Most people know that Russia and the Soviet Union have produced some of the finest literature the world has ever seen. However, many don’t realize that there’s also an extensive canon of world-class Russian cinema. And, just like Hollywood films, Russian movies also feature a whole spectrum of genres, from feel-good family films to cult classics. No matter your tastes, you’ll find something to love!
Russian movies also provide a dual benefit to Russian learners. They motivate you to improve your Russian and are a great tool for learning new vocabulary. Here are seven superb movies that are accessible for beginner or intermediate learners.
1. Battleship Potemkin / Броненосец «Потёмкин» (1925)
Battleship Potemkin is widely considered to be the best Russian movie ever made. According to a poll by the British Film Institute, it’s the 11th greatest film of all time.
The plot of Battleship Potemkin is a dramatization of the Russian revolution of 1905. Released just a few years after the end of the Russian Civil War, it gave a face to everyday Soviet revolutionaries to both the Soviet Union and the rest of the world.
The film’s most memorable scene — The Odessa Steps — is one of the most recognized and imitated sequences in cinema history. Its groundbreaking use of montage changed film editing forever, and it’s even been paid tribute to in movies like The Godfather and Star Wars.
2. Burnt By The Sun / Утомлённые солнцем (1994)
Set during Stalin’s Great Purge in the late 1930s, Burnt by the Sun was one of the first movies to address this period head-on.
A suave young man, Mitya, suddenly shows up at the summer house (дача) of his former fiancée, Marusya. However, Mitya works for the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) and has come to arrest Marusya’s husband on trumped-up charges. Things are not black and white, though: Mitya is equal part culprit and victim.
This movie won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film as well as the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.
3. The Cranes Are Flying / Летят журавли (1957)
The main character of The Cranes are Flying, Veronika, was instrumental in giving a humanizing portrait of Soviet cinema after the Second World War and the death of Stalin.
The film tells the story of the Soviet home front during World War II. Soon after Veronika’s boyfriend, Boris, heads off to the front line, her family is killed in a bombing raid. Unbeknownst to her, Boris is also killed in action. Veronika then moves in with Boris’s family and suffers a series of injustices until the end of the war, when she finally realizes Boris is gone.
This tragic and strangely uplifting film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and it’s the only Soviet film to have won this award.
4. Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears / Москва слезам не верит (1980)
Many Russian teachers will tell you that Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears is the best movie out there to understand the Russian soul (русская душа). US President Ronald Reagan himself watched it before meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev to better understand his counterpart.
The movie revolves around three women who come to live in Moscow from more provincial towns. Through the ups and downs of their topsy-turvy lives, you gain an intimate window into everyday Soviet society. The movie molded American perceptions of the Soviet Union during the time, and it was even awarded an Oscar.
5. White Sun Of The Desert / Белое солнце пустыни (1970)
America has its “Westerns,” and Russia has its Osterns (Easterns). Of this genre, White Sun of the Desert is the first and most famous.
This film takes place at the end of the Russian Civil War with a Red Army soldier is returning home to his family. Traveling by foot in the deserts by the Caspian Sea, he experiences many adventures. These include rescuing a man buried in sand and freeing a harem of women from bandits.
This movie is considered a cult-classic in Russia. Interestingly, Russian cosmonauts watch it for good luck before they launch up to the International Space Station.
6. The Irony Of Fate, Or Enjoy Your Bath! / Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром! (1976)
Released on New Year’s Day, 1976, The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! has become a Russian holiday tradition ever since. Now, every New Year’s Eve, millions of Russians tune in to watch a nationwide rerun of this three-hour-plus gem.
The plot begins with four Muscovite friends enjoying a New Year’s Eve catchup at the bathhouse (баня). Upon learning that one of them, Zhenya, is engaged, they begin multiple rounds of toasts. However, soon enough, two of them, Zhenya and Pavlik, pass out. Worst yet, Pavlik has to catch a flight to Leningrad, but the friends accidentally put Zhenya on the plane instead!
When Zhenya wakes up in Leningrad, he gives a taxi driver his street, address thinking he’s in Moscow. As a funny consequence of Soviet urban planning, an exact model of his apartment building with the same address exists in this different city. A comedy of errors ensues, but don’t worry: Everything works out in the end.
7. The Mirror / Зеркало (1975)
Andrei Tarkovsky is widely considered to be one of the greatest directors of all time, and many people say that The Mirror is his finest work. At its heart, this movie is a nonlinear meditation on a dying man’s memories.
When it was first released, many people found the film confusing, and the Soviet censors at Goskino initially rejected it because they were unable to understand its meaning. However, the essence of the film is quite simple: It’s the story of a man who brought a lot of pain to his loved ones. Now that he’s dying, he tries to ask them for forgiveness, but doesn’t quite know how.
Curious to find more Russian movies for learning (or just your personal enjoyment)? Check out my website Russian Film Hub, which features hundreds of Russian and Soviet films that you can sort through by genre, decade and even country.