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The Sacred War: a portrait of religion in Soviet and Russian cinema, part II (1941-1945)

The following article is a second instalment of the series of articles on representations of religion in Soviet and Russian cinema, prepared by theologian Kristina Gildejeva.


The vast country is rising,

Is rising for the deathly battle
Against the dark fascist force,
Against their cursed hoards.
Let our noble wrath
Seethe like waves, –
The National war is on,
The sacred war.
– a famous Soviet war song,
music: A. Aleksandrov,
lyrics: V. Lebedev-Kumach,

In spite of the devastating war, Soviet film studios kept on working. Apart from war chronicles, war-themed feature films were being made, mainly with a purpose of boosting the morale of Soviet people. Shooting large-scale war films was very difficult, not only due to the lack of funds, but also because of scarce information about developments at the front, that is why life behind enemy lines became the main subject for war cinema. Soviet cinema in the beginning of the 1940s was usually telling stories of civilians and their heroic deeds.

Posters for Rainbow and District Committee Secretary (Polish)

Posters for Rainbow and District Committee Secretary (Polish)

Turning to the discussion of religious motives, two films, Rainbow/Радуга (1944, Mark Donskoy) and District Committee Secretary/Секретарь райкома (1942, Ivan Pyryev), stand out. If the latter contains a certain degree of humour, the former is capable of making a most devoted neo-Nazi hate fascists.

The heroine of Rainbow, pregnant partisan Olyona, left her platoon to deliver in her home village. She was captured by the Germans, actively aided by collaborationists. Her delicate condition did not incite pity in the Germans and became the main point of their racket. Sequence in which the Germans make the pregnant woman run naked through snow piles has extremely upset the sensitive author of this article and most likely inspired a viewer of the 1940s to fight against the invader more actively.

Olyona's chatacter type is no accident

Olyona’s chatacter type is no accident

The film is interesting in many aspects and is totally worth a separate article, but let us turn to its treatment of religion. The main religious theme can be identified within this film text, which is a theme of sacrifice. The Germans were really interested in the location of Olyona’s partisan platoon, and she was offered to exchange this information for her son’s life. Distraught woman refuses to give out her comrades. When the Germans ask her if she has more children, she replies that she has “a lot of sons there, on the other bank of the river”, meaning the Red Army.  Therefore Olyona is presented as an embodiment of the archetype – that very Motherland, known from Soviet propaganda posters.


Daring parallels

But her newly born son is killed, later Olyona is shot to death too. It is difficult to say whether the creators of the film were consciously giving biblical dimensions to the story – the innocent son, born in a barn, is sacrificed – but the similar motive is constantly present in other episodes of the film too: children under fire are trying to pass bread to troops, a village boy brings food to Olyona and dies from a German bullet.

A sacrificed innocent, born in a barn

A sacrificed innocent, born in a barn

Apart from allegories, the film also contains direct references to religion. Characters cross themselves, keep icons in their homes, and the viewer can see that by that time the Church was under amnesty. A dialogue between one of the partisans and a collaborationist village chief is also exemplary of it. A group of partisans tried the village chief for collusion and pronounced sentence of death. The village chief is desperate and starts crossing himself, which partisans prohibit straight away. He is begging to forgive him, “in the name of God”. An older partisan replies to that: “Don’t you dare to mention God’s name, this is not your God. It is our God, OUR! He can’t be sold to Germans. Don’t mention God’s name, don’t beg”. Therefore, faith is clearly identified with righteous fighters of the Red Army.

The film District Committee Secretary is less tragic, more dynamic. It tells a story of a group of partisans under command of a former secretary of district committee, that is famous for its elusiveness and courage. The group is infiltrated by a spy, who aims to bring them to the Germans.

"For faith, Tsar and fatherland" - Secretary of District Committee (1942)

“For faith, Tsar and fatherland” – Secretary of District Committee (1942)

One of the sequences, featuring a partisan’s grandfather character, is worth analysing here. An old man, who served during Tsarist rule, joins the platoon and volunteers for agitating civilians. He wears three Saint George’s Crosses on his chest, which he got for his service in Tsarist Russia. Partisans are mocking him and then ask what did he get his decorations for. He replies: “For faith, Tsar and fatherland”, and then elaborates: “For faith – to heck with it. For Tsar – bugger him, of course. But fatherland – it always remains, it doesn’t change, our fatherland”. Here the creators of the film as if address the non-communist part of the audience, reminding that politics stays politics, but the fatherland is one and everybody’s.

Unlike in pre-war Soviet films (see Opium on screen: a portrait of religion in Soviet and Russian cinema, part I), characters of acolytes are not portrayed negatively. In war cinema the priest is not only helping partisans, but is fighting against the Germans himself. Moreover, in District Committee Secretary, a priest allows partisans to lure the Germans into a church, where the final shootout takes place. I wouldn’t say that shootouts in churches is a particularly religious motive, but it is worth noting that this sequence is followed by an episode with church bell toll, which has a very special meaning in Orthodoxy and is considered to be purgatory.

It is difficult to pinpoint real reasons for a thaw in antireligious politics of the USSR. Most likely this had a strategic purpose – it was necessary to unite the nation in the times of war, besides it improved the USSR’s image on the international arena. Historians say that the Germans were quite tolerant towards religious moods on occupied territories. That could lead to collaborationism, and to avoid that religion in the USSR had to be partly rehabilitated.

There is also another explanation, a spiritual one. Some claim that Josef Stalin (who, by the way, graduated from a theology school) was a very religious man – he prayed, confessed and met clergy people. Many legends exist in relation to this. One of them has it that once Stalin ordered a pilot to make a circle around Moscow with the Kazan icon of Mother of God on board. All this sounds intriguing, but highly unlikely, taking into consideration the vast wave of repressions against clergy undertaken before the war. It would had been weird if in 1943 Stalin suddenly had an religious recidive. Any ways, in Soviet war cinema antireligious propaganda is not only considerably reduced, but church and religion are usually positively portrayed as part of Soviet everyday life. In future this strategy will be rejected one more time.

To be continued…

Read the first article here.


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