Issue 62 (2018)

Kim Druzhinin: Tanks (Tanki, Russia, 2018)

reviewed by Ian Garner © 2018

tankiTanks is director Kim Druzhinin’s follow-up to his 2016 hit Panfilov’s 28 (28 Panfilovtsev). Funded and even conceived by the Ministry of Culture (Anon. 2018), the movie strives to marry re-imagined Soviet war myths and Putinist cultural politics with Hollywood action in order to draw Russian viewers to the box office.

Tanks purports to tell the story of how Mikhail Koshkin (Andrei Merzlikin), one of the inventors of the Soviet T-34 tank, drove a pair of prototype tanks from Kharkov to Moscow in early 1940 as part of tests designed to prove the vehicle’s fighting readiness in the harshest of environments as war loomed over the USSR. Koshkin is determined that his brainchild can cover a 2,000-kilometre distance in just a few days, arriving in Moscow ready to parade on Red Square for Stalin. Setting off with a skeptical NKVD member, a stowaway female factory worker, and a pair of drivers, Koshkin finds that traversing Russia’s provincial road network is the least of his problems. A Nazi spy—later revealed to be a member of the road crew—informs his masters of the apparently groundbreaking and fearsome T-34 technology, so a German commando group is sent to capture the tanks. Along the way, a mafia-like band of Cossacks briefly seize and threaten to sell the tanks to the Germans. The journey from Kharkov to Moscow is punctuated by gunfights, infighting, explosions, and car chases. Unsurprisingly, the battered tanks—and their crew—make it to Moscow, where Stalin welcomes and congratulates the crew.

tankiNeedless to say, Druzhinin and scriptwriter Andrei Nazarov do not restrict themselves to the finer points of historical detail. The film’s anachronisms pile up thick and fast. Quite how a marauding group of German commandos enter and fight their way through the provincial USSR during the apparently peacetime period of the Nazi-Soviet pact is left unexplained. Druzhinin seems to have no interest in either recreating or interrogating the past: Tanks tells us more about the Russia of 2018 than it does the period leading up to the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War.

Today’s political and cultural concerns pervade Tanks. Instantly recognizable as a symbol of victory, the T-34 tank plays an important role in Russian and Soviet war myth as the innovation that put the Soviet nation on a technological par with its enemy. Druzhinin plays on this knowledge to rewrite the pre-war period as a time of heroic struggles in the face of German opposition, rather than one of relative peace and collaboration with the Nazi regime. While the events of Tanks are simply beyond believability, the general impression of the era in the film supports a revisionist history propagated by the current Russian government, which has been eager to rewrite or flat-out ignore the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the 1940 partition of Poland (Bershidsky 2018).

Thus the revisionism of Tanks responds more to current than to past concerns. The countryside between Kharkov and Moscow is chaotic and menacing: Soviet power is absent, and the tank crew are alone as they negotiate and fight their way towards the safety of the capital city. The editing and plot of the movie depict the Soviet-Ukrainian countryside as filled with threats to the protagonists’ patriotic defense project. One need not stretch the imagination too far to see how Tanks is patterned after the Russian media narrative of a lonely, valiant Russia surrounded by external threats—especially in Ukraine.

tankiThe film’s unquestioning support for a nationalist, pro-authoritarian revisionist history is most obvious, however, in its depiction of Stalin, whose image appears several times in the factory scenes in the first minutes of the film. Accompanied by patriotic slogans exhorting workers to work harder, the image hangs, unquestioned and uncommented on, over discussions of Koshkin’s personal ambition and the crew’s determination to reach Moscow as fast as possible. Stalin returns at the film’s close: an avuncular Stalin (Georgi Maisuradze) is visibly impressed with the pair of T-34s paraded on Red Square. This representation of Stalin instills no fear or uncertainty for the characters or the viewer. Stalin’s presence instead conveys reassurance and affirmation. The appearance of the leader as a guiding and motivating figure for the film’s narrative and the characters themselves caps a well-documented process of public rehabilitation for Stalin’s image in recent years (Corbesero 2011). Druzhinin’s film, though, is the most striking example I have yet seen of a Stalin shorn of any connection to terror.

Indeed, the film’s lack of dramatic tension is a development in recent Russian representations of war. We might expect that the death of a Russian war narrative’s heroes is the “logical, expected, and in many cases, the desired outcome [and] produces a positive ending” (Carleton 136). However, in even the most threatening moments of Tanks, we never believe that the protagonists might perish. At the work’s conclusion, shots of the characters—all of whom survive—fade into a montage of documentary footage of the T-34 in action during World War II. Whereas such montages in Soviet and Russian war productions often depict civilian suffering, corpses, and other shocking elements of war, there are no such scenes at the end of Tanks. A Russian narrative of heroic redemption through martyrdom is replaced with an Americanized happy end, which is a significant development for a state-funded Russian war movie.

tankiOf course, it is entirely possible that the positive ending is a dash of Hollywood color in what is an artistically garbled production. While the loose framework of the narrative—the story of an extraordinary construction effort led by patriotic Stakhanovites and hindered by internal enemies—resembles Socialist Realist production plots, Tanks is clearly designed to appeal to youthful Russian audiences. The cacophonous patchwork of modern Hollywood action motifs often distracts from any real comment on Russia’s past or present attitude to World War II: the soundtrack of electric guitars and bold orchestral motifs imitates the sound of the Marvel cinematic universe; the pale, leather-clad German biker-commandos and the ramshackle steampunk technology of the Cossack settlement are lifted straight from 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road (a debt the producers acknowledged in interviews). The result is a mish-mash of aesthetic, narrative and auditory styles that, accompanied by underdeveloped characters, a lack of tension in the action scenes, and a predictable plot, must leave even the most enthusiastic viewer bewildered. Indeed, the Russian box office results were unremarkable—Tanks failed to recoup its $2 million budget—and both professional and public reviews were generally lukewarm.

Tanks is of little artistic interest, was hardly a propaganda success, and produced nothing like the popular interest that surrounded Druzhinin’s Panfilov’s 28. It is hard to imagine that the production has done anything more than harden in Russian viewers’ minds attitudes toward the past, yet it stands as further testament to the centrality of World War II to 21st century Russian culture and perhaps, in its tensionless rendering of the war, is a forerunner of films to come.

Ian Garner

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Works Cited

Anon. 2018. “Voiskovaia operatsiia.” Tricolor TV Magazine 28 April.

Bershidsky, Leonid. 2018. “Russia Must Own Up to Stalin-Hitler Romance.” The Moscow Times 18 September.

Carleton, Gregory. 2010. “Victory in Death: Annihilation Narratives in Russia Today.” History and Memory 22.1.

Corbesero, Susan. 2011. “History, Myth, and Memory: A Biography of a Stalin Portrait.” Russian History 38.1.

Tanks, Russia, 2018.
Color, 95 mins.
Director: Kim Druzhinin
Scriptwriter: Andrei Nazarov
DoP: Dmitrii Trifonov
Cast: Andrei Merzlikin, Aglaia Tarasova, Sergei Stukalov, Anton Filipenko, Aleksei Osiannikov, Georgi Maisuradze
Producers: Dmitrii Shcherbanov, Oleg Antipov
Production: Media-Trest

Kim Druzhinin: Tanks (Tanki, Russia, 2018)

reviewed by Ian Garner © 2018

Updated: 2018