Shepit’ko’s Voskhozhdenie: Christian Imagery and the Link with Dostoevsky

Jason A. Merrill, Michigan State University

Despite possibly being “one of cinema's greatest female directors” (Ivan-Zadeh), Larisa Shepit’ko has received little critical attention. Gillespie echoes the few who have written on her when he terms her last and most important film, Voskhozhdenie (The Ascent), “perhaps the most important war film of the 70s and one of the key films of the entire Brezhnev period” (138).

Several critics (e.g. Gillespie, Lawton and Quart) note that Shepit’ko uses many religious images in her film, most of which work to link the main hero, Sotnikov, and Christ. Beardow develops this observation, tracing several parallels between Christ and Sotnikov in the film’s final scenes. As do others, he argues, however, that Shepit’ko uses this Christian imagery to affirm the Soviet version of the war and of values such as heroism. Beardow says Sotnikov’s experience tells “the Parable of the Good Soviet Citizen” (15). Quart insists Shepit’ko does not stray from “the firm foundation of Soviet heroism” (11).

It is true that Sotnikov is not a complete Christ figure, and Shepit’ko leaves clues that he is not to be interpreted as such. After outlining additional religious images and their function in the film, I will argue that the Christian images surrounding Sotnikov must be interpreted in light of the works and thought of Fedor Dostoevsky, who was Shepit’ko’s favorite writer and, according to her, exerted a tremendous influence on her. In The Ascent one part in particular, the interrogation scene between Portnov and Sotnikov, has clear echoes of Dostoevsky, perhaps most importantly the meeting of the Grand Inquisitor and Christ (these echoes of Dostoevsky, as well as many of the religious images, are not found in the film’s literary source, Vasil’ Bykov’s Sotnikov). I will argue that, seen in this light, Portnov emerges as the proponent of totalitarian order (Gillespie [139] suggests that Shepit’ko equates Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union). Sotnikov, like Christ, rejects the totalitarian vision and is the defender of the importance of each individual. Therefore he is not a typical Soviet hero but in fact the antithesis, one reason, I argue, why the film, recipient of many prizes abroad, was such a threat to Soviet authorities and ignored in the Soviet Union.

Beardow, Frank. “Soviet Cinema – War Revisited (Part 3).” Rusistika 17 (March 1998), 11-24.
Bykov, Vasil’. Sotnikov. In Ego batal’on: povesti. Moscow, 2000. 139-305.
Gillespie, David. Russian Cinema. London: Longman, 2003.
Ivan-Zadeh, Larushka. “The Lady Vanishes.” The Guardian, January 10, 2005.
Klimov, Elem, ed. Kniga o Larise Shepit’ko. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1987.
Lawton, Anne. Kinoglasnost: Soviet Cinema in Our Time. Cambridge UP, 1992.
Quart, Barbara. “Between Materialism and Mysticism: The Films of Larissa Shepitko.” Cineaste 16.3 (1988), 4-11.
Shepit’ko, Larisa. Voskhozhdenie. Mosfilm, 1976.