Nikolai Dostal': Penal Battalion (Shtrafbat, TV, 2004)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov© 2006

The Shtrafbat Archipelago on Russia’s Small Screen

Nikolai Dostal'’s critically acclaimed 11-part television serial Penal Battalion redefines Russia’s last Soviet myth—the heroic myth of the Great Patriotic War.[1] While challenging some received truths about the cost of the victory and soldiers’ motivation to fight for the Soviet fatherland, the serial never questions the war’s mythological status in Russians’ popular consciousness. The myth of the great victory is the last myth that unifies Russia as a community. To the question, for what kind of a community did Russians fight, the serial gives an answer that many contemporary Russians believe to be the truth about the war. For the filmmaker and his scriptwriter, Eduard Volodarskii, Russians fought and suffered for the Russian Orthodox spiritual community.

The serial focuses on the theme of penal battalions—Stalin’s application of GULAG methods to combat environment. This theme, like the GULAG, was a taboo topic during Soviet times and continues to be a rare subject matter for discussion in the Russian media and historiography. Penal battalions were created in 1942 following Stalin’s Order #227 known as “Not A Step Back” to punish soldiers and officers retreating under the pressure of the German offensive. The soldiers sentenced to service in a penal battalion were considered “enemies of the people” who had two choices: either to die or, in the words of Stalin’s order, “to redeem their guilt with blood.”

Dostal'’s Penal Battalion tells the story of Vasilii Tverdokhlebov (Aleksei Serebriakov), a Red Army officer captured by the Nazis and executed at the film’s beginning for his refusal to collaborate with them. The execution scene introduces two important themes: the theme of the miracle of resurrection and the theme of the Great Patriotic War as a civil war. The miracle in Penal Battalion is represented as a melodramatic lucky coincidence: the firing squad wounds but does not kill Tverdokhlebov, and he is buried alive only to emerge from the grave like a resurrected martyr to live his second life as the commander of a penal battalion, leading his troop to religious conversion and salvation. The execution scene also evokes the theme of the Great Patriotic War as a civil war: Tverdokhlebov is executed by a squad of his own compatriots who have turned into collaborators, not by the Nazis. The Great Patriotic War, to be more precise, the Great Fatherland War in Russian idiom, appears in the serial as an internal Russian affair, for which the German invasion plays the role of a catalyst and which originates from the Russian revolution and the Civil War.

Dostal'’s Penal Battalion follows the logic of a paradigmatic existentialist tale. Tverdokhlebov has no good choices: he escapes Nazi captivity and death only to end up in Stalin’s concentration camps. The ongoing war needs more soldiers, however, and so the NKVD releases Tverdokhlebov from the camp and assigns him to command a penal battalion formed from political and common criminals. Thus, Dostal' and Volodarskii reveal to their viewers the second meaning of Order #227: penal battalions were not only a tool of state terror against the regular Red Army, but also a way to channel GULAG prisoners into the butchery of war.

Penal battalions as frontline quasi-camps were closely controlled by the NKVD and provided disposable bodies for Soviet commanders. As Birgit Beumers notes, in Dostal'’s serial penal battalions “are dispatched to the frontline and deployed as cannon-fodder for the advancing German army so that the Soviets can better plan their tactics: the penal battalion has to cross a field full of mines in order to capture German positions, to attack a detachment of German tanks without sufficient ammunition, to form a bridgehead without any support to deter the enemy.”[2] While Russian writers―such as Viktor Nekrasov, Aleksandr Solzhenistyn, and Viktor Astaf'ev―discussed Stalinist brutality at the front lines, above all the notorious penal battalions and the ruthlessness of the NKVD, this topic still remains an issue to avoid or deny in the Russian nationalist press and the historiography affiliated with the Russian army. Official military historians emphasize the negligible role of penal battalions in the Soviet victory over the Nazis [3] and by doing so hide the important ingredients of Soviet victory—a total disregard for individual human life and prison camp regulations permeating the day to day operation of the Soviet Army, of which Order #227 remains one of the most notorious examples.

Penal Battalion is a remarkable serial not only because it deals with a long forbidden and disregarded topic, but also because it is one of the best among an entire series of current films and television productions dealing with the history of WWII. During the 1990s, Russian filmmakers did not deal much with the theme of the Great Patriotic War. It was a decade of dismantling official ideology and those myths that were not chosen for deconstruction did not receive filmmakers’ attention.[4] The myth of the great Soviet victory was one of the few to be spared. Now, when the process of re-mythologizing Russo-Soviet history is in full swing, the truth about the Great Patriotic War made a major return to the big and small screens. This truth is, in fact, a constructed belief that is presented as general opinion―in other words, what Roland Barthes defines as myth:

Myth consists in overturning culture into nature or, at least, the social, the cultural, the ideological, the historical into the “natural.” What is nothing but a product of class division and its moral, cultural, and aesthetic consequences is presented (stated) as being a “matter of course”; under the effect of mythical inversion, the quite contingent foundations of the utterance become Common Sense, Right Reason, the Norm, the General Opinion. [5]

Dostal' excels in enhancing the veracity of his rendition of the myth of the Great Patriotic War by cinematic means. Every installment of his serial opens with a documentary footage representing the sufferings of Russian soldiers. The diegetic world of the film is presented in a faded color palette, mimicking the style of archival footage and emphasizing the understated non-epic narrative stance of the serial’s “trench truth” about the war. Finally, the serial ends with a long list of hundreds of penal battalions and companies that fought during the war, a list evoking Solzhenitsyn’s metaphor of the GULAG as a hidden archipelago of death camps constituting the basis of Soviet culture. Dostal' and Volodarskii remind their viewers that similar penal battalions, the doubles of GULAG camps, contributed to the Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War.

The central role in bringing to the fore the theme of penal battalions as forgotten heroes of WWII and raising the issue of the value of human life as part of the new Russian myth of the Great Patriotic War belongs to Volodarskii. He pioneered such a revisionist reading of the war in his screenplay for Aleksei German’s 1971 film Trial on the Road (Proverka na dorogakh). The film was shelved by censors till 1985 and―together with German’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin (Moi drug, Ivan Lapshin, 1984), for which Volodarskii also wrote the screenplay―initiated the re-evaluation of the Stalinist past during Gorbachev’s perestroika. In the 1970s Volodarskii applied for Filipp Ermach’s permission to make a film about penal battalions, but his request was rejected. [6] His 2004 novel and screenplay return to the still surviving myth of the war as the moment when the goals of the state and every individual citizen were the same. By contrast, Dostal' and Volodarskii contend that the state sacrificed and betrayed its own citizens. There is very little difference in the ways that Nazi and NKVD officers treat Soviets; the only difference is that NKVD officers speak Russian and make the Soviet people believe that it operates in the interests of ordinary citizens. In the middle of the serial, however, Russian soldiers receive a magic helper―a priest, father Mikhail, who explains to the soldiers the true nature of the NKVD and the state it represents. He defines them in terms of Christian demonology, comparing them with creatures possessed by the devil. Thus, the unity between the state and its citizens is by no means a possible narrative in today’s myth of the great Soviet victory, unless the viewer approves of the pact with the devil.

While telling the story of the penal battalion, Dostal' and Volodarskii raise three additional, controversial issues concerning the history of WWII: anti-Semitism, the representation of Soviets fighting on the side of the Nazi, and the representation of the German invader in popular Russo-Soviet iconography. Until the end of the USSR, Soviet historians avoided discussing the Holocaust and Jews’ special place in Nazi racist theories. This telling silence was one of the signs of official Soviet anti-Semitism. Moreover, almost never mentioned in Soviet literature and cinema about WWII was the theme of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Army itself. The only film that dared to hint at this theme in Soviet times was Naum Birman’s Chronicle of a Dive Bomber (Khronika pikiruiushchego bombardirovshchika, 1967). Volodarskii and Dostal' raise the theme of Soviet anti-Semitism and make it one of the main subplots of Penal Battalion: anti-Semitism appears in the serial as an endemic domestic malaise.

Following Dmitrii Meskhiev’s Ours (Svoi, 2004), Dostal' and Volodarskii confront the issue of Soviets fighting on the side of the Nazis against the Red Army. Almost a million Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Kalmycks, Chechens, Crimean Tartars, and many others fought on the German side during WWII. Soviet cinema always represented collaborators as absolute and irredeemable villains. Dostal' and Volodarskii, perhaps for the first time on Russian television, attempt to present their story as frequently tragic, often not as an unambiguously villainous choice. One of the key scenes in the film is Tverdokhlebov capture of his former executioner, now serving in General Andrei Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army unit. Tverdokhlebov forgives him for attempting to execute him earlier and helps him to commit suicide in order to save him from NKVD henchmen.

Finally, Germans rarely appear on the screen in Penal Battalion. When they do, they are represented as doubles of the Russian soldiers, as captives of a totalitarian ideology. Towards the end of the serial, the penal battalion discovers abandoned German food depots located in the no man’s land between Soviet and Nazi positions. Both German and Russian soldiers steal food from the depot and while doing this they maintain an armistice. This idyll ends when the NKVD officer supervising the penal battalion discovers the existence of the depot through his informer. His clumsy attempt to capture the depot leads to its destruction and the death of both German Russian soldiers.

While Dostal'’s television drama deals with controversial political aspects of war history, the Great Patriotic war also appears in the film as the sacred time when Russians acquired their greatness through suffering. This greatness is kenotic and exceeds earthly dimensions. In fact, the series ends with the image of the Mother of God hovering over the Russian soldiers sacrificing themselves on the battlefield. Dostal' and Volodarskii updated the heroic myth of the war so that it would fit both the current official ideology, with Orthodoxy as its indispensable part, and the popular tastes of the average viewer. The thirty thousand DVD sets of the television serial sold in the first month of the serial’s video release is a tribute to its success. [7]

In Penal Battalion, Russia emerges as a spiritual male community that undergoes religious conversion in the course of its fight against the Nazis in front of them and its spiritual resistance to Stalin’s police empire behind them. In the tradition of Russia’s camp literature, the makers of the serial claim that the place of captivity is also the site of spiritual freedom. Like the hero of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the characters of Penal Battalion face the ultimate test of survival and feel free to discuss the most dangerous political and philosophical issues not fearing arrest by the secret police. The NKVD loses its power over them because there is nothing the convict soldiers can be deprived of and there is nowhere to send them beyond the certain death they face every day.

The penal battalion is the first stable surrogate family with common values, language, and physical space, which most of the characters lacked their entire life. In characters’ flashbacks, viewers see many of their families destroyed by the regime. Dostal' and Volodarskii contend that the destruction of the family and faith are the two major crimes of the Stalinist regime. In the serial, the reconstitution of the community deep in the native soil of the trenches anticipates the coming of the priest Mikhail, who joins the warriors in their holy war and their eventual conversion.

Military historians blamed the serial for disregarding such historical details as, for example, the presence of a political commissar in the unit. While from a historical point of view Dostal' and Volodarskii might be wrong, from the point of view of reconstructing the myth of the Great Patriotic War, the filmmakers are absolutely right in replacing a political commissar with the priest. The war is perceived by contemporaries as a sacred moment of Russia’s history and the improbable figure of a priest is much more appropriate in the post-Soviet television serial about the war than the representative of bankrupt communist ideology. The cinematic soldiers of the penal battalion aspire to be kenotic martyrs, rather than Soviet heroes fighting for Stalin.

Penal Batallion not only redefines the heroic myth of the holy war, but it also contributes to the changing status of cinema made for television in contemporary Russian culture. On the one hand, Dostal'’s serial is an example of sophisticated media marketing. Penal Battalion serves as a brand name for three media products: a prime-time television serial that premiered on the Russia Channel in the fall of 2004, a DVD set available from the MacDos Company, and Volodarskii’s novel available from Vagrius Publishers. The only products missing are a Playstation video game and a set of action figures with the same brand name. On the other hand, Dostal'’s serial is also a part of the new wave of television dramas-adaptations aspiring for the highbrow status of television cinema. In contrast to the low budget crime series of the 1990s, Penal Battalion is an expensive costume drama inspired by an established scriptwriter’s novel. In other words, Penal Battalion―like The Idiot (Vladimir Bortko, 2003), Moscow Saga (Moskovskaia saga; dir. Dmitrii Barshchevskii, 2004), Master and Margarita (Vladimir Bortko, 2005), The First Circle (V kruge pervom; dir. Gleb Panfilov, 2006), or Doctor Zhivago (Aleksandr Proshkin, 2006)―offers respectable entertainment to an emerging Russian middle class. These new television dramas deal with serious historical themes or visualize classics of Russo-Soviet literature. In short, these television productions attempt to achieve the recognition of television film as an art form and to give its new bourgeois audience a sense of respectability and stable values.

Alexander Prokhorov
College of William and Mary


1] In Russian and Soviet historiography, the term Great Patriotic War refers to the conflict between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union between 22 June 1941 and 9 May 1945. The term evokes the 1812 war between Russian and the Napoleonic Empire, which is referred to in Russia as the Patriotic War of 1812. From 1939 till 22 June 1941, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were allies, who successfully invaded and partitioned Poland and the Baltic states

2] Birgit Beumers, “The Serialization of War,” Kinokultura 12 (April 2006).

3] Oleg Elenskii, “Kakuiu ‘pravdu’ ishchut Shtrafbat i Kursanty?” Nezavisimaia gazeta (2 April 2005).

4] For a detailed discussion of Russian war films of the 1990s see Birgit Beumers, “Myth-Making and Myth-Taking: Lost Ideals and the War in Contemporary Russian Cinema,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 42.1-2 (2000): 171-89.

5] Roland Barthes, “Change the Object Itself. Mythology Today,” Image-Music-Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977): 165.

6] Eduard Volodarskii. “V osnove dramaturgii lezhit detektiv,” Iskusstvo kino 12 (2004).

7] Eduard Volodarskii. Interview for Radio Journal Kinozhizn'. Informatsionnyi kanal Maiak (6 September 2004).

Penal Battalion Russia 2004
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, TV, 2004)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov© 2006

Updated: 05 Jul 06