Issue 50 (2015) : Special Feature KiKu-50

Nikolai Dostal’: Penal Battalion (Shtrafbat, 2005)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks© 2015

A Turning Point in Collective Memory

shtrafbatIn looking back at post-Soviet cinema’s approaching quarter-century, I want to reflect upon the TV series Penal Battalion (Shtrafbat, 2005), not because it escaped attention or was neglected (in fact it enjoyed popular and critical success, and has been widely and insightfully analyzed by many of the leading scholars of Russian film and media—see Beumers 2009; Hutchings and Rulyova 2009; Norris 2012; Prokhorov 2006), but rather because from today’s vantage point the series has gained further in significance and prominence as symbolizing a turning point, marking a shift in Russian attitudes towards the Soviet past in general, and more specifically to World War Two and Stalin’s crimes. Its contribution to the recalibration of collective memory is echoed by its position within its format, where it stands out as one of the most accomplished examples of the Russian TV serial, itself a distinctive and prominent post-Soviet Russian cultural form. Penal Battalion is indicative of the overall shift in that genre from an emphasis upon the contemporary and crime to one on historical themes. But it is the nature of the film’s molding of Russian attitudes to the Soviet past for which it demands our attention. The series both reflects and shapes a wider shift in perceptions of the Stalinist past, and to World War Two, that has defined the last ten years of Russian views of the past and memory politics. Initially it was not clear that this represented a break. Thus, when Penal Battalion was first broadcast, it was possible for observers to interpret the series as part of the ongoing reappraisal of World War Two not as glorious, but as a largely destructive enterprise. This reading can draw on the fact that the series touches upon a number of subjects that were either taboo or rarely depicted in Soviet and even post-Soviet representations of the war: the prisoners of war captured by the Nazis and their harsh treatment as traitors when they managed to escape to their own side; the Nazis’ enlisting of Soviets, including ethnic Russians, to the Nazi anti-Bolshevik cause; the use of penal battalions recruited from the Gulag; wartime Soviet anti-semitism; the counter-productive actions of the NKVD during the war, and other topics that all might be part of an attempt to rethink memory of the war as other than ennobling and nationally unifying. Writing at the time, it was possible to see the series in the light of what had come before, as continuing the critical attitude to the war and anti-militarist culture of the glasnost period.

However, what is extraordinary about Penal Battalion is that it tackles all of these divisive themes, yet successfully integrates them into a new myth of World War Two, one which it serves to unite and reconcile the whole nation: kulak, Communist, priest and thief. In a sense, its narrative succeeds in making concrete the often replayed defense of the Stalinist terror as being retrospectively justified or redeemed by victory in the war: the inmates of the Gulag are ennobled before our eyes. By showing that even prisoners from the Gulag felt national pride and were willing to sacrifice themselves for their country, militarism and patriotism themselves are redeemed.

shtrafbatAll of this is significant, precisely because the subsequent 10 years have seen memory of the war elevated to an ever higher status, playing an ever more uplifting role in Russian culture. Of course, we might point to other particular films, such as The Star (Zvezda, 2002, dir. Nikolai Lebedev), as does Greg Carleton (2011), which came earlier and may be seen as playing an important role in relegitimizing the war film. But Penal Battalion’s significance lies in the way in which it combines this change of emphasis with (and at the same time downplays memory of the Gulag and collectivization) divisive memories that do not foster trust and belief in the Russian state, nor a sense of triumphalism and Russian superiority. While Stalin’s crimes have not been denied outright or entirely forgotten, the attention directed at the war makes them seem less relevant. But Penal Battalion goes further, by not just overshadowing the Gulag, but by explicitly rescuing it and its overwhelmingly criminal inmates for patriotic meaning. Thus, it is no surprise that, as Stephen Norris has noted (2012), the same motif is recycled in Nikita Mikhalkov’s sequel to Burnt by the Sun, entitled Exodus (Utomlennye solntsem 2: Predstoianie, 2010). Penal Battalion’s emphasis upon religion, suggesting through the character of a priest who joins the unit, that belief in Orthodox Christianity was an important motivating factor in the Soviet war effort, is one that has been taken up and repeated by a number of subsequent films. In its recreation of the Soviet period to suit contemporary Russian society’s conservative attitudes to religion and gender roles, Penal Battalion typifies the truism that historical films tell us more about the period when they were made than about the one in which they are set. Penal Battalion goes further than this and reflects and shapes emerging post-Soviet Russia’s historical self understanding, or lack thereof.

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Works Cited

Beumers, Birgit. 2009. “The Culture of Serialization, or the Serialization of Culture,” in The Post-Soviet Russian Media: Conflicting Signals, edited by Birgit Beumers, Stephen Hutchings, Natalia Rulyova, London: Routledge, pp. 159–77.

Carleton, Gregory. 2011. “History Done Right: War and the Dynamics of Triumphalism in Contemporary Russian Culture,” Slavic Review 70.3: 615–636.

Hutchings, Stephen and Natalya Rulyova. 2009. “Unfulfilled Orders: Failed Hegemony in Russia’s (Pseudo) Military Drama Serials,” in Television and Culture in Putin's Russia: Remote Control, edited by Hutchings and Rulyova, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 114–138.

Norris, Stephen. 2012. Blockbuster History in the New Russia: Movies, Memory and Patriotism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Prokhorov, Alexander. 2006. “The Shtrafbat Archipelago on Russia’s Small Screen,” KinoKultura 13.

Penal Battalion Russia 2005
Color, 550 min (11 parts).
Director: Nikolai Dostal'
Screenplay: Eduard Volodarskii
Cinematography: Aleksei Rodionov
Cast: Aleksei Serebriakov, Iurii Stepanov, Aleksandr Bashirov, Il'ia Kovrizhnykh, Roman Madianov, Dmitrii Nazarov
Producer: Vladimir Dostal'
Production: MakDos

Nikolai Dostal’: Penal Battalion (Shtrafbat, 2005)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks© 2015