Issue 32 (2011)

Dmitrii Korobkin: Yaroslav. A Thousand Years Ago (Iaroslav. Tysiachu let nazad, 2010)

reviewed by Lars Kristensen © 2011

yaroslav“Does the world need another painting of a leopard?” These are the words of one of the Chapman Brothers, the enfants terribles of Britart, when confronted with an amateur naturalist painting. The same question can be asked about Yaroslav. A Thousand Years Ago. “Does the world need another epic film?” Understandably, according to the Russian Ministry of Culture, the world does need another epic story, but the ministry chose Dmitrii Korobkin and the advertising agency Anni Domini—previously only known for its product placement—to film the story Prince Yaroslav the Wise. Since the film celebrates the 1,000-year anniversary of the city of Yaroslavl, it could also be argued that residents of Yaroslavl need this film about the birth of their city. And as such, the film fulfils its function. However, the problem that I have with this film is whose film is it—Korobkin’s or Yaroslavl’s? Is it Anno Domini’s film or the Russian Federation’s? Viewed as Korobkin’s film, it is a mediocre work, because it does not seek to add anything to the epic genre. But if it is Yaroslavl’s film, then the founders should be congratulated on their ability to generate publicity and visibility that could extend beyond the region and ensure a certain form of modern-day kino-tourism.

I will not go into details of historical inaccuracy, whether, for example, the word ‘Papa’ did exist at the time or not (as questioned by blogger ‘Dania’). Those who are interested in these inaccuracies can consult Komsomolskaya Pravda, who invited a history professor to see the film - with unsurprising results (Zaitseva). Neither shall I point to its modern narrative form and its borrowing from other more popular genres, such as the gangster movie. In particular, one sauna scene in Yaroslav is more redolent of post-Soviet Mafia bosses discussing their business affairs, than any situation  “a thousand years ago.” Instead, I will concentrate on other matters, including the modern flat hairdos, musketeer moustaches, and a mise-en-scène of ancient villages.

yaroslavThe film begins with a slow descent from the skies to an animated map of Europe. The kingdom of Kievan Rus flashes before us and its lines are drawn. In a voiceover we hear that Vladimir the Great has brought Christianity to the Russians: he rules a kingdom that is divided into different regions, all controlled by his sons. More lines on the map... Together with Viking warriors of the north, the sons collect taxes and defend the local tribes. The region of Rostov is inhabited by Slavic and Finish tribes and is controlled by the young Prince Yaroslav, who is fast expanding his reign into the barbaric and “wild” East. But he is experiencing problems with both thieves and plunders who raid his territory, leaving only fear and distrust among the population. The deep forest and the virgin lands are without law: and only a powerful individual can rectify matters. How “ancient” is that?

After this animated map lesson, we descend to the ground where a village has been raided. Yaroslav and his men first arrive and then take off in pursuit of the thieves, poorly disguised as a mixture of Mongols and gypsies. The pillaging outsiders have taken good, honest Slavs with them whom they plan to sell as slaves, but the equally good and fair prince reaches them—he releases the captives. Yaroslav finds a looters’ camp, but his men are attacked and Yaroslav himself is wounded. Harald, Yaroslav’s Swedish right-hand warrior, manages to get the prince to safety and then retreat to a Volga peninsula called Bear’s Corner (denoting a godforsaken spot). Harald, now bare-chested and with sword and axe, fights off any onslaught from the wild and barbaric forest people. After the battle is won, Yaroslav decides to build a fortress, the future city of Yaroslavl, on this very spot.

yaroslavWe are about ten minutes into the film and, for my part, the film could have ended here. On Novosti Kino, one viewer had already lost interest during the animated map sequence. That is a bit harsh, though a possibly valid viewpoint, depending on one’s expectation of what this kind of cinema can or should be doing.[1]

In the woodlands, Yaroslav’s men find a blond, ample-bosomed woman, Raida, who turns out to be both the vengeful wife of her dead husband and the daughter of a heathen chieftain in the nearby Bear’s village. As a token of his good will, Yaroslav wants to return her to the village, but everybody is attacked and Yaroslav is captured. In Kiev, Vladimir hears of the capture and dispatches an army to save his son, who has a wife and son at home. Yaroslav tries to convince the Bear’s people, who have formed an alliance with the Gypsy thieves, that he comes in peace. But they are unsure of his intentions. Raida’s promised new husband, Vend, does not believe Yaroslav at all. Everybody seems to want the prince dead except Raida…

yaroslavTied to a pole and about to be executed, Yaroslav looks to the sky and asks for God’s mercy upon the people. God listens and grants Yaroslav a chance to show the pagans that he can protect them. Yaroslav is saved, but Vladimir’s army is approaching with the intent of avenging the prince they think is already dead. To boot, Vladimir is increasingly convinced that there is a mole within the ranks. While Yaroslav finally wins the heart of Raida, Harald, the foreigner, is revealed as a turncoat. He has an affair with Zhelina, Yaroslav’s wife, and then plots to kill Yaroslav. Harald takes Yaroslav’s son hostage and a final sword fight in the thick forest is on the cards.

As often happens in these epic tales, it is the villain who steals the show. And indeed, Aleksei Kravchenko (playing Harald) is also the most worthy figure of attention in a film where the acting and directing are at best mediocre. Kravchenko seems to genuinely like his character—that of a faithful soldier, driven to treachery by love. His Swedish is largely incomprehensible, reduced to mumbling. With his final words, though—“Open the gates to Walhalla!”—uttered with his mouth full of blood, he cuts a credible epic figure. He becomes a kind of ancient, goateed Dolph Lundgren.

The rest of the cast, in particular Aleksandr Ivashkevich as Prince Yaroslav, seem to have been modeled on characters from Lord of the Rings. If Yaroslav aims at emulating this kind of grand cinema, then it fails. While the film’s $5 million budget ($11 million before the “crisis”) is evident in some scenes, for example in the Kievan stage set, the overall impression of various cutbacks remains. For example, the house of Vladimir in Kiev looks like the house of chief clansman, Raida’s father. A few blankets and sheepskins are thrown over the furniture to make it look more “pagan,” but otherwise the staging is the same.

yaroslavIt may be the case that the director actually wanted to portray these locations as nearly identical – and that would certainly mirror some parallels emphasized elsewhere. For example, we witness torture in both Kiev and the village. Or, elsewhere, both the village chief and Kievan ruler seek to arrange marriages; likewise, both use similar language when bullying others. Despite these overlaps, the recycling of scenes and scenery feels more like sloppiness on part of the filmmakers.

These issues of sameness are important plot devices as they make it easier to enroll the different native tribes under the Rostov principality. In order for the indigenous people to unite with Kievan Rus, they need to be portrayed as honorable savages—not as bandits or thieves. In other words, the sameness of the uncivilized pagans and the Christian civilizers has to be underscored, and the gap between them has to be perceived as bridgeable. Thus, the village shaman, Churillo, is not far off when he tells the captive Yaroslav that even if leafs on a tree branch look alike, the same shape and color, every individual leaf is in fact different and special. Churillo’s reasoning is that all humans are special and despite different beliefs, they should all be treated as equals. But for Yaroslav, having single-handedly saved the village by divine intervention, this is not an option. Instead, according to the resourceful prince faced with serious and immediate danger, equality is inevitably curbed for the righteous special one to forge the nation. Uniting the Slavs under the banner of Christian Orthodoxy means to circumvent pluralistic notions of God and nation.

yaroslavThis is why Harald has to die as a Swedish turncoat—and why the thieves look like Mongols and gypsies. In short, the issues raised in uniting a kingdom—just as a thousand years ago—necessarily involve not only a definition of identity, but—far more importantly—non–identity. The central paradox here, from a contemporary perspective, is that Yaroslav the Wise would become the father of several European kingdoms through his children: this contradicts the film’s emphasis upon mono-culturalism. In the end, Prince Yaroslav concedes to Churillo’s rationale saying, in essence: “Yes, we are all different, but there is only one God and he loves us all.” With this statement uttered in front of a newly-planted wooden cross and a future fortress, only one question remains to be answered: What will the name of the fortress be? That is for the people to decide, says Yaroslav the Wise. This film also belongs to Yaroslavl and its people. Korobkin and Anno Domini, on the other hand, will—for their next project—turn to another city, Kazan… in order to make Kazan’s film.

Lars Kristensen
University of Central Lancashire

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1] It should be noted that not all reviews have been negative. One comments, for example, ends with the call “Make way for Russian cinema!” This kind of movie-making, it seems, is also cherished by some audiences; see Zhigalov.

Works Cited

Dania’ (blogger) on Kinofilms, 19 October 2010

Zaitseva, Elena, “Istorik o fil’me ‘Iaroslav. Tysiachu let nazad’: ‘Fakty ne stali dlia avtorov istochnikom vdokhnoveniia i oni pridumali sobstvennuiu legendu,” Komsomol’skaia Pravda, 20 October 2010.

Zhigalov, Dmitrii, “Dremuchii gambit,” Novosti kino 17 October 2010.


Bibinur, Russia, 2009
98 minutes, black & white and color
Director: Iurii Feting
Scriptwriters: Mansur Gilyazov, Yurii Feting
Director of Photography: Maksim Drozdov
Composer: Radik Salimov
Producer: Svetlana Bukharaeva
Cast: Firdaus Akhtyamova, Ernest Timerkhanov, Ruslan Mustafin, Nasikh Fazyarakhmanov, Rezeda Khadiullina, Renata Minvaleeva, Nailya Gareeva
Production: Sabantui Studio with the support of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and Tatarkino of the Ministry of Culture of Tatarstan
Languages: Tartar, Russian

Dmitrii Korobkin: Yaroslav. A Thousand Years Ago (Iaroslav. Tysiachu let nazad, 2010)

reviewed by Lars Kristensen © 2011

Updated: 11 Apr 11