Issue 51 (2016)
Dmitrii Meskhiev: Battalion (Batal’on, 2015)
reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2016
Near the end of Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Battalion, the commander of the Women’s Battalion of Death, Maria Bochkareva (played by Mariia Aronova), meets her abusive husband, Afanasii, at the front. Although she has served with distinction in the Great War and now outranks him, Afanasii tells his wife they should both go back home. When she refuses, he calls her a whore and beats her. He, along with his fellow male soldiers, cannot accept that his wife and other woman are soldiers. Later, the war-weary, rebellious men, Afanasii included, join Bochkareva and her battalion in the last Russian offensive of the war. Meskhiev’s film concludes at this moment in the summer of 1917 and therefore presents the Women’s Battalion as victorious for, as the end titles note, they inspired others to fight.
Battalion, as the claim of “victory” at the end attests to, consistently avoids any complicated examination of Bochkareva and her battalion. The film does not engage in any meaningful examination of history, preferring instead to offer a mythic version of the past marketed for contemporary audiences. Meskhiev’s movie posits that the women’s battalions “won” simply because they were patriotic and defended their motherland as all Russians should. This cinematic mythistory—to borrow Joseph Mali’s term for “stories that purport to explain the present in terms of some momentous event that occurred in the past” (2004: 4)—is there from the start. We learn from the opening titles that the “times were troubled [smutnoe], chaotic, and desperate.” Russia’s frontline soldiers after February 1917, the generals and Provisional Government leaders declare, are “blinded by notions of false freedom” and are no longer “interested in defending the motherland.” Alexander Kerensky (played by Marat Basharov) therefore decides to approve the formation of a women’s battalion to shame the men into fighting again.
The bulk of the film covers the various women who answer the motherland’s call and how they trained to becoming a fighting unit. Not one of the protagonists, Bochkareva included, are well fleshed out. There is Natalia Tatishcheva, a princess. She initially becomes Bochkareva’s second-in-command but leaves when she learns she is pregnant. She is replaced by Vera, who also comes from an elite background. Other members include Nadia, who joins after she learns her fiancé has been wounded at the front and who gives up a promising opera career, as well as her maid, Fros’ka, who is instructed by Nadia’s mother to protect her charge. Dusia is a peasant woman who is initially rejected because she is deemed “too fat,” but who impresses Bochkareva with a feat of strength. Another peasant recruit, Diuimovochka, is initially judged to be too short but impresses the officers with her tenacity. There’s Rivka, a Jewish soldier who provides a hint of the empire’s diversity. What matters in these characters is not their backstories--they are thin in every regard and non-existent in most--but that they are all patriotic and ready to defend their motherland.
Before they can do so, however, they go through training. One soldier, Galina, resents the fact that the battalion includes aristocrats. When she informs on a fellow member who is sneaking off at night to meet with her boyfriend, Bochkareva strikes her and dismisses her for being a snitch. Galina then gets Bochkareva arrested on behalf of the Military Committee established by the Soviets. In response, the rest of the women in the battalion stand outside the window of General Polovtsev for days on end. The General is moved enough by their determination that he allows Bochkareva to take command again, but warns the women that if one person fails their fitness test the entire unit will be deemed unfit for service. They pass, but only because they demonstrate their togetherness when Vera and Fros’ka stay with Nadia, who sprains her ankle. At the frontlines they immediately encounter male soldiers. A few recognize Bochkareva and, after an initially tense moment, decide that she is “one of us, a brother, a warrior, a comrade, a friend.” The entire battalion experiences battle in the form of a gas attack; they successfully repulse the Germans. Afterwards the scene with Afanasii occurs, followed by the subsequent attempts of the officer class to get the men to fight with the women, and the “victory” at the end. Before they fight, Bochkareva leads her women in a prayer and asks God for the “courage to offer our blood and soul in your name.”
The film, as the above paragraph indicates, unfolds like a series of set-pieces, all designed to reinforce the simplistic mythistory lesson. Russia’s women soldiers are repeatedly shown to be patriotic, they are willing to defend their motherland, they have the proper hatred for Russia’s enemies, and they have the Orthodox faith. The male imperial officer class is divided, but ultimately patriotic too, particularly when several officers disobey the Soviet Military Committees by tearing off their epaulettes and joining the women. The Provisional Government, Kerensky in particular, is largely shown to be ineffective but relatively benign. The villains are the nasty German soldiers who employ chemical weapons and subterfuge and also, most significantly, the brutish, dirty, defeatist Russian soldiers who no longer want to fight. In the end, though, they too are redeemed somewhat by the patriotism of the Women’s Battalion. The dialogue is as simplistic and black-and-white as the plot. It consists of lines such as “you are not yet a battalion, just a group of ordinary women” (Bochkareva to her battalion), “you have to learn how to fight” (Bochkareva again), “we came to fight, to help you fight the Germans” (several women), “what a beautiful machine gun … I could have lived like any other woman, not knowing there’s such a thing as a machine gun” (Fros’ka, “reflecting” on what she has learned), “I do it for the Fatherland” (Dusia, after a battle), “as long as you are on Russian soil, you are our enemy” (the women to captured Germans), and “we are no longer officers” (as one officer states when he tears off his epaulettes).
Meskhiev’s Battalion does not delve into anything that might offer nuance or detract from its overall patriotic mythistory. We do not learn much about the Great War, why and where the Women’s Battalion fought, or much about Bochkareva’s backstory. In her 1919 memoirs, Bochkareva covered her early life in poverty, her husband’s brutality, and her mother’s disgust when she volunteered to fight in 1914. Once on the frontlines, Bochkareva noted the horrors of war, describing how she and her fellow soldiers “were sprinkled with the blood of our comrades and spattered by the mud” all around them (Bochkareva 1919: 88) and noting that the wounded left in no-man’s land would “cut into my soul” when she heard their cries (90). When Bochkareva led her battalion to the front, she faced hostile crowds and beat back would-be rapists once the women arrived on the frontlines. She was patriotic, but also witnessed the Great War in ways that resembled other accounts such as Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel (published just a year later, in 1920). She also managed to assimilate into the all-male world of the Russian army. “It seems,” writes Laurie Stoff, author of the most comprehensive study of the Women’s Battalion, “that she nearly completely abandoned her femininity and convinced those around her to ignore it as well (Stoff 2006: 72).” The way Bochkareva instructed her soldiers to abandon their femininity is barely explored in the film. And the reflexive patriotism stressed onscreen as the core value embodied in all the battalion members is equally problematic. “Patriotism,” Stoff writes, “at least in a rudimentary form, and the desire to aid the motherland in its time of need were undoubtedly the leading motivations (2006: 79-80).” Some members, however, were committed feminists who saw combat as a means to greater equality. Others, as Melissa Stockdale demonstrates, wanted to be “free of the confines and burdens of a woman’s wartime life (Stockdale 2004: 100).” Monarchists, republicans, liberals, socialists, and politically undefined all served (111); they did so for various, personal definitions of patriotism (love of country, new duty, hatred of enemy, concern for “brothers” at front, and more) (112).
The Women’s Battalion, as both Stockdale and Stoff argue, came out of a confluence of historical circumstances: the increasing number of Russian women who fought in the war, Bochkareva included; the impact of the Great War on Russian society, particularly in how the state mobilized citizens; and the opportunities as well as crises opened up by the February 1917 Revolution, to name just three. The Battalion itself reflected these circumstances and the complexities of the time: women across the social spectrum joined, but for different reasons; their “patriotic” role of shaming other soldiers to fight produced mixed results at best; and the Battalion passed into memory for their role in defending the Winter Palace during the October events. The Women’s Battalion of Death is historically significant, but for reasons that help us understand the complexities of 1917.
These nuances do not matter much in Meskhiev’s Battalion: what does is that the women protagonists demonstrated a reflexive patriotism that is meant to be seen as value all Russians should have. Battalion’s significance rests in how it helps us understand the current state of Russian patriotic cinema and the increasingly propagandistic campaigns that accompany blockbuster historical dramas. The film had a special preview at the 2014 Moscow International Film Festival, where its creators and actors helped to establish the PR campaign that would follow. The Minister of Culture and President of the Russian Military-Historical Society, Vladimir Medinskii, stated that the film was “wonderful” because it was “absolutely historical” and that it would help to show “how we should look at our history (Quoted in Grigor’eva 2014).” Medinskii and producer Fedor Bondarchuk both predicted at the MIFF that Battalion would break Stalingrad’s box office record, with the Minister stating it would earn 1.5 billion rubles at a minimum (with a budget of $10m, the film only earned $9m). Mariia Kozhevnikova, a former Young Guard of United Russia member turned actress turned Playboy Model turned State Duma Deputy for United Russia, played Natalia in the film. She stated at the MIFF panel that “it’s not a film, it’s life, the life of our great-grandparents” and that she “did not act, but lived” on the set (Ibid). Finally, the head of the scientific sector of the Russian Military-Historical Society, Iurii Nikiforov, assured audience members that Battalion would not be a simple form of “hurrah-patriotism [ura-patriotizm]” because it narrated “a tragic history” (Ibid).
This propagandistic PR campaign continued when the film debuted. On 26 February, the government newspaper Rossiiskaia gazeta published an article by Susana Al’perina (2015) about the film subtitled “Five Reasons to See the New Film Battalion.” The film, coming from the creators of Brest Fortress and Stalingrad, she wrote, meant that the “program to establish a Russian patriotic cinema is successfully operating.” The first reason to see the film, therefore, is for its “war theme [voennaia tema],” which is translated into a “battle canvas [batal’noe polotno],” one that the producer Igor Ugolnikov claimed relied on “work in the archives” so that the Great War would “be interesting to our young people.” The second reason is “the heroine,” played by Mariia Aronova and a character of patriotic womanhood for whom “few people in the audience will remain untouched.” After the scene where Bochkareva is beaten by her husband, Al’perina writes that she “stands up, like the Terminator, is restored, wipes it off, and leaves. And, watching it, you think about all Russian women, about how much weight they have to shoulder, and how in spite of everything they keep getting up and moving forward.” Reason three, it follows, is “the difficult women’s fate [nelegkaia zhenskaia dolia].” In particular, it might be hard to watch “the girls in uniform, who are in large caps and overcoats that, with their thin necks and delicate hands make them seem so vulnerable.” But worry not: the women who watch the film will be inspired, “especially those young girls who have not seen war movies” and who will need to work through the tough question of “are the real women those who fight for their country or those who sit at home?” Reason four is therefore “to think about the fate of Russia.” Meskhiev, quoted in this reason, states that the film is not about why women fought in a pointless war, but is “an occasion to talk about the heroic deed [podvig],” a talking point that will naturally lead to thinking about “love for the Motherland.” Thus, reason five is to “experience emotions.” Meskhiev stated his film was above all one “filled with emotional splashes from beginning to end” so that the viewer can “soar emotionally” through the film.
No wonder, then, that Lidiia Maslova declared that Battalion was a film where patriotism was “in excess” and why Anton Dolin characterized it, Nikiforov’s earlier warning notwithstanding, as a “hurrah-patriotic film [ura-patrioticheskii fil’m].” Dolin concluded that it is “a militaristic film” where women represented the last defense against national-traitors within Russia and a brutal, cunning enemy lurking outside of Russia. Writing for Kommersant, Andrei Arkhangel’skii wrote that “Battalion must be considered the quintessence of our patriotika.” The film, he suggested, bore “all the stamps of patriotic films from the time of Barber of Siberia, so that if you wanted to leave and have a smoke during the screening you would not miss anything.” In the end, Arkhangel’skii states, the film is the epitome of current patriotic culture because it does not even bother to ask the questions of what the war was for or why the women fight in it, they just do and it is the duty of a patriotic Russian to fight. “The directors and producers want us to say that patriotism consists of a person’s readiness to die at any moment,” he concludes, not to think about anything.
In her review for Novaia gazeta, Larisa Maliukova claimed the film was “an ideological project,” noting that in its credits the production partners included the Ministry of Culture, the Russian Military-Historical Society (headed by Vladimir Medinskii), the Russian Geographical Society (with its chairman of the board of trustees Vladimir Putin and president Sergei Shoigu), Gazprombank, the Russian Railways, Transneft, and First Channel. Maliukova also critiqued the film for its lack of complexity and its lack of character development. The women, she writes, took up arms and went to fight and to die untroubled by any real thoughts. Instead, the “dialogues are like slogans.” Instead of reflecting on the horror of the Great War, on the horrific cost of human life, on the differences between “true patriotism and the mass schizophrenia of military fervor,” the film adopts a “militaristic attitude” in order to beat a new “lubok-drum of agitprop.”
Maliukova’s characterization is a good conclusion: the film uses the past to bang out a message to contemporary audiences. Battalion is not a movie to watch if you want to “see history” and learn anything about the Women’s Battalion of Death in 1917. It is a movie to watch if you want to see how contemporary patriotism gets articulated and mapped onto the past.
Stephen M. Norris
University of Miami, Ohio
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Al’perina, Susana. (2015), “Ot kniagin’ do krest’ianok: Piat’ prichin posmotret’ novyi fil’m ‘Batal’on,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 26 February:
Arkhangel’skii, Andrei. (2015), “Radi smerti na zemle,” Kommersant, 2 March.
Botchkareva, Maria. (1919), Yashka: My Life as Peasant, Exile, and Soldier. London: Constable and Company.
Dolin, Anton. (2015), “‘Batal’on’: kak baby Rodinu spasli,” Afisha 18 February.
Grigor’eva, Nataliia (2014). “‘Batal’on smerti’. Medinskii i Ugol’nikov predstavili istoricheskuiu dramu,” Argumenty i fakty, 26 June.
Mali, Joseph (2003). Mythistory: The Making of a Modern Historiography, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Maliukova, Larisa. (2015), “O patriotizme bez prilagatel’nykh,” Novaia gazeta, 20 February:
Maslova, Lidiia. (2015), “K shtyku priravniali rebro,” Kommersant 18 February.
Stockdale, Melissa K. (2004), “‘My Death for the Motherland is Happiness’: Women, Patriotism, and Soldiering in Russia’s Great War, 1914-1917,” American Historical Review,109/1, 78-116.
Stoff, Laurie S. (2006), They Fought for the Motherland: Russia’s Women Soldiers in World War I and the Revolution, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Battalion, Russia 2015
Color, 120 minutes
Director: Dmitrii Meskhiev
Producers: Igor Ugol’nikov, Fedor Bondarchuk, Dmitrii Rudovskii, Evgenii Aizikovich
Screenplay: Il’ia Avramenko, Igor Ugol’nikov, Evgenii Aizikovich
Cinematography: Il’ia Averbakh
Music: Iurii Pottenko
Cast: Mariia Aronova, Maria Kozhevnikova, Irina Rakhmanova, Marat Basharov, Ianina Malinchuk, Evgenii Diatlov, Alena Kuchkova, Valeriia Shkirando, Nikolai Auzin, Vladimir Zaitsev, Mila Makarova, Mariia Antonova, Polina Dudkina
Dmitrii Meskhiev: Battalion (Batal’on, 2015)
reviewed by Stephen M. Norris© 2016