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Six Great Russian-Language Films on YouTube

This article from our archives was first published on RI in November 2015
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Are you resisting the urge to set fire to historic structures in downtown Moscow? Are you still stinging from your foray into the world of self-mutilation as protest?

You may be suffering from Poser Rip-Off Artistic Tourette’s (also known as PRAT). Fortunately, for sufferers of PRAT, there is help for your frustrated artistic urges. I’ve compiled a list of some great Russian-Language films available for viewing on the interwebz (with English subs) in their entirety. All of these films are excellent listening practice for those who are learning Russian, or for anyone who wants to immerse themselves in Russian culture and art offerings sans the need for antibiotics.

<figcaption>This one time at band camp...</figcaption>
This one time at band camp...
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Enjoy!

Admiral (Адмиралъ)

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Downton Abbey what?

For those who like their foreign films with a side of war footage and people sobbing in corsets, I highly recommend Admiral. Taking place during World War I and the October Revolution, and based on real events, Admiral details the tragic love story between the married Aleksandr Kolchak, and the lovely and equally married Russian poet Anna Timiryova. Comparisons to Dr. Zhivago are not without merit, so if you are looking for a romantic movie set against the backdrop of Russian history, and you need a good cry, put this in your YouTube queue. The film stars Konstantin Khabensky as Aleksandr (Night Watch, Day Watch) and Elizaveta Boyarkskaya as Anna. Andrey Kravchuk directs.

Brest Fortress (Брестская крепость)

I have seen Saving Private Ryan. I have seen Letters from Iwo Jima. I’ve seen Schindler’s List. I’m pretty solid on my Hollywood World War II epics. Hands down, Brest Fortress is one of the best World War II movies I have ever seen. This gem hails from Belarus, and details the early days of Operation Barbarossa, as told through the eyes of the orphaned Sasha Akimov.

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Sasha and his brother are living at Brest Fortress in Belarus SSR, under the care of the 33rd Rifle Regiment of the Red Army. Sasha plays the euphonium in the regiment band, and nurses a crush on Anya Khizevatova, the daughter of the outpost leader Khizevatov. Sasha’s life centers around the fortress and its inhabitants, until one day in June of 1941, when the fortress comes under attack by the Wehrmacht and Lutfwaffe. The Nazi assault on the Soviet army and citizens is brutal and heart-wrenching, although the surviving Red Army forces manage to hold onto the fort for nine days. The resistance is led by Efim Moiseevich Fomin, who proudly declares to his German executioners that he is all the things they despise: a Red Army commissar, a Communist, and a Jew.

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“We are here to save you from the Bolsheviks and Jews. No, for real, you guys. You should totally surrender.&rdquo

Misfits/ Inadequate People (Неадекватные Люди)

Basically, this is a modern-day, less icky, comedic retelling of Lolita, and if anyone is entitled to do an update on Vladimir Nabokov’s cult classic, it is his compatriots.  Misfits is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve included it here for those who might have an outdated view of modern-day Russia.

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Ilya Lyubimov stars as Vitaly, a thirtysomething who moves from a rural part of Russia to Moscow after his girlfriend is killed in a car accident. In Moscow, he develops a close, if odd, relationship with his sassy 17-year-old neighbor, Kristina, while having to stave off the advances of his vampy new boss.

Misfits was shot on a budget of about $100,000, raised by writer/director Roman Karimov. It’s a really great piece of independent Russian cinema (Wait! I thought there was no independent media in Russia! I’m confused!)

Olympus Inferno (Олимпиус Инферно)

Every time someone watches this movie, Victoria Nuland has to clap her hands really hard so that Mikhail Sakashvili doesn’t fall down dead.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty accused the film of “pushing the Kremlin’s line” on the Georgian conflict. By “pushing the Kremlin’s line,” they mean “what actually occurred.” Wired called it awesomely bad, but that’s only because Wired is used to made-for-TV movies that involve marine creature-themed weather events, or weird, inaccurate opi starring that one girl from Heroes.  

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Of course, since Olympus Inferno aired on Russian television, it does take a sympathetic view of the Russian side of the conflict. However, if one does look into the actual facts behind the Georgian war, it is easy to see that, although there was tension mounting on both sides, Georgian forces were responsible for attacking South Ossetia.

The story follows Michael Orraya, an American entomologist who is studying butterflies, and a former classmate, a young Russian woman named Zhenya, who is working as a journalist. They develop a close relationship, but are caught up in the chaos of the Georgian war.

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"What can we do? The Georgian president only wants to live in gentrified neighborhoods, like Brooklyn."

Russian Ark (Русский ковчег)

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I really like this movie. Granted, I am probably distracted by the fancy costumes.

A disembodied voice guides the viewer through the dream-like quality of Russian Ark. The narrator is in conversation with “the European,” symbolized by the Marquis de Custine, this super racist 18th century travel writer. His travelogue,  La Russie en 1839, decries the “backwardness” of the Russian Orthodox church, and the “Asian” overlay to the society and culture. (La Russie en 1839 was later published as an illustrated collection of bedtime stories for U.S. State Department employees.)

Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, we are taken on a tour of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the “ark” of Russian culture, with cameo appearances by Catherine II and Peter the Great. Gorgeous cinematography and high production values certainly helped this 2002 film win a nomination for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and a Visions Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Russian Ark is also available on Netflix streaming, but for the poor unfortunates who do not have Netflix, and thus are also robbed of the Pussy Riot documentary, there is YouTube.

The Return (Возвращение)

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Remember everyone in Hollywood falling all over themselves to praise Andrey Zvyagintsev for Leviathan because he bravely portrayed today’s Russia as a bleak and hopeless wasteland? Well, it actually turns out that bleak is sort of his oeuvre. Like Leviathan, The Return received widespread critical acclaim when it was released internationally in 2004. Although Hollywood acknowledged the film with a Golden Globe nomination, there was no obsequious praise for Zyvaginitsev’s earlier offering.

The plot centers on two boys, Andrei and Ivan, who are reunited with their father after his mysterious twelve-year absence. Their mother reluctantly allows the boys to go on a road trip with their father through the Russian wilderness, and the tension between Ivan and his father mounts to a tragic conclusion.

The Return is driven by the subtle, yet effective, performances by the film’s two young actors, Vladimir Garin (Andrei) and Ivan Dobronravov (Ivan). Desolately beautiful Russian landscapes add to Zyvangintsev’s gray-blue palette and the overall meditative quality of the piece.

Of course, there are many Russian films available on YouTube that I have not listed here. These are a few that I have seen and enjoyed, and I hope you enjoy them as well.

Remember, If you or a loved one is experiencing PRAT, don’t suffer in silence. There is help.

Unless you are a pyromaniac exhibitionist. In that case, there is probably a selfie with Hillary Clinton in your future.

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