I would like to thank Prof. Vitaly Chernetsky for his encouragement and assistance with writing this piece. All images used as illustrations are screen grabs.

I have been teaching on war and cinema over three decades. I am well-versed in the history of film from across the Soviet bloc. Yet it was only after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 that I discovered a whole other dimension of Soviet WWII film: the war films made at Ukrainian studios. I watched many of those. Day after day, a new and previously unseen cinema was opening up. 

In scholarship, one finds mentions and discussion of Ukrainian films about WWII made during and immediately after the war; they are rarely identified as Ukrainian. These include Ihor Savchenko’s Partyzany v stepakh Ukraïny (Partisans of the Ukrainian Steppes, 1942) and Tretii udar (The Third Strike, 1948), Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s Bytva za nashu radians′ku Ukraïnu (Fight for Our Soviet Ukraine, 1943) and Peremoha na Pravoberezhnii Ukraïni ta vyhannia nimets′kykh zaharbnyjiv za mezhi ukraïns′kykh radians′kykh zemel′ (Victory in Right-Bank Ukraine and the Expulsion of the Germans from the Boundaries of the Ukrainian Soviet Land, 1945), Mark Donskoi’s Raiduha (Rainbow, 1944) and Neskoreni (The Unvanquished, 1945), Leonid Lukov’s Dva biitsi / Dva boitsa (Two Soldiers, 1943), as well as Boiova kinozbirka nomer 8 and nomer 9 (Fighting Film Album Nr. 8 and Nr. 9, both 1942).2

Ihor Savchenko’s Partisans of the Ukrainian Steppes (1942) shows the massacre of defenceless Ukrainian villagers: old people, women, children.

I had only heard about a handful of these films before. Some of the earlier ones had been touched upon in the books I had read. Those made later were – bewilderingly and inordinately – new to me. Seeing them one after another felt like taking a walk around a cemetery of “unknown soldiers”, overlooked and unsung. These films – “unknown soldiers” – were so overwhelmingly many that for the sake of this brief discussion I will focus only on those that were made during a fifteen-year period spanning 1957-1973.3 

The films I saw were mainly produced by the Kyiv/Dovzhenko studios, but some are from the Odessa or Yalta studios. In chronological order and in addition to No Unknown Soldiers, they included: Partyzans′ka iskra (Partisan Spark, Mechyslava Maievs′ka / Oleksii Masliukov, 1957), Ivanna (Viktor Ivchenko, 1959), Bud′-iakoiu tsinoiu (At Any Price, Anatolii Slisarenko, 1959), Soldatka (Soldier Girl, Volodymyr Denysenko, 1960), Fortetsia na kolesakh (Fortress on Wheels, Oleh Lentsius, 1960), Hrizni nochi (Stormy Nights, Volodymyr Dovhan′ / Oleksandr Kurochkin, 1960), Idu do vas! (Coming to You!, Valentyn Pavlovs′kyi, 1961), Liudy ne vse znaiut′  (Not Everything Is Known, Mykola Makarenko, 1963), Rakety ne povynni zletity (Missiles Must Not Take Off, Oleksii Shvachko / Anton Tymonishyn, 1965), Virnist′ (Faithfulness, Petro Todorovs′kyi (Petr Todorovskii), 1965), Khto povernet′sia—doliubyt′ (Who Return, Will Love to the End, Leonid Osyka, 1966), Ïkh znaly til′ky v oblychchia (We Knew Them Only by Sight, Anton Tymonishyn, 1966), Dva roky nad prirvoiu (Two Years over an Abyss, Tymofii Levchuk, 1966), Dytyna (The Child, Mykola Mashchenko, 1967), Sovist′ (Conscience, Volodymyr Denysenko, 1968), Na Kyïvs′komu napriamku (On the Kyiv Font, Volodymyr Denysenko, 1968), Annychka (Borys Ivchenko, 1969), Rozvidnyky (Intelligence Officers, Oleksii Shvachko / Ihor Sambors′kyi, 1969), Bilyi ptakh z chornoiu oznakoiu (The White Bird Marked with Black, Iurii Illienko, 1971), Sofia Hrushko (Viktor Ivchenko, 1972), Vidvaha (Insolence, Heorhii Iungval′d-Khil′kevych / Georgii Iungval′d-Khil′kevich, 1972), and V bii idut′ lyshe ‘staryky’ (Only Old Men Go to Battle, Leonid Bykov, 1973). I suppose that specialists in Ukrainian cinema may have more titles to add; I have only listed the films that were available for me to view. 

Odessa Studio’s Faithfulness (Petro Todorovs′kyi, 1965) was entered at the Venice International Film Festival and won an award.

I had previously seen only one of the films listed in the previous paragraph – all the others were astonishingly new to me. They did not figure in the books on Soviet war cinema.4  Other writing on them was limited.5 My academic colleagues did not know much about them.6 

The films were as Soviet as all those other films of the canon – made in studios like Mosfilm, Lenfilm and Gorky/Soiuzdetfilm, during the same period – that we knew of, that were extensively replayed and spoken about all the time. By comparison, however, the fate of Ukrainian war films appeared like the fate of “unknown soldiers” whose lives were expended but the memory of whom had become obliterated. It was as if I was discovering the film culture of a completely new country, one that had been tucked away from view somewhere. Where had it been? Why was it so badly ignored? How was such systematic omission even possible?

I had experienced a similar feeling when reading an essay on Yiddish cinema included in an edited collection on Soviet film: it felt as if it was discussing a separate world, an outlandish discrete universe of people and films that was not even touched upon in any of the other essays. Yiddish film had existed in parallel isolation. It had been part of Soviet life and cinema; its existence would not have been disputed nor denied – but it would not have found a place in this collection if it had not been for a vocal advocate like J. Hoberman to stake for it.7 Same with the Ukrainian-Soviet films of WWII: an invisible parallel cinema was revealing itself, the advocates of which seemed few and far between.8

Mark Donskoi’s The Unvanquished (1945), made at the Kyiv Studios, is one of the rare Soviet films that shows the fate of Ukraine’s Jewish community.

Could it be that these films had somehow accidentally remained out of sight? Maybe they were simply redundant, replaying themes and tropes that had been exhaustively covered within cinema that had stayed within sight?

It was not the case though. A different narrative emerged with astonishing consistency. One that was not about glorious combat but persistently hovered around themes of occupation and extermination. A story of terrorized helpless people who were rounded up and shot indiscriminately, then thrown in mass graves. A story of people losing their children, of people being publicly hanged on the streets, of people being mercilessly destroyed and tormented. A story of despairing women and old folk who try to resist in their desolate villages while the men are absent, having been sent away to fight for the defence of a “Motherland” that is nowhere near home. A story of deeply divided, “wounded communities”9 where some become partisans whilst others succumb to the enemy and become collaborators.10 A story of people who are trapped and who had to sort themselves out however they could, and not everybody is a hero. 

The Ukrainian films acknowledge the systematic and prevalent extermination of local Jews and Roma, in a context where their fellow citizens are disempowered to protect them – as, left to their own devices, locals are also being targeted for slaughter. What emerges from these films is a society that is ideologically much more complex than the story of straightforward resistance, one where not everybody has unreservedly accepted the Sovietisation, a society where many see the arrival of the Germans as an opportunity – and yet, where embracing the enemy is always vehemently condemned. In that, Ukrainian-Soviet films present a different, more nuanced, and intricate narrative on the attitudes to the war.  

And yet, it is precisely those films that are “unknown soldiers”, persistently absent from view. Could it be that they were inadmissible in the Soviet context because of their ambiguity and complexity? Perhaps. But isn’t this precisely the reason for which they are even more important from today’s point of view? Why would they be kept out of view for three decades of reassessment? Why not bring them back and integrate them in a comprehensive post-Soviet narrative of WWII?

Of the “unknown soldier” films that I saw, those by father and son Ivchenko – Ivanna by the father, Viktor Ivchenko (1959), and Annychka by the son, Borys Ivchenko (1969) – are a case in point. They were shown widely and enjoyed huge popularity11 so their exclusion from an integrated Soviet war film “canon” is not due to institutional control over prokat. Yet they do not figure in any scholarship dedicated to Soviet war cinema. The continuous silence that surrounds them in conditions of post-Soviet freedom remains unexplained. Ivanna, a passionately anti-religious film, tells the story of a young woman who, prior and during the war, is systematically betrayed by pious hypocrites and German sympathisers; in fact, there are more collaborators in this film than Soviet supporters. She ends up a hero, fully in line with the demands of socialist realism, yet the film exposes a milieu that is complex to navigate and not ideologically monolithic.12 Annychka (notably scripted by the director’s father, Viktor) is the story of a young Hutsul woman who hides a wounded partisan from the occupiers whilst growing disillusioned with her fiancé employed by the Nazis.13 Like Ivanna, Annychka undergoes a moral ascent and meets with a tragic end. Viktor Ivchenko’s last film, Sofia Hrushko (1972), is another complex story full of ambiguity, where the protagonist first nurses a wounded Soviet soldier back to health but then shoots him in the back under pressure from the German occupiers.

The proud heroine of anti-religious Ivanna (Victor Ivchenko, 1959) is executed for supporting the partisans.

In Annychka (Borys Ivchenko, 1969), Ivan Mikolaychuk plays a tragic character, a disillusioned Ukrainian Hilfspolizei for the occupiers.

Sofia Hrushko (Viktor Ivchenko, 1972), another complex story full of ambiguity.

These two films show ideological splits that run so deep that members of the same family tragically end up on opposing sides.14 I would think that – for this reason – they ought to have been awarded a canonical place in the post-colonial narrative of Soviet WWII cinema. Instead, the only place they currently occupy is alongside other “unknown soldiers”.  

The most painful omission from a post-Soviet WWII film “canon”, as it were, relates to the masterpieces of Ukrainian poetic cinema – like Leonid Osyka’s Khto povernet′sia—doliubyt′  (Who Return, Will Love to the End, 1966), Mykola Mashchenko’s short Dytyna (The Child, 1967), Volodymyr Denysenko’s Sovist′  (Conscience, 1968), and Iurii Illienko’s Bilyi ptakh z chornoiu oznakoiu (The White Bird Marked with Black, 1971). None of these films figure in the monographs dealing with Soviet cinema of WWII; as if Ukraine was never part of the USSR. The only war film that seems to be representative of “poetic cinema” war film seems to be Tarkovsky’s Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan’s Childhood, 1962), a Mosfilm production which, ironically, is set and shot in Ukraine. 

Leonid Osyka’s Who Return, Will Love to the End and Mykola Mashchenko’s The Child are minimalistic masterpieces.15 At 63 minutes long and told in just a few memorable episodes on the background of poems read in a voiceover, Osyka’s film loosely references the stories of Ukrainian poets Volodymir Bulaienko (1918-1944) and Semen Gudzenko (1922-1952), who perished in the war.16 Denysenko’s Conscience (1968) tells of the Nazi massacre of peasants from the villages of Kopiliv and Motyzhyn. The occupiers keep a whole village hostage, blackmailing them to divulge the identity of the resistance fighter who killed some Germans. The film’s memorable and disturbing musical score is by Krzysztof Penderecki; the haunting B&W photography – equally disquieting. 

The Child (Mykola Mashchenko, 1967)

Who Return, Will Love to the End (Leonid Osyka, 1966)

And, Iurii Illienko’s The White Bird Marked with Black; yet another film that shows the deep divisions running within large Hutsul families. Set during WWII in a remote mountainous hamlet in newly annexed Bukovina and evolving around poverty and oppression, the film reveals a context where customary relationships turn untenable and where unprecedented and turbulent outside factors set siblings against one another. Modernising tendencies that are tainted by intolerance penetrate the closely knit community and inevitably destroy the traditional lifestyle. The film’s take on the war is quite different from the traditional narratives of heroic combat; its usage of colour, music, intertwining layers of fairy tale and surrealist poetics positions it closer to the aesthetics of Central East European cinema than any other Soviet war film.

The White Bird Marked with Black (Iurii Illienko, 1971), won the top award at the Moscow festival but was shelved soon thereafter.

Conscience (1968) was not publicly shown at the time.

These poetic films are cinematic masterpieces. They are “unknown soldiers”, too. At the time, they were either censored straightforwardly or promptly shelved. Who Return seems to only have had a single internal screening (in March 1968) and was never released. Conscience was made as a no-budget summer project that involved Denysenko’s students (around the same time as his properly authorised yet unremarkable On the Kyiv Front) and never shown. The White Bird seemed to be different in having earned local support and the blessings of Moscow, and in 1971 it won the top award at the Moscow International Film Festival. Shortly thereafter, however, it was pulled out of circulation.17 

Censorship affected the careers of these directors; it robbed them of recognition. Who Return, for example, directly compares to the work of Paradjanov in its use of tableaux and close-ups, The White Bird – in its use of sprawling complex scenes of mountain village life. In comparing to Paradjanov, a well-known entity, I wonder what the line of influencing is here? Many would think that Illienko and Osyka were inspired by Paradjanov, simply because he is so much better known. I am more inclined to believe, however, that it may well be a case of mutual influencing, where Illienko’s and Osyka’s aesthetics has a definitive and continuous effect on Paradjanov’s work, and of course they all belonged to the same group, working together in Kyiv at the time.18 

Likewise, in analysing Denysenko’s Conscience, I believe it is possible that the film was the prototype for the mise-en-scène of key shots in Elem Klimov’s Idi i smotri (Come and See, 1985).

Aesthetically, these “unknown soldier” films push the expressive means of cinema to profoundly new levels. They use elaborately staged long-shot scenes and unswerving close-ups. They alternate from overexposed B&W cinematography to lavish colour escapades. Their pace of editing and soundtracks are of avant-garde eminence. In every respect they belong alongside the celebrated works of the 1960s poetic cinema of the East Central European tradition, next to the early war and Holocaust classics of master-aesthetes such as František Vláčil, Jan Němec, or Miklós Jancsó. Had these films been made known to the international cinephile community at the time, they would have been celebrated today together with the most renowned masterpieces of Eastern Europe’s poetic cinema. 

Perhaps this is where they belong, after all, both ideologically and aesthetically. They have not been given a place within the hierarchy of Soviet war cinema for the past three decades. Up for grabs, they have been turned into “unknown soldiers” instead. Bringing these films back to visibility in a new, East Central European context would break the silence around them. It would put an end to what comes across – maybe inadvertently but persistently – as a lingering snubbing by “Soviet” film historians. 

Watching these forgotten films felt like encountering “unknown soldiers”. Learning about their directors, however, felt even more so. One can safely say that those who were born in Ukraine and then stayed and worked there never had the chance to enjoy international visibility. Here is an incomplete list of those who made films about WWII: Volodymyr Braun (1896-1957), Oleksii Shvachko (1901-1988), Viktor Ivchenko (1912-1972), Sulamif Tsybul′nyk (1913-1996), Anton Tymonishyn (1921- 1969), Oleh Lentsius (1921-1998), Anatolii Slisarenko (1923-1997),19 Mykola Mashchenko (1929-2013), Volodymyr Denysenko (1930-1984), Iurii Illienko (1936-2010), Leonid Osyka (1940-2001), and Borys Ivchenko (1941-1990). They are known and respected in Ukraine today. Unlike their Russian counterparts, however, nothing has happened in film history scholarship in English since 1991 to give them credit for having been Soviet directors. In this sense, they remain “unknown soldiers”, with no careers. Their films are not admitted to the Soviet canon, so they do not enjoy the high-profile standing and success of their Russian counterparts. Without an exception, their films are overlooked by Soviet war cinema scholarship. Their names do not figure in Western reference publications on Soviet cinema, either.20 It is an absence that amplifies the effect of Ukrainian cinema as an invisible parallel tradition. 

Things were different, however, for those Ukraine-born directors who migrated and settled in Russia. By doing this, they had the chance to qualify for the “canon”. Best-known among them are Oleksandr Dovzhenko (1894-1956), Mark Donskoi (1901-1981), Vera Stroieva (1903-1991), Ihor Savchenko (1906-1950), Roman Karmen (1906-1978), Leonid Lukov (1909-1963), as well as famous singer and heartthrob Mark Bernes (1911-1969). A subcategory includes those who were born in Ukraine but mainly worked in Russia, like Leonid Trauberg (1902-1990), Grigorii Kozintsev (1905-1973), Sergei Bondarchuk (1920-1994), Aleksandr Alov (1923-1983), Natalia Troshchenko (1933-1986), and Larisa Shepit′ko (1938-1979). Some of their films (and significantly those about the war) were made at Ukrainian studios but are known and remembered today because of the affiliation of their directors with various studios in Russia. Only directors of this “transplanted” category evade the “unknown soldiers” fate. I am thinking of directors like Hryhorii/Grigorii Chukhrai (1921-2001) and Petro Todorovs′kyi / Petr Todorovskii (1925-2013) who were born, fought WWII and started their careers in Ukraine, then moved and made most of their war films in Russia. Leonid Bykov (1928-1979) was born and died in Ukraine. His feel-good war films were made at the Dovzhenko studios, but he also worked, as actor and director, at various studios in Russia which gave him higher exposure and secured the inclusion of his oeuvre in the Soviet war film canon. Unlike their Ukrainian counterparts who stayed at home, their names do appear in reference editions, even if not consistently and even sometimes marked as “Russian”. It turns out that, to ensure some visibility for the Ukrainian war experience, migrating to the Russian centre was a must.21 

It is unlikely that the omission of the Ukrainian war films is a plot by empire-loving Soviet film historians. Yet, the fact is that that the “unknown soldiers” have been and remain in a blind spot. Should Soviet specialists decide it is worth integrating them into the master narrative of war cinema, there are some bits of information that ought to be made available, in my opinion. 

For example, we currently lack – and I am talking of English-language scholarship mainly – a comprehensive and systematic overview of all films produced in the USSR, broken down by republics, studios, and viewership numbers. Had this been available on some internationally-accessible website, for example, it would give an idea of the proportion of Russian films in comparison to the republican outputs. I speculate that the Ukrainian films would turn out to be around a sizeable 20% of the Soviet totals (with another 25% at least counting toward the production of all other republics).22 This would leave the films made in Russia at about 55 or so percent – yet they are consistently spoken of as synonymous with the whole of Soviet cinema. Such “unpacking”, once carried out – besides allowing us to establish the factual proportion between films from the republics versus those made in Russia as well as the real number and proportion of “unknown soldiers” that ought to be included in a comprehensive Soviet film history – would permit for many conclusions that we are currently not empowered to make. 

Then, one must have clarity on the full spread and logistics of the control mechanisms that film authorities in Moscow exercised regarding films made in the republics. Whilst censorship is a recurring theme of investigation, the knowledge related to the republics is anecdotal and episodic at best. It is known that decisions in areas related to scripts approval, to the language in which films were made (and to dubbing), to distribution, to festival exposure, and to archival availability were all made centrally. 

We know of many instances of interference in scripts and in the language of a film, but there is no comprehensive study that would reveal the real extent of the problem nor would allow to verify if films from the republics were censored more severely. Everybody suffered censorship, but for those in Kyiv the censor was far away in Moscow, so reversal of decisions was more difficult – if not impossible – to achieve. It may turn out it is correct to claim that Ukrainians were subjected to a double censorship burden, first locally and in line with the domestic censorship logic, and then centrally, at Goskino in Moscow (effectively meaning those affected had no access or redress due to geographical distance)? If such comprehensive information becomes available, I speculate, it will likely reveal that there was a higher censorship threshold affecting Ukrainian filmmakers. 

As I already mentioned, all the features from the “poetic” range suffered censorship, both domestically and centrally. And this is in addition to various restrictive and repressive measures applied to their directors, depriving them of serious career prospects within the Soviet realm and turning them into the “unknown soldiers” that never come close to being included in the canon. Both Mykolaichuk and Illienko, as well as Leonid Osyka, who had assisted with the project, were labelled Ukrainian nationalists, and suffered repercussions in the 1960s; Denysenko had already served five years for Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism. 

There were various other tricks as well – like the control over prokat – that may account for the continued invisibility of the “unknown soldier” films. But the denial of distribution was not practiced consistently. It would be essential, therefore, that future diligent historiographers produce a full overview on these matters, as well a statistical assessment of the spread and frequency of distribution suppression. Were the Ukrainian films routinely withheld from international film festivals, for example? The evidence is contradictory, even if – as a film festival historian – I speculate that they were: it appears that most of the Ukrainian films were shown at the All-Union festivals and other domestic events but only a few were sent to festivals abroad – especially if one compares with the Russian films that played at festivals.23 To be able to assess the balance of “stick and carrot”, a systematic study would also need to give account on awards and other accolades, both domestic and international.

Further, we need – and currently do not have – easily accessible republic-specific and comprehensive information on which precisely are the 300 or so previously censored Soviet films that were released during perestroika by the commission headed by Elem Klimov. Were there Ukrainian films among them? Which ones? A copy of Conscience, for example, was found and restored by the director’s son, Oleksandr Denysenko, in the late 1980s and only screened for the first time in Kyiv in 1991. It does not seem that the film has ever been considered by the special perestroika commission. I am of the impression that many of the Ukrainian censored films were not part of this “release” and have never been morally restored to glory. If this turns out correct, would it be safe to say that the “rehabilitation” of suppressed films had not been as Soviet-wide as believed?24 

And archives. All films had to be deposited in Moscow, and it is known that after the end of the USSR Gosfilmofond has not been systematic nor particularly forthcoming in returning copies of deposited films to the republican archives.25 Which of the war films have been returned? Assuming that there were copies of all the “unknown soldiers” films at Gosfilmofond at the time when Western Soviet film historians visited for research, would it be safe to assume that colleagues were simply not shown these copies? I speculate that researchers who worked in the context of the characteristic scarcity of earlier decades had limited access and simply could not have seen these films. These times are now gone, however. With the new online availability, there is no more excuse for continuous oversights. Most outputs of the Soviet regional film studios are a mouse click away.26

Allegiance to the Soviet state had “literally ruled the lives of Soviet filmmakers from the late 1920s to the end of the Soviet era,” film historian Ian Christie observed.27 With the end of the Soviet Union, however, there was no longer a despotic state to regulate the repressive “use of peer-criticism” nor to impose “institutional control of interpretation.” Upholding the canon was no longer required; overbearing structures were being dismantled and familiar institutions of “canon maintenance” had collapsed. The time for reassessment had come, Christie noted. It remained to be seen if and how the canon would expand. He wondered “whether scholars can survive their new freedoms” and “overcome the inertia” in “recharting the Soviet labyrinth.”28

It is three decades later now. The “Soviet labyrinth” was not recharted. Film historiography – and, again, here I am talking of what is published in English – approached the end of the Soviet Union in low-key haste. A division of film heritage took place after 1991, done with shy avoidance. “Soviet” became almost synonymous with “Russian”. A certain type of canon maintenance (even canon widening) prevailed, as far as Russian cinema was concerned. Soviet films made in the multicultural periphery of the republics were treated as a local (and somehow irrelevant) affair. They were no longer of concern. It was left to regional film historians to deal with them: to pick and talk them up in line with the vested interest of their newly emancipated territories.29 Done and dusted.  

Most scholarship on Soviet, Stalinist and war film turned inwards and became introspectively Russian. The field was large enough already; it was not practical to try tackling the dynamics and agenda of its multiple others. In the process, Ukrainian Soviet cinema was curtailed, pushed into a parallel and self-contained world. The Ukrainian war films became “unknown soldiers”. 

These days I hear many in the Slavic field talking of “soul searching” and “decolonising”. To decolonise, however, one must acknowledge and engage with the realities of colonialism – past and present. One does not decolonise by neatly dividing the cinematic heritage and each going one’s own way. The hyphenated lives of those who traded home for better visibility must be recognised: their becoming “Soviet” (by becoming “Russian” first) was done at the expense of sacrificing their Ukrainian identity. Restoring Ukrainian films to visibility alongside the Russian ones must come as part of a process that would identify suppressed narratives and integrate them in a new, comprehensive history of Soviet war film. A new “canon”, more inclusive and complex, will then come about. The teaching on these matters – which now tends to consist of rushed initiatives to shift the focus away from “baddies” on to “goodies” – must seek undoing through integration. Only then it would manage to counteract the germinating sprouts of nationalist historiography.30 To defeat colonialism, scholarship would need to engage with all involved. No “unknown soldiers” left behind.


  1. No Unknown Soldiers (Nema nevidomykh soldativ / Net neizvetsnykh soldat) is the title of a Soviet-Ukrainian WWII film made in 1965 at the Dovzhenko Studios by Sulamif Tsybulnyk. As is the case with many female directors, her work is little known today.
  2. These films are productions of the Kyiv Studio, some made during the period of its evacuation in Ashgabat (credited to either one or both studios) and some after restoring operations in Kyiv. Dovzhenko’s documentaries are credited to the Central and Kyiv Newsreel Studios whilst Two Soldiers – to the Tashkent studio.
  3. This period roughly overlaps with two periods defined in Denise Youngblood’s authoritative 2007 study on WWII film (The Thaw 1956-1966, and Stagnation 1967-1971). Denise Youngblood, Russian War Films: On the Cinema Front, 1914-2005 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2007).
  4. The few relevant films that are mentioned in books on Soviet (Kenez, 1992) or Russian (Youngblood, 2007) war cinema, are not specifically identified as Ukrainian. See Peter Kenez, Cinema and Soviet Society, 1917-1953 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) and Youngblood, Russian War Films. More importantly, no war films made in Ukrainian SSR after the end of WWII are considered by these authors. It is only Jay Leyda (1983) who lists some of the Ukraine-made films in an appendix to his study KINO: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (A Study of the Development of Russian Cinema, from 1986 to the Present) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, (1960) 1983). One is left with the impression that scholars feel free to help themselves to Ukrainian films whenever convenient: even the most popular post-war Ukrainian films are ignored by Youngblood; indeed, her book’s title suggests it deals with “Russian cinema”. This focus on Russian cinema, however, is not paramount in the instance where she is discussing the Ukrainian film Rainbow by Donskoi, without identifying its provenance. The only hint to the fact this is a Ukraine-set film is made in an endnote which comments on an exchange between traitor Pusya and her sister, the schoolteacher Olga, who says: “I can’t believe we had the same mother. You didn’t have a Russian mother (emphasis added)” (note 31, p. 267). “This is an extremely interesting comment,” Youngblood remarks, “coming as it does from a clearly Ukrainian character.” Unfortunately, all the “unpacking” of the juxtaposition Russian-Ukrainian ends here.
  5. Vitaly Chernetsky seems to be the only one of the Slavists working in English-language academia to give systematic attention to Ukrainian war films; he has written on a number of them over the years. His essay on Annychka (and a piece by Herbert Eagle on The White Bird Marked with Black) can be found in a special issue on Ukrainian cinema, guest-edited by Chernetsky, which appeared in 2009 under the umbrella of Kinokultura, an online journal specialised in Russian cinema. Vitaly Chernetsky, Annychka’s Anomaly: A Daughter’s Rebellion in a ‘Non-Soviet’ Soviet War Film,” Kinokultura, 2009. Herbert Eagle, “How Poetic Structure Counters Socialist Realist Narrative in Illienko’s White Bird with a Black Spot,” Kinokultura, 2009. Chernetsky, “Between the Poetic and the Documentary: Ukrainian Cinema’s Responses to World War II” in Contested Interpretations of the Past in Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian Film: Screen as Battlefield, Sander Brouwer, ed. (Leiden: Brill/Rodopi, 2016), pp. 1-21.
  6. In fact, as in 2022-2023 I gave several talks on Ukrainian cinema, the reaction of colleagues invariably was “we have never heard of the films and filmmakers you were talking about.”
  7. J. Hoberman, “A Face to the Shtetl: Soviet Yiddish Cinema, 1924-36” in Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema, Richard Taylor and Ian Christie, eds. (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 124-151.
  8. Jeremy Hicks’ book on Soviet Holocaust cinema, where most discussed films are of Ukrainian Soviet provenance, and Joshua First’s book on Dovzhenko Studios in the 1960s could be considered as expressions of such advocacy, engaged with uncovering unknown territories that have been – and still are – hidden somewhere for many decades. Jeremy Hicks, First Films of the Holocaust: Soviet Cinema and the Genocide of the Jews, 1938-1946 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012); Joshua First, Ukrainian Cinema: Belonging and Identity During the Soviet Thaw (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015).
  9. Leyda, p. 386. In English-language scholarship, Leyda is the only author to acknowledge the personal losses Ukrainian members of the film community suffered. He details the tragic death of Dovzhenko’s father during the siege (p. 386) and reports that during shooting of Donskoi’s Rainbow in Ashgabad actor Anton Dunais′kyi’s family had been “driven off to German slavery” and actress Elena Tiapkina had “received notification of the death of her son” (p. 387).
  10. Larisa Shepitko’s Voskhozhdenie (Ascent, 1977) is often hailed as the first Soviet film to feature a tragically complex collaborator. Such characters, however, were persistently present in almost all Ukrainian war films. Shepitko worked fully in line with this tradition.
  11. Ivanna was seen by 30 million viewers; Annychka – by more than 25 million.
  12. V. Ivchenko’s last film, Sofia Hrushko (1972), is another complex story full of ambiguity, where the protagonist first nurses a wounded Soviet soldier back to health but then shoots him in the back under pressure from the German occupiers.
  13. The fiancé is played by Ivan Mykolaichuk, Ukrainian SSR’s most important actor: a memorable and involved performance.
  14. In that, they not only come in the footsteps of Heorhii Stabovyi’s acclaimed classic Dva dni (Two Days, 1927) but are immediately related to key films about Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, such as Vitaly Mansky’s Ridni/Rodnye (Close Relations, 2016) and Andrei Loshak’s Razryv sviazi (Broken Ties, 2022).
  15. A detailed account on the convoluted gestational history of Osyka’s film can be found in First, pp. 144-150. The Child is only 18 minutes long and yet miraculously ascetic and humane. Commemorating the tenth anniversary of Mashchenko’s death, Ukrainian-born film historian Evgenii Margolit recently wrote, with great passion, about this film (Facebook, 2 May 2023). See also Margolit, “Война в нашем кино,” Амурские волны, 2022.
  16. The film is bilingual, and the poems are read in a voice over. Bulaienko wrote in Ukrainian, and Gudzenko, who was Jewish, wrote in Russian. The film also contains an episode that reconstructs a Porraimos massacre of a group of travellers, thus recognising the Nazi extermination of the Roma – a genocide that remains overlooked.
  17. Conceived by actor (and screenwriter, in this case) Ivan Mykolaichuk, the film was effectively censored twice. At the pre-production stage, a Goskino request had to be satisfied to make the character of the communist brother more complex. Mykolaichuk, who originally intended to play the nationalist brother, was asked to swap roles and play the communist. The film’s shelving after winning the Moscow International Film Festival turned it invisible within the USSR – yet it played internationally in the Soviet bloc. A Bulgarian friend who is today a senior ethnographic scholar told me that seeing this film at a cinema in Sofia had given him a decisive impetus in choosing his career.
  18. Sergei Paradjanov’s Tini zabutykh predkiv (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, 1965) was shot by Illienko. It is largely due to its exquisite cinematography that the film is celebrated internationally. All credit, however, traditionally goes to Paradjanov whilst Illienko remains little known. Yet Parajanov’s entire oeuvre up to 1965 is plain and aesthetically unremarkable. Thinking of the full artistic oeuvre of both directors, when it comes down to innovative experimentation with the film form, colour, and composition, and with his exploration of folk culture and magic realist elements, for the history of cinema Illienko is at least as important as Paradjanov.
  19. Slisarenko is a controversial figure who came under suspicion of having been a collaborator during the war.
  20. Richard Taylor, Nancy Wood, Julian Graffy, and Dina Iordanova, eds., The BFI Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema (London: BFI Publishing, 2000).
  21. There is also Iuliia Solntseva, the larger part of whose directorial career is intricately linked to the Ukraine. The first woman ever in the history of cinema to have received the award for best director at the Cannes Film Festival – in 1961, for Povest plamennykh let (The Flaming Years, 1960) – she made war films but stays in a category of her own; she is still to be properly included in the international canon on Soviet war cinema. Russian-born Solntseva married Dovzhenko and worked as co-director on all his films made after 1939, most notably the wartime documentaries. After his death she completed several war films from his unrealised scripts: The Flaming Years, Zacharovannaia Desna (The Enchanted Desna, 1964) and Nezabyvaemoe/Nezabutnie (The Unforgettable, 1967). The first two were Mosfilm productions, whilst the latter was co-produced with Kyiv. She also completed Poema o more (Poem of the Sea, 1958) from Dovzhenko’s script, about the glorious construction of the Kakhovka Dam.
  22. And, respectively, I expect the Ukrainian WWII films to be a similar proportion of all Soviet WWII films.
  23. Festival appearances have led to an honorary diploma for The Unvanquished (at Venice, 1946), a best debut award for Faithfulness (Venice, 1965), and to a second prize at the 2nd Phnom Penh international film festival for Annychka (1969).
  24. Youngblood (p. 154) discusses the high-profile release by the commission of three notoriously shelved films: Komissar (Commissar, Aleksandr Askoldov, 1967), Angel (Andrei Smirnov, 1967) and Interventsiia (Intervention, Gennadiy Poloka, 1967). Made at Russian studios, all three happen to be set in Ukraine (respectively, in Berdychiv, Chernihiv, and Odesa). This makes me I wonder if there was something specifically about films set in Ukraine that made them more likely to be banned?
  25. One well-known anecdote relates to the classical Georgian film Buba (1930) by Nutsa Gogoberidze (1903-1966), which had been declared lost. A Georgian researcher, however, came across a copy of it whilst researching at Gosfilmofond in 2013. It took some diplomatic effort and three years until a copy was repatriated in 2016.
  26. The problem of textual unavailability used to be paramount until recently and can explain away some of the blind spots. I remember well the 1990s when I started researching film and teaching on war cinema. It was extremely difficult to find copies of the films and information about them; we had to work with the few films that friends would indulge in sending in the mail, invariably videocassette recordings that made the films look grainy and uneven, and that deteriorated rapidly. With digitalisation, however, this seems largely resolved. Film historians enjoy an era of unprecedented abundance of material and ease of access. Nearly everything – and especially old obscure films – can be found on YouTube, usually made available by the institutions that hold the rights, in this instance organisations such as Odesa Film Studios or the Lviv Film Centre. The more I was seeing, the more war films – also from Belarus, Moldova, Central Asia – popped up. For the time being, Google’s mysterious algorithm serves as a more reliable guide through the multicultural universe of Soviet films about WWII thаn scholarly books.
  27. Ian Christie, “Canons and Careers: The Director in Soviet Cinema” in Stalinism and Soviet Cinema, Richard Taylor and Derek Spring, eds. (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 144-146.
  28. Ibid, p. 170.
  29. The work of Ukrainian film historians is generally treated as work on national culture not hugely relevant to “Soviet”. Nonetheless, English-language scholarship on Ukrainian cinema is growing these days. Prior to the Russian invasion, however, it was limited to the French-language Histoire du cinéma ukrainien (1896-1995) by Lubomir Hosejko and the monograph by Joshua First (2015). There was Bohdan Y. Nebesio’s 2011 article, which gives an overview of the scholarship (and mentions works by Ukrainian specialists such as Larysa Briukhovetska, Serhii Trymbach and others), as well as two edited journal issues (Kinokultura, 2010, guest edited by Vitaly Chernetsky; Canadian Slavonic Papers, 2014, guest edited by Serhy Yekelchyk). In 2021, the Dovzhenko Centre in Kyiv produced a list of the “100 most important Ukrainian films,” which stakes out several key claims to Soviet Ukrainian films that Russianists are still not prepared to let go of (like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, a 1927 VUFKU production). The many examples of “borrowing” back and forth between Russian and Ukrainian cinema will persist. Lubomir Hosejko, Histoire du cinéma ukrainien (1896-1995) (Die: Éditions à Die, 2001); Bohdan Y. Nebesio, “Are We There Yet?: Studies of National Cinema in Ukraine,” Canadian Slavonic Papers, Vol. LIII, Nos. 2-3-4 (June-Sept-Dec 2011): pp. 475-485.
  30. Including the hateful historiography practiced by Russia’s most decorated film director, Nikita Mikhalkov, on his Besogon online channel.

About The Author

Dina Iordanova is a film historian, now Emeritus Professor in Global Cinema at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. She is widely published, mainly on issues of European (East European, Balkan, Soviet) and Asian cinema, and on film festivals. She has taught modules on War and Cinema since the 1990s, at the University of Texas at Austin and at St Andrews. She has worked internationally, in North America, Europe and Asia, teaching on a variety of matters, from documentary to transnational film circulation. In recent years, she has served as a jury member at film festivals in Busan, Yamagata, Amsterdam (IDFA), Tallinn, Rome, and elsewhere.

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