On New Year’s Eve 1940, my great-grandfather Aleksandr Afinogenov held a dinner party at his Moscow apartment. At one point the guests, probably writers and other literary intellectuals, played a game: writing on sheets of paper, they tried to predict what the coming year would be like. Some of them thought they’d change their hair color; others thought they’d get married or divorced.
But what about the bigger question: would the Soviet Union get involved in World War II? Some thought it would, and that the war would be won quickly — or even result in a revolution in Western Europe. Some thought it would end in defeat. But none of them could have anticipated how profoundly their lives would change when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Afinogenov himself would be killed in a shelling by the end of the year. The Germans were already within artillery range of Moscow, and the future of the Soviet Union was in doubt.
“On that June morning . . . everything seemed so simple, so ordinary,” says the Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Romm in his 1965 documentary Ordinary Fascism:
But in each of our lives there remains a scar, a wound that will not heal. Some lost a son or a brother, a father or a mother; maybe their whole family perished or their house was destroyed, their lives broken in two.
This distinctive feature of the Soviet experience — more than the war’s unusual brutality or even the USSR’s disproportionate contribution to the victory over the Nazis — became the main preoccupation of Soviet war films. Whereas American exemplars of the genre, and increasingly post-Soviet ones as well, glorify the conflict as an epic battle between good and evil, the most enduring Soviet commemorations of World War II probe its deeper impact on soldiers and civilians alike.
Take Two Soldiers, filmed in Tashkent in 1943. This tale of love and friendship between two comrades, one from Odessa in Ukraine and the other from the Urals, takes place mainly in Leningrad, where “the front lies at the end of a tram line.” The two protagonists compete for the love of a woman who lives just a short distance away.
In another wartime film, The Invasion, a former criminal fights for redemption, but the war itself barely appears on screen; instead, much of the action takes place in a family apartment. Even in the midst of war, Soviet films focused on human relationships as they were warped by the experience of conflict.
The Story of a Real Person, released shortly after the war, seems at first to violate these conventions. It centers on a fighter pilot whose feet are amputated, and who struggles through physical therapy and the use of prostheses to get himself back into the cockpit. There is hardly any romance and the character’s main relationship is with a commissar who encourages him in his quest.
But even here the experience of combat is almost absent. Story is set mostly in a hospital; only at the end does the film depict the pilot’s aerial heroics as he puts his plan into action. The main theme is the somewhat banal idea that a Soviet person can achieve anything.
Early Soviet cinematic efforts to make sense of the war suffered from some of the typical problems of Stalin-era film: the characters were often flat and the conflicts sentimental or melodramatic. For viewers unfamiliar with Soviet cinema, however, the most surprising thing is the near-absence of explicit ideological commentary. Far from being Stalinist propaganda, these films avoid the touchy subjects of socialism and revolution almost entirely.
The Story of a Real Person explicitly invokes the classic socialist realist novel How the Steel Was Tempered, but in the service of a narrative that could just as easily have come from an American film. It wouldn’t be any harder to read its central arc as an endorsement of the power of individual initiative as it is to understand it as a vision of the New Soviet Person.
In the late 1950s and ’60s, as the Khrushchev Thaw loosened Stalin-era restrictions on cultural production, Soviet representations of the war became even more searching and nuanced. They also moved farther and farther away from envisioning battles and sieges as their central focus.
While there were certainly war films that focused on combat — like the epic The Star, about a crew of POWs that escapes from Germany on a captured tank — these were not the dominant voices of the period. Instead, the new wave of Soviet films tried to make sense of the traumas and experiences of the war for the benefit of a rising young generation with little personal experience of it. The result was a constant implicit contrast between the idyllic lives of Soviet youth in the optimistic postwar era and the hardships suffered by their elders.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 film Ivan’s Childhood is the most haunting of these depictions. It follows a young boy who loses his family during the Nazi invasion and joins first the partisans fighting against the occupation in the woods, then the regular Soviet army. Molded in the crucible of war, Ivan speaks and thinks like a seasoned combat veteran, but he remains a child. Tarkovsky explores this contrast with tenderness and sensitivity, deliberately using the clichés of the war movie — the secret scouting mission, the danger of enemy attack — to probe the lost futures of the millions of children who lost their own childhoods to the war.
However, the film that confronts the situation of postwar youth most directly is one that doesn’t at first glance appear to be a war movie at all. Marlen Khutsiev’s I Am Twenty (1965) follows the daily romantic and social adventures of a young man named Sergei growing up in the flush of ’60s prosperity. For most of its action, it doesn’t even mention the war. Yet Sergei is constantly haunted by dreams of his father, a soldier who was killed before he had a chance to get to know him.
Sergei feels the acute gap between the existential seriousness of the choices thrust upon his father at his age and the comparative triviality of his own life. At the film’s climactic moment, as his friends are drinking and dancing at a party, Sergei suddenly grows serious and proposes a toast to potatoes — subtly contrasting the need and desperation of the wartime years with present-day plenty. “If there is nothing you can speak seriously about,” he asks, “then why even live?”
Like I Am Twenty, Romm’s Ordinary Fascism commemorates the war by drawing contrasts — this time quite explicit ones — between postwar youth and the interrupted lives of their elders, including Romm himself. Yet in contrast with Khutsiev, Romm’s approach is not moralistic. Instead of condemning the moral heedlessness of youth culture, Romm sees it as the right of children and young people to think about ordinary things.
It was only the incredible resources marshaled by the Nazi state to indoctrinate its youth into the cult of the Führer that allowed so many young people’s lives, German as well as Russian, to be so fundamentally altered by German aggression. This humanistic approach is a core aspect of the movie, which begins with a montage of children’s drawings and an appeal to the similarities between children around the world. While the film’s depiction of Nazi culture is the central topic, underlying it is an impulse to convey to Soviet young people what their parents went through in the terrible war years.
Indictments of Militarism
Some of the new wave of war movies dealt directly with the tropes that had characterized previous Soviet writing and film about the war. Among the best of them is Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1957). This emotionally overpowering film tells the story of a woman nicknamed Squirrel whose would-be fiancé goes off to the front, leaving her trapped in a forced marriage with his rapist brother. It confronts one of the most enduring clichés — the idea that the principal duty of a woman in wartime is to patiently await the return of her man.
Squirrel endures endless abuse and condemnation from people who believe that her “failure” to wait is a stain on her character; resisting the easy way out, the film looks unsparingly at the difficult choices and involuntary betrayals forced on people in wartime conditions. Cranes doesn’t just offer a compelling narrative: it is also marked by skillful cinematography, with long shots of the heroine flowing through crowded spaces with a dancer’s grace. Its culminating scene is a bracing condemnation of war as such and a promise of the new world that the survivors will build.
For all the imagery of Red Square tank parades associated with the Soviet Union in Western eyes, and despite the large-scale deployment of World War II as a new kind of founding myth for the Soviet state, official ideology widely denounced militarism. This is one reason why war in these movies rarely looks heroic, less “the good war” and more of a brutal necessity forced upon the Soviet state by external aggression. Previous Soviet complicity in that aggression — through the occupation of the Baltics and eastern Poland — obviously went unmentioned.
It is also one reason there are so few Nazis in Soviet war films. The glowering caricatures in American cinema are nearly absent from its socialist counterpart. When they do appear, it is often as shadowy figures in tanks or infantry helmets, more an elemental force than an ideologically specific enemy.
Ordinary Fascism is one exception to this rule. Another is Tatiana Lioznova and Iulian Semënov’s legendary TV miniseries Seventeen Moments of Spring, which aired in 1973. It depicted the efforts of a Soviet deep-cover operative — disguised as a high-ranking SS official — to prevent the signing of a separate peace between Germany and the Western Allies. Yet the Nazis in Seventeen Moments are depicted with depth and sensitivity. They are the architects of a genocidal system, but they are also conscientious, efficient bureaucrats, family men, often intelligent and urbane.
For Soviet viewers, whose experience of their own bureaucracy was more often one of chaos and inefficiency, the orderly officialdom of the televised Reich was a kind of utopia. Although the KGB chief Yuri Andropov had commissioned Seventeen Moments to inspire patriotism and generate new recruits for intelligence work, it is hardly a work of naked propaganda.
A Troubling Absence
There is another, more troubling absence in these films: they feature almost no Jewish characters, and they never depict Nazi repression as disproportionately targeting them. Even Romm, himself of Jewish descent, evades the question in Ordinary Fascism: the film features long sequences about gas chambers, ghettoes, and death camps, but never mentions the religion or ethnicity of the people who were murdered there. Instead, it generally characterizes the victims as Communists, Social Democrats, and trade unionists, which was certainly part of the truth but far from all of it.
This critical omission reflects the Soviet party line, which effectively disavowed the specificity of the Holocaust: its victims were (in some cases) described instead as “Soviet citizens.” This form of denial mirrored another, with even graver consequences: the lack of any representation of Jewish soldiers and partisans, which reinforced the widespread perception that Soviet Jews sat out the war in Central Asia while Russians and Ukrainians died to save them.
Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985) is perhaps the Soviet war film best known among cinephiles in the West. A tale of a boy who joins the fight out of a romantic desire to protect his homeland, and then observes and experiences senseless brutality on an incomprehensible scale, the film is a dark masterwork. But in some important respects, Come and See is not as unconventional as it may seem at first glance.
Its climactic atrocity is the burning of a church full of villagers by an SS detachment, but the Germans in the film are not especially interested in Jews — even though it was Jews who were massacred in these ways most often. The message about the horrors of war also draws on a long Soviet cinematic legacy, which cast the war as at best a deeply ambiguous experience, and heroism as always counterbalanced by suffering and pain.
Neither of these are slights against the film. Come and See is so powerful because it brings these themes out most fully, and its depiction of the suffering of the Belarussian people is authentic even if the Jews are not mentioned.
Film Against War
“I have never seen an anti-war film,” the French director François Truffaut famously claimed. “Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” Come and See and many of the Soviet films that preceded it give the lie to this characterization. It is hard to watch The Cranes Are Flying and come away with the impression that war is aesthetically appealing, morally righteous, or good for social morale — even a war such as this one. This is the lasting legacy of the Soviet film tradition, even if some of its products are jingoistic or preoccupied with heroics.
If it is harder to find similarly troubled depictions of World War II in American cinematic culture, it is because the United States was never as touched by war as the Soviet Union was. The American contribution to the war effort, through Lend-Lease and in the Pacific theater, was essential. But it was possible for many Americans to make it through the war years effectively untouched. Though thousands died or lost their loved ones, few of them were civilians.
In contrast, the total war represented by Operation Barbarossa left nobody in the Soviet Union unaffected. Even people in regions far from the front contributed recruits. Starvation and deprivation affected everyone as the country strained all its resources for victory.
Today, the war functions as the ultimate legitimating force for official Russian ideology: it seems to be the last episode in Russian history whose significance and moral implications almost everyone agrees on. Likewise, even people who are skeptical of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact admit the importance of the Soviet role in defeating the Nazis. But the Soviet film legacy makes it hard to draw a single lesson from the war, even the sense that it was all worth it. Like a scar, it may be beautiful or horrible, but the wound it covers runs deep.