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Russian War Films

by Denise Youngblood

If interventionism drew the battle lines between East and West for the 20th century, the new art of cinema became an important front in that ideological and cultural war. Indeed, inside the USSR, as Youngblood indicates in this fine new volume, the Soviet film industry was often referred to as the “cinema front.”

The crippled Russian film industry was nationalized in 1919 (interestingly, Nicholas II had apparently considered the same move in 1915, to create a “moral state cinema” free of “the pernicious influence of the western democracies”). From that point forward, this “most important of the arts” (a la Lenin) served a political end: propagandizing on behalf of the Soviet state. And perhaps no films were more important in that effort than films about war, where themes of loyalty, suffering, heroism and sacrifice abound.

Youngblood [Disclosure: Dr. Youngblood is on Russian Life’s Advisory Board.] covers the eight decades of cinematic history in admirable detail, reviewing and recounting 160 films in all. The result is not merely a thorough history of Russian cinema, but a cultural history of 20th century Soviet and Russian life. After all, Soviet leaders used film to construct their interpretation of reality, to instruct their subjects how to live and how to perceive the wider world.

In particular, Youngblood asserts, Russian leaders used war films to create images of the enemy, of the barbarians beyond the gates. “Throughout its short history,” she writes, “the USSR was arguably more concerned with barbarians than most states (save, perhaps, the United States), whether they were real or fabricated, internal or external.” Most often the enemy constructs were quite predictable, but in each era, and about each war, Youngblood shows, there were also films with ambiguous heroes, reflecting the often complex nature of the enemy (and also sometimes the artistic courage of the directors) and of war.

The history of 20th century Russian film is as layered and deeply textured as the history of the country over this period. Youngblood’s encyclopedic analysis offers no grand theory to explain all there is to know on this wide subject – that would be folly. Instead, she carefully explores the veins of artistic development, how they interacted with historical events and real-life politicians and actors. As a reference work for researching plots of some of the most important Russian movies of the last century, this book is without compare. As a tour of the Soviet cinematic landscape, it as valuable as sitting through 160 feature films – with all the useless parts chopped out.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2007