Annychka’s Anomaly: A Daughter’s Rebellion in a “Non-Soviet” Soviet War Film

By Vitaly Chernetsky (Miami University, OH)

© Vitaly Chernetsky, 2009

While the “ethnic” cinematic traditions of the Soviet Union are receiving increasing recognition in recent years, they remain little studied and little appreciated as examples of World War II-centered films, even though one such non-Russian Soviet republic, Ukraine, provided a key locus both in the establishment of the genre of World War II documentary (in the work of Dovzhenko) and in the making of the paradigm of guerilla fighter (“partisan”) films with Mark Donskoi’s The Rainbow (1943, rel. 1944).[1] The latter film established the presentation of Nazi-occupied Soviet territory through the fate of women characters that became a paradigmatic feature of a large number of both films and literary works. It also gave us the classic images of the noble suffering maternal female character (Natalia Uzhvii’s Olena), the immoral hedonist collaborator (Nina Alisova’s Pusia), and the selfless partisan fighter (Ol′ha, Pusia’s sister, played by Vera Ivashova, best known for her role as Ol′ga Danilovna, the Novgorod beauty in Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky).

These and later films, however, for all their power, focused on representing the Ukrainian experience of World War II through an Eastern Ukrainian lens, that is, from the perspective of residents of Ukrainian territories that by the time of the war’s outbreak were under Soviet rule for over two decades. About a third of modern Ukraine’s territory, however, was outside Soviet borders at the time, and got to be incorporated into the USSR as a result of World War II.

During the Stalin era Western Ukraine was rarely a subject of cinematic representation, especially in non-documentary films. The few notable exceptions include two features from 1941, Viter zi Skhodu (Wind from the East, dir. Abram Room) and Mriia (Dream, dir. Mikhail Romm), films notable in their own right but offering a narrow ideologized vision on class conflict in capitalist West and Soviet rule as a rewarding alternative.

Focus on traditional cultures of Western Ukraine, however, became one of the defining features of the new poetic cinema that swept through Ukraine in the 1960s and came to constitute the best known and most acclaimed school of Ukrainian filmmaking. While the 1971 feature Bilyi ptakh z chornoiu oznakoiu (White Bird with a Black Mark, dir. Yuri Illienko), a poetic cinema classic focused on the fates of male characters (three brothers) from 1937 to 1947, became arguably the best known Ukrainian film set during World War II made during the post-Stalin era, it was predated by the 1968 film Annychka, the debut feature by one of the prominent members of the Ukrainian poetic cinema school, Borys Ivchenko (1941-1990), based on a script co-authored by his father Viktor Ivchenko (1912-1972), a prominent director in his own right, if a much more cautious and conservative one than his son, and the teacher of a generation of major Ukrainian film actors. [2]

Ivchenko Sr. was among the figures responsible for Thaw-era transformations of cinema in Ukraine; he arrived in cinema as a seasoned theater director, answering the call to undo the malokartin′e of late Stalin years; already his first feature, Dolia Maryny (Maryna’s Fate, 1953), served as a modest yet significant harbinger of changes to come, and initiated a pattern of films by Ivchenko centered around their female protagonists. A film that is often considered his most accomplished work, the 1960 release Ivanna, became in many ways a prototype for the portrayal of the main character and the dramatic conflict in Annychka. Ivanna is a film that simultaneously probes a new ground by portraying for Soviet audiences an aspect of the conflict that was rarely discussed in Soviet film before: the role of organized religion (here specifically the Greek Catholic Church, banned in postwar Soviet Union), and reinterprets a tragic young heroine who sacrifices herself for the cause of liberty, familiar from such classic World War II films as Arnshtam’s Zoia. The film is named after the protagonist, daughter of a Greek Catholic priest, honest and naïve; in 1940, during the first Soviet takeover of Western Ukraine, following her father’s blessing she becomes engaged to a young seminary student, Roman, who is a member of the underground anti-Soviet Ukrainian nationalist movement. He is about to be arrested by the NKVD when the Nazi invasion prevents this. Meanwhile, Ivanna, posing as a nun, organizes an escape of a group of POWs, most of them Ukrainian, from a Nazi camp; however, her fiancé denounces her to the occupying authorities, and she is tortured and killed by the Nazis. In the process, she comes to renounce her religion.

ivannaAlthough this film is little seen or discussed these days, at the time of its release it received significant acclaim in the USSR and attracted sizeable domestic audience numbers (30.23 million viewers), surpassing such classics of Thaw-era war cinema as Cranes Are Flying. In its presentation of its setting, Ivanna, as one may expect, is much closer to contemporaneous Polish films, especially Wajda’s war trilogy (A Generation, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds). In terms of its presentation of the main characters, however, the film stays firmly within Soviet norms, giving us in the case of Ivanna an instance of an innocent but inherently good melodramatic heroine who succeeds in “raising her consciousness” and accomplishing a daring and courageous act of anti-Nazi resistance, and in Roman a stereotypical duplicitous “bourgeois nationalist.”

As Ivchenko Sr. was also the author of the script for Annychka, this film’s original script unfortunately recycled several of the stereotypes in character presentation that one finds in Ivanna. The film is once again named after its female protagonist; she is once again a naïve but inherently good young woman who following her father’s wishes is engaged to a Nazi collaborator named Roman and who organizes a daring escape of a group of POWs and dies tragically in the process. By the time Annychka was filmed, however, the stylistic and intellectual landscape of Ukrainian cinema had changed so immensely that as a result we have a film that is much less cliché-ridden, more nuanced and visually arresting.

The nine years that separate the filming of Ivanna and Annychka saw several major Ukrainian films radically distance themselves from narrative, ideological, and visual clichés. The best-known instance of this change is, of course, Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964/5), but side by side with it stood Yuri Illienko’s Well for the Thirsty (1965) and St. John’s Eve (1968), as well as Leonid Osyka’s The Stone Cross (1968) and several other notable films. To see how far Ukrainian film had moved by then from Stalin-era cinematic styles, it is worth comparing Nina Alisova’s caricature portrayal of Pusia in Rainbow with her moving and sensitive performance as Ivan’s mother in Shadows and with the shimmering, enigmatic character of Marichka created in this film by Alisova’s daughter, Larysa Kadochnikova. With Shadows and The Stone Cross, Annychka shares a significant number of actors cast, and most importantly, the setting in the Hutsul area of the Carpathians along with the extensive presentation of traditional folk arts and rituals (the filmmakers extensively used surviving traditional dwellings and folk costumes, achieving a look of ethnographic veracity without lapsing into exoticism). Similarly to Osyka in The Stone Cross, and in difference from Paradjanov in Shadows, Ivchenko Jr. in Annychka opts for the restrained black-and-white rather than vibrant color film; he also chooses to seek a strong experience of emotional authenticity (as an experiment, he even scheduled the filming of all the scenes in accordance with the chronological order of events). We also see a significant impact of Urusevsky’s and Illienko’s use of “subjective camera” to render the emotional experiences of the characters, along with careful attention to ethnographic detail and emphatic anchoring of the film in Ukrainian language and culture. Although—as in Shadows—many of the actors cast were non-Ukrainian, the film contains a straightforward articulation of an appeal to Ukrainian identity (ironically, uttered by a character played by a Moldovan actor to a character played by a Russian actor). In stark difference from the anti-religious zeal of Ivanna (made during Khrushchev’s notorious anti-church campaign of 1957–61),[3] Annychka, like Shadows, acknowledges without judgment the overt and prominent presence of Christian ritual as a feature of daily life of its characters. However, in difference from Shadows and The Stone Cross, safely set circa 1900, Annychka takes us to the much more ideologically sensitive time period: the summer of 1943, when Eastern Ukrainian guerillas led by Sydir Kovpak, on Stalin’s orders, marched towards the Ukrainian section of the Carpathian Mountains, blowing up trains, bridges, oil wells, and refineries. Although here, on Western Ukrainian territory, the Kovpak guerillas suffered heavy losses and were eventually dispersed, this episode provided the only safely pro-Soviet anchor in the history of Western Ukraine during German occupation, where the anti-Nazi resistance movement was dominated by equally anti-communist Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa), who besides fighting the Nazis also fought the Soviets and each other. A significant development in the film’s ideological framework, however, is its radical departure from the binary “black-and-white” choice normally available to characters in Soviet war films and an attempt to humanize (and occasionally even portray with a degree of sympathy) those who engage in collaboration with the occupying German forces, turning both Annychka’s father (in a powerful performance by Kostiantyn Stepankov) and especially her fiancé into morally complex, evolving characters.

annychkaThe possibility for the film’s humanization of non-Soviet sympathizers was paved by the impact of Wajda’s war trilogy, and within the Soviet Union, of the acclaimed Lithuanian film Nobody Wanted to Die (1963/65, dir. Vytautas Žalakevičius), whose resonance in Ukraine would be hard to overestimate, and of the film that featured the debut of Annychka’s female lead, Liubov Chernoval-Rumiantseva (b. 1943), the Belarusian feature Al′piiskaia ballada (The Alpine Ballad, 1965). The latter, based on a novella by Vasil′ Bykau, centered on the tragic love story between a Belarusian man and an Italian woman, both on the run from the Nazis in the middle of war-torn Europe. This film was unprecedented in the Soviet context in its presentation of World War II experience through prominently focusing on a West European protagonist within Western Europe, and in its dramatic de-emphasizing of the story’s connections to the war as it played out on Soviet territories. Al′piiskaia ballada was thus a milestone in “de-sovietizing” Soviet war narratives, and the neglect of this film in present-day studies of World War II-themed Soviet cinema is hard to fathom given its huge popularity in the Soviet Union at the time of its release, its pioneering setting and themes, and the outstanding screen performances by Chernoval-Rumiantseva and Stanislav Liubshin.

annychkaAs a result of this complex set of influences by other films that made a strong impact on its creators, Annychka succeeds in pushing the envelope of Soviet World War II cinema through the near-invisibility of anything identifiably Soviet on screen, as well as by the strongly pacifist outlook originally espoused by the female protagonist (and also by her mother)—a striking accomplishment in the context of when the film was made.[4] The film’s eponymous protagonist can be viewed as a transposition of Marichka from Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors into the World War II context—a romanticized presentation of a proud, independent young woman who summons courage to defy the “Law of the Father.” Her actions—such as nursing a wounded pro-Soviet guerilla fighter—are motivated by her ethical outlook and human emotion (ranging from sympathy to sexual attraction to revulsion at humans killing each other) rather than ideology (anticipating such characters as Anni in Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s The Cuckoo). Annychka’s profoundly individualist self-reliance contrasts with the traditional collectivist emphasis of Soviet ideology, while her use of her own wedding ceremony to organize an escape of a group of POWs offers an example of a woman’s bold subversion of patriarchal society’s rituals.

annychkaIn my opinion, a particularly productive clue for reading Annychka is provided by the film’s thorough hybridity (in the sense this term is used in postcolonial theory). The space where the film’s action takes place is a hybrid of rural tradition and natural beauty with wartime crises of modernity. Aesthetically, it is a hybrid, first, of Ukrainian poetic cinema with its fondness for the ethnographic, the emphasis on an impressionistic presentation of experienced reality, and frequent reliance on unusual camera angles and fluidity, second, of a neorealist-influenced push for emotional and factual authenticity, and, third, of Soviet-style “cinema for the mass viewer” reliant on easily comprehensible, familiar skeleton of the plot, detached and transparently “objective” camerawork, and cliché presentation of the characters. Although it did not receive the international acclaim of Shadows or White Bird with a Black Mark, Annychka attracted a fairly significant domestic audience upon its initial release (25.1 million viewers), and the Soviet authorities judged it worthy of representing the USSR at a film festival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1969, where it won the jury prize.

In the work of historians of Ukrainian film, Annychka is usually discussed primarily due to the daring performance of Ivan Mykolaichuk as Roman, the protagonist’s Nazi collaborator fiancé, who is given great psychological depth in the film as a tragic, tormented figure.

annychkaRoman thinks of himself as a warrior, not an executioner; his value system and beliefs come to be profoundly shaken by what he witnesses—yet his inability to extricate himself from the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis in his presence drives him to lose his mind. In a pivotal scene at the center of the film, Roman and Annychka are guests at a ball held at an elegant villa; organized by the occupying authorities, this event includes a presentation of awards to local collaborators (Roman among them) and toadying to visiting high-ranking German officials. However, Annychka and Roman are the only two guests visibly horrified when, for the sake of amusing the Nazi visitors, the local collaborators devise a macabre entertainment in the form of trying to force captured guerillas to dance barefoot on broken glass before systematically machine-gunning the prisoners. One of the captured guerillas is Ivan, a local youth who had been Roman’s longtime rival for Annychka’s attention, in a powerful debut performance by another major Ukrainian film actor, Ivan Havryliuk.

His defiant dancing of the arkan on broken glass comes to serve as the breakdown of the relatively idyllic lives of Roman and Annychka, and is then echoed in their wedding ceremony that serves as the climax of the film.


During Annychka and Roman’s wedding dance a little boy, following the traditional custom, throws on the ground in front of the newlyweds a painted clay bowl that smashes to pieces. The breaking of the bowl, however, now ominously reminds both Annychka and Roman of the broken glass dance and the execution they had witnessed only days before. Annychka appears to be on the verge of fainting and leaves the dancers, and Roman suffers an emotional breakdown, which the film powerfully renders by the sound of the cymbals giving way to the clanking of broken glass, with Roman then repeating, in derangement, Ivan’s final words. According to the French-Ukrainian scholar Lubomir Hosejko (Hosejko 2005: 216-18), Borys Ivchenko, the film’s director, later explained that he borrowed from his father the trope of female heroism as the conduit for portraying the many facets of the war experience in order to use it in part as a vehicle for “smuggling in,” albeit through a negative portrayal, the dangerous topic of World War II as lived by ordinary Western Ukrainians. As in Ivanna, the female protagonist evolves from a private person uninterested in social and political issues into someone with a deeper involvement in sociopolitical struggle. However, she remains, in many critics’ view, a character decisive in her actions but somewhat schematically drawn (Annychka’s choosing the ruggedly handsome but wooden-acting Andrii, a wounded member of Kovpak’s guerilla unit, played by the Moldovan actor Grigore Grigoriu, over her two local suitors, is frequently judged as unconvincing). By contrast, the more ambiguous views and actions of her suitors Roman and Ivan, and the emotionally involved performances by the actors portraying them, Ivan Mykolaichuk and Ivan Havryliuk (both of them of Western Ukrainian background themselves, in difference from the Piatigorsk native Chernoval-Rumiantseva), yielded trouble: on the basis of their performances in this film, both Mykolaichuk and Havryliuk would for years be plagued by accusations of sympathies to “bourgeois” Ukrainian nationalism.

annychkaYet I would like to argue that the focus of most critical writing on the film on the performances of the male actors surrounding the female protagonist [5] leads to an unfair overshadowing of both the relevance of Annychka as a character and of Chernoval-Rumiantseva’s performance in this role. In fact, it is redolent of the rather old-school view that the only choices available to women characters in war films were to serve as either chaste heroines, or passive damsels in distress, or sexy vamps taking advantage their erotic charms to help the Resistance (for a confirmation of the enduring power of these stereotypes, see a prize-winning World War II film from 2007, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution). Annychka, however, ultimately frustrates attempts at tagging her as a representative of one of these stereotypes. Like Marichka, the female protagonist of Paradjanov’s Shadows, she is first and foremost an independent free spirit, but her inner independence is not a romantic impulsivity but a carefully weighed and thought-through performance. Annychka is conscious of social expectations placed on her identity, and she aims to use them in a subversive and dramatic fashion, evidencing a fierce rebellious boldness underneath an aura of cheerful but humble innocence mixing with graceful but powerful eroticism. While Annychka’s evolution, with her personal attraction to a Soviet man leading to her choosing to ally herself with his political agenda, may seem in some ways a stereotype of a certain species of Soviet narratives (in a parallel to such works as Al′piiskaia ballada, and even a film as distant from the war genre as Aleksandrov’s Circus), the pointed ideological message occupies such a minor place in the overall filmic narrative that this serves to de-sovietize the quasi-socialist-realist aspect of character presentation as well. In doing so, this film played an important role in paving the way for later Ukrainian portrayals of World War II (by Oles′ Ianchuk, Serhii Bukovs′kyi et al.) that eschewed the Manichean rigidity of the orthodox Soviet variety. In terms of its focus on a woman’s experience, however, Annychka still has few rivals among Ukrainian World War II films.




1] With the exception of Donskoi’s Rainbow, a widely acknowledged classic, no Ukrainian World War II films are even mentioned in such influential and important studies as Woll 2000 or Youngblood 2007.

2] To American scholars of Soviet film Viktor Ivchenko may be familiar as the director of ChP (An Extraordinary Event), the USSR’s no. 1 box office hit of 1959 (47.5 million viewers), an adventure film about the capture of a Soviet tanker by the Kuomintang near Taiwan in 1954, and also as the director of Hadiuka (Rus. Gadiuka, The Viper, 1965, an award-winning and commercially successful civil war drama).

3] Ivanna’s negative portrayal of Greek Catholicism led to vigorous protests from the Catholic Church. Many Ukrainians believe the film was cursed: its star, Inna Burduchenko, perished in an accident during the filming of her next project, when she was only 22; later, several other people associated with the film died under mysterious circumstances.

4] In a pivotal scene, Annychka agrees to help the wounded pro-Soviet guerilla fighter she encounters in the forest, but she throws away his gun with the words, Bil′she ne budesh vbyvaty liudei (You won’t go around killing people anymore).

5] See esp. Hoseiko, along with the many volumes on Ukrainian film by Larysa Briukhovets′ka, as well as a series of essays by the Polish film critic Janusz Gazda, one of the most tireless promoters of Ukrainian cinema outside the former Soviet Union.


Hosejko, Lubomir. Histoire du cinéma ukrainien, 1896-1995. Dié: Éditions à Dié, 2001.

——. Istoriia ukraïns′koho kinematohrafa. Kyiv: Kino-kolo, 2005 [Ukrainian translation of Hosejko 2001].

Woll, Josephine. Real Images: Soviet Cinema and the Thaw. London: I.B. Tauris, 2000.

Youngblood, Denise. Russian War Films: On the Cinema Front, 1914-2005. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007.