Iurii Kulakov: Prince Vladimir (Kniaz' Vladimir, 2006)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks© 2007

Prince Vladimir tells the story of how the eponymous Prince of Novgorod becomes Prince of Kievan Rus and then emerges from the evil influence of sorcerer Krivzha to embrace Byzantine Christianity and “Russian” unity. This film of a saint has been blessed by the Russian Patriarch, granted the status of a national film, and the character of Vladimir was even voiced by Sergei Bezrukov, who played Ieshua in the recent TV adaptation of Master and Margarita (dir. Vladimir Bortko, 2005). This unique status partly explains why it has become the highest grossing Russian animated feature.

At the same time, under the slogan “It's your history,” the film purports to be presenting historical truth. In balancing the claims of hagiography, history, mass entertainment, and Russia's tradition in animation, Prince Vladimir is ambitious. But does it succeed?

If box-office returns measure entertainment, then the film has certainly entertained. As a popular Russian animated feature it has followed the breach opened by Mel'nitsa studio's Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent (Alesha Popovich i Tugarin Zmei; dir. Konstantin Bronzit, 2004; reviewed by David MacFadyen) and Dobrynia Nikitich and the Serpent Gorynych (Dobrynia Nikitich i Zmei Gorynych; dir. Il'ia Maksimov, 2006; reviewed by Ulrike Hartmann). In two of the film's minor characters—Khoten and Kosniatin, a kind of Bobchinskii and Dobchinskii voiced by the same actor—we detect a slight aroma of Alesha 's simplicity, strength, and appearance. But the light relief is fleeting, as comedy is not one of the film's virtues. Prince Vladimir contrasts sharply with Alesha Popovich in its lack of humor and solemn attempt less to create the atmosphere of folklore, than that of historical reality, as is suggested by the film's self classification as “historical-heroic” (Tarkhanova). It is this pretension to historical fact that needs particularly careful examination.

As part of this claim, the film introduces some key institutions of 10 th century Kievan Rus: the druzhina, the veche, maslenitsa, the pre-Christian deity Perun, and the concept of “law.” Moreover, a number of eminently qualified historical consultants were employed to advise on details of architecture, costumes, and details of everyday life. Similarly, the music is produced by respected folklorist Sergei Starostin and uses a number of period instruments to evoke the musical style of the time. One such instrument, the zhaleika (a type of flute), performs a crucial role in the plot as a gift from Vladimir to Princess Anna, sister of the Byzantine Emperor, which cements their subsequent marriage. Yet while all of these factors speak of a serious attempt to create an atmosphere of authenticity in the film, the narrative displays tensions between the demands of history and myth.

As a character without historical basis, Krivzha is central to consideration of the story's claims to be factually grounded. Krivzha is the errant pupil of wise mages, who in the prologue are said to teach the people of Rus to live according to “the law.” His desire for personal power leads him to choose evil and to betray his own people to the Pechenegs. Krivzha plays a pivotal role by enabling the filmmakers to present pre-Christian Rus as a harmonious paradise lost. Krivzha's desire for power over “law” brings about a chaos crying out for Christianity.

Krivzha is also an explanation for Vladimir's failings. Historical sources make Vladimir a typical, blood-drenched medieval ruler who killed his own brother, Prince Iaropolk of Kiev. The film, however, explains this quarrel through Krivzha's scheming: Krivzha forges a letter proving Iaropolk's treachery. The letter persuades Vladimir to march on Kiev, but even in the midst of battle, the truth emerges and the two brothers are almost reconciled before one of Vladimir's henchmen kills Iaropolk at Krivzha's behest. Vladimir is blameless and all wrong is concentrated in Krivzha, whose name means “crooked.” His character and even his magic staff correspond to this image. His zeal in pursuit of power and unqualified evil naturally lead him to help the Pechenegs destroy Rus.

Yet the film does not simply roast the old chestnut that foreigners and traitors are to blame for Russia's ills: Greeks from Constantinople are shown to have Russia's best interests at heart in the supposed common struggle against the Pechenegs. This narrative line is demonstrated through the story of Aleksha, a small Russian boy whom Krivzha enslaves after destroying his village with the Pechnegs. Aleksha is freed from bondage by a Greek and taken to Constantinople. This enables the film to portray through a small boy's eyes the famous wonder of Vladimir's envoys at the sight of Constantinople, said to be a reason for choosing Orthodox Christianity over other religions. The film depicts a city of perfect symmetry, bathed in a heavenly golden light accompanied by bird song and a monastic drone. Yet Aleksha's arrival in this city is something of an experience of déjà vu , in that he had already pictured Constantinople from his grandfather's account of visiting it in the reign of Princess Ol'ga. The discovery of Christianity is shown to be less of a revelation of the unprecedented than a remembering of the familiar.

Aleksha then becomes the bearer of the Christian Bible and its message of a loving God to Rus. He is saved from various unpleasant fates before finding shelter with Boian. Although he shares the name, Boian is not the bard with “prophetic fingers” of The Lay of Igor's Host , but a proverb-speaking, bee-keeping incarnation of harmony with and worship of nature. Whereas Krivzha's posing as a priest of the Slavic God of thunder Perun is merely a ruse, Boian serves to demonstrate the overwhelmingly positive side of pagan Russia: when Aleska talks of a single God, Boian points to a huge oak tree. At the end of the film, having triumphed over Krivzha with the help of his divine tree, Boian says “all returns.”

Largely the film presents not history, but a myth of the genesis of both the Russian state and of Russian Christianity. It is interesting here to note that Iurii Kulakov earlier made Creation and the Flood (Christmas Films with S4C and BBC Wales, 1996) for a series called Testament—The Bible in Animation , where he skillfully interwove the Biblical stories of Noah's Ark with that of the Creation told in flashback by Noah. The problem Kulakov has to overcome in combining two narratives in Prince Vladimir is that while Rus was baptised on a historical date, its peoples existed before this. The film's solution is to suggest an affinity between the paganism of Boian and the Christianity brought back by Aleksha: both are present at Vladimir's final decisive struggle with Krivzha and Kuria, the leader of the Pechenegs. Christianity restores an order, a “law” that had always been there in the culture of Rus, but had become obscured. The very substance of the film adds to this sense in its glorious visuals, which evoke a powerful sense of the beauty of Russian nature—be it snowy winters, rosy dawns, or even hedgerow dandelions. This beauty has always existed, the film seems to suggest, but Krivzha has cast an ugly and unnatural shadow over it.

In a similar way, the film attempts to make the link between pagan Rus and Orthodoxy through its symbolic use of motif and color . Vladimir's choice between his previous path and the new way is repeatedly said to be between darkness and light. Vladimir himself is traditionally associated with the sun, and the film reiterates this image through a medallion with a sun image embossed upon it. He is also associated with white snow and bird flight seen against the sky. Aleksha is also associated with birds and the book containing his Bible bears the image of a bird. Birds, like bees continually surround Boian. By contrast Krivzha's first act in the film is to kill a bird, and he is always portrayed in grey and grey-green, and by the visual motif of angular forms and a crooked tree stump. The visual theme of grey links Krivzha with smoke and storm clouds. On triumphing over Krivzha, the color tone of Vladimir's cloak turns from dull to bright red. The final scenes are bathed in bright tones of yellow, red, green, and white. The effect of this use of visual patterning is to enable the spectator very quickly to determine the corrupt moral nature of Krivzha and the trustworthiness of Aleksha, Vladimir, Constantinople, and Boian.

Yet for all its predictability and lack of historicity, it is the character of Krivzha that is by far the most interesting visually. Certainly the creative resources of animation as an art are exploited at far greater length and with much more effect than with Vladimir. Krivzha's alternation between bear and human, expressionistically grey skin and yellow eyes demonstrate the transformative possibilities that lie at the heart of the art of animation, but are so seldom unleashed. In this he recalls the wicked stepmother from Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and a host of other mainstream animated films. Krivzha's ethereal green claw, extended to strike Prince Vladimir in the final battle, very much recalls the monster Grendell, from the director's own 1998 adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, also for Christmas Films and Welsh TV station S4C.

Despite echoes with earlier short films, Kulakov is not the author of a large body of work and had never previously made a feature-length animated film. Since making his first film as a director in 1992 most of Kulakov's work has been for foreign production companies. Whatever else he gleaned from his travels, this film aspires to combine Western technical standards of animation and mass appeal with, for the most part, traditional cell animation and a Russian subject matter. An endorsement by Fedor Khitruk, the grand old man of Soviet and Russian animation, suggests the film's fidelity to Russian traditions in animation. He argues that it is a good film not only in the ethical terms of its patriotic values, but also in aesthetic terms, in its detail, classicism, and potential to launch a new generation of classical animation (Briusova).

Prince Vladimir 's assimilation of Hollywood's lessons in animation technique is widely agreed upon. Its box office success is beyond doubt. However, while there has been talk of the film being exported to other Orthodox Christian countries, talk of a distribution deal in the USA seems less likely to bear fruit as the patriotic tone of the film suggests it will have difficulty in achieving a wide international spectatorship. Doubtless this will little deter Iurii Kulakov who is planning a further work in this epic genre: Ruslan and Liudmila, based on the Aleksandr Pushkin poem. At the same time in 2008, the second film of the Prince Vladimir cycle— Prince Vladimir: The Feat— will supposedly be released. Kulakov may well have initiated a trend in Russian animation. This may be good for Russian animation, but the mythologizing approach to history does not bode well. Tat'iana Tolstaia once said that Russia's past was unpredictable. It is becoming more and more predictable.

Jeremy Hicks
Queen Mary, University of London

Images from the film's website.

Works Cited

Briusova, Aleksandra. “Interv'iu s Fedorom Savel'evichem Khitrukom.”
Tarkhanova, Katerina. “Kniaz' vtorogo plana.” Film.ru (1 February 2007).

Prince Vladimir, Russia, 2006
Color, 79 minutes
Director: Iurii Kulakov
Screenplay: Andrei Dobrunov, Iurii Batanin, Iurii Kulakov
Voices: Sergei Bezrukov, Vladimir Gostiukhin, Lev Durov, Aleksandr Barinov, Aleksandr Pinegin, Dmitrii Nazarov, Iurii Berkun, Irina Bezrukova
Music: Sergei Starostin
Songs: Igor' Zhuravlev, Aleksandr Pinegin, Andrei Usachev
Songs Performed by: Nikolai Rastorguev and Natal'ia Kniazhinskaia
Producer and Original Concept: Andrei Dobrunov
Production: “Solnchnyi dom” studio, with the assistance of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Iurii Kulakov: Prince Vladimir (Kniaz' Vladimir, 2006)

reviewed by Jeremy Hicks© 2007

Updated: 18 Mar 07