of the most profound historical writing really could. Something that goes beyond information and into ineffable insight. The U.S.S.R. was a totalitarian dictatorship, a society that cannot and should not be understood without secret police and show trials, without gulags in Siberia and man-made famine in Ukraine. But they still laughed. They still piled into the cinema with their kids to see Kidnapping, Caucasian Style

Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession (1973)

Totalitarianism is dehumanizing, and so when we think of the people subject to totalitarianism, we must actively work to re-humanize them. To not let them be numbers in a statistic, no matter how horrifying. To remember that they also fought with their parents, kissed their grandmothers’ cheeks, hugged their kids, and fell in and out of love. The numbers killed or tortured or otherwise denied the fullness of human freedom under communist regimes aren’t points on a political scorecard, which is how Republicans and many Democrats treat them. They went to slapstick Leonid Gaidai movies, and they laughed. 

In the American film Sullivan’s Travels (1941), a comedy director wants to make an important sociopolitical drama and sets out to live as a tramp as research. After a bump on the head, he ends up at the bottom, an amnesiac prisoner serving hard labor. The pastor of a poor Black church describes him as the “less fortunate.” And here, at the bottom, he doesn’t learn what to put in his big important drama—he learns why comedy matters. The Black churchgoers and the prisoners watch a Disney cartoon, and they laugh their asses off. 

“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have?” he says at the end. “It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.” They could have written it on Leonid Gaidai’s gravestone. 

Belorussian Station (1971)

For me, no film represents the ineffable insight a Soviet film can give you into Soviet society quite like Belorussian Station (1971). Twenty-five years after they served together in World War II, four men reunite to attend the funeral of their friend who was the only one of the five who stayed in the army. You can draw a straight line from Belorussian Station to later American films about baby boomer reunions like The Big Chill (1983) or Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980): like those movies, Belorussian Station is a hangout movie, full of the bittersweet joy and painful nostalgia that reunion entails. It’s a film about parsing the beauty of being together again from the useless longing to return to the past. It’s about knowing that the next generation cannot return to the past, either, and so will never truly understand what you’ve been through. It’s a movie about going out drinking with the lads. Belorussian Station is fun and sad and, most often, both at once. 

Belorussian Station (1971)

Those who defend the U.S.S.R. often frame it as a more equitable society than exists under capitalism. I think a lot of people buy that in general, even if they think Soviet human rights abuses are not a worthwhile trade-off. But I think that in truth much of the evils we attribute to capitalism are bigger than capitalism, that capitalism is the current version of an underlying behemoth that has maintained itself across feudalism, capitalism, and communism. It’s not, as the right would have it, human nature: it’s too big, too systemic, for that. It is a will towards a class system that has found expression in different historical conditions, sometimes stronger, sometimes weakened, but never defeated. I am a democratic socialist in part because democratic socialism seems like the most effective tool against this shape-shifting monster. 

In the U.S.S.R., the class system of capitalism (or feudalism) wasn’t abolished; it was simply recreated in the Soviet image. In Belorussian Station, the four guys are Ivan Prikhodko (Yevgeny Leonov), who works in the sewers, Nikolai I. Dubinsky (Anatoli Papanov), a civil servant, Viktor S. Kharlamov (Aleksey Glazyrin), the director of a factory, and Aleksey K. Kiryushin (Vsevolod Safonov), a writer. This classless society has sharp class delimitations. Ivan, the sewer worker, is proletarian. Nikolai, the civil servant, is middle class, a worker outside Marx’s proletariat/bourgeoisie dichotomy. Viktor doesn’t technically own the factory, but he runs the factory, squeezing his workers for the sake of the bottom line and complaining about excessive regulation. Aleksey, a writer, sits a little bit outside of the class system, and sits a little bit outside of the movie: he’s more thinly characterized, instead acting as a narrator to bring us into this story. All of the characters are distinctly aware of their different stations in life, and their class differences—once absorbed into the uniform of the Red Army—lead to conflict between them. They would never have hung out if they hadn’t fought alongside each other all those years ago—except maybe so Viktor could lobby Nikolai to give him government contracts. 

But it would be a disservice to present Belorussian Station as a sociology lesson. It’s a human drama. That’s where the ineffable comes in. In one of the film’s final scenes, Raisa (Nina Urgant), former frontline nurse, sings a song from the war: 

Birds don’t sing here,

Trees don’t grow,

And only we—shoulder to shoulder—grow into the ground here.

The planet is burning and spinning,

There is smoke above our Motherland….

And, therefore, we need one victory,

One for all of us—for any price.

The men, overwhelmed by the weight of memory, cry. And I cried, too. I cannot know what men like these went through in the war, but Belorussian Station zooms in on the specific because that is how you express the universal. I connect with The Big Chill even though I’m not an American boomer because it uses American boomers to tap into what transcends demographic: grief and friendship and history and music. And in the same way, Belorussian Station uses the generation of Soviets who fought in World War II to tap into what transcends, into grief and friendship and history and music. It plunges its fists into nostalgia knowing that half of nostalgia’s etymology is pain.1 It is, in short, what the movies are for. 

There is a will towards a class system that has expressed itself through different economic systems, different historical conditions, different parts of the world. It has underpinned feudalism, imperialism, capitalism, communism—a fundamental split between the haves and have-nots, in which people’s position in society (more often than not, hereditary) is defined according to their labor. This existed in the U.S.S.R. as it has existed almost everywhere. Soviet cinema is often a reminder of that, leaving you vigilant against unjust romanticism but also, at times, feeling bleak and hopeless. It makes the horror of it seem all the more inescapable. 

But another universal constant also existed in the U.S.S.R.: a will towards beauty and truth and laughter and song that rages against the limits of any class system. This will, like the one towards the class system, finds different expressions in different conditions: sometimes it’s sneaking around the back, sometimes it’s kicking and screaming and asking for trouble. It was there in Hollywood at the height of the Hays Code, when free market capitalism turned out to be as censorship-happy as anybody else and film artists figured out how exactly to follow the letter of the law but not the spirit. It was there when my grandmother would somehow get her hands on books banned in 1950s Ireland. 

And it was there in the U.S.S.R. in spades. If Soviet cinema sometimes reminds us of the bleak, hopeless inevitability of the class system, it always reminds me of this other constant. It’s close to what I would call a synonym for the human spirit, and it loosens the hopelessness in your chest just a little.

  1. Nostalgia is derived from the Greek words nostos (“homecoming”) and algos (“pain”). 

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