Prisoners of the Mountains

Tatiana Karmanova, Missouri Southern State University

Balabanov’s film Vojna (War, 2002) is the latest interpretation in a series of works, both literary and cinematographic, about the “prisoner of the Caucasus/mountains.” This theme has remained in Russian culture for almost two hundred years and reemerges when there is a conflict in the Caucasus. The Chechen wars of the last decade have made the topic one of the most burning issues in Russian politics and culture. This paper starts with a brief examination of intertextual relationships among literary works of Puškin and Tolstoj and films by Bodrov Sr. and Balabanov. The analysis shows that the earlier romantic perception of the Caucasus as an exotic Orient conquered by the glorious Russian army has changed by the end of the twenties century to become a place of a brutal conflict and humiliation of the Russian military. Russians are now torn between revenge and desire to settle the conflict peacefully. The two directors, Balabanov and Bodrov, correspondingly, represent these attitudes.

The analysis proceeds to bring in yet another layer for intertextual interpretation: war films. Generations of Russians were raised on war movies glorifying Russian soldiers/warriors. Soviet war movies provide a gallery of unambiguously positive heroes who fit well into a simple paradigm: “love your country – hate the enemy.” By contrast, in recent films, it is impossible to call the main characters heroes in the tradition Soviet sense. These new characters reflect the complexity of the conflict and the ambiguity of the Russian position in this war. Besides references to Soviet war movies, Bodrov also evokes a scene from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, thus broadening the scope and implying that the Chechen war might have become the Russian Vietnam.  

Literature and film have always played a major part in shaping Russian identity and its cultural heroes. Wars and their heroes have been especially important in this respect and the Chechen wars are no exception. The shift from traditional “heroes” to “prisoners” signals a shift in the paradigm of war. Thus the recent interpretations of the “prisoner of the mountains” theme render themselves to rich intertextual analysis and help understand the changing Russian identity.


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