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Geopolitical Lessons from Russian Cinema

Predicting the future is not that hard. All you have to do is watch Russian movies. Their makers and funders already know what is coming

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This article originally appeared at Fort Russ

White Tiger is not the first Russian film to predict the coming of war in Eastern Europe. Brest Fortress did it as early as 2010. The movie itself tells, through the eyes and narration of Sasha Akimov, an orphan assigned to the 333rd Rifle Regiment of the Red Army which formed the fortress garrison (character based on real-life Petya Klypa), the story of the heroic defense of that obsolete fortress. It is a somewhat fictionalized version of that battle,  though the characters mostly bear the names of actual Red Army soldiers who fought, and mostly perished, in the process of administering the first check on the Wehrmacht's path to Moscow. It's a battle nearly unknown in the West--about a year ago the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially complained to CNN for including the monument to the heroes of Brest Fortress on its "list of the world's ugliest monuments." Can you imagine CNN doing the same for, say, the US WW2 Memorial?

I have to say right off the top this is my favorite war movie, bar none. It is a remarkable piece of film-making which works on many levels. It is a well done action film in which many scenes contain deeply embedded symbolism (you have to see it more than once before you start noticing the bits that seem just slightly out of place, until you realize what they are supposed to represent). For example, the use of water which has many metaphorical meanings, including the symbol of life, but also blood and tears. Notice, for example, how many times Sasha Akimov comes in contact with water in that movie, and in what context. His falling into the fortress moat due to a nearby bomb explosion is particularly dramatic (and shown in slow-motion to heighten the effect), and the scene symbolizes the still-young USSR being forcibly thrust into the pool of blood that is World War II. Moreover, the movie as a whole sends a very direct message that, as in the White Tiger, does not become apparent until literally the final scenes. And then it hits you like a ton of bricks.

This movie is also a good vehicle to examine Russian and Anglo-Saxon views on the world and the values of these respective civilization when one compares it to, well, comparable US films, for example, Saving Private Ryan, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and of course (!) the Star Wars trilogy (the original one, especially). The similarities are there because all of these movies were made, believe it or not, by human beings who have fundamentally similarly “wired” brains. But that wiring has different messages embedded on it, depending on what civilization you grow up into, which accounts for the subtle differences in how identical concepts are depicted in each movie.

Here is the movie trailer:

But for starters, let’s focus on this short clip which deals with Sasha Akimov’s development as a character through the movie:

For starters, notice where the video begins. Remind you of any Middle Earth location? That’s right, it’s the Shire, and in fact SPR, SW Episode IV, and of course The Fellowship of the Ring start out the same way—at their respective civilizations’ version of the Shire, which is a subconscious representation of childhood memories, the “safe place” that is an idealized memory of our childhood.

And if this is the Shire, then Sasha Akimov is…the Hobbit. And so is Luke Skywalker, Private Ryan and, surprisingly enough, Frodo Baggins. You may have noticed that while only one character is played by an actual kid (the 12-year-old Aleksey Kopashov in his first, but likely not last, movie role), Frodo Baggins is practically kid-like, while Matt Damon and Mark Hamill are not coincidentally baby-faced. They are the author/director’s alter ego, the reflection of their own childhood, while the movie’s geography is a so-called “temporal map” in which each location corresponds not so much to a real place on Earth (in the case of fantasy/sci-fi movies) but to a specific period of one’s life. Tolkien’s Shire looks the way it does because that’s the what Tolkien saw when he was growing up, and Tatooine (especially his “uncle’s” moisture farm) is how Lucas remembered growing up in Modesto, CA (a town which in fact was the focus of his move American Graffiti).

Notice, however, what the relation is between the Shire and the War. Do the Orcs ever pay a visit to the Shire? No. Does the Wehrmacht disturb the peace of Private Ryan’s mom back in the states? No. But is Sasha Akimov’s Shire a genuine safe haven? Even though Akimov, in his capacity as the movie’s narrator, says “this is my home, my fortress”, it quickly becomes evident it offers no protection whatsoever and the fortress quickly turns into a slaughterhouse. You can readily see the anxiety that lurks within the Russian collective subconscious: There Is No Place Safe. There is nowhere you can run to because The Enemy will follow you there. Which means you have to stand and fight. Fight to protect your children whose childhood is at risk of being bombed, shelled, or shot to bloody shreds, as it has been so many times in Russia’s history. Ultimately, it is here that the secret of Russian military performance resides.

As a side note, one has to wonder what terrible thing happened to George Lucas during his childhood, because the war does come to his Shire, and we see his “uncle” and “aunt” laying there, charred and all, after their farm is visited by Imperial Stormtroopers. But this is rather exceptional. I suspect George Lucas had a rather crappy childhood: his Shire, after all, is a barren wasteland, he is being raised by total strangers whom he calls “uncle” and “aunt” (and who will fall victim to a rather rare display of Imperial Stormtrooper ability to hit an actual target!), his mother is dead and his father is Darth Vader…

The Ring of Power

But where there’s a Shire, there has to be a Ring of Power, an object capable of raising mass armies out of seeming nothingness and changing the course of history. So, what is the one object that cannot (or, depending on your preferences, must) be destroyed in each of these movies? In Star Wars, that’s obviously Luke Skywalker. He dies, and the Rebellion dies with him. In Saving Private Ryan, it’s…Private Ryan. He dies, and the US public opinion crashes under the weight of heavy battlefield casualties, and the US exists World War II. That is why the policy of repatriating last living siblings was implemented, after all. It is a sign of Steven Spielberg’s mastery as a film-maker that he was able to make the archetypal movie about the US Army in World War II that is actually pretty scathingly critical of the US war effort, and it still became a big hit. I mean, you’d think the creator of the Schindler’s List would have his GIs liberate a death camp or two, but no. The point of that movie is to get a soldier out of the fight, with the war being nowhere close to being finished, and Auschwitz not yet liberated. Spielberg, after all, knows perfectly well whose army liberated Auschwitz…

The Red Banner

Speaking of that army, note what object Sasha Akimov is entrusted with to take out of the fortress, an object that we see only very briefly when he lifts his uniform jacket to reveal…the Soviet flag. No matter what the cost, this is what must be preserved, because it is the source of Russia’s strength. This is Tolkien in reverse, but Tolkien was a British writer who wrote from a very British perspective in which the preservation of Britain’s traditional class-based system (Tolkien was a staunch monarchist, and not of the constitutional variety) which is an anathema to a mass army of a sort on which Russia has traditionally relied for its security. The two US movies ascribe the Ring to individuals, but here too you see a certain inability and even unwillingness to contemplate a mass mobilization, no matter how dire the threat. The rebellion in the original trilogy is a very ramshackle thing, and the Old Republic somehow has to rely on subhuman clones for its security. It’s a very different approach to warfighting and, indeed, toward one’s own soldiers, then you see in Brest Fortress. Because Sasha Akimov is not a Jedi, he is not Harry Potter, he has no special distinguishing characteristics, in fact, as an orphan, he represents the very bottom of society. Yet nothing stands in the way of him picking up a weapon from the hands of a dead Soviet soldier (another poignant bit of symbolism, which is repeated in the movie on more than one occasion and which symbolizes the generational transfer of responsibility for Russia’s security) and participating in the battle. And protecting the Red Banner. From whom?

The Setting Sun

Notice that in the scene where Sasha Akimov displays the Red Banner (while walking through a summer rain shower—another bit of symbolism, with the raindrops symbolizing tears), he was walking toward the Sun which, if you look at the whole scene closely enough, is clearly setting. At first glance that makes no sense. Walking toward a setting Sun means walking West. If you were breaking out of the Brest Fortress and trying to rejoin friendly forces, you should be walking East, and the Sun ought to be rising. This, too, is part of the broader allegory, and by now all the pieces of the puzzle are starting to fall into place. In that scene Sasha is not just a regimental orphan escaping from the fortress. He represents the still-young, bloodied and rain- (tear-) soaked Red Army (it’s probably not a coincidence they picked a 12-year-old actor for the role, since in 1941 Stalin has been the General Secretary for about 12 years) marching on Berlin. And the setting sun is Nazi Germany whose emblem, the Swastika, is a Sun symbol.

“Now it’s your turn”

The use of the Sun as a symbol represents a cyclical, rather than linear, view on history. This is what happened in the past, and since the world operates in cycles, it will happen again. So the final scene comes as something of a punch in the gut, it is very nearly anti-climactic because the now-elderly Sasha Akimov is telling his grandson, played by the same Aleksey Kopashov who played the young Sasha and who is wearing a black Cadet Corps uniform (probably the same uniform Aleksey Kopashov wore in his “day job” as he was plucked out of a military academy to play this role) that, in effect, he might have to replicate his grandfather’s feat. That is a rather sad ending to the movie, coming after all the death and carnage of the battle. So was it all for nothing? And the answer is no. It was not all for nothing. It is just part of how the world works. Nothing is ever settled, no victory is ever final, because sooner or later the White Tiger will once again crawl out of his burrow and attack once again.

That movie was the first indication (which at the time I received with considerable disbelief) that Russia was expecting a military challenge somewhere along its Western border. In retrospect, it’s obvious why. Once one learns to view the world through the Russian lens, to examine what is written on the Russian “wiring”, the world becomes both a more understandable and a more depressing place. For the movie to have come out in 2010, the work on it must have started in 2009 or even 2008, the year of the big financial crisis. And when there is a financial crisis accompanied by austerity policy, there is bound to be trouble. The West will simply resort to its tried-and-true tactic of running up the banner of one true religion/master race entitlement/humanitarian intervention (all of which have been used to justify Western invasions of Russia over the past several centuries—nothing new under the Swastika…) and launch a new round of expansion.

What is to be done?

The final lesson of the movie is that, whatever happens, it is not going to be 1941. One of the more remarkable scenes in the movie takes place toward its beginning, before the war breaks out. In it, one of the key characters has a…discussion…with the local NKVD officer concerning “panic-mongering” in the 333rd Rifle Regiment. Panic-mongering in this instance consists of mere rumors of impending war which, as we all well know, was in fact coming. There is a palpable sense of menace in that scene, because that kind of an accusation could get one shot. But present in the scene is a huge portrait of Stalin, and his inclusion is probably meant as criticism of his entirely futile policy of laying low so as to avoid provoking Hitler which is without any doubt the worst decision Stalin had ever made.

So the final message of the movie is pretty clear: do not wait until they come after you and do not expect (as, for example, The Return  clearly does) that they will leave you alone. Strike first to put your adversaries off balance. You’ll be better off for doing so. With only one year’s hindsight, it is clear that the decision to forcefully intervene in the Crimea was precisely the right thing to do under the circumstances. 

In conclusion, predicting the future is not that hard. All you have to do is watch Russian movies. Their makers and funders already know what is coming. 

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