October 24, 2021

Biopics: Monarchs, Heroes, and Their Fans

Biopics: Monarchs, Heroes, and Their Fans
Theater "Aurora," St. Petersburg Petersburg24

This blog post is the second in a series on learning about Russia through its films.

Looking at the death mask of someone famous is an awe-inspiring experience. They inspire awe because the truth that these masks present is both silent and laconic; you cannot argue with what they are saying without words.

Feature films based on the biographies of prominent personalities are wholly different in this respect, in that they often do speak sentiments that can be argued with, such as: “It wasn't like that!", "They were different!", or "Don't touch the past with your dirty hands!" Biopics are often scolded either for their lack of imagination or for an overabundance of it, but still viewers continue to seek them out every year. They often want to see heroes from the past find a second, third, or even fourth life through the world of cinema. 

The following are 11 remarkable contemporary Russian biopics. These films came to the screen just when we, the descendants, needed our heroes the most. 

Tsar (2009)


Tsar is a film by Pavel Lungin about Ivan the Terrible and his confrontational relationship with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Filip. It also depicts his oprichniki, secret-police servants of the tsar who brought death to anyone that was accused of being a traitor or just standing in their way. Some viewers, among them historians and state officials, have regarded the film as inaccurate and a parody of Russian history and the Russian people.

The role of Ivan the Terrible was played by Pyotr Mamonov, a musician and philosopher in addition to being an actor. His own personality is such that he wears the Tsar's kaftan with ease. In one interview, Pyotr Mamonov said that it was difficult to play the Russian tsar, who was a man that could make an army shudder with a single raise of an eyebrow. He succeeded so much in this role that at one point during the film, you freeze and are filled with horror, a credit to Mamonov’s acting abilities.

Grigory R. (2014)

Title card for Grigory R.

Grigory Rasputin, a mystical man of his imperial majesty, who was killed in a murderous conspiracy, comes back to life onscreen. Not only does he make his return in one film, but in several films at once: in the Russian-French film Raspoutine, with Gerard Depardieu in the title role, which was released just a few years before the series Grigory R.


The Admiral (2008)


A story about the life, love, and death of Admiral Alexander Kolchak, Vice Admiral of the early-20th-century Imperial Russian Navy and explorer of the Arctic.

Kolchak, played by Konstantin Khabensky, is true to himself, his country, and his woman. The film serves as a belated recognition of a scientist and admiral whose name in Soviet times was synonymous with the anti-Bolshevik enemy. The film is not a story about the White Army, but instead a humble man not seeking to find his place in history. It was history itself that chose him, formed him, and left him with no chance to live his own, peaceful life.  

Trotsky (2017)

Movie poster for Trotsky

In 2017, actor Konstantin Khabensky, who played Kolchak, found himself on the other side of the barricades from The Admiral and brilliantly played the role of Trotsky in the TV series of the same name. 





Dovlatov (2018)

dovlatov movie poster
Movie poster for Dovlatov

The Russian writer Sergei Dovlatov died at the age of 48 in New York, not having lived to see himself rise to his modern status as the favorite writer of millions and his works recognized as modern classics. In Alexei German Jr.'s film, we see Dovlatov in Leningrad in 1971. He is surrounded by his friends, poets and black-market peddlers, but still suffers from loneliness and the fact that his works cannot be published and read in light of the reality of Soviet times. 

In addition to Dovlatov himself, played by Serbian actor Milan Marić, the poet Joseph Brodsky appears as a character in the film. Dovlatov is facing exile and preparing to emigrate; Dovlatov can’t think of leaving his home or those familiar to him, who also live within his stories. 


His Wife's Diary (2000)

poster for His Wife's Diary
Movie poster for His Wife's Diary

Among the most interesting and memorable recent biopics is that told by director Alexei Uchitel in the film His Wife's Diary. The film is about Ivan Bunin, Russian writer and Nobel Prize winner. The movie is filmed in such a way that it succeeds in transporting the viewer into 1930s France, while at the same time showing the life, love triangle and all, of this writer-immigrant there. The role of Ivan Bunin is played by the outstanding actor/director Andrei Smirnov.   



Three Seconds/Going Vertical (2018)

poster for "Three Seconds"
Movie poster for Three Seconds 

This film tells the story of the players of the USSR basketball team and their victory over the American team at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. The film was well received with audiences and became a “100% Russian” blockbuster. Not all members of the real legendary national team and their relatives approved of the film, but the viewers fell in love with the characters and the story of the team’s win. 

While watching this film, chances are you will feel like you're at the stadium, as the game itself is filmed so that every shot resonates in your heart. 

Sports is one of the most popular themes in contemporary Russian cinema. For Russians winning means to conquer, to play means to fight to the end, so it comes as no surprise that opponents are sometimes viewed like wartime enemies.


Legend No.17 (2013)

poster for legend no 17
Movie poster for Legend No. 17

A film about hockey forward Valery Kharlamov, Legend No. 17 has become one of the best examples of a sports-patriotic film of the last decade. A “battle on the ice” consisting of a series of hockey matches between the USSR and Canada are portrayed in this film, and legend and fiction are intertwined with historical facts. The role of the tough and honest coach training a sports legend was played in the film by well-known actor Oleg Menshikov


Brezhnev (2005)

poster for brezhnev
Movie poster for Brezhnev

A mini-series for the leisurely viewer who is interested in seeing the era when socialism had fully developed in the Soviet Union, and see it through the eyes of an aging leader as he arrives at his final autumn. His dreams and his realities, his memories, boar hunting, conversations with his wife, illness, and love—everything is mixed up in the home of the General Secretary before his passing and the subsequent departure of an entire era.



Vlasik: Stalin's Shadow (2017)

Poster for Vlasik
Movie poster for Vlasik

Films and TV series about Stalin rarely feature the leader of the nation himself as the main protagonist. More often, the protagonists are part of the inner circle or relatives, like in Stalin's Wife and Vasily Stalin in His Father's Shadow. The main figure is oftentimes hidden in the shadows, but there is no doubt who this movie is about. The film series Vlasik: Stalin's Shadow tells the story of the life of Stalin's bodyguard, who spent decades by his side. The leader himself appears to the viewer as a lonely, misunderstood man who must be protected, sometimes even from himself.


Sobibor (2018)

Sobibor movie poster
Movie poster for Sobibor

This film takes place in a Nazi death camp in 1943 and is based on the story of Alexander Pechersky, a real-life Jewish lieutenant in the Soviet army. He was just one of many at Sobibór, but it was he who was able to rouse the other men who had already accepted their fate and organize an uprising of the camp. The film was directed by Konstantin Khabensky, who played the title role himself. The head officer of the death camp in the film was played by the French-American actor Christopher Lambert

Sobibor is one of very few Russian films about the Holocaust. The film leaves the audience with an open ending, showing only that the prisoners escape from the camp to meet their fate, whether that be liberation, death, or betrayal. But the audience does see Pechersky find his way back to the Soviet army. Later, after the war, he returns to Rostov-on-Don, where he lives until the age of 80. His heroic act wouldn’t be recognized for many decades. 


– By Kate Skorodinskaya
With editing by Hannah Halliday

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