May 10, 2019

A Dangerous Film about Dangerous Wars


A Dangerous Film about Dangerous Wars
Still from Братство. Loco Films

Another day, another controversial film that almost didn’t make it to the big screen. Pavel Lungin’s new war film Братство is based on the memoirs of Nikolai Kovalev, a former head of the FSB who served in the Soviet-Afghan War from 1988 to 1989, and who died only two months before the film was scheduled to premiere. The storyline follows one of the last Soviet contingents to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1988.

In keeping with the military theme, Братство (whose international release title is Leaving Afghanistan) was originally scheduled to debut on Victory Day. However, in April the State Duma, citing veterans’ concerns, censured the film for allegedly depicting soldiers as “marauders, alcoholics, rabble who only did harm.” The Ministry of Culture decided to “relieve social tension” by moving the premiere date to May 10, which is today.

Conventional Tactics

To some extent, this is not surprising. Those following the arrest (and recent release) of director Kirill Serebrennikov, and familiar with the controversy around the 2017 film Matilda, know that the Russian government uses every tool in its arsenal to persecute politically “subversive” films and filmmakers. But there’s something different about the Братство controversy. Lungin supported the annexation of Crimea in 2014. So while he might be critical of the government now, his political views aren’t usually far off the beaten path.

Still from Братство
Still from Братство. / Loco Films

More importantly, there isn’t really any way to tackle the subject matter of Братство without a dose of bleakness. It would be one thing if Братство were about World War II, which occupies an increasingly sacred space in Russian historical memory. But Братство is about the Soviet-Afghan War, which was fought mostly out of the public eye, drained state resources from a stagnant economy, and, after ten years of stalemate, ended in a humiliating retreat. Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War tells story after story of soldiers tricked by recruiters into fighting, mothers forced to bury their sons in secret, and Communists scarred by the war but desperately clinging to their faith in the Party. Even the most recent popular film about the war, Девятая рота (The Ninth Company), ends on a hopeless note. So Lungin’s pessimistic take is actually par for the course.

Hysterics of Shriekers

Is Братство even good? Advance reviews generally like it, with the occasional complaint about pacing or depth of characterization. Moskvich compares Братство favorably to the aforementioned Девятая рота, and praises the film’s “bumpy, sickening drive, which never allows the viewer to get bored,” though in parts it complains about slow pacing. Kommersant takes issue with a thinly sketched cast that mostly conforms to war movie clichés. Nevertheless, it considers the film’s candid take on a long, fruitless war “refreshingly uncomfortable.”

According to Znak, Братство is a good old-fashioned action movie as much as it is anti-war. “There’s lots of shooting and explosions in it, and even a traditional bar fight,” says the review. “This is definitely not an art-house film for highbrow critics: it is truly interesting to watch.” Intermedia admires the film’s portrait of the final years of the Soviet Union. To its reviewer, the film is “not about war so much as the collapse of a great country,” a feeling that the soundtrack (which liberally uses 1980s Soviet rock songs) captures perfectly.

Still from Братство
Still from Братство. / Loco Films

There is a vague sense that the backlash has become an unintended publicity stunt. The Russian branch of Radio France notes that “Nothing in particular diverges from the official position on the Afghan war” and wonders if there would be such an outcry if Kovalev, whose memoirs inspired the film, were still alive. Meanwhile, Intermedia snarks: “There is an unhealthy stir around the film […] created out of thin air. However, if it helps Братство at the box office, then the hysterics of shriekers [истерики кликуш] will have been somewhat useful.”

A Ticking Time Bomb

“Искусство должно пережевывать что-то, что происходит с человеком.”

So what is so dangerous about Братство? Not the film itself, it seems, so much as Lungin’s prolific remarks on the controversy. Lungin thinks the backlash has partly to do with the suppressed trauma of wars that were not as amenable to public glorification as World War II. At a closed premiere in Yekaterinburg, he said, “Art has to chew on [пережевывать] that which happens to people. There is absolutely no outlet for any real problems in society. There are no Afghan films, no Chechen films, it all rots on the inside.” To Komsomolskaya pravda, he separately lamented: “Unfortunately, our people do not want problems, even on the screen. This is maybe the most dangerous thing: there is a future for people with problems because they solve them. But we don’t even watch movies that appeal to people, to their conscience and memory, and demand moral work on themselves.” People would rather get swept up in the sacralization of one successful war than remember the wars that weren’t victorious.

Still from Братство
Still from Братство. / Loco Films

What’s also worth remembering is that Братство is premiering in a different context from Alexievich’s Zinky Boys or even Девятая рота, which debuted in 2005. Currently, Russia is fighting a stagnant war in Ukraine and stepping up its military presence in Syria. Although the casualties and duration of these wars have yet to match the Soviet-Afghan War, Lungin hints at a parallel. “I think we ought to really learn from the past that war is not the solution to our domestic problems,” he tells The Moscow Times. And of course, any comparison of contemporary wars to the war that helped end the Soviet Union pays no compliments to the people currently in power. “The Soviet Union fell not long after the withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Lungin tells Izvestia, “and the connection between these two events is obvious to me.” Would Putin’s regime fall if Russia withdrew from Syria or Ukraine? Evidently, some find the implication hard to bear.

On its own, Lungin’s Братство is not unusual for a Soviet-Afghan War film. It is the context in which it was produced that makes it dangerous. It seems fitting that a war film has become a weapon in a larger war: a war over how to remember conflict and celebrate victories while reckoning with the losses and trauma of war.

You Might Also Like

Afghanistan: Distant Drums
  • January 01, 2009

Afghanistan: Distant Drums

This February is the 20th anniversary of the final withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan.
The Committee for the Wounded
  • July 01, 2014

The Committee for the Wounded

Two hundred years ago, in the wake of the Napoleonic war, Russia established a committee to take care of soldiers wounded in war.
Russians Return
  • March 01, 2010

Russians Return

Twenty years after Soviet troops left Afghanistan in defeat, Russians have returned. What does this suggest for the future course of American intervention in the region?
Afghanistan: A Second Chance?
  • February 20, 2009

Afghanistan: A Second Chance?

Thirty years ago, in 1979, the Persian Gulf was a tinderbox. On January 16, following months of uprisings, the Shah of Iran was overthrown. One month later, it looked like Afghanistan’s turn. The Soviet-backed thugs running the country had imposed radical social reforms, sparking a civil war and threatening pro-Soviet rule...
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar is a hilarious and insightful memoir by a diplomat who was “present at the creation” of US-Soviet relations. Charles Thayer headed off to Russia in 1933, calculating that if he could just learn Russian and be on the spot when the US and USSR established relations, he could make himself indispensable and start a career in the foreign service. Remarkably, he pulled it of.
Steppe / Степь (bilingual)

Steppe / Степь (bilingual)

This is the work that made Chekhov, launching his career as a writer and playwright of national and international renown. Retranslated and updated, this new bilingual edition is a super way to improve your Russian.
The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.
The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (bilingual)

The Frogs Who Begged for a Tsar (bilingual)

The fables of Ivan Krylov are rich fonts of Russian cultural wisdom and experience – reading and understanding them is vital to grasping the Russian worldview. This new edition of 62 of Krylov’s tales presents them side-by-side in English and Russian. The wonderfully lyrical translations by Lydia Razran Stone are accompanied by original, whimsical color illustrations by Katya Korobkina.
Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

Davai! The Russians and Their Vodka

In this comprehensive, quixotic and addictive book, Edwin Trommelen explores all facets of the Russian obsession with vodka. Peering chiefly through the lenses of history and literature, Trommelen offers up an appropriately complex, rich and bittersweet portrait, based on great respect for Russian culture.
The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

This exciting new trilogy by a Russian author – who has been compared to Orhan Pamuk and Umberto Eco – vividly recreates a lost world, yet its passions and characters are entirely relevant to the present day. Full of mystery, memorable characters, and non-stop adventure, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is a must read for lovers of historical fiction and international thrillers.  
Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955