The Afghan War in Russian Cinema

LEDA CATUNDA, World Map, 2022, acrylic and enamel on fabric, plastic and wood, 230 x 300 cm


Telling stories around the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan proved to be the narrative device of choice for Russian filmmakers.

"I'm convinced that empires crumble at the personal level... It wasn't the deployment of soldiers to Afghanistan in December 1979 that was responsible for the fall of empire, but records by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones," said filmmaker Karen Shakhnazarov.

Wars, fratricidal or not, were the tragic tone of the 1917th century, as we know: one of the peoples that suffered the most, if it is possible to rank suffering, was the Russians. Civil war after the 1 revolution, preceded by involvement in the 2st World War, plus the XNUMXnd Great War – the Patriotic War – were indescribable proofs. Cinema was part of this immeasurable effort as a space for representing the subjects of History – the population, the State – in the face of the vertiginous acceleration of events.

The importance of the Patriotic War as the foundation of the Soviet state began to be publicized right at the beginning of the conflict, and became a true cult in the following years. It is unnecessary to emphasize the fundamental role that the USSR played in containing and defeating the Nazi expansionist project: and the price, especially in terms of human lives, which was extremely high.

In the early years of the war, the main topics explored by cinema were the heroism of citizens and self-sacrifice: then, with the Soviet reaction, came celebratory films, with Stalin pontificating; and, in the Khrushchev years, the temporal distancing of the conflict and de-Stalinization allowed for new and complex dramaturgies. In the war years, cinema functioned as a national unifier in the face of external danger: in the post-war period, it became an ideological vector of support for the Party.

In the view of researcher Denise Youngblood, the canonical film of the representation of the resistance effort in the early years of the Patriotic War is She defends the Motherland, released in 1943 and directed by Fridrikh Ermler. The peaceful situation in the days before the war becomes a terrible tragedy, due to the mass murder of innocent families by sadistic Nazis: surviving women, who can be mother, wife or lover, take revenge, proportionately cruel.

The heroine in Fridrikh Ermler's film is a smiling and zealous young mother: she organizes the evacuation of her village, until she finds her husband's corpse, killed in the front, in a convoy of wounded. Then a German soldier rips the son from his arms, shoots the boy in the head and throws him on the road, for a tank to run over the body. From a cheerful and jovial wife to the catatonic state she remains after witnessing the death of her son, she emerges as a brutal fighter who annihilates opponents with axes and pickaxes, commands saboteurs and keeps the warrior spirit at high voltage. In the end, she finds the soldier who killed her son and takes revenge on the same tuning fork, making a tank pass over his body.

In the twilight of the Soviet world, a war, that of Afghanistan, was one of the factors that accelerated the demise of the Soviet Union. A war that was difficult to convince the people, despite the social and ideological control that the Party exercised, at least on the surface: rarefaction was insinuating itself through the arteries of society. In a decision full of hesitations, Brezhnev authorized the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979: he was already weakened by the disease that would kill him, in 1982, when the trio of heavyweights Andropov, Ustinov and Gromyko – respectively, Heads of the KGB, of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – persuaded him to intervene militarily in Afghanistan.

After all, the neighboring country was sinking into yet another cycle of corruption and political coups, representing a “serious focus of danger for the security of the Soviet State”, right there, on the southern border: it was, in short, about “defending all the socialist community and the values ​​of socialism”. After almost a decade of hostilities, fighting an enemy scattered in guerrilla groups and supported by the USA, Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union would withdraw its troops from the country, in May 1989, regardless of the consequences. Today, with historical distance, we know that the invasion was a tragic miscalculation.

The writer Svetlana Aleksiévitch wrote, based on the testimonies of combatants, doctors and close relatives, a devastating book on the subject, entitled Zinc Boys: she asks herself, “what is good? What's bad? Is it good to kill 'in the name of socialism'? For these boys the boundaries of morality are drawn by a military order.” The zinc in the title refers to the coffins that transported bodies of those fallen in the war (about 15).

victory in death

After the end of the USSR, there was no regular and significant state investment in the Russian film industry, reflecting Russia's economic swings. As of 2010, contributions from the Ministry of Culture, as well as from the Russian Film Fund, increased, also motivated by a nationalist resurgence characteristic of the Putin era. The country, driven by strong oil and gas revenues, turned to cinema as a way to project its image, domestically and internationally. The effort paid off: in 202 – before the pandemic and the war in Ukraine – Russian films accounted for approximately 47% of total box office revenue in cinemas across the country, marking a significant increase compared to previous years.

Writing in 2010, a researcher, Gregory Carleton, identified a striking feature in Russian films about wars: the obsession with the total (or almost total) annihilation of military units in combat, which, contrary to expectations, ends up leading to good results. Victory in death, which would have historical and Christian roots peculiar to Russian culture, is the hallmark of war narratives in cinema and popular TV formats, which stand out more for quantity than quality: for Gregory Carleton, “the characteristic of these films it is not (only) that almost all or many will die: this aspect is placed in the foreground as the logical, the expected and, in many circumstances, the desired result”.

While other cultures also resort to representations of annihilation – just mention North American westerns – the final balance of human lives always tends to favor the winner, in this case the white colonizer. Russian nationalism, according to Carleton's reading, would be paved by an excess of deaths, heroic certainly, but morbidly out of proportion.

9th Platoon, the blockbuster that Fyodor Bondarchuk directed in 2005, showed just that: Soviet soldiers fighting to the last man on a hill in Afghanistan in 1989. This time it was a war that ended in unequivocal defeat, unlike World War II. Here, the collective character of the soldiers is unity and sacrifice; of the enemy, robotic and faceless. The result turns the tragedy of the deaths inside out, as the soldiers did their duty to the end.

The convoy they were supposed to protect doesn't show up, it doesn't matter, the war had already ended two days ago. What matters is faith in the mission – although the commander admits he has no idea why they are fighting. Only one soldier survives, to bear witness: the rest of the platoon was wiped out, as were many Afghans. His final words confirm: “9th Platoon, we … were victorious”.

Released in the year Russia was celebrating 60 years of victory over the Nazis, 9th Platoon he turned one of the most difficult moments of the Soviet army into something commemorative: by reframing the conflict as a stage for sacrifices, he implicitly established connections with the Great Patriotic War. Public success and awards added to the film the aura of “renaissance” of Russian cinema. At the official launch session, President Vladimir Putin attended, beaming.


Fyodor Bondarchuk, son of actor and director Sergei Bondarchuk, started out as a cult film actor and music video director: in the Putin era, he became one of the country's top directors. Your Stalingrad, from 2013, reached a global audience: in 2017 and 19, he directed two dystopian mega-productions, Attraction e attraction 2. His level of activity in audiovisual is impressive, including as an actor.

Telling stories around the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan proved to be the preferred narrative device for Russian filmmakers. Two years after the end of the war, in 1991, Vladimir Bortko, another prestigious director in the Soviet Union, made Afghanistan Breakdown – co-production with Italy, written in partnership with journalist Mikhail Leshchinskiy, who spent four years covering the conflict on-site visit. The story revolves around a love triangle involving Major Bandura, Katya, his lover, and Bandura's superior, who fell in love with Katya.

Major's shift is over, he is free to return home and reunite with his wife: anxiety grows with the uncertainties of perestroika and adapting to this new environment, which nobody knew how it would be. Katya says Afghanistan will be remembered as the best part of her life. The year is 1988, withdrawal is just a step away. On the last day, a neutral local leader is accidentally killed, and the danger reappears: an air attack by Mi-24 jets destroys the village. For some reason, Bandura, apathetic, walks alone among the rubble. There is no one alive except a ten year old boy holding an AK-47. Bandura hesitates, not knowing what to do, then walks away, allowing the boy to shoot him in the back and kill him. The final scene shows dozens of Soviet helicopters flying away from the devastated village.

Vladimir Bortko became a deputy in the Duma, elected by the Communist Party in 2011. In March 2014, he signed a letter of support to President Putin, on the occupation of Crimea. Signed by 86 personalities, the letter states that “in the days when the fate of Crimea and our compatriots is being decided, cultural workers in Russia cannot be indifferent observers with a cold heart. Our common history and common roots, our culture and its spiritual origins, our core values ​​and language have bound us together forever. We want the community of our peoples and our cultures to have a lasting future. That is why we firmly declare our support for the position of the President of the Russian Federation on Ukraine and Crimea.”

Ukraine has banned anyone who signed the letter from entering its territory. Vladimir Bortko adapted in 2005 the classic by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Daisy, in which 1929 Moscow is visited by the devil, who would be none other than… Stalin himself. The series achieved enormous success on Russian television: on December 25, 2005, 40 million Russians watched the seventh episode (there were ten in total).

Leaving Afghanistan, which Pavel Lungin directed in 2019, follows the final moments of the 108th Armored Division, the last to leave Afghanistan (Pavel also signed the letter of support for Putin, as did Fyodor Bondarchuk). Based on the memoirs of General Nikolay Kovalyov, a KGB agent on the Afghan front between 1987 and 89 – the general sought out the filmmaker to convince him to adapt the story – it turned out to be a highly critical film of the Soviet intervention, portrayed as a succession of errors and omissions in which no one, from soldiers to commanders, seemed to have any idea of ​​the reasons that led to the conflict.

The General is represented in the film by Colonel Dmitrich, always wearing jeans and a hairstyle that borders on frivolous, thoughtful and temporizing – “you need to negotiate, not fight”, was his motto. The military awaits demobilization, the officers anxiously reflect on the approach of a quiet life: it is not clear what is happening at home – the Communist Party is disintegrating, youth are listening to rock music, girls are wearing fishnets.

Everyone is trying to earn money and take home some souvenirs – a Japanese tape recorder, a sheepskin coat, an Afghan knife. In one of the testimonies collected by Svetlana Aleksiévitch for her book, a perplexed survivor asks: “We had left during a government that thought war was necessary, and we came back under a government that thought war was unnecessary. Our socialism collapsing, we no longer had conditions to build it in a faraway land”.

The outbreak of violence

Perhaps Aleksei Balabanov went furthest in the Soviet fracture in Afghanistan, who died prematurely in 2013, at the age of 54. the plot of Charge 200, from 2007, based on a true story – the statement is ambiguous – had been installed for years in the memory of this director who, admittedly, always appreciated radical films. For him, as a critic of KinoKultura noted, Soviet society around 1984 was an industrial civilization teetering on the brink of collapse, by the sum of its political, social and individual vices.

It was also a terrified and infantilized country, contaminated by rampant alcohol abuse among young and old, affected by total police illegality, and administered by a geriatric and inaccessible government. And more: characterized by an arrogant and cynical intellectuality, it induced an overwhelming hopelessness in the daily life of the masses, in particular in the younger generation, nihilistic and sacrificed for imperial ambitions in Afghanistan.

The list of Soviet traits and signs is harsh, cruel. It doesn't matter whether Aleksei Balabanov really thought that way or not: but that's the atmosphere that emerges from the characters and situations of Charge 200, which stunned viewers and exhibitors alike, shocked critics left and right – and won the 2007 best film award from the association of film historians and critics in Moscow. It's all there: the plot is an extreme intersection of frivolity and sadism, of metaphysics and violence, religion and atheism. Or yet: an intersection of Dostoyevsky and Faulkner, two authors of the director's predilection. Murders can generate heavy accommodations in the conscience, as in the characters of the Russian writer: degeneration is impregnated in the atmosphere, as in the climates of the North American.

The film's viscerality, however, is not in the literature: it is in the spaces, times and movements of the actors, in the unpredictability of intersections and in the characters' impulses. The professor of scientific atheism – yes, scientific atheism – is cowardly and negligent, and falls into the orthodox faith. The cynical young man sports a red and white T-shirt with the fateful initials – USSR, as if the Soviet Union were already an object of nostalgia – goes looking for vodka with his girlfriend's best friend, runs away and plans a deal, announcing the post-war world. -Soviet. The friend is kidnapped and, in turn, finds her fiancé, a sergeant-hero in Afghanistan – who appears cadaverous, in the zinc coffin, while she is raped and vilified.

The catastrophe of power in the USSR is revealed, in the random unfolding narrated in Charge 200, by Aleksei Balabanov's option to transport the war from Afghanistan to the outskirts of Leningrad, where a corrupt and pathological policeman commands the actions. The conflict ensues in the darkness of the industrial landscape: elevated rails, interlocking pipes, chimneys, beams, cables and cooling towers form a cruel backdrop for the biker-cop and his prey. Historical drift is vertigo.

*João Lanari Bo Professor of Cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasilia (UnB).

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